In 2011, the Massachusetts Legislature passed the Alimony Reform Act (ARA), which made substantial changes to the Masschusetts alimony system, including the implementation of a durational alimony scheme, thereby revising the older system once known as “alimony for life.” Under the old system, the alimony payment period was indefinite in duration, but the new law follows guidelines determined by length of marriage, from 5 years to 20+ years. This raised certain questions and challenges, especially that of alimony judgement pre-ARA (prior to March 1, 2012) as compared with post-ARA judgements. Earlier this year, three notable cases were contested under the new guidelines, questioning whether alimony payors whose divorce judgments were entered prior ARA’s effective date gain the benefit of substantive termination and modification under the new law. These three cases, Doktor v. Doktor, Chin v. Merriot, and Rodman v. Rodman, were all decided on the same day, all with the same answer: “No.”

All three cases were variations of the same concept: the alimony payor requested to end general term alimony payments based on the Massachusetts General Law chapter 208, § 49(f) interpreted as stating that alimony payments shall terminate at the payor’s attainment of full social security retirement age. There were some notable differences between the cases: in Chin v. Merriot, the husband has already reached retirement age at the time of divorce, whereas in both Rodman and Doktor, the paying spouse had attained retirement age after the divorce settlement.

Mr. Chin’s argument hinged on two points: that M.G.L. c. 208, § 49(f) superceded the “uncodified” section 4 of ARA (the provision that, other than durational limits for a marriage of 20 or fewer years, ARA is not in itself a material change of circumstances), and that the cohabitation modification (as his ex-spouse was cohabiting with another man) should retroactively apply. Mr. Rodman’s argument held that a merged alimony agreement such as his merits being treated differently from cases with surviving agreements, and Mr. Doktor argued that his former wife no longer required financial support through alimony. None of these arguments held.

The Supreme Judicial Court instead held that the ARA statute reflects a clear legislative determination that the uncodified sections 4–6 of the ARA override the more payor-friendly substantive sections of M.G.L. c. 208, § 49–55, the only exception being the general term durational limits as defined. The net result? While bad news for pre-ARA payors, the ARA protects payee spouses from abruptly losing their alimony payments when automatic social security retirement age was not obtainable in court. In other words, the SJC’s interpretation of the state legislature’s intent favors the interests of payees over those of payors.

For details of these three cases, please read Doktor v. Doktor, Chin v. Merriot, and Rodman v. Rodman.

For more details of the effects of the Alimony Reform Act, also covering Grounds for Termination of Alimony, Determining the Amount of Alimony to be Paid, and Alimony Modifications, please read Effects of the 2011 Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act, and also Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act of 2011 Law Summary.

One Response to “ARA (Alimony Reform Act): Three Test Cases”

  • Suwannee says:

    I know you have heard this a thousand times over but the person that gets screwed with this act is the retired military member, after I retired my wife and I divorced I came home from work one night and my ex-wife had packed up everything and moved I was left with nothing, she is since retired from the exchange service drawing a pension from there and drawing social security and receiving 45% of my retired pay, she is clearly receiving more money than I am, she lives in California living in a 3 bedroom 2 car garage paying over $1000.00 month rent traveling living good, me on the other hand after the divorce I had to file for bankruptcy and I am on social security now myself my credit is shot and it is really hard, every time I think about her and how the system and the military screwed me after all my years of service I get really angry, I don’t want to hate but I really hate that woman, I am remarried now my current wife is about to also go on social security we help each other, we live from day to day penny pinching, my memories of the military I have none, well I know you can’t do anything I am just screwed

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Attorney Barry R. Lewis — Divorce Law Specialist
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