Retroactive Application of Durational Limits is Constitutional

In the highly awaited decision of Van Arsdale v. Van Arsdale, the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that application of the durational limits contained within the Alimony Reform Act to alimony agreements predating the Act is not unconstitutionally retroactive.

William and Susan married in 1979 and divorced 18 years later in 1997.  At the time of the divorce, alimony in Massachusetts had no durational limits.  And so, William and Susan agreed at the time of the divorce that William would pay alimony to Susan until Susan remarried or until one of them died. They also agreed to review the amount of alimony when the children emancipated and when William retired. In 2015, after the enactment of the Alimony Reform Act, William asked the court to terminate his alimony obligation based upon the durational limits contained in the Act and because he had retired from full time employment. For a marriage of 18 years, the Act provides that alimony shall continue for not longer than 80% of the number of months of the marriage. Susan argued that applying the durational limits retroactively to her agreement with William, which was entered into before the law went into effect, was unconstitutional.

In disagreeing with Susan, the SJC pointed out that a law does not operate retroactively in the constitutional sense simply because it is applied to a matter predating the law’s enactment. Rather, a law has an unconstitutional retroactive effect only if it “attaches new legal consequences to events completed before its enactment.” In this case, the SJC held that because the durational limits merely create a presumption of termination of alimony, it is not impermissibly retroactive. The Act does not compel new legal consequences to the bargains struck by parties prior to the enactment of the law because an alimony recipient has an opportunity to rebut the presumption. The “opportunity to escape the effects” of the new law is crucial to finding it is not unconstitutionally retroactive. While an alimony recipient may view the narrowly defined “interests of justice” standard for rebutting the presumption of termination hardly much of an opportunity, supporters of the Alimony Reform Act will hail this decision a victory in keeping with the intentions of the Act.