Alimony report misses mark, local group says

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BRATTLEBORO — After several months of study, a task force is recommending no immediate, major changes to Vermont's alimony statute.

But a Brattleboro-based advocacy group is vowing to fight on, saying there are critical issues that the state's Spousal Support and Maintenance Task Force didn't address.

"I think one of the problems was, there really wasn't enough time to do a comprehensive review," said Rick Fleming, a Brattleboro businessman who serves as Vermont Alimony Reform president. "This is an important first step, but there definitely is a lot more work that needs to be done on this issue."

Vermont Alimony Reform consists of payers who say the state's alimony statute is unfair, outdated and allows for too much judicial discretion. They began a push for reform about two years ago, citing recent changes in Massachusetts' alimony law as a potential model.

The reform initiative has bounced around the state Legislature for the past few years.

Lawmakers initially asked the state Supreme Court's Family Division Oversight Committee to examine the alimony statute. The resulting report recommended new alimony guidelines based on income and marriage duration, but the committee warned against enacting "rigid" regulations that could put too much of a damper on judicial discretion.

After more lobbying by the reform group, the Legislature this year enacted the court committee's proposed guidelines and also created a new task force to take a closer look at the situation.

The task force included representation from Vermont Alimony Reform and the Vermont Commission on Women. Those two groups were at odds during a November hearing held at Vermont Law School, where commission representatives argued that the reform agenda could unfairly impact women.

The task force's report to the House and Senate judiciary committees, issued less than a month after that hearing, maintains a mostly light touch in regards to the current alimony statute. Its recommendations include:

- Extend the newly enacted alimony guidelines - the ones regarding income and length of a marriage - to July 1, 2021. Currently, they're scheduled to end on July 1, 2019.

- Survey judges, attorneys, case managers and those involved in divorce cases to determine the new alimony guidelines' "application and usefulness."

The task force wants "hard data" to determine "whether the guidelines are being applied, if they are helpful in achieving resolutions and ways they can be improved."

- Consider the addition of retirement - either of the payer or recipient - to the list of factors that help determine alimony awards.

- Replace the statutory description of "permanent" alimony with the word "long-term." The task force says that's a "more accurate reflection of the case law," which allows for modification of alimony rulings.

- Clarify that new alimony guidelines won't, in and of themselves, be grounds for modifying existing alimony awards. Those requesting such modifications still should have to demonstrate that they've had a "real, substantial and unanticipated change of circumstances," the task force says.

Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, was a member of the task force. She said the group "did a great job considering the wide range of recommendations" on an "incredibly complex topic."

The new alimony guidelines enacted earlier this year "really need some time to be in effect so we can see what impact they have," Brown said.

She added that the task force's hearings, though they were conducted over a relatively short period of time, allowed for input from "voices that we might not have gotten otherwise."

"I think the task force is trying to be as deliberative as possible," Brown said.

Vermont Alimony Reform says much more deliberation is needed, and the group sent a detailed outline to the House and Senate judiciary committees.

The task force did act on one key element of the reform agenda - consideration of retirement's effect on alimony payments. But the reform group says more definitive language is needed on that topic.

Reformers also said the task force failed to issue recommendations on several key issues. The group's goals include further curbing judicial discretion; ending alimony payments when a recipient remarries or cohabitates; making prenuptial agreements binding for alimony awards; and dropping "previous standard of living" from factors to be considered in alimony deliberations.

"The awarding of spousal maintenance should be based upon need and not be used as a reward," the reform group wrote. "Fairness and equity for both parties should be the rule of law."

Fleming said he expects to argue those points and others when the Legislature returns for the 2018 session.

"It is a complex issue," Fleming said. "But I think the public hearing and the meetings within the task force show that there needs to be more time dedicated to this topic if they're going to create effective reform."

Mike Faher can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.

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