Alimony Reform Proposed in Massachusetts

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Massachusetts lawmakers could soon change the state’s standard lifetime alimony awards with awards that expire at the payer’s retirement age and offer more room for modification. The changes could also end Massachusetts’ unusual rules that require a second wife to pay alimony to the first in cases of income loss by the husband.

Two legislative bills would put the state’s alimony laws in line with its New England neighbors. A state House bill would limit awards to half the marriage duration, with a maximum of 12 years and an automatic end of payments when the payer turns 65. Awards also would shrink by 10 percent per year after five years. The bill attracted a near-record number of sponsors last year.

A more limited Senate bill would allow greater judicial discretion than either current practice or the House proposal, but would also limit alimony awards to shorter durations. Both bills had public hearings in September, but the House has not yet voted on the proposal.

Massachusetts Alimony Reform, a group formed to support the House bill, argues the legislation would support self-sufficiency and independence and allow alimony payers to retire at a reasonable age. However, they also back provisions in the bill that would allow more judicial discretion and protections for partners who are unable to work. They say the Senate bill would not go far enough. On the other hand, the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts argues the House bill is overreaching and supports the Senate proposal.

In a March Boston Herald article, attorneys Charla Bizios Stevens and Erin Harris cite a widely publicized state Supreme Court decision that illustrates the unusual status of alimony law in Massachusetts today.

A retired lawyer requested elimination of his $110,000 annual alimony after leaving his job because he was then earning less than his ex-wife, who also had more than $1 million in assets. The lower court had reduced the man’s alimony payments, but both courts agreed the alimony payments must continue according to state law.

About half of all U.S. marriages end in divorce, so alimony reform could affect a large percentage of the Massachusetts population. In 2007, nearly 600,000 U.S. taxpayers paid more than $9 billion in alimony. This includes nearly 60,000 taxpayers who earn less than $50,000 a year and pay about 20 percent of their income in alimony.

If you have any questions about Massachusetts alimony bills and how they may have an impact on you and your situation regarding alimony, please consult with an experience family law attorney in your area.