Maine Law Court clarifies 2013 amendment to spousal support statute

Spousal support, also known as alimony, is a major area of conflict in many Maine divorce cases. Spousal support is not awarded in every divorce and, even when it is awarded, there is no specific formula used to determine the amount or length of support. In recent years the Maine laws that govern spousal support have changed, causing even more confusion and litigation.

Up until October 1, 2013, a court was able to order (or parties could agree) that spousal support could not be modified or changed so long as that order included language stating that spousal support was not subject to future modification. This meant that neither the parties nor the court could change the amount of spousal support or length of time it was to be received if the divorce judgment said it was non-modifiable.

In 2013 the Maine spousal support statutes were changed. Under the amended law, any and all spousal support awards issued after October 1, 2013 are subject to modification “when it appears that justice requires” regardless of whether the order says “not subject to future modification.” Courts can no longer award spousal support that is completely non-modifiable. Regardless of the circumstances, spousal support awarded after October 1, 2013 can be modified so long as “justice requires.” In addition, the new 2013 law states that spousal support awards can be modified or terminated when the person receiving support has lived with a new partner, i.e. cohabitates, for at least 12 out of the past 18 consecutive months in a mutually supportive relationship.  However, the statute’s “cohabitation” rule does not specify whether it applies to divorce judgments issued before 2013 or only to awards after 2013.

In a recent decision issued by the Maine Supreme Judicial CourtLothrop v. Lothrop, 2016 ME 23 – the 2013 cohabitation rule was clarified. The parties in the Lothrop case were divorced in 2008 and the husband was ordered to pay spousal support every week for the rest of his life. The divorce judgment clearly stated that the spousal support was “non-modifiable for any reason.” In 2014 the husband asked the court to either terminate or reduce spousal support because his ex-wife had been in a mutually supportive relationship for at least 12 of the past 18 months.

The court denied the husband’s request and upheld the lower court’s decision, reasoning that the 2013 cohabitation rule did not apply to spousal support awards issued before October 1, 2013 (before the law was changed). More plainly, if a spousal support order (a) was issued before October 1, 2013, and (b) specifically stated that spousal support cannot be modified for any reason, then spousal support cannot be changed even when the recipient has been cohabitating for 12 months or more. The Law Court further explained that there is no indication in the amended statute that the Legislature intended for this law to apply to spousal support awards issued before October 1, 2013.

The family law attorneys at Libby O’Brien Kingsley & Champion have a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to divorce and spousal support. Going through a divorce or other family law litigation can be confusing and difficult, let us help you understand your rights and guide you through the process.