What did the court decide and why; and might it have decided differently?
Here, we delve into the SJC’s analysis in Young v. Young.
Young was high income case, in which the husband’s executive compensation fueled a persistently rising lifestyle (“affluent, upper class”) for the parties during a 24-year marriage. Both parties sought fixed sum alimony in the wife’s favor, but at broadly disparate levels.
After trial, the Probate and Family Court judge concluded that the wife’s sworn representation of the costs required to maintain the marital station (i.e., her “need”) was unreliable; and that the husband’s compensation scheme (i.e., his capacity to pay) was complex, not clearly predictable, but implicitly at least, likely to maintain an upward trajectory.
Critically, the judge did not quantify the wife’s “need” in a finding. Instead, the opinion suggests, the trial court defined the marital living standard as an intangible expectation of rising station, supported presumably by family history, and with no apparent end in sight.
In light of her findings, the trial judge rejected both parties’ alimony proposals, and ordered the husband to pay the wife 1/3 of his gross income derived from his work compensation in its various forms, with neither a base guarantee for the wife (floor) nor an upper limit for the husband (ceiling). Recognizing that the judgment would leave the parties in a thicket of disclosure, verification, enforcement and potential conflict, the judge imposed a special master to address future conflicts, at the parties’ expense. Think, alimony coordinator. (More on that in a later blog entry.)
The husband appealed, and prevailed, when the SJC vacated the formulaic alimony award and remanded to the trial court to re-cast the alimony obligation as a fixed sum. The core rulings are neither complex nor novel on their face. They are:
- Variable or self-adjusting alimony orders are not per se prohibited, but they are to be limited to “special”, though not necessarily “extraordinary”, circumstances; and that
- Self-adjusting alimony orders that “intend” to elevate the recipient spouse’s standard of living above the marital station are prohibited.
Now, just what are “special circumstances”? We are tempted to emulate the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and say that we would know them when we see them, but to date, we only know of two examples, both noted by the Young court:
- An alimony recipient living in a foreign land during high inflationary times, with a self- adjusting cost-of-living increase that is intended to protect the value of an alimony order that is a sum, per Stanton-Abbott v. Stanton-Abbott, 372 Mass. 814 (1977); and
- An alimony payor who is ill at the time of divorce, with depressed earnings for a period of recovery, and the expectation of resumed earnings that are closer to the marital experience, when health returns, per Wooters v. Wooters, 42 Mass. App. Ct. 929 (1997).
The paucity of fact precedent has long made trial judges reluctant to even consider variable support awards, and we expect that the Young decision won’t likely change this institutional reticence. As we discuss below, we see this as unfortunate.
In the meantime, what of the marital station? The SJC’s emphasis on recipient “need” is both deeply entrenched in our law, and unsurprising. After all, need and ability to pay have long been the accepted pillars of spousal support. But we wonder several things:
- What if the trial court had made a traditional finding of “need”, expressed as a dollar amount required to meet it;
- What if she had made a finding that even at the rarefied level of Young finances, when following the 30-35% range of a “reasonable and lawful” alimony order (Hassey v. Hassey, 85 Mass. App. Ct. 518 (2014)), the wife could not live at the marital standard formerly funded when the parties lived as one household?
- What if the trial court had quantified “need”, and capped the amount that the Wife could have received by application of the percentage formula, at that level?
Would these counterfactuals have led the SJC to find that the orders were not “intended” to exceed to wife’s recovery beyond the marital standard? After all, the Young court stated, with credit to both Stanton-Abbott and Wooters, that:
[We] reject the argument, as we have before in a different context, that a judge lacks statutory authority to order a supporting spouse to pay alimony in an amount that may vary according to variables or contingencies set forth in the order, such as the income of the supporting spouse…
[We] do not consider every change in the amount of payment under such an alimony order to be a modification of the judgment, which we recognize would require a showing "by the party favorably affected the conditions [have] changed justifying the modification” …
[T]here may also be special circumstances where an alimony award based on a percentage of the supporting spouse's income might not be an abuse of discretion, such as where the supporting spouse's income is highly variable from year to year, sometimes severely limiting his or her ability to pay, and where a percentage formula, averaged over time, is likely not to exceed the needs of the recipient spouse.
Here, the percentage-based award ran afoul of the act and therefore was an abuse of discretion not because of its variable nature but because it was intended to award the wife an amount of alimony that exceeds her need to maintain the lifestyle she enjoyed during the marriage. (Italics ours)
If those findings had been made, we think they could, and should have, held differently.
Interestingly, the SJC did not comment upon the fact that the Young percentage-based support award also protected the husband from the very danger noted above: that his income might dip (it generally does at some point), and “severely limit his ability to pay” support commensurate with the marital standard. Had this been noted by the judge, might the SJC been more sparing in its critique? Maybe.
The primary purpose of an SJC case is to determine if there was error in the case before it, and secondly, but not necessarily secondarily, to create precedent for future cases. For every Young case, the trial court will encounter thousands of cases in which the marital station is in no way attainable on a 30-35% alimony award, and in which the court could carefully craft orders that meet all of the SJC’s concerns discussed above, without consigning the courts and the parties to serial modification actions.
In this respect, the Young decision represents a missed opportunity, in our view.
Finally, the SJC noted that variable support orders can lead to contention because of poorly worded criteria and complex compensation schemes. Correctly, the Young court pointed to the trial court’s appointment of an alimony coordinator (our term) to police the judgment; an unauthorized and unaffordable solution for most couples (though, ironically, affordable for thee parties). The court also lamented that formulaic orders could encourage fraud, and collusion between employers and employee alimony payors.
These are real concerns, but ones that exist in every case, regardless of the support structure, and based on this rationale, the trial courts should not accept settlements with self-adjusting formulae, which they properly do every day. It is equally lamentable, that the SJC does not apparently deem the bench and bar capable of proposing and adopting high quality judgments. We fear that this aspect of the case is rejecting the good because it is not perfect.
In our next entry, we will discuss the Young case treatment of determining how to determine “need” and the trial court’s particular challenge in this case to do what the SJC has ordered with respect thereto.