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September 4, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The fight against the truly absurd and archaic laws on spousal support continues. And, if this article is any indication, reforms may be getting some traction (Bloomberg, 8/26/13).

Appropriately, the piece begins with a real horror story about a man named Ari Schochet who once had a good job as an investment analyst, but who lost it in the economic downturn. But the judge in his divorce case doesn’t much care that he no longer has the same job and can’t find one as good. Alimony was set at the rate required by his former earnings and, since he’s supposedly able to find a similar one, he can’t get a modification. So his life has become a hell of jail cells and desperate searches for jobs that never pan out.

Ari Schochet has grown so accustomed to being sent to jail for missing alimony payments that he goes into a routine.

Before his family-court hearing, Schochet, 41, sticks on a nicotine patch to cope with jailhouse smoking bans, sends an “Ari Off the Grid” e-mail to friends and family, and scrawls key phone numbers in permanent ink on his forearm.

Schochet, who said he worked as a portfolio manager at Citadel Investment Group Inc. and Fortress Investment Group LLC (FIG) and once earned $1 million a year, has been jailed for missing court-ordered payments at least eight times in the past two years as he coped with the end of his 17-year marriage.

The reason he ran afoul of the law was simple. He was out of work for most of that time, a victim of a weak economy, and he ran through his savings trying to pay his wife alimony and child support that totaled almost $100,000 a year.

“It’s a circle of hell there’s just no way out of,” Schochet said. “I paid it as long as I could.”

That’s too bad for Schochet because it’s going to continue - in his case, for the rest of his life. He and his ex-wife were married for 17 years and, in the eyes of New Jersey law, that means he has to support her until one of them dies. It doesn’t matter what he’s capable of earning; it doesn’t matter what she’s capable of earning; it doesn’t matter if she’s found a job or even tried to. The law is based on the long-antiquated notion that women not only don’t but can’t work for a living.

That of course has never been the case. Women in this culture have never not worked. Oh, some of them have been privileged enough to not have to work and earn, but they’ve always been the small minority. Others have worked. Until the 1930s, most women didn’t work for wages because they worked on farms with their husbands and families. But women who’d moved off of farms worked in a wide variety of jobs, mostly retail sales, nursing, secretarial jobs, restaurant jobs, etc.

Alimony laws were for the women whose husbands earned enough that their wives didn’t have to work. Unsurprisingly, there’s a long history of women who made a living off those laws by serially marrying and divorcing.

But this is 2013. Women make up over 47% of the work force, so, for all practical purposes, there are no women who can’t support themselves. As I’ve said before, there are people of both sexes who can’t do that. They’re disabled or too advanced in age to train for and find work. For those people we can make an exception and say alimony may be necessary. Likewise, I can see one person paying alimony to the other for a short time, say, two years, to allow that person to get up to speed in the job market.

But, as far as I can see, in every other instance, no one should receive alimony. A divorce is a divorce. It means the two no longer want to live together, plan together, keep up the house together, travel together, etc. There is no reason why, in this day and age, either person should be able to continue to rely on the other for support. We champion women’s abilities and drive, but then turn around and treat them like “delicate survivors” from a Tennessee Williams play.

Gradually, some states are starting to haul themselves out of the 19th century.

In states such as New Jersey, Connecticut and Florida where divorce laws are based on century-old notions of what an ex-spouse deserves, laws are being proposed to limit alimony in recognition of wives’ earning power and the changed economic circumstances husbands can face.

The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in 2007 recommended restricting alimony amounts and duration. The proposal became the basis for Massachusetts’s alimony reform laws in 2011. Those statutes eliminated permanent alimony and gave judges guidelines for calculating amounts.

Three states have enacted laws abolishing permanent alimony with caveats allowing discretion in exceptional cases, according to Laura W. Morgan, an attorney and owner of Family Law Consulting in Charlottesville, Virginia. Lawmakers in at least 10 other states, including New Jersey, are being prompted by advocates to consider more restrictive legislation, said Morgan, who is writing an alimony handbook to be published by the American Bar Association.

New York lawmakers are considering a bill that would create an alimony formula that would require that only spouses with much higher incomes than their ex-partners pay support.

Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy in June signed legislation revising the state’s alimony statutes to add education and earning capacity to a list of factors to be considered. The changes, which take effect Oct. 1, direct judges to specify the basis for any award of permanent alimony. The law also calls for lawmakers to study the fairness and adequacy of statutes governing alimony awards and make recommendations by February.

Unsurprisingly, the only ones opposed to sanity in alimony laws have little with which to back up their arguments.

[Family attorney Laura Morgan] called the current push for change “very male-driven.”

“As men retire, they don’t want to keep paying alimony,” she said. “For every horror story that you can come up with about a support obligor, I can come up with 10 for an obligee who can’t make ends meet because her post-divorce standard of living has so drastically dropped.”

Hmm. What she doesn’t add is how many of those women did little or nothing to contribute to the family’s income while they were married. If a woman or a man allows their marketable skills to erode over the years, for any but the most necessary of reasons (like caring for children or a disability), why should the other spouse pay indefinitely? That spouse has likely already been a drag on the family’s finances during marriage. Why should he/she be one after divorce?

To give an idea of Morgan’s level of intellectual honesty, she adds this chestnut:

“But there is still a glass ceiling, and women are still earning just 70 cents on the dollar” earned by men, Morgan said.

Nonsense. That glass ceiling is made up mostly of women’s refusal to work as many hours as men or at jobs likely to get them into the top echelons of management. Far too much data exists showing women opting out of the workforce and, even when they’re in it, working substantially fewer hours than men for us to buy the glass ceiling claim.

Just last year the Times ran a piece on women in the workplace that featured one headhunter (a woman) for McKenzie and Company who said frankly that they can’t recruit women for top management jobs. They don’t want to pull the hours or deal with the stress, and believe me, I can relate. But women can’t refuse to do the work and then complain about not getting the top positions. Of course few of them do. The ones who are actually in the trenches of top corporate management aren’t the one’s kvetching. It’s mostly academics who wouldn’t be caught dead in the rat race who want to tell the rest of us how the system’s stacked against women.

And of course Morgan’s 70 cents on the dollar claim has been demolished so many times, it’s hard to believe even feminists have the gall to keep bringing it up. Women earn, in the aggregate, less than men for two primary reasons. One is that they don’t work as many hours and the other is that they tend to opt for lower-paying jobs like teaching, nursing, retail sales and secretarial jobs. That may or may not be changing, but the workforce as it’s currently configured has an abundance of women in those jobs. Ergo, they make less on average than do men. Their choices, their consequences.

But alimony law is dead set against the notion that women should have to deal with the results of their own choices. If a woman chooses not to work or to work at a low-paying job, alimony’s there to bail her out.

Meanwhile men and a few women pay every month, sometimes bankrupting themselves in the process. It’s all based on a notion that was never very much true and now is almost never so – that women can’t support themselves. Ari Schochet knows exactly what that means.

“What am I supposed to do?” he said in a phone interview yesterday. “This is so against the law, so against my civil rights. Now I’m stuck in the system again for months. It’s just unbelievable. I have no recourse. The legal system has totally stepped away from me.”

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