Best Practices for Working with a Guardian ad Litem

In some cases, a Guardian ad Litem’s services are a key component.

Imagine the following scenario: a ten-year old child named Jacob is diagnosed with a “curable” form of cancer. If Jacob is brought to a hospital for regular chemotherapy treatments, then Jacob has a chance to beat the disease and live a healthy and stable life. Jacob’s parents, however, are devoutly religious people with the deeply held belief that God and prayer are the only acceptable ways for their child to be cured of cancer. The parents believe that if Jacob is meant to be cured, then God will provide for the cure. As such, Jacob’s parents are refusing any medical treatment for Jacob.

This scenario might trigger a court case, one in which the state of Massachusetts has a special interest in advocating on behalf of Jacob to ensure that he has a chance to beat his disease, even against the wishes of his religious parents.

If a Justice of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court appoints a Guardian ad Litem to the case involving Jacob, the Guardian must be impartial. He or she investigates or evaluates the family and has a duty to investigate the family’s situation. This investigation may include interviews with Jacob and his parents and home visits. After reviewing the family circumstances, the Guardian ad Litem creates a detailed report to file with the court. The person does not take sides and is supposed to be an impartial third party.

When working with a Guardian ad Litem, it is important to remember certain best practices. First, it is necessary to know that the Guardian ad Litem is not your attorney, and anything that you share with him or her may be reported to the Justice in your case. The person does not need to keep any confidential information that you may believe you are sharing in confidence.

Second, it is also important to remember that you must provide the Guardian ad Litem with accurate information and to share with the Guardian ad Litem any information about other people who may have information in support of your case.

Third, it is important to remember that depending on the circumstances of your case, the investigation or evaluation process with a Guardian ad Litem may take several months. Because the process may be long, it is wise to keep written documentation about what you want to share with the person; what you have shared with the person; when and for how long you spoke with the Guardian ad Litem; and any other information that you think would benefit your case. When you speak with the Guardian ad Litem, you should create a summary or bulleted list of important points that you wish to share, so that you stay focused with your thoughts.

Another item to consider is that there may be a cost associated with the Guardian ad Litem process, which you may be required to pay. Also remember: because the Guardian ad Litem is an impartial person, he or she may seem distant or highly questioning of you. This does not mean that he or she does not believe you or what you’re saying, but rather, it means that he or she is performing his or her due diligence in remaining impartial for the report to be given to the Family Court Justice.

Encourage those with whom you know the Guardian ad Litem will be speak to remain truthful. Provide factual information requested by the Guardian ad Litem, but be sure to speak with your attorney and not the Guardian ad Litem about facts that may or may not hurt your case. If the Guardian ad Litem requests that you sign consent forms to obtain confidential information from professionals, be sure to speak with your attorney before you sign any documentation. After the report is created, you have a right to read the final report. You may not copy the report without permission from the Massachusetts Family Court Judge.

In the above case with Jacob, the Guardian ad Litem will present the facts of the family situation, but the Guardian ad Litem is not a legal advocate of Jacob. Although Massachusetts values religious freedom, this freedom is not limitless when the care of a child with a curable form of cancer is concerned. There are other circumstances when a Guardian ad Litem may be involved such as a divorce, separation, or other matters that affect children or the family unit.

If you are seeking a competent family law or child law lawyer or domestic relations attorney, please contact our offices by phone at 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form on our website. We will respond to your phone call or submission promptly.

Is Marital Fraud Grounds for a Civil Suit? New Massachusetts Case

In a recent case, the Massachusetts Appeals Court decided whether marital fraud–that is, fraudulently inducing another person to marry–constitutes a valid civil cause of action. In the case Shea v. Cameron, the parties were married in 2007, after a two-year consensual romantic relationship. The wife owned her home individually. In 2010, she transferred title to the home, to be owned jointly with the husband, and the husband’s name was added to the mortgage as well.

In 2011, the wife discovered that the husband was having an affair. She filed for divorce, then withdrew her complaint and filed for an annulment instead. During a deposition in the proceedings, the husband admitted that he was unable to love the wife very early in the marriage and that he did not believe her to be his “one true love.” In 2013, the parties entered into a joint stipulation of annulment, which ended the marriage.

