As we have previously blogged, states along the East Coast have begun a movement to reform spousal support (what their laws refer to as "alimony"). The reformers argue that in many cases spousal support awards persist too long or at too high of a level after divorce. In order to reduce this problem, the reformers propose laws which focus on rebuilding the parties' lives after divorce and encourage supported spouses to learn to take care of themselves. We discussed the potential impact of these new laws and what effect they might have on California legislation. In particular, Massachusetts enacted a new spousal support law last year that was praised as a model for future reform. Although the new law has been in place for a reasonable period of time, reformers are not very satisfied with the results.
In order to accomplish the goal of encouraging spouses to become self-supporting post-divorce, the new "alimony laws" set time limits on spousal support for marriages of 20 years or less and generally stop spousal support payments when the supporting spouse reaches retirement age. By contrast, in California, there is generally no time limit placed on spousal support awards made pursuant to a long term marriage (defined as any marriage lasting approximately 10 years or more).
In addition, the new laws place strict restrictions on cohabitation. Under the reformed laws, spousal support will end if the supported spouse cohabitates with a new partner for at least three months. One of the issues which has arisen regarding the cohabitation clause is whether it applies to supported spouses who moved in with a new partner before the new law took effect. Currently in California, cohabitation is a factor that might be considered a "material change of circumstances" in a post-judgment support modification motion; but it is not grounds for automatic termination of support. California and Massachusetts do seem to share the general public policy disfavoring continued spousal support when the supported spouse moves in with his or her new partner.
Change can be difficult to effectuate in any area of law where the decision makers are comfortable in their "old ways". Some complain that Massachusetts judges are to blame for stifling the progress of new legislation. These judges are accused of misinterpreting or even ignoring the law which encourages spouses to become self-supporting after divorce. Family law is notorious for giving judicial officers wide discretion. Appeals are not generally successful unless the appellate can prove abuse of discretion.