Alimony Laws in Massachusetts

Learn about Massachusetts alimony laws, the types of spousal support, and what factors a court considers.

Massachusetts Alimony

Whether you are the high-earning or low-earning spouse, chances are you’re concerned about alimony.

In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about alimony in Massachusetts. Let’s dive in.

Who is Entitled to Alimony in Massachusetts?

Alimony is paid from one spouse to another to assist with transitioning from marriage to a new life as a single adult.  Judges do not order alimony in every divorce.

It’s also important to note that Massachusetts enacted new alimony laws with the Alimony Reform Act of 2011.  In the past, alimony was governed by statute, but the statute was very vague.  It gave the court a lot of discretion and not a lot of guidance.

Trying to figure out alimony payments and duration was a nightmare for most attorneys because there was no clear formula, unlike child support calculations.  With the passage of the alimony reform, courts and attorneys were given a clear directive on duration and how alimony is calculated.  Having clear and specific numbers helps the court and attorneys negotiate a proper and fair settlement for parties in a divorce.

Types of Support in Massachusetts

There are four different kinds of alimony awarded in Massachusetts. Each has rules about:

  • the length of marriage it applies to
  • how long can it last
  • what can end it
  • if it can be changed

The judge can order alimony for either spouse.  And a judge can only order maintenance if a spouse can pay it and only if the other spouse needs support.

The spouse who pays alimony is the “payor” spouse. The judge can order the payor spouse to pay alimony all at once or periodically, such as weekly or monthly. The spouse who receives maintenance is the “recipient” spouse.

The length of time depends on the kind of alimony the judge orders. If you were married 20 years or less, the judge must decide how long alimony must be paid. Maintenance can be indefinite if you have been married for more than 20 years.

The four kinds of alimony are:

  • General term alimony – for an economically dependent spouse.
  • Rehabilitative alimony – to support a spouse until they can support themselves financially.  That is limited-time alimony ordered until a spouse attains reemployment, completion of job training, or receipt of a sum due from the payor spouse under a judgment.
  • Reimbursement alimony – to pay a spouse back for contributing to the financial well-being of the payor spouse.  That is a periodic or one-time payment of support to a recipient spouse after a marriage of not more than five years to compensate the recipient spouse for economic or noneconomic contribution to the financial resources of the payor spouse, such as enabling the payor spouse to complete an education or job training.
  • Transitional alimony – to help a spouse adjust to a lifestyle that divorce has changed.  Transitional support is a periodic or one-time payment of support to a recipient spouse after a marriage of not more than five years to transition the recipient spouse to an adjusted lifestyle or location due to the divorce.

It can take months to get a final decision in your case. You can file a motion seeking temporary support if you need immediate assistance.  A motion for a temporary order asks the court to deal with important issues while you wait for the final hearing. If you get a temporary order, it will last until the judge makes new alimony orders, most often when your divorce is finalized.

Read More:  How to File For Divorce in Massachusetts

What Factors Are Used to Determine Alimony?

Judges must take several factors into account, including:

  • Length of the marriage
  • Ages of each spouse
  • The health of each spouse, including uncommon health circumstances or chronic illness
  • Income, employment, the ability of each spouse to get a job
  • If a spouse needs training or additional education
  • Economic and non-economic contributions of both spouses to the marriage
  • The ability of each spouse to keep up their standard of living during the marriage
  • Economic opportunities lost because of the marriage.
  • Tax considerations
  • Any costs related to life and health insurance for the recipient spouse are paid for by the spouse responsible for paying the alimony.
  • A spouse is incapable of providing for themselves because of the mental or physical abuse caused by the payor.
  • Any other factors based upon written findings that the court considers material and relevant.

The length of the marriage matters because it affects the kind of alimony you can get under Massachusetts law.  Usually, judges order more alimony for longer marriages; the longer the marriage, the more alimony a judge will order.

The length of the marriage is the time between the date you married and the date a complaint for divorce or separation is served. A judge can add months to the length if you can show you were living together and had a financial partnership before you married. The judge can also deviate from the amount of alimony if you have special circumstances. The court can also include a marital separation that lasted a significant amount of time.

The length of the marriage caps the duration of general alimony.

  • If marriage is five years or less, then alimony is no more than 1/2 the length of the marriage
  • If marriage is more than five years but less than ten years, then alimony is no more than 60% of the length of the marriage
  • If marriage is more than ten years but less than 15, then alimony is no more than 70% of the length of the marriage
  • If marriage is more than 15 years but less than 20, then alimony is no more than 80% of the length of the marriage
  • Alimony can be a lifetime if the marriage is more than 20 years.

If a spouse quits a job to avoid paying alimony, a judge can decide how much a spouse should earn by imputing income. This is based on past jobs, skills, local job market conditions, and other relevant factors.  The judge can use that amount as a spouse’s income to decide the amount of alimony paid.

Read More:  Divorce Laws in Massachusetts

Defining Income Available for Support

As a rule of thumb, alimony is typically 30-35% of the difference between the spouses’ gross incomes.

Some examples of income include:

  • Wages (salary, overtime, bonuses, commissions, tips, etc.)
  • Stock options and RSUs
  • Self-employment income
  • Interest and dividends
  • Pensions and annuities
  • Perquisites
  • Rental income
  • Trust distributions
  • Social security

Keep in mind this is not an exhaustive list.

