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SANDY BANKS

'I Do'--to a Lifetime of Alimony?

July 24, 2001|Sandy Banks

She wed Tom Hart right out of high school, and they stayed married for 18 years. While her husband climbed the ranks at his workplace, Cindy Hart stayed home and raised their kids. "Girl Scout leader, PTA, room mom

Then 10 years ago, Tom walked out. Cindy was battling health problems that left her too weak to take a job. So, in addition to child support, Tom was ordered to pay alimony of $2,150 a month.

But last year, Cindy's payments stopped when Tom took early retirement from his job and moved to Oregon. She's been able to tap into his stock account and retirement fund, but that money will run out next year.

Says Cindy: "It's a matter of survival. But it's more than that. It's a civil rights issue, an issue every woman ought to care about. I was married to him for 18 years. Now he's legally obligated to support me for however long I need."

But if the legal answer is easy, the overall issue is a bit more tricky.

"The question is: Does a man who was married for 18 years, divorced for 10 years, who discharged his legal obligation to support his kids, have to continue working solely to provide financial assistance to the former spouse," says attorney James P. Reape.

Reape is not involved in the Hart case, but his Family Law Today site on the Internet frequently gets questions in cases like this. "Eventually a judge will have to weigh one person's needs against the other's right to live their life the way they choose."

In other words, if a man wants to step off the fast track and lower his standard of living, can he be held hostage by his ex-wife's needs?

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Cindy Hart is on a mission to force authorities to haul her ex-husband back to Southern California and force him to make the payments the court ordered. "I don't care what kind of job he has to take or how he gets the money," Cindy says. "He's legally obligated to support me until I'm retirement age. That's 18 [more] years and a half-million dollars. And that's money I need."

From the bedroom of her modest Santa Barbara apartment, she mounts her campaign with missionary zeal. She calls the White House, the district attorney and her elected officials every week. She's made dozens of court appearances, spent countless hours on research and compiled 100 pages of "points and authorities" from legal cases that support her. Her files include dozens of letters--from everyone from her physician to the mechanic who fixes her car--urging the district attorney to go after Tom Hart.

Her ex-husband, she says, is "a fugitive from justice." A warrant for his arrest on civil contempt charges was issued when he failed to show for a court hearing, she says, "and I want the district attorney to extradite him ... to go to Oregon and bring him back."

But the district attorney's office says that won't happen. "We feel for Cindy Hart, and we're trying to find ways to help her," said Sandra Harris, special assistant to Dist. Atty. Steven Cooley. "But we cannot extradite her ex-husband. We do not legally have that power ....And even if we did, we are not in the business of enforcing civil judgments. We are here to prosecute felonies, not help someone get their pound of flesh in a civil case."

Even the county office charged with enforcing support payment orders says Hart stands little chance of achieving what she believes is justice.

There are thousands of women in line ahead of her, chasing deadbeat dads so their children can eat.

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Since 1983, she has been disabled by respiratory problems and chronic fatigue syndrome. Some days, she is too tired to rise from bed. She is plagued by nausea, vertigo and muscle pain, and cannot drive or do any one task too long, she says.

At 44, she fears she faces a lifetime of unemployment and dependency.

Spousal support--alimony, we used to call it--is intended to protect women like Cindy. It recognizes that a woman kept out of the workplace for years--whether by health or choice or family needs--may never be able to reach the earning power of her ex-husband. Often, spousal support is temporary, aimed at providing a women with the time and means to get education or training. But in cases like Cindy's, it may be a permanent subsidy.

I was not able to reach Tom Hart for his take on all this, but here's what Cindy says he'd say: "Why should I have to pay her? I didn't give her this illness. It's not my fault she can't work."

Cindy bristles when I raise this question: What if you were still married and he opted to quit his job? You couldn't force him to work then, couldn't make him provide. Should two people remain yoked for life when a marriage fails? How do you balance one person's needs against the other's rights?

She has no patience for those questions, she says. Her own mother died at 38, "on the floor of her apartment, virtually penniless" because she'd been abandoned by a husband who refused to make court-ordered alimony payments after he left. "I was 17 when I buried my mother, and I vowed that would never happen to me. I learned that as a woman, you'd better stand up for your rights, because no one else is going to do it for you."

And I wish she'd learned something else as well--something my mother taught me and I'm trying to teach my daughters: Never rely on a man to support you.

We never know what the future will bring, and each of us--male and female--needs to be prepared to stand alone.

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Sandy Banks' column runs on Tuesdays and Sundays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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