The Lawletter Vol 39 No 11
The Appeals Court of Massachusetts has affirmed a trial court's dismissal of a complaint filed by a former husband seeking to decrease or terminate his alimony obligation because he had reached "full retirement age," defined under Massachusetts statute as "the payor's normal retirement age to be eligible to receive full retirement benefits under the United States Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program," i.e., Social Security. Lalchandani v. Roddy, No. 13-P-1988, 2014 WL 7447305, at *4 n.6 (Mass. App. Ct. Jan. 5, 2015) (quoting Mass. Gen. Laws ["M.G.L."] ch. 208, § 48 (inserted by St.2011, c. 124, § 3)).
The parties divorced in 1992 after more than 20 years of marriage. The separation agreement entered into between the parties was incorporated, but not merged, into the judgment of divorce and thus retained independent legal significance. Included in the agreement was a provision that the husband would pay $4,333.33 per month to the wife as alimony until the death of either party or the wife's remarriage. The agreement allowed the parties to modify its terms by written agreement. In 1996, the wife filed a complaint for contempt against the husband for, among other things, unpaid alimony. The dispute was resolved by stipulation, in which, among other things, the husband agreed not to seek modification of his alimony obligation until at least 1999. The stipulation further provided that the "moratorium on such a modification shall be considered absolute," id. at *1, except that the husband could seek relief from the court in the event that he became totally disabled and unable to work and any relief granted was to apply only to the period of his total disability.
In March 2013, the husband filed a complaint seeking to decrease or terminate his alimony obligation, alleging that his attainment of full retirement age constituted a material change of circumstances, and citing the Alimony Reform Act of 2011. Under section 3 of that Act, "general term alimony orders shall terminate upon the payor attaining the full retirement age." M.G.L. ch. 208, § 49(f). As stated above, full retirement age is defined as the age at which the party is eligible to receive full Social Security benefits. The Act also provided that March 1, 2013 was the first date upon which a complaint alleging that the payor had reached full retirement age could be filed. Lalchandani, 2014 WL 7447305, at *2. The wife filed a motion to dismiss the husband's complaint. Following a hearing, the trial court allowed the wife's motion, and the husband appealed.
On appeal, the husband argued that the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 provided for termination of his alimony obligation because he had reached full retirement age and that the trial court had erred by dismissing his complaint. The appellate court rejected the husband's argument, stating: "Although it is true, as the husband points out, that the act provides that general term alimony orders terminate upon a payor attaining full retirement age, that provision does not apply to an alimony obligation that survives as an independent contract and did not merge into a judgment." Id. The court went on to note that although the Act "changed the legal framework under which alimony may be awarded upon divorce or in a subsequent modification action," it did not alter the doctrine that surviving, nonmerged alimony provisions are not modifiable. Id.