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Where a supporting spouse has the ability to pay, the need for support of the recipient spouse under general term alimony is the amount required to enable her to maintain the standard of living she had at the time of the separation leading to the divorce, not the amount required to enable her to maintain the standard of living she would have had in the future if the couple had not divorced.
Derek Young ("husband") and Joy Young ("wife") had been married for nearly twenty-four years when the husband filed a complaint for divorce in the Probate and Family Court in January, 2013. The wife filed a complaint for divorce one week later, and the two actions were effectively treated as one. In October, 2013, the judge ordered the husband to pay temporary alimony in the amount of $48,950 per month. After a four-day trial, the judge found that the parties agreed early in their marriage that the husband would work and that the wife would be “a stay-at-home parent and not be employed outside the home.” As a result, the wife has not worked outside the home since 1992, and the judge found that she “has no ability to be employed at a level to allow her to maintain a lifestyle post-divorce similar to that maintained during the marriage without alimony.” The judge found that, after the parties separated, the wife maintained a level of spending similar to what she spent during the marriage. After considering the husband’s ability to pay, the wife’s needs, and the other factors required by G. L. c. 208, § 34, the judge did not set a fixed amount of general term alimony but instead ordered the husband to pay the wife each year alimony in the amount of thirty-three per cent of his annual gross income. The judge included within the husband's gross income the husband's base salary and annual bonus, as well as several of the additional components of the husband's compensation package, including but not limited to the husband's deferred bonus, special bonus, special retention bonus, special dividends, and distributions for payment of taxes. The husband appealed.
Did the judge err in awarding alimony to the wife based on a percentage of the husband’s income?
Although the judge appropriately recognized that the parties’ needs expanded in accordance with the increasingly available income during the marriage, the judge erred in determining that the wife's need for support was to continue to expand after the divorce commensurate with the anticipated upward trajectory of the husband's income, as the award was to reflect the parties' marital lifestyle, not the lifestyle they might have enjoyed had they stayed together. According to the Court, the fluctuations in the husband's income did not present a "special case" warranting a percentage-based formula for alimony, as the husband's substantial assets made any fluctuations immaterial to his ability to pay a fixed alimony award that would meet the wife's needs, and the award was intended to allow the wife's lifestyle to become more lavish as the husband's income increased over time, not to approximate the wife's needs to maintain her marital lifestyle.