Generally, alimony payments are modifiable if one of the parties encounters a material change in circumstances. A new Massachusetts case deals with an interesting change regarding a retroactive alimony modification. This case involves one party serving a prison sentence, during which the court reduced alimony payments.
In the case, Voorhis v. Relle, the parties divorced in 2002. Their marriage had lasted nearly twenty-years. In the divorce, the court granted the wife custody of the parties’ four children. Additionally, the court split the marital estate evenly. Regarding child support, the court ordered the husband to pay the wife $2,650 per month. Further, the court ordered the husband to pay $4,020 per month in alimony to the wife. The court also ordered the husband to pay 35% of his cash bonuses to the wife. At the time of the divorce, the parties were debt-free.
In 2006, the police arrested the wife. She was charged with vehicular manslaughter after driving under the influence of alcohol. The wife pleaded guilty and the court sentenced her to prison. She served a prison sentence in excess of eight years. Consequently, the husband filed for a modification order. As a result, the court awarded custody of the children to him. The court reduced his alimony obligation to $1,500 per month while the wife served her prison sentence. The alimony obligation would revert to $4,020 per month, plus 35% of his bonuses, after her sentence ended.
The Trial Court
A month before the end of the wife’s sentence, in 2016, the husband filed for a modification. Through the modification, he sought to terminate his alimony payments. By that time, Massachusetts had passed the Alimony Reform Act, which instituted durational limits on alimony payments. Based on that Act, the husband’s alimony obligation had technically ended. However, the trial judge denied the husband’s request for temporary orders.
The wife filed a counterclaim asking that the court deviate from the durational limits. More specifically, she asked the court to order a continuation of the husband’s alimony, urging the court to deviate from the durational limits “in the interests of justice”. She also asked for relief from contributing to certain expenses of the children. Finally, she filed a complaint to find the husband in civil contempt.
The judge denied the wife’s counterclaim for contempt and alimony. She terminated the husband’s alimony obligations retroactively. The retroactive alimony modification went back to the month in which the husband’s obligation would have ended under the Act. The judge did relieve the wife from contributing to the children’s college costs and cell phones. The wife appealed.
The Appeals Court
Appeals Court’s Holding
The Appeals Court held that the judge did not abuse her discretion and the facts did not warrant deviation from the durational limits. The judge properly considered all of the relevant and required factors under the Massachusetts alimony statutes.
Appeals Court’s Reasoning
“Among other things, the judge took into account the parties’ ages, health, tax considerations, availability and cost of health and life insurance, the approximate nine-month premarital cohabitation, the wife’s allegations of physical abuse during the marriage, and the wife’s ability to support herself, including sources of unearned income,” the Appeals Court explained. “She also considered that the husband had custody of the children since the wife’s incarceration, and that the husband had paid all of the four children’s expenses, without contribution from the wife, including college expenses.”
The Appeals Court rejected the wife’s argument that the judge needed to consider the parties’ lifestyle during the marriage and the wife’s ability to maintain that lifestyle. “Marital lifestyle is not listed as a factor in [the alimony statute,]” the Appeals Court explained. “Moreover, although the recipient’s inability to provide for her own support is a factor to be considered in deviating from the durational limits…the inability to be self-supporting is not the same as the recipient’s inability to maintain the marital lifestyle.”
The Appeals Court did vacate one portion of the trial judge’s decision. The Appeals Court vacated the part of the decision dealing with the retroactive alimony modification. In this part of the decision, the trial judge required the wife to repay a significant amount of money to the husband. While the Appeals Court noted that retroactive modification was within the trial judge’s powers, it also held that the judge did not provide proper justification for her ruling in this case. “Here, there are no findings nor a § 34 analysis to explain the retroactive modification requiring the wife to repay the husband $56,508 and to do so in a monthly amount of $500,” the court stated. “Accordingly, that portion of the modification judgment is vacated and the matter is remanded.”
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