LITTLE ROCK — Some lawmakers want the Legislature to consider a measure next year that would require an automatic court review of alimony payments to a former spouse who begins a live-in relationship with a third party.
The House Judiciary Committee concluded some changes may be needed in the state’s alimony laws after examining the subject at a meeting last month. The panel agreed that judges should maintain discretion in ordering alimony payments, the amount and length, but that cohabitation should trigger review of a judge’s order in such cases.
The Legislature convenes Jan. 14.
"I don’t expect that be very controversial, really," said Rep. Nate Steele, D-Nashville, a members of the committee.
During the panel’s nearly two-hour hearing in November, two men who were ordered to pay alimony to their ex-wives spoke about the financial distress they have suffered. Both men said they thought the alimony payments were the reason why their ex-wives had not returned to work.
Also testifying was a divorce attorney who stressed the importance of judicial discretion. A representative of the Administrative Office of the Courts attended the meeting but did not address the panel.
In 1999, the Legislature considered a measure that would have terminated alimony payments if the recipient began cohabiting with someone other than the payer of the alimony. The only exception would have been if the court order providing for alimony specifically said that the payment of alimony would not be affected by cohabitation.
The measure, sponsored by then-Sen. Doyle Webb of Benton passed the Senate but died in the House Judiciary Committee.
At the time Webb filed the measure, the late Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, a billionaire, was fighting in court to end an alimony payment of more than $25,000 a month to a former wife who was cohabiting with another man.
Rockefeller, who said at the time he did not ask Webb to file the bill, had taken his case all the way to the Arkansas Supreme Court and lost.
In recent years, a number of states have considered or passed alimony reform laws. In 2011, Massachusetts created a mathematical formula to determine the amount of alimony awarded, similar to the one used to determine child-support payments.
Rep. Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, who asked the state House committee to study the alimony issue, said he wanted to see if anything could be done to make the process more equitable.
"The only real conclusion … was they felt like there was some work to be done," Gillam said after the November meeting. "Right now, our statutes give total authority and discretion to the judge, there’s no real uniformity, so a judge in my district in White County could award lifetime alimony and a judge in south Arkansas might go five years."
During the meeting, Jonathan Jones, a divorce attorney who lives in Hot Springs, said cohabitation statutes have been approved in Alabama and Oklahoma.
"I think the idea makes sense," Jones said. "I think it’s honestly probably a pretty good idea to put something like that in, but I think what happens because that term is so broad, what you end up doing is you’re forcing litigants to counsel up, go back to court and get that judge’s discretion … and basic definition to what cohabitation is. It’s definitely a cycle.
"Ultimately, until that definition can be locked down, I think that is a hard one."
Jones suggested the Legislature simply pass the statute requiring a hearing if there is suspected cohabitation, and then let the judges decide the definition of cohabitation.
"That would be a pretty good idea as far as getting the ball rolling," he said.
Some lawmakers suggested a mandatory review of a judge’s alimony order every few years.
"The only concern I have with setting a mandatory review date is the strain that might have on the judge’s docket," Jones said.
"Clearing up the statute to read that cohabitation alone, if nothing more, would prompt … termination I think would be a good measure," Jones said. "The court could take that. This gives judges and attorneys guidelines … I would be cautious to go any farther than that."