In 2011 Massachusetts enacted an alimony reform law. This law changed many aspects of alimony including imposing termination of alimony when the payor reaches the maximum retirement age and when the payee cohabits. Since enactment of this law, lawyers and Judges have been struggling with the question of how do these changes affect prior alimony agreements and judgments. On January 30, 2015 the Supreme Judicial Court answered this question by stating in essence that a deal is a deal. The Court held that the limits for cohabitation and retirement do not apply retroactively to alimony agreements and judgments that pre-date the enactment of the new law.
This interpretation of the new law does not apply to all alimony judgments. When parties enter into a separation agreement, they have the ability to specify that the agreement merges into the divorce judgment or survives as an independent agreement. If the agreement merges with the divorce then the agreement may be modified in the future if certain conditions are met. If the agreement survives as an independent contract, then the agreement can’t be modified by a judge. It may be modified by agreement of the parties. The new alimony law does not give the courts the power to change any prior separation agreements that survive. This new interpretation only applies to separation agreements that merged into the decree of divorce.
In three cases, Chin v. Merriot, Doktorv. Doktor, and Rodman v. Rodman, the court held that with one exception, all alimony judgments that pre-date the new law are subject to modification as if the new law never went into effect. This means that alimony can change if the terms of the separation agreement or divorce judgment state conditions that will change or terminate the alimony or if there is a material change of circumstances. Reaching retirement age or the recipient of alimony cohabitating only constitutes a material change of circumstances if the agreement specifically states so. Otherwise, there can not be a modification for these reasons.
These decisions indicated that the new law does allow termination of alimony for what is known as “durational limits.” For marriages less than twenty years, alimony is limited to a percentage of the length of the marriage. The longer the marriage, the higher the percentage. Prior alimony awards that had no termination date that are merged into the decree of divorce and the length of the marriage is less than twenty years are subject to these durational limits. As a result, a modification may be filed to terminate alimony under these circumstances.
The new alimony law is very complicated. If you have questions about the application of this law you should consult an experienced family law attorney for advice about your particular situation.