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Arsdale v. Arsdale

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Essex

May 31, 2017

SUSAN VAN ARSDALE
v.
WILLIAM VAN ARSDALE.

          Heard: March 6, 2017.

         Complaint for divorce filed in the Essex Division of the Probate and Family Court Department on October 30, 1996.

         A complaint for modification, filed on September 1, 2015, was heard by Mary Anne Sahagian, J.

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

          David E. Cherny (Erin M. Shapiro also present) for the wife.

          Paul M. Kane (Allison R. McNulty also present) for the husband.

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

          LOWY, J.

         This appeal raises the constitutionality of applying the durational limits of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 (act), St. 2011, c. 124, to certain alimony agreements predating the act's effective date. We conclude that the application of the act's durational limits to certain alimony agreements that predate the act is not unconstitutionally retroactive because the statute does not attach "new legal consequences to events completed before its enactment." Landgraf v. USI Film Prods., 511 U.S. 244, 270 (1994). We also conclude that the Probate and Family Court judge did not abuse her discretion when she declined to deviate from the durational limits in this case.

         Background.

         1. The Alimony Reform Act of 2011.

         The act changed neither the essential purpose nor the basic definition of alimony: "the payment of support from a spouse, who has the ability to pay, to a spouse in need of support." G. L. c. 208, § 48. See Hassey v. Hassey, 85 Mass.App.Ct. 518, 522 (2014). It did, however, make several changes to the Commonwealth's alimony laws. See generally Kindregan, Reforming Alimony: Massachusetts Reconsiders Postdivorce Spousal Support, 46 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 13, 26 (2013).

         The relevant change on appeal is the creation of durational limits -- or presumptive termination dates -- for alimony obligations arising from marriages lasting fewer than twenty years. G. L. c. 208, § 49 (b). This presumption that alimony should terminate after a certain length of time may be overcome, however, by showing that the payment of alimony beyond the relevant durational limit is "required in the interests of justice." Id. See George v. George, 476 Mass. 65, 69-70 (2016) .

         The Legislature provided that the durational limits, in contrast to the remainder of the act, may be applied to alimony judgments that entered before the act's effective date of March 1, 2012, with certain delineated exceptions not relevant here. St. 2011, c. 124, §§ 4, 7. ...


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