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December 2, 2016

Legal Update
Meredith DeJesus Caradimos

Supreme Judicial Court addresses deviation from durational limits on alimony

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In a 2012 statute, the Alimony Reform Act, Massachusetts established durational limits on a divorced spouse’s obligation to pay alimony. The law has been the subject of interpretation by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court in several important decisions, most recently the November 2016 ruling in George v. George, 478 Mass. 65, which addressed the standards a family-court judge should apply in determining whether a case warrants deviation from the normal statutory limits.

In George, the parties divorced in 2002 after a 12-year marriage. By agreement, their divorce judgment required the husband to pay alimony for 24 years. In 2013, after passage of the Alimony Reform Act, the husband sought to modify the judgment and terminate alimony based on the statutory time limits. The husband’s complaint was technically premature, as the Act specified that complaints for modification of pre-Act divorce judgments be filed after March 2, 2015. But rather than dismissing the husband’s complaint on this ground, a family-court judge held that the case would qualify for judicial exemption from the statutory time-limits, based on the fact that in 2002 the wife had bargained for 24 years of alimony in exchange for a certain division of property, and had her right to alimony been more limited she likely would have bargained for a different division of property.

On appeal, which the Supreme Judicial Court took on its own motion, the court noted the prematurity of the husband’s action, but also that it could be re-filed now that the statutory date had passed. The court then proceeded to the family court’s substantive ruling, which it found flawed, and discussed the circumstances in which deviation from the statutory limits will be warranted. The court held that a recipient spouse seeking alimony for a longer period than the statute provides will bear the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a longer alimony period is required in the interests of justice. The court’s focus should be on the parties’ circumstances at the time the deviation is sought, rather than, in a case such as this one, the circumstances at the time of the divorce.

In this case, the court held, the family-court judge erred in relying on the rationale that the wife “likely would have bargained for a different division of property” had she anticipated a shorter alimony period, because (1) there was nothing in the record to support this finding; and (2) the same logic would apply in every case pre-dating the Act, and thereby undermine the legislature’s clear intent that the Act’s time limits would apply to and override many pre-Act alimony awards. The court thus instructed that upon re-filing of the husband’s complaint, the family court should more broadly consider whether the present interests of justice warranted extension of the alimony period.