New Decision Provides Clarity on Pre-Marital Economic Partnerships and Impact on Alimony Duration

“We have been together for so long, it is as if we are married.” In a small number of jurisdictions, including nearby Rhode Island, a couple can be legally recognized as being married, without any formal registration of a civil or religious marriage. This legal concept is often referred to as a common law marriage. Massachusetts is one of a majority of states in which common law marriage is not available. Nevertheless, some of the principles of common law marriage can be applied in Massachusetts divorce cases, particularly those in which alimony is at issue. For example, when considering the length of the marriage in a divorce case, Massachusetts courts have the authority, under limited circumstances, to include months or even years prior to a legal marriage as part of the overall length of the marriage. The effect of this artificial extension to the marriage length can be significant: the longer the marriage, the longer the potential duration of alimony.

The Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act of 2011 provided in its definition of “length of the marriage” that the marriage length shall be calculated as the number of months from the date of the legal marriage to the date of service of a complaint or petition for divorce. Pretty standard stuff, no? However, the definition also included that the court may increase the length of the marriage if there is evidence that the parties’ “economic marital partnership” began during their cohabitation period prior to the marriage. G. L. c. 208, § 48.  The Alimony Reform Act did not further define this concept of an “economic marital partnership,” so it was initially unclear when and how it might apply in actual cases.

In the past few years, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has started to provide some clarity about what factors can be considered when determining whether there was a legitimate economic marital partnership prior to the marriage, which would result in an increase of the presumptive duration of alimony in that case.

The recent SJC decision, Connor v. Benedict, SJC-12551 (March 7, 2019) is a good post-script to the unique facts in the earlier SJC decision Duff-Kareores v. Kareores, 474 Mass. 528 (2016) regarding what may constitute a pre-marital economic marital partnership. In Connor, the trial court entered a judgment of divorce after a trial, in which the judge increased the length of the parties’ marriage (2.25 years) by an additional six years based on his finding of an economic marital partnership before the marriage. The judge’s finding of an economic marital partnership extended the duration of the alimony order by an additional four years. The SJC agreed with the trial judge that it was permissible to make the finding of an economic marital partnership prior to the marriage even during a period of time in which one of the parties was receiving alimony payments from a prior marriage.

In Connor, the Court favorably considered the following factors in finding an economic marital partnership of six-plus years prior to the actual marriage:

  • Joint purchases of multiple homes;
  • Sale of home and sharing of proceeds before marriage;
  • Sharing of rent, utility, household expenses;
  • Providing health insurance for other through employer’s “domestic partner benefits program”;
  • Joint payment of credit card bills; and
  • Wife’s minor son from prior marriage moved in with parties, became close to Husband.

As always, these findings are based on the specific facts of a given case, so there is no precise blueprint for determining whether there will be a finding of an economic marital partnership prior to the marriage. Nevertheless, decisions like Connor and Duff-Kareores are helpful for attorneys and divorce parties to have some additional guidance regarding the range of factors the courts may deem acceptable to reach a conclusion that an economic marital partnership existed.