In the April 14, 2014 Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, the most thoughtful Massachusetts Probate and Family Court judge of his generation, Hon. Edward M. Ginsburg (ret), laments that 2012’s alimony overhaul by the legislature and 2013’s quadrennial review and revisions to the child support guidelines by the Trial Court add up to a giant missed opportunity, and a failure that will hurt families for years to come. Specifically, Judge Ginsburg, who devoted a good chunk of his two decades on the bench to advocating for predictability and consistency in all things support points out that no one thought to look at spousal support and child support as a piece. He is right.
We have all been focused intensely on how the new alimony laws work; how the new guidelines work; and how we might manipulate the two into making sensible orders that are tax-efficient. But in debating the trees, we lost sight of the forest: why didn’t the lawmakers look at these two cognate and connected subjects as two parts of the same puzzle that they are? How do we rationalize two sets of support theory into a fair, efficient and sustainable whole, not just for the privileged few who will take the time in mediation, or with sophisticated counsel, to develop a custom-made support regime, but for everyone? Reform is not reform without addressing all relevant considerations; and here, half the house was built as a tudor and the other side a cape. The result is a leaky home.
An example. We recently had to explain the following muddle to mediation clients. Under the new child support guidelines, a mother with 2 children would often receive 18.4% of the Husband’s gross income as child support, and no alimony, he having income of about $200,000.00 per year. The same woman learned that if she had no kids at all, she might expect 30 – 35% of the very same income, as alimony. Granted, we explained, taxable income is worth less than its gross sum. But is it worth less that 18.4% on the gross? Not likely.
Another example. As we have discussed here before, the alimony law says that the court may not take dollars into account that have already been tapped for child support, suggesting that child support is computed first on income up to $250,000.00 per year, with excess income only being addressed for alimony. Meanwhile, the child support guidelines say that the court may calculate alimony first, and then child support. We have argued before that sound discretion and good divorce mediation can turn these conflicts into opportunity in the search for a sensible result. But the legal inconsistency is undeniable.
Would it not have made sense for some body to review the matter of family support as of a whole? Is it too late?
Thanks to Judge Ginsburg for this valuable and disturbing insight.