In January 2011, following other states other states where alimony payment laws have changed as payors argue they are struggling in the current economy, Senator Gale Candaras, Esq. and Representative John Fernandes announced new legislation to reform the current Massachusetts alimony system. The Alimony Reform Act of 2011 as defined in the new law makes major changes to Massachusetts’ previous alimony legislation. So what are these changes and what implications do they have for alimony in Massachusetts? You can read a summary of Chapter 124 of the Acts of 2011, An Act Reforming Alimony in The Commonwealth here.

Among the most significant changes in the law is the implementation of a durational alimony scheme. Previously, when the court ordered a spouse to pay alimony pursuant to a divorce judgment, the payment period was indefinite and often referred to as “Alimony for Life.” However, under the Alimony Reform Act, the court now follows an Alimony Term Limits schema which determines the maximum length that alimony can be assigned depending upon circumstances.

  • Long term marriages (more than 20 years): Alimony will end at retirement age as defined by the Social Security Act.
  • 5 years or less: Maximum Alimony term is 50% of the number of months of marriage.
  • 10 years or less but greater than 5 years: Maximum Alimony term is 60% of the number of months of marriage.
  • 15 years or less but greater than 10 years: Maximum Alimony term is 70% of the number of months of marriage.
  • 20 years or less but greater than 15 years: Maximum Alimony term is 80% of the number of months of marriage.
  • Other term limits apply for “Rehabilitative Alimony, “Reimbursement Alimony”, and “Transitional Alimony”.

The Act also defines multiple types of alimony, which the court can utilize when creating a divorce order. Alongside the General Term Alimony following the schedule above, the law establishes three other term limits which apply to Rehabilitative Alimony, Reimbursement Alimony, and Transitional Alimony. These types of alimony can be ordered in place of the General Term Alimony for a duration of less than five years. Under the reform, a judge has discretion to order one of the shorter types of alimony, even when the General Term Alimony would dictate a longer period of alimony.

Grounds for Termination of Alimony

Under the Act, General Term Alimony can terminate when the recipient remarries or cohabitates with a new partner. Under the previous terms of the law, cohabitation was inadequate reason to terminate alimony, and there were some cases where alimony did not terminate upon remarriage of the recipient. The new law can thereby affect alimony recipients who cohabitate with a boyfriend or girlfriend in order to avoid marriage and thereby continue to receive alimony payments from their ex-spouses.

The Alimony Reform Act also states that General Term Alimony shall terminate upon the payor reaching the full retirement age or when that person becomes eligible for the old-age retirement benefit under the United States Old-Age, Disability, and Survivors Insurance Act. As you can imagine, this has significant implications for people who divorce when approaching retirement age, as previously retirement was not in itself sufficient to warrant termination of an alimony obligation. As judges are taking the position that there is a rebuttable presumption that alimony shall be terminated under such circumstances, you should consult with an experienced divorce attorney.

Determining the Amount of Alimony to Be Paid

Under the Alimony Reform Act, the court excludes a number of income sources from its determination of an alimony award, such as the gross income used to determine a spouse’s child support obligation.

Additionally, the Act further excludes any income the payor spouse receives from a second job or overtime from a determination of alimony. A somewhat fuzzy area regards a spouse who is not paid an hourly wage, but instead receives a weekly salary regardless of how many hours per week he or she works.

Another consideration under the Alimony Reform Act address circumstances where a payor spouse remarries. Under the new law, the new spouse’s income is no longer considered for the purpose of increasing the payor spouse’s alimony obligation. Obviously, this has strong implications for cases in which a payor spouse remarries someone with financial strength while the recipient ex-spouse has encountered financial difficulties.

Modifications of Alimony Orders Prior to the Alimony Reform Act

The overview: the Alimony Reform Act is a sufficient material change in circumstance to alter the duration of a previously ordered alimony award, but it does not justify a change in the amount of alimony that was previously awarded. In cases where the parties to a divorce agreement stating that their alimony order shall not be modifiable will not be entitled to modify their alimony order based on the Alimony Reform Act. So while the act has some impact on pre-act alimony orders, these impacts are limited.

What does this really mean for anyone with a pre-act alimony order? If you were ordered to pay alimony prior to the enactment of the new law, you can only seek modification for the duration of your obligation and can not obtain a modification for the actual amount of alimony that you were originally ordered to pay.

While these modification changes may sound appealing if you are paying alimony from a prior alimony oder, you should review the circumstances and potential ramifications of seeking a modification with a qualified divorce attorney as you may find yourself involved in a counter claim for an increase by the alimony recipient. Indeed, given the range of changes to the law under the Alimony Reform Act of 2011, it remains vital that you consult with an experience divorce attorney to analyze your circumstances and determine your optimal action.