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Legislation overhauls Bay State alimony law

Patrick expected to sign measure today

By Martine Powers
Globe Staff / September 26, 2011

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Divorce attorneys and family advocates are calling the state’s new alimony bill the most dramatic change to family law in decades.

The bill, which was passed unanimously in the House and the Senate, is expected to be signed by Governor Deval Patrick today.

Family law experts and advocates are hoping the new law will make alimony more equitable for both parties in a divorce.

“Our alimony law was so antiquated that there were issues on both sides, for payors and payees,’’ said Denise Squillante, former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, who represented the organization on the legislative task force. “This a very fair bill that addresses all those issues.’’

The measure adds some consistency to alimony judgments by curbing lifetime alimony payments and providing caps on the number of years a spouse can receive alimony. The legislation also allows judges more flexibility to make determinations based on a family’s specific circumstances.

“It isn’t just a one-shot cookie cutter for every case, and that is very important,’’ Squillante said.

But not everyone is happy about the bill.

Gerald Nissenbaum, a Boston-based divorce lawyer who is the former president of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, called the bill “mean-spirited and Draconian,’’ because the limits it puts on alimony are “too strict.’’

Nissenbaum said he fears the bill will be detrimental to recipients of alimony whose sacrifices in a marriage are not reflected by the law.

Additionally, he said, the bill’s wording allows lawyers too much room for interpretation when the new law is applied to already-decided cases.

“Whether you like the bill or not, it should be done in a way where the language is clear, the terms are clear, and designed in a way to avoid a lot of litigation.’’

Previous alimony reform bills failed to garner a pass from state legislators. Then, in 2009, the state appointed a broad cross-section of family law attorneys and advocates - who often had strongly differing viewpoints - to work on a legislative task force and debate the shortcomings of Massachusetts’s alimony system.

They quickly came to a surprising conclusion: Everyone in the room seemed dissatisfied with the current law and eager to forge a new one.

“We discussed all the points, and we came up with a result that all of us could get behind,’’ said Kelly Leighton, a divorce attorney who works out of Salem and was a member of the task force. “It was a remarkable outcome, when you think about how different we all were when we walked into the room.’’

Steve Hitner, president of Massachusetts Alimony Reform, agreed. He started the organization after spending $250,000 in legal fees to reduce his $45,000-per-year alimony payments. This new law, he said, will help people in his situation.

“I’m happy with the outcome, especially with the time we had to do it and the circumstances we had,’’ Hitner said.

The new legislation makes fundamental changes to existing alimony law.

In most cases, it will put an end to lifetime alimony payments, instead capping the number of years of payment according to the length of marriage.

But family law attorneys are also hoping that the law will allow people divorcing from shorter marriages - people who previously would have received no alimony - to receive a brief period of payments, just enough to get them through the transition period after the divorce.

Under the new law, a judge can rule to end alimony payments if the recipient is living with a new partner in a marriage-like situation.

Rachel Biscardi, who represented the Women’s Bar Association on the task force, says she expects the new law will support marriage and encourage people to make their partnerships official.

“We wanted to make sure that people are not just trying to cohabitate just to avoid alimony,’’ Biscardi said. “We hope that this will make it so that people will get married if they wish to.’’

Emmanuel Dockter, a Boston-based divorce lawyer, said he expects the law will be a good thing for families because it will encourage spouses to reach a settlement rather than take their case to court.

“In the past, it’s been more logical that you take your case as far as you can, because there’s a huge chance that you can get what you want,’’ Dockter said.

The new law allows spouses to better predict what they would receive from a judge in a court hearing.

Howard Goldstein, a divorce lawyer practicing out of Newton, said he thinks the new law is a positive move that provides a better roadmap for spouses, judges, and lawyers entering into divorce proceedings.

But much of the law’s success, Goldstein said, will be determined by how judges exercise their ability to make exceptions to the guidelines in the law.

“The question is whether this law is going to be interpreted where women will be treated fairly in the courts, or not,’’ Goldstein said.

Martine Powers can be reached at mers@globe.com