Unbeknownst to the husband, the day before the annulment, the wife filed a civil complaint related to the parties’ stipulated fraud. She sued him for false claims of love, emotionally harmful conduct, and improper use of the couple’s finances.

In Superior Court, the judge ruled for the husband. While the judge acknowledged that the husband made some misrepresentations about his love and commitment to the wife, he also concluded that the court could not intrude into the private and personal relationship of the parties, nor could the court provide relief. The judge granted summary judgment for the husband. Following that decision, the judge then reported the case to the Appeals Court.

On appeal, the Court first addressed whether the stipulation of fraud had any impact on the civil claims. While stipulations of fact are binding on the parties and respected by the courts, the Appeals Court explained, stipulations of law (such as the one regarding fraud in this case) are not binding on the courts.

The Court then discussed the substance of each of the eight claims brought by the plaintiff. Those claims included fraud, misrepresentation, battery, infliction of emotional distress, undue influence, and unjust enrichment. The Court first explained that Massachusetts law precludes claims of breach of a marriage contract, and that any civil tort action based on such a breach is unavailable in Massachusetts. As a result, the Court held that the wife’s claims based on fraud were precluded.

Next, the Court reviewed the wife’s claims for infliction of emotional distress, holding that an adulterous affair (even if it were meant to cause emotional harm) is not “extreme and outrageous” as required in order to prove a claim for emotional distress. Likewise, the husband’s failure to disclose past sexual or romantic history did not rise to the level of that tort claim.

Finally, the Court considered the wife’s claims for damages for the exchange of money and her home between the parties over the course of their relationship. The wife claimed that she would not have given ownership of her home to the husband had it not been for the husband’s coercive or fraudulent conduct. The Court held, however, that the record showed insufficient evidence in this regard, upholding the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.

“As evidenced here, not all human actions in the context of the dissolution of a marriage have an avenue for legal recourse, no matter how much anger, sorrow, or anxiety they cause,” the Court noted. “This court respects the difficult work done by Probate and Family Court in disentangling marital relationships. The process of divorce provides an avenue for alimony and the equitable distribution of property. By voluntarily withdrawing her complaint for divorce and entering into a stipulation and judgment of annulment, [the wife] chose to forgo that process and her claims could not survive in Superior Court.”


Merger Versus Survival of Separation Agreements

Experienced family lawyers guide spouses in emotionally fraught divorce proceedings toward a resolution that terminates the marriage. A separation agreement is a crucial part of that process.

A separation agreement memorializes the terms of that resolution and articulates clearly the parties’ mutual rights and obligations. The separation agreement may either be incorporated or “merged” into the judgment of divorce granted by the Probate Court or may “survive” as an independent contract. It is crucial that the parties understand the difference between merger and survival, and that the separation agreement submitted to the probate judge be carefully written to reflect the parties’ goals.

Regarding a merger: A separation agreement whose terms, by stipulation, merge into the judgment nisi of divorce entered by the Probate Court lacks independent significance. Such an agreement is subject to a party’s motion for modification of support, or an order of contempt for noncompliance from the probate judge. Because the Probate Court is empowered to revise its own judgment in this case, modification and contempt are possible.

Let’s contrast a separation agreement whose terms explicitly articulate the parties’ intent that the provisions merge into the judgment of divorce, but that the agreement stand alone as a contract with independent legal significance. In this case, modification and contempt are not as readily reached by the Court. In fact, a party seeking to modify a surviving separation agreement must demonstrate “something more” than a material change of circumstances warrants a revision. A surviving agreement may be enforced either in Probate Court or in a civil proceeding in Superior Court, as with any other breach of contract action.

For the separation agreement to survive a judgment of divorce, the Probate Court must find that it is fair and reasonable; that it is not fraudulent or the product of coercion; and that the parties agreed on its finality. If that bar is met, the parties’ provisions for dividing the marital property will not be subject to further division by the Probate Court, absent “countervailing equities.” An example of that, allowing for judicial revision, would be one of the former spouses being in danger of becoming a public charge.

