Alimony modification requires a showing of a material change in circumstances

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In a recent summary decision, Casey v. Sweeney, a panel of the Massachusetts Appeals Court reaffirmed that a payor’s alimony obligation determined prior to the enactment of the Alimony Reform Act in March 2012 cannot be modified without a showing of a material change in circumstances (i.e., a material change affecting either the recipient’s need or the payor’s ability to pay.

At the time of the parties’ divorce in 2011, the husband in Casey v. Sweeney was ordered to pay his former wife $147/week as alimony and $403/week as child support for the parties’ two youngest children.

Four years later, the former husband initiated a Complaint for Modification, seeking to terminate his alimony obligation and to reduce his child support obligation to his former wife based upon the emancipation of the parties’ oldest child and the wife’s increased earnings post-divorce.  The former wife filed a counterclaim in which she sought the recalculation of child support, an increase in former husband’s alimony obligation, and additional financial orders relative to contributions toward the children’s college expenses.

In considering the parties’ requests to modify the former husband’s child support obligation, the judge in the lower court found a material change of circumstances existed based upon the alleged emancipation of the parties’ oldest child and the former wife’s increased earnings post-divorce.  Applying the then-current Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines (2017), the former husband’s child support obligation was recalculated, resulting in a $7.00/ per week increase.

At the same time, the judge terminated the former husband’s alimony obligation entirely, relying upon the language in Section 53 of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 (in effect March 1, 2012), which provides, in relevant part:  “when issuing an order for alimony, the court shall exclude from its income calculation: . . . gross income which the court has already considered for setting a child support order.”  See M.G.L. ch. 208, § 53(c)(2).  Given that the Massachusetts child support guidelines are to be applied to the first $250,000 of combined income, and that the parties’ combined incomes in Casey did not exceed $250,000, the judge found that the child support order was based upon the entirety of the parties’ combined income and terminated alimony.  The former wife appealed.

While recognizing the important questions surrounding the interplay of the child support guidelines and Alimony Reform Act, the appellate panel offered no opinion as to the statutory interpretation of G. L. c. 208, § 53.  Instead, the appellate panel reaffirmed its prior judgment in Smith v. Smith, in finding that Section 53 of the Alimony Reform Act does not apply retroactively to the modification of a divorce judgment that predates the Alimony Reform Act.  The portion of the judgment related to alimony was vacated, and the matter was remanded back to the lower court to determine – through a weighing of all statutory factors set forth in G. L. c. 208, § 34 – whether there was a material change in circumstances that would warrant a modification of the former husband’s alimony obligation.


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