In cases of alimony, a court may deviate from the statutory durational limits “in the interests of justice.” But can this deviation from the durational limits occur even after the statutory duration has expired? Recently, the Massachusetts Appeals Court decided that issue.
The parties in the case, Clement v. Owens-Clement, married on September 9, 2006. During the marriage, the parties enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle. On April 9, 2013, after six years of marriage, they divorced. At the time of the divorce, the wife worked part-time and the husband worked full-time.
In the divorce, the trial court incorporated the parties’ separation agreement into the divorce judgment. Through their separation agreement, both parties waived their right to past and present alimony. The separation agreement did not discuss future alimony.
Wife’s Complaint for Modification
In November 2017, about fifty-five months after the divorce, the wife filed a complaint for modification. In her complaint, she sought alimony on the basis of her complete disability and inability to work. The trial court ordered the husband to pay $200 a week in temporary alimony during the pendency of the modification proceedings.
In January 2019, the parties filed a stipulation of uncontested facts. Among other facts, the parties stipulated that they had not previously waived future alimony. They also stipulated to the following. Since May 2016, the wife had been completely disabled and unable to work. In July 2016, the wife underwent surgery to remove a large brain tumor. She continued to suffer from facial nerve damage, hearing loss, and a seizure disorder. The wife’s “‘medical issues are severe and on-going.'” The wife’s physicians deemed her permanently disabled.
Regarding her finances, the wife completely liquidated her retirement and financial assets to cover living costs. The wife’s income at the time of trial consisted of the temporary alimony and $45 in food stamps per week. The wife also received financial support from a friend, who had been paying the wife’s rent. Initially, the wife received an approval for social security disability benefits. However, the Social Security Administration later denied benefits given the wife’s receipt of temporary alimony.
Trial Court’s Decision
After a trial, the trial court judge issued a modification judgment requiring the husband to pay alimony to the wife in the amount of $200 per week. Alimony would continue until the death of either party, the wife’s remarriage, or further order of the court.
The trial judge also decided an issue regarding the durational limits for alimony in the parties’ case. Generally, statutory durational limits apply to alimony. Those limitations determine the length of time for which the payor spouse must pay alimony. That duration depends on the length of the parties’ marriage. However, a judge may deviate from the durational limits if the receiving party shows it is in the interests of justice to do so. In this case, the duration of alimony would have been 42 months. Yet, the judge found the wife met her burden in showing a deviation from the durational limits was in the interests of justice. So, the modification judgment provided that the husband’s alimony obligation would not be subject to durational limits.
Trial Court’s Reasoning
In so concluding, the trial judge found that the wife cannot provide sufficient support for herself because of her permanent disability and minimal assets. Although the husband is also disabled, he could earn to some degree without a reduction in his disability pension. The judge further found the wife’s reported expenses reflected only basic necessities. Conversely, the husband’s expenses included entertainment and vacations, among other discretionary items.
Accordingly, the judge found that the wife needed alimony to support her modest lifestyle. Meanwhile, the husband had the ability to pay $200 in alimony per week, while maintaining his current standard of living. In fact, the judge found that the husband actually increased his savings since he began making the alimony payments.
The husband appealed. He claimed, first, that the judge had no authority to award alimony since the presumptive durational period for alimony had already expired. Second, he argued that the wife failed to meet her burden of proving that the “interests of justice” required a deviation from the durational limits.
Determining the Durational Period
First, the Appeals Court determined when the clock on the durational limit began to run. “The presumptive durational period…commences on the date of the initial general term alimony award, which is usually the date of the divorce judgment…or a later date if alimony is not contemplated in the divorce judgment,” the court explained. “Thus we must decide whether the April 9, 2013 divorce judgment or the April 16, 2019 modification judgment was the initial alimony award.”
On this issue, the court sided with the husband. The court held that the durational limit period began at the parties’ divorce. At that time, the parties contemplated and expressly waived past and present alimony. This essentially constituted a “‘zero dollar alimony ‘award.'” Moreover, it was the parties’ intent to reach a full and final settlement of their financial affairs. Accordingly, the Appeals Court concluded that the April 9, 2013 divorce judgment was the initial alimony award for the purposes of starting the durational limit clock.
Deviation from the Durational Limit: Court’s Authority
Regarding the deviation, the husband asserted that the judge lacked authority to issue a deviation from the durational limits. The husband’s reasoning was that the wife filed her modification complaint after the expiration of the presumptive 42-month alimony durational period. Therefore, according to the husband, there was no existing alimony award to extend.
The Appeals Court disagreed with the husband here. “[I]t is reasonable to infer that the Legislature did not intend to prohibit a judge from deviating from the act’s presumptive durational limits simply because the modification complaint was filed after the presumptive durational period had expired,” the court explained. “Here, the amount of time that elapsed between the presumptive termination date and the wife’s complaint for modification was minimal, the wife sought alimony as a last resort after depleting her modest assets, and there is no indication that the husband was prejudiced by the delay — especially in light of the fact that he paid no alimony to the wife during the entire presumptive durational period.”
Proving a Deviation was in the Interests of Justice
The husband also argued that the wife failed to show that a deviation from the durational limit was in the interests of justice. The Appeals Court again disagreed with the husband on this point. “Given the ample evidence supporting the judge’s determination that the wife is unable to provide for her own support, and the modest amount of alimony awarded (covering only the wife’s ‘basic necessities’), we discern no abuse of discretion in the judge’s decision to deviate from the presumptive durational limits,” the court concluded.
With over 100 years combined attorney experience, we have exceptional knowledge and skill in divorce and family law litigation. Contact us if you’d like to better understand your rights and options. You can schedule a free Zoom or phone consultation by calling 866-995-6663. Or, you can click the appropriate button below.