A recent article in Time Magazine called The End of Alimony discusses some of the potentially unfair and unrealistic outcomes that can result from the current family legal system. The example highlighted in the article discusses a second wife having potential responsibility to her new husband’s ex-wife for alimony payments. The article looks at both sides of the equation – the new wife having unforeseen and unwanted obligations and the first wife having financial struggles and dependence on this additional source of income. It is no doubt a complicated issue. Many issues in divorce are complicated. The challenge in court cases is often to balance the rights of the participants with the need for efficiency and structure in the law. Courts do not always have the time and resources to give every case the attention it needs to find unique and realistic resolutions. Unfortunately, there are rarely one-size-fits-all resolutions. Collaborative law provides an alternative. In divorce, the collaborative law process provides for unique outcomes that are tailored to the individual situation of the couple. A good collaborative team can gather the information needed and then take a 360 degree look at resolutions to take unforeseen circumstances into account. Where the courts may have formulaic outcomes in mind, collaboration can lead to outcomes that can change as circumstances change. Alimony or spousal maintenance, for example, does not necessarily need to end upon remarriage (as the law often presumes). Perhaps the parties agree to look at the realities of new partnerships and see if there are ways to find resolutions that take everyone’s interests into account? The resolutions may not be perfect, but they are reached together with all stakeholders at the table.
Spousal maintenance, or alimony, is one of the most difficult issues in divorce. How much? How long? Can it be modified? These are the questions that must be answered by divorcing couples. Faced with having to support two households rather than one, money is usually tight. Both parties wonder if they’ll have enough, creating fear all around. Clients ask me, “What would a judge do in my case?” The Minnesota spousal maintenance statute instructs the court to “consider “all relevant factors, including” and lists eight such factors. Predicting how a particular judge will apply the statute in a particular case is impossible. Looking at previous decisions in other cases involving the issue of spousal maintenance can also prove frustrating. Few cases are actually decided by the courts, and the facts in every case are unique, making comparison difficult. Minnesota is not alone in its lack of guidance on this issue. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported that several states are currently considering proposals to amend alimony laws. Some of the proposed changes include creating formulas to determine the amount and duration of spousal support. Others call for an end to permanent alimony altogether. While consistency and predictability are admirable goals, I question whether new legislation will produce fairer outcomes. Asking a judge to apply the law can be frightening. Having to live with a third-party’s decision can create resentment. So how can divorcing couples resolve this difficult issue without giving up control of the outcome? The Collaborative divorce process uses interest-based negotiation to guide discussion of spousal maintenance. A financial neutral (hired jointly by the parties) guides them, using the following steps:
- Help both parties identify their goals and interests
- Gather all relevant information regarding income and budgets
- Generate settlement options
- Evaluate settlement options
- Put the agreement into writing