As a divorce attorney, I know the subject of alimony often comes up early in the divorce process. You may wonder if the Massachusetts alimony law will be a factor in your case. If so, you may wonder what the award will be and for how long you’ll have to pay. Usually, people don’t want to pay alimony and those receiving it want more.
One of the most common questions I hear as a lawyer is, “Why do I have to pay alimony when I told my spouse to get a job for years?” Another common question is, “Why wouldn’t I get alimony when I’ve been at home taking care of the kids while my spouse has been at work?” Most often, this is a heated issue. It doesn’t help that the law isn’t very clear on this issue. As a family law attorney, I often explain where the black lines of the law are drawn and where the gray areas fill in. If you want a solid sense of how the law applies to your case, schedule an attorney consultation. For the absolute basics, read on.
What is Alimony?
Alimony is payment by one former spouse towards the maintenance of the other spouse. Under the Massachusetts alimony law, there are four types of alimony: (1) general term; (2) rehabilitative; (3) reimbursement; and, (4) transitional.
Factors Used to Determine Alimony
There are a number of factors the court uses to make an alimony decision. The required factors include:
- the length of the marriage;
- the conduct of the parties during the marriage;
- age, health, and station of the parties;
- the jobs of the parties;
- amount and sources of income;
- vocational skills of the parties and how employable the parties are;
- estate, liabilities and needs of each of the parties;
- the opportunity of each to acquire capital assets and income in the future; and,
- the present and future needs of the dependent children of the marriage.
In addition, there are factors that the court may consider in making alimony decisions:
- the contribution of each of the parties in the acquisition, preservation or appreciation in value of their respective estates; and,
- the contribution of each of the parties as a homemaker to the family unit.
How an Attorney Should Present the Alimony Factors
I find that many clients struggle with the Massachusetts alimony law factors, at least at first. Judges face tough decisions. For nearly every case, you can argue for or against each party for all of the factors. Strong cases are often put on by each party and the judge must decide on a fair outcome.
The lawyer for each side must take the facts given by the client along with any other information gathered through discovery. Then, the lawyer must present the strongest argument available while applying Massachusetts alimony law. To put your case in the best possible light, your lawyer should frame the argument in your favor, factor by factor.
Arguing the Alimony Factors: An Example
Let’s take the second factor as an example. The second factor is conduct of the parties during the marriage. You and your spouse could present (and believe, for that matter) opposite positions here. You may think your husband always worked and did not spend much time with the family during the marriage. Meanwhile, you were taking care of the home life, making meals, doing laundry, caring for the children, and so on. Or, you may think you had to work so much because she refused to go back to work, even after the kids went to school. It may be your view that all she did was fill out gym membership applications while the family faced financial struggles. You may think you did your best as the provider and to find a work-life balance.
In this example, the husband’s attorney may present evidence that shows the wife refused to go back to work. The lawyer may show this was true even though she’s qualified, able to do so, has time in her schedule, and there exists demand in the job market. The wife’s attorney may present evidence that the parties had agreed she would stay out of the workforce and play the role of caregiver.
Whatever the facts of the divorce, a skilled divorce attorney should map out the best alimony argument. A complete assessment of the alimony issue is only really complete when one considers the best arguments of both parties. Only then will your attorney be able to provide an opinion as to the strength of your case and a reasonable spectrum of settlement options.
I should note, the genders of the example above are merely for ease of reading. The gender roles are often reversed and are not factors in whether alimony is appropriate.
The Alimony Reform Act of 2011
In part, a goal of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 is to help parties and attorneys predict what an alimony decision would be if the case went to trial. The framework under this act became effective in March 2012. Prior to the Alimony Reform Act of 2011, the alimony law was vague and did not provide much guidance. There was no formula, and the court could decide the amount and length of alimony without as much of a framework as the court has currently. Now, the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 provides general guidelines that dictate with reasonable certainty what alimony should be. Yet, there’s still room for court discretion.
Types of Alimony
Under Massachusetts alimony law, there are four different types of alimony. First is general term alimony, which provides regular support for a length of time based on the length of the marriage. Second is rehabilitative alimony, which provides regular support until the ex-spouse is able to sustain his or herself. Third is reimbursement alimony, which provides regular or one-time support for a shorter marriage to make up for costs that the ex-spouse paid in supporting the other spouse. Lastly, fourth is transitional alimony, which provides regular or one-time support.
General term alimony
General term alimony refers to alimony in the traditional sense. Under this type of alimony, one spouse pays the financially dependent spouse. If the dependent spouse remarries, his or her entitlement to this support no longer exists. If the dependent spouse lives with a partner continuously, alimony can be suspended, minimized, or even cut off completely. The supporting spouse doesn’t have to pay alimony after reaching ‘full retirement age,’ which is when the party is eligible for Social Security benefits. Moreover, alimony ends when either party passes away.
General alimony guidelines: the length of alimony payments are based on the length of the marriage, as described below.
- If the marriage lasted five years or less, the length of alimony can be no greater than half of the length of the marriage.
- For marriages lasting over five years but less than ten years, the length of alimony can be no greater than 60 percent of the length of the marriage.
- If the marriage lasted over ten years but less than fifteen years, the length of alimony can be no greater than 70 percent of the length of the marriage.
- For marriages lasting over fifteen years but less than twenty years, the length of alimony can be no greater than 80 percent of the length of the marriage.
- If the marriage lasted over twenty years, there is no limit to the length of alimony.
General alimony amount
The amount of general alimony is approximately 30 to 35 percent of the difference between the gross income of each spouse.
Rehabilitative alimony refers to the payment to a spouse who is responsible for becoming self-supporting by a certain date. The spouse can become self-supporting by getting a job, completing a program of education, or receiving a monetary settlement from the spouse.
The aim of reimbursement alimony is to pay one spouse back for the support (financial or otherwise) that spouse provided during the marriage. It only applies in marriages shorter than five years. This alimony can last any period of time and cannot change. It ends upon the death of the recipient or the term required in the divorce. Further, the support can come from the supporting spouse’s estate if he or she dies before fully paying the debt.
With transitional alimony, one spouse pays the other spouse after a marriage ending in less than five years. The aim is to help the receiving spouse transition to a new location or living situation. The payment(s) cannot be extended, changed, or replaced with any other kind of alimony. Further, they end either when the recipient dies or on a specific date that’s three years or less from the divorce date. If the supporting spouse dies before this debt is fully paid, it can be taken from their estate.
Property Distribution in Massachusetts Alimony Awards
If your case involves the division of significant assets, you’re likely wondering about its impact on alimony. In the past, the statutory factors of equitable distribution were considered in determining alimony awards, alimony must now be determined prior to distribution of property, known as equitable distribution in Massachusetts.
The distribution of property is now determined only after alimony has been decided. As per the relevant statute, property is to be distributed based on how long the marriage lasted, how each spouse behaved during the marriage, the ages, overall health, careers, amount and type of income, skills, ability to achieve employment, assets, debts, requirements of each party, and the amount and length of alimony.
The divorce process is a time of uncertainly, ambiguity, and financial and emotional stress. The Alimony Reform Act of 2011 creates clarity and transparency in an otherwise murky situation. Instead of confrontation and volatility, the former spouses can enjoy a situation of agreement and calm.
Every case has unique facts to consider in applying the law. The only way to truly understand how the Massachusetts alimony law applies to your case is to schedule an attorney consultation. To schedule one with our office, call (978) 225-9030.