Massachusetts divorce lawyer Josey Lyne Payne explores when alimony can be modified following a divorce under the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act (ARA).
In 2011, the Massachusetts legislature enacted the Alimony Reform Act (“the Act”), which became effective March 1, 2012. This new reform left parties and attorneys alike uncertain as to how this law would affect already existing alimony agreements and judgments (“judgments”), and specifically, whether or not past litigants would be able to make alimony modifications under the new Act.
In three recent cases: Chin v. Merriot; Doktor v. Doktor; and Rodman v. Rodman, each case involving an ex-spouse seeking retroactive application of the Act to terminate spousal support, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that terms of the Act did not apply retroactively to alimony judgments entered prior to the effective date of the Act. Each of the three cases involved separation agreements which were incorporated and merged (the judgment remains subject to the jurisdiction of the Probate & Family Court) into the judgment of divorce, which means the provisions of the agreement regarding alimony were potentially modifiable by their terms under the jurisdiction of the Probate & Family Court.
In each of the three, the obligor/payor (the person responsible for paying) sought to terminate his alimony payment obligations based on the Act’s language that alimony “shall terminate upon the payor attaining full retirement age.” G.L. c. 208, §49(d)f). In Chin v. Merriot, the ex-husband also sought termination based on the Act’s language that alimony, “shall be suspended, reduced or terminated upon cohabitation of the recipient spouse…” G.L. c.208, §49(d). The Supreme Judicial Court delivered a unequivocal conclusion in all three cases: the retirement and cohabitation provisions of the Act do not apply retroactively, that is to divorces which occurred prior to March, 1, 2012, even if the alimony provision was merged into the judgment.
In the wake of these three highly anticipated decisions, it suggests that a party to a divorce which was final prior to the effective date of the Act, March 1, 2012, who seeks to terminate alimony payments under the new retirement and cohabitation provisions can safely be advised that the chances of the termination are likely non-existent. Despite that, an obligor who can prove a material change in circumstances may still apply to the court through a Complaint for Modification for a reduction or termination of alimony payments, if the alimony provision has merged in to the judgment, subject to the Probate & Family Court’s continued jurisdiction.
The good news, is that these decisions have provided attorneys with a circumscribed framework within which they can advise clients seeking to modify or terminate their alimony payments in reliance upon the basis of retirement or co-habitation, and moreover, to contest duration of alimony for divorces entered prior to March 1, 2012 where the alimony merged.
Unchanged by the Act was the language contained in §4(c), which advises that no litigant may seek a modification of an existing alimony judgment in which the parties have agreed said judgment is not modifiable, and which “survive” the judgment. This unfortunately places litigants who negotiated prior to the Act and its new provisions in a permanently unfavorable position, compared to those litigants who negotiated merged pre-Act judgments, and those in divorces occurring after March 1, 2012.
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About the Author: Josey Lyne Payne is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and Massachusetts family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts.
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