Divorce Law Monitor

Marital Lifestyle is Not a Factor to be Considered in Deviation from Alimony Durational Limits

February 20, 2020


In 2011, the Alimony Reform Act determined that alimony is “the payment of support from one spouse, who has the ability to pay, to a spouse in need of support for a reasonable length of time.” G.L. c. 208, §48.  The “reasonable length of time” during which alimony shall be paid has presumptive durational limits based upon the length of the marriage.  Pursuant to G.L. c. 208, §53, the Court can deviate from the durational limits when setting the initial award or at the time an alimony award is modified “upon written findings that deviation is necessary.”  The statute sets forth grounds for deviation, as follows:

(1) advanced age; chronic illness; or unusual health circumstances of either party;

(2) tax considerations applicable to the parties;

(3) whether the payor spouse is providing health insurance and the cost of health insurance for the recipient spouse;

(4) whether the payor spouse has been ordered to secure life insurance for the benefit of the recipient spouse and the cost of such insurance;

(5) sources and amounts of unearned income, including capital gains, interest and dividends, annuity and investment income from assets that were not allocated in the parties divorce;

(6) significant premarital cohabitation that included economic partnership or marital separation of significant duration, each of which the court may consider in determining the length of the marriage;

(7) a party’s inability to provide for that party’s own support by reason of physical or mental abuse by the payor;

(8) a party’s inability to provide for that party’s own support by reason of that party’s deficiency of property, maintenance or employment opportunity; and

(9) upon written findings, any other factor that the court deems relevant and material.

In the recent decision of Voorhis v. Relle, the Appeals Court has made clear that inability to maintain the marital lifestyle is not one of the factors to be considered in determining whether deviation from the durational limits is warranted.  Factor (8) above – inability to provide from one’s own support – is not the same as an inability to maintain the marital lifestyle.  In determining whether deviation from the durational limits is warranted, the Court must look at the current circumstances, not the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage.

In Voorhis v. Relle, following an 18-year marriage, the Wife was awarded custody of the parties’ four children and the Husband was ordered to pay alimony and child support. Four years later, the Wife was arrested and later pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter surrounding a drunk driving accident.  She served over eight years in prison, during which time the children were supported solely by the Husband, who continued to make reduced alimony payments to the Wife.  Just before the Wife was released from prison, the Husband filed a modification action seeking termination of his alimony obligation based upon the fact that he had been paying alimony for longer than required under the durational limits. The Husband was then earning a base pay of $273,000 per year, plus bonus based upon performance. The Wife was employed at Home Depot earning $15.75 per hour, had an income of $4,000 per year from a parking space she owned, and had an income of $15,000 per year from an IRA she inherited.  She was also the beneficiary of a trust that held assets in excess of $1.3 million. The trust paid several expenses for the Wife after her release from prison, including rent and legal fees. Here, while the Wife’s income was certainly lower than the Husband’s and left her with a lifestyle significantly inferior to that which was enjoyed during the marriage, it could not be said that she was unable to provide for her own support.  The Wife raised her alcoholism as a factor warranting deviation but failed to establish that this was a chronic condition that prevented her from working. In consideration of all of the §53 factors, it was found that the Wife did not meet her burden of establishing a need in the interest of justice for deviation from the durational limits.

Deviation from the durational limits will require a showing of more than just a reduced lifestyle.

Until next time.

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