Massachusetts in early stages of new alimony law implementation

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On March 1, 2012, new laws took effect in Massachusetts that established an extensively reformed alimony system spurred by grass-roots advocacy and after a review of the previous law by a task force appointed by the legislative Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

“Alimony” – sometimes called “spousal support” or “spousal maintenance” – is defined in the new law as “the payment of support from a spouse, who has the ability to pay, to a spouse in need of support for a reasonable length of time, under a court order.”

Some of the pressing issues debated were:

  • The impact of lifetime awards on payor spouses; opponents claimed the old system sometimes allowed lifetime awards economically devastating for some elderly payor retirees (new law only allows indefinite awards in marriages of at least 20 years, and even then it is not automatic).
  • The use of second spouses’ money to pay their new spouses’ alimony obligations from previous marriages (new law says cannot be considered).
  • The fairness of counting income from second jobs or overtime work earned after divorce (new law says no).
  • The proper consideration of the length of marriages.
  • The impact on alimony when receiving spouses are cohabitating with new partners.

The new law establishes four alimony types that are, in summary:

  • General term: periodic payments to an “economically dependent” ex-spouse; length of award tied to marriage duration; may be extended for “good cause shown”; indefinite alimony only available in marriages longer than 20 years; terminates at death of either or remarriage of recipient; may be adjusted if recipient cohabitates with another adult; in general terminates at “normal retirement age” of payor.
  • Rehabilitative: periodic payments to an ex-spouse expected to become financially independent by a predictable date; terminates at death of either, remarriage of recipient or specific event, but may not continue more than five years; may be extended under “compelling circumstances” or “material change of circumstance.”
  • Reimbursement: after a marriage of five years or less, periodic or one-time alimony to pay the recipient for a specific contribution during the marriage that enhanced the “financial resources” of the other ex-spouse; no modifications; terminates at death of recipient or set date.
  • Transitional: after marriage of five years or less, periodic or one-time payment to help the payee ex-spouse transition to “an adjusted lifestyle or location”; no modifications or extensions; terminates at death of either or on specific date within three years of divorce.

In setting amount and duration, the court must consider eight specific factors plus anything else “relevant and material.”

Alimony awards may be set by the parties after negotiation in a settlement agreement, but if they cannot agree, spousal maintenance will have to be set by the judge as part of the divorce decree in accordance with the new guidelines.

Some worry that the specific durational requirements will be unfair to some recipients. While the new law allows deviations in some situations, a judge who deviates must usually set out valid reasons in writing.

The New York Times interviewed a Massachusetts attorney who worried that making the length of marriage such a major consideration might spur people in abusive marriages to stay in the marriages longer than is healthy or safe in order to lengthen a prospective alimony award.

Knowledgeable legal counsel essential

If you live in Massachusetts and are facing divorce in which alimony will be an issue, or if you are contemplating modification of a Massachusetts alimony award, speak with an experienced Massachusetts family law attorney who is up to date on the new law (and how it is being interpreted) and can provide practical, informed advice, representation and advocacy.