Is “lifetime alimony” truly dead in Massachusetts?

The Alimony Reform Act became effective on March 1, 2012, and it allowed for an alimony award to be modified in amount and duration if there is a material change in circumstances. The Alimony Reform Act also provided presumptive termination dates for any alimony obligations for a marriage which lasted fewer than twenty years. For example, if the marriage lasted five years or less, then alimony would continue for no longer than half of the months of marriage. If the marriage lasted five to ten years, then alimony would continue for no longer than 60% of the months of marriage.

The Alimony Reform Act, however, did provide an exception to this rule on termination dates: a judge may deviate from the dates if the judge finds that it is in the “interests of justice” to do so.

Under what circumstances may such a deviation be in the “interests of justice?” That question was clarified in the recent case of George v. George,[1] where the Supreme Judicial Court considered the appeal of a claim for modification which had been dismissed by the Probate and Family Court judge below.

The judge had denied the modification claim based on two reasons:  first, the payor’s claim for modification was filed prematurely, before the permissible filing date set out in the Alimony Reform Act; second, deviation from the durational time limits set out in the Alimony Reform Act was warranted. The judge noted that at the time of the divorce, the wife “bargained for” a specific termination date for alimony payments in exchange for a certain division of property. If the wife had known that alimony payments would terminate prior to that, the judge theorized, she would likely have insisted that the property division terms be different.

The Supreme Judicial Court agreed that the modification claim was filed prematurely. However, it disagreed with the Probate and Family Court judge in his holding that deviation from the time limits was warranted. In particular, the Supreme Judicial Court noted that a judge must evaluate circumstances regarding alimony modification “in the here and now:” not at the time of divorce, but rather at the time of the modification being sought. (The Court noted that if there are continuing circumstances which existed at the time of divorce and continue to exist at the time modification is sought – such as the disability of one of the spouses – then those circumstances may be considered in determining whether to deviate from the time limits.)

But here, the trial court’s analysis was flawed, the Supreme Judicial Court noted, in theorizing that the payee spouse would have bargained for a different property division award if she knew that alimony payments would cease. “[T]his logic might prevent nearly all payor spouses with alimony obligations predating the act from ever gaining the benefit of the act’s durational limits, because recipient spouses could argue that, had they known that their alimony payments would be affected by the act, they would have negotiated their separation agreement differently,” the Court stated. “This is in direct contravention of the Legislature’s intent that the durational limits apply to preexisting alimony awards.”[2]

[1] George v. George, SJC-12059 (September 6, 2016-November 23, 2016).

[2] Id., at 11.