Typically, the Massachusetts Probate and Family Courts will look to the duration of the marriage to figure out the duration of alimony payments. The Alimony Reform Act of 2011 put in place specific calculations on alimony duration, and the courts are reluctant to veer away from those limits. In some cases, however, the court may extend the duration of the marriage, if the court finds that the parties were engaged in an economic marital partnership despite not being married for part of their relationship. This issue arose in a recent case, which was decided by the Supreme Judicial Court.

In that case, Conor v. Benedict, the parties were married for a little over two years but had lived together for about twelve years total. At trial, for purposes of setting the duration of alimony according to the Alimony Reform Act of 2011, the judge considered the marriage to have been slightly more than eight years in duration. In reaching that decision, the judge took into consideration a six-year time period during which he found that the parties had lived together and had engaged in an economic marital partnership.

The husband appealed the judge’s decision, claiming that the judge did not make sufficient findings to determine that an economic marital partnership existed between the parties. The husband also claimed that during the six-year time period in question, the wife was unable to enter such a partnership, as she was already receiving alimony payments from a former spouse. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case on its own, in order to consider the issues present.

The high court explained that the trial judge was within his rights to deem that the parties’ marriage was lengthened by a period of economic partnership. “During such a period, the parties act like a married couple, and form the financial dependencies, crystallized in marriage, for which alimony later may compensate,” the Court explained, noting that the judge had broad discretion in considering statutory factors as to whether the parties were in an economic partnership. “These factors include, but are not limited to, economic dependence or interdependence, collaborative conduct in furtherance of a shared life, benefits derived, and representations made or reputations acquired regarding the relationship.”

In this case, the Court stated, the judge correctly determined, within his discretion, that the parties had entered an economic marital partnership. The wife sold her single-property house and used the proceeds from the sale as a down payment on a house in which the parties cohabited. The parties shared the mortgage payments, the costs of utilities, groceries, and other household expenses. Later, the parties purchased another home together, to which they made substantial improvements. Again, they shared household expenses.

The high court also rejected the husband’s argument that the wife could not have entered an economic marital partnership with him because she was receiving alimony payments from a former spouse. The husband argued that an “economic marital partnership” required monogamy, and permitted either an alimony relationship with a former spouse or an economic marital partnership with a current partner, but not both. The Court disagreed. “The transfer of payments, itself, does not create a marriage-like relationship, and it does nothing to preclude the recipient from seeking out and entering into an economic marital partnership,” the Court held. Indeed, the Court noted, the statute specifically provides for a former spouse’s alimony obligations to be suspended or terminated where the receiving spouse begins to cohabit with a new partner—therefore, it is the alimony obligation, and not the new economic marital partnership, which may give way.

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