Alimony is a court-ordered payment from one spouse to the other during the legal divorce process and sometimes, for a reasonable time after. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 208 § 48 (2018).)
States originally created alimony when traditional marriages commonly included one spouse worked in the home, raising children and taking care of household responsibilities, while the other worked full-time to support the family. When a marriage ended, the stay-at-home spouse (usually the wife) was left without job skills or education to find employment suitable to meet financial needs. The court stepped in to prevent unemployed (or underemployed) spouses from relying on public assistance, like food stamps or welfare and required the higher-earning spouse to support the other spouse financially.
It's common today for both spouses to work outside of the home, but that doesn't mean each spouse can be financially independent after a divorce. If there's a significant discrepancy in income, the court may award alimony to a needy spouse.
Judges in Massachusetts can order four different types of alimony, including general term, rehabilitative, reimbursement, or transitional support. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 208 § 48 (2018).)
General term alimony is money that the higher-earner pays to the low-earning or unemployed spouse. The court will only award general alimony if the requesting spouse demonstrates a financial need. The duration, meaning the term of alimony payments, depends on the length of the marriage.
Judges may award rehabilitative support in cases where the lesser-earning spouse can become financially independent but needs financial support while working to obtain job training or education to enter the current job market. Rehabilitative alimony is temporary, and the court will only order it for the amount of time it will take for the supported spouse to become financially independent.
Reimbursement alimony is common in marriages where one spouse financially contributed to the other's career or educational advancement. For example, if one spouse helped pay for the other's medical school during the marriage, the court may order the recipient of the degree to pay back the spouse who contributed. The court in Massachusetts reserves reimbursement alimony for marriages lasting less than 5 years.
Transitional support is a periodic or lump-sum payment by a higher-earning spouse to help the supported spouse settle into a new lifestyle or location after the divorce. Transitional support is only available in divorces where the marriage lasted less than five years.
It's a myth that alimony is only available to female spouses. On the contrary, either spouse, regardless of gender, can request and receive spousal support in a divorce, but the requesting spouse must demonstrate a need for financial support and that the other spouse can pay.
The judge will also consider the following factors when deciding the type, duration, and amount of support:
Judges have broad discretion when deciding an alimony award. For example, in Massachusetts, the law permits a judge to consider marital fault during alimony evaluations.
The court won't deny alimony to a needy spouse based only on the fact that the spouse committed adultery. However, the court may reduce support by the amount of marital funds the spouse "wasted" on a third-party during the marriage. For example, if a cheating spouse used marital funds to buy gifts and take vacations with a lover, the court can reimburse the innocent spouse.
The duration of general term alimony depends on the length of the couple's marriage. If the marriage lasted 20 years or less, the court will set the following limits:
General term alimony ends if:
Rehabilitative alimony is limited to five years unless the supported spouse demonstrates compelling circumstances to extend the award. Like general term alimony, support terminates if the recipient remarries or if either spouse dies. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 208 § 50 (2018).)
Reimbursement alimony ends when the supported spouse dies or on a specific date ordered by the court. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 208 § 51 (2018).)
Transitional alimony can't exceed more than three years from the spouse's divorce and will automatically terminate if the recipient dies. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 208 § 52 (2018).)
Unless both spouses agree otherwise, the court can modify (change) general term and rehabilitative alimony if the requesting spouse demonstrates that there is a material change of circumstances since the last order. Modification may be permanent, indefinite, or for a specific duration.
Both reimbursement and transitional alimony are non-modifiable.
Until recently, alimony payments were tax-deductible to the paying spouse and reportable income to the recipient. However, in 2018, the President of the United States made changes to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that eliminated the tax deduction benefit and income reporting requirements for any divorce finalized on or after January 1, 2019.
If you're negotiating an alimony award in your divorce, it's important to speak with an experienced tax and divorce attorney to learn how the new tax law impacts your bottom line.