Alimony in Massachusetts: Rehabilitative Alimony Requires Careful Fact-finding and Comprehensive Decision-writing.
In a recent “unreported” case , Nystrom v. Nystrom, the court reversed a trial judge’s awarding rehabilitative alimony paid to the wife for a six-month period, a remedy that is limited by statute to cases where the recipient spouse “…is expected to become economically self-sufficient by a predicted time.” The trial court made 6 conclusory findings in attempted compliance with the rehabilitative alimony statute, including (not limited to) the wife’s education, continuing ability to work, her employment history in pharmaceuticals and in teaching, her decision to turn down a a pharmaceutical job offer, her average work income for 2007 – 2011 (judgment entered in May 2012) and critically that: “…she has not used her best efforts in becoming reemployed in either of these fields”. The Appeals Court found fault with the last conclusion because the record did not disclose any evidence contradictory to the wife’s own testimony about her job search, and the judge did not make findings “discrediting” the wife’s testimony. Therefore, the appellate court decided that the trial judge’s conclusion was not supported by her “subsidiary” findings.
We cannot know from the Appeals Court text whether or not the evidence itself supported the trial judge’s conclusions, but the case highlights two important points:
- As a former Probate and Family Court judge (Chouteau Levine) and a present and very active arbitrator and master (William Levine), we are reminded how critical it is to write clearly and comprehensively the role that credibility plays in fact-finding, that is, if decisions arise materially from believing or disbelieving a party, it is necessary to expressly say so and to detail the evidence that supports the belief or disbelief; and
- While our recent alimony reform law (eff. 3.1.12) indicates legislative determination to limit terms of alimony, appellate courts will scrutinize those limits carefully.
1A case decided by a 3 judge panel of the state’s intermediate Appeals Court, and not reviewed by the full bench, and therefore, not formal “precedent”, but influential in practice to the extent of its persuasiveness.