In recent years, litigants have tested the new Massachusetts alimony laws in the state’s appellate courts numerous times. One of the most highly contested issues deals with the durational limits for alimony. With the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 came the implementation of these limits. In accordance with the Act, alimony in Massachusetts is limited to a specific duration. The duration of an alimony order is based on the length of the marriage.
Alimony is spousal support that one spouse pays towards the maintenance of the other spouse after a divorce. In a recent case, the Massachusetts Appeals Court vacated a judgment relating to the durational limits of a husband’s alimony payments. The case, D.B. v. J.B., also addressed issues of child custody and investment property. The alimony issue, however, was most central to the case and the only part of the decision that the Appeals Court vacated.
The parties in the case, D.B. v. J.B., first separated in 2011 after a 13 year marriage. They then reconciled. In 2013, the husband again filed for divorce. In a temporary order, the court ordered him to pay to the wife temporary support of $30,000 monthly. A stipulation characterized the support as alimony. The parties further agreed that the monthly payments would be “credited against the applicable durational limit of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011.” The husband had been the primary breadwinner in the marriage. At the time of the trial, the alimony payments were the wife’s sole source of income.
First Issue: Need for Post-Divorce Support
On appeal, the husband first argued that the trial judge erred when she calculated the amount of his alimony obligation. He further argued that the wife did not need the amount of alimony that the judge ordered him to pay. The Appeals Court was not persuaded. “It is apparent from the judge’s findings in this case that she carefully addressed each of the considerations outlined…and concluded that the wife had a ‘significant’ need for support from the husband in order to maintain the ‘upper-middle class to upper-class lifestyle’ enjoyed by the parties during the marriage,” the Appeals Court stated.
The court noted that the need for post-divorce support is only one of the many factors a trial judge considers in awarding alimony. In this case, the judge could not determine the wife’s “true need” based on her financial statements. However, the judge properly considered a slew of other appropriate factors. “The judge acknowledged that the wife had a college degree, but she properly took into account the fact that the wife had been out of the workforce for almost two decades, and also that she was not in the best of health,” the Appeals Court explained. The Appeals Court also explained that the trial judge considered other factors as well. One such factor was the wife’s non-economic contributions to the marriage, according to the court. Additionally, the court factored in the economic opportunities the wife lost after the parties agreed that she would stay home to parent the children.
Second Issue: Validity of the Parties’ Out-of-Court Agreement
Next, the husband argued that the judge erred when she failed to credit him, as the parties had agreed, with the payment of temporary support for the thirty-seven months preceding trial. The Appeals Court agreed this was an error. The Appeals Court noted the right of the parties to enter into an agreement, which should not be undone by the court.
“’While Probate and Family Court judges enjoy considerable discretion, that discretion does not extend to vitiating a contract that was negotiated at arm’s length and entered into freely and voluntarily’ by the divorcing parties…It is ‘important to respect the parties’ ‘freedom to contract’ and that such agreements may serve a ‘useful function’ in permitting the parties to arrange their financial affairs ‘as they best see fit,’” the Appeals Court explained. “[T]he parties specifically had agreed that the husband would earn credit toward the durational alimony limits prescribed by the act for any pretrial support payments made to the wife. Because neither party challenges the validity of the agreement contained in the 2014 stipulation (and subsequent court order), the contracted terms are enforceable.”
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