Casner & Edwards

Client Alert: Alimony Reform Act Durational Limits


Two new decisions from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (the “SJC”), Popp v. Popp and Van Arsdale v. Van Arsdale, have affirmed the constitutionality of the retroactive application of the durational limits set forth in the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 (the “Act”). The durational limits, outlined in G. L. c. 208, s. 49(b) of the Act, provide termination dates for general term alimony obligations arising from marriages lasting fewer than twenty (20) years.[1] For example, under G. L. c. 208, s. 49(b)(1), where the length of the marriage is 5 years or less, the duration of the payor’s general term alimony obligation is not to exceed fifty percent (50%) of the number of months of the marriage.[2] The SJC previously determined that these durational limits may be applied retroactively to alimony judgments that entered before the Act’s effective date.[3]

The Van Arsdale and Popp rulings address whether this retroactive application is constitutional.[4] The opinions make clear that the retroactive application of the durational limits to alimony agreements entered into prior to the Act are constitutional because the statute does not attach “new legal consequences to events completed before its enactment.”[5]

In the Van Arsdale case, the parties divorced after eighteen (18) years of marriage. The parties’ separation agreement provided that the Husband would pay $3,333.33 in monthly alimony to the Wife until either party’s death or the Wife’s remarriage. Additionally, the parties agreed to review the Husband’s alimony obligation when the parties’ youngest child became emancipated and when the Husband retired from full-time employment, provided he was at least sixty-two (62) years of age. In 2015, the Husband sought to terminate his alimony obligation based upon the durational limits set forth in the Act. The Wife argued that he should not be allowed to do this because it would require the retroactive application of the durational limits to an agreement that pre-dated the Act, and that such a retroactive application was unconstitutional.

The SJC did not agree. It determined that the retroactive application of the durational limits to alimony agreements entered into prior to the Act is constitutional because it does not, in essence, have a retroactive effect. In other words, the Act does not impose a result on alimony that was due and owing prior to the Act; changes by a court pursuant to the Act would be prospective concerning alimony payments to occur in the future. The Court reasoned that because the retroactive application of the durational limits did not “attach new legal consequences to events completed before its enactment,” it was not unconstitutional.[6] Therefore, the Court affirmed that certain agreements entered into prior to the Act’s existence are still subject to the durational limits set forth in the Act.

These cases highlight the importance of the retroactive effect of the durational limits contained within the Act. Many separation agreements drafted prior to the Act’s enactment contain clauses similar to the one outlined in the Van Arsdale case. It is advisable that clients have their attorneys review their separation agreements to determine whether there are any alimony-change implications stemming from the changes outlined in the Act. Both alimony payors and alimony recipients should be cognizant of the retroactive application of the durational limits.

Please feel free to contact the members of the Family Law Group at Casner & Edwards with any questions on this decision.

 

[1] If the length of the marriage is 10 years or less, but more than 5 years, general term alimony shall continue for not longer than 60 per cent (60%) of the number of months of the marriage. If the length of the marriage is 15 years or less, but more than 10 years, general term alimony shall continue for not longer than 70 per cent (70%) of the number of months of the marriage. If the length of the marriage is 20 years or less, but more than 15 years, general term alimony shall continue for not longer than 80 per cent (80%) of the number of months of the marriage. The court may order alimony for an indefinite length of time for marriages for which the length of the marriage was longer than 20 years. G. L. c. 208, § 49(b)(2)-(4), G. L. c. 208, § 49(c)

[2] It is important to note that at the time of the initial alimony judgment, the court may deviate from the termination dates for good cause shown provided, the court enters written findings of the reasons for deviation. In addition, the presumption that alimony should terminate in accordance with the durational limits set forth in G. L. c. 208, § 49(b) may be overcome by showing that the payment of alimony beyond the relevant durational limit is "required in the interests of justice." George v. George, 476 Mass. 65, 69-70 (2016).

[3] George v. George, 476 Mass. 65 (2016). See Chin v. Merriot, 470 Mass. 527, 536 (2015); Rodman v. Rodman, 470 Mass 539 (2014).

[4] The Popp case refers to the analysis set forth Van Arsdale in determining that the retroactive application of the durational limits of the Act is constitutional.

[5] Landgraf v. USI Film Prods., 511 U.S. 244 (1970)

[6] Id. at

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