Can I change my divorce agreement to stop paying alimony if I retire?

Posted by: Teresa Reade

The Alimony Reform Act was enacted on March 1, 2012, and made broad changes to the alimony laws in Massachusetts by limiting the length of time that a paying spouse was required to pay alimony. The law stated that alimony would stop at the death of either party, the payor reaching retirement age (as defined by the Social Security Administration), upon the co-habitation of the recipient, or upon other terms. However, whether an agreement entered prior to the new law could be modified to conform to the new statute remained a question that the Supreme Judicial Court recently answered. In three separate, but similar cases, the Court determined which portions of a Separation Agreement could be modified pursuant to the Alimony Reform Act stating that an agreement could not be modified retroactively to include retirement age or co-habitation as an event to stop alimony payments.

In each of the cases, the Husband agreed to pay a sum of alimony until either of the parties died, or the Wife remarried. The agreements were entered as a divorce judgment that remained modifiable. At some point after the enactment of the Alimony Reform Act, the Husbands reached retirement age, and sought to modify the Separation Agreement to end the alimony obligation. The Husbands sited another portion of the Alimony Reform Act, relating to durational limits for marriages that were less then 20 years, which specifically stated that agreements could be modified to comply with these limitations. The Supreme Judicial Court looked carefully at the legislative language and history of the law. In making their ruling, the Court held that agreements could not be modified for any reason other then the durational limits. The Court stated that these agreements were negotiated with these specific terms and a change in the law was not a substantial change in circumstances necessary in a modification. The court further stated that had the legislature intended for the law to retroactively modifying agreements to include retirement age and co-habitation, the law would have specifically stated so.

The bad new for those parties who are obligated to pay alimony until death is that the terminating provision cannot be modified. However, the paying spouse can modified the amount he/she is obligated to pay if there is a change in circumstances such as a reduction in their ability to pay or a reduction in the recipient's need for support.