Alimony in Massachusetts


Area of Law: 


Alimony, which is also referred to as “spousal support,” is the continuation of financial support from one former spouse to another after a marital separation or divorce.  The motivation of the court to grant alimony is to alleviate the unreasonable economic burdens of divorce or separation that often arise due to the nature of the marriage.  Alimony will be granted in the case that one spouse disproportionally relied upon the other for financial support during the marriage.


The amount of alimony is generally determined by a number of factors.  The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, approved by the ABA in 1974, recommends determining factors in the amount of alimony granted, though the actual factors in practice may vary from state to state.  Because the judge presiding over the case has broad discretion in considering all of these factors, it is difficult to estimate the amount of alimony that will be granted going into the proceeding.


The factors governing the determination in Massachusetts are laid out in Chapter 208, Section 34 of the Massachusetts General Laws.  This section states, “In determining the amount of alimony, if any, to be paid…the court shall consider length of the marriage, the conduct of the parties during the marriage, the age, health, station, occupation, amount and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, estate, liabilities and needs of each of the parties and the opportunity of each for future acquisition of capital assets and income.”  People often look at the use of “conduct” in the statute and assume it refers to “conduct” in the moral sense.  In this context, it specifically refers to the conduct a propos to the purchase of assets.  Marital fault will not be considered with regard to determining the spousal support if the grounds for the divorce are an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.


There is no set formula written into the statute, but Massachusetts Courts often use the “Ginsburg Formula” to determine alimony, which sets the bar for the recipient spouse at 40% of the couple’s combined income.  So, for instance, if Spouse A earns $150,000 per year and Spouse B earns $50,000 per year, then Spouse A will have to pay $30,000 in alimony every year to bring Spouse B’s earnings to $80,000 – 40% of the total.


If the divorce decree does not specify the length of time for the spousal support payments to occur, then the payments must continue until the court orders them to end.  There are a few events that are likely to lead to the termination of alimony.  Most alimony payments end when the recipient spouse remarries, though even the payer’s death will not end payments per se.  The court may order that the alimony continue from the payer spouse’s estate or life insurance proceeds if the circumstances dictate.


Types of Alimony


There are a few different types of alimony.  Temporary alimony is given when the couple separates, but has not yet finalized their divorce.  Once the divorce is finalized, the decree will specify the amount and length of the alimony ordered, if any.


Rehabilitative alimony is the most common type of alimony, which is given to a spouse for the sole purpose of supporting them while they take the necessary steps to become self-sufficient.  It is generally given for a fixed period of time, at the end of which, it will be subject to review so the court can determine how to move forward with payments.  The specifics of review, if there even is a prescribed review period, depends on the applicable state’s law.


Permanent alimony continues indefinitely – generally until the death of the payer spouse, the death of the recipient spouse, or the remarriage of the recipient spouse.  Sometimes cohabitation can trigger the termination of alimony, but that varies on a case to case basis because cohabitation does not necessarily imply support. 


Someone who is a party to a permanent alimony arrangement may request a change in their agreement through a motion to raise or lower alimony payments based on a material change in circumstances.  Some examples of events that may qualify as a material change in circumstances are the cohabitation of one of the parties with another person, a drop in income of the payer spouse, or a raise in income of the recipient spouse.


Reimbursement alimony is designed to reimburse one spouse for expenses incurred on behalf of the other during the course of the marriage.  One example of this is if one spouse supported the other while he or she went to college or another career training program.  This applies in scenarios where the recipient spouse directly paid for the payer spouse’s education or training, and if the recipient spouse simply gave financial support to the payer spouse during his or her education or training.


The final type of alimony is lump sum alimony, which is a fixed payment, and cannot be returned even if what would otherwise be a basis for termination of alimony payments occurs after the payment is made.  This type of alimony is usually made in lieu of a property settlement.