The Family Resolutions Specialty Court: A Community-Based Problem-Solving Court For Families in Conflict in Hampshire County

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by Hon. Linda S. Fidnick

Voice of the Judiciary 

Traditional adversarial litigation can be ineffective in meeting the needs of families who are experiencing divorce or separation. Litigation may be an ultimately productive method for resolving conflicts between strangers — someone wins, someone loses, and the parties never see one another again.  How profoundly different family cases with children are!  Parents usually come to court at a complicated and painful time.  Anger, mistrust, fear, grief  —  powerful emotions grip them.  Yet, despite the demise of their personal relationship, parents must (and should) continue as parents.  The more effectively they can work together, the easier it is for their children.   Typically parents will need to continue to address one of the many unanticipated, yet inevitable, changes to their lives or the lives of their children after the case has concluded.  Unfortunately, the traditional court process gives them no tools to resolve their disputes on their own.

The Hampshire Division of the Probate and Family Court is committed to finding better ways to help families through the court process.  Our initiatives include a parent education program for divorcing parents that was expanded to include “For the Children” for never-married parents; “Only One Childhood,” an educational program for mid-conflict parents; a mediation program; and a program that provides attorneys for children.  These programs have inestimably benefited the many families of Hampshire County.  In this article I discuss a recent program developed by the Hampshire Probate and Family Court that has shown much promise: the Family Resolutions Specialty Court.

Starting in 2014, a group of Hampshire County-based professionals, including among others, Mike Carey, the Register of Probate, Pam Eldridge, Chief Probation Officer, Noelle Stern, Judicial Case Manager, Hon. Gail Perlman, former First Justice, Kathy Townsend, mediator, and Marsha Kline Pruett, Professor at the Smith College School for Social Work, began to meet and talk about ways to provide families with an alternative to the traditional court process within the court itself.  The Family Resolutions Specialty Court (“FRSC”) is the result.  Loosely based on a process that was developed in Australia’s family court, the FRSC has the following goals: to reduce conflict in cases involving children, to keep court proceedings child-focused, to give parents tools via mediation and the assistance of a clinically trained child specialist to address the problems facing their own family, and finally, to increase all parties’ satisfaction with the court process.  We hoped that the FRSC would be more humane and more efficient than traditional family litigation, and ultimately give parents the ability to communicate well enough to obviate the need for repeated returns to court.  We also created an FRSC Advisory Board comprised of a wide variety of professionals in the community.  FRSC is available in most cases involving children. It has been used in initial divorces, complaints for modification, and complaints for contempt, whether the parents have counsel or are self-represented.

FRSC serves traditional and non-traditional families of all socio-economic backgrounds with children of all ages.  FRSC is voluntary.  Initially, both parents must opt in to the program. Either parent may opt out at any time.  If a parent opts out, the case returns to the traditional court process and a different judge is assigned.  Once the parties opt in, a probation officer completes an intake and screening.  This initial assessment includes meeting with the parties and counsel to explain how FRSC works.  If a significant history of domestic violence exists or one or both parents do not have the capacity to participate meaningfully, the family will be screened out.  Once the family is screened in, its members are assigned a support team consisting of the family consultant (a mental health professional who remains involved with the case until resolution), an attorney for the children, a probation officer, and a mediator.

The family consultant conducts a guided interview to assess the family’s strengths and challenges and discusses various parenting arrangements.  What is unique about this step is that the first in-depth conversation about the parenting plan comes to the parents from a mental health and developmental perspective, rather than a legal one.  The parents are then referred to mediation.  During this confidential process, issues requiring resolution are identified and parents are provided with tools to resolve future conflicts informally.

