“Is ‘need’ a floor or a ceiling?”
This question does not rise from historic alimony law, which has long rested on the axiom that alimony exists to meet a recipient’s “needs”, as measured by the marital living standard.
But, the Alimony Reform Act (ARA) (eff. 3.1.12) created the question with its M.G.L., ch. 208, § 53(b), stating that general term alimony
…should generally not exceed the recipient’s need or 30 to 35 per cent of the difference between the parties’ gross incomes…” (Italics ours)
Since the lawmakers did not specify “the greater of” or “the lesser of”, judges and lawyers (and we, in earlier blog entries) have been left to speculate about whether “need” functions as a “floor” for support.
Since the appellate courts have now branded 53(b) as the range a “reasonable and lawful order”, this question was critical.
Where the payor’s income capacity is more than sufficient to meet the recipient’s “need”, should the latter enjoy “upside” alimony, even if that raises him or her above the marital station? Or, does the marital living standard cap the payor’s exposure?
We have consistently suspected the latter, and we have said so during many conciliation cases, since we did not believe that the legislature intended to upend the time-honored linkage to need. If anything, the ARA signaled a reining in of alimony, not its expansion. But given the vagaries our appellate courts, we braced for another surprise.
It didn’t happen.
The SJC spoke plainly:
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 and amount of alimony that exceeds her need to maintain this lifestyle she enjoyed during the marriage. (Italics ours)
Now, we know for sure: “need”, in the law, is a ceiling.