M. Sue Wilson didn’t need a calendar to know that Aug. 1 had arrived.
Wilson, a Twin Cities family law attorney for four decades, had barely started her workday when she learned that a female client had been served by her former husband.
The Minnesota Cohabitation Alimony Reform law went into effect the first day of August, and “there’s a whole lot of action going on,” Wilson said.
The law allows judges to end, alter or suspend spousal maintenance (also called alimony) if recipients are found to be living in a committed relationship with a significant other.
Supporters of the change say too many people take advantage of the system — and their exes — by cohabitating instead of marrying so that spousal maintenance payments continue.
Judges now can consider whether the person receiving alimony would marry if not for the maintenance award.
“The guys coming to see me aren’t ‘mad dads.’ They’re really upstanding guys who never missed a payment,” said Wilson, who testified in both houses of the Minnesota Legislature in support of the new law.
“They just feel so ripped off, and I don’t really blame them.”
Other attorneys are seeing a more cautious approach by their clients.
“No motions yet — nobody wants to be the first,” said Edina-based collaborative attorney Ron Ousky.
Still, he said, the law “is a welcome thing” that is having a positive effect by encouraging couples to be proactive and draw up divorce decrees that keep them out of court down the road.
Bill Wilder, who divorced in May 2014 and lost his six-figure job three months later, supports the law. But he told me that he’s waiting “to see if someone else is successful” before he decides whether to file a motion for a reduction in spousal maintenance payments.
He said he took a $47,000 pay cut with his current job, yet he still is required to pay $6,000 a month in spousal support, plus $1,000 a month in back pay for the six months he was out of work.
He’s racking up credit card debt, “which will keep going until I am forced to declare bankruptcy,” he said, clearly frustrated.
“Alimony is not inherently bad,” said the father of two, “but this can’t be about getting paid to not get married.”
He continued, “Judicial oversight needs to hold the parties accountable.”
Some say the law doesn’t go far enough. They point to states with more bite, including Massachusetts and New Jersey, which passed sweeping changes in 2011 and 2014, respectively, and Illinois, which has long considered the recipient’s cohabitation with another person a reason to end payments.
Others worry, understandably, about punishing women who have devoted their lives to raising children, or people with disabilities.
Michael Thomas of Marshall, a dentist who founded Minnesota Alimony Reform (mnalimonyreform.com), emphasizes that protections remain in place for those who need them.
He acknowledges this is going to be a very slow-moving train.
What about retirement?
District courts, the first stop for those seeking a modification, have 90 days to rule. Then parties have 60 days to appeal at the state Court of Appeals, if they choose to, followed by a wait there, which can be six months or longer.
“We’ve learned a lot in the process,” said Thomas, who said his next push will be talking with legislators this fall about the law, to assure them that alimony is not going away.
“Maybe we need to shift to addressing an absence in current law for the right of payors to retire,” he said, noting that nothing in the current language suggests that possibility.
“The best time to discuss these things,” he said, “is when legislators are out campaigning.”