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Supreme Judicial Court Determines that Retirement Provision of Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act Is Not Retroactive

On January 20, 2015, the Supreme Judicial Court issued decisions in three cases involving an important provision of the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act ("the Act").  In each of these cases, which are described more fully below, the alimony payor wanted to terminate their alimony obligation based upon the Act's language that alimony "shall terminate upon the payor attaining the full retirement age."  See G.L. c. 208, § 49(f).   

The primary issue in each case was whether the provision of the Act terminating alimony upon the payor attaining full retirement age applies retroactively to a Judgment entered before March 1, 2012 (the date on which the Act became effective), such that alimony provisions in pre-existing Judgments may be subject to termination based on retirement age alone.  The SJC held that the retirement provision does not apply retroactively.  For alimony orders entered before March 1, 2012, the alimony payor needs to prove that a material change of circumstance occurred (beyond the enactment of the Act itself) in order to bring an action to modify the alimony obligation.  The decisions in these three cases impact alimony payors and recipients who were divorced before March 1, 2012, where the alimony provision of the divorce agreement merged into the divorce judgment; or where alimony provisions are set forth in a divorce judgment entered after a trial. 

Rodman v. Rodman

After 39 years of marriage, George and Roberta Rodman divorced by judgment nisi in April 2008 that incorporated and merged the alimony provisions of their Divorce Agreement.  George was obligated to pay Roberta alimony in the amount of $1,539 per week, terminating upon George's death or Roberta's death or remarriage.   In November 2013 (after the Act became effective), George filed a complaint for modification seeking, among other things, to terminate his alimony obligation in accordance with the Act because he had reached full retirement age.  Unlike the other two cases, George also filed a motion asking the court to enter a temporary order terminating his alimony obligation immediately based solely upon the fact that he had reached full retirement age and, he argued, the language of the Act mandates that his alimony obligation "shall terminate."  The Probate and Family Court denied the motion and reported the following question to the Appeals Court: "Whether or not [the retirement provision] is to be applied retroactively to judgments entered before March 1, 2012."  

On direct appellate review, the SJC answered the reported question as follows:  "General Laws c. 208, § 49(f) [the retirement provision], does not apply retroactively to alimony orders in divorce judgments that entered before March 1, 2012."  Similar to the SJC's reasoning in Chin and Doktor below, the SJC looked at the Act's uncodified provisions to determine the Legislature's intent.  The SJC explained that the uncodified provisions of the Act are transitional, non-substantive, and must be read together.  Beginning with uncodified § 4(a) - which states that the Act "shall apply prospectively, such that alimony judgments entered before March 1, 2012 shall terminate only under such judgments, under a subsequent modification or as otherwise provided for in this act" - the SJC determined that the subsequent uncodified provisions provide an exception to the prospective application of the Act.  

The exception is contained in uncodified § 4(b):  "existing alimony awards which exceed the durational limits established in M.G.L. c. 208, § 49 shall be modified upon a complaint for modification without additional material change of circumstance, unless the court finds that deviation from the durational limits is warranted."  The durational limits, which are contained in M.G.L. c. 208, § 49, provide dates by which alimony shall terminate (unless a deviation is obtained) based upon the length of the parties' marriage.  Specifically, the Act provides durational limits for marriages lasting 5 years or less, 5-10 years, 10-15 years, and 15-20 years.  Marriages longer than 20 years do not fall within the durational limits provision, and the Act allows a court to order alimony for an indefinite length of time.  Uncodified § 5 provides staggered dates when an alimony payor may file a complaint for modification because their existing alimony judgment exceeds the durational limits, without needing to show any other material change in circumstance.

This exception, however, has a limitation contained in uncodified section, § 4(c): "under no circumstances" does the Act provide a basis for a party to modify an alimony judgment (including those that exceed the durational limits) when the parties agreed their alimony judgment was "not modifiable" or where the alimony provision "survives the judgment."  The SJC relied upon the explicit language of the Act, as well as the recent Appeals Court case Lalchandani v. Roddy, 86 Mass. App. Ct. 819 (2015).  

Due to the different procedural route, the SJC remanded Rodman to the Probate and Family Court for further proceedings consistent with the SJC's decision.  

Chin v. Merriot

The parties were married for 12 years before they divorced in August 2011, when Chester Chin was 67-years-old and Edith Merriot was 69-years-old.  The parties' separation agreement, which merged into the divorce judgment nisi entered on August 17, 2011, required Chin to pay Merriot alimony in the amount of $650 each month until "the death of either party or the Wife's remarriage."  

