Alimony Reform Bill (H1785) Delayed Until the Next Legislative Session

Rep. John Fernandes

Alimony Task Force chairs promise to work on a bill through the Summer and Fall to have a bill ready early in the next session. (Details on next year’s bill)

With the legislative session running out of time, and the House under Speaker’ DeLeo’s legislative lockdown – no bills are moving. In a letter to his legislative colleagues, Representative John Fernandes reveals that the task force, set up over 10 months ago to make a recommendation on meaningful alimony reform, has failed come up with a recommendation in time to act this year:

Dear Colleagues,

Over the past several weeks, some of you have approached me regarding the work of the Alimony Task Force, of which I serve as House Chair.  I am aware that many of you have also been contacted in the last few days about the articles that appeared in the Boston Globe this past Sunday and Monday about the alimony issue and how the legislature is handling the same.

Let me update you as best I can.

Several months ago, The Chairs of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Creem and Representative O’Flaherty appointed an Alimony Task Force to undertake a review of the several pieces of legislation pending in the judiciary committee regarding the issue of alimony.  This decision was made after the Judiciary Committee had conducted its hearing on the various bills and took in quite a bit of testimony on the matter.

I was asked to serve as the Judiciary Committee representative to, and House Chair of, that Task Force by Chairman O’Flaherty.  Senator Gale Candaras was asked to serve in the same role as the senate chair.  We were joined on the task force by a representative of the judiciary, several representatives/ experts from the various bar associations that deal with the issue, and a representative and attorney from the advocacy group, Mass Alimony Reform.

Since formation of the Task Force, we have met as a group on several occasions, as recently as Tuesday, July 20th. Each of our working meetings has run for several hours and has been attended by all the members of the Task Force as well as staff from the Judiciary Committee.   These meetings have been working meetings, in which we actually are discussing and crafting language for a bill that addresses alimony issues.

Representative Steven Walsh, sponsor of the leading significant and thoughtful bill on the issue of alimony has attended meetings and contributed valuable insight into our work.

Senator Candaras and I have also spent many hours meeting with groups of judges, lawyers and advocates to solicit and receive input on the myriad of issues around alimony.  All of the Task Force members and Judiciary Committee staff have also spent many hours outside the meetings researching the issues and drafting comments for our consideration in legislation.

I can tell you with certainty that we are making significant progress in addressing, one by one, the issues of concern to all our constituents, judges and lawyers.  We expect the Task Force to produce a report to the Judiciary Chairs with recommendations for comprehensive legislation when our work is completed.  Given the complexity of the issues, I cannot give you a firm date for that report and recommended legislation, but I expect it will be within the next few to several months.   While we understand the urgency of the matter, it is important to get this right in any legislation we produce as the ramification of mistakes in policy on this issue would be profound for our constituents and the courts.

Finally, I want to assure you that both Chairs of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Creem and Representative O’Flaherty, have been extremely supportive and encouraging of our effort throughout the process.  Please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments. I am also willing to meet with or field questions from any of your constituents who have concerns.

John V. Fernandes

State Representative

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Rep. Fernandes is right to a point. Alimony Law is complex, and the stakes for many Massachusetts families are high. The law is so broken and outdated that bringing it forward in time 150 years is not an easy task. It has taken hours of meetings, and consultation with legal experts both inside and outside the committee.

Much progress has been made. The committee members who came into the process with very different ideas about the need for reform have come to agree on a broad range of issues. There is now agreement among the committee members about the need to reform some of the worst parts of the current law.

But there really is no excuse for the law not being ready this session. The Alimony Reform Task Force was announced back in October – over ten long months ago. In that time the task force has met only three times. And this is not the first time the legislature has convened an alimony task force.

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These are not the actions of legislators who care about the thousands of people who suffer under our unjust and outdated alimony laws.

I was at the public hearings on alimony reform on September 17th.

Literally hundreds of people took the time to testify about their very difficult experiences one by one – for hours. The testimony went on well after dark. And the stories were terrible to hear – like something out of Dickens.

But most members of the committee seemed utterly indifferent to the testimony, often yawning and leaving the room. Many people waited hours to tell their story to their elected Representatives but by the time their turn came to speak many of them had already left.

Our legislators have received letters and calls about this issue all year with the stories of thousands more people. On the phone and in letters they tell us that they are considering a bill. But I have yet to hear any of them make a public statement of sympathy, or ever express a sense of urgency.

This is a law they are moving on slowly – and begrudgingly – because the public is keeping the pressure on them.

Being an election year they are feeling public pressure more than usual – but I am afraid that once the elections are over, despite their promises to move quickly on alimony reform – that it will return to the back burner.

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A Record of Failure

This legislature is ending this session with a miserable record of failing to address the people’s legislative needs.

They were able to find time to debate the casino bill ad infinitum, to play games with the Governor’s abililty to appoint interim senators, to pass a number of giveaways to state worker unions. But there was no time to pass GIC/”plan design” health insurance reform which would have saved our cities and towns millions.

There was enough time to pass two sales tax increases ( the kind of tax that disproportionately hits working families and small businesses ). And with $2 billion in additional revenue from the tax increases there was enough money to increase the overall state  budget spending this year by 3%. And while there was enough money for all the state agencies larded over with patronage hires and for all kinds of special interest programs for the politically connected – there wasn’t enough money to fully fund our local schools, libraries and universities.

There was enough time to pass an unfunded anti-bullying mandate. But there was no time for CORI reform, no time for shared parenting, and not enough time to pass alimony reform.

