This article was republished from the Boston Bar Journal. Click here to read the full article.
By Fern Frolin, Grindle Robinson Goodhue & Frolin
On March 1, 2012, An Act Reforming Alimony, M.G.L. c. 208, §§48 – 55, became law in the Commonwealth. The new law changes the structure and rules of judicially ordered support payments between former spouses. The statute establishes different types of alimony, provides criteria for courts to consider in deciding alimony cases, and encourages end dates for most alimony orders.
Alimony in Massachusetts was historically based on the recipient’s need and the payor’s ability to pay at the time of the order. Because most recipients’ future needs and most payors’ future ability to pay are speculative, nearly all orders had open-ended duration. Thus the notion evolved that alimony is usually a life-time arrangement, changeable only after circumstances requiring modification had already occurred. If a recipient increased income or conscientiously saved, he or she risked termination or reduction of alimony. If the payor suffered involuntary financial reversal, the recipient’s alimony could be abruptly terminated or reduced, despite ongoing need. The scheme encouraged dependency, left recipients vulnerable to unplanned events, and left payors with no ability to foresee when alimony obligations would end.
Against this backdrop, and public pressure for change, the legislature passed the new law. The alimony law retains “need and ability to pay” concepts and permits judicial discretion in most instances, but it expands the narrow restrictions of present need and ability to pay, adding reasonable forward-looking presumptions. It also allows different forms of alimony for different circumstances. Mastery of the new law will require study, practice, and development of a lucid body of interpretive appellate law. In the meantime, the following tips may aid practitioners.
UNDERSTAND EACH TYPE OF ALIMONY AND DETERMINE WHICH IS BEST FOR YOUR CLIENT.
General term alimony is granted to a spouse who is economically dependent. It will usually follow a mid to long term marriage. Except for judgments that the parties agreed were non-modifiable, orders entered before March 2012 are deemed general term orders. General term alimony terminates when either party dies; when the payor reaches “full retirement age” (as defined in the statute); on the recipient’s remarriage; on a date fixed by court order; or perhaps if the recipient maintains a common household with a third party. The order is modifiable unless the parties agree otherwise.
Presumptive duration depends on the length of the marriage. After a marriage of twenty years or longer, alimony presumptively ends when the payor reaches full retirement age. The new statute measures marriage length for alimony purposes from the date of marriage to the date of service of the complaint for divorce. Some practitioners question whether the date of service rule will cause payors to rush to serve a complaint in order to establish a marriage length cut-off. Lawyers should advise their clients of presumptive limits but also recognize that judicial discretion may override the statutory presumptions. For example, the court may consider a significant period of premarital cohabitation or a significant marital separation in determining the length of the marriage.
Rehabilitative alimony is granted to a spouse who is expected to be self-sufficient by a predicted time. It is available after any length marriage and is payable for up to five years. It is also available after child support ends. It terminates at a set date, recipient’s remarriage, or on death of either party. It is modifiable in amount. It may be extended for compelling reasons if unforeseen events prevent the recipient from becoming self-supporting and the payor can continue to pay without “undue burden.” Because rehabilitative alimony may last longer than the presumptive limit on general term alimony for marriages of five years or less, this may be the most advantageous form for a recipient after a short marriage.
Reimbursement alimony is compensation for the recipient’s contribution to the payor’s financial resources. It is only available if the marriage was five years or less. It is not modifiable, and it is not subject to presumptive durational limits. Reimbursement alimony ends only on the death of either party or a date certain, so it may be a good choice for a recipient who plans to remarry or live with a new partner.
Income guidelines do not apply to reimbursement alimony. Therefore, reimbursement alimony may be optimal for a recipient who contributed substantially to the payor’s future where the investment has not yet paid off – for example, when one spouse put the other spouse through graduate school.
Transitional alimony is granted to transition a recipient to a new location or an adjusted lifestyle after a marriage of five years or less. It terminates at a date certain or the death of either party, is not modifiable or extendable, and is available for up to three years. It may not be replaced with a different form of alimony.
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