The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently confronted the question of whether modification of an obligation to pay periodic or general term alimony that is contained in a merged provision of a divorce judgment is governed by the alimony reform act, where the act became effective after the date of entry of the judgment. In Chin v. Merriot, the Massachusetts SJC affirmed a judgment of dismissal in concluding that the provisions of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011, specifically related to retirement age and cohabitation, do not apply to judgments of divorce entered prior to the effective date of the Act (March 1, 2012), stating:
“With respect to the alimony obligation at issue here, both the retirement provision and the cohabitation provision apply prospectively, and therefore afford no basis upon which to terminate the alimony order. That the Legislature intended these provisions to apply prospectively is reflected in the language of several uncodified provisions of the alimony reform act, which we consider together with the codified provisions at issue here.”
In the case, Chin & Merriot were divorced by a judgment of divorce nisi entered in August of 2011. At the time Chin was 67 years old and Merriot was 69 years old. In accordance with a merged separation agreement, Chin was to pay Merriot $650.00 per month until “the death of either party or the wife’s remarriage.” The Alimony Reform Act, which became effective on March 1, 2012, includes within it provisions allowing the termination of alimony obligations based on reaching “Full Retirement Age” and also for the suspension, reduction, or termination of an alimony obligation due to the recipient’s cohabitation with another person for at least three continuous months.
In March of 2013, Chin filed for a modification action to terminate his alimony obligation due to his reaching the full retirement age and also due to Merriot cohabitating with another individual. The Probate and Family Court judge determined that the provisions of the Alimony Reform Act regarding termination of an alimony obligation due to reaching full retirement age or for the recipient cohabitating with another only were to be applied to judgments entered after the effective date of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 (March 1, 2012) and therefore applied the prior (and higher) standard in Pierce v. Pierce, 455 Mass. 286 (2009), “whether there was a material change in circumstances,” and dismissed the Complaint based on no material change in circumstances since the entry of divorce warranting a change in the alimony order.
The Massachusetts SJC agreed with the Probate & Family Court judge’s interpretation of this relatively new law, which should give some guidance to Massachusetts divorce and family law practitioners. Interestingly, the Massachusetts SJC did not address whether a court should look at the date of entry of Judgment of Divorce Nisi or the date of Judgment of Divorce Absolute, because in this particular case both dates were prior to the effective date of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011. We will continue to await further clarification from our appellate courts on that particular question in the future.
If you should have any questions or concerns about an alimony obligation, please do not hesitate to contact our experienced divorce attorneys of Finn & Eaton, P.C. in Saugus and Woburn for a free initial consultation.