A separation agreement can be drafted in such a manner that some of its terms survive the judgment of divorce, whereas other aspects merge into the judgment. If the separation agreement is vague regarding the question of its survival, generally, such agreements are held to survive the subsequent divorce judgment that incorporate its terms. Examining the terms of the agreement in its entirety, the parties’ intent is the decisive factor, rather than the court’s predilection. Inartful drafting of the agreement that contains the word “merged” does not in of itself mean the parties wanted the judgment of divorce to absorb the agreement, if contrary indications of intent are expressed or implied elsewhere in the agreement that the parties meant for the agreement to survive.

Child-related matters, such as visitation, custody and child support, remain subject to modification and contempt orders by the Probate Court, as the former spouses cannot bargain away their children’s right to support from either of the parents.

If you have any questions about divorce or family law issues, call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete a contact form and we will respond to your phone call or submission promptly.

Durational Limits on Alimony: New Case Law

As we explained previously, the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act of 2011 prescribed durational limits for alimony payments. These limits cap alimony based on the length of the parties’ marriage. The limits are imposed at the time the marriage is over—but what exactly does that mean? In the case of multiple filings and counter-filings, for example (as tends to be the case with many divorces) just when is the marriage “over”?

The Appeals Court addressed this issue in a recent case, Sbrogna v. Sbrogna. In that case, the parties were married in 1973. The husband first filed a complaint for divorce in 1990 on the ground of irretrievable breakdown of the marriage; however, no record of service of process on the wife existed. A few months later, the husband filed some motions related to the case. Those motions were never acted on, and two years later, the case was marked “inactive,” though not dismissed or otherwise formally closed by the court.

In 1994, the parties filed a joint motion to amend and a joint petition for divorce based on the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. The motion to amend was allowed, and the case proceeded as a joint action for divorce. The judgment of divorce was entered in 1994.

In 2016, the husband filed an action seeking to modify his alimony obligations. To do so, he attempted to use the 1990 filing date as the end date of the marriage, as opposed to the 1994 filing date of the joint petition. The husband argued that because of the 1990 filing, the parties were married more than fifteen years but less than twenty years, making his alimony obligation modifiable. The wife filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted. The husband appealed.

The Appeals Court explained the durational limits imposed by the Alimony Reform Act of 2011. Under those limits, a marriage lasting more than 15 but less than 20 years is capped at 80% of the duration of the marriage for purposes of alimony payments. However, those caps do not apply to a marriage lasting more than 20 years—hence the husband’s argument regarding the original 1990 filing date signifying the end of the parties’ marriage.

The Appeals Court then explained that for purposes of alimony, the length of the marriage is defined as the number of months from the date of legal marriage to the date of service of a complaint or petition for divorce. However, the Court noted, the relevant pleading is that which results in a valid judgment of divorce. “To read the statute otherwise would lead to the nonsensical result that service of a pleading that leads neither to a valid divorce nor to an alimony award could nonetheless serve as the basis for calculating the length of the marriage and the duration of alimony, even if the parties reconciled and lived together for decades before ultimately divorcing,” the Court stated.

Because it’s common to have multiple complaints and petitions in divorce cases, any other reading of the statute would be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce, the Court said. As a result of this interpretation, the Court noted that for alimony purposes, the 1994 joint petition must be used as the date for calculating the length of the Sbrognas’ marriage. As such, the husband was not entitled to modification of his alimony payments, because the marriage lasted longer than twenty years, thereby falling outside of the Act’s durational limits on general alimony.

If you have any questions about alimony or any other issues regarding family law, please contact our firm. You may schedule a free consultation with an experienced family law lawyer today. Call our offices at 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form online. Do not hesitate to call our offices today.

A Part-time Job and Its Effect on Alimony or Child Support

In what ways might a part-time job or second job affect alimony or child support payments?

Under Massachusetts divorce law, a spousal support award is not set in stone. Rather, it may be altered by a petition for modification to the court initiated by either party. To prevail, the petitioner must demonstrate that an adjustment of the alimony judgment is warranted because of a material change of circumstances since the earlier judgment was entered.

