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Lalchandani v. Roddy, 86 Mass. App. Ct. 819, 22 N.E. 3d 166 (2015)

In Lalchandani v. Roddy, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held that a husband was not entitled to modification of his alimony obligation even though he had reached retirement age, where his alimony obligation stemmed from a separation agreement which did not merge into the divorce judgment and survived as an independent contract.

The parties divorced in September, 1992 after entering into a Separation Agreement which was incorporated into the judgment of divorce but did not merge and, accordingly, retained independent legal significance. The agreement provided that the husband would pay $4,333 per month in alimony until the earlier of either parties’ death or the wife’s remarriage. The agreement allowed the parties to alter or modify the agreement by signed instrument only. In 1996, the wife filed a contempt against the husband for, in part, unpaid alimony. The parties entered into a stipulation, which was incorporated into a January, 1997 judgment, which provided, in part, that the husband would pay a compromised amount of arrearage to the wife. The parties further agreed not to seek a modification of the alimony obligation until at least January 1, 1999. The agreement further provided that the "moratorium" on a modification was "absolute," except in the event of a total disability.

On March 1, 2013 the husband filed a complaint for modification seeking to terminate alimony alleging that he had obtained full retirement age. The husband’s complaint relied upon §3 of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011, which provides that: "[o]nce issued, general term alimony orders shall terminate upon the payor attaining the full retirement age." Section 5 of the act further provides that March 1, 2013, would be the first date upon which a complaint alleging that payor had reached full retirement ago could be filed. The wife moved to dismiss. The trial court allowed the wife’s motion and concluded that the 1992 agreement and later stipulation both survived as independent contracts and, therefore, were not subject to modification under the act.

The Appeals Court held that although the Act provides that general term alimony terminates upon attaining full retirement age, the provision does not apply to alimony obligations that survive as an independent contract and do not merge into a judgment. The Court noted that §4(c) explicitly precludes modification of a surviving alimony obligation:

[u]nder no circumstances shall [the act] provide a right to seek or receive modification of an existing alimony judgment in which the parties have agreed that their alimony judgment is not modifiable, or in which the parties have expressed their intention that their agreed alimony provisions survive the judgment and are therefore not modifiable.

The husband further argued that he was entitled to the benefit of the act because the parties reserved the right to modify their agreement in the future by written agreement and the stipulation contemplated future modifications. The Appeal’s Court, however, disagreed, holding that both agreements, by their own terms, remained independent contracts not subject to a modification.

The husband additionally argued that the 1996 stipulation served as a waiver to the surviving nature of the 1992 agreement. The Court further disagreed and upheld the trial court’s finding that "the agreement to modify one term or provision of another surviving agreement does not open the door to further modifications." The Court further noted that the stipulation, in fact, reaffirmed the termination of alimony provisions as it appears in the Separation Agreement.

The Court further dismissed the husband’s claim that the trial court considered extrinsic evidence when evaluating his Rule 12(b)(6) motion, and affirmed the trial court’s order allowing the wife’s motion to dismiss.