The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has ruled that alimony paid in accordance with a temporary order while a divorce case is pending is separate and distinct from general term alimony. This means that alimony paid under a temporary order is not included when determining whether durational limits on alimony have been met.
When the alimony reform act became law in Massachusetts, all previously existing alimony awards were defined to be “general term alimony.” M.G.L. c. 208, sec. 49 contains limits on how long general term alimony is payable, based upon the length of the marriage. Parties with alimony obligations pre-dating the alimony reform law can bring modification actions to seek application of the durational limits, thus limiting or ending a current alimony obligation. The question that has been unanswered, until now, is whether alimony paid prior to the actual divorce judgment counted when calculating the number of months of alimony that has been paid. The SJC has ruled that only alimony paid after the actual judgment of divorce is credited towards the total term of the alimony obligation.
The decision in Holmes v. Holmes stems from an increase in alimony sought by the wife, who filed a complaint in 2011 to modify the alimony provisions in the Judgment of Divorce from October 2008 (which was prior to the alimony reform law). In the modification case, the trial court converted the husband’s alimony and child support obligations to all alimony and also modified the length of time for which alimony was to be paid, calling for alimony to terminate upon the death of either party, the wife’s remarriage, the husband reaching full retirement age, or October 7, 2020. The husband sought relief from the Judgment, arguing that the duration for payment of alimony should be calculated from when he began paying temporary alimony, not from the date of divorce, which would result in termination of his obligation in June 2018. The trial court denied his request for relief and the husband appealed. The husband argued that if alimony paid by order of the court while the divorce is pending (temporary alimony) is not counted towards the durational limit, an alimony recipient will be incentivized to drag out the divorce case. While essentially agreeing with the husband that a spouse receiving alimony may seek to drag out the divorce case to receive alimony for a longer period of time, the SJC did not agree that the remedy for this problem is to start the running of the clock relative to how long alimony is paid at the temporary order stage. Rather, the SJC made clear that temporary alimony is not general term alimony. General term alimony can only commence after a judgment terminates the marriage and durational limits only apply to general term alimony.
An important point that is reinforced within the decision in Holmes v. Holmes is that a judge is not obligated to order that alimony be payable for the maximum presumptive time period allowed under the alimony statute. The durational limit is just that – a limit. A trial judge does not need to order that alimony be paid for a period equally that durational limit. Additionally, if a judge determines that temporary alimony has been paid for an unusually long period of time, or that a recipient of alimony unfairly delayed final resolution of the case in an attempt to prolong the payment of alimony, the judge may determine that the appropriate duration of alimony is below the presumptive level.