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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Alimony Reform and Child Support: What will Change?

UPDATE: The Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act of 2011 was signed by the Governor on September 26, 2011. The new law, which becomes effective March 1, 2012, makes significant changes to alimony in Massachusetts. Read more about these changes here.

The Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act of 2011 has been passed by both the House and the Senate and now awaits the Governor's signature. Once it is passed, which is almost assured at this point, there will be many questions about how it is implemented. The one I am receiving most often already is:

How will alimony be calculated in cases with child support?

The section of the Alimony Reform Act that addresses this question is Section 6(c):

"For purposes of setting an alimony order, the court shall exclude from its income calculation:

(1) Capital gain income and dividend and interest income which derives from assets equitably divided between the parties under Section 34; and

(2) Gross income which the court has already considered for setting a child support order whether pursuant to the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines or otherwise; provided that nothing in this section shall limit the court’s discretion to cast a presumptive child support order under the Child Support Guidelines in terms of unallocated or undifferentiated alimony and child support."

As indicated, the Alimony Reform Act would exclude from any General Term Alimony calculation gross income which was already used to calculate child support. Since the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines presumptively apply up to a total gross income of $250,000, many practitioners read this section to mean that any cases where the total gross income does not exceed $250,000 will not have alimony if they have child support. This is the most obvious reading of the section, and was the intention as described by one of the drafters on the Joint Task Force at a recent conference I attended (I won't call her out by name but she is a lawyer who clearly understood the implications).

There has been some outrage over this interpretation because it is one of the most significant changes this law makes to presumptive alimony in child support cases. However, there are exceptions, which I will detail below.

Before I tell you the exceptions, though, let's examine if this is truly unfair (or at least inconsistent with the rest of the Act):

Sample Case:

The Act contains a formula for calculating the maximum alimony award as follows: "the amount of alimony should generally not exceed the recipient’s need or 30 percent to 35 percent of the difference between the parties gross incomes established at the time of the order being issued."

This means that if the higher-earning spouse (let's use the name Chris) earns $125,000 and the lower-earning spouse (Pat) earns $25,000 in gross income, then alimony should not exceed $30,000 to $35,000 per year. This assumes no child support, that Pat has a need for support, and that the marriage is of sufficient length to warrant support. If we use the average of $32,500 then Chris' after payment income is $92,500 and Pat's is $57,500, and all of Pat's $57,500 will be taxable income. Assuming an effective tax rate of 15%, Pat ends up with $48,875 in net income.

Now let's add children. Chris still earns $125,000 and Pat earns $25,000. Chris is the non-custodial parent and Pat is the custodial parent. Child Support by the guidelines (assuming no other expenses for simplicity) is $510 per week, $26,520 per year. Since all of Chris' income was taken into account for child support guidelines, the Alimony Reform Act would indicate that none is left to consider for alimony. Chris' after payment income is $98,480 and Pat's is $51,520, but only $25,000 of this is taxable income to Pat. Again assuming an effective tax rate of 15%, Pat ends up with $47,770 in net income. In addition, Chris is still paying tax on $125,000 in income.

As you can see, although Pat is receiving almost $6,000 less in support, when you take into account the taxation of alimony vs. the tax-free nature of child support, the effective support that Pat is receiving from child support is only about $1,000 less. And this difference is not necessarily going to Chris, rather it is being taxed by Uncle Sam.

Given the tax-free nature of child support to the recipient, in cases where all of the income is considered in calculating child support, the Alimony Reform Act's exclusion of that income from calculating alimony is consistent with the caps that they have proposed on total support. Of course, these numbers won't work out the same at all income levels. The differences will be greater as the gap in incomes becomes greater. And while it may seem foolish to pay that extra money to the tax-man, the drafters did provide for an alternative by allowing the Judges to have discretion on assigning some of child support as unallocated support.

