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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Israel, who is divorced, could have received permanent alimony but declined. She considered it, but when a cousin asked her, "Why would you want to be attached to an unhealthy relationship for the rest of your life," that question stuck with her—ultimately leading her to decline alimony and develop a plan for her to receive child support for her and her ex's son.

Both Israel and Frisher know many people who are mired in the stresses of permanent alimony. Frisher tells of an IT guy who is behind in permanent alimony payments and wakes up every day wondering if this will be the day the sheriff will come knocking on his door. Israel knows a fellow Florida Alimony Reform Group member who, after discovering her husband having an affair with their nanny, is now paying permanent alimony to her perfectly healthy ex-husband—for the rest of their lives, if the law isn't fixed. Israel laments that she even had a friend who committed suicide over permanent alimony.

"Some people are told that their marriage is ending, and then they feel like they're losing their family since they don't have access to their kids on a daily basis, and they see their finances wiped out, and then they're told that they have to pay their ex for the rest of their life," Israel says. "That can be too much to cope with."

Frisher would like to see alimony in his state limited to half of the marriage. In effect with that law, for example, if someone was married for 18 years, the spouse with less ability to earn an income would have nine years of alimony—presumably ample time to go back to school or find a decent job.

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Permanent alimony kills the desire to work hard as well, according to Frisher, who offers an example of a dentist who is a member of the reform group and currently pays his ex-spouse $10,000 a month. He cites another member, a physician paying $6,000 a month. In both cases, if the dentist and physician were to expand their practices and make more money, the way the laws are written now means their exes could go to court and call for their alimony to be raised.

The current law arguably creates a welfare-type state for the recipients, also killing their desire to work hard, opponents of permanent alimony charge, due to their receiving a de facto monthly annuity for the rest of their lives.

"In some unusual cases, I can see where alimony should be made permanent, such as if a spouse is disabled," says Robin DesCamp, a permanent alimony reform activist in Portland, Oregon, "but there should be a formula, and I personally don't think you should have to give a person more than 25 percent of your income. You shouldn't have to give more than 50 percent of your income to a healthy person who can get a job at Starbucks, for crying out loud."

Corrected on 01/24/2013: A previous version of this story misstated Alan Frisher's profession. He is a certified divorce financial analyst.