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Could My Jailbird Ex be Entitled to Alimony While in Prison?



Could My Jailbird Ex be Entitled to Alimony While in Prison?

15 May 2023
Could My Jailbird Ex be Entitled to Alimony While in Prison?

This is a question that doesn’t often surface, but when it does is significant, to say the least.  One key function of the Probate and Family it to determine the proper amount of alimony that should be awarded to a dependent spouse in a divorce proceeding. While the judge follows the statutory guidelines set forth in M.G.L.A ch. 208, § 34 in calculating an alimony order, each case is different and presents unique challenges. One such challenge of divorce presents itself when the dependent spouse becomes incarcerated after the judgment of divorce that contains an alimony order has entered.  Although a dependant spouse sentenced to jail is still entitled to receive alimony payments pursuant to the domestic relations order, an argument could be made that the incarceration constitutes a material change in circumstances and the judgment for alimony should be terminated.  There are times when people may not know whether their ex-spouse is in jail.  In these situations, they can utilize the Massachusetts Department of Corrections Find an Inmate Tool to find out.

The focus of an award of alimony should be the spouse’s need for support and maintenance as it relates to the parties’ individual financial circumstances.   To be successful in an action to modify a judgment for alimony the petitioner must demonstrate a material change of circumstances since the entry of the earlier judgment. Schuler v. Schuler, 382 Mass. 366, 368, 416 N.E.2d 197, 200 (1981).   While the financial needs of the parties, along with a number of other factors, play a major role in determining the amount of alimony to be paid to the dependant spouse, it follows that when the needs of the dependant spouse have reasonably increased, the judgment for alimony may be modified accordingly to increase the amount of alimony to be paid in support of that spouse. The opposite is also true. The financial needs a dependent spouse who becomes incarcerated will decrease significantly since the burden of support is absorbed by the state.   In addition, because the recipient spouse’s standard of living is determined entirely by the Department of Corrections and therefore no amount of payment to the incarcerated spouse can provide sufficient economic support to maintain the marital lifestyle.  

As unpleasant as in might seem, an incarcerated ex-spouse could be entitled to receive alimony while in jail, or even to increase the amount of payments.  As a result of incarceration, the dependent spouse’s financial needs will likely increase and alimony payments may be ordered to continue accordingly. The court considers the following factors in determining alimony: the length of the marriage; age of the parties; health of the parties; income, employment and employability of both parties, including employability through reasonable diligence and additional training, if necessary; economic and non-economic contribution of both parties to the marriage; marital lifestyle; ability of each party to maintain the marital lifestyle; lost economic opportunity as a result of the marriage; and such other factors as the court considers relevant and material. M.G.L.A ch. 208, § 53.

When a dependent spouse has been incarcerated, future employability is almost always negatively impacted as a result of the criminal conviction.  Upon release a dependent spouse may struggle to find a job and may have community service and parole obligations to meet as well. A spouse is entitled to a fair and reasonable award considering his and her needs, his and her financial worth, their station in life, and his or her mode of living. Because an incarcerated spouse may not be able to secure gainful employment and maintain a lifestyle comparable to that of the marital lifestyle, the dependent spouse may need alimony even more than before the incarceration.   While the incarcerated dependent spouse may not be able to spend money received from alimony payments while in jail, the money may be transferred to the spouse’s bank account, to be used for shelter, food and other support purposes upon release from jail.

The question of whether an incarcerated spouse should receive alimony while in jail is an important one, but not often considered.  Many if not most people may consider an award of alimony to a newly released inmate unfair, and a payor spouse would likely argue that any hardship suffered by the dependent inmate was self imposed by their illegal conduct.  There are some needs however, that the department of corrections does not pay.  Such expenses may include canteen money and money for phone calls. Nonetheless, a spouse being sentenced to jail is just one of the many possible situations in which a material change in circumstances may justify a modification of a judgment for alimony, and Massachusetts Family and Probate Court Judges have considerable discretion when making such orders.  Legal counsel should always be sought on a case by case basis.

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