Likewise, a court may modify an earlier judgment regarding the care and custody of minor children if it determines a material and substantial change in the parties’ circumstances has occurred requiring an adjustment that would be in the children’s best interests. As noted in Section III. (A.) of the 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, among the occurrences that justify modifying a child support order are:

  • An inconsistency between the amount of the existing order and the amount that would result from the application of the guidelines;
  • previously ordered health care coverage is no longer available;
  • previously ordered health care coverage is still available but no longer at a reasonable cost or without an undue hardship; and
  • access to health care coverage not previously available to a parent has become available.

Concerning both alimony and child support, a common basis for complaints for modification brought by one party involves the other party either taking on a second job to supplement his or her main income or accepting a part-time position.

In ordering one of the parties in a divorce to pay alimony to the other in the first instance, the court weighs numerous factors, including the length of the marriage, the parties’ age and health, their employability and the sources and amounts of income. To arrive at the parties’ incomes concerning an alimony award, a judge may attribute income to a party who is unemployed or underemployed.

In a spousal support modification action, any income earned by the party paying alimony from a part-time job, second job or through overtime is presumed not to be material to a redetermination of alimony, so long as the party is working more than a “single full-time equivalent position,” and the second job or overtime pay began after the initial spousal support award was entered.

In one case, the former wife appealed her court-ordered rehabilitative alimony payments to her ex-husband. The Appeals Court found the probate court judge had not abused his discretion in making the award, but had erred in determining her ability to pay the amount of spousal support by considering her income both from her full-time position and a part-time job she took on after the judgment of divorce had entered. The appellate court vacated the alimony award and remanded the case to the trial judge. The court held that a party working full-time cannot be considered “underemployed” based on the pay level from a post-judgment second job unless a judge finds supporting evidence that “a basis exists for rebutting the presumption of immateriality applicable to the income earned from the second job.”

The 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines allow a court considering the best interests of the children to weigh “none, some, or all overtime income or income from a secondary job” from the calculation of gross income for child support purposes. A presumption exists that any part-time job, overtime pay or second-job income not be considered in a future child support order if the payor or recipient parent began receiving such income after the initial child support order was entered.

If you have any questions about alimony, child support, or any other issues regarding family law, please contact our firm. You may schedule a free consultation with an experienced family law lawyer today. Call our offices at 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form online. Do not hesitate to call our offices today.

Parental Kidnapping

Approximately 800,000 children annually are reported missing, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics—a staggering 2,000 minors daily on average. Family members account for 203,000, more than a quarter, of these child abductions, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“NCMEC”) claims. In 78 percent of child kidnappings, the offender was the noncustodial parent, according to the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (“NISMART”).

Among the reasons cited by parents for violating the custody or visitation rights of their mates by abducting their children are to punish the non-offending parent or to compel reconciliation with the estranged parent. Fear of losing custody or visitation rights, and, in rare instances, shielding the minor from an alleged neglectful or physically or sexually abusive parent, are other reasons underlying parental kidnapping.

Under Massachusetts law, a minor’s relative who takes a child from his or her custodian without lawful authority and intends to hold the youth “permanently or for a protracted period,” is subject to a maximum one year in prison, a thousand-dollar fine, or both. Unlawfully removing the child from the Commonwealth and exposing the minor to danger is punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and a maximum five-year prison term.

Often, an accused parental kidnapper also faces a charge of violating a restraining order. Violation of such an order could result in a maximum fine of $5,000 and up to two-and-a-half years in prison.

Criminal liability against a parent as outlined above pre-supposes an existing court-issued custody order concerning the parents’ children. In a 1989 case, a woman took her five- and three-year-old sons from their Massachusetts home and relocated to Puerto Rico ten days before her estranged husband obtained a temporary custody order, unbeknownst to her.

