Recent Appeals Court Decisions Clarifying Durational Limits for Alimony: Part 1

On Friday, October 16, 2020, the Appeals Court released two unpublished decisions further defining and clarifying the durational limits of alimony in Massachusetts under the 2012 Alimony Reform Act: Clement v. Owens-Clement and Clemence v. Sklenak.  In this blog post, I will discuss the first – Clement v. Owens-Clement – which addressed the question of whether a Court has statutory authority to grant a deviation from the durational limits on a complaint for modification filed after the presumptive durational limits had already expired.

In the Clement case, the parties were divorced after six years of marriage. In their Separation Agreement, both parties waived the right to past and present alimony but left open the option to seek alimony in the future. Approximately four and a half years after the divorce, and over a year after the presumptive durational limits of alimony under the Alimony Reform Act expired, the wife filed a complaint for modification seeking alimony from the husband on the basis of her complete disability and inability to support herself.  The wife underwent surgery for removal of a large brain tumor, continued to suffer from a seizure disorder, nerve damage to her face, and hearing loss, and her physicians determined that she was and will be permanently disabled.  She had been unable to work due to these severe medical issues for over a year prior to her filing the complaint for modification.  After trial, the trial judge ordered that deviation from the durational limits was required and ordered the husband to pay alimony to the wife.  The husband argued to the Appeals Court that the trial judge abused her discretion in deviating from the durational limits under the Alimony Reform Act.

Pursuant to section 49(b) of the Alimony Reform Act:

Except upon a written finding by the court that deviation beyond the time limits of this section is required in the interests of justice, if the length of the marriage is 20 years or less, general term alimony shall terminate no later than a date certain under the following durational limits:

(1) If the length of the marriage is 5 years or less, general term alimony shall continue for not longer than one-half the number of months of the marriage.

(2) If the length of the marriage is 10 years or less, but more than 5 years, general term alimony shall continue for not longer than 60 percent of the number of months of the marriage.

(3) If the length of the marriage is 15 years or less, but more than 10 years, general term alimony shall continue for not longer than 70 percent of the number of months of the marriage.

(4) If the length of the marriage is 20 years or less, but more than 15 years, general term alimony shall continue for not longer than 80 percent of the number of months of the marriage.

M.G.L. Chapter 208 § 49(b).

In this case, the presumptive durational limits of alimony forty-two months (60% of their seventy-one-month marriage).  The wife did not file her complaint for modification until fifty-five months after the marriage – thirteen months after the durational limits had presumptively expired.  The husband argued that unless an alimony award is extended before its presumptive termination date under section 49(b), it terminates by operation of law and there is no longer an “existing” alimony award for the judge to extend.  The Appeals Court disagreed.

The Appeals Court determined that neither section 49 nor section 37 (which was not modified by the Alimony Reform Act) of M.G.L. Chapter 208 impose a time limit on a judge’s authority to modify the duration of a prior alimony award.  In the Clement case, the “award” of alimony was the parties’ Separation Agreement which resolved the parties’ financial affairs by essentially providing for a zero dollar alimony “award.”  The Court stated that “there is no indication in either the codified or uncodified sections of the [Alimony Reform A]ct that the Legislature intended for such preexisting awards to automatically terminate by operation of law simply because they already exceeded the presumptive durational limits.” The Court found that the Legislature did not intend to prohibit a judge from deviating from the presumptive durational limits simply because a complaint was filed after the presumptive durational limits had expired.  As such, there was no abuse of discretion in the trial judge entering the alimony award on the wife’s complaint for modification after the durational limits had expired.   The Court determined that the amount of time that elapsed between the presumptive termination date and the wife’s complaint were minimal, the wife sought alimony from the husband only after depleting her modest assets, and there was no prejudice to the husband in the short delay.  The wife proved that deviation from the durational limits was “in the interests of justice” due to her total disability caused by severe, ongoing health issues and her present inability to meet her own needs.