On March 1, 2012 the Massachusetts alimony law landscape significantly changed when the Alimony Reform Act took effect. This wide-ranging piece of legislation brought clarification and guidance to most aspects of a Massachusetts divorce case that involved alimony. The legislation clarified how different forms of alimony should be categorized and how alimony payment amounts should typically be calculated based upon the incomes of the parties and the length of the marriage. In addition, the new/revised alimony statute contained guidance on when alimony should typically end (at the obligor’s normal Social Security retirement date) and what should happen if an alimony recipient commences cohabitation with another person post-divorce (the alimony order should be “suspended, reduced or terminated”).
Most attorneys who specialize in divorce and family law appreciated that the 2012 changes to Massachusetts divorce law brought some order to an aspect of divorce that was previously chaotic and driven in large part by the specific preferences of whatever judge had the case. However, the 2012 changes failed to clearly address the matter of whether the time limits on alimony and the cohabitation provisions applied retroactively to divorce cases that were finalized prior to the 2012 changes. The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) addressed the issue of retroactive application of alimony time limits and the effect of cohabitation in three separate recent cases (Chin v Merriot, Rodman v. Rodman, and Doktor v. Doktor) which in aggregate stand for the principle that the time limits and cohabitation provisions of the new alimony statute apply prospectively and do not automatically apply to divorce judgments entered prior to the date the new law took effect.
Massachusetts House Bill 4034 (HB 4034) has been introduced to address the prior ambiguity regarding application of the new alimony law to cases that were tried or settled prior to the date the new alimony statute took effect. HB 4034 would more or less overturn the SJC’s decisions in Chin, Rodman, and Doktor and the proposed bill would provide that:
- “An existing alimony judgment which has exceeded the durational time limits… may be modified upon the filing of a complaint for modification…”.
- “A payor of alimony paying alimony pursuant to an existing alimony judgment may file a complaint for modification … if the recipient is determined to be cohabitating…”.
- “A payor of alimony… may file a complaint for modification of the existing alimony judgment if the payor has reached full retirement age…”.
Supporters of HB 4034 argue that the proposed legislation is necessary to give alimony obligors whose cases ended before 2012 the same predictability regarding their alimony termination date that obligors of post-2012 divorces presumably have. In addition, supporters seek to fix an arbitrary outcome whereby alimony obligors may have no remedy if their ex-spouse cohabitates and they divorced before March 1, 2012 but a similarly situated obligor does have the remedy of alimony termination or payment amount reduction when their ex-spouse cohabitates and their divorce took place after March 1, 2012.
Divorce mediation clients have an advantage over courtroom litigation clients because they have a unique opportunity to craft a comprehensive divorce agreement that addresses future oriented divorce details that might otherwise force ex-spouses back into court post-divorce. For example, when will the alimony end and what will happen to the alimony payment if the recipient cohabitates ? A comprehensive mediated divorce agreement that addresses foreseeable future outcomes can protect you against a post-divorce financial uncertainty that undermines the efforts of both parties to properly plan for their respective financial futures.