“Marital station, when?”
In this entry, we will begin discussing how the Young case determines “need” in the context of alimony.
We have long known that need is a relative term. “The standard of need is measured by the ‘station’ of the parties -- by what is required to maintain a standard of living comparable to the one enjoyed during the marriage.” Grubert v. Grubert, 20 Mass. Ap. Ct. 811, 819 (1985).
This is sensible, given that marital station is fueled by the parties’ financial resources, generally income from employment or self-employment. For one couple, subsistence may characterize the marital standard; while country clubs, international travel and maybe even cash available for investment, might be necessary to grasp the breadth of a high income living standard.
In Young v. Young, the trial judge chose to characterize standard by observing that:
The husband's substantial compensation package allowed the parties to enjoy an affluent, upper-class station in life and marital lifestyle during their marriage.
Critically, she did not “…make a finding regarding [the wife’s] actual weekly or annual expenses or needs.”, as seemingly required by Grubert’s “what is required” mandate. (More on this is a later blog entry.)
The case does not disclose whether or not the judge looked at this question with a temporal focus, yet it is something that we have always found to be unclear in our law. After all, “during”, without more, seems to cover an entire marital span, in this case, 24+ years.
In many cases, the parties separate at their highest income level, when careers are successful and linear. But, what of couples with variable living standards because of industry volatility, entrepreneurial cycle, episodic illness or simple luck (good or bad)? How to measure their marital living standard?
The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) approached this problem in Young for reasons that are not apparent, since there was no evidence recited beyond the expectation of unceasing rise of standard. The SJC had touched on it in Pierce v. Pierce, 455 Mass. 286, 296 (2009), which the Young court summarized as
… [T]he recipient spouse’s need for support is generally the amount needed to allow the spouse to maintain the lifestyle you were she enjoyed prior to termination of the marriage. (Italics ours)
“Prior to” implies, at least, that trial judges should look to a timeframe that is somehow proximate to divorce, and the Young court looked approvingly to a treatise, stating:
[S]ee also 1 Lindey and Parley on separation agreements and antenuptial contracts §22.63[e] (2d ed. 2017) (‘standard of living experienced during the several years before the divorce [is] relevant for alimony determination is pre-separation standard of living)… (Italics ours)
And yet, at Footnote 8, the Young case states:
In light of this conclusion, we need not address the husband's argument that the judge was clearly erroneous in finding that the husband's income will continue to grow on an "upward trajectory." Even if it did, the wife's alimony would still be limited to the amount needed to allow her to continue to live the lifestyle she enjoyed at the end of the marriage. (Italics ours)
So, which is it? At the least, the SJC’s mixed signals may open the door to living standard evidence that is broader than simply that which existed on the eve of divorce, inviting evidence that might have been excluded previously on relevancy grounds, and it may allow the courts to take account of the more volatile, or inconsistent at least, economic fact patterns, which probably makes good sense.
Think: a high standard that dips late in marriage, or a lower one that spikes at the end. Giving the trial judge access to broader evidence suggests concomitant discretion in the ultimate marital standard finding.
As divorce mediators, we think it is good to encourage parties to look at the “need” question more openly; and as family law arbitrators and masters, it is instructive to know that SJC recognizes the possibility at least that “station” evidence need not be static in appropriate circumstances.
In the next entry, we will discuss a particular challenge that the trial court with have on remand in the Young case.