Massachusetts Alimony FAQs

Answers to common questions about alimony in Massachusetts.

What is alimony?

Alimony is money one spouse is ordered to pay to the other following a divorce. These days, alimony is often referred to as "spousal support," although Massachusetts law still uses the older term.

Do divorce courts always award alimony?

No. It depends on the financial circumstances of the spouses.

How does a judge decide whether to award alimony?

Massachusetts law includes a list of factors for the judge to consider when deciding whether to award alimony -- and if so, how much and for how long. These factors include:

  • the length of the marriage
  • the age and health of each spouse
  • each spouse's income
  • each spouse's employment and employability (including whether additional training is necessary for a spouse to become employed)
  • each spouse's economic and non-economic contributions to the marriage
  • the couple's lifestyle and standard of living when married, and
  • any economic opportunities either spouse lost as a result of the marriage.

In addition, the court may consider any other factors it deems relevant.

Are there formulas or guidelines to determine alimony, like judges use in child support cases?

No. However, Massachusetts law provides that alimony generally shouldn't exceed the recipient spouse's need or 30 to 35% of the difference in income between the spouses. This rule of thumb doesn't apply to reimbursement alimony (alimony that is awarded to even out the division of property, rather than to support one spouse going forward) or to situations in which a deviation from the ordinary rules is appropriate.

Can alimony be paid in addition to child support?

Nothing prevents a court from awarding both child support and alimony. However, in most middle-income families, there isn't enough money for alimony after payment of child support. If the non-custodial parent earns a lot and the custodial parent earns little or no money, some of the money awarded to the custodial parent may be allocated to alimony and some to child support.

Does it matter whether money paid to the custodial parent is called "alimony" or "child support"?

Yes, it makes a difference for tax purposes. Alimony is deductible, while child support is not. And alimony counts as taxable income, while child support does not. By classifying money paid as alimony rather than child support, the couple's overall tax burden may be reduced. If, for example, the custodial parent has a low income, that parent won't incur much in additional taxes by having to declare alimony as income. And, the higher-earning noncustodial parent can deduct that money, which will result in larger tax savings because of his or her higher tax rate.

I have heard cases of "lifetime" alimony. Under what circumstances would this be awarded?

If a marriage lasts more than 20 years, the judge has the discretion to order general alimony for an indefinite period of time. For shorter marriages, Massachusetts law limits how long alimony can last based on the length of the marriage. For example, the maximum duration of a general alimony award in a marriage that lasted five years or less is 50% of the length of the marriage; in other words, one year of general alimony is the most a judge could award following a two-year marriage. The law allows judges to deviate from these general rules in some circumstances.

Can men seek alimony?

Yes, the statute is gender neutral.

If my ex files for bankruptcy, what happens to my alimony?

Your ex still owes alimony, regardless of the bankruptcy. Alimony and child support are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, which means your ex continues to be obligated to make payments even after receiving a bankruptcy discharge of other debts.

What can I do if my ex fails to pay alimony?

File a complaint for contempt of court and ask for a wage assignment. That way, your alimony payment will come straight from your ex's employer to you. If you hire a lawyer to handle the enforcement action, the court can award attorney fees.