SJC Clarifies Legal Standard Used in Child Support Modification Cases

by Ruthanne Withers

Case Focus

Withers_RuthIn its recent decision, Morales v. Morales, 464 Mass. 507 (2013), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) clarified the standard used in child support modification cases.  Previously, a litigant had the burden of proving that a “material and substantial change in circumstances” had occurred since entry of the prior child support order.  Pursuant to the SJC’s decision in Morales, which reaffirmed the relevant statutory standard, a litigant must now show that an “inconsistency” exists between the prior order and the order that would result from the application of the Child Support Guidelines (“Guidelines”).

Due to changes in federal law regarding the collection and enforcement of child support orders, Massachusetts child support statutes were amended in 1994.  One of the most notable amendments was the change in the standard used to modify child support orders.  Before 1994, a litigant had the burden of proving that a “material and substantial change in circumstances” had occurred since entry of the last child support judgment.  See, e.g.,  G.L. c. 208, §28, as amended by St. 1993, c. 460, §§60 to 62.  Under current law, a child support order “shall be modified if there is an inconsistency between the current order and the order that would result from application of the child support guidelines.”  See, e.g., G.L. c. 208, §28.

Mr. and Mrs. Morales were divorced by order of the Probate and Family Court in May, 2008.  The Judgment of Divorce Nisi (“Judgment”) ordered Mr. Morales to pay child support of $172 weekly for the parties’ son.  In May 2009, Ms. Morales filed a Complaint for Modification to modify the child support order due to her ex-husband’s increase in pay and promotion at work.  After a two-day trial, the Probate and Family Court dismissed Ms. Morales’ Complaint for Modification on the grounds that she had not proven a “material and substantial change in circumstances” since entry of the May 2008 Judgment.

After the Appeals Court affirmed the lower court’s decision, Ms. Morales filed an application for Further Appellate Review, which was granted by the SJC.  In March 2013, the SJC issued its decision and clarified the standard for modification of child support orders.  Morales v. Morales, supra. The SJC concluded that the “trial judge, in ruling on the mother’s modification complaint, erred by applying a standard requiring a material and substantial change in circumstances (material and substantial change standard) rather that the standard set forth in G.L. c. 208, §28…”.  Morales at 508.

The SJC’s decision is significant because there has long been a conflict between the modification standard cited in court decisions and the statutory language defining the standard for modification of child support orders.  The inconsistency standard will simplify the judicial process, ease congestion in the courts, and reduce the amount of litigation involved in child support modification cases.  Family law practitioners handling child support modification cases should not notice much change in terms of their approach to the subject as the Guidelines are  still used for litigants whose combined incomes fall below $250,000.  The most significant change will be that a client will no longer have to prove a “material change” has occurred since the last order.  If the previous child support order is different from what it should be under the Guidelines, then the order shall be modified.  However, it should be noted that if the original order deviated from the Guidelines, the new standard may not apply, and a client will have the burden of proving that a material change has occurred in order to modify the existing order.

Lower and moderate income litigants who are seeking to either increase or decrease a child support order, and who often do not have the financial resources to hire an attorney or engage in protracted litigation, will benefit the most from the clarified standard.  Showing an objective “inconsistency” between a prior order and a proposed new order, instead of proving a subjective “material and substantial change in circumstances,” affords greater access to the courthouse because it is a simplified standard that the general public can easily grasp.  In these tough economic times, when nearly 70% of litigants in some Probate and Family Courts are pro se, it is more important than ever to provide greater ease and access to justice for all Massachusetts litigants, especially those trying to navigate an often complex judicial system by themselves.

Ruthanne Withers is an Associate with the Attleboro law firm of Coogan, Smith, McGahan, Lorincz, Jacobi & Shanley, LLP.  From 2005 through 2013, Attorney Withers was employed with the Family Law Unit of Community Legal Aid in Worcester.  She represented the wife in the Morales v. Morales case.



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