Divorce Mediation Blog

The SJC Weighs in on Self-Adjusting Alimony Orders and Recipient “Need”: Young v. Young, Part 9

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Levine Dispute Resolution - Alimony

“Fair balance of sacrifice?”

In Young v. Young, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) imported a concept that it had previously coined in the case of Pierce v. Pierce.

In the latter, the SJC reviewed (and upheld) a modification judgment of the Probate and Family Court in which the judge had reduced, but not terminated, the payor’s alimony obligation after he had voluntarily reduced his income, and his resulting ability to pay, finding that the reduction achieved a “fair balance of sacrifice” between the parties.

This modification concept followed an original divorce judgment which occurred without regard to any such construct. Rather, as a matter of law, the original alimony orders were necessarily based on the wife’s “need”, the husband’s ability to pay and what the divorce judge concluded to be “fair and reasonable”.

The Pierce court’s crafting of “fair balance of sacrifice” focused on the husband’s need to bear up under the circumstances of his own making, even if it felt to him as payor that he had paid quite enough alimony and he deemed the court’s modification judgment to be onerous in his current circumstances.

In the intervening years, the Alimony Reform Act (ARA) (eff. 3.1.12) introduced a formal range of maximum presumed alimony in M.G.L., ch. 208, §53(b) (since deemed the lawful and reasonable presumptive order by appellate case law), without any reference at all to the theme of “sacrifice”.

Rather, by comparing “need” to the maximum of 30-35% income differential, the legislature recognized that there is often not enough income in a case to sustain the marital station in two households, and formalized a longstanding practice of equitably sharing income, after presuming the tax leveraging of IRC §215 (which may or may not survive the 115the U.S. Congress). This is completely consistent with case law that establishes that a recipient has no guarantee of unchanged lifestyle, if the payor can’t provide it.

The equitable sharing of income can be a useful construct both in acknowledging that the parties can’t necessarily maintain the marital standard post-divorce; and in explaining why a payor will inevitably keep more of his or her income than the recipient will receive, because of the post-judgment efforts required to earn the money that funds spousal support.

But a “fair balance of sacrifice”? Where the vast bulk of divorce cases resolve with equal division of assets and debt, how can the same concept justify an unequal division of income, at the time of equitable distribution?

We are not advocating for the equal division of income, and it is not a result that will ever be required in our time. But was it helpful for the SJC to gratuitously introduce a standard that the legislature neither enunciated nor necessarily implied? Was it necessary support for its central outcome in Young? Will it now complicate cases with another subjective standard about which to fuss?

No, no and we’re afraid so.


The SJC Weighs in on Self-Adjusting Alimony Orders and Recipient “Need”: Young v. Young, Part 8

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Levine Dispute Resolution - Alimony

“Did stated intent of the
order trump the its effect?”

In Young v. Young, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) vacated the trial court judgment that awarded variable alimony based on a fixed percentage of the husband’s gross pre-tax compensation, based in part on its conclusion that it crossed the Alimony Reform Act (ARA) (eff. 3.1.12):

…[B]ecause [the order] 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)

By focusing on the intent of the order, we can only infer that the court was addressing the judge’s rationale for the order, instead of the order itself. That election matters, because it raises two questions:

  1. If the trial judge explained herself differently, might the SJC have upheld the judgment?
  2. If the SJC looked at the order in its full ramification, would it have impacted the outcome?

The actual support award in Young was bi-lateral, rising and dropping with the husband’s income, a fact eclipsed by the court’s sharp focus on intent. Thus, while the trial judge may have focused her analysis of the parties’ rising station, her order actually provided downside protection for the husband, too.

Had the judge expressed an intent to protect the husband in the event of income decline and stressed it concomitantly with the potential for “upside”, might the “intent” infirmity that the SJC seized upon been neutralized? Or, if the judge had found that a family with roller coaster income might experience corresponding lifestyle flux?

After all, as the SJC observed:

    There 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.

The SJC dealt with the former, but not the latter.


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