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Chin v. Merriot, 470 Mass. 527, 23 N.E. 3d 929 (2015)

In Chin v. Merriot, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that retirement and cohabitation provisions of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 only apply prospectively. Specifically, the Court held that: “alimony judgments entered prior to the alimony reform act may be modified only under the existing material change in circumstances standard, with the single exception that the new durational limits of the act will be considered a material change of circumstances….”

The parties were divorced in 2011 after twelve years of marriage. The husband was 67 years old and the wife was 69 years old. The parties entered into a separation agreement, which was incorporated into the judgment of divorce, which provided that the husband pay the wife $650 per month in alimony until “death of either party or the wife’s remarriage.” The husband sought to terminate alimony in 2013, asserting that he had reached age 65, “full retirement age” as defined by M.G.L. c. 208, §48. The trial court concluded the Alimony Reform Act of 2011, St. 2011 c. 124, made effective on March 1, 2012, seven months before entry of the parties’ judgment of divorce, did not apply retroactively, to divorce judgments of general term alimony. The trial court further concluded that the husband failed to show a material change in circumstances warranting a modification. The husband appealed.

The Supreme Judicial Court, in agreement with the trial court, held that both the retirement and cohabitation provisions in the act applied prospectively. The Court noted that the provisions contained in St. 2011, c. 124, §§4-6 (uncodified sections) reflect the Legislature’s clear intent to have the act apply prospectively, except as to “durational limits” which is based on length of marriage. The Supreme Judicial Court noted that uncodified §§4 through 6 “describe whether, to what extent, and when the act will be applied to alimony judgments in existence prior to that date.” Specifically, uncodified §4(a) states that M.G.L. c. 208, §49 “shall apply prospectively, such that alimony judgment entered before March 1, 2012 shall terminate only under such judgment, under subsequent modification or as otherwise provided for in this act.”

The Court found that §4 clearly denotes that judgments entered before March 1, 2012 “may terminate ‘only under such judgments.’” The Court interpreted that to mean that pre- March 1, 2012 judgments may terminate only in accordance with provisions regarding termination contained within the existing judgment either by a judge following trial or by agreement of the parties. Said judgment would also be subject to a modification based on a material change in circumstances. The Supreme Judicial Court concluded: “[t]hus, an order for alimony in a divorce judgment that entered prior to March 1, 2012, includes as part of its terms, the standards for modification existing at the time of the judgment entered, unless the parties explicitly agreed otherwise, or the alimony reform act itself unequivocally provides a specific exception that a provision governing modification is to have retroactive effect.”

Furthermore, the second clause of uncodified §4(a) provides that alimony judgments that entered prior to March 1, 2012 may be terminated “only…under a subsequent modification.” Pursuant to Commonwealth v. Magnus M., 461 Mass. 459, 961 N.E.2d 581 (2012), the Supreme Judicial Court interprets words in a statute “in the light of the other words surrounding them.” As a result, the Court concluded that since the phrase “under such judgments” immediately proceeds the phrase “under a subsequent modification,” that the Legislature “intended the latter to refer to the former, and that the language of the alimony reform act must be read to state that alimony judgments entered prior to March 1, 2012, may terminate only under a ‘subsequent modification’ of such judgments,” pursuant to the terms and standards of a modification existing when the judgment was entered. The Court reiterated that the mere filing of a complaint seeking to modify a pre-March 1, 2012 judgment could not be what the Legislature intended by a “subsequent modification,” as it would disregard other provisions contained in §§4, 5, and 6. The Court found the Legislature’s intent to be “unambiguous” since §4(b) clearly states that M.G.L. c. 208, §48 to 55, which include the retirement and cohabitation provisions, “shall not be deemed a material change in circumstances that warrants modification of the amount of existing judgments; provided, however, that existing alimony judgments that exceed durational limits…shall be deemed a material change of circumstances.” The Court concluded that the provisions contained in §49(d) and (f) would not warrant relief absent a material change in circumstances.

The Court then examined the third clause in §4(a), which states that M.G.L. c. 208, §49 “shall apply prospectively” except “as otherwise provided for in this act.” Although the husband argued that cohabitation and retirement provisions would fall within this phrase, the Supreme Judicial Court disagreed. The Court firmly stated that such a reading would “render[] meaningless the specific exclusions… set forth in uncodified section §4(b).” The Court further refused to adopt the husband’s reading which would, in essence, require the Court to “read into the statue provision language that the Legislature did not include.” The Court found the husband’s position inconsistent with the over-all scheme of the Act.

The Court declined to disturb the trial court’s finding that no other circumstances warranted an adjustment in alimony.

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