Massachusetts Alimony Law

The information described herein is only intended to be a brief discussion, or overview in general terms, of some of the more significant Alimony changes related to Divorce. Outcomes in individual cases can vary significantly, and are dependent on the facts of each case, the strength of the evidence, the proper presentation of that evidence, and the often changing state of the law. This information is not intended to be a complete summary of the Massachusetts Alimony Laws, nor is it intended to be used as a substitute for representation by an experienced attorney.

On March 1, 2012 a new Alimony Law went into effect in Massachusetts. Not only does this law alter Alimony for people getting divorced now and in the future, but it also alters Alimony for those who are already paying or receiving Alimony.

In general terms, the new law establishes several different categories of Alimony. Each of these categories has rules as to how and when they apply and each category has durational limits for how long alimony can last. Another important feature of the new law is that Alimony now generally ends at the time of the payor's (the person paying the Alimony) having reached full Retirement age. Cohabitation (living with someone without getting married), now suspends, reduces or terminates alimony. Lastly, the effect of this new law on old Alimony cases is phased in over time.

A. General Term Alimony

Alimony is now defined as the payment of support from a spouse, who has the ability to pay, to a spouse in need of support for a reasonable length of time.

General Term Alimony ends upon the remarriage of payee (the person receiving the alimony) or upon the death of either ex-spouse, unless the Court makes a written finding that deviation beyond the durational time limits are required in the interests of justice. M.G.L.A. Ch. 208, Sec. 49.

Except in unusual cases, the amount of Alimony should not exceed the payee's "need" or 30-35% of the difference between the parties' gross incomes. If the length of the marriage is 20 years or less, General Term Alimony is subject to the following “durational limits” based upon the length of the marriage.

1) Durational Limits

  • a) If, at the time of divorce, the couple was married 5 years or less, Alimony will last a maximum of one-half of the number of months of the marriage.
  • b) If the marriage lasted more than 5 years but less than 10 years, Alimony will last a maximum of 60% of the number of months of the marriage.
  • c) If the marriage lasted more than 10 years but less than 15 years, Alimony will last a maximum of 70% of the number of months of the marriage.
  • d) If the marriage lasted more than 15 years but less than 20 years, Alimony will last a maximum of 80% of the number of months of the marriage.
  • e) If the marriage lasted more than 20 years then how long Alimony lasts is up to the judge. However, the other restrictions, including the retirement of the payor, death of either party, remarriage of the payee, or cohabitation still apply.
  • f) The length of the marriage is defined as the number of months from the legal date of marriage to the date of service of a Complaint for Divorce. An important point is that the judge can "increase" the length of the marriage if an economic partnership between the parties began during a period of cohabitation before the legal marriage.
  • g) Cohabitation – One very interesting provision contained in the new Alimony law is that General Term Alimony shall be suspended, reduced or terminated upon the cohabitation of the recipient spouse when the payor shows that the recipient spouse has maintained a common household with another person for a continuous period of at least three months.

  • Persons are deemed to maintain a common household when they share a primary residence together with or without others.

    M.G.L.A. Ch. 208 Sec. 49 sets out various criteria in order to determine whether or not the recipient spouse is in fact maintaining a common household, including but not limited to oral or written statements made to third parties; economic interdependence of the couple or economic dependence of one person on the other; engaging in conduct and collaborative rolls in furtherance of their life together; the community reputation of the persons as a couple; as well as other relevant and material factors.

    An Alimony obligation once suspended, reduced or terminated under the forgoing subsection, may be reinstated upon the termination of the recipient’s common household relationship, however, if the Alimony is in fact reinstated, it may not extend beyond the termination date of the original Court Order.

  • h) Deviation – Notwithstanding the durational limits, the Court may set a different Alimony termination date for good cause shown. However, in granting deviation, the Court shall enter written Findings of the reasons for deviation. The Court may also grant a recipient an extension of an existing Alimony Order for good cause shown, provided that in granting an extension the Court shall enter written Findings of either a material change of circumstances which occurred after the entry of the Alimony Judgment and reasons for the extension which are supported by clear and convincing evidence.

  • Some of the reasons provided for in the Statute regarding when deviation may occur, include:
  • 1. Advanced age, chronic illnesses, or unusual health circumstances of either party;
  • 2. Tax considerations applicable to the parties;
  • 3. Whether or not the payor spouse is providing health insurance for the recipient spouse, and the cost of such insurance;
  • 4. Whether or not the payor spouse has be ordered to secure life insurance for the recipient spouse, and the cost of such insurance;
  • 5. A party’s inability to provide for that party’s own support by reason of physical or mental abuse by the payor;
  • 6. A party’s inability to provide for that party’s own support by reason of that party’s deficiency of property, maintenance or employment opportunity;
  • 7. Any other fact that the Court deems relevant and material, provided written Findings of such are made the Court.

2) Retirement

  • a) At the time of the original divorce judgment, the judge can, for "good cause shown" and documented in written finding, set an Alimony termination date different from the payor's retirement. The written findings have to demonstrate good cause.
  • b) In a proceeding to modify Alimony, the judge can change the Alimony end date for "good cause shown" based upon a "material change of circumstances" proven by "clear and convincing evidence" as shown in written findings.

B. Rehabilitative Alimony

This is Alimony paid to an ex-spouse who is expected to become economically self-sufficient by a predicted time that is tied to a future event. For example, completing job training, graduating from an educational program, or receiving lump sum payment from their former spouse as part of the divorce. Rehabilitative Alimony ends upon the remarriage of the payee, the occurrence of the named event, or the death of either former spouse. This kind of Alimony is intended to last not more than 5 years.

