781.708.4445

info@levinedisputeresolution.com

Divorce Mediation Blog

MA Bar Association Family Law Section Council Approves Proposed Family Law Arbitration Act

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Massachusetts Bar Association Family Law Section Council has approved the proposed Family Law Arbitration Act that LDRC's William M. Levine presented to it on behalf of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Bill will appear before the M.B.A.'s House of Delegates to advocate for the proposed legislation on May 17, 2012. The House of Delegates decides, on behalf of M.B.A, if it will support submission of the potential state law to the Massachusetts legislature.

 

Tips for Handling Cases Under The New Alimony Law

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

By Fern L. Frolin

On March 1, 2012, An Act Reforming Alimony, M.G.L. c. 208, §§48 – 55, became law in the Commonwealth. The new law changes the structure and rules of judicially ordered support payments between former spouses. The statute establishes different types of alimony, provides criteria for courts to consider in deciding alimony cases, and encourages end dates for most alimony orders.

Alimony in Massachusetts was historically based on the recipient’s need and the payor’s ability to pay at the time of the order. Because most recipients’ future needs and most payors’ future ability to pay are speculative, nearly all orders had open-ended duration. Thus the notion evolved that alimony is usually a life-time arrangement, changeable only after circumstances requiring modification had already occurred. If a recipient increased income or conscientiously saved, he or she risked termination or reduction of alimony. If the payor suffered involuntary financial reversal, the recipient’s alimony could be abruptly terminated or reduced, despite ongoing need. The scheme encouraged dependency, left recipients vulnerable to unplanned events, and left payors with no ability to foresee when alimony obligations would end.

Against this backdrop, and public pressure for change, the legislature passed the new law. The alimony law retains “need and ability to pay” concepts and permits judicial discretion in most instances, but it expands the narrow restrictions of present need and ability to pay, adding reasonable forward-looking presumptions. It also allows different forms of alimony for different circumstances. Mastery of the new law will require study, practice, and development of a lucid body of interpretive appellate law. In the meantime, the following tips may aid practitioners.

UNDERSTAND EACH TYPE OF ALIMONY AND DETERMINE WHICH IS BEST FOR YOUR CLIENT.

General term alimony is granted to a spouse who is economically dependent. It will usually follow a mid to long term marriage. Except for judgments that the parties agreed were non-modifiable, orders entered before March 2012 are deemed general term orders. General term alimony terminates when either party dies; when the payor reaches “full retirement age” (as defined in the statute); on the recipient's remarriage; on a date fixed by court order; or perhaps if the recipient maintains a common household with a third party. The order is modifiable unless the parties agree otherwise.

Presumptive duration depends on the length of the marriage. After a marriage of twenty years or longer, alimony presumptively ends when the payor reaches full retirement age. The new statute measures marriage length for alimony purposes from the date of marriage to the date of service of the complaint for divorce. Some practitioners question whether the date of service rule will cause payors to rush to serve a complaint in order to establish a marriage length cut-off. Lawyers should advise their clients of presumptive limits but also recognize that judicial discretion may override the statutory presumptions. For example, the court may consider a significant period of premarital cohabitation or a significant marital separation in determining the length of the marriage.

Rehabilitative alimony is granted to a spouse who is expected to be self-sufficient by a predicted time. It is available after any length marriage and is payable for up to five years. It is also available after child support ends. It terminates at a set date, recipient’s remarriage, or on death of either party. It is modifiable in amount. It may be extended for compelling reasons if unforeseen events prevent the recipient from becoming self-supporting and the payor can continue to pay without “undue burden.” Because rehabilitative alimony may last longer than the presumptive limit on general term alimony for marriages of five years or less, this may be the most advantageous form for a recipient after a short marriage. Reimbursement alimony is compensation for the recipient’s contribution to the payor’s financial resources. It is only available if the marriage was five years or less. It is not modifiable, and it is not subject to presumptive durational limits.

Reimbursement alimony is compensation for the recipient’s contribution to the payor’s financial resources. It is only available if the marriage was five years or less. It is not modifiable, and it is not subject to presumptive durational limits. Reimbursement alimony ends only on the death of either party 21 or a date certain, so it may be a good choice for a recipient who plans to remarry or live with a new partner.

