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The New Art of Alimony (Or, You Still Have To Support Your Former Spouse 25 Years After the Divorce)

Revanche brought an interesting article to my attention last night… and we both agreed that it’s pretty, well, bogus.

There are certainly circumstances in which alimony / spousal support may be justified, especially when both partners agreed to have one partner give up his/her earnings to care for children. One of examples cited in the Wall Street Journal article, however, just makes me shake my head.

Consider this:  A couple divorced amicably in 1982. Both sides agreed to waive any right to alimony. Apparently, that agreement didn’t hold – a judge ordered one spouse to pay $400 weekly payments to the other, 25 years after the marriage ended. It’s a long excerpt below, but I think it’s really enlightening to read.

Paul and Theresa Taylor were married for 17 years. He was an engineer for Boston’s public-works department, while she worked in accounting at a publishing company. They had three children, a weekend cottage on the bay and a house in the suburbs, on a leafy street called Cranberry Lane. In 1982, when they got divorced, the split was amicable. She got the family home; he got the second home. Both agreed “to waive any right to past, present or future alimony.”

But recently, more than two decades after the divorce, Ms. Taylor, 64, told a Massachusetts judge she had no job, retirement savings or health insurance. Earlier this year, the judge ordered Mr. Taylor, now 68 and remarried, to pay $400 per week to support his ex-wife. “This is insane,” Mr. Taylor says, adding that the payments cut his after-tax pension by more than one-third. “Someone can just come back 25 years later and say, ‘My life went down the toilet, and you’re doing good—so now I want some of your money’?”

In 2003, more than two decades after agreeing to end a 17-year marriage without alimony, Ms. Taylor was diagnosed with melanoma. She lost her publishing job when her employer of 38 years filed for bankruptcy protection. She’d recently surrendered her home to the bank and filed for personal bankruptcy to resolve $27,000 in medical and credit-card debts. [1]

Mr. Taylor, meanwhile, had retired after 33 years working for the city of Boston, with an annual pension of $56,000.

In a September 2007 complaint filed in a state probate court, Ms. Taylor cited “changes in circumstances” and sued her former husband for support payments. She wrote that Mr. Taylor owned homes in Florida and Cape Cod and traveled to Europe. [2]

In court, Mr. Taylor said he was sensitive to his former wife’s plight, but that too much time had passed and that their divorce was final 25 years ago. His second wife, he said, had inherited the Cape Cod house from her father. Their trips were financed through home-swaps and reduced-fare tickets from his stepson, an airline employee.

In June 2008, a probate judge ordered Mr. Taylor to pay temporary alimony based on Ms. Taylor’s “dire immediate need” and his “ability to pay.” In its January final order, the court, citing Mr. Taylor’s income from his pension, told Mr. Taylor to pay his ex-wife $400 per week for five years. The payment will eventually fall to about $250 a week for the rest of her life. [3]

Virginia Connelly, Ms. Taylor’s lawyer, says she can see how Mr. Taylor could find the situation unfair. But under Massachusetts law, she said, judges who want to keep a person off public services can turn to the ex-spouse. [4]

In May, to seek relief from legal and other bills, Mr. Taylor declared personal bankruptcy. He is still responsible for supporting his ex-wife. “If she loses all her money, so what? She can just take me back to court,” he says. “Somewhere along the line I should have peace of mind.”

[1] I don’t think either party are the bad people. Ms. Taylor’s situation is sad – anyone would be sympathetic to her illness. She doesn’t appear to have any means of supporting herself, so I’m going to assume that she went after her ex-husband because she felt like she didn’t have any other choice.

[2] And I don’t see how Mr. Taylor’s situation matters one iota. It’s been 25 years – of course there are changes in circumstance! Even if he is a millionaire with money made off unsavory business practices in a 3rd-world country – his money is his. It does not belong to a woman whom he divorced 25 years ago, and with whom signed an no alimony agreement. If Mr. Taylor had the ability, it would be nice / morally right for him to help the mother of his children, but financial support should not be dictated by the courts.

[3] Mr. Taylor and Ms. Taylor divorced and signed an no-alimony agreement. Which in my book should mean you cut future legal and financial ties with the person you were once married to. Which should mean that the contract that you both came to (and there’s no evidence that this no-alimony agreement was made under duress by either party) should be upheld. Which means a court shouldn’t be able to go back and say to Mr. Taylor, oops, you’re still financially responsible for this person whom you have no legal relationship to.

[4] Under Massachusetts law… judges who want to keep a person off public services can turn to the ex-spouse. To this I ask: WHY? Why is the law set up in such a way that let the government shirk its responsibility and go after the ex-spouse? If an individual qualifies for government help, he/she should receive such help.

Right now I am receiving unemployment insurance payments because I qualify for them. It doesn’t matter that my parents have the ability to give me $X a month – can the government go to Mom and say, oh, sorry, you have to cover WellHeeled’s UI payments because you were her primary caretaker for 18 years, and we don’t really want to pay.