The mother was arrested for parental kidnapping. The Supreme Judicial Court acknowledged the presumption under Massachusetts law that both parents have equal custodial rights of their children. The Court concluded that a parent who takes his or her children from the other parent before any court proceeding has generated a custody order is not acting “without lawful authority” as defined by the Commonwealth’s statute, and cannot be convicted of parental kidnapping.

At the national level, the Federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act requires every state’s appropriate authorities to enforce and not modify (with certain exceptions) any child custody determination made by another state’s court. This full faith and credit provision means that if another state having jurisdiction over a child custody question has pending custody proceedings outside the Commonwealth, a Massachusetts judge, for example, cannot issue a custody order in a non-emergency care and protection hearing involving the same minor without running afoul of the federal Act. The federal statute prevents two states from concurrently assuming jurisdiction over the same custody matter. It considers the resident state of the child or either parent to be the proper forum to resolve the dispute.

Unfortunately, sometimes—especially in particularly contentious divorce proceedings—family lawyers confront false kidnapping claims. Sometimes, these are brought by a vengeful custodial parent against a defendant parent during the latter’s designated visitation period when a child is returned late to the custodial parent. In such instances, experienced divorce counsel can refute spurious accusations through proof that unforeseen circumstances, such as traffic congestion, a delayed or cancelled flight or unexpected injury or illness caused the visitation to exceed the allotted time.

In other cases, noncustodial parents, fearful that their children are targets of physical or mental abuse by the custodial parent, may not return the child after a scheduled visit. When such unilateral action is taken, experienced divorce attorneys will seek relief from the probate court by arguing that the noncustodial parent was acting in the best interest of the child by protecting the youth from an unsafe home environment.

Under Massachusetts law, either spouse in a pending divorce action may petition the Probate and Family Court to issue an order to prohibit the other spouse from imposing any restraint on the personal liberty of the petitioner or his or her minor children during the pendency of the divorce proceedings. Likewise, by statute, a minor over whom a Massachusetts probate court has jurisdiction, either because the child was born, or has resided for at least five years, in the Commonwealth, cannot be removed from Massachusetts without the child’s consent, if he or she is of “suitable age” to give it. If the child is too young to consent, the child cannot be removed without the approval of both parents, unless the Court, upon cause shown, otherwise orders.

If you have any questions about child custody or support or any other issues regarding family law, please contact our firm. You may schedule a free consultation with an experienced family law lawyer today. Call our offices at 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form online. Do not hesitate to call our offices today.






What constitutes marital property in Massachusetts?

Marital property is distributed in Massachusetts divorce cases under the “equitable distribution” standard. Unlike some other states with “community property laws,” Massachusetts courts divide marital property by in an equitable, or fair, manner.

In Massachusetts, marital property includes all items, interests, and possessions attained by a couple during their marriage. Martial property in Massachusetts is not considered to be property that is acquired by any party before the marriage began. Property that was acquired before the marriage began is typically considered to be separate property that is not divisible by the court.

Separate property

Under some circumstances, it is possible that separate property may be considered to be marital property. Take, for example, a long-term marriage where the parties’ separate property is quite imbalanced: one spouse entered the marriage with considerable assets, while the other had few assets at the time. The parties may have become accustomed to a certain standard of living during their marriage, and the judge may consider some separate property (acquired prior to the marriage) to be marital property, in the interests of fair and equitable division. This consideration is dependent on the facts and circumstances of each individual divorce case. It is important to speak with a competent divorce attorney about this issue of marital and separate property, as this may impact your individual case.

Division by agreement

Parties in a marriage may decide that they want to divide their property on their one. This is done by agreeing on which property to divide. Once an agreement is made, it is written down as a “property settlement agreement.” With the agreement to divide property, parties submit the agreement to a Massachusetts Probate and Family Court. The judge then considers the agreement in the final divorce order. A judge would likely support a fair and reasonable distribution of their assets.

Equitable distribution

If the parties cannot agree about the division of their property on their own, the parties’ property is divided by a Massachusetts Family Court on an equitable basis. Equitable does not necessarily mean equal. Equitable uses several factors to determine the fair division of assets. These factors include: length of the marriage; conduct of the parties during the marriage; age, health, station, occupation, amount and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, estate, liabilities and needs of the parties; opportunity of each for future acquisition of capital assets and income; amount and duration of alimony; present and future needs of dependent children of the marriage; and contribution of each of the parties in the acquisition, preservation or appreciation in value of their respective estates and the contribution of each of the parties as a homemaker to the family unit.

