Massachusetts’ Alimony Reform Law Has Huge Effect on Divorcing Spouses

A marriage is a spiritual relationship. A marriage is a unique social commitment. But, marriage also is a financial partnership. Often the earnings of one partner far outpace those of the other. While a spouse who does not earn a large weekly paycheck relies on his or her partner's earnings, he or she contributes to the marriage in other ways that the Court recognizes. For this reason, the Court may make an alimony, or spousal support order. The higher-earning partner typically pays alimony to the lower-earning partner upon divorce. Alimony helps ease the couple's inevitably difficult transition from one household to two.

For many years, those who pay alimony in Massachusetts argued that alimony awards were getting out of hand. They cited the size of the payments, and the length of time they were required to make payments as unjust. In certain divorces, the length of time the payor spouse had to provide alimony far outpaced the entire duration of the marriage. What is more, spousal support awards were becoming unpredictable and volatile. Two couples with similar financial circumstances might wind up with vastly different spousal support plans.

Enter the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act of 2011. Passed unanimously by the House and Senate and signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick last year, H 3617 took effect in March 2012. It offers a sweeping overhaul of Massachusetts' system of awarding spousal support, with specific guidelines based on the length of the marriage and the individual circumstances of the couple's relationship.

Duration of Spousal Support

So what does the Alimony Reform Act do? Most prominently, the law establishes a schedule of standard maximum lengths for spousal support:

  • For marriages that lasted five years or less, alimony is to continue after divorce for no longer than half the length of the marriage
  • In marriages that lasted six to 10 years, the time period for spousal support is capped at 60 percent of the length of the marriage
  • Seventy percent is the standard maximum for 10-15 year marriages
  • Eight percent for marriages between 15 and 20 years
  • For marriages longer than 20 years, courts may order alimony for an indefinite period of time (while the period of alimony may be indefinite after long-term marriages, H 3617 did end "lifetime" or "permanent" alimony)

Amount of Spousal Support

The amount of alimony is determined by many factors, such as the relative earning potential of each former spouse, the standard of living established during the marriage, and the contributions, both financial and otherwise, each spouse brought to the marriage.

The Alimony Reform Act creates special categories of spousal support that help address specific circumstances that are present in many divorces lasting no longer than five years:

  • "Reimbursement alimony" helps compensate an ex-spouse who helped support the payor through school or job training.
  • "Rehabilitative alimony" payments are made to spouses who are expected to reach economic independence within predictable time. Such payments may last for a short period, for example until a spouse becomes reemployed at a specific job or upon completing an education, or job training. Rehabilitative alimony could be thought of as a tool to help recipients back to their feet in the wake of the financial turbulence of a divorce.
  • "Transitional alimony" provides a payment or payments to help transition the recipient spouse to an adjusted lifestyle or location.
  • In other circumstances, "General Term" alimony would apply.

Termination of Spousal Support

Another addition to the law from H 3617 is its provision allowing for the suspension, reduction or elimination of alimony for recipient spouses when the payor can show that the recipient has maintained a common household with a new partner for a continuous period of at least three months. It has long been the common legal practice to end alimony upon the remarriage of the recipient. This provision makes an adjustment for the modern reality that more couples are choosing cohabitation as an alternative to marriage.

Some commentators argue that the Alimony Reform Act limits the discretion of judges in making alimony decisions that pertain to unique individual circumstances. It is true that the law is meant to provide clarification and predictability about the awarding of alimony payments. However, its durational requirements can be adjusted due to factors the court deems relevant and material - providing a safety net for the most extreme situations.

Spousal support payments under existing alimony awards do not simply end automatically with the new law. Rather, payors must file a complaint for modification under the timeline specified in the law. The earliest date any such modification requests may be made based on the new law is March 1, 2013. Only those married less than five years, or any payor who will reach federal retirement age before March 1, 2015 may begin filing in 2013. Those with longer marriages will have to wait (modification may be filed for 5-10 year marriages starting March 1, 2014, for 10-15 year marriages March 1, 2015, and for 15-20 year marriage September 1, 2015).

Consult Legal Counsel

Changes to Massachusetts law will have far-reaching effects on divorcing couples in the state. If you anticipate a modification of the alimony order in your case, it is important to contact a Massachusetts divorce lawyer well in advance of these dates. There will likely be a flood of alimony modification applications as each date arrives. Your position could be jeopardized if you wait too long to prepare your case.