The Massachusetts alimony reform bill (H1785) is for now stuck in committee while key legislators are busy with the casino bill battle.

A compromise alimony reform bill is being worked on in the Alimony Reform Task force.

This is a committee comprised of:

  • Rep. Steven Walsh, the bill’s lead sponsor
  • Rep. John Fernandes
  • Sen. Gale Candaras
  • Steve Hitner, a lead activist for alimony reform
  • Three representatives from the various bar associations
  • A representative of the judiciary

The task force has met several times now, and worked out much of the compromise. The task force is hoping to be able to recommend a compromise bill at their next meeting.

But there is now difficulty in scheduling their next meeting because several of the legislators are busy trying to overcome opposition to the casino bill. It’s likely that a new meeting will be scheduled in the next few weeks.

Public Pressure is Building

Pressure on legislators to deal with the alimony issue this year is intense. The Massachusetts alimony statute is badly out of date. Massachusetts is the only state with lifetime alimony, which continues even after payors retire. And the current law offers no clear guidelines causing headaches for judges and resulting in wildly variable alimony awards.

The current alimony bill has wide legislative support – with over 70 co-sponsors. It has been receiving a lot of positive media attention:

Massachusetts Alimony Reform has a more complete list of the media coverage. And the attention to the issue is not about to go away. Several major new articles and TV news stories are likely to hit in the coming weeks.

At least one key legislator, Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Cynthia Creem, is facing particularly strong pressure. She is not only the committee chairwoman, but a practicing divorce attorney. Some have questioned if her opposition to Alimony Reform isn’t a conflict of interest.

Creem is facing a tough election challenge from Charles Rudnick this year, and if the alimony issue isn’t dealt with it’s likely to come up as a campaign wedge issue. Comments about her position on alimony reform continue to pop up wherever her name is mentioned. ( 1, 2, 3, or try searching “Creem Alimony Reform” )

Everyone in the legislature seems to want this issue dealt with this year. Their fear is if a solid bill doesn’t come out of committee, it will be one more pressing issue the legislature failed to deal with in what is looking like an extremely difficult electoral climate for incumbents.

Alimony Reform Task Force Status

The members of the task force essentially line up in several camps.

The Judiciary wants to see a bill come out that has clear and fair guidelines – like we have for child support. The courts are overworked, especially after suffering several rounds of budget cuts, and alimony actions are 30% of the caseload. The cases are difficult, and without clear guidelines judges are commonly criticized by all parties to an alimony case  – both by payors and recipients.

The only party strongly opposed to clear guidelines are the various bar associations. The lack of clear guidelines results in large legal bills for litigants. The problem for them on the task force is that since they are practicing attorneys they have a hard time disagreeing with judges who appear to testify before the committee. The last thing any practicing lawyer wants is to appear before a judge they have publicly disagreed with. To some extent the bar association representatives have had to moderate their position.

Legislators are eager to get a good bill out. They want something most legislators can agree on, and get past the alimony reform issue before the elections. The last thing they want is to be seen to be protecting legal industry profits at the expense of the public.

For alimony reform advocates the main issue is the lack of clear guidelines. Without them litigants don’t know what to expect. Awards can be inappropriately high or rare cases low.

Hopefully this year Massachusetts can join the rest of the nation in having a rational alimony statute, and stop the abuse of the public’s judicial system by the legal industry.

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