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Lame Excuses Unacceptable

Our legislators excuses about being unable to solve this problem ring hollow and are unacceptable. Judiciary Committee chairs Sen. Cynthia Creem and Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty convened a committee to solve a public policy problem.  The task force chairs, Sen. Gale Candaras and Rep. John Fernandes had the responsibility to hold the meetings, do the research and re-write a bill. All four had nearly a year to do it – but they just couldn’t didn’t have the time to do their homework.

If the legislature were a school, final term papers would be due about now, and these legislators are giving us excuses.

“Sorry teacher, we didn’t have time to write our final paper. Can we pass it in next term?”

You sure can, John, Gale, Cindy and Gene! But you’ve failed the class this year. Let’s see if the dean lets you come back next year.

If the legislature were run like a business, election time would be employee review time. The boss asked 4 executives to study a problem and make a recommendation and she gave them 10 months to do it. Ten months later they say;

“It’s a tough problem boss. We’re still working on it. We’re working so hard you know, we met three whole times!”

Executives fired.

Elections are coming. Do you trust these same employees to do the job? Who do you want working for you next year?

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What Next Year’s Law Will Likely Contain

It’s not certain that a bill will actually happen next year. Once the election pressure is past it’s possible they will just stall on this bill again.

I don’t have any specific knowledge of what is in any draft bill. I’ve heard the committee has gotten as far as making a number of draft version which they are refining. I haven’t seen them, or now in any detail what is in them.

But I have some guesses from conversations I’ve had with several people, and public statements by a number of legislators. And there was a “findings report” back in April that described in detail the committee’s thinking back in April.

These are just guesses at the broad outline of the bill likely to be referred out of the task force:

  • clear guidelines like we have for child support
  • a time limit on most alimony awards
  • income from new spouses will be exempt from alimony calculations
  • a provision against alimony recipients co-habiting with another partner
  • a alimony payors right to retire.

The legal profession has been lobbying hard against the establishment of clear guidelines and the time limit. These two provisions would put an end to their practice of abusing the public with endless alimony litigation.

Judges testifying to the committee have been clear about the need to have the kinds of guidelines which would settle the majority of alimony cases quickly and fairly to clear out their courts for more delicate matters like child custody.

Update: The Globe published a good editorial on alimony reform Sunday: Alimony system needs reform, but Legislature drags its feet.

3 Comments

  • Guest
    July 24, 2010 - 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Sometimes politicians take actions which not only ensure their condemnation by a niche constituency but also provide ample fodder for their opponents in an election year. Yesterday, the Massachusetts Legislature's Judiciary Committee's Alimony Task Force managed to make a campaign issue out of the Alimony Reform.

    Alimony, court-ordered support paid by one spouse to another after they are separated, is a bit of an odd bird in Massachusetts. Originally, alimony was a payment made by the husband to the wife after divorce to ensure that she had the necessities of life. This law was formulated, of course, at a time when women were considered more like property than people. Obviously, the conditions of life-after-marriage have changed a lot, for both husband and wife, since that time but the fundamental aspects of alimony, at least in Massachusetts, have not.

    The Joint Committee on the Judiciary recently took up the issue of alimony reform, noting that Massachusetts law was archaic and did not reflect the fact that extended alimony, alimony lasting more than a few years after separation, was not contingent on the status of children (age, educational achievement, etc). In effect, alimony in Massachusetts is a lifetime annuity program, according to sources obtained by the Boston Globe.

    Yesterday, the House Chair and Judiciary Committee representative to the Alimony Task Force, State Representative John V. Fernandes, sent around an email to members of State Legislature, obtained anonymously, to update them on the Task Force's progress. In it he writes:

    “Since formation of the Task Force, we have met as a group on several occasions, as recently as Tuesday, July 20th…These meetings have been working meetings, in which we actually are discussing and crafting language for a bill that addresses alimony issues.”

    Progress? Not quite. Rep. Fernandes adds:

    “[W]e are making significant progress in addressing…the issues of concern…We expect the Task Force to produce a report…within the next few to several months.”

    Effectively, this means that alimony reform has been killed this legislative session. This wouldn't be too surprising except for a bit of underhanded action in the State Legislature.

    State Senator Cynthia Creem, Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, is, in addition to being a State Senator, a partner at the prestigious family law firm Stone, Stone & Creem. “She works primarily in the areas of divorce, custody agreements, alimony, child support, paternity and estate administration.” [Emphasis mine]. She has, to date, refused to recuse herself from this issue, i.e. Creem has, does and may continue to have substantial impact on this legislation even though she appears to be a substantial conflict of interest. While she may not have violated any current ethics guidelines she sure skirts close to the edge of the American Bar Association's Model Rules for Professional Conflict 1.11(d)(2) which states, in part: “Except as law may otherwise expressly permit, a lawyer currently serving as a public officer or employee: shall not, participate in a matter in which the lawyer participated personally and substantially while in private practice or nongovernmental employment…”

    Obviously, Creem's election opponent, Charles Rudnick has already jumped on her and its clear that more will be heard from him about Creem's sense of personal ethics.

    And that's just the beginning. Opponents of all the members of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary and the Task Force will likely pick up on the delay, and the considerable ethical questions, as fodder for their own election efforts. Considering the number of ethical issues that has plagued the Massachusetts' Legislature in recent years it would not be surprising to hear calls for ethics reforms, and it would not be surprising if those calls resonated strongly with voters.

  • Guest
    July 25, 2010 - 11:38 am | Permalink
  • Guest
    July 25, 2010 - 7:38 am | Permalink
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