New Spousal Maintenance Modification Bill May Change Divorce Law In Minnesota

 Minnesota House Committee approves bill which may end spousal maintenance if the obligee spouse cohabitiates

 On March 29, 2016, a Minnesota House Committee approved a bill that has the potential to drastically alter the alimony landscape for some divorced people in the state.  As CBS reports, if signed into law, the proposal would open up the possibility for ending permanent spousal maintenance if the ex-spouse of the person paying the support begins to cohabitate with a new romantic partner, radically changing one aspect of divorce law in Minnesota.

     A Marshall, Minnesota dentist, Dr. Michael Thomas, shares his experience, explaining that he continues to pay his ex-wife $5,200 each month in spousal support despite the fact that since the divorce she has purchased a condominium in Florida where she lives with her current boyfriend.  It was Thomas who spearheaded the effort for the change in law, starting the website called Minnesota Alimony Reform.  The website acts as a digital database of those whose stories are similar to Thomas’ in hopes of prompting a change.

     The new bill, by Representative Peggy Scott, would have the potential to change Thomas’ situation by allowing termination or modification of spousal maintenance by a court if the spouse receiving maintenance was awarded the alimony under other circumstances.

     This is not a gender-biased bill, as it would equally affect women who pay spousal maintenance.  Anne Thompson, from Roseville, Minnesota explains that she pays $1,200 per month to her ex-husband in the form of permanent alimony.  Thompson feels trapped and bemoans the fact that she must continue to make monthly payments even though her ex-husband lives with his girlfriend and does not work.  The payments, she explains, make it impossible for her to pay for her adult son to attend college or to save enough for her own retirement.

     Similarly, Stephen Valentine shared his frustration with current law.  His ex-wife and her current boyfriend both live in the house that was formerly Valentine’s marital home.  His ex-wife is the breadwinner in the new relationship, with Valentine’s spousal maintenance helping her to support her new boyfriend, who lives rent-free.

     Unsurprisingly, not all lawmakers are sympathetic to Thomas’ cause, with some expressing concern that any change to the current law would have the potential to disproportionately impact women negatively.  Those concerned noted that many women struggle financially after a divorce, and went on to express disbelief that ex-spouses such as Thomas, whose income tops $500,000 each year, would find occasion to complain about making alimony payment at all.  As Representative Debra Hilstrom of the Democratic Farmer Labor Party opines, “When you have someone who makes $500,000 a year, and they are complaining because their spousal maintenance is $5,000 a month, and they have to live on $450,000 a year – you don’t necessarily feel very sympathetic.”

     If the bill passed, Minnesota would have company.  Similar bills have already passed in Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts and New Jersey.  Still, it remains unclear whether a new law would provide all of the relief that Thomas and others are hoping for. The New Jersey law, which also allows for permanent spousal maintenance to end upon retirement of the payer, was not retroactive, meaning that those who have already divorced can not turn to the law in the hope of having permanent alimony ended.  New Jersey residents have also complained that while some changes have been enacted as a result of the law, which was signed by Governor Christie in 2014, much of it is still subject to interpretation, leaving a lot of gray areas.

     It is likely that Thomas and others realize that the lay of the land may still be unclear even if the bill passes, as his group has been in touch with the founders of similar groups in the four states in which reform laws have passed.  Most recently, in early April prior to the introduction of the Minnesota bill, Steve Hitner, founder of Massachusetts Alimony Reform spoke to Thomas’ group in Minnesota. Thomas appreciated the guidance, stating, “I feel fortunate we have a great person that’s been through all this, and worked on it in his state for eight years to get it to go, and we thought maybe we’d get some good advice.”

To talk more about navigating a divorce in Minnesota or to modify your spousal maintenance and/or child support  please contact Gilbert Alden PLLC, a Dakota County law firm based in Burnsville, Minnesota.

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