Income guidelines do not apply to reimbursement alimony. Therefore, reimbursement alimony may be optimal for a recipient who contributed substantially to the payor’s future where the investment has not yet paid off – for example, when one spouse put the other spouse through graduate school.

Transitional alimony is granted to transition a recipient to a new location or an adjusted lifestyle after a marriage of five years or less. It terminates at a date certain or the death of either party, is not modifiable or extendable, and is available for up to three years. It may not be replaced with a different form of alimony.

CONSIDER DEVIATING FROM THE PRESUMPTIVE TERMINATION DATE WHEN THE ORDER IS FIRST ESTABLISHED. Under the new statute, all alimony orders presumptively terminate when the payor reaches full retirement age, if not sooner. The statute adopts the United States Social Security Act designation of full retirement age, which means that the age varies depending on the payor’s birth date. Further, when the order originates, the court (or the parties by agreement) may set a different alimony termination date for good cause shown. Deviations in initial orders require only written findings of the reasons. Agreements to deviate should state the reasons. Requests for the court to deviate should include proposed findings. Extension of an established termination date will be difficult to secure. An extension requires a material change of circumstances that occurred after the order was entered, and clear and convincing evidence of reasons for the extension. Practitioners should determine at the outset whether facts warrant an order that is longer than the presumptive duration. Advise recipient clients that they will face a heightened burden of proof if they need to extend the order.

CREATE A CHECKLIST OF REASONS TO DEVIATE FROM THE PRESUMPTIONS. The non-exhaustive statutory list includes: parties’ advanced age; medical concerns; sources and amounts of income, including investment income from assets that were not allocated in the divorce; tax considerations; a party’s inability to provide self-support because of the payor’s abusive conduct; a party’s lack of employment opportunity; and orders that one party maintain medical insurance or life insurance. 22 (The latter factor directly conflicts with a provision of the equitable division statute, G.L.c. 208, §34, but the legislature is expected to remedy the conflict soon.) Because the statute presumes that alimony ends at the payor’s retirement age, lawyers should also consider the client’s expected retirement resources, especially if the parties will not be similarly situated after a long term marriage. Divorce lawyers may want to maintain a checklist of deviation reasons and expand the list as new appellate decisions develop.

“COMMON HOUSEHOLD” IS A QUESTION OF FACT. The new statute permits alimony modification, suspension or termination if a general term alimony recipient cohabitates with another person in a common household for at least three continuous months. A finding of “common household” requires a factual determination that the recipient and the third party reside together as a “couple.” Indicia include reputation as a couple, economic interdependence and other factors. Not expressly mentioned in the statute, but facts that practitioners may want to research, include: family memberships, joint bank accounts, and joint ownership of real estate. Look also for “couple” and “status” postings on social network media.

Conclusion: Watch for appellate interpretations of key new statutory provisions. For example, where recipients’ “need” remains the basis for alimony, does the new presumptive maximum order amount now trump “need”? In the meantime, the message of the new law is that each party should plan financially. The new law requires us to think about spousal support in terms of the client’s future needs, resources and lifestyle.

General Term Alimony Presumptive* Maximum Durations

Up to 5 years ………………. 50% of months married
Up to 10 years ……………... 60% of months married
Up to 15 years ……………... 70% of months married
Up to 20 years ……………... 80% of months married
More than 20 years .………... up to presumptive retirement age

* All presumptions are subject to Court’s statutory exercise of discretion

Previously published in the Spring issue of the Boston Bar Journal; reprinted here by permission of the author.

 

Obama Care, Romney Care and Divorce in Massachusetts

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

During this time of national debate about the Affordable Health Care Act, now two years old and being challenged in the United States Supreme Court, we are receiving media messages about Massachusetts health care reform that occurred during the Romney administration here, and it relationship to the federal law. The former governor opposes in the federal law, whose close cousin is the Massachusetts precedent. Should divorcing spouses be especially concerned?

