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Massachusetts Alimony Reform Finally Signed Into Law

On September 26, 2011 Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed into law major reforms to the state's alimony system. The bill, which passed unanimously in both the House and Senate, attempts to modernize the state's alimony laws and largely abolishes lifetime spousal support.

Previous attempts at alimony reform had failed to receive enough support from legislators. This led the state to create a task force in 2009 to examine current alimony laws and provide recommendations. The task force included Massachusetts family law attorneys and other advocates who frequently had differing goals and viewpoints. Eventually, however, the group arrived at a series of alimony reforms they could all support.

Gov. Patrick called the law "an important set of reforms to modernize and make more fair the alimony system."

The most common criticism of the previous alimony system was that it allowed lifelong alimony to be awarded even after short-term marriages. Judges could also require alimony payments to continue even after the spouse receiving payments cohabited with a new partner or the spouse making payments retired.

Many activists from the grass roots group Massachusetts Alimony Reform shared "horror stories" with legislators about unfair and never-ending alimony payments. Steve Hitner, the group's president, explained his view of the previous alimony law, "It put a lot of people in the poorhouse," he stated, "It made people never able to retire." Critics of the previous alimony system claim reform was long overdue.

Reaction to Reforms

Those involved with the drafting of the new law feel it is beneficial for those on both sides of the issue. "It's a good bill that balanced the needs of the payees and those who are paying their spouses," stated family law attorney Denise Squillante, a past president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, who was involved in writing the bill.

Not everyone, however, is pleased with the reforms. Some critics are concerned that the new law does not allow for enough flexibility based on individual circumstances, especially with regard to women who give up their job to raise children. "It's arbitrary to have cutoff periods that effectively make it harder for that opportunity loss to be valued in the Washington state divorce online," explained Wendy Murphy, an adjunct law professor from New England Law in Boston.

Major Changes to the Massachusetts Alimony System

The new alimony law will become effective on March 1 , 2012. It makes a variety of reforms including setting time limits on the duration of alimony based on how long a couple was married and allowing most alimony payments to stop at retirement. Payments may also be suspended if the spouse receiving alimony begins living with a new partner.

Under the new reforms, if a couple is married five years or less, the length of alimony could not exceed half the length of the marriage. For example, if a couple was married for four years, alimony could only last up to two years. For marriages that lasted 15 to 20 years, alimony payments could last up to 80 percent of the marriage duration.

The law still allows for indefinite alimony to be awarded for long-term marriages. Reimbursement alimony can also be ordered if, for example, one spouse paid for the other's college tuition.

Moreover, numerous factors will be considered when determining the need and amount of Massachusetts alimony or spousal support payments including: marriage duration, income, age, employability and conduct during the time of the marriage. This will hopefully bring fairness and clarity to the alimony system. "Judges will now be able to consider the facts of each case in determining alimony orders," explained Squillante.

Wider Implications

A spokesperson for the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers said Massachusetts' alimony law has gone from one extreme - allowing for permanent alimony awards, to the other - having specific rules for termination. She thinks the law could start a trend across the country of states setting more precise guidelines for determining the duration of alimony. Currently, the alimony laws of most states allow for much more discretion when determining alimony awards.

What About My Current Alimony Order?

Those whose current alimony orders exceed the time limits laid out in the new law may file for modifications according to specific timeline. There is some uncertainty, however, with how judges may apply the new law in established spousal support cases. This makes the knowledge and experience of a Massachusetts family law attorney extremely valuable. A lawyer can discuss your available options and help you pursue the course of action determined to be in your best interest.

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