The recent ruling in Cavanaugh v. Cavanaugh (490 Mass. 398 — 2022) is sure to shake up the norm of decades worth of family law practice and throw practitioners and judges for an alimony tailspin.
The Alimony Reform Act of 2011 tightened the broad discretion that domestic relation judges had in determining alimony awards. The act was put in place to try to eliminate some of the vagueness and unpredictability that came with these orders. In doing so, it became the standard for judges to award either an alimony order OR an order for child support to prevent what is often referred to as “double dipping.”
To do so, child support orders were applied to the first $250,000 of income. If there is any additional income over that amount, it could potentially be subject to alimony. These guidelines failed to allow alimony for families with lower incomes, essentially limiting the use of the same income for both child support and alimony purposes.
The SJC has bewildered family law attorneys everywhere in Cavanaugh by deciphering the Alimony Reform Act as “not prohibiting an award of alimony when child support has been ordered” when in fact the opposite practice that has been used since 2011. This recent ruling has laid out the following three separate calculations judges must complete before making a final alimony award:
- First, calculate alimony using the § 53(a) factors, then using the parties’ post-alimony incomes to determine child support.
- Second, calculate child support first then calculate alimony.
- Lastly, the judge should compare the two above calculations to make a ruling on which order would be the most equitable for the family’s needs.
The SJC goes even further to say that if these calculations are not completed, a judge is determined to have abused their discretion. When there is no award for alimony, Cavanaugh also requires judges to specifically explain why. While the SJC does lay out an exception to this, it is awfully broad. The footnote explains that a judge is not required to specifically set out why they did not award alimony if the denial of an order is pursuant to a valid separation agreement.
This begs to question the validity of the common “material change in circumstances” standard. While it has been practice for alimony that was once waived in a valid separation agreement to be reintroduced with a modification action if there has been a material change in circumstances to a parties income, lifestyle, etc., this new decision seemingly allows for parties to revisit a potential new order without any need for a material change in the circumstance’s determination.
Another change coming from this decision that is a bit unclear is what now constitutes income for child support purposes. Prior to this ruling, the guidelines clearly laid out what could be calculated as income, but Cavanaugh has since added employer 401k matches and interests/dividends/capital gains as consideration for support. While this is a big change to the already established guidelines, it will likely only affect clients that have a high net-worth with a multitude of investment funds, as these figures are generally minimal.
While it is still too early to determine how Cavanaugh will play out, it is fair to say that in an already clogged and over worked system, this decision will add more work for judges and attorneys alike.
James H. (Jay) Davis III
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