When a section of law is reformed, that generally means a large body of its law is rewritten. When that happens, it is generally impossible to account for every possible application of the law and, accordingly, the law evolves as judges interpret its meaning. The most recent major revision of our divorce and family law in Massachusetts was the Alimony Reform Act of 2011. Among other major changes, discussed elsewhere on our site, was the addition of circumstances which would justify terminating alimony.
The first major development was when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided the case of Chin v. Merriot, which addresses the conditions of reaching full retirement age and cohabitation after divorce.
Prior to the Alimony Reform Act of 2011, the primary way–really the only way aside from death or remarriage–to terminate alimony was by showing of a material change of circumstances justifying the change. Essentially, someone paying alimony could be required to pay it the rest of his or her life unless they came back to court and established that there had been a material change in circumstances justifying its termination. You might be wondering: what would qualify as a material change in circumstances? Well, that is precisely the issue. In Massachusetts, we give our probate and family judges wide latitude and discretion in determining the appropriate outcomes in divorce and other family law cases, and so it can be difficult to determine what a judge might conclude to be a material change.
Prior to the Alimony Reform Act, case law had developed establishing, on a case-by-case basis, what was a material change in circumstances and what was not. For instance, there was a case in 1986 that rejected the argument that alimony should be modified or terminated solely based on the recipient spouse cohabiting with another individual. Similarly, a 2009 case rejected the argument that retirement was a justification for terminating alimony. Both courts stated that these facts alone were not enough to terminator modify alimony. Rather, they would have had to prove a material change in circumstances had occurred which justified the modification or termination of alimony. Both cases were notably cited in the Chin case. Essentially, the person seeking to and the alimony payments would need to convince the judge not only that something had significant occurred, but also that alimony was no longer appropriate.
The Alimony Reform Act effectively limited judicial discretion to some degree in alimony modification cases, because it established certain circumstances in which alimony simply would terminate, without any further need to establish that a material change in circumstances had occurred.
Chin dealt with a predictable issue following a major reform act. Chin and Merriot were married in 1998 and divorced in August 2011. The parties settled their divorce case, entering into a separation agreement, providing that Chin (husband) would pay Merriot (wife) $650 a month until either party died or the wife remarried. The provision of the separation agreement was then merged with the final judgment, having an effect of making it modifiable going forward.
At the time the parties entered into the agreement, Chin was already 67 years old and his wife was 69. Subsequently, the alimony Reform Act was enacted, establishing that general term alimony may terminate when the pay your reaches full retirement age. So, Chin filed a complaint for modification in the Probate and Family Court, seeking to terminate his alimony obligation based on the new law. He then amended his complaint, arguing further that because his former wife was cohabiting with her new significant other (another basis for termination under the Alimony Reform Act) his alimony obligation should terminate for that reason as well.
The modification went to trial and the judge dismissed the complaint. The judge found that the conditions for termination set forth in the Act only apply to cases establishing alimony March 1, 2012 or later, the effective date of the Act. The case was appealed, and the Supreme Judicial Court eventually took up review.
The SJC ultimately held that alimony awards which were merged into a final judgment prior to March 1, 2012 may only be modified or terminated based upon the law which then existed. That means, to modify or terminate those alimony awards, the petitioner would need to prove that there was a material change in circumstances justifying termination or modification. To illustrate how complicated the law can be sometimes, in coming to this decision, the Court determined this outcome to be consistent with the legislative intent when the law was drafted to begin with. To determine the legislative intent, the court looked at the uncodified provisions of the Act–that is, the provisions of the actual Act which never made it into the codified statute.
I should note, as the Court did, that there is a basis specifically enumerated in the statute which provides for the modification of the duration of general term alimony awards entered before March 1, 2012 consistent with the new law, but otherwise you must prove a material change in circumstances.
The case law has continued to evolve, of course, since the issuance of the Chin opinion and the analysis set forth here is based on the law up to that point in time. To learn more about how alimony reform has evolved since, continue to read our blog or call our office at 978-225-9030 and schedule a consultation. The Chin case is really a very good illustration of why you should have an experienced divorce and family law lawyer as an advocate. Most lawyers would not think to look research the issues to such depth as was done by the court in this case and, while it is important to educate yourself on the basics of the law, there is no substitute for meeting with an experienced divorce lawyer and understanding how the law applies to the specific facts of your case.