THE ALIMONY reform bill that Governor Patrick signed on Monday is an important step forward in Massachusetts family law. It also represents a useful model for future legislative actions to solve seemingly intractable problems.
The Commonwealth’s alimony laws had not been reformed for four decades. As a result, the laws were still structured under the old presumption that one spouse was the breadwinner and the other was a homemaker. This left Massachusetts as one of the few states that frequently imposed lifetime alimony - even in situations when both spouses had full-time jobs throughout the marriage.
All parties agreed that laws needed to be changed, but no one agreed on how. Many women’s advocates were concerned that root-and-branch reform might lead to changes that would harm women who put careers on hold to raise children. But the law enacted on Monday represents a sensible compromise that brought all parties to the table and was passed in both houses of the Legislature unanimously.
For over a year, a task force representing all the stakeholders on the issue met to work out language that ensures divorced spouses meet their obligations without being reflexively burdened for life. The bill offers extensive guidance to judges in providing alimony in a range of situations. It is a major step forward to improve laws that some considered so extreme that they had a “chilling effect on marriage.’’
While changes to one aspect of the Commonwealth’s family law may not be enough to constitute a “grand bargain,’’ it shows how much can be accomplished when those of differing views work together and agree that a problem needs to solved - even if that’s the only thing they agree on.