Types of marital property

Property in a divorce could be any of the following: house(s) and real estate, car(s), furniture, art, jewelry, bank accounts, bonds, boats, policies, plans, pensions, stock options, accounts, coin or collections, wine collections, and more. While Massachusetts considers companion and other animals to be property, judges in Massachusetts may look to see the party who is the primary handler of the animal. There is a growing trend in other states that companion animals will be awarded to a party based upon what is best for the animal. This standard is not yet in Massachusetts, so dogs and cats, and other animals, are considered to be property as well.

There are some other assets that a party in a divorce may be entitled to: stock retirement accounts (401K and pension plans), deferred compensation plans from previous employers, capital losses from previous tax years, cemetery plans or plots, all collections with value, memberships to clubs, gifts, intellectual property such as trademarks, patents, copyrights, and royalty rights, lottery tickets, loans, travel rewards, and more.

If a party owns a business, it is also important to speak with a Massachusetts divorce lawyer about the ways that business ownership may impact the distribution of property in a divorce, especially as business gains are managed and salaries are paid.

To provide an example: Billy and Jean decide to divorce. Billy, a musician, owns an upcoming music label, which he created after is married Jean. Billy also owns the rights to several of his original songs that he recorded on his label. Billy and Jean have a joint bank account that they opened prior to their marriage, but that they regularly used during their 5-year marriage. The couple has a house, no kids, and Jean does not work. They each have a vehicle, but Billy’s car is worth two times more than Jean’s car. What property can be distributed? In Massachusetts, absent a marital agreement, a judge would likely consider the business earnings and future royalty earnings in the divorce decree. The judge would also equitably divide their earnings, the joint account, the value of the house, and their vehicles in an order for the equitable distribution of their property.

No two family law or divorce cases are alike. If you have any questions about divorce, family law, child support, alimony, or more, please contact our firm. You may schedule a free consultation with an experienced family law lawyer today. Call our offices at 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form online. Do not hesitate to call our offices today.




Alimony and Gross Income Calculations

What are “gross income” tax implications of alimony payments? Alimony is court-ordered support from one spouse to another under a divorce or separation agreement. The purpose of alimony is to allow a receiving spouse to endure the same or similar type of lifestyle that he or she had during the marriage relationship.

In 2011, Massachusetts adopted the Alimony Reform Act. The Act, which took effect in March, 2012, governs the type, the amount, the duration, and the termination of alimony payments. This ensures that alimony payments do not endure if their endurance would be unequitable, or unfair. The goal in Massachusetts is to achieve an equitable result based upon several factors about the marriage relationship.

It is important to note that child support is separate from alimony. Child support is awarded to a custodial parent, so that the children are financially supported when a divorce occurs between a child’s or children’s parents.

In the Commonwealth, there are four types of alimony: (1) General Term alimony (provides regular support for a length of time based on the length of the marriage); (2) Rehabilitative alimony (provides regular support until the ex-spouse is able to be self-sustaining); (3) Reimbursement alimony (provides regular or one-time support for a shorter marriage to make up for costs that the ex-spouse paid in supporting the other spouse); and (4) Transitional alimony (provides regular or one-time support).

People who pay or receive alimony payments need to consider the “gross income” tax implications that are invoked with the paying and receiving of alimony payments in a divorce. This is an important consideration that should be handled between an experienced family law attorney and tax professional, especially since income is handled on a federal and state level.

For example, suppose that a couple is divorced in Massachusetts. The judge orders that the former husband pay $2,000.00 each month to the former wife. Are any of the former husband’s payments to his ex-wife deductible? In other words, how may the husband handle the alimony payments that he makes to his wife for tax purposes? The law states that a party’s alimony payments are deductible from gross income by the payer, and are included in gross income by the collecting spouse. Any alimony received is included in federal gross income and therefore must be included as Massachusetts gross income. With the example mentioned, the husband is likely able to deduct his alimony payments that he transacts to his ex-spouse. The former wife will have to include the payments that she receives as her income.

