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In George, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (“SJC”) upheld the trial judge’s denial of relief on a complaint to terminate an alimony obligation on the grounds that the complaint was prematurely filed in light of uncodified §5 of the Alimony Reform Act, which provides a phase-in period for when complaints for modification may be filed by payor spouses “solely because the alimony judgment exceeds the durational limits.” St. 2011, c. 124, §§ 4, 5. The SJC also provided guidance for how judges of the Probate and Family Court should apply the M.G.L. c. 208, §49(b) “interests of justice” standard when determining whether alimony payments can continue beyond the durational limits of the Act.
The parties were married in June, 1989 and were divorced in November, 2002. The alimony provision of the parties’ separation agreement, which merged into the divorce judgment, provided that the husband was to pay the wife $1,800 per month in alimony. The husband filed a complaint for modification on August 26, 2013, requesting that alimony be terminated as the durational limits of the Act called for termination of the obligation based on the length of the parties’ 12-year marriage.
The SJC affirmed the denial of relief on the grounds that the husband’s complaint was filed prematurely. Uncodified §5 of the Act provides a phase-in period for complaints for modification of alimony solely on the applicable durational limits. St. 2011, c. 124, §§ 4, 5. As the husband’s marriage lasted fewer than 15 years but more than 10 years, his complaint for modification could be filed no earlier than March 1, 2015.
The SJC also discussed the deviation standard under M.G.L. c. 208, §49(b)(3), which provides a process by which judges may deviate from the alimony durational limit when doing so is “required in the interests of justice.” The SJC concluded that the trial judge must make written findings of fact based on evidence to determine whether the “interests of justice” require alimony payments to continue beyond the durational limits of the Act. The recipient spouse would bear the burden by proving, “by a preponderance of the evidence” that deviation is “required in the interests of justice.” Furthermore, the trial judge should evaluate the circumstances of the parties at the time the deviation is sought, rather than focusing on the parties’ circumstances at the time of divorce. The SJC clarified that the judge may properly consider relevant factors that existed at the time of the divorce, but which persist until the complaint for modification is filed. The SJC provided an example of this principle as follows:
[I]f at the time of divorce a spouse was disabled and that disability was taken into considerationin setting the initial alimony award, and if that disability persists when the payor spouse files a complaint for modification, the judge may properly consider the impact the disability continues to have on the recipient spouse in determining whether deviation beyond the act’s durational limits is ‘required in the interests of justice.’