However, Rehabilitative Alimony may last longer if: (1) unforeseen events prevent the payee from becoming self-sufficient, or (2) the judge rules that the payee tried to become self-sufficient and the payor has the ability to keep paying without suffering an undue burden.

C. Reimbursement Alimony

If the marriage lasted 5 years or less, the judge can chose to give money, either in a lump sum or periodic payments, to compensate one spouse for his or her economic or non-economic contribution to the financial resources of the other spouse. The classic example is the doctor whose loyal wife raised the kids and worked three jobs to him get through school. This type of Alimony may not be modified. Also, the income guidelines for Alimony do not apply to reimbursement alimony.

D. Transitional Alimony

If the marriage lasted 5 years or less, the judge has the option of giving the payee a lump sum or period payments, for not more than 3 years, for the purpose of transitioning the payee to an adjusted lifestyle or location as a result of the divorce. This form of Alimony is best described as get yourself set up money.

Transitional Alimony cannot be modified, extended or replaced by another form of alimony. Transitional alimony, if in the form of periodic payments, ends upon the death of the payee or the date (not more than 3 years after divorce) set by the judge in the divorce judgment.

E. Child Support and Alimony

The definition of “Income” for Alimony purposes is essentially the same as the definition of income for Child Support. The New Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines as of September 15, 2017, list 18 sources of income. However, there are important exceptions for Alimony purposes.

  • 1) Capital gains income, Dividend Income, and interest income from assets that have already been divided between the parties as part of the divorce is excluded from consideration in setting alimony.
  • 2) Income that has already been used by the Judge to calculate Child Support may not then be used again in setting alimony.

If Alimony is ordered to start after the end of a Child Support order, that Alimony is limited to the time periods applicable to rehabilitative alimony. If both Child Support and Alimony is ordered, the combined order shall not exceed the longer of the Alimony duration applicable at the time of divorce or rehabilitative Alimony commencing at the time child support ends.

If the payor remarries, the income and assets of the new spouse shall not be considered in any attempt to modify existing alimony.

Income from a second job or overtime shall not be considered in any attempt to modify existing Alimony if (1) the party works more than the hours of a single full time job and (2) the second job or overtime commenced after the original divorce judgment.

F. Modification

The fact that there is a new Alimony law is not grounds for returning to Court to attempt to change or terminate alimony. However, there are exceptions. If the Alimony order in question already exceeds the time limits for general term Alimony in the new law, then a party can go back to Court seeking to terminate or modify Alimony on the following schedule:

If you were married 5 years or less, you can file a Complaint for Modification on or after March 1, 2013;
If you were married more than 5 years but less than 10, you can file a Complaint for Modification on or after March 1, 2014;
If you were married more than 10 years but less than 15, you can file a Complaint for Modification on or after March 1, 2015;
If you were married more than 15 years but less than 20, you can file a Complaint for Modification on or after March 1, 2016;
If you were married 20 or more years, you are going to have to come up with another reason that Alimony should be changed.

G. Social Security

Any payor who is eligible for full social security old age retirement, or who will become eligible within 3 years of the effective date of the new law (March 1, 2012) can file a Complaint for Modification on or after March 1, 2013. However, this does not include “early retirement age”.

H. Effect Of Surviving Agreement

If, at the time of the divorce, the parties agreed that their Divorce Judgment was not modifiable, or that the terms regarding Alimony would survive the Judgment as an independent contract, the Alimony provisions may not be modified (except in the most extreme cases).

I. Recent Court Decisions Regarding Alimony

Since the new Alimony law went into effect, there has been a considerable amount of litigation regarding the interpretation of various terms and provisions contained in the new law. Accordingly, the following is not intended to be a complete summary of recent Court decisions, but merely is intended to highlight some of the more significant decisions.

In a 2015 case, the Supreme Judicial Court held that where the parties had divorced in 2011, the former husband could not terminate his Alimony obligation based upon cohabitation of the former spouse, nor by virtue of his having attained full retirement age. The Court held that both provisions were “prospective only” and the ex-husband had not shown a material change of circumstances warranting a modification. Chin v. Merriot, 470 Mass. 527, (2015)

In another recent case, an ex-husband who reached full retirement age following a 1992 divorce in which the Alimony provisions merged, sought to eliminate Alimony based upon his having reached full retirement age as well as an interpretation of “durational limits”. The Court once again held that reaching full retirement age as used in the Alimony Reform Act was meant to be prospective only, and does not apply retroactively to cases concluded before the law went into effect. Doktor v. Doktor, 470 Mass. 547 (2015).

In another 2015 case, Lanchadani v. Roddy, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held that under a Pre-Alimony Reform Act Agreement, a “survival clause” prohibited subsequent modification unless mutually agreed upon by both of the parties. Although the parties did in fact agree upon a subsequent modification, the Modification Agreement also survived and prohibited any further any reduction in Alimony payments unless the husband became “totally disabled such that he is completely prevented from working”. As the husband did not meet the “totally disabled” standard as set forth in the parties Agreement, his request for termination of Alimony was denied, because the request was based solely upon his having reached full retirement age. Accordingly, and significantly the Court held that the Alimony Reform Act did not change the existing legal principle that surviving Alimony obligations are not subject to later modifications.