Practictioners’ Perspectives on the Alimony Reform Act

With the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 poised for passage, we thought we’d ask some of our members to share their reactions on the coming changes.  Here are the independent thoughts of the expert family law practitioners we canvassed:

Nan Elder – Bowman Moos & Elder, LLP

I think the principle benefit of the impending statutory change lies in the fact that it provides some scaffolding around which alimony awards can be negotiated and structured.  But the amount is only “some,” and the structure only “scaffolding” because the legislation also provides significant opportunity for deviation and modification – the exercise of judicial discretion – and it will take some years and quite a bit of litigation and appellate work to better clarify the full structural outlines.  For shorter term marriages, it may provide more guidance and definition sooner, and thus enable more ready resolution of them.   Longer term marriages will, however, quite probably still raise significant issues regarding its application.  This will be especially true in both new divorces and modifications for those “traditional” cases where one spouse has been the primary wage or salary earner and the other the caretaker and homemaker, often in expectation of, reliance on, and even with the express understanding between spouses of, the indefinite continuation of this family model.

As with any change of such magnitude, the transition will be arduous in a number of respects.   For litigants, it presents both an opportunity for relief and resolution for some and a source of reopening of wounds and the burdensome expense of extended or renewed litigation for others.  For lawyers, it presents an opportunity for some really creative thinking and lawyering, as well as for providing a framework for advising clients – but cynics might also suggest it presents an unexpected or unwarranted bonanza of new work.  For the courts, its implementation risks further burdening an already broken system.  Although the legislation staggers the availability of modifications of alimony judgments predating its effective date in March 2012, most practitioners I’ve talked with expect a flood of requests in addition to the uncertainty and litigation that will inevitably ensue as the statutory structure is fleshed out.

While the transition and implementation may well be both lengthy and rocky, the end result will hopefully provide some measure of clarity, if not certainty, especially for shorter term marriages.

Jennifer Rivera-Ulwick – Middlesex Probate & Family Court

The benefit of the proposed changes is the potential sense of predictability and consistency in determining alimony which will allow people to resolve this issue without seeking court intervention at the trial level.   Like the Child Support Guidelines, the law will provide a roadmap of sorts in formulating the appropriate alimony award, if any, based on the circumstances of the parties.  Given the new scheme for setting the duration, amount and form of alimony awards, I anticipate not only a decrease in the number of cases tried over alimony but also an increase in modifications being filed with the court to adjust prior alimony orders in accordance with the new legislation.  The roll-out dates, which determine when a modification may be filed as a result of the change in the law, will initially help relieve the courts from being overburdened with modification filings although the number of filings may depend in part on the level of awareness of the changes on the part of alimony obligors which is sure to increase each year after the law becomes effective.

Anita Robboy – Prince, Lobel & Tye, LLP

Massachusetts is long overdue for a critical look at Section 34 as our Commonwealth is very much out of line with nearly every state in the duration of alimony awards.  The Bill has clear guidelines regarding expected points of termination.  The major change will be that attorneys can no longer state that a Probate and Family Court judge lacks the power to terminate alimony.  The Bill specifically enables judges to limit the duration of alimony and to amend prior judgments that had no termination point.  The interplay between alimony awards, if any, and the division of assets is forever altered.  The recipient of alimony has lost an important ‘chit’: the value of future alimony.  The payor can rely on obtaining termination upon the happening of certain events, such as age, the length of alimony already received in relation to the marriage, and cohabitation.  Counsel must now advise clients that alimony comes, if at all, in a variety of flavors.  It will be important to strategize which form of alimony is applicable and/or most advantageous.

John Fiske – Healy, Fiske, Richmond & Matthew

As a mediator, I see the greatest benefit of the alimony bill as analogous to the Child Support Guidelines: it gives clients a good idea of what a court would do without their having to go to court.  In my 32 years of mediating divorces, the uncertainty of the length of alimony has been the most challenging obstacle for many husbands and wives.

I will tell [my clients] I want them to make informed choices, and to read the law, or any available summary of the law including my own, to get an idea of what a court would do before they choose their own solution.  The outcome of many of my cases would not be very different [had the reforms been in place previously], but the process of getting there will be more efficient. The outcome in some of my cases will be different, probably reducing the number of cases where clients define alimony for a certain period and then agree to leave open the question of whether to continue alimony in some amount after that date.  This law will be beneficial to just about everybody: clients, children, lawyers, mediators, judges, probation officers and financial planners for example.

-Michael Bouton

Government Relations Department

Boston Bar Association

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