In 2011 the Massachusetts legislature completely overhauled the alimony system, eliminating lifetime alimony. Appeals of alimony cases under the new law are now reaching appellate courts for review. The recent Massachusetts Appeals Court decision in Hassey v. Hassey is one of the first broad appellate treatments of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011. See Hassey v. Hassey, Mass. App. Ct., No. 13-P-864, slip op. (June 25, 2014); G.L. c. 208, §§ 48-55.
In Hassey, the Appeals Court embraces strict adherence to the complex new statutory system of alimony types, factual considerations, and limits on amount and duration. It emphasizes its responsibility to “interpret the Act as written, … attaching significance to every word”—particularly the Act’s requirement for judges to consider and make written findings on various factors. See Hassey, slip op. at 10-11.
The court states that its process in reviewing a property division under the new Act will continue to be: First, “examine the trial judge’s findings to determine whether all relevant factors were considered (and whether irrelevant factors were disregarded).” Then, if all appropriate findings have been made, inquire “whether the rationale underlying the judge’s conclusions is apparent” and flows “rationally from the findings and rulings.” Hassey, slip op. at 9 (internal citations omitted). The trial judge has “considerable discretion,” so if findings have been made, the alimony and property division “will not be reversed unless plainly wrong and excessive.” Id.
In this case, the trial judge failed to make written findings regarding some of the factors that the new Act required him to consider. Based on the absence of various written findings, the Appeals Court vacated the division of property and the alimony order. The court also remanded a portion of the order so that the trial judge could clarify how his use of the word “retirement” fit with the statute’s use of “full retirement age.”
The court in Hassey repeatedly acknowledges that the trial judge was dealing with a brand new statutory scheme, and lacked the benefit of appellate guidance. However, the court’s strict construction of the statute provides clear guidance for future parties, attorneys, and judges: the judges have considerable discretion to craft appropriate property division and alimony orders—but only if all of the required factors have been addressed.
The Hassey decision demonstrates the importance of having excellent legal counsel at every stage of legal proceedings. Your counsel should be aware of current developments in statutory and case law. Your counsel should be thorough in the documents—including proposed factual findings—submitted to the court. For thorough, up-to-date legal counsel on your divorce or other legal situation, contact the attorneys at Hutchins Law, P.C.