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Forget Retirement, Court Tells Prominent Lawyer

If you divorce, don't expect to retire. That, in so many words, was the message delivered yesterday by Massachusetts' highest court to a prominent Boston and Washington, D.C., lawyer and former judge.

Rudolph_PierceThe lawyer, Rudolph F. Pierce, sought to eliminate his annual alimony payment of $110,000 after he turned 65 and retired from his law firm, Goulston & Storrs (where he remains of counsel). Because he had retired completely from the practice of law and was without earned income, he argued, his alimony obligation to his former wife should be terminated.

But in a decision issued yesterday, Pierce v. Pierce, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a former spouse's voluntary retirement at or beyond the age of 65 does not create a rebuttable presumption that alimony should be terminated.

"We conclude that the statutes and interpretative case law governing the determination of the amount of alimony do not reasonably permit such a presumption. Instead, we hold that voluntary retirement at a customary age is simply one factor, albeit an important one, to be considered by the judge in deciding whether to modify the alimony obligation set forth in a divorce judgment."

Pierce is well known in Massachusetts, where he was a U.S. magistrate-judge from 1976 to 1979, a state Superior Court judge from 1979 to 1985, and a former president of the Boston Bar Association. At the time of his divorce in 1999, he was earning $450,000 a year as a partner at Goulston & Storrs. In a separation agreement with his former wife Carneice, he agreed to pay alimony of $110,000 a year until either spouse's death or Carneice's remarriage. She never remarried, but he did and moved with his new wife in 2004 to Washington.

Following his divorce, Pierce's income remained between $500,000 and $570,000 until 2007, when it dropped to $300,000. When he retired in 2008, his salary was $225,000. By retiring and converting to "of counsel" status, he gave up any fixed compensation but was paid $250 an hour for any case work he did. By the time his request for modification of alimony came before a family court judge, Pierce's annual income was just $34,000, of which $24,000 came from Social Security. But he had assets of $1.3 million against which he could draw.

The family court judge ruled that it was appropriate to reduce Pierce's annual alimony payment from $110,000 to $42,000, but not to end it entirely. The SJC agreed and affirmed the lower court's decision. "We agree that, generally, a supporting spouse's wish to retire at a customary retirement age will justify a reduction of the alimony award ... ," the court said. "We decline, however, to create the rebuttable presumption proposed by Rudolph."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on November 10, 2009 at 10:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)


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