If the former husband and former wife in the aforementioned example have a child or children together and the former husband is ordered to also pay for child support, may the former husband include any child support payments as an alimony deduction? No, because the law states that a child support payment does not qualify as an alimony deduction and any amounts are not included as gross income by the recipient, which, in this example, is the former wife.

Here is an example: Sally and Joe decide to divorce. Sally and Joe have three children together between the ages of 6 and 14. Sally works as a public school teacher in an inner-city school and earns $45,000 per year. Joe is a CEO of a company and earns $170,000 per year. A Massachusetts justice of the Family Court ordered that Joe make alimony payments to Sally in the divorce decree. Additionally, the judge ordered that Sally will have custody of the children, but Joe will make child support payments to Sally for the children. Sally and Joe want to know whether they must include the alimony and child support payments on their tax returns.

Because Joe is the person making the alimony payments to Sally, Joe may deduct his alimony payments on his tax returns. Sally, however, must include any alimony payments that she receives as “gross income.” Joe may not deduct child support payments and Sally should not include child support payments as income on her taxes; child support payments are awarded for the “best interest of the children.”

Massachusetts alimony and child support issues are nuanced and complex. If you have any questions about divorce, family law, child support, alimony, or more, please contact our competent attorneys. You may schedule a free consultation with an experienced divorce law attorney or family law lawyer today. Call our offices at 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form online. Do not hesitate to call our offices today.

Automatic Restraining Order Upon Filing for Divorce

Suppose Jack filed for divorce, and Jill is left confused, unaware of what comes next in the divorce proceedings. Jill is served the divorce papers and realizes that there is an automatic restraining order as part of the summons and complaint. Frantically, she calls a divorce attorney, wondering if a restraining order is all about. Could it mean she cannot have contact with her ex-spouse? Is it possible that she won’t be able to access her financial accounts or her home?

As divorce attorneys, we receive many inquiries regarding the initial paperwork filed in a divorce proceeding. Whether you filed for divorce or are defending a divorce action, you may have heard that Massachusetts Probate and Family Court attaches an automatic restraining order against the defendant spouse at the time of the divorce filing. What is an automatic restraining order; how can you follow it; and what are the sanctions for not following it?

In every Massachusetts divorce case, there is an automatic restraining order. This automatic restraining order is present when the plaintiff-spouse files for divorce, and when the defendant-spouse is served the initial divorce complaint it as part of the Summons. The automatic restraining order is present throughout the entire divorce case, unless modified by agreement of the parties or order of the Court. Upon entry of the divorce judgment or decree, the automatic restraining order is terminated and vacated.

The automatic restraining order, which is codified as Massachusetts Supplemental Probate and Family Court Rule 411, provides for certain restrictions to parties in a divorce. It states the following:

“(1) Neither party shall sell, transfer, encumber, conceal, assign, remove or in any way dispose of any property, real or personal, belonging to or acquired by either party, except: (a) as required for reasonable expenses of living; (b) in the ordinary and usual course of investing; (d) for payment of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs in connection with the action; (e) written agreement of both parties; or (f) by Order of the Court.

Selling your stocks? Giving your children some of your antique jewelry? Hiding your ownership in a partnership or business? All of these could be considered by the Court to fall under the protections of the automatic restraining order, and engaging in these acts despite the order may expose you to sanctions by the Court.

Additionally, Rule 411 prohibits either party from incurring any further debts that would burden the credit of the other party—this includes things like unreasonably using credit cards or bank lines, as well as borrowing against a credit line or the marital residence. Rule 411 also prohibits the spouses from changing the beneficiary of any life insurance policy, pension or retirement plan, or pension or retirement investment account, as well as from causing the other party or the minor children of the marriage to be removed from the coverage.

The goal of an automatic restraining order is to ensure that the parties’ do not make any drastic changes during the divorce proceedings. If one party would do something to give themselves an unfair advantage in the proceedings, or on the other hand, unfairly place the other party at a grave disadvantage, this could greatly impact the outcome of a case.

