Massachusetts divorce lawyer Nicole K. Levy reviews when alimony can be modified under the Alimony Reform Act of 2011.
Can the Alimony Reform Act be applied retroactively, to modify divorce judgments that occured before the Act took effect on March 1, 2012, or can the Act only be applied to divorces finalized after this date? This question has plagued the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) since the Act went into effect, causing confusion in both the application of the Act and the intention of the drafters. Parties on both the paying and receiving end of alimony have attempted to use the Act as a means to modify alimony judgments and agreements. However, in 2015 the SJC held that the retroactive application of the Act is extremely narrow.
In Chin v. Merriot, 470 Mass. 527 (2015), the husband filed a modification to terminate his alimony payments after he reached federal retirement age. The parties had been married for twelve years and divorced in August of 2011, when they were both in their late sixties. Their separation agreement stated that Mr. Chin was obligated to pay $650 a month to support Merriot until “the death of either party or until the wife’s remarriage.”
In March of 2013, Chin filed a complaint in the Probate and Family Court seeking to terminate his alimony payments due to the fact that (1) he had reached federal retirement age and (2) his former spouse was living with another person. A plain reading of the Alimony Reform Act seemed to make this a slam dunk for Chin, where the Act specifies that, “general term alimony orders shall terminate upon the payor attaining the full retirement age” and provides for the reduction or termination of alimony when a recipient begins cohabitating with a romantic partner.
Unfortunately for Mr. Chin, the SJC held that the seemingly clear provisions of the Act permtting termination did not apply to him, because he was divorced in 2011, one year before the Act went into effect. Because Chin’s divorce occurred prior March 1, 2012, the SJC held that the “old rules” regarding alimony applied and the Act did not.
In a densely worded opinion, the SJC explained that legislative intent of the provisions of the Act affecting retirement and cohabitation were only applicable to divorces occuring after March 1, 2012. For all divorces before the date, these portions of the Act had no effect. The SJC found this “intent” in several uncodified provisions of the Act, which the SJC considered in a reaching a decision that ran contrary to how the vast majority of probate court judges had interpreted the Act in the 2.5 years since it had become effective.
In Rodman v. Rodman, 470 Mass. 539 (2015), decided by the SJC on the same day as Chin, the SJC simultaneously held that alimony termination provisions in the Act did apply to some divorces entered before the Act – so long as the divorce followed a marriage of less than 20 years. The SJC explained the seemingly arbitrary distinction by stating, “the durational limits of alimony awards under G.L. c. 208, § 49 are applicable to ‘existing alimony judgments that exceed the durational limits.’” Confused yet? You are not alone.
In short, the SJC held that the legislature had written the Act in a way that made the termination provisions applicable to “term alimony” – i.e. alimony orders arising out of marriages of less than 20 years – regardless of the date of the divorce. In contrast, the SJC held that the Act’s provisions permitting termination when a party reaches federal retirement age, or when the recipient cohabitates with a romantic partner, were written in a way that was only applicable only to divorces occuring after March 1, 2012. Accordingly, alimony from a 19-year marriage can be terminated using the Act – regardless of when the divorce occured – but alimony can’t be terminated using the Act for a 20-year marriage unless the parties were divorced after March 1, 2012. This was a confusing and frustrating result for many judges and attorneys.
On the same day as Rodman and Chin, the SJC also decided Doktor v. Doktor, 470 Mass. 547 (2015). In Doktor, the SJC explored the other cases, and ultimately explained that judges should simply apply the old, pre-Act legal standard for modifying alimony whenever the Act did not apply. Ironically, it was the lack of clarity surrounding the ver same pre-Act standard – under which alimony could only be modified under an amormpous “substantial change in circumstances” rule – that led to Act in the first place.
Sprinkled throughout the Rodman, Chin and Doktor opinions are other nuggets of law affecting the modification of alimony. For example, the SJC clearly held in these decisions that nothing in the Act would cause alimony to become modifiable if the parties had previously agreed that alimony was unmodifable.
In addition, since the SCJ’s alimony trifecta, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has entered several decisions interpreting the new alimony landscape. For example, in Norris v. Norris, No. 15-P-146 (Mass. App. Ct. Nov. 25, 2015), the Appeals Court upheld a probate court decision in which the judge terminated alimony after the husband reached retirement age – even though the parties’ were divorced before the Act became effective. (In Chin, the SJC had held that reaching federal retirement age was not grounds for termination in pre-Act divorces). However, where Doktor says that the “old rule” applies to alimony modifications that fall outside the Act, the husband in Norris was able to prove that termination was warranted using the old “substantial change in circumstances” standard.
In the wake of the SJC’s three decisions interpreting the Act, many have wondered: why hasn’t the legislature simply amended the Act so that it applies evenly and consistently to all alimony modification cases, regardless of when the parties were married or how long the parties were married? The answer is unclear. The bottom line is that the legislature has not amended the Act, and does not seem poised to do so in the future.
The dense, often confusing language found in the Rodman, Chin and Doktor decisions demonstrates how wading through the Alimony Reform Act can be extremely difficult, even when Act’s language seems clear on its face. Following these decisions, courts must not only look at the Act, but examine what happened behind the scenes as well as seemingly arbitrary factual distinctions, such as whether the parties were divorced before or after 2012, or whether the parties were married 19 versus 20 years. Needless to say, all of this complicates alimony modification cases in Massachusetts, particularly for divorces that occurred before 2012.
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About the Author: Nicole K. Levy is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and Massachusetts family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts.
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