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Appellate Questions on Alimony Termination – You Decide!


UPDATE: The SJC decided all three of these cases on 1/30/2015.  Our post regarding the decisions can be read here: Lifetime Alimony is Back (for some)! - Chin v. Merriot

Original Post:

There are three appeals pending before the Massachusetts SJC which will significantly impact how the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 is interpreted by the courts.  All three cases have to do with whether the parts of the Act can apply when modifying Judgments or Agreements entered prior to the Act’s effective date (March 1, 2012).  Each case deals with a slightly different component of this issue:

Doktor v. Doktor (SJC-11727) presents the question of whether the Act's provision regarding termination of general term alimony upon full retirement age (see M.G. L. c. 208, § 49f) applies to a divorce judgment that predates the Act, where the payor reaches retirement age after the effective date of the Act.  In addition, the case should address whether, and how, the parties' respective assets should be considered in determining the continuing need for, and ability to pay, alimony after retirement.  If the Act's termination on retirement clause applies to this Judgment, then the lower court erred in dismissing the husband's Complaint for Modification of alimony due to his retirement.  Oral Arguments, which occurred on October 6, 2014, can be seen here.

Rodman v. Rodman (SJC-11726) presents the question of whether the provision of the Act regarding termination of general term alimony upon full retirement age (see M.G. L. c. 208, § 49f) applies to a divorce judgment that predates the Act, where the payor reaches retirement age after the effective date of the Act.  If the Act's termination on retirement clause applies to this Judgment, then the lower court shall consider the husband's Complaint for Modification of alimony due to his retirement.  Oral Arguments, which occurred on October 6, 2014, can be seen here.

Chin v. Merriot (SJC-11715) presents the question of whether  the provision of the Act regarding suspension, reduction, and termination of general term alimony based on a recipient spouse's cohabitation with another (see M.G. L. c. 208, § 49d) applies to a divorce judgment that predates the act, where the cohabitation began before the effective date of the Act and continues after the Act became effective.  In addition, the case also asks whether the provision of the act concerning the termination of general term alimony upon full retirement age applies to a divorce judgment that predates the Act, where the payor reaches retirement age after the effective date of the Act. If the Act's termination on retirement clause or cohabitation clause applies to this Judgment, then the lower court erred in dismissing the husband's Complaint for Modification of alimony. Oral Arguments, which occurred on October 6, 2014, can be seen here.

The intent of the Act, according to Steve Hitner of Mass Alimony Reform was to apply retroactively as the plaintiff's in these actions are trying to do.  He was on the Task Force so he should know.  However, others have argued that the strict language of the statute requires exactly the opposite.

I think that the statutory construction question is whether the term "durational limits" includes only the duration limits in section 49(b) or also includes the termination language in section 49(f) and 49(d).  While both sides (as is typical in litigation) argue that there view is obviously correct, the reality is that there was an unfortunate ambiguity left in the way the statute was drafted.  If it referred directly to the sections by letter, there would be no ambiguity. 

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