In the law, different fact scenarios can make what should be an easy determination a hard one.
Take the durational limits of the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act of 2011. At first glance, there seem to be very easy calculations — the duration of alimony is based on the length of the marriage. For example, under the new law, in a marriage of more than five but less than ten years, alimony should last no longer than 60% of the number of months of the marriage. Simple, right? Not so fast. The durational timeframes become less clear after a careful review of the statute. Putting reasons for deviation aside, one question that has arisen is: when does the clock on alimony begin to run? Often in the early stages of a divorce case, one spouse begins to pay alimony to the other under a Temporary Order. The time between the Temporary Order and the Final Divorce can be many months, and sometimes years, so does the clock begin to run during the Temporary Order period, or does it start at the time of the Divorce Judgment? From the payor’s perspective, it seems unfair to pay alimony for a year (for example) under a Temporary Order, and then have to pay it for the full 60% number of months once the Divorce Judgment enters. From the recipient’s perspective, temporary alimony is frequently paid to help maintain the status quo and preserve marital assets, and the recipient should not be penalized for that pre-divorce period by a shortened alimony order after the divorce.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently weighed in on this very issue. In Holmes v. Holmes, 467 Mass 653 (2014), the Court determined that the provisions of the new statute do not allow temporary alimony orders to be included in calculating the duration of alimony based on the length of the marriage. The Court noted that the statute allowing for the payment of temporary alimony (M.G.L. c.208, §17) was not modified or even addressed in the Alimony Reform Act. The Court determined that the Legislature intended the durational limits of the new Act to only apply to alimony that arises from the issuance of a Divorce Judgment –what is now known as “general term alimony.” Since temporary alimony is not general term alimony, the durational limits do not include periods where temporary alimony has been paid. However, the Court also ruled that in circumstances where temporary alimony is paid for an unusually long period of time or where the alimony recipient unfairly delays the final judgment in order to extend alimony, the trial court can consider this in determining that alimony should be paid for a shorter period of time than the presumptive maximum duration. So while we now have one questioned answered regarding the duration of alimony, there are other facts and circumstances which dictate how long alimony will last. In upcoming blogs, we will look at other durational issues, including termination upon retirement, the impact of cohabitation on alimony, and deviations that are within the Court’s discretion.