In the 1996 comedy “First Wives Club,” actresses Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton play three divorced women who plot financial revenge on husbands who left them for younger women.
The movie may be funny, but Lynn-native Deborah Scanlon isn’t laughing.
After Scanlon’s first marriage ended in divorce, the mother of three spent a decade financially rebuilding her life. So when she married divorcee Dan Gringas in 2005, Scanlon insisted on a pre-nup.
“I had been burnt once,” Scanlon told me. And she counted on the pre-nup to protect her the second time around. What Scanlon didn’t realize was that in Massachusetts her pre-nup was meaningless when it came to the total household income the probate court would consider when modifying Gringas’s alimony obligation to his ex-wife.
At the time Gringas and Scanlon married, Gringas was paying his ex-wife $39,000 a year in alimony (or spousal support, as distinct from child support). When Gringas was laid off from his job as a computer programmer, Gringas’s ex-wife agreed to modify the alimony order in light of changed circumstances. But the court held that the adjusted amount of alimony must be based on Gringas’s total household income — including Scanlon’s salary as a full-time executive assistant.
Scanlon (who received child support, but not alimony, from her first husband) was furious. But she channeled her anger into action, joining other similarly-situated women to form the Second Wives Club, a support group and grassroots organization that seeks to educate the public about the need for alimony reform.
Scanlon notes that current law, originally enacted to protect less-skilled women from being left destitute by husbands who walk out, reflects antiquated notions of a woman’s ability to earn a living in the 21st century.
She’s right. Today, welfare laws reflect current expectations of self-sufficiency, allowing able-bodied persons to receive public support only temporarily. Yet, under Massachusetts divorce law, first spouses can collect alimony for life (even after the payer has retired), regardless of the duration of the marriage.
Thus, a man who earns more than his former spouse of less than five years may be forced to pay lifetime alimony, even if the ex is an educated 30-something fully capable of supporting herself.
Second wives and ex-husbands are not the only ones frustrated with the system.
My friend Theresa (not her real name) earned more than her husband during the last several years of their marriage. Theresa has sole custody of, and sole financial responsibility for, their three children. Yet Theresa is required to pay her ex-husband — an able-bodied male with no child-care responsibilities — several hundred dollars a week! And she is required to do so indefinitely, despite the fact that the loss of this income ultimately hurts the children for whom she is responsible.
Responding to stories like these, lawmakers on Beacon Hill have filed legislation to modernize Massachusetts alimony law.
If passed, the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act of 2011 will allow judges to base alimony awards on the recipient’s actual <em>need</em> for spousal support. It will end alimony payments for long-term marriages at the age of retirement — sooner for short-term marriages. And it will require that alimony payments terminate upon the recipient’s remarriage or cohabitation.
Most importantly for second wives like Scanlon, under the proposed Reform Act, the income of a payer’s current spouse will no longer be considered in any alimony modification action.
Last week, the Massachusetts House Judiciary Committee gave unanimous support to the alimony reform bill. Let’s hope that the full House and the state Senate act quickly to pass this important legislation.