Massachusetts “Alimony Reform” law in practice

I ran into a divorce and personal injury litigator at a party in Cambridge the other day (background on Massachusetts family law). Her most recent trial concerned the amount of alimony that a defendant who had reached full retirement age (67 currently) should pay. Under a 2011 law characterized by proponents as “alimony reform” (I personally reject that characterization since family law is pretty much a zero-sum game and what looks like a positive “reform” to a plaintiff will generally be a negative for a defendant, or vice versa), the defendant should have been able to stop paying the plaintiff. What did the judge decide?

First, a little background… about 30 years ago the plaintiff sued her husband. As is typical in Massachusetts, the plaintiff prevailed (obtaining the house, kids, cash) but the profitability of the whole enterprise was limited by the defendant’s below-average income. Stripped of daily contact with his children, his domicile, and most of his spending power, the defendant went over the border and moved in with his brother in a neighboring state, thus saying goodbye to the plaintiff and severing his ties with the children (consistent with the research results summarized in “Ten years after a marriage breaks up, nearly two-thirds of the children report not having seen their fathers for a year”). The plaintiff eventually learned that the defendant, together with his brother, had won his local state’s lottery and thus 20 years of substantial annual payments. She went back to court and sued for increased alimony and child support payments based on the new cashflow. “We were able to get almost 100 percent of the net lottery proceeds transferred to us,” said the litigator, “in a combination of child support and alimony. But there were a lot of hassles due to the interstate nature of the litigation.” My companions and I at the party congratulated her on winning what seemed like a complete victory. “My client did make one mistake,” she said ruefully. “She should have gone back to court to get her alimony increased when her children turned 23 and the child support payments stopped.”

The latest court proceeding was started by the former husband. “His income from wages was zero,” said the plaintiff’s lawyer, “and the lottery payments had ceased, but he was still under a court order to pay the same amount out of his Social Security and retirement savings.” The former husband sought to have the alimony terminated in accordance with the headline language of the new alimony statute. The former wife, who had never worked and therefore was not entitled to Social Security, sought to have the court order her ex-husband to keep sending checks in the same amounts, regardless of his new lower income or advanced age. The judge split the difference and ordered the man to keep paying the woman indefinitely, but at a reduced rate. (The fine print of all of these laws gives judges discretion to do more or less whatever they want.)

[Note that this is consistent with what a divorce litigator with 40 years of experience told us. “Statutory language changes, but there is no jury in a divorce lawsuit,” she said. “So if the Legislature gives the judge any discretion the outcomes won’t change. The judge has a certain idea of what a fair resolution looks like and, absent removing judicial discretion, the only thing changing the statute does is change what the judge writes to justify that outcome.”]

13 thoughts on “Massachusetts “Alimony Reform” law in practice

  1. So basically the guy , when he won the lottery, should have a) taken the lump sum payment and b) moved to e.g. France.

  2. Every morning, I click through the mugshots of the previous day’s arrests in my FL county. One out of every three arrest for failure to pay child support is of a woman.

  3. Smartest Woman: Census data from March 2014 show that 16 percent of the people who are collecting child support in Florida are men. This is about as high a percentage as one can find in the U.S. (Men are only 2 percent of the child support collectors in neighboring Georgia, for example, 7 percent as you go up the coast to Virginia, and 3 percent here in Massachusetts.)

  4. “The judge split the difference and ordered the man to keep paying the woman indefinitely, but at a reduced rate.”

    At long last, I’ve learned the true meaning of “til death do us part”.

    Premeditated marriage is apparently such an egregious offense that divorce respondents deserve no less than a lifetime sentence of financial ruin.

  5. He should have taken it as a lumpsum, into a corporation or trust and not in his name, and then moved it and himself out of the country, maybe to Dubai. 😆

  6. Good to keep in mind next time you hear the calls from old conservatives telling young men that part of a valuable life is getting married, having kids and working a steady job (otherwise called ‘having responsibility’)…

  7. I suppose we should be glad that divorcees are a gentle bunch.

    After one near-miss of a motorcyclist, he said, “If I hit someone, I’ll hit him again and make sure he’s dead.” Enjoying my shock, he explained that in Taiwan, if you cripple a man, you pay for the injured person’s care for a lifetime. But if you kill the person, you “only have to pay once, like a burial fee.”

