Alimony: A Primer

What determines whether there will be an alimony award following your divorce? Here is a brief introduction to the purpose of alimony and the circumstances in which it is implicated in a divorce.

Let’s break it down.

The rationale behind alimony is that marriage is, among other things, an economic partnership. The Family and Probate Court is a court of equity, or fairness. Massachusetts law considers it inequitable to leave one spouse without financial support from the other after divorce in certain situations in which it would be, well, unfair to do so.

First things first. The Court must have personal jurisdiction over both parties if an award of alimony is going to be made. Personal jurisdiction is the ability of the Court to order a person to appear.

Types of alimony

There are four types of alimony:

  • General term alimony is regular financial support paid to an economically dependent spouse. It is often ordered in long term marriages, but can be ordered for shorter marriages. The period of time general term alimony is payable is directly related to the length of the marriage, and may be awarded indefinitely in a marriage of more than twenty years.
  • Rehabilitative alimony is granted for no more than five years to an economically dependent spouse who is expected to become financially self-sufficient.
  • Reimbursement alimony is granted to compensate the receiving party for contributions he or she made to the paying party’s financial future. A good example of this is a spouse who paid for some or all of law school or medical school, thereby increasing his or her spouse’s future earning capacity and decreasing his or her debt burden. This type of alimony may be awarded in any length of marriage.
  • Transitional alimony is granted to facilitate the receiving spouse’s adjustment to a different lifestyle post-divorce. The term of payment is no longer than three years and may be awarded in shorter marriages.

Statutory factors

In considering whether to order alimony (as well as the division of property), the Court considers the following factors, laid out in Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 208, section 34:

  • Length of the marriage – this determines the amount of time that alimony is payable and the appropriate type of alimony to apply to the marriage.
  • Conduct of the parties during the marriage – this refers only to economic conduct of the parties. For instance, if there has been financial malfeasance on the part of one spouse that may increase the alimony award to the receiving spouse, or vice versa.
  • Age of the parties – the older the parties, the more likely it is that an award of general term alimony will be made. For younger parties, the court is more likely to consider rehabilitative alimony.
  • Health of the parties – if one of the parties is ill and therefore unable to or less able to work, that may impact the alimony order.
  • Station of the parties – this refers to the financial station of the parties during the marriage. The goal of alimony is to keep each party at the same socioeconomic status enjoyed by both parties during the marriage, resources permitting.
  • Occupation of the parties – if both spouses are working and able to support themselves, alimony is unlikely. Likewise, if one party’s occupation during the marriage was as homemaker, then an alimony award is more likely.
  • Amount and sources of income – the court may consider all income from any source in drafting an alimony order.
  • Vocational skills – this refers to the professional and vocational skills acquired by both parties, regardless of current employment status.
  • Employability – this factor refers to the availability of work to each party and takes into account any leave of absence a spouse has taken from his or her career to raise children or act as homemaker.
  • Estate of the parties – this refers to any property to which each party holds title, regardless of how or when it was acquired.
  • Liabilities of the parties – this court considered individual and jointly held debts in awarding alimony.
  • Needs of the parties – the court will look at each party’s lifestyle, and attempt to determine whether it can be maintained without an alimony order. The court is limited by the parties’ actual income, however, and will not enter an order of alimony to support one spouse’s unsustainable lifestyle.
  • Opportunity of each of the parties for future acquisition of capital assets and income – the court will consider, for example, the availability of stock options, the age of the children and any professional limitations that places on the primary custodial parent (if any), and potential inheritances.
  • Present and future needs of dependent children of the marriage – this is particularly important if a child is disabled or has special needs and is likely to need long term supportive services. If the parties share unemancipated children and the combined income of the parties is below $250,000.00 per year, then the amount of financial support will be determined by the Child Support Guidelines, not alimony.
  • Contribution of each of the parties to the acquisition, preservation, or appreciation in value of their respective estates – this factor may be considered both for property division and alimony. If the parties acquired assets during the marriage, who saved for the assets? Who improved them? Who maintained them?
  • Contribution of either or both spouses as homemaker – if one spouse has limited future financial opportunities because he or she acted as homemaker during the marriage, the court may consider compensating the homemaking spouse for that opportunity cost.
  • Division of property – the court considers how the marital estate is being divided and whether that division provides adequately for the needs of the prospective recipient spouse.

Term of Alimony

The term of alimony may be limited by your Separation Agreement, court order, and terminates upon the death of either spouse. Retirement of the payor spouse or the remarriage or cohabitation of the recipient spouse may also terminate alimony. You may bring a modification action to change or terminate an alimony order if there has been a change in economic circumstances.

If you believe that your marriage may warrant an alimony order, it is important to consult with an attorney to determine the scope of your rights and responsibilities. Schedule a free phone consultation with us.

About the Author:  Elizabeth Dann, Esq. is a family law attorney practicing in Natick, Massachusetts. She is a divorced, single mother of three children who loves soy cappuccinos, Zumba, plant-based food, and karaoke.


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