On March 1, 2012, the Alimony Reform Act took effect, and it included limits on the amount and duration of alimony orders going forward. It was the law before the Act, and still is, after the Act, that alimony orders which are merged into the Judgment are modifiable if there has been a material and significant change in circumstances. The Act also provides that the duration of old orders can be modified based solely on the "durational limits" in the new Act, even if there hasn't been a change in circumstances.
The question that the SJC faced in these three cases is whether the duration of alimony could be modified on pre-Act cases for any limitation in section 49 of the statute, or only based on the specific duration limits that apply to marriages that were less than 20 years in length: section 49(b) only. This is a significant issue because for post-Act cases alimony can be terminated upon reaching full Social Security retirement age, or if the recipient shares a common household with someone new. If these provisions don't apply to pre-Act cases then "lifetime alimony" will continue for any pre-Act alimony payors and recipients who were married for more than 20 years.
The SJC in Chin v. Merriot determined that "both the retirement provision and the cohabitation provision apply prospectively" only. The Court bases its decision on principles of statutory construction which require that each word be given its plain meaning unless otherwise defined. The Act in Section 4 makes an exception for retroactive application only for "existing alimony judgments that exceed the durational limits under [G. L. c. 208, § 49,]." But the Act fails to define "durational limits" beyond its plain meaning, which according to the SJC in both Chin and Rodman, means that the prospective exception can only be referring to section 49(b).
Prior to these decisions, the prevailing belief, which the Act was criticized for (including in this WCVB news report), was that all the duration provisions in section 49 applied retroactively, including the retirement and cohabitation provisions. Some believed this was unfair to recipients who depended on these funds, but many believed the Act allowed for this modification because of the language in section 6 of the act which allows modification to be sought on or after March 1, 2013 by "...any payor who has reached full retirement age, as defined in [G. L. c. 208, § 48,] or who will reach full retirement age on or before March 1, 2015." This section seems superfluous if retirement is not including as a "durational limit."
While this is not addressed in Chin, this argument was raised in the oral argument in Doktor v. Doktor and the SJC explains in Doktor that Section 6 has to be read in conjunction with Section 5 and therefore:
"Read together, uncodified §§ 5 and 6 establish that, where a payor who had been married to a recipient for fewer than twenty years seeks to modify an alimony obligation based on the durational limits of G. L. c. 208, § 49, and the payor also will "reach full retirement age on or before March 1, 2015," the payor may file a complaint for modification on or after March 1, 2013, '[n]otwithstanding clauses (1) to (4) of [§] 5'."Essentially the SJC has decided that Section 6 is just a very narrow exception to the filing dates in Section 5. While I personally believe that it is very unlikely that this was the intention of the legislature or drafters, the reality remains that there was an ambiguity left in the Act which left room for this interpretation. If Section 4 referred directly to the portions of section 49 by letter, there would be no ambiguity. However, it did not and unless the legislature makes a change, now that the high court has ruled there is no longer an ambiguity on how the Act will be applied.
If you settled your case or it went to Judgment prior to March 1, 2012 and your marriage was longer than 20 years, then the same standard does not apply to your case as applies to people divorcing now. Some will think that's fair and others won't, but the bottom line is that for some "lifetime alimony" remains the law... but only for some.