A question you may have is: what happens if you or your ex-spouse violates the automatic restraining order? Is there a way to make the non-compliant party comply? Are there any repercussions for violating the order?

If either party violates the automatic restraining order provision of Probate Court’s Rule 411, the other party can either file a formal complaint for contempt with the Court. A complaint for contempt arises when a party does not agree with a court order. It is a judge’s decision as to whether or not the party has violated the automatic restraining order. If so, the party will be held in contempt of court, and the judge will impose sanctions based on the severity of the violation. Sanctions are court-ordered penalties for disobeying a law or rule—in this case, they may range from fines to unfavorable rulings on certain motions.

If you need assistance with an automatic restraining order or have any questions about divorce or family law issues, call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete our online contact form, and we will respond to your phone call or submission promptly.

Ex Parte Protective Order: New Massachusetts Case Law

The recent case of C.R.S. v. J.M.S. addressed the issue of ex parte abuse protection orders. In that case, the victim of domestic violence filed a complaint for a restraining order against her partner. Her story entailed many instances of controlling behavior, along with some instances of physical violence.

As we explained in previous blog posts, one particular recourse for victims of domestic violence is to seek a protective order in court under Massachusetts General Laws chapter 209A. Restraining orders in general are ways for the court to compel a defendant to stop doing something. A protective order, sometimes also referred to as a restraining order, serves to protect a victim of domestic abuse, which is perpetrated by a member or former member of the victim’s household. It may also serve to protect a victim from abuse or violence perpetrated by someone the victim is/was dating.

In addition, under Chapter 258E of the Massachusetts General Laws, any party may seek a protective order against another party based on harassment. Unlike a temporary order of protection from abuse, it is not necessary that domestic violence or abuse be in the picture.

In the case at hand, the District Court issued an emergency protective order for the plaintiff. The order was issued ex parte, meaning without the presence of the defendant. The injunction ordered the defendant to stay away from the plaintiff, not to contact her, and to vacate the plaintiff’s home.

Two days later, following the defendant’s arraignment for a criminal charge related to the domestic incident, another hearing was held by a different judge. Both the plaintiff and the defendant testified at the second hearing, and the defendant was represented by an attorney. The plaintiff described the abuse she endured from the defendant, including her recount of being pushed into a wall and pushed down on multiple occasions. The defendant denied the plaintiff’s allegations. After questioning the defendant, at the end of the hearing, the judge extended the order of abuse protection for one year.

The defendant appealed the injunction, claiming that the protective order should not have been extended, because his actions did not constitute “abuse” as defined by Massachusetts law. He also claimed that the plaintiff’s categorization of his actions as abusive was incorrect, and that the plaintiff’s claims of fear due to the defendant’s actions were “unreasonable.”

The Appeals Court held that there was no error in issuing the injunction. The trial judge did not err and could reasonably concur, based on circumstantial evidence, that the plaintiff has met her burden of proof.

“We are satisfied that the judge properly found that the plaintiff met her burden here,” the Court noted. “She testified to at least two separate incidents of physical assault (with one incident occurring at the time the ex parte order issued) in the course of a deteriorating and stressful relationship — a relationship that she testified had been characterized by the defendant’s controlling behavior as well as verbal and emotional abuse. At the time of the hearing, it appeared that the relationship was ending and the defendant was drinking heavily.”

The defendant also argued that the original ex parte order was wrongfully issued, claiming that he was entitled to an opportunity to appeal that order. The Appeals Court disagreed. “Simply put, a defendant is entitled to be heard on the issue of whether an order pursuant to G. L. c. 209A should have issued, and a defendant has the right to appeal the issuance of an order against him or her. However, a defendant is not entitled to relitigate each stage of the proceedings,” the Court held. “Here, the defendant was given notice of the extension hearing, which was held two days after the ex parte order issued and, represented by counsel, he was given an opportunity to oppose the extension of the ex parte order. He is not entitled to further review of the ex parte order in this court.”

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