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New Developments Under the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act

The Supreme Judical Court rendered decisions in three cases, Chin v. Merriot, Rodman v. Rodman, and Doktor v. Doktor, to determine whether modification of an obligation to pay periodic or general term alimony that is contained in a merged provision of a divorce judgment is governed by the Alimony Reform Act of 2012, where the act became effective after the date of entry of the judgment.

In the case, Chin v. Merriot, the parties were divorced by a judgment of divorce nisi in August 2011.  At the time of divorce, Chin was sixty-seven years old and Merriot was sixty-nine.  Pursuant to a merged provision of the parties' separation agreement, Chin was obligated to pay alimony to Merriot in the amount of $650 per month until "the death of either or the wife's remarriage."

In March 2013, Chin filed a complaint for modification in which he sought to terminate his alimony obligation.  To support his claim for relief, Chin asserted as "changed circumstance" that he had attained the age of sixty-eight, "full retirement age" as defined by G.L. c. 208, § 48.  He argued that pursuant to G.L. c. 208, § 49 (f) (retirement provision), "general term alimony orders shall terminate upon the payor attaining the full retirement age."  Chin thereafter filed an amended complaint asserting, as a further change in circumstances, that Merriot had "been cohabitating with another person and maintaining a common household" for more than three months.  Cohabitation alone is a basis for termination of alimony under G.L. c. 208, § 49 (d) (cohabitation provision).

The court concluded that the alimony obligation at issue here, both the retirement provision and the cohabitation provision apply prospectively, and therefore afford no basis upon which to terminate the alimony order.

The court looked to the statute governing modification of divorce judgments that were in effect prior to enactment of the alimony reform act to determine whether there had been a material change in the parties' circumstances warranting modification of the amount of alimony.  Based on case precedent, the court rejected the claim that retirement triggers termination of alimony obligation without showing of material change in circumstances, because "no such provision was included within the separation agreement." Thus, Chin was not entitled to relief.

The Rodman v. Rodman case presented with a similar fact pattern to that of Chin v. Merriot.  Rodman argued whether, and in what circumstances, the retirement provision may be applied to modify an alimony judgment that was in existence when the alimony reform act became effective.  He argued that, because his agreement merged with the judgment, it was, under applicable law, always subject to modification based on his having reached the age of retirement, and therefore his complaint for modification does not derogate from the prescription against retroactive application set forth in the alimony reform act.  

After considering the legislative intent in the drafting of the alimony reform act, the court created a single general exception to prospective application for "existing alimony judgments that exceed the durational limits under" G.L. c. 208, § 49, but imposes a condition on the durational limits exception, limiting it to prospective application.  The act states clearly that under "no circumstances" will the durational limits exception be available where there is "an existing alimony judgment in which the parties have agreed that their alimony judgment is not modifiable," or where the alimony agreement survives the judgment.

The case, Doktor v Doktor, again raised the same question relative to retroactive application of the retirement provision of the alimony reform act to alimony agreements that merged with judgments of divorce entered prior to March 1, 2012, the effective date of the act.  

The court relied on the decisions in the Chin v. Merriot and Rodman v. Rodman cases, and concluded that Joseph Doktor failed to present evidence to support a modification of his alimony obligation based on a material change in circumstances and that the legislature intended the retirement provision to have a prospective application. Thus, Joseph Doktor was not entitled to relief.

Attorney Renee Lazar has the unique ability to carefully explain complicated issues related to a divorce.  With an understanding of the current law, clients are better equipped to engage in meaningful conversations and to participate in drafting separation agreements suitable to their situation.

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