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Massachusetts Enacts Sweeping Changes to Alimony Law

With the simple stroke of his pen, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick set in motion on September 26, 2011, monumental changes to the commonwealth’s alimony laws. Also called spousal support or spousal maintenance, alimony is money ordered by a court to be paid after divorce to one ex-spouse by the other as financial support, usually on an ongoing basis.

The new law sets out alimony standards that will significantly change the amount and duration of spousal support people can expect to receive or pay.

Spurred in part by a movement in the commonwealth to provide relief to elderly or disabled ex-spouses (mostly men) paying alimony for life to spouses from short-term marriages that ended decades ago, the legislature created a task force of people with a variety of viewpoints to study possible reform to Massachusetts’ traditional alimony system.

The resulting law was passed unanimously by both legislative branches.

While most people familiar with Massachusetts family law feel the changes will make alimony orders more fair overall, some critics fear that the new system will be too rigid to compassionately adjust to unique situations or may be harmful to women in traditional marriages.

Modification of Pre-Existing Alimony Orders

Some people subject to alimony orders entered before the new law will probably experience major modifications in what they will receive or pay out, especially in lifetime or long-term awards. The law makes some types of pre-existing awards eligible for possible modification according to a detailed schedule that kicks in after the new law takes effect on March 1, 2012.

The schedule of when a person can file for modification of an old award will depend on the duration of the marriage and whether the payor has reached retirement age under Social Security law.

New Alimony Categories

The new law divides alimony into four new categories with these general provisions, many of which can be deviated from by the court under certain circumstances:

  • General term: General term alimony will be ordered when the receiving spouse is “economically dependent”; will terminate with recipient remarriage; may be modified with recipient cohabitation; will terminate when the paying spouse reaches “full retirement age”; will have duration set according to the length of the marriage; modifiable.
  • Rehabilitative: Rehabilitative alimony is to allow the receiving spouse to “become economically self-sufficient” and is ordered for up to five years; will terminate with recipient remarriage or a “specific event”; modifiable.
  • Reimbursement: Reimbursement alimony is for a marriage of less than five years when one spouse contributed to the other’s financial well being like by enabling him or her to complete school; not modifiable.
  • Transitional: Transitional alimony allows the receiving spouse to transition to “an adjusted lifestyle or location” in a marriage of up to five years; payment may not be longer than three years; not modifiable.

This article takes a quick look at the new law and leaves out many details and nuances. Anyone facing divorce or subject to an existing alimony order in Massachusetts should consult with an experienced family law attorney who is up to date on the sweeping changes to the spousal support law for advice on how to proceed in his or her particular situation.

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