March 2015 marks three years since Massachusetts’ Alimony Reform Act went into effect, but new case law applications continue to unfold. This fluid state of interpretation by the Court has led to attorneys and other family law professionals trying to sort out how to best advise and inform their clients as to their best courses of action.
Even as professionals and the Court endeavor to get on the same page, they remain unsure as to what that “page” looks like – making their job difficult, to say the least.
What Is New?
The latest round of rulings that came down for three new cases in early February reaffirmed that certain retroactive modifications to divorce judgments that were finalized well before the Alimony Reform Act will not be upheld by the Court.
Litigants in these cases were seeking to invoke certain aspects of the Alimony Reform Act to change their obligation after the fact. The Court ruled that they could not do so, with one exception: retroactive application of durational limits. (For example, if a couple had been married for at least 15 years, the payor spouse could now be responsible to pay alimony for up to 80% of the length of marriage.)
Retirement Age as a Termination Point
Current law says that when a payor reaches normal Social Security or retirement age (66-67 for most individuals), the rebuttal presumption is that his/her alimony obligation ends. Prior to the Alimony Reform Act, the burden rested upon the payor to prove that an alimony obligation should end because s/he was now at retirement age and circumstances had significantly changed. Today, the burden has shifted to the payee, who must prove why the payor should continue paying alimony. (For example, s/he is still working or makes more money than the payee even in retirement.)
All three of the recent cases involved an attempt by a litigant to retroactively apply this retirement age termination factor. In each case, the Court said it would not permit retroactive application in situations where the divorce judgment had come down prior to alimony reform.
Prohibition on Cohabitation Rule
In one of the cases, a litigant also requested that the Court allow him to apply the current cohabitation rule, which says that if you are receiving alimony from a former spouse and are now living with someone in a relationship that includes a form of economic dependence for a minimum of three months, your alimony can be suspended, reduced, or terminated. The individual’s former wife was now living with a new man, and her ex-husband sought to end his alimony obligation. However, since his initial alimony judgment had occurred prior to the passage of the new law, the Court refused to allow this.
Precedent Going Forward
It would appear that the stance the Court is definitively taking in these instances is that if you did not include language in the original judgment about using retirement age or long-term cohabitation as a termination point for alimony, you cannot invoke either law retroactively.
This is not to say that there may not be other current changes in circumstances that might be accepted by the Court when you are seeking to terminate, reduce, or suspend an alimony obligation. It simply means that new laws under the Alimony Reform Act cannot be applied to previous cases.
In my role as a Mediator or Collaborative Professional, it is prudent right now to be aware of how the Courts are interpreting the new law and what cases are being challenged when informing or advising my clients as to what steps they could or should take. Since the Courts are still fine-tuning their position in a constantly evolving matter, there is a lot we as professionals are still learning.
It is very important that all those contemplating divorce or seeking to modify a prior judgment consult with professionals, so they can remain informed about recent rulings and how they may affect their situation.