In a situation where the spouses are accustomed to an upper-class lifestyle, may one spouse receive alimony based on her expectation that the other spouse’s income will be on an upward trajectory? It’s an interesting issue because there is admittedly some ambiguity in the statute, even after reformed in 2011. Here I, a divorce lawyer, dealing with these issues regularly, assess the SJC’s latest ruling on alimony. So the question is, may a receiving spouse assert that she should be entitled to a higher future alimony amount, as she expected her lifestyle to improve had the couple stayed married? This was the issue discussed and decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in a recent decision.
Young v. Young involved a couple married for nearly 24 years before cross-filing for divorce. Young v. Young, SJC-12240 (March 6, 2017. – September 25, 2017.) After finding that the husband worked as a “high level executive” and received various forms of compensation, and after considering the couple’s affluent lifestyle, the trial judge awarded the wife $48,950 per month in alimony payments. Because of the constantly shifting nature of the husband’s compensation, the judge awarded alimony in the form of 33% of the husband’s gross income to the wife, rather than as a fixed monthly amount.
The trial judge reasoned: “Because the parties lived with the expectation and reality that [the husband’s] bonus level is on an upward trajectory, and given the fact that their needs historically followed this upward trajectory, and due to the complex nature of [the husband’s] compensation over and above his base salary and bonus, it is reasonable and fair in the circumstances to use a percentage for the future alimony particularly given the constantly shifting nature of [the husband’s] compensation.” Young, at 6.
The husband, with lawyer, appealed. In reviewing the case, the Supreme Judicial Court made an important decision regarding the amount of alimony to be paid in cases where a couple’s standard of living entailed an upward trajectory. The court concluded that in cases where the supporting spouse has the ability to pay, the need for support of the recipient spouse was the amount required to enable the receiving spouse to maintain the standard of living he or she had at the time of the separation leading to the divorce, and not the amount required to enable her to maintain the standard of living the couple would have enjoyed in the future, had the couple not divorced.
“Even if the parties enjoyed an upwardly mobile lifestyle for the duration of their marriage, nothing in the language of the statute or our case law suggests that the recipient spouse is entitled, by way of alimony, to enjoy a lifestyle beyond what he or she experienced during the marriage,” the Court noted. Young, at 11.
Moreover, the Court stated that while percentage-based alimony amounts did not automatically run afoul of the law, in this particular case, the judge abused discretion. “Here, the percentage-based award ran afoul of the act and therefore was an abuse of discretion not because of its variable nature, but because it was intended to award the wife an amount of alimony that exceeds her need to maintain the lifestyle she enjoyed during the marriage,” the Court explained. When devising strategy, a lawyer must remember, “There may be cases in which a variable or contingent award is warranted, but such cases are the exception rather than the rule, and must be justified by the special circumstances of the case.”
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