Um, NO. So why is this case of the ex-spouses separated by 25 years who have both agreed to an no-alimony agreement different?

In conclusion: In cases such as these, I’m sure there are all sorts of information / legal issues that are not covered here. But from what I’ve read from the article, I really feel for Mr. Taylor. I just really don’t understand what the court’s reasoning was. And if a divorce agreement can be overturned 25 years after the fact, I wonder how much water prenuptial agreements really hold.

  • Sense - Agh!! you and Revanche are so right, this is B.S.!!! Wow…ReplyCancel

  • Tamsin - My father was in a similar situation about 20 years ago. He had and his first wife had divorced almost twenty years before that and had a no-support agreement. The agreement even specified that she had refused an offer of child support (proving that some people will put their own spite before the well-being of their children). Well, she suffered financially, my father didn’t, and eventually she went on welfare when my brother was a teenager. We found out years later that she told him our father refused to support him and to this day he refuses any contact with dad. After a few years of her on public assistance, Washington State came calling for my dad to pay back child support, to the state not the ex. He paid back the amount they agreed on backdated from when they went on assistance. I think my brother was about twenty when the payments stopped. Those payments were to the state for child support, not the the ex directly and certainly not for alimony until the end of time (or her life). I do wonder if the woman in the article (or more likely her lawyer) used arrangements like these ( this couldn’t have been the only one) has precedent for this judgment.ReplyCancel

  • kati - What made the ex-wife even think of taking her ex husband of 25 years back to court? Most people certainly wouldn’t think of that as a solution.ReplyCancel

  • Jessica - So, in a simplified nutshell, the reason behind this is that its generally against public policy for couples to waive alimony. When couples decide to waive alimony, the judge can decide to accept or deny that waiver. When the judge accepts the waiver, its essentially like he’s ordered alimony of 0 dollars. In family court proceedings (including child support, child custody and alimony), orders can be modified based on changed circumstances of any party (the paying party lost their job and can’t pay as much, the paid party remarried and doesn’t need support anymore, etc). So when the judge accepted their waiver, he wasn’t necessarily accepting it permanently, if that makes any sense. I agree that it is completely stupid, and definitely lacks a sense of finality- can you really just be hauled into court for the rest of your life by your ex?? But I just wanted to give perhaps a little insight into the legal/procedural aspect of it.ReplyCancel

  • LA Daze - This is really frustrating and I can’t believe things like that are happening in this country. Bah. Makes me mad. I know we don’t have all the details, but I think i’ve read enough to assess the situation as unfair for Mr. Taylor and his 2nd wife. I agree with Kati – what made the ex-wife think she could go after her ex husband of 25 years? It’s rather sad to think that all those years, she was alone.ReplyCancel

  • Puma - If you are confused by such a ruling, then look no further than the actions of a pre civil rights southern sheriff breaking the tail-lights of an african-american citizen’s car, only to arrest him for a broken tail-light.

    If this family court judge had to go to the lenghts to make up the story of an imminent flying saucer space invasion just to give the little lady (Ms. Taylor) her alimony, by jove he would.

    What we are dealing with here is Institutionalized Misandry.ReplyCancel

  • Jenn @ Paying Myself - In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll say again that I’m a lawyer in Canada and I practice family law. :-)

    Without saying here nor there about Mr. Taylor’s situation, I am wondering if you (or anyone else who chooses to comment) would feel differently if it involved child support? For example, what if a couple had one child who was aged 2 years when they separated, and the couple agreed to no child support, and 10 years later the parent who has custody loses their job and goes after the parent without custody for child support? Or further on, 16 years later the child goes to university and needs financial assistance, and goes after the non-custodial parent for child support at that time?

    WellHeeled: I think the difference is alimony vs. child support – which I see as two very different concepts. Child support is for a child that two adults created together (and thus should take responsibility for, together). Also, in your example, the custodial parent loses his/her job when the child is 12 (still legally a child), so of course the other parent SHOULD pay for child support if he/she is able.

    But alimony means supporting an adult – whom in the Taylors’ case (based on what I read), had an fairly equitable marriage and divorce (he got the vacation home, she got the primary home, they both worked). There should be no reason why 25 years later he suddenly becomes financially responsible for another adult. Even if that was his child who got sick and broke – there’s no reason that 25 years later his 30-something kid can go after him because the child thought the child support agreement was unjust.

