Supreme Judicial Court holds that Temporary Alimony does not count in the calculation of general term alimony duration
On March 1, 2012 the new Alimony Reform Law went into effect. As with any new law, questions arose about particular situations not predicted in the statute, and it takes time for the courts to interpret the new law. Sometimes a consensus arises among trial judges, but often a split of opinions occur. At that point, the Appeals Court or the state’s highest court, the Supreme Judicial Court “SJC”), steps in and settles the matter.
The SJC did just that recently in a case called Holmes v. Holmes (SJC-11538, 2014). You can read the entire court opinion here.
In the Holmes case, the parties were embroiled in divorce litigation for more than two years, during which the Husband was ordered to pay “Temporary Alimony” of $368 per week. He paid that from June, 2006 until October, 2008 when the final divorce judgment was entered which ordered him to pay alimony of $700 per week. (This was all before the enactment of the Alimony Reform Law, thus no termination date was specified.)
In 2011, the Wife filed a Complaint for Modification seeking an increase in alimony because of an illness and reduced income, and the Husband’s increased income. The Husband countered seeking a reduction because their middle child was residing with him, and the Alimony Reform Act entitled him to a modification to apply a duration limit. The trial judge entered a judgment which did not reduce the total support amount paid , but did re-characterize more of it as alimony instead of child support. Since the Wife’s earnings were reduced due to her illness, this had the effect of giving the Husband an important tax deduction without costing the Wife any additional income tax. The trial judge also set a limit on alimony in accordance with the new statute: alimony would now end upon (a) the death of either party; (b) the wife’s remarriage; (c) the husband’s attainment of full social security retirement age; or (d) October 7, 2020, whichever came first. That last date was determined by applying the new Alimony Reform Law.
In setting the termination date, the judge calculated the length of the marriage (fifteen years) and the maximum presumptive duration of general term alimony under the reform act for a marriage of that length (80% of 15 years, or twelve years). However, in arriving at October 7, 2020, the judge did not subtract the two years during which temporary alimony was paid while the divorce was pending.
The Husband appealed, claiming the commencement of the 12-year period should have been in 2006 when he started paying Temporary Alimony, not 2008 when the final divorce judgment was entered.
The SJC ruled that “Temporary Alimony” is not the same as the four forms of alimony defined under the Alimony Reform Act. The Court said simply:
“We conclude that temporary alimony is separate and distinct from general term alimony, and that the duration of temporary alimony is not included in calculating the maximum presumptive duration of general term alimony.”
The Court based its reasoning on the fact that the Alimony Reform Act only modified G.L. c. 208 section 34, which dealt with “post-judgment” alimony. “Temporary Alimony”, on the other hand, was authorized by the legislature in another statute, G.L. c. 208 section 17. The Alimony Reform Act did not modify the temporary alimony statute; indeed, it observed the difference in the two. This implied that the legislature intended the durational limits of the Alimony Reform Act to apply only to post-judgment alimony; that is, from the date of the divorce judgment onward.
That is not to say that one can benefit from dragging the divorce case out for years. The SJC also ruled:
“Where temporary alimony is unusually long in duration or where the party receiving temporary alimony has caused unfair delay in the issuance of a final judgment in order to prolong the length of time in which alimony may be paid, a judge in her discretion may consider the duration of temporary alimony in determining the duration of general term alimony.”