Alimony Determinations & Length of the Marriage

Photo of woman taking off wedding ring

What is Alimony?

In general, ''alimony'' is defined as the payment of support from a spouse, who has the ability to pay, to a spouse in need of support, pursuant to a court order. There are four types of alimony support recognized in the State of Massachusetts – general term, rehabilitative, reimbursement, and transitional alimony. In this article, we will be discussing the most common type of alimony support received and disputed in court, general term alimony. General term alimony is defined under the statute M.G.L. c. 208 §48 as the periodic payment of support to a recipient spouse who is economically dependent.

How much alimony is a party entitled to?

Alimony counteracts the potential economic harm caused by divorce by providing additional income to the lower-wage earner in the marriage. The policy behind alimony is to give both parties the opportunity to enjoy the same station in life they enjoyed during the marriage, to the greatest extent possible. With this in mind, the amount of alimony a party is entitled to varies greatly for each person, depending on the facts of their case as well as the factors set forth in M.G.L. c.208 § 53. Section 53 lists elements like each party’s income, tax considerations, and the age of the parties. However, the most determinative factor in alimony calculations is the length of the parties’ marriage.

The duration of alimony payments is proportionate to the number of years the parties were married. Both the beginning and the end of the marriage is subject to extension or reduction, depending on the parties’ conduct as a couple. In Massachusetts, if the marriage lasted less than 5 years, the length of alimony may not be longer than 50% of the number of months the marriage lasted. If the marriage lasted 5–10 years, the alimony term cannot last any longer than 60% of the number of months in the marriage. If the marriage lasted 10–15 years, the alimony terms cannot last any longer than 70% of the months of the marriage. If the marriage lasted for 15–20 years, the alimony term is capped at 80% of the months of the marriage. Finally, if a marriage lasted for any amount of time greater than 20 years, then the alimony term is indefinite. Undoubtedly, these 10% intervals vastly alter alimony terms and can have a great financial impact on both parties.

When the lines are blurred

In Massachusetts, the most significant factor in determining the length of the marriage is the actual date of legal marriage. Massachusetts does not recognize common law marriage. However, in some divorce cases, an argument may be made for a longer or shorter period of alimony support to accurately reflect the length and nature of the relationship. For example, when couples resided together for many years prior to their marriage, it may be argued that the recipient is entitled to a longer support period to truly give both spouses the opportunity to enjoy the same station in life as they enjoyed during the marriage. Alternatively, for couples that separate and stop living together but wait years before actually filing for divorce, they may make an argument for a shorter duration of alimony support.

The length of the marriage can be disputed at either the beginning or end of the marriage. While the natural start date of a marriage is the day the couple says "I do" and the end date is when the Court enters a judgment for divorce, this is not always the case when calculating alimony support. For the purposes of alimony calculation, courts have found marriages to have begun prior to the legal exchange of vows and to have ended far sooner than the judgment for divorce was entered. It is typical for many couples to live together and link bank accounts many years prior to the legal marriage, as was the case historically with common-law marriages. Similarly, separating parties often divide assets and live separate and apart for months or years prior to actually taking the procedural steps to legalize their divorce. When parties are operating for long periods of time as divorcees rather than as one unit in a marital partnership, there are arguments both for and against counting this time the couple spends in limbo as part of their "marriage." Those who are the recipients of alimony generally argue for a longer marriage, whereas those who are the payors of alimony take the opposite position.

In these cases, the economic marital partnership may become a relevant factor. M.G.L. c.208 § 48 provides that a judge 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." The "economic marital partnership" encompasses a multitude of factors, including, the degree of economic dependence or interdependence, the level of parties’ collaborative conduct in furtherance of a shared life together, what benefits are derived from their relationship, what external representations about their relationship are made, and the parties’ reputation regarding their relationship. However, no one fact is dispositive and it is left to the court’s discretion.

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