BOSTON – The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday approved significant reforms to the Commonwealth’s alimony law, simplifying and clarifying current definitions and requirements based on recommendations from a special task force that worked hundreds of hours researching the issue, State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D- Pittsfield) announced.
“For years I have heard from many constituents stressing the urgency of reforming alimony proceedings in Massachusetts,” said Downing. “This legislation represents the first comprehensive modernization of our alimony law in more than two decades. It is an informed and carefully-crafted bill that takes into account a wide-range of interests and real-life experiences.”
“The Commonwealth’s alimony law needs updating to make sure we have clear, practical guidelines in place so that all parties are treated fairly and responsibly,” Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) said.
“The measure provides simplified definitions to allow for a clear understanding of the alimony laws for those married or contemplating marriage,” said Senator Gale D. Candaras (D-Wilbraham), lead sponsor of the bill. “It sets out goals of self-sufficiency and remarriage while protecting those who could not care for themselves on account of age or health.”
The legislation presents clear categories of alimony, including general term alimony which is the default form of alimony whereby payments are made to an economically dependent former spouse for a length of time based on the years of a marriage, including short-term marriages of five years or less, which traditionally have been excluded.
For example, if a marriage was five years or less, alimony would be required for no more than one-half of the years married. The length of time for alimony increases with the years of marriage. Alimony for a marriage that lasted more than 15 years, and up to 20, could be ordered for up to 80 percent of the number of months married.
Under the bill, the court would also have discretion to order alimony indefinitely for marriages that lasted more than 20 years. Conversely, general term alimony payments could be reduced, suspended or terminated upon the remarriage or cohabitation of the recipient, the payer reaching the full age of retirement, or the death of either former spouse.
The other categories of alimony in the bill are rehabilitative alimony (payment to recipient expected to become self-sufficient by a specific time), reimbursement alimony (payment to recipient who supported payer in some way during marriage less than five years) and transitional alimony (payment to recipient for change in location after marriage less than five years). Each category contains precise definitions and durational limits to provide a clear expectation of how long alimony will be paid.
The bill also contains protections for alimony recipients who have been abused, are chronically ill, or have been deemed unable to find employment. Additionally, it allows the opportunity for existing court-ordered alimony to be modified to conform to the new standards set out in the bill.
The bill retains the court’s flexibility in hearing divorce cases. Senator Candaras emphasized that the law “specifically provides for the reasons a judge can deviate from the guidelines set out in the bill. Because these cases are fact driven, it is imperative that judges have the discretion.”
The special alimony task force was appointed on October 7, 2009 to review pending alimony reform bills in the legislature’s judiciary committee. After more than a year’s worth of research and testimony, the task force made recommendations, upon which the Senate bill was based.
Senator Candaras and Representative John V. Fernandes were appointed as legislative co-chairs of the task force and were joined by individuals who represented a diverse group of interests including the judiciary, bar associations, private attorneys and advocacy groups.
The measure will now be reconciled with the House of Representative’s version of the bill prior to being sent to the Governor for his signature.