On October 6, 2014, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts heard oral arguments on three cases dealing with termination of alimony orders that pre-date the effective date of the Alimony Reform Act. In all three cases — Rodman v. Rodman (oral argument here), Doktor v. Doktor (oral argument here), and Chin v. Merriot (oral argument here) — the alimony payors and payees entered into separation agreements which provided for alimony obligations that merged with the judgment, leaving them open to modification at a later date upon a showing of a material change in circumstances.
The Alimony Reform Act was passed, including a provision which calls for the termination of alimony upon the payor reaching Social Security retirement age, and the payors in Rodman, Doktor, and Chin filed complaints for modification seeking to terminate their alimony obligations because they had each reached retirement age. The payor in Chin had been past the age of retirement at the time of the divorce judgement, but prior to the passing of the Alimony Reform Act, filed a complaint for modification seeking to terminate his alimony obligation based on his age and his former wife’s cohabitation. The Doktor case also involves the issue of whether the respective assets of the parties should be considered when determining the recipient’s need and the payor’s ability to pay. All three cases involve the issue of whether M.G.L. c. 208, §49(f) should be applied retroactively to judgments entered before March 1, 2012, the effective date of the Alimony Reform Act. In other words, if you have an alimony provision which merges into a judgment entered prior to March 1, 2012, and then reach Social Security retirement age, does the Alimony Reform Act require you to show a material change in circumstances to terminate your alimony obligation, or does a mere showing that you have reached Social Security retirement age suffice?
M.G.L. c. 208, §49(f) reads:
Once issued, general term alimony orders shall terminate upon the payor attaining the full retirement age. The payor’s ability to work beyond the full retirement age shall not be a reason to extend alimony, provided that:
(1) When the court enters an initial alimony judgment, the court may set a different alimony termination date for good cause shown; provided, however, that in granting deviation, the court shall enter written findings of the reasons for deviations.
(2) The court may grant a recipient an extension of an existing alimony order for good cause shown; provided, however, that in granting an extension, the court shall enter written findings of:
(i) a material change of circumstance that occurred after the entry of the alimony judgment; and
(ii) reasons for the extension that are supported by clear and convincing evidence.
Alimony awards existing prior to March 1, 2012 are deemed to be general term alimony. Section 4(b) of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011. Section 4(a) of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 states that “Section 49 of chapter 208 of the General Laws shall apply prospectively, such that alimony judgments entered before March 1, 2012 shall terminate only under such judgments, under a subsequent modification or as otherwise provided for in this act.”
In dicta, the Supreme Judicial Court has already discussed the authority of judges to terminate alimony obligations based upon the durational limits of the Alimony Reform Act. In Holmes v. Holmes, footnote 9, the Court explained:
. . . The reform act provides that the new durational limits shall apply prospectively, but ‘[e]xisting alimony judgments which exceed the durational limits under [G.L. c. 208, § 49,] shall be modified upon a complaint for modification without additional material change of circumstance, unless the court finds that deviation from the durational limits is warranted.” St.2011, c. 124, § 4(a), (b). However, under the phased schedule provided in the reform act, a payor spouse who, like the husband here, was married to the alimony recipient for more than fifteen years but less than twenty years may not file a complaint for modification “solely because the existing alimony judgment exceeds the durational limits of [G.L. c. 208, § 49,]” before September 1, 2015. St.2011, c. 124, § 5(4). . .
It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Judicial Court decides these three cases, and we will be sure to provide analysis on the Court’s decisions once made. If you have any questions about alimony in Massachusetts, call 781 484-1066 or email the attorneys at Finn & Eaton, P.C. in Woburn or Saugus to schedule a free initial consultation.