Since the enactment of the Alimony Reform Act in 2011, there have been many cases which have presented questions regarding the interpretation of the statute. One frequent issue has been whether the Alimony Reform Act was intended to apply to cases which went to judgment before the Act went into effect. Two specific issues have now been addressed. Does the Alimony Reform Act apply to someone who was divorced in 2009 and who is seeking a modification of his/her alimony obligation on the basis of their attaining full Social Security Retirement age or due to the payee “cohabitating” as the term is defined in the law? Following three decisions issued by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on January 30, 2015, the answer to both questions is no.
In Chin v. Merriot, Doktor v. Doktor and Rodman v. Rodman, the Supreme Judicial Court found that the Alimony Reform Act was intended to apply prospectively, rather than retroactively, except for one subset of divorce cases which went to Judgment before the act went into effect; specifically, those where the alimony orders (1) merged with the underlying Judgment of Divorce and (2) exceed the durational limits for support provided under the act (duration is based on the length of the marriage, calculated on the time between the date of marriage and the date of service on the underlying Complaint for Divorce).
For all other cases which went to judgment before the Alimony Reform Act went into effect, and where a litigant seeks modification of their prior alimony order, the Court will continue to apply the material change in circumstances standard to determine if the requested relief is warranted. This standard has been that which was in place prior to the enactment of the Alimony Reform Act. Using the same example as provided above, if you were divorced in 2009, ordered to pay alimony to your ex-spouse and are now seeking to modify your alimony order as a result of your reaching full Social Security retirement age, you will need to demonstrate a material change in circumstances warranting the reduction or elimination of your obligation. Under the Alimony Reform Act, your right to relief would be automatic. Under the old standard, you will need to demonstrate to the Court that there is need for a change, for example, as a result of your reduced income, planning for the future on a reduced income, etc. The relief would not be presumed. The same holds true for reducing, suspending or terminating alimony based on the payee’s cohabitation.
Please note, as has always been the case, that where an alimony provision in a Separation Agreement survives the Judgment of Divorce, the obligation is not modifiable except upon the showing of counterveiling equities (an exceedingly difficult standard to meet). The new case law and the Alimony Reform Act do not change this.
This development is somewhat surprising given that much of the impetus behind Alimony Reform was to give relief to those individuals already paying alimony. While not ideal, these cases do not say that those prior cases/litigants won’t be entitled to relief, just that the old standard will be applied and relief is not presumed.
If you have questions on how the Alimony Reform Act applies to your case, please call Patricia S. Fernandez & Associates. Our legal team is dedicated to helping you choose the strategy that is right for you.