When I first wrote about the potential for alimony reform in Massachusetts, it seemed as though we were about to see some changes to our antiquated alimony laws. That was more than a year ago (http://www.bostonherald.com/business/womens/general/view.bg?articleid=1235550) and, subsequently, pending legislation was stalled by intense battles over the nature of what the reform should be between activists, legislators and family law attorneys. With the filing of a new bill, the Alimony Reform Act of 2011, it now appears that we are finally about to see some real changes to our outdated and unfair alimony laws. This bill has garnered support from two groups who were previously adversaries in this debate - the Women's Bar Association and Massachusetts Alimony Reform - making it far more likely that change will finally come to fruition. If you are thinking about getting a divorce, or are currently subject to an alimony order, pay close attention to this proposed bill.
The Current State of Alimony in Massachusetts. Unlike most of our neighboring states who award durational alimony (alimony paid for a set period of time), under current Massachusetts law, support awards are typically given for life, regardless of the age of the recipient or the payor. This means that the payor must continue paying alimony to his or her former spouse even after retirement and the onset of a fixed income. This may mean that a payor winds up paying alimony to a former spouse for significantly longer than they were ever even married to them. For example, you could be married at 22 yrs old, divorced at 27 yrs old, and ordered to pay alimony to your former spouse for the rest of your life. Additionally, the current law also allows the Court to look at a payor's second spouse's income in determining their ability to pay alimony to the previous spouse. For many in the family law profession, the Supreme Judicial Court's decision in Pierce v. Pierce highlighted these deficiencies in our current alimony laws. The text of the decision can be found at http://www.socialaw.com/slip.htm?cid=19511&sid=120.
The Alimony Reform Act of 2011. This proposed legislation would dramatically change alimony laws in Massachusetts while also giving judges greater discretion to evaluate the facts and circumstances of each marriage in setting an alimony award. The law provides for 4 different types of alimony; general term, rehabilitative, reimbursement and transitional alimony. General term alimony awards will be closely linked to the duration of the marriage and will provide a sense of equity that is lacking in our current laws. For instance, if the marriage is less than five years long, the alimony award shall be for no greater than one-half of the months that the marriage lasted. The percentage of the period of the marriage length that can be awarded as durational alimony increases based upon the length of the marriage. The proposed law further provides that these orders shall terminate when the payor reaches full retirement age under 42 U.S.C. 416 unless the Courts orders otherwise for good cause shown, thereby ending the reign of lifetime alimony in Massachusetts. Another significant change is that the Court can no longer look to the payor's second spouse's income in determining the payor's ability to pay alimony to the first spouse.
Impact on Current Alimony Awards. If you are already the payor or recipient of an alimony award, you may be wondering what impact the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 will have on you if it is passed. In general, the provisions of the new law are to apply prospectively, to new cases. However, you may have a basis to seek a modification of your current order, if the duration (not the amount) of your current alimony award is greater than the duration would be under the proposed new law. In that case, you have the right to go to Court and seek a modification of your order to bring it in line with the duration limits imposed by the Alimony Reform Act of 2011. The time frames for bringing such a modification action vary depending upon the length of your marriage, therefore, it is important that you consult with an experienced family law attorney if you wish to seek a modification when the law is passed.