In 2011, the Massachusetts Legislature passed the Alimony Reform Act, making significant changes to laws concerning alimony in the Commonwealth. Among those changes were durational limits imposed on alimony obligations from marriages that lasted fewer than twenty years.
In essence, those durational limits act as presumptive termination dates for alimony payments. For example, in the case of a four-year marriage, alimony may terminate after two years of payments upon divorce. Under some circumstances, a party may request that the court deviate from the prescribed termination date, where deviation is required in the interests of justice.
But are those durational requirements constitutional?
In two recent cases, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court considered whether the durational limits operate as an unconstitutionally retroactive law. The Court held that the durational limits were in fact constitutional.
In Van Arsdale v. Van Arsdale, the Court considered a direct appeal where the husband’s alimony obligation was terminated. 1 The parties married in 1979 and divorced in 1997. The husband was ordered to pay $3,333 per month in child support and $3,333 per month in alimony. The parties agreed to review the husband’s alimony payment obligations when their youngest child became emancipated and when the husband retired from full-time employment, so long as he was at least 62 years old.
In 2005, the husband filed a complaint for modification, as the parties’ youngest child had become emancipated. The parties agreed to discontinue child support payments and increase alimony payments to over $7,500 per month. In 2015, the husband successfully sought to terminate his alimony obligation based on the fact that he retired, and based on the Alimony Reform Act’s durational limits. The wife appealed.
In reviewing the wife’s argument that the durational limits were unconstitutionally retroactive, the Supreme Judicial Court considered whether the law attached new legal consequences to events that were completed before the law’s enactment. “The durational limits merely create a presumption of termination that a recipient spouse…can rebut by showing that deviation from the limits is ‘required in the interests of justice.’ Applying such a presumption is not impermissibly retroactive,” the Court noted. 2
The Court reasoned that a party may argue for a deviation from the durational limits, which would require the trial judge to consider the parties’ circumstances at the time of filing, and not at the time of divorce. “By requiring such a temporal focus, the statute ensures that any new legal consequences that result from the durational limits are not the result of actions that predated the act, but rather are based on the circumstances of the parties as they exist before the judge deciding a modification complaint,” the Court explained, upholding the durational limits. 3
Following its decision in Van Arsdale, the Court decided the case of Popp v. Popp. 4 In that case, the husband was ordered to pay $12,000 per month in alimony. In 2015, the husband sought and received a modification of those payments, as he had retired. The judge also applied the new alimony durational limits and ruled that payments would cease in 2020, based on the length of the parties’ marriage.
Similarly to the Van Arsdale case, the wife in Popp claimed that the durational limits on alimony payments were unconstitutional; she also claimed that the trial judge failed to consider certain factors, such as her ability to maintain marital lifestyle and her lost economic opportunity as a result of the marriage. In line with the Van Arsdale decision, the Supreme Judicial Court held that the durational limits were not unconstitutional and upheld the trial court’s decision.
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1 Van Arsdale v. Van Arsdale, SJC 1-2223, March 6, 2017. – May 31, 2017.
2 Id., at 8.
3 Id., at 9.
4 Popp v. Popp, SJC 1-2228, May 31, 2017.