Changes on alimony process in the state of MA - Alimony Reform Act

Anyone paying or receiving alimony in Massachusetts should be aware of important changes that may affect them beginning year 2013 as a result of the new Alimony Reform Act. Alimony is a form of support paid by one spouse to another. The Act, which became effective last year, impacts past and future divorces.

The Act created three major changes to the law:

It set limits on the duration of alimonry based on the length of the marriage and the reason for the need (previously, alimony was usually lifetime).
It enables the judge to terminate, suspend or reduce alimony if the recipient is cohabitating.
It enables the judge to terminate alimony upon the payer’s retirement.

Each of these changes has its own nuance and exceptions, so court decisions will turn on the facts of each case and a judge’s interpretation. Due to the act’s infancy and the absence of established case law, there is little to guide us yet. In view of the changes, many parties are negotiating settlements in order to avoid the uncertainty of court.

Length of the marriage key

Under the Act, the length of the marriage, measured in months, determines the length of the alimony term. The first day of marriage is obvious, but the last day of marriage is the day that the divorce complaint is served. Once the length of the marriage is established, then the length of the alimony term can be determined.

Measuring the duration of alimony is tricky. It’s unclear, for example, whether the first day of alimony occurs while the divorce is pending, after the divorce judgment is entered, or some other date. Since alimony is taxable income to the recipient and deductible to the payer, some judges have said that alimony starts Jan. 1 of the year the alimony becomes income to the recipient and deductible to the payer. If the first day of alimony is uncertain, we can’t calculate with certainty when alimony ends.

The process of terminating alimony’s duration first requires this two-pronged calculation and then vigilance of the calendar. In the legal world, short-term, mid-term and long-term marriages are different and the trigger dates for modifying the alimony term varies.

When to seek a modification

The Act establishes when alimony payers can modify their obligation to shorten their alimony term and establishes a series of trigger dates.

Those married between:
1 and 5 years can now file in court (as of March 1, 2013)
5 and 10 years can seek a modification of their alimony beginning March 1, 2014.
10 and 15 years can file beginning March 1, 2015; and
15 and 20 years can seek a modification in September 2015.

Impact of cohabitation

The act also addresses the impact of a recipient’s cohabitation on alimony. Before the act took effect, cohabitation did not affect alimony. Now, alimony recipients should think carefully about living with another person and how finances are handled between them. Living with a contributing partner now risks the mandatory loss, reduction or suspension of alimony if certain factors are met. Because of the act, judges balance the needs of a burdened alimony payer and the financial need of the former spouse, when deciding whether to terminate, reduce or suspend alimony.


Retirement is the third major changes in the Alimony Reform Act. Retirement age – usually 65 or 66 – is defined by the Social Security Act and is based on date of birth. Before the act, alimony was generally a lifetime obligation due until the death or remarriage of the wife or the death of the husband. Although a retiring person could pay less alimony as his/her income declined, the individual was still obligated to pay about 33 percent of the gross income beyond retirement. Under the act, a retiring person’s alimony obligation ends at retirement unless the judge determines that an exception warrants a longer term.

Whether you receive or pay alimony, it is important to know when it will end. Will it be the pre-determined timeframe or retirement? Might cohabitation present an opportunity for a payer to stop paying?
Thinking through these and many other critical questions can help you, your former spouse, and your attorneys determine an acceptable and civil resolution to your own situation and may eliminate the need for court intervention.

- Hindell S. Grossman (April 2013). Newton Tab, B2