  8. Out of curiosity… I just read some newspaper story about a girl from one EU country realizing she got pregnant during a summer fling with a guy in another EU country. Now, since this is Europe, the story was about how she isn’t sure about even telling him he’s about to be a father. She just wants to get on with it without bothering him. Judging from all the bitter divorce/child support/pay to abort posts lately I’m thinking the guy definitely wouldn’t be that lucky in the US. But the question is, have you, in your research, come across a case like this? Does she have any chance to collect child support should she decide to pursue it? How could he be forced to do anything?

  9. J: The German litigator whom we interviewed said that it was easy within the EU to figure out which court has jurisdiction. is not primarily about Europe, though, so we didn’t get into the specifics. But American-style $1 million legal bills just to figure out what venue is appropriate are apparently uncommon in Europe.

    The litigators that we interviewed said that the situation you described is something that they see frequently. American children are important sources of cash for a plaintiff and courts look for who has been the “historical primary caregiver” in order to assign ownership of a cash-yielding child. Thus the optimum legal strategy, to reduce the risk of 50/50 shared parenting that would reduce the cash yield, is not to inform the father of the existence of the child for a year or two. In most states, including some of the most lucrative for child support plaintiffs (e.g., Massachusetts) the mother is still entitled to the full child support revenue going back to the child’s birth.

    The mother’s entitlement to child support is effectively absolute, even in European jurisdictions where the potential profit is limited (to between $2,000/year and $50,000/year depending on the country; England is more like the U.S. where there is no limit). Though the cash is paid to the mother and she can spend it however she likes, the legal fiction is that she is collecting it on the child’s behalf. So why should the child suffer because the mother waited 1, 2, or even 17.99 years before filing her lawsuit?

  10. Sorry, but I just can’t get over the “sources of cash” narrative. How is this even an option? How is everyone OK with this hostile legal situation and consequently, how are guys stupid enough to even get themselves into a situation like that (in the context of random encounters not married/relationship life)?

    I remember one of your posts a while back about going to university not as an investment in education but to find a suitable professor to hook on to for child support. From the professor’s point of view this is wrong on many levels but I have a hard time believing they’d be so casual about it and not cover their asses. I’d be damn sure there are no babies (or STDs for that matter) resulting from such recreational past time.

  11. J: How are Americans OK with child support being potentially more lucrative than work? See the chapter.

    How are people dumb enough to be targets? Like you, citizens erroneously assume that education and work are more lucrative than one-night encounters in bars. See for a summary of research on what Americans believe to be true regarding the family law system. Newspapers don’t run stories on people who have scored big either by having a child, being married briefly, or whatever. In fact they do the opposite, talking about the challenges of being a single mother. They could go down to the courthouse and pull open the filing cabinet as we did and find people who are getting $150,000/year, mostly tax-free, plus a free house and all of the child’s expenses paid (see ), but apparently that is not part of the narrative that they wish to communicate. Politicians don’t exhort Americans to go out and find someone rich to have sex with. So it is not easy to learn about.

    Look at a typical New York Times article, e.g.,

    It talks about how horrible it is for a woman to have a job in a restaurant. Nowhere in the article or in the reader comments will you find anyone saying “By the way, if you want to have the spending power of a chef without suffering through the indignity of showing up to work in this environment, you can just have sex with two or three chefs.”

  12. Phil, [Q#1] am I right in reading that “you and your companions at the party congratulating [the plaintiff’s attorney] on winning what seemed like a complete victory” amounts to your support for what can only be described as eviscerating practices of family law in the United States? Apart from that litigator’s bringing work to a social event, bragging about the outcome for the expected Mistress of the Universe effect smelling not so little of Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” it raises the question of exactly what kind of a society is it that [your tax bracket] Americans seemingly aim for. Because those particular “wealth redistribution” laws and practices that you have surveyed, have not arisen overnight, but were enacted into laws over many years, and are connected only by what appears to be the sole American enumerative success common denominator.

    Furthermore, those laws were codified (legislators), and are being practiced (litigators), by both men and women. I note that you express the gist of the skewed outcomes as applying in most states/ jurisdictions/ cases equally to, i.e. taxing or benefitting, both genders. As you wrote in #3 above, in Florida 16% of involuntary child support payers are women (presumably these children’s mothers). Yet your own statistics give a unambiguous picture that overall it is the men, who are made to pay through the nose for—let’s do away with euphemisms—brief cohabitations with offspring that then become legal exploitation objects for their mothers (one of your moderators previously censored me, deleted a paragraph of mine that called gold diggers the spade in this context [could it have been “the spade” that was offensive here?]).

