Massachusetts alimony: what is all the fuss about?

Massachusetts alimony law recently underwent a transformation in the way that it is defined, viewed and calculated. Also known as spousal support or spousal maintenance, alimony is the payment of monetary support from one former spouse to the other, more financially needy spouse, usually monthly.

A groundswell of dissatisfaction with the way alimony was determined historically in the commonwealth prompted the creation of a legislative task force to take a hard look at how the system might be improved. According to The Boston Globe, the task force was able to forge from divergent viewpoints a new approach that was more satisfactory to most.

The resulting bill passed both houses of the legislature unanimously, was signed by Gov. Deval Patrick and became effective March 1, 2012.

Major provisions

Some of the major reforms include significant limits on lifetime awards, specific caps on award terms related to marriage lengths and other relevant factors, new alimony types for short-term marriages, termination of most alimony arrangements when the payor reaches retirement age as defined by federal Social Security law and cohabitation provisions.

Those with misgivings about the bill raise concern whether it is too narrow to protect spouses with less economic power in their marriages, more often women.

However, divorcing spouses can negotiate an agreement about how alimony will look for them going forward, usually as part of an overall divorce settlement agreement. If the parties cannot agree, spousal support and any other undecided issues will be determined by the judge, who is given discretion to consider "relevant and material" factors.

Four alimony types

  • General term: Granted to an "economically dependent" spouse with a term based on the length of the marriage; may be modified if the recipient cohabitates; ends when payor reaches retirement age
  • Reimbursement: Granted in a marriage of five years or less to pay the recipient spouse for his or her "contribution to the financial resources of the payor spouse" like having helped with educational expenses
  • Transitional: Also granted in marriages of up to five years to "transition the recipient spouse to an adjusted lifestyle or location" ; limited to three years maximum
  • Rehabilitative: Granted to help the recipient spouse "expected to become economically self-sufficient by a predicted time"; limited to five years unless "compelling circumstances" and the payor can continue to pay without "undue burden," or if the recipient remarries

Rehabilitative alimony allows the recipient time to do what is necessary to earn a living. For example, he or she might need to return to school, refresh professional or vocational skills, or conduct a job search. Rehabilitative alimony grew in part out of the idea that with equalization of the genders, the traditional model of the husband paying the wife support until one of them died no matter what her economic situation was not always fair. Rehabilitative alimony allows the recipient spouse of either gender to receive support while becoming self-supporting.

New considerations

The law provides that if the paying spouse remarries, the financial resources of the new spouse are off limits to the previous spouse if he or she tries to get an alimony order modified. Also, earnings from a "second job or overtime work" undertaken after the initial alimony order are not to be considered by the court in a modification request.

Get legal guidance

This article only begins to scratch the surface of the intricacies of the new Massachusetts alimony laws. To learn more or for representation or advice in a Massachusetts divorce, contact an experienced marital attorney in the commonwealth.