Alimony Laws in MA Could Change Forever
Last week, there was a hearing held by the Joint Committee on the Judiciary to review bill H. 740, “An Act reforming alimony in the Commonwealth,” intended to update the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act (ARA). If passed, this bill will dramatically change the existing alimony laws in Massachusetts. To understand the bill’s repercussions, I will outline the general history of how alimony has been allocated in Massachusetts.
Before March 1, 2012Prior to March 1, 2012, Massachusetts alimony laws were vague and the Probate and Family Court had broad discretion to award alimony for an indefinite duration based on the recipient spouse's needs and the payor spouse's ability to pay.
March 1, 2012 to the PresentThe vague nature of the alimony laws created many problems for payor spouses in Massachusetts. There was very little a payor spouse could do to terminate or reduce alimony payments after an alimony award was issued. Although a payor spouse could modify an alimony award, he or she would have to prove a material and substantial change in circumstances necessitating the termination or reduction. However, there was no statutory law that instituted durational limits or set circumstances that would automatically terminate or reduce alimony payments.
On March 1, 2012, the Alimony Reform Act (hereinafter "Act") changed everything. The Act represented a complete overhaul of the existing alimony laws in Massachusetts. Most notably, the Act created durational limits for general term alimony, allowed for termination of alimony obligations upon the payor's attainment of retirement age, and allowed for termination or reduction of the alimony obligation upon the recipient's cohabitation with another person.
Since the Act was issued, payor spouses have had more opportunities to terminate or reduce their alimony obligations. However, the Act did not explicitly explain what happens to couples who divorced prior to the March 1, 2012? Do the durational limits of the Act apply to pre-Act judgments? What about the retirement and cohabitation clauses of the Act--do they apply to pre-Act judgments as well?
Prospective Application of ARA On Alimony Cases Prior to March 1, 2012In January of 2015, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (hereinafter "SJC") entered three controversial decisions in cases interpreting how the Act should be applied to alimony judgments entered prior to March 1, 2012. In Rodman v. Rodman; Doktor v. Doktor; and Chin v. Merriot, the SJC concluded that the Act cannot be applied retroactively to modify divorce judgments that occurred before the Act took effect on March 1, 2012. In other words, the Act can only be applied to divorces finalized after March 1, 2012.
Ironically, however, the SJC carved out a single exception to the prospective application of the Act. The SJC stated that under uncodified ? 4(c) of the Act, existing alimony judgments that exceed the durational limits for general term alimony under the Act could be modified retroactively so as to apply the Act durational limits. For example, if an alimony award was ordered prior to March 1, 2012, and the payor was obligated to pay alimony for 10 years, but under the Act the payor would only have to pay for 5 years, then the payor may modify the existing alimony award and have the court apply the durational limits granted by the Act.
Aftermath of SJC's Alimony CasesThe three SJC decisions mentioned above caused a great deal of controversy in the family law community. Payor spouses who entered into separation agreements prior to March 1, 2012 were unhappy with the SJC decisions because they could not benefit from the durational limits or the retirement and cohabitation clauses of the ARA that would terminate or reduce their financial obligation to the recipient spouse. As a reaction to the uproar from payor spouses, many advocacy groups and bar associations banded together to create a bill that would effectively reverse the SJC decisions in Rodman v. Rodman, Doktor v. Doktor, and Chin v. Merriot.
In 2016, Bill 4227 was referred to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. The bill sought to change the alimony laws so that payor spouses who were divorced prior to March 1, 2012 could obtain termination of alimony based upon the attainment of full retirement age and could have their alimony obligation terminated or reduced based upon the cohabitation of the recipient. The 2016 bill received a unanimous vote of 156-0 in the House, however it died in the Senate and never came into law.
House Bill 740: An Act Reforming Alimony in CommonwealthIn 2017, a nearly identical bill was introduced with the same objective as the 2016 bill. Like its predecessor, H. 740 would amend the Act by retroactively applying the retirement and cohabitation clauses of the Act to alimony awards issued prior to March 1, 2012. On May 15, 2017, opponents and proponents of H. 740 spoke at a hearing before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary to review the bill. The battle lines were fiercely drawn.
Opponents of H. 740 object to the bill based on the common law contract theory of reliance. Under contract law, two parties enter into a contract upon the reliance that existing laws apply. The opponents of the bill claim that divorce agreements enter into prior to 2012 should be exempt from the Act because spouses entered such agreements upon the reliance that pre-2012 alimony laws applied. Had the parties to the pre-2012 alimony agreement had known that the Act would later limit alimony, they may have made a different agreement. The opponents argue that if H. 740 passes, it will disincentivize parties to negotiate alimony agreements because neither party will be certain of what laws will apply--the existing laws or some future law that could change everything that was negotiated.
Supporters of H. 740 claim that parties to a merged alimony agreement are always aware that the terms of the alimony agreement can be modified if either party can prove a "material and substantial change in circumstances." Prior to the Act, some of the most common grounds for terminating alimony were the advanced age of the payor, a change in the payor's employment status, or a change in the recipient's need. These loosely correlate with the retirement and cohabitation clauses of the Act. Therefore, the supporters argue that if H. 740 passes, it will not disincentivize parties from entering into agreements with one another, because the potential for a modification has always been present and has never dissuaded individuals from entering into these sorts of contracts.
Similarly, the supporters of H. 740 claim that the SJC's conclusions in Rodman, Doktor, and Chin were ambiguous. The SJC stated that certain pre-Act cases could be modified retroactively, and others could not. The SJC concluded that pre-Act cases could be modified retroactively only as to cases that exceeded the durational limits, however the retirement and cohabitation clauses could not be modified retroactively. The supporters of H. 740 find this differentiation between clauses to be arbitrary. They also believe that the SJC incorrectly interpreted the legislatures intent upon issuing the Act. They feel as though the SJC did not take into account the legislature's intent to make all clauses--not just the durational limits--retroactive.