Alimony is court-ordered payment of monetary support from one spouse to the other for a period of time after divorce.
You can calculate the length and duration of general term alimony at the MA alimony calculator.
Attorney Rueschemeyer mediates divorces for ALL Massachusetts courts and counties via Zoom.
Alimony awards made or modified in 2019 and later are no longer federal tax deductible for the person making the payments. (There have also been changes to ways that tax breaks for children are treated and distributed starting in 2019.)
Guidelines for maximum alimony duration are relatively clear (see below) and are based on the length of the marriage.
Guidelines are much less clear about whether there should be alimony at all and if there is alimony, how much it should be.
Massachusetts General Law Chapter 208 (Section 48) defines alimony as court ordered payments “to a spouse in need of support”, but it does not define what “in need of support” means.
General Law Chapter 208, Section 53a gives a hodgepodge list of factors that a court should consider in setting the length and amount of an alimony order: “the length of the marriage; age of the parties; health of the parties; income, employment and employability of both parties, including employability through reasonable diligence and additional training, if necessary; economic and non-economic contribution of both parties to the marriage; marital lifestyle; ability of each party to maintain the marital lifestyle; lost economic opportunity as a result of the marriage; and such other factors as the court considers relevant and material.” The law gives no guidance as to how any or all of the factors in this patchwork list should be weighed or used to arrive at a monetary amount.
Chapter 208 Section 53b states that alimony should generally not be greater than the receiving spouse’s need or 30%-35% of the difference between the paying spouse’s gross income and the gross income of the receiving spouse, whichever is lower. Thus alimony guidelines give a ceiling for what alimony should be–if it is decided that there is even need for alimony–but not how much it should be.
This became even muddier when alimony lost its deductibility for federal income taxes for the payor after December 31, 2018. The Massachusetts Bar Association has recommended that this “ceiling” for alimony should not exceed 23% to 28% of the difference in income for alimony orders filed after 2018, rather than the 30-35% specified in the 2011 Alimony Reform Act. You can consult with a divorce lawyer who has seen how the judges in your county have been handling this recently.
You should note that if the payor cannot deduct alimony, the receiver gets it tax free. If the payor IS able to deduct alimony (from pre-2019 alimony orders), the receiver is liable for federal income taxes on the money.
The law is explicit that a judge can attribute income to a spouse, which means the judge can act as if a spouse is actually making money that he or she is not earning at the moment. If a judge attributes income to the lower earner, this decreases the difference between spouses’ incomes and lowers the ceiling for alimony orders based on a percentage of the difference between spouses’ incomes.
Even though the 2011 Alimony Reform Act gives guidelines for duration and ceilings on alimony, the law says a judge can deviate from these limits on amounts or duration of alimony based on a number of specific factors, including (Chapter 208, Section 53e):
1) age or health of either party
2) tax considerations applicable to the parties
3) the payor’s cost of health insurance for the recipient
4) costs of the payor’s court-required life insurance
5) unearned income from assets not otherwise allocated in the divorce process
6) significant cohabitation with economic partnership before marriage or significant periods of separation during marriage
7) a party’s inability to earn money because of abuse by the payor during marriage
8) the payor’s inability to support the payor’s self
Beyond these specific factors, the law states that the court can deviate for any other factors that the court deems “relevant and material.”
The “The Alimony Reform Act of 2011,” which took effect March 1, 2012, limits the length of general term alimony and ties it to the length of marriage.
For marriages of 5 or fewer years, alimony cannot be required for more than 50% of the number of months married. For example, if you were married for 3.5 years (42 months), alimony cannot last longer than 21 months.
For marriages of 5 to 10 years, alimony cannot be required for more than 60% of the number of months married. Thus, for a marriage of 8.3 years (100 months), alimony cannot exceed 60 months.
For marriages of 10 to 15 years, alimony cannot be required for more than 70% of the number of months married.
For marriages of 15 to 20 years, alimony cannot be required for more than 80% of the number of months married.
For marriages longer than 20 years, there is no upper limit on how long alimony can be required by a court.
The length of the marriage is measured from the date of marriage to the service of divorce papers or the filing of divorce papers in court. A judge can adjust the length of marriage time if there was significant premarital cohabitation that included economic partnership or if there were significant periods of marital separation during the marriage.
In addition to the time limits noted above, alimony ends when either spouse dies or the receiving spouse remarries. A court may order the alimony payor to maintain life insurance with the ex-spouse as beneficiary in case the payor should die during the alimony period.
Alimony also ends when the spouse who is paying alimony reaches full social security retirement age, unless the court has explicitly ordered otherwise. Full social security retirement age depends on one’s year of birth:
Year of Birth
Full Social Security Retirement Age
General term alimony can be suspended, reduced, or terminated upon the cohabitation of the recipient spouse, if the recipient spouse has maintained a common household with another person for a continuous period of at least 3 months.
General term alimony may be reinstated if the cohabitation ends before the termination date of the original order. Even if reinstated, however, it cannot extend beyond the termination date of the original order.
Technically there are 4 types of alimony in Massachusetts. Although they have different names, the four types overlap in their aims and all involve payment of a specific amount of money from one spouse to the other. Payments can be made for a specified period of time, with each type of alimony, or it can be a one-time payment for the “Transitional” and “Reimbursement” types. “Transitional” and “Reimbursement” alimony are only available for couples who were married no more than 5 years.
Chapter 208, Section 48 of MA General Laws gives the following definitions for the 4 types.
”General term alimony”, the periodic payment of support to a recipient spouse who is economically dependent.
”Rehabilitative alimony’‘, the periodic payment of support to a recipient spouse who is expected to become economically self-sufficient by a predicted time, such as, without limitation, reemployment; completion of job training; or receipt of a sum due from the payor spouse under a judgment.
‘Reimbursement alimony”, the periodic or one-time payment of support to a recipient spouse after a marriage of not more than 5 years to compensate the recipient spouse for economic or noneconomic contribution to the financial resources of the payor spouse, such as enabling the payor spouse to complete an education or job training.
”Transitional alimony”, the periodic or one-time payment of support to a recipient spouse after a marriage of not more than 5 years to transition the recipient spouse to an adjusted lifestyle or location as a result of the divorce.