Next, a court conference is held.  The parents, their counsel, the children’s attorney, the family consultant, the probation officer, and I attend. We sit at a table with the parents near me and facing each other.  The parents bring photographs of the children.  I ask each parent what his or her hope is for the outcome for themselves, for the children, and, importantly, for the other parent. Although parents are encouraged to speak directly to me, rather than by representations of counsel, attorneys are critical to the FRSC.  Lawyers help participants understand their rights and obligations, identify relevant issues, ensure complete disclosures, and counsel clients to participate in a meaningful way.  We use a problem-solving approach. The rules of evidence are suspended. Information is shared freely. The process is open and transparent. If a participant raises a concern that information is being withheld or misrepresented, he or she can request that the case be transferred back to the traditional court process.

At the court conference, we identify the resolved and contested issues, the information needed to determine the outcome of the contested issues, and outline the next steps. As a community-based court, we discuss whether referrals to parent education, substance abuse treatment, family counseling, or early childhood intervention may be helpful to the family.  If so, the probation officer is key in referring members of the family to appropriate community agencies.  The FRSC team members work with the family between conferences.  The parents may choose to meet with the mediator, the family consultant, the probation officer, or attorney for the child in any combination and as often as needed.  Court conferences are scheduled at appropriate intervals until all issues are resolved. The goal is resolution by agreement.  However, if necessary, I will make a decision, either on a temporary basis or as a final judgment, if the parents are unable to agree.

Because of the attention to the case by all professionals involved from the very beginning, even the most complex case concluded in seven months, half of the time standard in the traditional track.  This has been one of the unexpected, but greatly appreciated by the litigants, benefits of participating in FRSC.

The following are some comments of parents from their exit surveys:

             “I now have much more contact with my children than when we began. . . . We have been able to agree on many issues that we did not agree on before.”

            “FRSC helped ensure my child was enrolled in a high-quality pre- [kindergarten]  program which has transformed our entire family’s quality of life and gave our child a strong foundation at a time when he was most vulnerable to instability.”

       “This process was very beneficial to myself as a parent and was minimally stressful. . . .   It has helped me to learn to never speak poorly of her dad in front of her . . . We fight almost never now and seem to be more understanding towards each other. . . . I would STRONGLY recommend this process to anyone getting divorced who have children.  I  hope this becomes the standard.”

“I have learned a tremendous amount through the programs associated with FRSC both as a parent and individual. . . . [FRSC] has helped to make me the best father I can possibly be. . . . We still have a long way to go but I am hopeful that in eliminating much   of the negativity that typically surrounds divorce, it will allow us to become great co-parents.  Truly life changing.  I hope this continues and that all divorces with children can    be done in this manner.”

Thus far, FRSC has succeeded in every aspect of its purpose.  Children have a voice from the very beginning, which focuses their parents on the primacy of continuing to raise healthy children despite the marital or relationship dissolution.  For those separating and divorcing parents who choose the process, they were able to come to closure in half the time (or less) than allotted for cases under our time standards.  The families who have benefited from FRSC have been from all walks of life in our county: people from all manner of socio-economic, religious, health status, gender-identified, and educational backgrounds have benefited from it.  Our hope is that the FRSC model will be the default process for all families experiencing divorce and separation throughout the Commonwealth.

Judge Fidnick is the First Justice of the Hampshire Probate and Family Court.

 

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The 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines

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by Holly A. Hinte

Heads Up

It is the public policy of the Commonwealth that dependent children be maintained, as completely as possible, from the resources of their parents. The Court’s authority to award child support is defined by statute and applies in a variety of cases including divorce, paternity, and abuse prevention cases to name a few. Broadly speaking, child support is an amount paid from one party to another for the support of the dependent child. Unlike alimony orders, such amount is neither taxable to the payee nor deductible by the payor.

In order to receive certain federal funding, each state must establish guidelines for child support and review them once every four years to ensure that their application results in the determination of appropriate award amounts. 42 U.S. Code § 667; 45 CFR § 302.56. In Massachusetts, the Guidelines are promulgated by the Chief Justice of the Trial Court and used by the judges of the Probate and Family Court in determining the appropriate level of child support.