Modifying or Terminating Spousal Support in Massachusetts

Reimbursement alimony and transitional alimony cannot be changed.  You need to show there has been a “material change of circumstances” or “compelling circumstances” to change rehabilitative alimony.

The judge can only change general term alimony payments if no written agreement says the alimony cannot be changed.

You may be able to change general term or rehabilitative a­­limony because:

  • If the spouse gets general term or rehabilitative alimony, the alimony ends. The judge cannot change general term or rehabilitative alimony. The judge cannot count the new spouse’s income and assets.
  • The spouse who pays alimony gets a second job or gets overtime.  A judge will not count the income from a second job or overtime if the payor already has a full-time job and the payor began the second job or started getting overtime after the original alimony order.
  • Other reasons. Suppose you need to change the general term alimony or the amount of rehabilitative alimony. You must show the judge there has been a material change of circumstances since the order was made.

The time limits are different for each kind of alimony payments.

All alimony orders end if the spouse that gets the alimony dies.

General term alimony ends if the spouse receiving the alimony remarries, either spouse dies, or the spouse paying alimony reaches full retirement age.  Also, general term alimony can be suspended, reduced, or ended if the spouse getting alimony lives with another person.

Rehabilitative alimony ends if the spouse receiving the maintenance remarries, either spouse dies, or a specific event happens.

Can my alimony order be changed if it was made before March 1, 2012?

It depends.  If you and your former spouse agreed in writing that the alimony could not be changed, usually, a judge cannot change it now.  An agreement that the alimony cannot be changed often uses the words “survives as an independent contract.” That means a judge can only change the contract in extreme circumstances.  Such as if the recipient will end up on welfare if the judge does not increase the alimony.

Are there situations where the time and amount limits do not apply?

Yes.  Alimony limits do not apply to reimbursement alimony, or general term or rehabilitative alimony if the judge gives reasons, in writing, why they should order a different amount.

Read More:  A Guide to Social Security Benefits After Divorce

Enforcing Massachusetts Alimony Awards

Courts have several potential enforcement options when an ex-spouse does not pay alimony in a timely way.

Massachusetts courts have the power to hold a person in contempt for failing to pay their alimony obligation as long as a valid order for spousal support and the party failed to pay.

If the parties merely agreed that one party would pay spousal support to the other, which was not made into a court order or judgment, the court cannot order the obligor in contempt for failing to pay.

The Probate and Family Court may enforce orders, sentences, judgments, and decrees with a contempt action that may be civil or criminal.  Criminal actions are used as a last resort when all other options fail.

One defense to a contempt action for failure to pay spousal support is an inability to pay.  In such a contempt action, the defendant has the burden to prove they could not pay spousal support.

Courts can also order wage garnishment, place liens on property and bank accounts, suspend driver’s licenses and professional licenses, and other similar actions.

Spousal Support and Taxes

Due to recent changes in Federal laws, the payer cannot deduct alimony or separate maintenance payments under a divorce or separation instrument executed after 2018. These payments are also not included as taxable income for recipients.

The same is true of alimony paid under a divorce or separation instrument executed before 2019 and modified after 2018 if the modification expressly states that the maintenance isn’t deductible to the payor spouse or included in the recipient spouse’s income.

Taxpayers paying alimony under a divorce agreement executed before 2019 can deduct those payments from taxes when the following criteria are met:

  • The recipient must be a spouse or former spouse
  • There must be a written divorce or separation instrument
  • Alimony must be made with cash payments (such as checks and money orders)
  • Alimony does not continue after the recipient dies
  • The parties must live apart, residing in different households
  • The parties must file separate tax returns (they cannot file a joint return and claim the alimony deduction)
  • The court-ordered payment of alimony cannot state that payments are not deductible

Massachusetts Alimony FAQs

What is considered income for purposes of determining alimony?

A court considers all income from every source of the spouse obligated to pay alimony.  In Massachusetts, that includes monies received by inheritance as well as traditional sources of income such as salaries and wages, investment income and dividends, bonuses, stock, and stock options, commissions,

Courts are also allowed to consider the new spouse’s income when determining spousal support, since that person’s income presumably contributes to the living expenses of the obligor spouse.

How does cohabitation change alimony?

Alimony terminates upon remarriage but can also be reduced or suspended when cohabitation lasts for three months.

How does retirement change alimony?

According to Massachusetts statutes, alimony can be terminated when the payor reaches full retirement age, at which point the spouse can receive Social Security.  The statute also notes that an individual’s ability to work past retirement age is not generally a reason to extend alimony. The court may grant an extension for a good cause, such as a material change of circumstances and reasons supported by convincing evidence.

What if we have an alimony provision in our prenuptial agreement?

If you and your spouse have a valid and enforceable prenup that predetermines alimony, then the judge will order that provision into effect. Prenuptial agreements can control whether either spouse will receive maintenance and the amount and duration if the marriage ends.

Can alimony last beyond a spouse’s death?

General term alimony and other forms of alimony in Massachusetts end when either spouse dies.  However, sometimes the payor might be required to pay for life insurance or another form of security that pays the recipient in the event of their death. Spouses can also form a contractual agreement that extends alimony beyond the payor’s death such as establishing a trust to pay the recipient alimony if the payor passes away before the recipient.

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