Whether you see Obama Care as government intrusion into Americans’ self-determination, a weak substitute for a single payer system or somewhere in between, the impact on divorcing spouses, as opposed to the population at large, is not especially concerning. That is because, unlike residents of most states, we in Massachusetts do not look to federal law predominantly for post-divorce health coverage protection. The states that do rely on federal law can only assure a divorced non-employee spouse of up to 36 months of continuing health coverage on the other spouse’s work plan. So-called COBRA coverage costs 102% of the cost to the group to cover an individual, and when the three years expired, the ex-spouse is expelled from any continuing family plan that continues to cover the employee-spouse and children.

Massachusetts state law, by contrast, requires health insurance carriers to provide continuing coverage for a non-employee ex-spouse on the continuing family plan at no additional cost, until the employee ex-spouse marries another person. Even then, as long as the non-employee spouse remains unmarried and has no other employer-provided health insurance available, the insurance company is still required to extend coverage to the non-employee spouse for an indefinite period of time, at the same cost of an individual employee in the particular plan. Massachusetts’ law favors coverage for divorced people, and it controls over federal law for Massachusetts residents. (There are holes in our statute such as the “self-insured exception”, but the number of persons affected by that is relatively small.) There is nothing in the challenge to Obama Care that should adversely affect the Massachusetts protection of divorced spouses.

One aspect of Obama Care that has caught substantial attention and that often concerns divorcing parents, though not a divorce provision of the law per se, is the extension of coverage for dependent children to age 26 on their parent’s employment health plan. But, this existed in our state law before Congress adopted it, and there is no reason to assume that any action by the Supreme Court to strike this down nationally would impact on our state law. The same is true about our state law, which prohibits health insurance carriers from refusing to cover a person with pre-existing health conditions. If the federal “individual mandate” falls, that could challenge the viability of mandatory insurance here for political, but not likely for constitutional reasons.

Divorcing couples have enough problems, as is. The machinations of national politics and the U.S. Supreme Court will probably not make things more difficult for divorcing couples in Massachusetts on the question of health care, than for any other non-divorcing citizen. One less thing to worry about, and that is a good thing.

 

Hon. Chouteau Levine Recognized for Years of Service

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hon. E. Chouteau Levine (Ret.) of LDRC was recognized for her years of service as a judge of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court by the Boston Bar Association Family Law Section, at an April 10, 2012 reception in her honor and that of her former colleague at the Suffolk Probate and Family Court, Hon. John Smoot (Ret.)

 

Mediation or Arbitration?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What is the difference between arbitration and mediation? Many people don’t know. While mediation and arbitration are both referred to as “Alternative Dispute Resolution” processes, they are very different from each other. The following may assist you in deciding which conflict resolution method is best for your situation.

Mediation – all parties attend a meeting or meetings with an impartial third party who is the mediator. The mediator assists those in conflict to identify the issues and explore various options to settle the dispute. The mediator does not render a decision or force any participant to accept a settlement. Whether the case “settles” or not is up to the parties, not the mediator.

In Arbitration, the parties present their case to an arbitrator or an arbitration panel. Evidence is presented although it is often less formally than in a courtroom setting. The arbitrator’s role is to determine the facts, and apply the law to render a decision. The arbitrator will decide the outcome. Arbitrations can be “binding” so the parties can turn the award into a court judgment by a process called “confirmation”; or “non-binding”, meaning either party can disregard the opinion. People use the latter, at times, to obtain a reasoned result that may then bring the parties still closer to settlement.

Both mediation and arbitration are effective and useful dispute resolution methods. People who wish to use alternative forms of dispute resolution need to decide which method is best suited to their needs.

When the parties have an existing relationship that may continue after the dispute is resolved, then mediation is a very valuable tool. Since mediation allows the parties to control both the process and outcome, taking into account the relationship needs and other non-monetary issues are possible. Arbitration is private, confidential and efficient and it may “clear the decks” of a dispute that interferes with reasonable interpersonal functioning, but it is not built on enhanced communications as with a successful mediation.

