New Massachusetts Alimony Law
Attempting to infuse a bit of reason into the spousal support aspect of divorce law, the House and Senate unanimously passed the new Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act.
The bill was signed by Governor Deval Patrick and became effective on March 1, 2012. It defines alimony as: support paid from a spouse who has the ability to pay to a spouse in need of support for a "reasonable length of time."
This stands to be one of the most dramatic changes in decades in Massachusetts family law and is consistent with the national trend in divorce law. In a system that critics have long considered antiquated, it establishes categories, or types, of alimony and sharply restricts lifetime payments by setting durational limits.
With the newly enacted law, a divorced couple can expect the following:
For certain categories:
• If the recipient-spouse is expected to return to work in order to become economically independent "rehabilitative alimony" for a "predicted" time should be ordered — and, normally, for no more than five years.
• If the recipient-spouse helped put the payor through school or any kind of job training, there can be periodic or a one-time payment of "reimbursement alimony."
• If the recipient spouse needs support to transition to an adjusted lifestyle or location as a result of divorce, there can be periodic or a one-time payment of "transitional alimony."
For "general term alimony" (distinct from the above categories):
• If the length of the marriage is five years or less, support would be paid for no more than half of the number of months of the marriage.
• If the length of the marriage is between five and 10 years, support would be paid for 60 percent of the number of months of the marriage.
• If the length of the marriage is between 10 and 15 years, support would be paid for 70 percent of the number of months of the marriage.
• If the length of the marriage is between 15 and 20 years, support would be paid for 80 percent of the number of months of the marriage.
• If the length of the marriage is greater than 20 years, support can be ordered to be paid until the full (Social Security) retirement age of the payor.
• For any length of marriage, general term support will normally terminate upon the full (Social Security) retirement age of the payor.
Modifying Current Orders
Divorce law typically allows for modification of judgments pertaining to spousal support if the judgments do not restrict the ability to modify it. If there is no such restriction in a current judgment, payors of support can use the new law as a basis for modifying the duration of the judgment (but not the dollar amount). However, the payor may file Complaints for Modification no sooner than the following dates:
• March 1, 2013, for marriages of five years or less,
• March 1, 2014, for marriages of lengths between five and 10 years,
• March 1, 2015, for marriages of lengths between 10 and 15 years,
• September 1, 2015, for marriages of lengths between 15 and 20 years, and
• Anyone who has already reached full (Social Security) retirement age or will reach it on or before March 1, 2015, may file a petition on or after March 1, 2013.
• Additionally, if the recipient is cohabiting on March 1, 2012, the payor can seek a modification on or after that date based upon that circumstance of cohabitation as the new law defines it.
The Amount of Alimony
It has been said that nervous lawyers are worried that the new law, with its clarity and certainty, will reduce litigation opportunities. While there are improvements in the law, I believe that, unfortunately, it offers enough vagueness and judicial discretion that trial courts, as well as appellate courts, will be kept busy — especially in setting the amount of the support.
The new law states that "the amount of alimony should generally not exceed the recipient's need or 30 to 35 percent of the difference between the parties' gross incomes established at the time of the order being issued." While the framers of the law have intended to make life more definite for divorcing parties, I think that, to put it mildly, this part does little to alleviate potential alimony litigation.
The determination of "need," for example, will still have to be litigated if the parties cannot agree. Additionally, many of the same factors found in the current disfavored law (Section 34 of General Laws Chapter 208),or similar factors, are in the new law and must still be examined when a court is asked to determine the amount (and, even, the form and duration) of alimony. For example, the statute mandates that "a court shall consider: the length of the marriage; age of the parties; health of the parties; income, employment and employability of both parties, including employability through reasonable diligence and additional training, if necessary; economic and non-economic contribution of both parties to the marriage; marital lifestyle; ability of each party to maintain the marital lifestyle; lost economic opportunity as a result of the marriage; and such other factors as the court considers relevant and material." Further, each judge may, as before, give whatever weight to each such factor that she or he deems to be appropriate. Compelling a court to "consider" without defining the weight to be applied to each factor raises many issues for the court to resolve — and it is unlikely that a statute can ever definitively assign weight and thereby narrow the issues.
It is yet to be seen how the new law will be used by the individual judges making a decision that will affect two people for the rest of their lives. The guidance the statute provides is helpful, but we will see just how sufficient it is as litigation occurs and case law develops in the appellate courts.
For Further Information:
Although touching on what may be most important in the new law, the above brief summary does not address all of its facets. If you have questions about these or the several other important parts of the new law, please feel free to contact us.