One of the key reasons that Massachusetts reformed its alimony law in the Alimony Reform Act of 2011, was because many people thought it was unfair that the Court could award “lifetime alimony” in divorce cases.
Alimony payors found lifetime alimony to be unfair because they were required to pay alimony long after they had retired, and had less income than when they were working. Retirees often found themselves living on a fixed income but paying a large alimony obligation based on their former income. However, when retirees approached the Court to lower their alimony payments, it was always uncertain what would happen. On the other hand, the spouse who was receiving alimony often thought it was unfair to cut off alimony just because their former spouse had retired. This was especially true where the recipient spouse had relied on receiving a certain amount of money, and may have bargained for a different settlement if they knew alimony would be lowered or terminated when their former spouse retired. Thus, it was no surprise when the legislature included language in the new alimony statute to address this frequently litigated issue. The law in Massachusetts now provides that in most cases, alimony will terminate when the payor reaches retirement age (which is defined as the payor’s full Social Security eligibility age -you can find that out on the Social Security Administration website, it is based on date of birth). Note that the statute specifically applies the rule to general term alimony, but not to the other three types (see my previous blog “The New Massachusetts Alimony Reform Law of 2011– What Do You Need to Know?” regarding the other types of alimony).
The new law states that a payor’s ability to continue to work after retirement age is not itself a reason to extend alimony. However, at the time of the initial alimony judgment, the Court can order alimony beyond retirement age upon written findings for good cause shown. The Court can also extend alimony beyond retirement age for good cause shown, with a finding of a material change of circumstances and reasons supported by clear and convincing evidence. Post-retirement alimony will most likely be difficult to get, and the circumstances which might warrant an order or extension beyond retirement will have to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Some possible reasons could be the advanced age of the parties at the time of the divorce (i.e. they are close to retirement age or even beyond retirement age at the time of the divorce), the disability of the recipient spouse, or unforeseen significant changes that occur after the divorce. Some judges have been ordering alimony even after the payor reaches their full Social Security eligibility age, if the payor is still working full time and the recipient still has a need for support. Overall, an award of post-retirement alimony is more likely at the time of the Divorce than it is after the Divorce, but in either situation, the Court will have to be persuaded using the applicable standards set by the new law that alimony should be awarded beyond the age of retirement.
In the law, different fact scenarios can make what should be an easy determination a hard one.
Take the durational limits of the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act of 2011. At first glance, there seem to be very easy calculations — the duration of alimony is based on the length of the marriage. For example, under the new law, in a marriage of more than five but less than ten years, alimony should last no longer than 60% of the number of months of the marriage. Simple, right? Not so fast. The durational timeframes become less clear after a careful review of the statute. Putting reasons for deviation aside, one question that has arisen is: when does the clock on alimony begin to run? Often in the early stages of a divorce case, one spouse begins to pay alimony to the other under a Temporary Order. The time between the Temporary Order and the Final Divorce can be many months, and sometimes years, so does the clock begin to run during the Temporary Order period, or does it start at the time of the Divorce Judgment? From the payor’s perspective, it seems unfair to pay alimony for a year (for example) under a Temporary Order, and then have to pay it for the full 60% number of months once the Divorce Judgment enters. From the recipient’s perspective, temporary alimony is frequently paid to help maintain the status quo and preserve marital assets, and the recipient should not be penalized for that pre-divorce period by a shortened alimony order after the divorce.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently weighed in on this very issue. In Holmes v. Holmes, 467 Mass 653 (2014), the Court determined that the provisions of the new statute do not allow temporary alimony orders to be included in calculating the duration of alimony based on the length of the marriage. The Court noted that the statute allowing for the payment of temporary alimony (M.G.L. c.208, §17) was not modified or even addressed in the Alimony Reform Act. The Court determined that the Legislature intended the durational limits of the new Act to only apply to alimony that arises from the issuance of a Divorce Judgment –what is now known as “general term alimony.” Since temporary alimony is not general term alimony, the durational limits do not include periods where temporary alimony has been paid. However, the Court also ruled that in circumstances where temporary alimony is paid for an unusually long period of time or where the alimony recipient unfairly delays the final judgment in order to extend alimony, the trial court can consider this in determining that alimony should be paid for a shorter period of time than the presumptive maximum duration. So while we now have one questioned answered regarding the duration of alimony, there are other facts and circumstances which dictate how long alimony will last. In upcoming blogs, we will look at other durational issues, including termination upon retirement, the impact of cohabitation on alimony, and deviations that are within the Court’s discretion.
