In Which Cases is an Alimony Award Based on Need?

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In a recent Rule 23 decision, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts provided further clarification relating to the Young v. Young decision and how a judge is expected to calculate alimony. In a nutshell, if a payor's "ability to pay" is not an issue, then the amount of alimony will be determined by the recipient's reasonable need. If the parties do not have sufficient income to maintain the lifestyle that both spouses enjoyed during the marriage, then the statutory alimony percentages will be used to calculate the amount of a support order.

In the C.M.A. v. J.T.A. case, the wife challenged a judgment issued in the probate and family court. The judgment established an alimony award in an amount commensurate with what the judge (adopting the findings of a special master) found to be the wife's reasonable need. The wife appealed this judgment on various grounds, including a claim that the alimony award was erroneously based on need, rather than on a formulaic calculation based on the difference between the parties' incomes.

The Appeals Court disagreed with the wife and upheld the lower court's judgment, reasoning that the judge did not abuse his or her discretion. The Court quoted extensively from prior appellate decisions, drawing a very distinct line between cases. In cases where the couple's collective income is insufficient to maintain the lifestyle of the marriage post-divorce, the court should apply the statutory formula and issue an alimony award based on a percentage of the difference between the parties' incomes (adjusted to conform with the new tax laws). In cases where the parties are sufficiently affluent and the payor spouse has a demonstrable ability to pay, the alimony award should be based "solely" on the recipient spouse's needs. The Court even went so far as to say that in cases where the ability to pay is not in dispute, an award using the formula may be considered an abuse of discretion, and thus ripe for appeal.

This decision provides greater clarity to the Young v. Young decision, issued in 2017, which in turn provided clarity to the provisions of the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act establishing statutory guidelines for alimony orders. Although this case provides further clarity, the recipient's reasonable need still must be determined and may require an extensive, fact-based inquiry. Thus, even though this case creates a more defined guidepost for cases, it may significantly complicate alimony determinations in high-income cases, by shifting the controversy to a determination of reasonable need.

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