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Massachusetts top court to review alimony reform

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

A 2012 Massachusetts law says people who get divorced can stop paying alimony after they reach retirement age. But what happens to the people who had already split up by the time the law took effect?

The state’s highest court will consider the question Monday, as it sorts through the meaning of a sweeping alimony reform package hailed as a model for how the legal system should adapt to an age where both spouses commonly work to financially support their households.

The 2012 law set up mechanisms by which judges could limit the time during which spouses must pay alimony, and it set guidelines to calculate payment amounts. It also provided for the end of alimony when the person who pays retires — or the person who is being paid lives with another romantic partner for more than three months.


But since the law passed, courts have struggled to interpret whether the provisions to cut off alimony apply to all divorces or only those completed after the law took effect in March 2012.

Three cases that will come before the Supreme Judicial Court Monday could help clarify the law. Among the questions: Do all people who reach retirement age get to stop paying alimony? Do people who have already been paying in retirement get their money back? Or is that part of the law only supposed to apply to divorces after the law took effect?

In one of the cases, Joseph W. Doktor vs. Dorothy A. Doktor, Joseph Doktor is seeking to terminate $200-per-week payments he makes to his ex-wife according to his 1992 divorce. Since he’s now retired, he says he shouldn’t have to pay alimony.

Dorothy Doktor disputes the argument, saying that the alimony reform does not change her ex-husband’s financial status.


Marc Perlin, a professor who focuses on family law issues at Suffolk University Law School, said the new law does have some provisions that can affect the duration of alimony payments in existing divorces.

The court’s decision on the alimony reform cases could provide clarity for many divorcees, he said.

“Retroactivity is a major issue given the sweeping changes in the alimony law and the many people who are subject to alimony orders that pre-date the Alimony Reform Law,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Find a live webcast of the court’s proceedings here .

RELATED: New Mass. alimony law a ‘model’ — but is it working?

Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.