When spouses divorce, a very real concern on both sides is often: how long will alimony last?
Over the years a lot of time and money has been spent in divorce cases fighting over how long alimony should last. The Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act of 2011 has provided us with some guidelines for just how long alimony is payable, and it is based almost entirely on the length of the marriage. Basically, the longer the marriage, the longer alimony may be payable. Specifically, the time limits are as follows:
|Less than 5 years||No more than 50% of the # of months of marriage|
|Between 5 and 10 years||No more than 60% of the # of months of marriage|
|Between 10 and 15 years||No more than 70% of the # of months of marriage|
|Between 15 to 20 years||No more than 80% of the # of months of marriage|
|More than 20 years||No specific durational limit – can be indefinite|
For example, if the marriage lasted four years, or 48 months, alimony should be awarded for no more than 2 years or 24 months. However, it should be noted that these durational limits are in place in cases where there is the traditional general term alimony. If there is another type of alimony being paid other than general term alimony, there is most likely going to be a different time limit on alimony.
Different Types of Alimony
In addition to general term alimony, the alimony reform law provides for other categories of alimony as well such as rehabilitative, transitional, and reimbursement alimony. For rehabilitative alimony, the limit is five years, for transitional alimony, the limit is three years, and for reimbursement alimony, there will be a set date or event that will terminate alimony.
It is important to know which type of alimony applies in your case, and to learn about their differences. Occasionally, alimony can be extended beyond the durational limits, but this is highly dependent upon the particular circumstances of your case. Alimony is also based not just upon the length of the marriage, but upon need and ability to pay. The new alimony reform act is a complicated law with many nuances, and consultation with a lawyer can help a client better understand how the new law applies to his or her case regardless of whether the client is the payor or recipient of alimony.
Massachusetts recently introduced sweeping reforms to the law governing spousal support with the Alimony Reform Act.
While Massachusetts previously had alimony laws, before the new Act took effect different judges applied the law differently from case to case, making the process an uncertain one for the parties and their lawyers. The new law is an attempt to provide more consistency so that parties can be better informed about their options as well as potential outcomes when they go to Court.
The Massachusetts Alimony Reform act establishes four different types of alimony:
- General Term Alimony – this is the most common and basic type of alimony as it is simply the periodic payment of support to an economically dependent spouse.
- Rehabilitative Alimony – This is alimony paid to a spouse who needs support until they “rehabilitate” themselves to become economically independent. For example while the spouse completes school or a training program so they can get a job.
- Reimbursement Alimony – This type of alimony is to help “pay back” the spouse who supported the other during the marriage to allow that spouse to become successful; for example a spouse who supported the other during medical school. The now well-paid doctor can make a lump sum or periodic payment of alimony to the spouse who helped them get through school. This type of alimony can only be used however, if the marriage was five years or less.
- Transitional Alimony – This alimony is similar to rehabilitative alimony, but it is used to help the recipient spouse adjust to a different lifestyle or location which is caused by the divorce. For example, if a couple relocated from Chicago to Massachusetts for a job opportunity, but after the divorce the other spouse wants to return to Chicago, transitional alimony could allow them to relocate, establish a home, and transition them as they readjust to their new lifestyle. This type of alimony also can only be used when a marriage lasts less than five years.
Each type of alimony has its own exacting set of criteria and corresponding responsibilities.The new law is meant to clarify what form the alimony should take in a given case, but there are still uncertainties as the courts interpret the new law and apply it to different cases. For now, in applying the alimony law to a particular case, we have to rely on the wording of the new law, and our day to day experience with our cases and in the courts. If you are concerned about alimony, either because you have an existing alimony order, you may be paying alimony, or you may be seeking alimony, be sure to consult an attorney about the new Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act and how it may apply to you and your case. For more information about the new law, go to The Massachusetts General Laws on Divorce.
In future blogs I will be addressing some specific parts of the new alimony statute, including how long alimony should be paid, the relationship between alimony and child support, and what effect retirement or cohabitation can have on alimony. Stay tuned!
In an effort to keep up-to-date on the new Massachusetts alimony reform law that went into effect on March 1, 2012, the attorneys of the Levitt Law Group attend conferences.
Andrea Wells joined Karen Levitt and Emily Weber in attending numerous conferences and educational programs throughout the year. Keeping up to date on new laws benefits not just the attorneys in our office, but our clients as well.