In mediation, individuals can ask questions of the other side, and its experts or professionals to seek a better understanding of the issues and positions. Arbitration, by contrast, is geared towards the Arbitrator understanding and deciding the issue based on the relevant facts as presented by the parties. It involves single hearing where all of the evidence is presented for consideration. The end result is based entirely upon the arbitrator’s understanding of the events that occurred and his interpretation of applicable law. Source: Mediate.com

 

Bill and Chouteau Levine Participating at the Divorce Mediation Training Program in Boston

Monday, April 09, 2012

Bill Levine will be participating as a faculty member at the Mediation Works Incorporated, Inc.'s Divorce Mediation Training program in Boston from April 20 through April 23, 2012. Chouteau Levine will be lecturing at the same program on April 20th. This annual training program combines substantive law and procedure and mediation skills for a limited number of qualified professional attendees, under the direction of M.W.I.'s own Josh Hoch.

 

Mutually Acceptable Solutions can be Reached through Family Mediation

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Family decision-making can be very difficult, and sometimes situations get out of hand. When perspective becomes scarce and it is hard to see the forest for the trees, whether it be an elder care matter, a dispute over a will, a divorce, attempting to prevent a divorce or difficult parenting situation, it can be the right decision to bring in mediators or arbitrators.

Family mediation means that a neutral, trained professional will work with the parties involved in the family conflict to discuss all of the issues and to explore the possible options for settlement, and to identify solutions that best meet the needs of all persons involved. Facilitated negotiation is the path to resolution.

Mediation is a voluntary, confidential process in which we help both or all parties to identify and discuss issues of mutual concern. Together we will explore various solutions and develop a settlement that is acceptable to all or both of the parties.

Sometimes parties need mediation followed by arbitration, because resolution by agreement proves elusive. We call that Med/Arb. This is a confidential process in which we help both or all parties to identify and discuss issues that of concern. It is our job to help all parties explore various solutions and decide on a settlement with which all concerned can live. If the mediation does not succeed, we “switch hats” and make a decision for the parties, out-of-court an in a timely and cost-effective way.

 

Divorcing Parties Playing Against Type - Don’t Do It

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Recently, we spent a Sunday evening at a new Easthampton, MA business: a “free movie” venue called “Popcorn Noir”. This creative venture offers gourmet popcorn, snacks, dinner, hot cider; and intimate seating for 20 or so lucky viewers. Members pay a modest annual fee to have access to this storefront treasure with vintage films.

We watched the Billy Wilder-directed Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck classic “Double Indemnity”, from 1944. A film student introduced the show with the comment that one thing that made this noir piece so effective was that every actor played “against type”. For those of us who grew up with McMurray on “My Three Sons” (most of us) knew exactly what she meant. She also described the coming feature as a tale of three people enmeshed in a spiral of events of mutual destruction, leaving them all dead.

This all got me thinking (after the show) about divorce mediation! Divorce lawyers like to tell prospective clients that criminal lawyers see bad people on their best behavior while family law clients are “good people at their worst”. This cliché is largely geared towards providing cover to the upset spouse for out-of-control feelings and decisions, but there is also truth to this stereotype. Many people react to the crucible of stress, worry and fear of impending divorce in ways that lead them to make quick decisions that yield far-reaching and long-term effects on families, sometimes quite negative. As friends and family urge the spouses to “protect” themselves (and their children) from each other, they are often inclined to accept the most aggressive lawyers and advice, and the most assertive processes that they can find..

Sometimes this advice is absolutely on the mark, and there is no good choice but to lawyer up and get to court. But, too often, this just sets a tone of heightened confrontation, crushing costs and lost years of litigation, when calm reflection and facilitated discussion might serve the family more effectively, leaving people in a place where their ability to cooperate is less damaged and sometimes even enhanced. There is a reason that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court requires lawyers to discuss alternative dispute resolution options with clients before filing suit,. But we suspect that this rule is honored far more in the breach that in its careful and enthusiastic observance, as many lawyers perceive litigation as the “only way” to go.

