Understanding the “Reform” in the Alimony Reform Act

Effective March 1, 2012, the Alimony Reform Act governs the issue of alimony in Massachusetts divorces.  People hear the words “Alimony Reform” and envision — for better or worse (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) — sweeping changes in how alimony is handled in divorces.

Yes, the Alimony Reform Act made some changes.  Labels aside, however, the Act does not entirely “reform” the issue of alimony.  Rather, it provides greater certainty in cases where alimony is appropriate.  So, I guess they should have called it the “Alimony Clarification Act” – but that just doesn’t sound as snappy, does it?

Historically, alimony is deemed appropriate where the recipient spouse has a “need” for financial support and the payor spouse has the “ability to pay.”  “Need” and “ability to pay” are the cornerstones of the alimony analysis, and this has not changed with the passage of the Alimony Reform Act.  Judges will continue to first determine whether “need” and “ability to pay” exist in a particular case.  This determination is based on factors contained in M.G.L. c. 208, section 34 – such as, the length of the marriage, the standard of living the parties enjoyed during the marriage, the parties’ respective contributions to the marital partnership and the parties’ future earning capacities.  If, based on the Section 34 factors, both “need” and “ability to pay” exist, then we have what attorneys and judges often refer to as “an alimony case.”  If one spouse does not “need” support or the other has no “ability to pay,” then there is no “alimony case” and the Act changes nothing.

For parties with children and a combined annual household income of less than $100,000, alimony is usually not an issue in divorce.  This is because the combined available income will be used to calculate an appropriate child support order.  For instance, assume that divorcing spouses have two young children.  Spouse A has primary physical custody of the children, earns an annual gross income of $25,000 (about $481 weekly) and pays $150 weekly for child care.  Spouse B has an annual gross income of $75,000 (about $1,442 weekly), carries the family’s health insurance at a cost of $75 weekly, and will have parenting time with the children based on a schedule that either the parties agree upon or a judge decides.  In this scenario, and under the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, Spouse B will likely pay Spouse A weekly child support of $360.  You can run the guidelines using different income assumptions by clicking on this link.  http://www.mass.gov/dor/child-support/guidelines.html

The above hypothetical is not an “alimony case” because all available income has been used to calculate child support.  The Alimony Reform Act has no impact on this case, at least at this point in time (although alimony could become an issue for these parties when their children are grown, but that is a topic for a future post.)

What happens upon divorce, however, if the above parties do not have children, or if Spouse B’s annual income is $175,000?  Then, we may have an “alimony case.”  In a future post, I will talk about how the Alimony Reform Act has changed (somewhat) the rules regarding the type and amount of alimony paid, and the length of time over which alimony is paid.