Push to end permanent alimony stirs debate

The South Carolina Legislature is considering ending permanent alimony payments.

COLUMBIA — A group seeking to reform spousal support says it is unfair to make exes pay alimony for the rest of their life, and the male-dominated S.C. Legislature is receptive to changing to the law.

Permanent alimony “is involuntary servitude and it’s tantamount to slavery because you’re giving somebody else your wages and it’s not in your control,” S.C. Alimony Reform President Wyman Oxner said.

He added, “Nobody should have to pay another person simply because their marriage ended.”

But opponents, including Vickie Eslinger, a family law attorney with the Nexsen Pruet firm, said she’s “absolutely against” the proposed change.

“I consider this an attack on South Carolina women,” she said, adding that while she sees a growing number of women paying spousal support to a former husband, the large majority are men.

Bills are working their way through the House and Senate that seek to end permanent alimony. Some of the proposed changes urge judges to award a lump sum for transitional alimony instead of monthly payments, a change in the 90-day cohabitation rule to include instances where one person keeps a separate home, and a reduction of spousal support payments if the person receiving money begins to collect Social Security.

Current law requires the former breadwinner — most often the man — to pay spousal support until an ex remarries, or lives with a romantic partner for more than 90 consecutive days. Oxner, and the more than 700 members of S.C. Alimony Reform — which includes women — say that setup is unfair.

Members of the group have worked with legislators for the past year to make changes to the law. Of the 170 S.C. legislators, there are 24 women serving — 22 in the House and two in the Senate.

“A lot of these men in South Carolina don’t want their wives to work,” Eslinger said. “They want them to stay home and raise the children. The men advance their careers and build up their retirement and the wives have nothing.”

The bill was scheduled to be discussed during Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee meeting but was postponed a week because the proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, was absent.

Oxner said the bill was unanimously approved by a subcommittee.

Oxner said continuing to pay alimony often keeps men or women from being able to retire. If someone is found guilty of not paying spousal support, a judge can have him or her jailed.

Lexington resident Rob West said he and his wife of 21 years divorced in 2009. He said he pays his ex-wife, who is a teacher who worked throughout their marriage, $1,500 a month in alimony.

“I don’t disagree with alimony at all,” West said. “I think it should be transitional and there should be a cap to how long you pay.”

He added, “At this rate I’m afraid I won’t be able to retire.”

Eslinger said that in more than 90 percent of the cases she’s seen, alimony has been set through the divorce agreement, not by a judge.

“And unlike other agreements, you can go and ask for the terms to be adjusted,” she said. “If there’s a material change in circumstances — such as losing a job — a judge can modify or terminate alimony.”

The bill is expected to be discussed next Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee. A Senate proposal on alimony could be heard as soon as next week.

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-577-7111.