Exceptions:

Furthermore, there are exceptions which can also help crafty attorneys get around this child support limitation in the Alimony Reform Act. In setting any alimony order the Judges are not completely limited by this formula and can vary depending on numerous circumstances:

"Grounds for deviation may include:

(1) Advanced age; chronic illness; or unusual health circumstances of either party;

(2) Tax considerations applicable to the parties;

(3) Whether the payor spouse is providing health insurance and the cost of heath insurance for the recipient spouse;

(4) Whether the payor spouse has been ordered to secure life insurance for the benefit of the recipient spouse and the cost of such insurance;

(5) Sources and amounts of unearned income, including capital gains, interest and dividends, annuity and investment income from assets that were not allocated in the parties divorce;

(6) Significant premarital cohabitation that included economic partnership and/or marital separation of significant duration, each of which the court may consider in determining the length of the marriage;

(7) A party’s inability to provide for his or her own support by reason of physical or mental abuse by the payor;

(8) A party’s inability to provide for his or her own support by reason of a party’s deficiency’s of property, maintenance or employment opportunity; and

(9) Upon written findings, any other factor that the court deems relevant and material."

Aside from the fact that there is a broad catch-all in number 9, the most obvious and useful tool in arriving at a more fair balance of child support and alimony in any case is deviation factor number 2: Tax considerations applicable to the parties. In the example used above, even if Chris and Pat have children, restructuring the support paid by Chris to include some alimony and some child support could result in better tax treatment for the family overall, and greater net income for both.

The Alimony Reform Act simply puts the burden on parties to show these tax considerations to the Judge to assist them in deciding what cases are appropriate for variation. The Judge can then deviate from the guidelines completely, or choose to use a portion of Chris' income in calculating child support and a portion in calculating alimony, a result still consistent with the Section 6(c) limitation.

This ability to deviate, built into the Act, means that the child support limitation is not as limiting as some fear.

The Catch

Yes, there is always a catch. The problem in reaching agreements or judgments that split the total support payment between child support and alimony is that both of these types of payments have different duration. Under the Act, alimony duration is limited by a formula dependent on the length of the marriage, whereas child support duration is limited by the emancipation of the children. These dates may coincide but most likely will not, and the needs of either the children or the lower-earning spouse will need to be taken into account in creating such a deviation.

Finally, as with the rest of the Act, once it becomes effective we will have to see how the Courts of the Commonwealth implement it. Despite our opinion that the reading of this child support section is clear, we are  not on the Appeals or Supreme Court and until they rule there is certainly room for interpretation.

For more information about the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 check out MassAlimonyFormula.com

Click here for a Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines Worksheet.

Thank you to Julia Rueschemeyer for inspiring us to finally write this post.

7 comments:

  1. Well done piece, Justin. The primary take-away from this is that the Alimony Reform Act encourages, and even requires, lawyers to devise creative and customized solutions to the financial issues of each family involved in a divorce.

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  2. How will you calculate child support in a case where the dependent spouse does not have physical custody and the incomes of the parties are grossly disparate?

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  3. Why dont the state just take his pay check and call it a day. With one or two divorces a women good live pretty good in Mass. Guys why get married and deal with that crap... The states are really turing families against one another ,fathers are not in the kids life ....the mother are not letting fathers see their kids, the state is stealing most of the money from the mother , the kids more than likely will be in the criminal justices system around the age of 16, and people wonder why things like the incident in Colorado happen.

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    1. Kids are young. Mother decides that she is staying home with kids and doesn't wortk. Kids go to school and mom still decide to stay home ven though she is professional and can earn or she works in underemployed position while dad has to make things work financially. Divorce happens. Dad expected to still play the breadwinner role. Mom keeps kids and turns kids against dad. Is this fair?

      Word to dads... If she is not partnering financially, call it a day early that way you have your kids and more of your assets.

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  4. Now that the Alimony Reform Act has been around for a little while, does this analysis still hold? Or do you see judges awarding alimony higher than what this analysis would suggest?

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    1. Unfortunately the answer is very lawyerly: it depends. Depending on the facts of each case, Judges vary on whether the straight text approach of excluding income up to $250,000 from the alimony analysis works for that family or not. Clever lawyering in presenting alternative options with tax benefits can also vary the outcome as well. Until we have an appeals case on this issue, which is not on the horizon as far as I am aware, then we are still going to see wide variation between Judges on how this is applied on a case-by-case basis.

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