Navigating Uncharted Waters

Please note that the following article is for general education purposes, and should not be considered legal advice.

Many clients ask us about “that new alimony law.” They’re concerned and often frightened – and understandably so. If a lawyer tells you they know for sure how the new law works, that’s a red flag. Massachusetts family lawyers are still learning how the new law will be applied. The higher courts in Massachusetts have just begun issuing opinions interpreting some aspects of alimony reform. More will be coming. Here’s a short course on Massachusetts alimony law – what we do know, with some certainty – and what we still don’t.

To understand present alimony law, you need to know a little bit about its past. Massachusetts courts traditionally have been generous towards payee spouses in alimony awards. Alimony was – and continues to be – based first upon two factors: The need of the payee spouse, and the ability to pay of the payor spouse. In “traditional” settings –i.e., where one spouse was the homemaker and the other the breadwinner – this was usually not difficult to determine. The payor (usually the Husband) would have some ability to pay, and the payee (usually the Wife) would have some “need.” “Need” would be based upon several factors – for example, the Wife’s inability to support herself from her own income after a long break taking care of children. Standards of living during the marriage (called a person’s “station” in the statute) also were factors, as neither party was to have their living standards too compromised because of divorce. Furthermore, because Massachusetts courts were progressive in valuing the contribution of homemaker spouses to the marital enterprise, such contribution justified alimony awards.

Payor spouses – usually husbands, rebelled against large, permanent alimony awards. Changes to the law were debated in the Massachusetts legislature for years. Alimony payors cited changing times, the fact that payee spouses could regain employment, shared homemaking duties, and many other factors, as grounds for an overhaul of alimony reform. Did the Alimony Reform Act of 2012 decisively change alimony law? The answer, for now, is an indecisive, equivocal, “yes.”

Here’s some of what we know has changed, in alimony cases:

• If the payee spouse “cohabits” with someone, effectively receiving economic support from another, alimony can end. However, this only applies if an ex-spouse started cohabiting after March 1, 2012, the date when the law became effective.

• A former spouse’s responsibility to pay alimony ends when he or she reaches social security retirement age. However, this too only applies to divorces granted after March 1, 2012.

• “Durational limits” – meaning how long will alimony last – this is now applies, depending on the length of the marriage.

Now let’s look at what hasn’t changed:

• Alimony still depends upon recognition of a spouse’s need, and the other spouse’s ability to pay. The new law doesn’t nullify the old yardstick. Commentators believe that the old rule was “left in” the law as a compromise measure, or a fall-back so that courts faced with interpreting new cases could still apply existing law.

– Lisa Kent