How do judges decide about alimony?

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
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Alimony is money a judge orders one spouse to pay the other when a couple divorces.

Judges must take into account:

  1. “length of the marriage,”
  2. ages of each spouse,
  3. health of each spouse,
  4. income, employment, the ability of each spouse to get a job, even if they need training,
  5. economic and non-economic contributions of both spouses to the marriage,
  6. ability of each spouse to keep up their standard of living of the marriage, and
  7. economic opportunities lost because of the marriage.
     
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Why does the “length of the marriage” matter?

The “length of the marriage” is the number of months between the date you married and the date a complaint for divorce or separate support is served.

The “length of the marriage” affects the kind of alimony. Usually judges order more alimony for longer marriages.

The judge can add months to the “length of the marriage” if you can show you were living together and had a financial partnership before you married. The judge can also take away months from the “length of the marriage” if you lived apart for a long time. 

How much alimony does a judge order?

Usually, judges order between 26% and 30% of the difference between the parties' gross incomes. This is just a guideline. A judge can order a different amount depending on the situation.

For example:

  • Ned grosses $50,000 from his job each year.
  • Sally grosses $60,000 from her job each year.
  • The difference between their incomes is $10,000.
  • The judge might order Sally to pay Ned between $2,600 and $3,000 in alimony each year.

“Income” for calculating alimony is the same as under the Child Support Guidelines.

A judge can decide how much a spouse should be earning. The judge can use that amount as a spouse’s income. Deciding how much the spouse should be earning is “attribution” of income.

The guidelines for how much alimony a judge can order do not apply to “reimbursement alimony.”

Can I get both alimony and child support?

Maybe. In 2022, the Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision in a case called Cavanagh vs. Cavanagh which made some changes to when a parent must pay both child support and alimony. Now, a judge must follow 3 steps in deciding whether and how much alimony and child support to order:

  1. If a parent is eligible for alimony, the court should first calculate how much the alimony order would be. Then, the court should calculate how much the child support order would be using the parents' post alimony incomes.
  2. Next, the court should make another set of calculations. This time, the court should calculate how much the child support order would be without alimony being paid or received. After calculating what the child support order would be, the court should then consider how much the alimony order would be.
  3. Finally, the court must compare the orders and tax consequences of situation one (alimony calculated first) with the orders and tax consequences in situation two (child support calculated first). The court should then issue an order with alimony and child support amounts that are most equitable for everyone. If the court decides not to order alimony, it must explain why not.
How long can alimony last?

The time limits are different for each kind of alimony. There are:

Are there situations where the time and amount limits do not apply?

Yes. The alimony limits do not apply to:

  • “reimbursement alimony” or
  • “general term” or “rehabilitative alimony” if the judge gives reasons, in writing, why they should order a different amount.

Ordering a different length of time or a different amount is called “deviation.”

When can the judge “deviate” from the time or amount limits?

The judge can make an alimony order that is different from the limits. The judge must decide that a different order is necessary. They must write the reasons for the differences into the order. The judge can order a different amount, a different time, or both, for the following reasons:

  1. either of you is very old, chronically ill, or has an unusual health condition;
  2. the amount of taxes either of you pays;
  3. the payor spouse is providing health insurance for the other spouse;
  4. the payor spouse was ordered to get life insurance and make the other spouse the beneficiary;
  5. there is unearned income, like interest, dividends, or capital gains from assets that were not divided up in the divorce;
  6. the 2 of you lived together as an “economic partnership” before the marriage;
  7. the 2 of you were separated for a long time before the divorce;
  8. the payor spouse physically or mentally abused the other spouse so that they cannot support themselves; and
  9. a spouse cannot support themselves because they not have
    1. property,
    2. the skills, services, or other help they need, or
    3. employment opportunities.

The judge can also deviate from the limits for any other reason that they decide is “relevant and material” as well as necessary. 

See General Laws Chapter 208, section 53 (e).

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