Recently two new cases came down from our SJC that you should be aware of, both relating to alimony. The first, SUSAN VAN ARSDALE vs. WILLIAM VAN ARSDALE, focused on the constitutionality of durational limits of alimony applied retroactively.*

To examine the retroactivity issue, the Court looked back to the cases that examined retroactivity, and its constitutionality, relative to the requirement of registration imposed by the Sex Offender Registration Board. On that issue, there were two distinct cases to view: in the first the Court found that “the law made the plaintiff merely eligible for registration and allowed him an opportunity to prove to SORB that he should not have to register, we held that the law did not necessarily attach new legal consequences to the plaintiff’s prestatute adjudications and that the statute applied prospectively to him.” In Doe, Sex Offender Registry Bd. No. 3839 v. Sex Offender Registry Bd., 472 Mass. 492, 497 (2015) (Doe No. 3839). In the second, the Court found that “Unlike the plaintiff in Doe No. 3839, the plaintiff in Doe No. 8725 did not have an opportunity to prove that he should not have to register.” Doe, Sex Offender Registry Bd. No. 8725 v. Sex Offender Registry Bd., 450 Mass. 780, 787, 793 (2008) (Doe No. 8725). So, there was a clear distinction between the cases pointed out by the Court when it said “This lack of opportunity to escape the effects of a statute attaching new legal consequences and enacted after the plaintiff’s conviction was the crucial distinction between an unconstitutionally retroactive statute (Doe No. 8725) and a constitutional one (Doe No. 3839).”

Here, the Court found that, similar to Doe 8725, the wife had an opportunity to demonstrate that the durational limits should not apply to her. The Court went on to say that “The durational limits merely create a presumption of termination that a recipient spouse such as Susan can rebut by showing that deviation from the limits is ‘required in the interests of justice.’” Ultimately, the Court found that “applying such a presumption is not impermissibly retroactive” and that “by requiring such a temporal focus, the statute ensures that any new legal consequences that result from the durational limits are not the result of actions that predated the act, but rather are based on the circumstances of the parties as they exist before the judge deciding a modification complaint.”

What does that mean? Basically, the Court found that it is indeed constitutional to apply the durational limits of alimony created by the Alimony Reform Act. The Court discounts the idea that it is not fair to “go backward” to apply limits. Rather, it was found that retroactivity is constitutional because during the hearings, there is the present opportunity to argue that durational limits should not apply to a particular party. At modification, the Court can examine any new legal consequences that result from the durational limits and can base its decision on the present circumstances of the parties. With all of these considerations before the Court, the retroactivity is carefully examined, and thus, constitutional.

You can read the case in its entirety here: http://www.mass.gov/courts/docs/sjc/reporter-of-decisions/new-opinions/12223.pdf

· There was also an argument as to abuse of discretion by the Court which is not analyzed in this article.

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