While transportation and public safety dominated the waning days of the 2016 legislative session, our elected officials quietly — and surprisingly quickly — shifted ground on the home front.
Alimony reform has come to Minnesota.
On Tuesday, the Senate voted, 45-12, in support of the Cohabitation Alimony Reform bill. The measure allows for modifications to the long-held practice of spousal support post-divorce when recipients of the money are clearly sharing their homes and lives with a new significant other.
Those making the payments can go back to court a year after a divorce is final to seek reductions, suspensions or complete terminations.
The bill passed resoundingly, 112-9, in the House earlier in May, led by co-author Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, who called it “just so common sense.”
Gov. Mark Dayton was expected to sign the bill into law before the Legislature adjourns on Monday.
It comes none too soon. Cohabitation is common today, and we’re decades beyond an era where divorce was based on fault, and women typically were stay-at-home mothers whose economic security post-divorce depended on that essential financial support.
In fact, a growing number of women today are paying alimony to their exes.
I’m glad to see protections in place for the small number of divorcees who are legitimately in a rough place. I think about one woman who reached out to me after I first wrote in support of the bill. Formerly a stay-at-home-mom of four, she divorced after 22 years and is doing everything in her power to re-create herself, including returning to graduate school with financial aid and working two jobs. She pays only with cash, drives a car with 150,000 miles on it and is extremely proud to have $5,000 in her 401(k), even though she knows “it’s a drop in the bucket of what I will need.”
She told me she does not want to marry her live-in partner, to whom she pays rent, until she is out of debt in about two years. “I know firsthand that marriage is stressful enough without adding financial tension and worries to it,” she said.
The bill’s biggest champion does empathize with her challenges.
“There has to be a safety net,” agreed Dr. Michael Thomas of Marshall, a dentist who founded Minnesota Alimony Reform (mnalimonyreform.com). “Judges need to find those outlying cases. You still have to go to court, file a motion, show evidence. The courts are there to protect women, too.”
But those protections, Thomas believes, should be limited to women like the one above. Divorced a decade ago and remarried, he is paying maintenance to his former wife, who, he said, has been in a committed relationship for more than seven years and enjoying homes in two states.
“Let’s determine whether or not somebody is honoring the law or not,” he said. His frustration is hardly uncommon.
Sue Griffin said she’s been “dumbfounded by the number of people out there with similar stories” to hers.
After her divorce, she declined spousal maintenance because she worked full-time, but she accepted child support for her daughter. When her ex-husband fell on hard times, she agreed to a decrease in child-support payments and eventually received nothing.
Her second husband of 18 years, on the other hand, has been paying $2,100 a month to a woman he was married to for 11 years. He is required to pay her until she dies or remarries. She’s been living with a man for 10 years, and the two had a “commitment ceremony” in which they exchanged rings.
“I had no idea this was going on,” said Griffin, who wrote a letter to the governor asking him to sign the bill. “I’m glad they’re finally doing something about it, but I’m sorry it took so long.”
It might take even longer for the huge changes that some hoped for.
“All in all, I’d call this more of a gentle tweak to Minnesota’s spousal maintenance laws than any sort of radical reform,” said divorce lawyer Michael Boulette of Lindquist & Vennum. “It may result in an increased number of motions filed in the short term — if only due to increased awareness — but it’s hard to say if those motions will turn out any differently than they would have without the new law.”
He points 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.
The question is if advocates for changing spousal maintenance will be able to use this to create momentum for further change, he said.
Thomas, of Minnesota Alimony Reform, remains buoyed.
“Is it perfect? No. The bar is set high. However, it addresses a great abuse of the system. My hope is that the law will bring former spouses to the bargaining table. ‘Hey, you need a little more time? OK. But let’s end this at some point.’ ”