    Thank you for that very thought-provoking question.ReplyCancel

  • Bonnie - My dad had to pay my mom alimony for 10 years and I think she totally deserved it. (They were married for 25 years as well.) She was a stay-at-home mom and housewife that whole time and totally out of the workforce. She needed that money.ReplyCancel

  • Zofie - I agree that this is unfair, given the couple divorced 25 years ago and Mrs. Taylor had been employed during the marriage as well as after. Additionally, the couple signed an agreement not to seek alimony. Given that we do not know all of the details of the relationship and finances, I suppose I cannot truly judge the situation. In my little world though, that’s a really unfair judgment.ReplyCancel

  • Red Lipstick Style - Sound’s like something that would happen to my fiance. If you saw his court documents, you would never marry, EVER!!! Even though his X has “old Italian money”, which is all the children ever speak about. Very disturbing. Make a mistake and pay the price for the rest of your life.ReplyCancel

  • Cassie - As unfortaunate as it is for Ms. Taylor, she is in no way entitled to ANY of Mr. Taylor’s money. She agreed not to go after alimony 25 YEARS AGO. And now because she is not doing well, she does? That’s just not right. I can’t believe that any judge would order Mr. Taylor to pay her anything. Total BS!ReplyCancel

  • thisisbeth - This is the insane party to me: “In June 2008, a probate judge ordered Mr. Taylor to pay temporary alimony based on Ms. Taylor’s “dire immediate need” and his “ability to pay.” ”

    Wait. So if I hate my job and quit, can I force my neighbors to pay my bills? After all, it would be a dire need to be paid, and they have the ability (collectively, at least) to pay? (And it would be in their best interest, since they have no idea what might happen to my house if foreclosed upon.)

    This is stupid. They have been divorced longer than they were married. That should be considered sufficient time for her to be able to handle things by herself. There should be no legal obligation for him to support someone he has not supported for the last 25 years, and has had no relationship with in the meantime. (He may choose to be generous and help her if they are still on friendly terms, but at this point, he should have no more legal obligation than any of Ms. Taylor’s girl friends.)ReplyCancel

  • FB @ FabulouslyBroke.com - That is INSANITY!
    @Bonnie — It’s not that I don’t think a woman who was a housewife doesn’t deserve alimony. It’s just that the rest of the case makes the request and the grant from the judge, TOTALLY crap:

    A) They signed an agreement WAIVING all future rights to any alimony

    B) She had all this time while divorced (25 years?) to get her act together and she didn’t, so now she’s milking the only cow she can see

    C) They have been divorced longer than they were married

    D) She’s a cow for even having the idea of taking him back to court to squeeze money out of him.

    UGH! So frustrating!ReplyCancel

  • Puma - Hence our crashing marriage rates. As per the Rutgers University Marriage Project, the weddings per capita have fallen by half since 1970:

    http://marriage.rutgers.edu/Publications/SOOU/TEXTSOOU2004.htm#Marriage

    We can’t really blame the guys now can we?ReplyCancel

  • Why the hell do guys have to pay for everything? « Fabulously Broke in the City - [...] Leave me a comment This article from Well-Heeled about a couple that divorced 25 years ago, really annoyed [...]ReplyCancel

  • SeeJaneGetRich.com - @Puma

    Crashing marriage rate isn’t such a bad thing. Women in the past didn’t have the economic power to leave a bad marriage and now they do, so inevitably it will go up as marriages becomes redefined.ReplyCancel

  • Puma - @ SeeJaneGetRich

    The marriage rate above should read “new marriage rate”. While you are right about the ability to divorce affecting the total # of marriages, the “new” marriage rate is independent of divorce. I.e. that is the weddings per capita. People it seems are not only divorcing more, but also getting wed less in the first place.

    But I agree with you on crashing marriage rates being a good thing for human indpendence and human dignity. It’s not the middle ages anymore and people should get with the program.ReplyCancel

  • Kathleen - Wow, I live in MA and had no idea that alimony laws here were so crazy. Reading about stuff like this makes me not want to get married ever, or to get an iron-clad prenup. Poor Mr. Taylor; his having to pay alimony after 25 years and after his ex-wife previously waived her rights to future alimony is so wrong.ReplyCancel

  • Sarah - Chiming in with the other lawyers, alimony or spousal support waivers are frequently assessed for enforceability on an “unconscionability” basis, i.e. would the waiver be unconscionable at the time it is being enforced? Also, here in California, if the parties in a long-term marriage agree to no alimony (we call it spousal support), the Court frequently will accept that BUT will not terminate jurisdiction over the issue. Terminate jurisdiction is the key phrase here – if the jurisdiction has been terminated, it means no matter what you can’t come back. In a long term marriage, courts prefer not to terminate jursidiction because things can and do change. Does that mean this outcome was right? I don’t know. But that’s probably part of the reason for the ruling is the waiver was a present waiver but not a permanent waiver because the court retained the ability to resolve disputes about it.ReplyCancel

  • Nona - At 18 children are considered adults and expected to be self supporting.

    Yet the courts think it's acceptable for an adult to support another adult untill…….. ReplyCancel

  • bob ward - hey – i'm one of those 25 year alimony payers — i'm 75 and limited income but still paying $8,000 a year — a 12 year marrage
    no children — i was brought back to court after divorcing 2 years prior — no alimony then! this present situation i balked on the
    "till death terms" but my lawyer talked me into signing and we would address "will cross that bridge later" — when i did return to him he just laughted at me and said nothing could be done — sounds like his laughing was correct???? the judges are so moral (keeping individuals of the public roles) wonder how they feel about 43 million on food stamps ???? oops, i won't go far in any appeal i questioned the judge? bob ReplyCancel

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