What Has Changed in Massachusetts Alimony Law

When a couple decides that they are heading for divorce, they often seek out mediation or Collaborative Practice to help them navigate uncertain waters.

As many begin to work through the process , they unknowingly harbor misconceptions about alimony that they may have picked up from their friends, relatives, or television.

Unfortunately, recent extensive changes in alimony law in Massachusetts mean that what may have been true in a friend’s situation a year ago has now been replaced with a radically different law that could be enforced or interpreted by a judge in a vastly different way.

On Sept. 26, 2011, Gov. Patrick signed into law the Alimony Reform Act of 2011, which went into effect nearly a year ago on March 1, 2012.

In a nutshell, the most significant changes include the following (with more details to come in future posts):

  1. There are now multiple types of alimony. Before, there was only one type: General Term. Now, in addition to General Term, there is also Rehabilitative, Reimbursement, and Transitional. It’s up to the judge to decide under which category a particular case falls if the parties cannot agree.
  2. The new law defines the maximum amount of alimony. In the past, this amount could vary case by case, but was generally determined by the need of the payee and the ability of the payor to pay.  People varied in their interpretations of “need” and “ability.” Now, the need/ability to pay test is still there, but there is also a new formula that, in addition to requiring that the amount not exceed the payee’s need, recommends an amount between 30-35% of the difference between the combined gross incomes of both parties. (Exceptions can be made in the instance of Reimbursement Alimony or under certain other circumstances.)
  3. The reform act limits the duration of General Term Alimony. Prior to 2012, alimony duration was typically indefinite. But today’s law stipulates that General Term Alimony can end upon the occurrence of any number of factors, such as a proportionate period tied to the length of the marriage, remarriage of the payee, death of either the payee or the payor (as long as the Court doesn’t order life insurance during the alimony period), cohabitation of the payee with another person for three straight months, or the payor reaching retirement age (and actually retiring).
  4. Alimony type, amount, and duration can be determined by the Court based on varying factors. Influential factors include (but are not limited to) the length of the marriage; age and health of the parties; income, employment, and employability of both parties (including additional training if needed); economic contribution to the marriage; marital lifestyle; and lost economic opportunity as a result of the marriage.
  5. Income issues have shifted in relevance. There were some gray areas in the old law, so clarification was needed. Now, gross income already used to calculate child support is not considered when calculating alimony. Neither is overtime income or income from a second job if the first job is full-time, and the additional income started after the initial Court order. Capital gains, dividend, or interest income from assets allocated to one or the other party in the divorce settlement don’t count either. If a payor remarries, his or her spouse’s income and assets do not justify a modification attempt. Also, the Court may credit income to someone who is unemployed or underemployed.

To prevent the courts being rushed with ex-spouses looking for adjustments to their alimony situation now that the new law is in effect, a phase-in period is being enforced. Only after the allotted time has gone by can a spouse have his/her case reviewed so as to potentially fall under the new provisions. Of course, other changes in circumstances, such as finances or marital status, would allow for the review sooner.