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Chin v. Merriot

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Franklin

January 30, 2015

Chester Chin
v.
Edith E. Merriot . [1]

Argued October 6, 2014.

Complaint for divorce filed in the Franklin Division of the Probate and Family Court Department on January 11, 2011.

A complaint for modification, filed on March 11, 2013, was heard by Beth A. Crawford, J.

The Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct appellate review.

William Sanford Durland, III, for Chester Chin.

Leslie H. Powers for Edith E. Merriot.

The following submitted briefs for amici curiae:

Rachel B. Biscardi for Women's Bar Association of Massachusetts.

Richard M. Novitch, Maureen McBrien, & Charles P. Kindregan, pro se.

David H. Lee & Holly A. Hinte, pro se.

Present: Gants, C.J., Spina, Cordy, Botsford, Duffly, Lenk, & Hines, JJ.

OPINION

[23 N.E.3d 931] Duffly, J.

After twelve years of marriage, Chester Chin and Edith E. Merriot were divorced by a judgment of divorce nisi in August, 2011. At the time of the divorce, Chin was sixty-seven

Page 528

years old and Merriot was sixty-nine. Pursuant to a merged provision of the parties' separation agreement, Chin was obligated to pay alimony to Merriot in the amount of $650 per month until " the death of either party or the wife's remarriage."

In March, 2013, Chin filed an amended complaint for modification in the Probate and Family Court in which he sought to terminate his alimony obligation. To support his claim for relief, Chin asserted as " changed circumstances" that he had attained the age of sixty-eight, " full retirement age" as defined by G. L. c. 208, § 48. He argued that, pursuant to G. L. c. 208, § 49 ( f ) (retirement provision), " general term alimony orders shall terminate upon the payor attaining the full retirement age." Chin thereafter filed an amended complaint asserting, as a further change in circumstances, that Merriot had " been cohabiting with another person ... and maintaining a common household" for more than three months; cohabitation alone is a basis for termination of alimony under G. L. c. 208, § 49 ( d ) (cohabitation provision).

The retirement and cohabitation provisions on which Chin relies were enacted as part of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011, St. 2011, c. 124 (alimony reform act or act). The act was made effective as of March 1, 2012, more than seven months after entry of the parties' judgment of divorce nisi. Following a trial on the complaint for modification, a Probate and Family Court judge concluded that neither provision applied retroactively to divorce judgments ordering general term alimony that were in existence prior to the effective date of the alimony reform act. Applying the change of circumstances standard in effect before March 1, 2012, the judge determined that Chin had not shown a material change of circumstances warranting modification of the alimony order,[2] and dismissed the complaint. Chin appealed from the judgment of dismissal,[3] and we allowed his petition for direct appellate review.

The question we confront in this case is whether modification of an obligation to pay periodic or general term alimony that is

Page 529

contained in a merged provision of a divorce judgment is governed by the alimony reform act, where the act became effective after the date of entry of the judgment.[4] We conclude that, with respect to the alimony obligation at issue here, both the retirement provision and the cohabitation provision apply prospectively, and therefore afford no basis upon which to terminate the alimony order. That the Legislature intended these provisions to apply prospectively is reflected in the language of several uncodified provisions of the alimony reform ...


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