Alimony Basics2018-01-11T17:05:43+00:00

If you have filed for divorce in Massachusetts, a judge may order you or your spouse to provide support while the divorce is pending or once it becomes final. Alimony—also referred to as spousal support—is the court-ordered payment of financial support to a spouse in need for a reasonable length of time. Of course, this is dependent on whether the payor spouse has the ability to pay support.

Massachusetts Probate and Family Court judges usually award alimony to the lower-earning spouse so that he/she can maintain the reasonable standard of living he/she enjoyed when married. The amount and duration of general alimony in Massachusetts is determined based on the length of the marriage, the spouses’ ages and incomes, and child support.

Alimony in Massachusetts is guided by the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 (ARA). The ARA is grounded in the longstanding principles of Massachusetts family law, and offers comprehensive guidelines for affording financial support to an economically dependent spouse who is in need, by a spouse who has the ability to pay.

Note: the payor spouse (usually the higher-earning spouse) pays alimony to the recipient spouse (usually the lower-earning spouse).

If your spouse is not able to provide for his/her own needs post-divorce, and you are capable of contributing financial support to help meet those needs, you may be required to pay alimony. On the other hand, you might qualify to receive alimony if you cannot or will not be able to sufficiently support yourself after the divorce. However, if you and your ex-spouse share unemancipated children and the combined income of both parties is less than $250,000 annually, the payor spouse may be obligated to pay only child support.

Whether and to what extent you are eligible to receive—or must pay—alimony in Massachusetts is guided by the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 (ARA). The ARA established durational limits to the time alimony can be paid, created new types of alimony, indicated reasons for the suspension, reduction, or termination of alimony such as cohabitation, excludes certain items from the calculation of a spouse’s income, and more.

The type, amount, and duration of alimony awarded depends on a number of factors set forth in the Alimony Reform Act, including, without limitation:

  • Length of the marriage,
  • Health and age of the parties,
  • Income, earning capacity, and employment opportunities of the parties,
  • Marital lifestyle,
  • Skills and prospects of the parties,
  • Economic contributions to the marriage by the parties,
  • The needs of each party,
  • Each party’s conduct during the marriage, and
  • The needs of any children.

There are various types of alimony in Massachusetts. The judge determines which nature of alimony is right for your case.

One common option is general term alimony, which is paid on a regular basis to a spouse who is financially dependent on his/her former spouse. A court’s award of general term alimony depends largely on the length of the marriage. The judge sometimes includes time that two spouses lived together and supported each other prior to marriage. It is within the judge’s discretion to decide whether to tack on additional time. Ultimately, the amount and duration of your award is highly fact-driven and unique to you.

Rehabilitative alimony is support paid on a periodic basis to an ex-spouse who is expected to be able to support him/herself within an anticipated amount of time. The supported spouse might be seeking employment, expecting a lump sum from the payor spouse by way of court judgment, or in the process of completing a job training. Rehabilitative alimony can be awarded for a marriage of any length, but the duration cannot exceed five years.

Reimbursement alimony is awarded to compensate one spouse for the economic or non-economic costs he/she paid to help the payor spouse during the marriage, such as enabling him/her to pursue an education or complete an internship. This type of alimony is available after marriages of not more than five years, and can come in the form of a one-time payment or regular payments.

Transitional alimony is either paid regularly or by way of lump-sum after a marriage of not more than five years. It is meant to help the recipient spouse settle into a new location or lifestyle after the divorce.

For further information on the types of alimony in Massachusetts, click here.

In Massachusetts, there is a formula for calculating how long general alimony could be paid. The formula is a durational formula, meaning how long alimony will be paid depends on the number of months a couple was married. For example, if you were married for four years, you may receive alimony for up to 24 months (or two years). If you were married for 20 years, the court may award alimony until the lower-earning spouse reaches “full social security retirement age” (see below).

The length of your marriage is the number of years and months between the date of your marriage to the date of service of your divorce summons.

If you were married…

  • for up to 5 years, alimony could be paid for 50% of the length of marriage;
  • for 6 to 10 years, alimony could be paid for 60% of the length of marriage;
  • for 11 to 15 years, alimony could be paid for 70% of the length of marriage;
  • for 16 to 20 years, alimony could be paid for 80% of the length of marriage; and
  • for 20 years or longer, alimony could be paid up until the payor spouse’s full social security retirement age.

If you are interested in learning how much you might be receiving/paying in alimony, consult this helpful alimony calculator.

The actual amount will carefully account for the recipient spouse’s needs, and will not exceed a certain percentage of the payor spouse’s income. Still, the judge has considerable discretion to deviate from the guideline amount based on the circumstances of each case.

Alimony payments usually stop for reasons including death of either spouse, re-marriage, cohabitation, or other material changes of circumstances. It is possible for a judge to order longer periods of payments for good cause. If you wish to receive alimony for longer than what your award dictates, you should file a complaint for modification.

Alimony in Massachusetts can be affected by—but is distinct from—child support. Child support is intended to provide for the needs of minor/dependent children after a divorce.

The average family does not have enough money for both alimony and child support payments. In Massachusetts, unless the spouses have an annual household income in excess of $250,000, the first $250,000 of combined income is usually used to calculate the amount of child support to be paid. Please note, this does not always have to be the case.

It is important to note that the recipient spouse must pay income taxes as if alimony were earned income. The payor spouse can deduct the alimony payment from his/her gross taxable income.

To read about how Trump’s tax overhaul may affect how alimony is taxed, read here: Alimony and Trump’s Tax Plan (Holistic Divorce New York)

The Alimony Reform Act provides for the termination, suspension, or reduction of alimony upon a number of specific events.

General term alimony ends automatically when:

  • 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 spouse is eligible for full Social Security retirement benefits.

General term alimony can be suspended, reduced, or terminated if the payor spouse can show that the recipient spouse is cohabitating with another person. Massachusetts law defines “cohabitation” as maintaining a “common household” with another person for a continuous period of at least three months. A “common household” is when two people share a primary residence (with or without others).

Alimony orders in Massachusetts are modifiable where there is a material change in circumstances since the entry of the original alimony order that affects either a spouse’s need for support or his/her ability to pay, provided the parties did not enter into a binding contract that prevents any modification. Alimony-related terms may or may not be modifiable, depending on how these terms are written in your divorce agreement. Additionally, alimony ordered under former law (prior to the enactment of the Alimony Reform Act) may be modifiable under certain circumstances.