A recent Globe Magazine article by Louise Sloan entitled Massachusetts Needs to Divorce Its Divorce Law presented some valid arguments on behalf of payors of alimony, and arguments for reform in Massachusetts. However, there are reasons alimony exists, and can still be necessary in divorce scenarios. Here are some reasons why we shouldn’t discount alimony altogether:
Alimony is not always a “bad word.” It has a legitimate purpose and function for recipients (men and women alike) who have no ability to support themselves for any number of reasons. Medical problems, advanced age or a long history out of the work force raising children (sometimes special needs children) are some of those reasons. We did not always live in a “two-parent working” society. There was often a breadwinner and a “stay at home” parent, and this still occurs today, albeit less frequently. Parties who marry make deals together–you work and I raise the kids–expecting the marriage to be ‘until death do you part’ and when there is a parting before death, adjustments are sometimes necessary.
When a divorce occurs, individuals are sometimes left in unequal financial positions. A higher earning spouse may leave the marriage with the ability to earn a substantial income and save for retirement, and his/her spouse may leave the marriage with little or no income or ability to earn, much less an ability to save for their retirement.
Alimony is the vehicle which attempts to fairly compensate for a disparity in earnings and lost economic opportunities in some way–especially after a long-term marriage. Alimony is not appropriate in every case, but neither should it be abolished altogether. The amount of alimony should not be excessive—it should be reasonable and not exceed the needs of the recipient. It should not be a windfall for either party. It should address the resulting economic impact of marriage, but also require both parties to maximize their earning potential where appropriate. Sloan’s article suggests that if a payor loses their job or retires under the “old” law, or if a recipient cohabits under the “old” law, the payor still has to pay alimony no matter what; this is simply not the case unless the parties specifically bargained for these types of fixed and unending obligations. It is important to note that in many cases, there is the possibility of modifying an alimony obligation.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. The Alimony Reform Act made substantial revisions to alimony laws that primarily benefitted payers to the detriment of recipients. Prior to this reform, thousands of divorced parties had already entered into agreements based upon facts particular to their case and the law at that time; these already existing contracts should not be retroactively modified automatically. Parties are entitled to the benefit of the bargain they made, and due respect needs to be given to the agreements reached by parties many years or even decades ago. Sweeping, automatic retroactive changes to those agreements as suggested by the article can leave one party in dire circumstances or financially damaged without adequate relief. The Courts have done a good job of trying to carefully balance both interests, and should continue to do so.