In 2012 Massachusetts divorce law changed by implementation of an Alimony Reform Act. A recent case, George v. George, interpreted and explained a portion of the law known as durational limits.
Under prior law, alimony was awarded for life or until a material change of circumstances occurred. It made no difference if the parties were married for one year or thirty. An award of alimony did not have a termination date. The new law imposed durational limits for divorces less than twenty years in length. The longer the marriage, the longer the period of alimony. The George case addressed the issue of applying the durational limits to alimony awards that occurred prior to 2012.
Earlier cases had held that modification should be denied if the recipient spouse testified that property rights were given up in exchange for alimony. This argument is mostly rejected for marriages less than 20 years in length. The Court said that every person who receives alimony will make this argument. The legislature, by implementing durational limits, indicated a clear intent to impose time limits for prior alimony judgments. If prove of a deal exchanging property for alimony can be made by language in the agreement or other contemporaneous documents then the court can consider extending alimony beyond the durational limits. However, in the absence of such written evidence from the time of the alimony judgment, durational limits will require termination of alimony for previously granted alimony judgments.
While the legislature created the durational limits, it also created an exception: “in the interests of justice.” The Court in the George case established guidelines for application of the interests of justice standard.
First the Court was clear that there can not be a deviation from the durational limits unless the trial judge makes written findings of fact, based on the evidence, which explain that deviation beyond the limits is “required in the interests of justice.” The recipient spouse bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that deviation beyond the presumptive termination date is warranted.
Second the circumstances must be evaluated in the here and now. In other words, the circumstances as they exist at the time deviation is sought. While the court can look at prior circumstances, they can’t be considered by the court unless the circumstances still exist. As an example, a previously disabled spouse can’t get alimony beyond the durational limits unless the disability continues to exist.
Third, the Judge must consider all relevant statutorily specified factors. The court then identified which statutory factors are to be considered: (advanced age, chronic illness, unusual health circumstances; (2) tax considerations; (3) payment of health insurance; (4) required life insurance, (5) sources; (5) amounts of unearned income; (6) significant premarital cohabitation; (7) inability to provide for a party’s own support due to abuse by the payor; (8) a party’s inability to provide for their own support due to other reasons; and (9) any other factor the Court deems relevant and material.
This decision shows a distinct preference to terminate prior alimony judgments based on the durational limits while allowing a continuation of alimony in limited circumstances. This is a complicated area of law that requires a comprehensive evaluation of all current circumstances of both the payor and receipient of alimony. Individuals should consult an experienced family law attorney before making any decisions about how they could be effected by the change in law.