How does “general term” alimony work?

Produced by Attorney Jeffrey L. Wolf for MassLegalHelp
Created June 2014

“General term” alimony is for a spouse who is economically dependent.

Examples

Alexa and George were married for 11 years and 8 months.  They have 3 children. The children were 10, 7, and 4 when Alexa and George separated. Alexa has not worked outside the home since their first child was born. She provided almost all of the childcare and did almost all of the housework. When they divorced, the children lived with Alexa. She will continue to provide almost all of the childcare; she will be doing all of the housework. Alexa is economically dependent. The judge might order George to pay general term alimony to Alexa.

Peter and Gretel were married for 16 years. Peter has Parkinson’s Disease.  He cannot work. Peter is economically dependent. The judge might order Gretel to pay Peter general term alimony. 

Paulo and Frida were married for 13 years. Before they married, Frida was a home health aide.  When they got married Frida agreed to quit her job and take care of Paulo’s aging parents who lived upstairs. The couple needed more money and when Frida told Paulo she should take on a few home health aide clients to help make ends meet, he got furious and punched Frida in the head. She got a concussion. Frida got a restraining order to make Paulo move out. This was not the first time Paula hit Frida. He hit her repeatedly during the marriage when she suggested that she get some part-time work; when he suspected she was not taking good care of his parents; when she did not get home from the grocery store when he expected her. After the restraining order, Frida still had to take care of Paulo’s parents, because Paulo refused, and Frida cared about them. After the concussion she could not do home health care work anymore. When they got divorced Frida was 56. Frida is economically dependent. The judge might order Paulo to pay Frida general term alimony. Because of the abuse, the judge might order more alimony or alimony for a longer time, or both. See When can the judge “deviate” from the time or amount limits? 8.

How long does a couple have to be married for the judge to order general term alimony?

The judge can order general term alimony in any length marriage.

How long can general term alimony last?

The length of time general term alimony can last is called “duration.” The duration of the alimony depends on the length of the marriage.

  1. If the length of the marriage was 5 years or less, general term alimony can last for no longer than ½ the number of months of the marriage.
  2. If the length of the marriage was 10 years or less but more than 5 years, general term alimony can last for no longer than 60% of the number of months of the marriage.
  3. If the length of the marriage was 15 years or less, but more than 10 years, general term alimony can last for no longer than 70% of the number of months of the marriage.
  4. If the length of the marriage was 20 years or less, but more than 15 years, general term alimony can last for no longer than 80% of the number of months of the marriage.
  5. If the marriage was longer than 20 years, general term alimony can last indefinitely.

Example

If the judge orders George to pay general term alimony to Alexa, it can last for no more than 98 months (6 years and 2 months). That is because they were married for 140 months, and 70% of 140 months is 98 months.

What can cause general term alimony to end?

General term alimony ends automatically if:

  • the spouse receiving the alimony remarries;
  • either spouse dies; or
  • the spouse paying alimony reaches “full retirement age.”  Full retirement age is the age at which the payor is eligible for full Social Security retirement benefits.

General term alimony can be suspended, reduced, or ended if the payor spouse can show that the receiving spouse has “cohabitated” with another person. “Cohabitation” means keeping a common household" with another person continuously for 3 months. See General Laws, Chapter 208, section 49 (d).

Can general term alimony be changed?

If both of you agreed in writing that the alimony cannot be changed, usually the judge cannot change it.

The judge can only change general term alimony if there is no written agreement that says the alimony cannot be modified.

If you do not have an agreement that talks about changing the alimony, you need to show the judge there has been a “material change of circumstances.” The “material change of circumstances” has to happen after the alimony order. 

“Material change of circumstances” means something very important in your situation has changed.

For example:

  • One spouse becomes disabled.
  • A spouse lives with a new partner continuously for more than 3 months.

The judge can modify the duration or the amount of the alimony.

Modification of general term alimony can be permanent, indefinite, or for a specific duration.

For more details about general term alimony see General Laws, Chapter 208, section 49.

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