Wife No. 2 Paying for Wife No. 1? Join the Club

Massachusetts' 2nd Wives Club lobbies to change rules on alimony payments.

November 4, 2009, 2:41 PM

Nov. 6, 2009 — -- Stress over alimony payments to her husband's ex-wife nearly drove Deborah Scanlan to divorce. Helping her husband make alimony payments to his ex forced Jeanie Hitner to take on a second job. Both Massachusetts women now say they wish they'd never gotten married.

Welcome to the 2nd Wives Club.

The club, which claims 70 members and counting, consists mostly of married women who say that Massachusetts judges' rulings forced them to contribute to alimony payments for their partners' ex-wives. Together with its parent group, Mass Alimony Reform, the club is lobbying the state legislature to stop that practice and institute several reforms to alimony law.

Scanlan, the club's chairwoman, says she is paying the price for her husband's divorce. She said that because a judge took into account her $58,000 income as an executive assistant, her husband Daniel Gingras' alimony payments total $26,000 a year -- about $16,000 more than they would otherwise.

"I was absolutely horrified that I was now responsible for a portion of the support of his first wife," she said. On the day of the judge's alimony ruling in her husband's case, Scanlan said, "I left the court house and just couldn't believe that such a thing was possible."

Gingras' ex-wife did not return calls from ABCNews.com seeking comment.

How often a second wife's (or second husband's) income is factored into alimony payments nationwide is unclear, though Massachusetts doesn't appear to be unique. In Louisiana, for instance, an appellate court ruled in 1994 that a lower court had improperly reduced an alimony award to a first wife because it hadn't considered a second wife's income.

Unlike child support statutes, state laws on alimony are often vague, said Andrea Carroll, a law professor at Louisiana State University. This means, she said, that courts in other states could very well make rulings similar to the one in Louisiana.

How widespread the practice is in Massachusetts, meanwhile, is up for debate.

Making Ends Meet

Denise Squillante, the president-elect of the Massachusetts Bar Association said that, in her experience, judges look to a second spouse's income as a source of alimony only when the alimony payer has been found to be in contempt of a court order to pay up.

"Judges don't say, 'OK, former husband, your income is x and your new wife's income is y, so we're going to add those incomes together and enter an alimony order.' That doesn't happen," she said.

Founders of the 2nd Wives Club and Mass. Alimony Reform disagree. It's requests for payment modifications by either side that can ultimately ensnare a second spouse into a court's alimony decisions, they said.

Jeanie Hitner, vice president for the 2nd Wives Club and the wife of Mass Alimony Reform President Steve Hitner, said that her husband asked a state court for a reduction in his payments after his printing business began to struggle. It was rejected.

"The reason for the denial was all about ME…and what I should be doing to help my husband," Jeanie Hitner wrote in a message to ABCNews.com. "The judge in her findings said that 'Your current wife needs to supplement your income so that you can continue to make the alimony payments.'"

Hitner, who works at her husband's business, said she took on tutoring jobs to help make ends meet.

Both the 2nd Wives Club and Mass Alimony Reform are pushing for a bill that would include a number of reforms to state alimony laws, including preventing a judge from considering a second spouse's income and assets when making changes to alimony.

Squillante said the Massachusetts bar opposes the bill, saying it would hamper judges' discretion and could create unintended consequences. State Sen. Cynthia Creem, a family lawyer who has called for a commission to study alimony reform, questions what should happen to alimony recipients if their ex-husbands decide to quit working entirely and rely on their new spouses instead. (Steve Hitner said the bill backed by his group would allow such situations to be judged on a case-by-case basis.)

In the meantime, some women say they're doing what Scanlan and Hitner only wish they had done -- they're not getting married in Massachusetts and avoiding the alimony issue altogether. The 2nd Wives Club said its membership increasingly includes such women, too.

Elizabeth Benedict is a New Yorker who has dated a divorced Massachusetts man since 1999. A supporter of the 2nd Wives Club, Benedict said she decided against marriage years ago, on the advice of several lawyers.

"I decided that if I was going to get married," she said. "I was not going to then invite a lawsuit as a wedding present."

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