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George v. George

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

November 23, 2016

CLIFFORD E. GEORGE
v.
JACQUELYN A. GEORGE.

          Heard: September 6, 2016.

         Complaint for divorce filed in the Suffolk Division of the Probate and Family Court Department on May 29, 2001.

         A complaint for modification, filed on August 26, 2013, was heard by Jeremy A. Stahlin, J.

         The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.

          Brian J. Kelly for Clifford E. George.

          Matthew P. Barach (Alessandra Petrucelli with him) for Jacquelyn A. George.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Botsford, Lenk, Hines, Gaziano, Lowy, & Budd, JJ.

          LOWY, J.

         Clifford E. George and Jacquelyn A. George married in 1989 and divorced in 2002.[1] Their separation agreement, and the judgment that followed, provided that Clifford would pay Jacquelyn monthly alimony. In 2013, Clifford filed a complaint for modification of the divorce judgment that sought, among other things, to modify his alimony obligation based on G. L. c. 208, § 49 (b), part of the Alimony Reform Act, St. 2011, c. 124 (act), which became effective on March 1, 2012, nearly ten years after the parties' divorce. Section 49 (b) provides that general term alimony for marriages lasting more than ten years but fewer than fifteen years shall not continue for "longer than [seventy] per cent of the number of months of the marriage, " G. L. c. 208, § 49 (b) (3), a process by which a judge can deviate from the durational limit, where doing so is "required in the interests of justice." G. L. c. 208, § 49 (b). The act also provided a phase-in schedule for when complaints for modification based on the new durational limits could be brought for alimony obligations that predated the effective date of the act. St. 2011, c. 124, §§ 4, 5.

         In his memorandum of decision, the Probate and Family Court judge denied Clifford's complaint for modification because he found that deviation beyond the durational limits of the act was warranted. Clifford appealed from this judgment to the Appeals Court, and we transferred the case to this court on our own motion.

         We affirm the judge's denial of relief but on the ground that Clifford's complaint was filed prematurely. However, we utilize this opportunity to set forth guidance for how the "interests of justice" standard of § 49 (b) should be applied when determining whether deviating beyond the durational limits of the act is warranted.

         Background.

         Clifford and Jacquelyn married in Massachusetts in June, 1989. The parties were divorced in November, 2002. Their separation agreement merged into the divorce judgment, except for the division of property provisions. According to one of the merged portions, Clifford was to pay Jacquelyn $1, 800 per month in alimony, subject to termination "upon the earliest to occur of [Clifford's] death, [Jacquelyn's] death, [Jacquelyn's] remarriage or July 30, 2026." The unmerged portion of the separation agreement and the divorce judgment gave Jacquelyn the former marital home and required Clifford to pay for her health insurance.

         On August 26, 2013, Clifford filed a complaint for modification, requesting that the divorce judgment be modified in several ways: to allow Clifford to cease paying for Jacquelyn's health insurance; to order Jacquelyn to refinance and remove Clifford's name from the mortgage on the former marital home; and to terminate alimony payments. Clifford asserted that changed circumstances warranted such modification. Specifically, he claimed that the cost of health insurance had more than doubled since the time of divorce, his ability to secure credit for his business had been harmed by Jacquelyn's ...


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