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Alimony Reform Does Not Apply Retroactively

Massachusetts completely reformed its alimony laws as of March 1, 2012.  Since then, there has been a lot of uncertainty when it comes to how the new law is applied to old cases and existing cases.  One of the main questions is whether or not the law would apply retroactively to parties with completed cases with alimony.  The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) just answered that question and it is mostly “no”.

The case is Chin v. Merriot.  To quickly summarize the facts of that case: the parties were divorce shortly before the alimony reform law came into effect.  The parties were married for approximately 13 years.  It provided that the husband pay alimony to the wife until death or the wife’s remarriage.  After the new alimony reform law took effect, husband filed to modify his alimony obligation citing the new law that if he reached full retirement age, his alimony obligation should terminate or in the alternative, because his now ex-wife is cohabiting with someone, under the new law, her alimony should be terminated.

The SJC’s was tasked to answer whether the new alimony law applies retroactively to old cases.  If it does, then husband’s obligation to pay alimony would stop because he’s already reached full retirement age.  If it doesn’t, then husband’s alimony obligation shall continue.

The SJC looked at the codified statute and also to the legislatively intent by reviewing the Alimony Reform Act in its entirely, even the parts that were not codified into statute.  After reviewing the full Alimony Reform Act, it determined that the clear language of the Act dictates that the new Alimony Reform Act applies prospectively and the only part that can be applied retroactively is if the alimony duration exceeds those dictated by the new law.  In short, for old alimony judgments, you can only modify or change the length of your alimony payments, not the amount.

For the husband in this case, he lost on both of his arguments that alimony should stop since he reached retirement age and that his now ex-wife is cohabiting with someone.  Does that mean that he’ll pay alimony for the rest of his life?  No.  He is allowed to modify the duration of his alimony obligation but only when under the new Alimony Reform Act, his alimony obligation is suppose to stop.  Since he had a 13 year marriage, he’ll be obligated to pay alimony for 70% of the length of the marriage.  Once he has fulfilled that 70% obligation, he can then go back and ask for a modification even before the death of either party or remarriage of the wife.

This case teaches us that it’s very important to fully analyze the text of the new alimony statute and also the entire Alimony Reform Act passed by the legislature.  Every case presents a different set of facts so it’s important to fully review the law and apply it to your own set of facts.  If you have a question about alimony and how the new law applies to your situation, call an experienced family law attorney for help.

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