Taking the 'Permanent' Out of Permanent Alimony

Unhappy married couples tend to believe they’re trapped in a life sentence—they may be right.

Wedding cake split in two, signifying a divorce
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Most people, when they take their wedding vows, hope they'll be together with their spouse until death do them part. But in the headwinds of love, many don't consider or are simply unaware that in some states, it's possible to be together until death even if you divorce.

Permanent alimony is what it sounds like. A couple marries and when they divorce, one spouse pays the alimony for the rest of their natural life, or until their spouse's demise—whichever comes first. In most cases, remarrying quashes the payments, which is why many of the payees opt for living with someone else rather than remarrying.

Even opponents of permanent alimony agree that there are sometimes good reasons for a spouse to receive permanent alimony (e.g., they have a disability preventing them from working). In other cases, however, when the recipient is healthy and college-educated, it can seem as if fate has smiled upon one person, who now has something akin to lottery winnings for life, and scorned the other as an unlucky soul who now must pay for the mistake of marrying the wrong person for the rest of their life.

Even Powerball winnings end after 20 years, while permanent alimony continues through one's retirement—although the amount paid can be reduced by the courts. Consequently, a number of senior citizens find themselves giving up a chunk of their Social Security check to a spouse who is receiving the same amount of Social Security, plus the alimony.

[Read: Why Almost Everyone Needs a Prenup.]

The permanent alimony trap can be especially maddening for someone like Jane Carter, 43, who is using a pseudonym so she can more freely discuss her husband's case, which will soon be hashed out in court. Her husband separated from his first wife in 2003 and was ordered by the courts to pay his ex-spouse $90,000 a year (not including child support). They divorced in 2005 and eventually the amount was lowered to $81,000 a year. So far, Carter's husband has paid his ex-wife $800,000 in alimony, and while his monthly alimony payment used to be 30 percent of his income, with the economy the way it's been, 57 percent of his income now goes to his ex-wife.

Unless Carter wins the court's favor, there's seemingly no end in sight. In fact, she says her husband's ex-wife is now after her money. "I have a small nest egg for my 11-year-old son, and her lawyer is trying to find out how much I have for that nest egg because we're in the midst of a modification proceeding," says Carter.

Permanent alimony is a particularly vexing problem for anyone mired in the courts; Carter and her husband are both licensed attorneys and well-versed in the law, and they still find navigating the law challenging.

Many states have abandoned the practice of permanent alimony—or at least reformed the law—but it's still going strong in states such as New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Connecticut, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Florida. Permanent alimony was created in the days when women didn't go to college and rarely had careers, instead tending to the kids and household. Then it was sorely needed. Now, opponents argue, those reasons for its being are long past.

Debbie Israel, a 47-year-old college math teacher in Miami, is engaged but refuses to marry until permanent alimony is reformed in her state. She began dating her fiance, an engineer, in 2010 after their respective divorces in 2008 and 2009. After about a year of seeing each other, he proposed. She said yes. But shortly after, Israel was reading up on divorce and learned that in the state of Florida, her wages could wind up in the hands of his ex-wife, which led Israel to become a core member of the Florida Alimony Reform Group, which now has more than 2,000 members.

[Read: Why Single People Are So Financially Stressed.]

The nonprofit has been pushing for alimony reform since 2010 and plans to fight other family-law problems once the state reforms alimony—something its divorced founder, Alan Frisher, a Melbourne, Fla., certified divorce financial analyst, is confident will happen. The change could take place as early as this year, with a bill to end permanent alimony expected to go to a vote in the Florida legislature within a few months.