Good people in crisis should not play against type. Beginning divorce with an arms race when unnecessary consigns the family to a spiral of controversy and financial calamity, when reflection and facilitated negotiation are likely to be less expensive, less antagonistic and more constructive than the alternative. Divorce does not have to be all noir. It can be seen as a transition: to be managed and experienced as an honest, direct and personalized process in which people “play” themselves, and not the mythical “worst behavior” caricature.

Mediation is not for everyone. But, almost everyone should at least consider it – seriously.

 

What is Arb-Med?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

We have discussed arbitration, mediation and the variant, “med/arb”, in previous blog posts. Med/arb is a process in which an impartial party attempts to facilitate negotiations that will hopefully lead to a resolution of disputes between or among them. If the negotiation fails, then the mediator switches “hats” and makes a decision for the parties as an arbitrator, to which the parties are generally bound. Recall that one of the perceived problems with med/arb, is that people worry that information that comes to a mediator in a confidential process that encourages candor and positional risk-taking, may result in an arbitrated result based on information that may not otherwise have come before the arbitrator, had not he/she been privy to the mediation first.

Arb/med solves this problem. First, the disputing parties offer evidence (information) to the neutral acting as arbitrator at whatever level of formality that the parties themselves have agreed to use. The arbitrator makes a decision, but does not disclose it to the parties at this point, and hopefully never will, because the arbitrator puts that arbitration “award” into his/her “pocket” and then changes hats, this time to that of a mediator. He/she then works with the parties in an effort to facilitate agreement between them. The mediator has not been at all influenced by relaxed disclosures before the decision is written, and the award will not change by what occurs in the later mediation.

If the parties then settle their matter, the arbitration decision has no legal significance, and the parties will never know the result, unless they agree for reasons other than legal impact, they agree to have the arbitrator-turned-mediator disclose it. At Levine Dispute Resolution Center LLC, we see this hybrid process having great merit in those cases where the parties either want or need to know that their dispute will end expeditiously, privately and cost-efficiently, even if they cannot settle it themselves; but they are unwilling to do that until that have a good faith and sincere effort to maintain control over their own controversy by making the full effort of negotiated settlement, first.

 

Why don’t we represent individual clients?

Monday, March 26, 2012

As we have transitioned from private law practice (Bill Levine) and as a sitting judge (Chouteau Levine) to doing full-time work as mediators, arbitrators and other neutral roles only with Levine Dispute Resolution Center LLC, many people continue to ask us to take on engagements that are representational in nature. For example, several lawyers and clients from one side of a case have asked us to consult on issues presented by a court-based controversy. For another, we have been asked to represent children in court.

We have declined all of these potential roles.

True, none of these jobs would place us in a position to represent a spouse who is an essential stakeholder to litigation issues. But, by their very nature, these jobs imply something that we are not anymore: practicing lawyers whose job it is to “advocate”. Even a private consultation is a form of advocacy, because we are helping one party or another figure out strengths and weaknesses in his or her case, for the purpose of either honing trial preparations or clarifying/enhancing negotiating positions, to the detriment of another party or parties. Thus, the engagement is neither impartial nor it is neutral. Similarly, representing children is a form of advocacy for a particular point of view, even if the represented party is not “responsible” for causing the conflict.

At LDRC, when we mediate, we see it as our mission to open the minds of the parties to see each other’s points of view, to encourage introspection about one’s own real needs, and to detect where mutual needs and priorities intersect. Then, we try to promote sincere efforts to find creative and efficient ways to make agreements that promote these common areas of interest. When we arbitrate, our job is to make a decision, rather than to promote exploration of interests, but our role is nonetheless one that demands that we remain impartial, or indifferent to who “wins or loses”. We must decide the case strictly based in the facts as we hear them and conclude them to be, and the law to which they relate.

In neither of our roles is there room for advocacy for one side or another; and for us, it is important that our market both see us and understand us to be impartial all of the time. It is equally important or us to maintain this intellectual distinction throughout our workday that helps us to stay “neutral” to the very greatest extent that we possibly can.

Along with skills, experience and judgment, our impartiality it is our calling card.

 



Get e-mail notifications of new blog posts! Enter email address below.:



Delivered by FeedBurner