The matter of alimony is almost invariably a highly emotional and contentious issue for all parties involved, however the current state of Massachusetts alimony laws is rather antiquated and leaves much to be desired. A new bill currently making its way through the Massachusetts legislature with a large amount of momentum would radically reform these statutes.
The most common criticism of Massachusetts alimony law as it currently stands is that judges have generally only two options in awarding alimony payments; either demanding life-time “forever” alimony which lasts until either of the parties dies or awarding no alimony at all. The main problem seems to be the lack of description/room to maneuver for judges deciding alimony cases. As it stands today, a Probate and Family Court judge has no power to terminate or substantially modify alimony payments, regardless of the possible changing situations of the two involved parties.
What exactly does this mean? Currently, for marriages which have lasted less than five years, a judge is unlikely to award any alimony at all, since, as it currently stands, that alimony is likely to last forever, thus leaving the more financially dependent spouse without any monetary support at all. On the other hands, there are a number of cases in which one spouse is obligated to keep paying alimony even when the paying spouse reaches retirement, forcing them to pay the same amount though they no longer have a sustainable source of income.
Should the 2011 Alimony Reform Act come into law, a number of changes would radically alter the way alimony cases are ruled upon. One significant change is that alimony payments would be able to be terminated if certain conditions were met, such as if the recipient began “cohabitation” in a marriage-like relationship from which they received financial benefit/support; this is aimed at removing a loophole in which the recipient spouse is currently able to reap all of the effectual benefits of a marriage, but still continue to receive alimony payments. Perhaps most importantly, the proposed Alimony Reform Act would modify the existing law to allow alimony to terminate after a certain amount of time or specific stipulations were met, greatly increasing the flexibility for judges to tailor alimony settlements to the specific circumstances of the marriage.
The bill currently under consideration proposes to create four new categories which a judge may draw upon in determining a settlement. Each category provides a definition and set of specific guidelines for the application of each of these categories, as well as providing a baseline for durational limits on alimony payments which is aimed to give both the payer and the recipient some degree of predictability as to the expected temporal length that the alimony will be paid or received. These categories are: 1) general term alimony, 2) rehabilitative alimony, 3) reimbursement alimony, and 4) transitional alimony. A brief description of each of these categories follows:
“General Term Alimony” is the periodic payment of support to a recipient spouse who is deemed economically dependent for a duration and amount which is set by a judge. This major determining factor as on the duration of the alimony is the length of the marriage (or one’s economic dependence should this have been entered into prior to the marriage) with different thresholds at 5 years, 10 years 15, years, and 20 years, though other factors may also be taken into consideration. General Term Alimony shall terminate upon the remarriage of the recipient or the death of either spouse.
“Rehabilitative Alimony” is the one-time or periodic payment to a spouse who is expected to become financially independent at an expected future time; this is aimed at providing them the means of transitioning back into a level of employment which provides economic self sufficiency.
“Transitional Alimony” is a short-term alimony payment which may be applied for marriages of under five years of duration which is aimed at allowing the more dependent spouse to adjust to changes in lifestyle or perhaps to allow the recipient to relocate to another location; common duration is of no more than three years.
“Reimbursement alimony” is the periodic or one-time payment of alimony in marriage of five years or less as compensation for economic or noneconomic contributions within the marriage to the financial recourses of the payer spouse, i.e. investment in spouses’ business, payment for education/job training, etc.
The 2011 Alimony Reform Act also lays down a number of important considerations which a judge may take into account when ruling on alimony, many of which are not available in the law as it currently stands. Such factors include: length of marriage, age of parties, education and probable future employability through “reasonable diligence”, and other such factors which are deemed relevant. The main goal of this legislation, as claimed by its proponents, is to greatly increase the ability of judges to use their discretion in awarding alimony by providing them with a number of tools and relevant considerations which heretofore were denied to them, as well as increasing the equity of alimony for both spouses.
The bill (S.665) was filed by Sen. Gale Candaras of Wilbraham, Mass, and is endorsed by both the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Boston Bar Association. The bill was architected under the auspices of the Legislative Task Force on Alimony Reform created by the Joint Committee on the Judiciary under the leadership of Sen. Cynthia Creem and Rep. Eugene L. O’Flaherty; Denise Squillante, the president of the MBA, also served on this committee.
The Bill has been reported favorably by the Judiciary committee and was referred to the committee on House Steering, Policy, and Scheduling. If it is reported favorably by Steering and Policy, then the bill will next be heard on the House Floor opening it up for debate and possible amendment. The bill currently has over 130 legislative cosponsors.
An editorial found in the Huffington Post in favor of alimony reform:
A comparison of the present Massachusetts alimony laws and the proposed reformation can be found here on the website of the law firm Kesley & Trask:
The full text of the bill may be found here:
–Galen H. August
Legislative Intern; Office of State Representative William N. Brownsberger
Thanks, Galen, for this excellent overview.
I am a co-sponsor and strong supporter of this legislation.
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