    In another thread (3rd para of #14) you stated outright that “we [the RWD team] don’t take the position that collecting $5 million in tax-free child support after a one-night sexual encounter is ‘abuse’ or ‘injustice’ or requires ‘reform’.” You may have put that up the RWD HQ unisex executive washroom wall to remind yourselves, but it does not sound sincere. If you’re not doing it to inform and affect the public opinion, thus also the lawmakers and law-profiteering agents, then [Q#2] WHAT ARE YOU DOING IT FOR… a “Children for Profit: Pecuniary Life Strategies for College-bound Women” book? … binders full of future NYT-pullquote worthy American Gothic anecdotes? (yes, I know of your life-long ambition to be presented WITH NAME in their columns ;-))

    Clearly, even if you complete the project without more than present barebones commentary, it is bound to find its way into the wider world… first blogs and stand-up routines, then magazines, team profiles, NPR, talk shows, book- and Hohollywood-contracts. This seems too rich a compiled data trove from hitherto not v. well documented dimension of American life to fall into oblivion, we all know it. You may profess utter neutrality, but in the end [Q#3] how aloof can you be when the subject that the five of you set to survey (if not yet describe) really is weaponization of male-female relations with live children used as shields, bullets, and maces? Tell me I got it wrong, you girls just want to have fun.

    I’ve read some whole, skimmed other chapters of it, and what I am immediately missing from it are the long-range effects on children (not some single chapter about it); by that I do not mean that you should be the ones to write it, but that the work sort-of seems incomplete when all that you’re talking about are financial outcomes for the winning-team mothers (= the 3-one-night-standers-with-dentists-or-[the-latest]-chefs exploitative Scheming Wombs with A Purpose), rather than [Q#4] what effect does it have on in-time mature children to discover having been instruments of oppression towards their own fathers? (perhaps why so many such fathers elect not to continue the contact with the living reason for his… peonage?)

    Years ago I attended a lecture on bicycle-centered sustainability by David Wilson, who said that execution of the insurance and personal injury laws in the USA was “what Americans had instead of socialism” [the lecture was in Europe, so he wasn’t run out of town at dawn]. That oft-extraorbitant damages from manufacturers or service providers awarded by juries even to real stupid, in avoidable accidents injured, parties were somehow evening out the overall social score. I couldn’t then, and still can’t see how responsibility for not putting oneself knowingly in harm’s way could first be depersonalized, then commoditized, and in the end, monetized. But perhaps that’s exactly what happened with the deployment of children as offensive tactic weapons in marital-financial warfare, too (excuse the mil.speak, but this colors off on me as well). Where consequences of a 100% natural, consensual insemination of a woman can be declared liable for “damages” by (theoretically either but in practice the richer) party. If that is not declaring childbearing as, essentially, a for-profit activity, then I don’t know what could be. And there are no juries in divorce law.

    Perhaps that is the American Way of Family Life[*], where mental health of children, a self-replicating resource, is of little value, hence of consequence [that’s what shrinks are for]. Perhaps what RWD speaks of applies only to some infinitesimal segment of the American public—still sizable, but, as someone mentioned here previously, $35K/ year clerks have little to fear for being exploited for fatherhood in this fashion. Phil does not supply such nation-wide ratios.

    Still, if it is as bad as it sounds to this outsider, wouldn’t it appear logical that [Q#5] those (“helicopter-“) parents who deeply love and care about welfare of their soon mature sons, rrrreally would drrrrill into their skulls, that the risks of casual sex on campus are not solely of the STD and date-rape-taint-, but also of the more severe 20+ year PT$$$D-variety? (I read a lot of American magazines, but can not recall a single mention of such parental advice). A lot of questions; excuse me if I veered off the tangent in the process, but I couldn’t delay them more, and I can’t get them to properly sink in.

    [^*] where is Jessica Mitford of the present who’d muckrack-expose it, only not for mere “American Way of Death” (1953), but, using RWD collated data, for inhuman Family Law? (2015)

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