Client Compass, Divorce Law Monitor

How Much Alimony Does a Spouse Need?

November 14, 2017


The alimony statute in Massachusetts provides that the amount of general alimony shall generally not exceed the recipient’s need or 30 to 35 percent of the difference between the parties’ gross incomes. It has long been the rule that the standard of need is measured by the “station” of the parties — by what is required to maintain a standard of living comparable to the one enjoyed during the marriage. The Supreme Judicial Court has provided further guidance in the decision of Young v. Young.

Derek and Joy Young had been married for 24 years when Mr. Young filed a Complaint for Divorce. Mr. Young worked as an executive, and his compensation consisted of base salary, cash bonus, stock options, investor equity units, share plans, and opportunities to purchase common stock at a discount. Mr. Young earned a substantial income, but the amount varied widely year to year. The parties enjoyed an affluent, upper-class standard of living during their marriage, which included an eight-bedroom residence, luxury vehicles, a summer home, and expensive vacations.  After trial, the Court ordered Mr. Young to pay alimony to Mrs.Young of 33% of his gross annual income. The trial judge determined it was reasonable, under the circumstances, to use a percentage for alimony, given the constantly shifting nature of the husband’s compensation, and to allow the wife to share in the upward trajectory of the husband’s bonuses. The husband appealed.

On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court rejected the Trial Court’s application of a percentage to husband’s income for purposes of calculating alimony, because nothing in the language of the statute or caselaw suggests that a recipient of alimony is entitled to enjoy a lifestyle beyond what was experienced during the marriage. In this case, alimony as a percentage of husband’s income was rejected due to the fact that it was intended to allow the wife to share in increases in the husband’s income after the divorce.

“Where the supporting spouse (here, the husband) has the ability to pay, the need for support of the recipient spouse (here, the wife) under general term alimony is the amount required to enable her to maintain the standard of living she had at the time of the separation leading to the divorce, not the amount required to enable her to maintain the standard of living she would have had in the future if the couple had not divorced.”

In some instances, applying a percentage to a payor’s income is necessary when fashioning an award of alimony, but the Supreme Judicial Court has made clear that it cannot be done so as to enhance an alimony recipient’s lifestyle beyond that enjoyed at the time the parties separated.

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