Q. My next-door neighbor got divorced last year. Our respective husbands both work for the same company and earn about the same income based on annual bonuses, stock options, and other incentives.
My friend got alimony of 35 percent of her husband’s gross income. So I hired that same lawyer so that I, too, would get the same amount of my husband’s income as alimony. Yesterday, that lawyer suggested that I rethink staying in my present home because it’s so expensive to maintain, it would eat up much of my alimony. What makes my situation different from my neighbor’s?
A. In order to compare apples to apples, you’d need to look at your friend’s file – if it’s not impounded – at the probate court. You won’t be permitted to see her – or her husband’s – financial statements.
But not knowing those facts doesn’t stop me from making an educated guess about what happened. The Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act took effect in 2012. Since then, the Massachusetts appeals and supreme judicial courts have been busy bees making several decisions clarifying parts of the ARA. The first clarification about the percentage of alimony was in the 2014 Hassey case. That decision required the divorce judges to determine the difference in the parties’ gross incomes, followed by an alimony order of 30-35 percent of that difference – without regard to how much money the recipient needed to maintain his or her lifestyle.
Nevertheless, many divorce judges seemed to ignore Hassey’s ruling by continuing to award alimony based only on “need”. So I’d bet the judge who was going to hear your friend’s divorce strictly followed the Hassey decision. Your friend’s husband decided to settle and save money by not trying his case and then appealing the decision. And, even after paying 30-35 percent of his income as alimony, he probably still had more than enough money to live high off the hog.
This past week, the Young v. Young case was decided by the SJC. The SJC ruled that – regardless of how much money the payor earned now and even with the probability for higher earnings each year – alimony must only be in an amount which, as of the date of divorce, is needed to permit the other party to continue his or her then-current standard of living even if that amount is well below the 30-35 percent in the differences of their respective incomes. That means a former spouse doesn’t get any money above what he or she needs as of the time of the divorce. And those married to a low wage earner may not – by getting 35 percent of the difference in their incomes – get enough for them to continue living at the prior standard-of-living.
Your lawyer is giving you advice based on what the law is today, just as he told your friend what the law was last year. That was then and this is now. In the meantime, a lot of proverbial water went under the bridge.