Alimony Reform: More Changes on the Horizon?

The Alimony Reform Act of 2011, which became effective as of March 1, 2012, brought sweeping changes to the alimony laws in Massachusetts. Prior to the Act, alimony could be awarded for life, leaving many payors feeling unfairly responsible for their ex-spouses. As part of this systemic overhaul, amount and duration limits were set for alimony recipients. The new law provided a timetable for alimony eligibility. The shorter your marriage, the fewer years you could receive alimony (“durational limits”). Additionally, the Act provided that alimony would presumptively terminate upon the recipient’s cohabitation and/or the payor’s reaching full retirement age.

After the Act took effect, questions abounded. Particularly, what did this change mean for individuals whose alimony orders entered before the new law? Although it was clear that payors with alimony orders that exceeded the durational limits could petition the court to modify their obligations, ambiguity surrounded the retirement and cohabitation provisions. Questions concerning these provisions were posed to the Supreme Judicial Court, which answered in three major decisions: Chin v. Meriot, Rodman v. Rodman, and Doktor v. Doktor. In these cases, the Court held that the retirement and cohabitation provisions of the Act applied prospectively. That meant that payors whose alimony orders entered before March 1, 2012 could not ask the court to terminate their alimony obligations based on the cohabitation and retirement provisions of the new alimony law.

Many, including the Alimony Reform Task Force that drafted the Act, disagreed with the Court’s holding. In response, legislators introduced House Bill 4034 to correct the Court’s misinterpretation of the Act. The Bill explicitly states that the cohabitation and retirement provisions apply to alimony orders entered before March 1, 2012 (“existing alimony orders”). If this Bill becomes law, all payors with existing alimony orders will have the option of seeking termination of their alimony obligations based on their spouse’s cohabitation or their reaching full retirement age. House Bill 4034 was filed on February 19, 2016. On March 21, 2016, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary amended the Bill to provide that, where parties agreed in writing that alimony could not be changed, consent of both parties is needed to modify the alimony order. As further action is taken, big changes could be in store for spouses with existing alimony orders.

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