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How do judges decide about alimony?

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed September 2021

How do judges decide the kind of alimony to order?

Judges must take into account:

  1. “length of the marriage,”
  2. ages of each spouse,
  3. health of each spouse,
  4. income, employment, the ability of each spouse to get a job, even if they need training,
  5. economic and non-economic contributions of both spouses to the marriage,
  6. ability of each spouse to keep up their standard of living of the marriage, and
  7. economic opportunities lost because of the marriage.

Why does the “length of the marriage”  matter?

The “length of the marriage” is the number of months between the date you married and the date  a complaint for divorce or separate support is served.

The judge can add months to  the “length of the marriage” if you can show you were living together and you had a financial partnership before you married. . The judge can also deviate from the amount of time for the kind of alimony if you have special circumstances.

The “length of the marriage” affects the kind of alimony.  Usually judges order more alimony for longer marriages; the longer the marriage, the more alimony a judge will order.

How much alimony can a judge order?

Alimony should not be more than:

  • the amount the spouse who gets alimony needs, or
  • 30 to 35% of the difference between the spouses’ gross incomes.

“Income” for calculating alimony is the same as under the Child Support Guidelines

A judge can decide how much a spouse should be earning. The judge can use that amount as a spouse’s income. Deciding how much the spouse should be earning is “attribution” of income.

The guidelines for how much alimony a judge can order do not apply to “reimbursement alimony.”

How long can alimony last?

The time limits are different for each kind of alimony.

Are there situations where the time and amount limits do not apply?


The alimony limits do not apply to

  • “reimbursement alimony,” or
  • “general term” or “rehabilitative alimony” if the judge gives reasons, in writing, why he or she should order a different amount.

Ordering a different length of time or a different amount is called “deviation.”

When can the judge “deviate” from the time or amount limits?

The judge can make an alimony order that is different from the limits. The judge must decide that the a different order is necessary. He or she must write the reasons for the differences into the order. The judge can order a different amount, a different time, or both, for the following reasons:

  1. either of you is very old, chronically ill, or has an unusual health condition;
  2. the amount of taxes either of you pays;
  3. the payor spouse is providing health insurance for the other spouse;
  4. the payor spouse was ordered to get life insurance and make the other spouse the beneficiary;
  5. there is unearned income, like interest, dividends, or capital gains from assets that were not divided up in the divorce;
  6. the 2 of you lived together as an “economic partnership” before the marriage;
  7. the 2 of you were separated for a long time before the divorce;
  8. the payor spouse physically or mentally abused the other spouse so that he or she cannot support himself or herself; and
  9. a spouse cannot support herself or himself because she or he does not have
    • property,
    • the skills, services, or other help he or she needs, or
    • employment opportunities.

The judge can also deviate from the limits for any other reason that he or she decides is “relevant and material” as well as necessary. 

See General Laws Chapter 208, section 53 (e).

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