Nearly two years after the divorce and one year after the Act became effective, in March 2013, Chin filed a complaint for modification seeking to terminate his alimony obligation, alleging that, under the Act, his attaining full retirement age constituted a material change of circumstance.  Merriot denied that there had been a material change in circumstance because Chin had already passed full retirement age by the time the divorce judgment entered.  Chin subsequently amended his complaint for modification to include as an additional alleged material change of circumstance the fact that Merriot had been cohabitating with her significant other for more than three months, thereby mandating a suspension, reduction, or termination of alimony under the Act.  See G.L. c. 208, § 49(d).  

After a trial, the Probate and Family Court dismissed the complaint, concluded that the retirement and cohabitation provisions of the Act apply prospectively, and found that Chin did not show that a material change of circumstances existed.  

The SJC held that both the retirement and cohabitation provisions of the Act apply prospectively.  Like in Rodman and Doktor, the SJC relied upon several uncodified provisions of the Act to conclude that the Legislature intended the Act to apply prospectively to judgments entered on or after March 1, 2012.  The only exception, where the Act can apply retroactively to judgments entered before March 1, 2012, is a modification of a judgment that exceeds the durational limits established in M.G.L. c. 208, § 49, as discussed above in Rodman.  The SJC reiterated that a modification of a pre-March 1, 2012 judgment must be based on a material change of circumstance, which Chin did not prove.

Doktor v. Doktor

Joseph and Dorothy Doktor had been married for over 20 years when they divorced in January 1992.  Joseph was the primary wage earner during their marriage.  Their separation agreement, which merged into the divorce judgment nisi, obligated Joseph to pay Dorothy alimony in the amount of $200 per week until "the death or remarriage of the Wife."   

In June 2013 (after the Act became effective), Joseph filed a complaint for modification seeking to terminate his alimony obligation based upon the Act's retirement provision.  He alleged that he reached full retirement age under the Act, he had in fact retired, and Dorothy no longer needed alimony.  After a trial, the Probate and Family Court dismissed the complaint for modification because the retirement provision did not apply to judgments entered before March 1, 2012, when the Act went into effect.  The Probate and Family Court also found that Joseph failed to show that a material change of circumstance had occurred, where the evidence showed Dorothy was unable to meet her expenses without the alimony payment and, upon the parties' agreed upon stipulation, Joseph had the ability to meet his alimony obligation.  

Like in Rodman and Chin, the SJC held that the retirement provision of the Act does not apply to judgments entered before March 1, 2012, the effective date of the Act.  Also like Rodman and Chin, the SJC reviewed the uncodified provisions to ascertain the Legislature's intent.  Here more than in the other cases, the SJC discussed uncodified §6, which provides as follows:  "Notwithstanding clauses (1) to (4) of section 5 of this act, any payor who has reached full retirement age . . . or who will reach full retirement age before March 1, 2015 may file a complaint for modification on or after March 1, 2013."  Joseph argued that §6 supported his argument that an alimony payor could terminate their alimony obligation when they attained full retirement age.  Reading §5 and §6 together, the SJC interpreted §6 to apply when "a payor had been married to a recipient for fewer than twenty years seeks to modify an alimony obligation based on the durational limits of G.L. c. 208, §49, and the payor also will 'reach full retirement age on or before March 1, 2015,' the payor may file a complaint for modification on or after March 1, 2013."  The SJC also affirmed the Probate and Family Court's determination that Joseph failed to establish a material change of circumstances warranting a termination of his alimony obligation.  

In conclusion, Rodman v. Rodman, Chin v. Merriot, and Doktor v. Doktor create a dividing line between divorce cases in which the judgment entered before March 1, 2012 versus those in which the judgment entered after March 1, 2012.  For pre-March 1, 2012 cases, the Act does not apply retroactively (with the only exception being judgments that exceed the durational limits) and a material change of circumstance is required to modify or terminate a pre-Act alimony obligation.  For pre-March 1, 2012 cases that are less than 20 years old, these cases clarify that parties can seek a modification of alimony if the judgment exceeds the durational limits contained in the Act.  For post-March 1, 2012 cases, the Act applies, and parties should rely upon the Act when negotiating a divorce, modifying or terminating any alimony award, or seeking a deviation of alimony.

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