Proposed Alimony Reform in Massachusetts

Posted on October 28, 2010 by Gail Otis


What Next Year?s Alimony Law May Contain

Alimony reform in Massachusetts may be just around the corner. Alimony laws in the Commonwealth have remained unchanged for decades; however, reform bills are currently pending before the House and Senate. Here are the provisions of each bill:

  • Under the House bill (H1785) alimony awards would be limited to half the marriage duration and be capped at 12 years. Payments would automatically end when the payer turns 65 and alimony would shrink by 10% each year after 5 years. The House bill would provide more of a mathematical approach to determining alimony. 72 state legislators have signed onto this bill which could bring Massachusetts law into conformity with much of the rest of the country.
  • The Senate bill (S1616) is a more moderate reform bill that would allow greater judicial discretion to look at the parties? circumstances than either current practice or the House proposal. However, it would also limit alimony awards to shorter durations. The Senate bill would allow for durational alimony for a fixed term but without the mathematical limits imposed under the House bill.

House bill supporters argue it would encourage self-sufficiency and allow alimony payers to retire at a reasonable age. The Women's Bar Association of Massachusetts, on the other hand, argues the House bill is overreaching and therefore supports the Senate proposal.

Alimony Currently

Alimony laws in Massachusetts are currently incongruous with most states that provide better guidance for deciding such cases. For example, alimony in Massachusetts is usually indefinite and sometimes difficult to modify. This is not the case in most other states. Indefinite lifetime alimony creates a significant and sometimes unfair economic burden on the obligor. Moreover, when a divorced person remarries in Massachusetts the income of the new spouse can be used to determine the alimony award. Alimony laws in Massachusetts are gender neutral; however, nearly 96% of obligors are men.

A Case for Reform

The proposed legislation however could end many of Massachusetts' unusual alimony rules including the requirement that a second wife pay alimony to the first if the husband loses his income. A widely publicized state Supreme Court decision that illustrates the unusual status of current alimony law in Massachusetts can be seen in Rudolph F. Pierce vs. Carneice G. Pierce, 455 Mass 286, 916 N.E. 2d 330 (2009).

In Pierce a retired lawyer, Rudolph, requested termination of his $110,000 annual alimony since he had retired. At that time he was earning less than his ex-wife who had more than $1 million in assets. Rudolph?s second wife was employed with a $125,000 annual income. The lower court reduced Rudolph?s alimony payments, but both the Probate and Family Court and Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court agreed his alimony payments must continue under current Massachusetts alimony law. This controversial decision prompted serious discussion about whether the legislature should step in to reform Massachusetts alimony laws. The pending House bill would prohibit the court from considering the income of the payer?s current spouse in determining alimony modifications as was done in Pierce.

Summary

The current purpose of alimony in Massachusetts is not necessarily to help the recipient survive, rather, it?s to maintain a pre-divorce lifestyle. This is why recipients like Carneice Pierce, who was capable of making more than $90,000 annually, can still claim ?need? for alimony. Massachusetts? law currently says she?s entitled to a pre-divorce standard of living, and her ex-husband's duty is to provide it. Arguably there may be a need for change.

Alimony reform would create predictability for lawyers. They could tell their clients what?s likely to happen in a case, rather than relying on vague and antiquated case law. Judges would have clearer guidelines allowing alimony cases to be decided quickly and fairly, clearing their dockets for more urgent matters like child custody. This is especially important since about 30% of the current caseload in family court relates to alimony. In addition to occupying much of the family court?s docket, alimony is a significant financial obligation.

Approximately 600,000 U.S. taxpayers paid nearly $9.4 billion in alimony in 2007. This includes nearly 37,000 taxpayers who earn less than $40,000 a year and pay close to 20% of their income in alimony. Since about half of all U.S. marriages end in divorce, alimony reform could affect many of those living in Massachusetts. The pending House and Senate reform bills seem poised to change alimony laws in Massachusetts; however, it remains uncertain whether either bill will actually pass.

Written by Graydon Sommer, Esquire

Divorce Tags: alimony, divorce, legislation, modification, retirement Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

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