The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court weighed in today on how to determine the length of a marriage for the purpose of establishing an alimony award when the parties have married, divorced, and then remarried . . . and then divorced again. (Yes, this actually happens!)

In broader strokes, the case further refines cohabitation and the meaning of G.L. c. 208, section 48, which provides: “the court may increase the length of the marriage if there is evidence that the parties’ economic martial partnership began during their cohabitation period prior to marriage.”  In this case, Duff-Kareores v. Kareores, the SJC disagreed in part with the trial judge, who considered the length of the marriage to be measured from the date of the first marriage through the date of the second divorce filing.  The SJC excluded, in its determination, the period of time between marriages in which the parties did not live together.

This is most relevant because the parties’ second divorce was not filed until after the enactment of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011, which created duration limits of alimony that are based on the length of the marriage. In plain English, the Reform Act provided that the longer you’re married, the longer you’re eligible to receive alimony, making the measurement of the length of marriage the material issue.

By way of background, Mrs. Duff-Kareores (Wife) and Mr. Kareores (Husband) initially married in 1995. Wife was a full-time registered nurse, and Husband was a medical resident. They had their first child in 1997 and their second in 2001. After the birth of their first child, Wife left nursing to focus on the home and kids, and Husband became gainfully employed as a fully qualified physician.

The Wife filed their first divorce in 2003, and the divorce became final in 2004, with the Wife retaining the marital home, the Husband moving out, and the Husband paying her $7,600 a month in alimony. Three years later, the parties reconciled and the Husband moved back into the marital home, where he continued to reside through December 2012, when they remarried. Six weeks after the second marriage, the Husband moved out of the marital residence and the Wife filed a complaint for divorce a few months later. By then, the Wife had medical issues that kept her from becoming fully employed and the Husband was working as a full-time emergency room doctor.

Because the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 had reshaped the way we determine alimony between marriage one and marriage two, the court had a difficult job of determining the length of the marriage for purposes of ordering alimony. Because of the dates of the marriages and divorce filings as set forth above, the Husband’s best day in court would have been a determination that the length was limited to the second marriage, amounting to six months. The Wife’s best day in court, alternatively, was the period starting from the first marriage and continuing through the second divorce filing, a period amounting to about 18 years.

The SJC’s decision on marriage and cohabitation duration for the purpose of determining alimony is a time period that includes: the entirety of the first marriage, any period of time the parties cohabitated between marriages, and the duration of the second marriage. The analysis of whether the parties were in an economic marital partnership and in a cohabitation was not completely clear at first glance, as these terms are not defined within Section 48. The Court, therefore, looked to what it determined to be relevant provisions of other parts of the statute, and in doing so concluded “that the Legislature intended to use the terms cohabitation, economic marital partnership, and common household to describe a relationship that, if established, would affect a court order for alimony, either by increasing the amount and duration of alimony ordered or by reducing, suspending, or eliminating the award.”

While the Alimony Reform Act has helped to establish brighter line rules regarding alimony entitlement and duration, the facts surrounding cohabitation may create a more murky analysis.  Given the uncertainty of this area of family law, you’re well advised to perform an analysis of your alimony case with the assistance of a competent divorce lawyer.  If you’d like to consult for free with an experienced family law attorney in our Newburyport or Boston offices, please call us today at 978-225-9030.