O.K., let’s get the sexist title out of the way. Alimony law is gender blind on paper, but in the pre-Alimony Reform Act (ARA) (eff. 3.1.12) era, most alimony payors were (and are) men. To be fair and accurate, the Chin, Rodman and Doktor cases are equally bad news for pre-ARA alimony payors who are women. It’s only a blog title.
Now, for the cases.
In one remarkable morning last year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), heard oral arguments on three cases that all turned on a single question: do alimony payors whose divorce judgments entered before ARA’s effective date have the benefit of substantive termination and modification rights changes that the new law has wrought? The answers, delivered three times over, also on the same day, is “no”, with the sole exception of the presumptive general term alimony durational limits for marriages that lasted 20 or fewer years.
Put more positively, an alimony payor whose divorce judgment preceded March 1, 2012 can seek a termination of alimony by reason of the ARA durational limit having been reached (50% of up to 5 year marriages, 60% of 5+ to 10 year marriages, 70% of 10+ to 15 year marriages and 80% of 15+ to 20 year marriages), without proving any other change of circumstances. But, we already knew that. Everyone else is left to the pre-ARA uncertainties and heavy burdens of prior decisional law, most notably including Pierce v. Pierce.
The three cases were variations on a theme: a payor asking to stop general term alimony payments because M.G.L., c. 208, § 49(f) says that such payments shall terminate at the payor’s attainment of social security retirement age. In Chin, the husband had reached that age before his divorce, while the Rodman and Doktor payors attained retirement age after divorce. Mr. Chin argued that M.G.L., chapter 208, section 49(f) trumps the “uncodified” section 4 of ARA (which provides that, excepting durational limits for >20-year marriages, ARA is not itself a material change of circumstances). Mr. Chin also argued that cohabitation modification rights (another “shall” in the statute) should apply retroactively. Mr. Rodman asserted that a merged alimony agreement merits different treatment than those cases with surviving agreements. Mr. Doktor claimed that his former wife no longer had the financial need for alimony.
All three of the plaintiffs failed. The SJC concluded that a comprehensive view of the ARA statute yields a clear legislative determination that uncodified sections 4-6 override the more payor-friendly substantive sections of M.G.L., c. 208, § 49-55 with the sole exception of general term durational limits. Agree or disagree, it is a clear rule. It is most certainly bad news for pre-ARA payors; and it protects their former spouses from having the rug pulled out from under support deals made when automatic retirement age termination was not obtainable in court, and rarely even negotiable, under then prevailing law. The SJC had a binary decision to make; and its reading of legislative intent promotes the payees’ interests over the payors’.
In our next entry, we will look at what seems a particularly unfair precedent on cohabitation that Chin v. Merriot sets, that is quite different than the retirement age question; and an aspect of Rodman v. Rodman that should really cost alimony payors some sleep.