No Right to Retire?
Courts regularly grapple with the competing principles of autonomy and obligation in the context of family law. How to reconcile these principles – when gender, money, relative status, jealousy, spite, avarice are involved – is a fascinating challenge for judges. These issues are also fun to teach since they are often uncomfortably close to most people’s own experiences.
On Monday, the Massachusetts Supreme Court considered a variant of the autonomy/obligation condundrum in Pierce v. Pierce – in which the Court was basically asked to decide whether a higher earning spouse has a “right to retire” and be exempted from otherwise on-going alimony obligations.
Rudolph Pierce was a well-compensated attorney. In the divorce agreement from Carniece, his wife of 32 years, he agreed to pay $110,000 year in alimony until either party died or she remarried. When he decided to retire from his partnership at age 65, he argued that he should be relieved of any obligation to pay alimony and asked the court to adopt a rebuttable presumption that all alimony should be terminated when (1) the supporting spouse retires from employment at a customary retirement age and has no actual earned income, (2) the parties’ marital assets, including their retirement assets, had been equally divided at the divorce, and (3) the parties have the same amount of liquid assets at the time of the provider spouse’s retirement.
The trial court agreed to a significant modifcation of Rudolph’s obligation – to $42 k – but held that in light of Carniece’s recent loss of her job, the fact that she was not yet t entitled to Social Security, and that Rudolph continued to have significant earning capacity (in addition to his assets and his current wife’s salary), he wasn’t off the hook altogether. The Supreme Court rejected Rudolph’s rebutabble presumption and affirmed the multi-factoral test generally applicable to modification requests.
My first thought (which the Court echoed) is why (at age 57), Rudolph agreed to such a high alimony award without a change upon his retirement. A cynic would suggest that this might have been intentional so that his wife would agree to a fairly equal division of property despite the parties’ differential earning capacity (his wife had been the primary caretaker of the children and home though she worked outside of the home as well).
Cynicism aside – this is a difficult issue. Rudolph’s arguement that declining to accept the presumption would grant the recipient spouse “effective veto power over the provider spouse’s retirement decision” was wildly exaggerated. But the Court did impose limitations on when a “supporting spouse” will be able to retire – and for some, the idea of having to continue to work to support a former spouse will seem deeply problematic.