Recent SJC Decision on Alimony in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act came into effect on March 1, 2012 and provides for three different types of alimony in Massachusetts that one spouse may be obligated to pay the other spouse.   The most common alimony award is general term alimony, which has a formula for determining the amount and how long alimony will have to be paid.  Most moderate and long term marriages typically choose general term alimony in divorce resolution.  Another form of alimony is called Reimbursement alimony and is used when one spouse is entitled to reimbursement of a specific amount of money.   The third form is Rehabilitative alimony, which has a cap of five years and is suggested when one spouse has the foreseeable capacity to become self-supporting.  However, determination and agreement regarding the appropriate type of alimony in Massachusetts is never easy.

Until the recent Supreme Judicial Court case of Zaleski v. Zaleski,  it was unclear whether rehabilitative alimony was appropriate for long term marriages, since it limited the time to five years, whereas an award of general term could be for many years more.  In Zaleski, the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the decision of the trial judge to award rehabilitative alimony to wife of a 15 year marriage, rather than general term alimony, because the wife had been employed for most of the marriage as a sales district manager, then she took on her interest in interior design while attending classes, and also made efforts to start her own business.  These facts were found to support the conclusion that the she had the desire to work and the knowledge and skills to gain reemployment in the future.  Therefore, the trial judge’s award of rehabilitative alimony for the five year cap was upheld by the higher court as the appropriate form of alimony in that case.  If the wife had been awarded general term alimony, her alimony payments could have lasted  many years longer than the five year cap of rehabilitative alimony in Massachusetts.

The message from Zaleski is that the appropriate form of alimony is not simply based on the length of the marriage, but also several other factors, making the determination extremely fact driven.  Where the determination is made that rehabilitative alimony is the appropriate form, there must be facts presented to support a decision that the recipient spouse’s economic dependence is only temporary and at some predictable date that spouse can become self-sufficient through reasonable efforts.  The term “predictable date” may mean a completion of a job training, graduating from an educational program, or as in Zaleski, the potential of future reemployment.

Future employment is one of the many factors a judge considers in determining the form of alimony awarded in Massachusetts.  When it is evident that self-sufficiency may be obtained due to a spouse’s employability and desire to work, rehabilitation alimony may be the more appropriate award.  Zaleski illustrates the importance for clients to provide sufficient facts to his/her attorney in order to enable the attorney to reach the best outcome possible for that client.

-Moira Daly

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