As required by said federal regulations, in March 2016, the Chief Justice of the Trial Court, Paula M. Carey, convened a Task Force, consisting of judges, practitioners, and economists, to review the 2013 Guidelines and the current economic climate. This review lasted over a year and included public forums, discussions, reports, and feedback from the public, the bench and the bar.

The new 2017 Guidelines were published and became effective on September 15, 2017. For the first time, the Task Force’s comments are included within the actual text of the Guidelines. There are also new forms and worksheets to be used by practitioners and the court. All of the new documents are available on the court website: www.mass.gov/courts/selfhelp/family/child-support-guidelines.html.

Compared to the 2013 Guidelines, the 2017 Guidelines contain edits made for clarification purposes, substantive changes, and in-depth instructions and commentary. Some of the notable changes are as follows:

Child Support for Children Between the Ages of 18 and 23

The 2017 Guidelines now apply in all cases in which child support is awarded, no matter the age of the child, which is a marked difference from the prior guidelines and prior federal regulations which only required application of the guidelines up to age 18.  This has always been a conflict, as under the Massachusetts statutory scheme, the Court has the discretion to award child support for a child over 18 to 21, if said child is domiciled with, and principally dependent upon, a parent, and the Court has the discretion to award child support for a child between the ages of 21 to 23 so long as the child is domiciled with, and principally dependent upon, a parent, and enrolled in an educational program (undergraduate only).

The 2017 Guidelines address this conflict by providing instructions for handling child support for children between the ages of 18 and 23, including providing factors to consider when determining whether or not to enter such an order. Additionally, in recognizing the unique factors present with children between the ages of 18 and 23, the 2017 Guidelines reduces the base amount of child support in this age-range by twenty-five percent (25%). Such presumptive order may be deviated from if appropriate.

Contribution to Post-secondary Educational Expenses

In addition to the concerns regarding child support for children between the ages of 18 and 23, there was also a lack of clarity and uniformity as it related to contributions to post-secondary educational expenses of a child. The prior guidelines did not address such contributions despite statutory authority giving the Court discretion to order a party to contribute to such expenses.

The Task Force recognized the concerns voiced by the public, the bench and the bar- namely, many parents cannot afford to pay college expenses from their income while also meeting other expense obligations, often being forced to incur substantial loan liability. As such, the 2017 Guidelines include a new section addressing such contributions.

In determining whether or not to order such contribution, the 2017 Guidelines provides a list of factors the Court must consider including cost, the child’s aptitudes, the child’s living situation, the available resources of the parent and the child, the availability of financial aid, and any other relevant factors.

If it is determined to order such contribution, the 2017 Guidelines cap such contribution at 50% of the undergraduate, in-state resident costs of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (as set out in the “Published Annual College Costs Before Financial Aid” in the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges). While such cap is not an absolute limitation, any order requiring a parent to contribute more than 50% requires written findings that a parent has the ability to pay the higher amount.

The Task Force makes clear that this limitation is not meant to apply in situations where: (1) children are already enrolled in college (prior to September 15, 2017) or (2) parents are financially able to pay educational expenses using assets or other resources.

If the Court exercises its discretion and orders child support for a child over the age of 18 along with contribution to post-secondary educational expenses, the Court is to consider the combined amount of both orders and the impact of such on the obligor.

Attribution and Imputed Income

The 2017 Guidelines distinguish “imputation of income” and “attribution of income” in a more coherent and refined manner. Imputed income is undocumented or unreported income. Attributed income is a theoretical amount assigned to a parent after it is found that the parent is capable of working and is unemployed or underemployed. In addition to the clarification of the types of income, the 2017 Guidelines provide new factors the Court is to consider when determining whether or not to attribute income.

Holly A. Hinte is an associate at Lee & Rivers, LLP, a boutique domestic relations law firm in Boston and a member of the Boston Bar Association & Massachusetts Bar Association.


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.