The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently clarified some provisions of the 2012 Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act (the “Act”) in a November 23, 2016 decision in the case Clifford E. George vs. Jacquelyn A. George (SJC-12059). Clifford and Jacquelyn were divorced in 2002 via a mutually agreed upon Separation Agreement after a 12-year marriage. The Separation Agreement provided that Clifford would pay Jacquelyn $1800/month as alimony. In 2013, Clifford filed a Complaint For Modification of the divorce judgment Separation Agreement which sought, among other things, to modify his alimony obligation based upon Section 49 (b) of the Act. Section 49(b) of the Act provides that general term alimony for marriages lasting more than 10 years but fewer than 15 years shall not continue for “longer than (seventy) percent of the number of months of the marriage,”. Massachusetts General Laws chapter 208, section 49 (b) (3) provides a process by which a judge can deviate from the alimony durational limit when doing so is “required in the interests of justice”. The Act also provided a phase-in schedule for when Complaints For Modification based on the new durational limits could be brought for alimony obligations that predated the effective date of the Act (March 1, 2012).
The George v. George modification action was heard by Judge Jeremy A. Stahlin at the Suffolk Probate and Family Court. Judge Stahlin denied Clifford’s Complaint For Modification because he found that deviation beyond the durational limits of the Act was warranted. Clifford appealed Judge Stahlin’s decision and the SJC took authority over the appeal.
The SJC affirmed Judge Stahlin’s denial of relief but on the grounds that Clifford’s complaint was filed prematurely (under the Act Complaints For modification of alimony based solely on the applicable durational time limits were to be filed no earlier than March 1, 2015). The SJC used the George case to set forth guidance on how the “interests of justice” standard contained in Section 49 (b) should be applied when determining whether deviation from the Act’s durational time limits is warranted.
The SJC concluded that when disputes of fact arise regarding an alimony payment termination date the trial court must make written findings based on evidence to determine whether the “interests of justice” require alimony payments to continue beyond the durational limits of the Act. The alimony recipient spouse bears the burden of proving by a “preponderance of the evidence” that deviation beyond the presumptive termination date is “required in the interests of justice”. The SJC further clarified that a judge should “evaluate the circumstances of the parties in the here and now; that is, as they exist at the time the deviation is sought, rather than the situation as it existed at the time of divorce.” If factors relevant to the alimony termination date existed at the time of divorce, and those factors persist when a Complaint For Modification is filed, “a judge may properly consider them.” The decision contains an example of this principle, “if at the time of divorce a spouse was disabled and that disability was taken into consideration in setting the initial alimony award, and if that disability persists when the payor spouse files a complaint for modification, the judge may properly consider the impact the disability continues to have on the recipient spouse in determining whether deviation beyond the act’s durational limits is required in the interests of justice.”
The Alimony Bottom Line
The SJC’s decision in George v. George clarifies that divorce court judges will have the ability to deviate from statutory time limits for alimony payments, either at the time of the divorce or at the time the payor seeks to terminate the alimony payments, when the case facts suggest deviation is appropriate and necessary. Chronic illness or unusual or unexpected health circumstances of the alimony recipient are likely to be the most common factors that justify deviation from the time limits. The bottom line of the SJC’s George decision is that a Payor’s alimony termination date can be modified outside of the Act’s time limitations when the payor proves by a preponderance of the evidence that such modification is necessary.