The Alimony Reform Act: The Court Rules

As many of you know, the Massachusetts Legislature amended the long standing alimony laws pursuant to the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act of 2011, effective March 1, 2012 (“Alimony Reform Act”). Formerly known as the Massachusetts Alimony and Property Statute, M.G.L.Ch. 208§34 now addresses only the division of the marital estate. Separate statutes, pursuant to the Alimony Reform Act, M.G.L.Ch. 208§§48-55, address alimony.

Although many questions remain, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has made it clear that the Alimony Reform Act cannot be applied retroactively to cases determined prior to its enactment. What does that mean?

For example, the Alimony Reform Act states that general term alimony orders shall terminate upon the payor attaining the full retirement age, currently 66. M.G.L.Ch. 208§49(f). General term alimony, a term created by the Alimony Reform Act applies to marriages of 20 years or longer in duration. Many divorced parties were under the impression that upon reaching full retirement age, their alimony obligation would terminate. The SJC’s recent decision in the Doctor v. Doctor (January 30, 2015) clarified that reaching full retirement age did not terminate an alimony obligation in those cases decided prior to March 1, 2012.

Specifically in Doctor, the husband sought to terminate his alimony obligation, which under the terms of his separation agreement would end upon the death or remarriage of his former wife. The husband argued because he was retired and past the age of full retirement, his alimony obligation terminated in accordance with the Alimony Reform Act. The SJC disagreed, stating the husband would have to establish a material change in circumstance since the date of the last alimony order in order to prevail. The husband’s retirement or reaching full retirement age was not considered a material change in circumstance because it was not a consideration to terminate alimony at the time the parties entered into their separation agreement and it was expected that at some point the husband would retire.

The takeaway from the SJC’s opinion is that any separation agreement entered into prior to the effective date of the Alimony Reform Act is not subject to the alimony reform, unless there is a conflict in the durational limits of the payment of alimony.

In cases determined prior to the effective date of the Alimony Reform Act, the only factor that will trigger a modification, absent a material change in circumstance, when there is a conflict in the durational limits of the payment of alimony. Included in the Alimony Reform Act were several uncodified sections. St. 2011, c.124§§4-6. These uncodified sections express the Legislature’s intent that the Alimony Reform Act excludes durational limits based upon the length of the marriage, only.

Another example is cohabitation. The Alimony Reform Act specifically refers to the act of cohabitation as a trigger to terminate alimony. However, this is applicable only to cases post the Alimony Reform Act. Situations where former spouses are cohabitating with another, may be a trigger to terminate alimony only if the Plaintiff can show that the cohabitation has resulted in the recipient spouse’s needs to be less than at the time of the alimony order, or there is specific language in the parties’ separation agreement that refers to cohabitation as a factor for alimony to end. In many separation agreements, there are conditions or events that will cause alimony to end, such as the remarriage of the recipient.

Another takeaway is if there is a disparity in the amount of alimony paid from the alimony guidelines as enunciated in M.G.L.Ch. 208§53(b), that too will not trigger a modification. Should one want to bring a modification of any alimony related issues, unrelated to the duration of the alimony paid, and the alimony order predates the Alimony Reform Act, it must be done the old fashion way: a material change in circumstance since the entry of the last judgment.

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