Earlier this week, Governor Deval Patrick signed into law a Massachusetts alimony reform bill that provides more guidance for judges while reining in their discretion in alimony cases. The new law creates different types of alimony to address certain financial circumstances, and more importantly includes time limits and generally mandates termination of alimony at retirement. Although it won’t go into effect until March 1, 2012, it will immediately begin guiding practitioners and judges in alimony cases.
There are a number of divorcees in Massachusetts that are unable to retire because of their alimony obligations. One example, in the news earlier this year, is Steven Hitner. His ex-wife is already retired, but that’s not an option for him. He has a $37,000/year alimony obligation, and despite his business failing leading to bankruptcy, the court refused to reduce his alimony, so he has to keep on working and sending his ex-wife payments, while she enjoys retirement (Click here for article on Hitner).
In addition to cases with retirement issues, there are also cases in which divorcees leaving short-term marriages were stuck with long-term alimony obligations. And other cases in which divorcees receiving alimony are living with another person (new partner) that’s also supporting them, so they’re getting court-ordered financial assistance from the ex-spouse despite not really needing it. The Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act addresses these issues among others.
Different Types of Massachusetts Alimony
Rehabilitative Alimony: used when the receiving spouse is expected to become economically self-sufficient by a predicted time (reemployment, finish job training ect.). This can be used regardless of the duration of the marriage, but has a 5 year limit.
Reimbursement Alimony: to compensate the recipient spouse for contribution to the financial resources of the payor, such as enabling completion of education or job training. It’s only available in marriages 5 years and shorter.
Transitional Alimony: to transition the receiving spouse to an adjusted lifestyle or location after divorce. It’s only available in marriages 5 years and shorter, and for a maximum of 3 years.
General Term Alimony: To generally provide for an economically dependent spouse. Time limits are included to prevent alimony awards that are disproportionate to the length of the marriage.
- If marriage is 5 years or less, limit is half the number of months of marriage
- If marriage is more than 5 years up to 10 years, limit is 60 percent the number of months of marriage
- If marriage is more than 10 years up to 15 years, limit is 70 percent the number of months of marriage
- If marriage is more than 15 years up to 20 years, limit is 80 percent the number of months of marriage
- If marriage is longer than 20 years, there’s no time limit (except for retirement provision)
**Generally, alimony should not exceed the receiving spouse’s need or 30-35% of the difference between the spouses’ gross incomes.
**Judges can deviate from amount and time limits only if necessary, and must make written findings discussing their decision.
Massachusetts Alimony Retirement Provision
Alimony orders will generally terminate upon the payor reaching full retirement age. Judges may, however, under certain circumstances, set a different retirement age in the judgment.
Massachusetts Alimony Cohabitation Rule
Judges can now suspend, reduce or terminate alimony if the receiving spouse is cohabiting with another individual. Cohabiting is defined as maintaining a common household with another person for a continuous period of at least 3 months (the law doesn’t limit this exclusion to sexual relationships). However, reinstatement of alimony is possible when cohabitation ends.
Modification of Existing Alimony Orders
In order to prevent a sudden avalanche of cases coming into the court system, the new law provides an eligibility schedule for cases in which orders currently exceed the time limits established by the new law. The schedule is based on length of marriage: those with the shortest marriages can file with the court earlier to modify their orders, and those that had longer marriages have to wait, so that the receiving spouse has more time to prepare for the adjustment.
The new alimony law is long overdue and provides much needed consistency while still allowing judges to exercise discretion when necessary.