Emancipation of Children and ROTC: New Massachusetts Case Law

When it comes to emancipation of children for purposes of child support, does joining the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in college equate to joining the Armed Forces? This was the issue addressed by the Massachusetts Appeals Court in a recent decision.

In Bobblis v. Costa, the parties were divorced in in 2000. The mother retained custody of the parties’ children, and the father agreed to pay child support. The separation agreement between the parties provided that the father would continue paying child support until the child reached the age of emancipation, which in this case would be 23 in the event the child was enrolled in a college or post-secondary program. The agreement further provided that the father would cease to pay child support in the event that the child entered the Armed Forces.

In August of 2012, one of the parties’ children enrolled in a college program. He later also joined the ROTC on campus, having been offered a scholarship beginning in his junior year. The child signed two documents: a cadet contract, which governed his conduct as an ROTC member during college, and an enlistment document, which governed his enlistment after college. After graduation, in 2016, he joined the Army as an officer.

Subsequently, the father claimed that the child joining ROTC was equivalent to the child to joining the Armed Forces, which served as an event of emancipation. The father filed for retroactive modification, seeking to end his child-support payments as of the child’s junior year of college, when he first enrolled. The probate and family court judge rejected the father’s argument, and the father appealed.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court looked closely at the two documents signed by the child, ultimately finding that they did not serve as an event of emancipation. The Court held that the documents did not indicate that the child entered the Armed Forces as a junior, but rather after he graduated.

“The contractual provisions of the enlistment document and cadet contract, as well as the statutory authority governing the ROTC program, demonstrate a clear distinction between participation in an ROTC program and military service under the ROTC program’s terms,” the Court noted. “As the trial judge noted, “[an] ROTC cadet is simply a scholarship student who receives some special training and has an obligation to perform military service or repay the funds received after participation in the program.” Importantly, the cadet contract and 10 U.S.C. §§ 2101 et seq. contemplate the possibility that a cadet may never enter active duty, for a number of reasons, and in such circumstances require the cadet to repay the Army for the scholarship.”

The Court also looked to other federal statutory and decisional law in contrasting ROTC from military service. As some examples, the Court explained, federal law specifically distinguishes between ROTC and armed services in providing life insurance and death benefits. The Court affirmed the decision to deny a retroactive modification of child support payments.

If you have questions or concerns about issues involving child support, modification, family law, or other legal issues, you should contact a competent attorney. Our divorce, family, and domestic relations attorneys may be able to work on your behalf to handle your case. Contact our offices by phone at 978-225-9030 during business hours to schedule a free consultation. We will respond to you as soon as possible.

Video or Phone Testimony in Divorce Cases: New Case Law

Should a party in a family law proceeding, who is unable to testify at trial or a hearing in person, be allowed to testify through the use of video or telephone? This was the issue in a recent case addressed by the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

In Bonaparte v. Devoti, the parties were married in 2005 in Italy. The husband lived in New Jersey, while the wife was an Italian national. In 2006, the wife gave birth to the couple’s son in Italy; she continued to live there, while the husband continued to live in New Jersey but visited his wife and son often. By 2009, the parties moved to Cape Cod, where they lives together in their marital home until 2011, when the wife and child returned to Italy. The wife was responsible for her own expenses and received little help from the husband until 2015, when he began sending her $100-150 per week.

In 2015, the husband filed for divorce. Nine days before the trial, the wife filed a motion seeking permission to testify via telephone or video. She explained that she was unable to enter the United States due to an irregularity with her permanent resident status. She also asserted that the child’s passport was expired and could not be renewed until the husband signed “the appropriate papers with the Italian Consulate.”

The trial judge denied the wife’s requests, stating that she had not properly sought a continuance. The judge entered a divorce judgment which closely resembled the proposed judgment submitted by the husband. The judge declined the wife’s request to deviate upward from the child support guidelines, and instead deviated downward—the judge noted the husband’s travel expenses as the reason.

The wife appealed, claiming that her due process rights were violated, and that denying her the opportunity to testify electronically was an abuse of discretion. The Appeals Court agreed. “It is apparent the judge viewed the wife’s motion to testify by electronic means as untimely, despite that there is no specific time frame for filing such a motion, under rule 30A(k) or otherwise,” the Court explained. “In focusing on audiovisual depositions pursuant to rule 30A, the judge appeared to overlook other available options to facilitate the wife’s participation in the trial, including live testimony via telephone or video, as requested by the wife.”

In doing so, the Court said, the trial judge failed to consider other relevant factors, such as the potential prejudice to the wife, and most importantly, the potential impact on the child’s best interests. “The judge’s findings contain minimal discussion of the child’s needs, despite those needs being a mandatory factor for the judge to consider under G. L. c. 208, § 34. The wife sought to introduce, through testimony, evidence regarding the child’s needs, including the various expenses she regularly incurs in connection with the child’s developmental and learning disabilities.”

Because the wife was not afforded the opportunity to present information regarding the mandatory factors, the Appeals Court held that the matter must be remanded to the trial court. “Here, the risk that the child may be receiving less support than necessary due to the wife’s inability to testify is too great to ignore. In light of the judge’s failure to consider the interests of the wife and the child, we conclude the denial of the wife’s request to testify by electronic means was an abuse of discretion.”

If you have questions or concerns about issues involving family law, alimony, custody, child support, and more, you should contact a competent attorney. Our divorce, family, and domestic relations attorneys may be able to work on your behalf to handle your case. Contact our offices by phone at 978-225-9030 during business hours to schedule a free consultation. We will respond to you as soon as possible.

Health Insurance Issues in Divorce and Custody

What Massachusetts laws govern health insurance during divorce and custody cases?

Divorce

When seeking a divorce and/or dealing with custody of children, a question that often concerns individuals is the issue of health insurance coverage. This is a great question to bring up to your family law attorney, as every situation pertaining to health insurance is different. When seeking the advice of a family law attorney, it is important to bring all information regarding your health insurance with you. When dealing with a divorce and all its complications, health insurance can be low on the list of priorities, but it can become a point of contention, especially when children are involved.

Generally, during a marriage one spouse who is the holder of a health insurance policy will provide coverage to the other spouse and to the children in the family. Therefore, upon dissolution of the marriage the question remains: who will be responsible for providing the health insurance to the uninsured spouse and if necessary, to the children? To put this answer simply, in Massachusetts, the Judges of the Probate and Family Court, in conjunction with the state insurance laws, determine who is responsible for health insurance coverage.

As with temporary support, at the commencement of divorce proceedings, a judge will address the health insurance issue and enter an order preventing either party from terminating or making changes to their existing coverage. Therefore, during the preliminary stages of the divorce, the insured spouse will be obligated to continue providing insurance coverage to the other. As the divorce proceedings evolve, the judge will decide based on the insurance available to each spouse how coverage will continue. Ultimately the judge decides if the insured spouse is no longer obligated to provided insurance, if they must continue providing coverage, or whether they will be required to reimburse the other spouse for finding independent insurance.

Under Massachusetts law, a spouse who is a member of a group insurance policy, upon divorce will be obligated to provide insurance benefits to the ex-spouse under his or her plan, unless divorce judgment provides otherwise. Coverage under a group plan will continue until remarriage of either the member spouse or until a specific time stated in the divorce judgement.

In addition to determining who will be responsible for providing health insurance upon the divorce, there are other factors to be considered, such as deductible and premium payments and who will bear the burden of paying for medical expenses that insurance does not cover. At the time a divorce is finalized, all of these issues will be addressed and will be a part of the divorce agreement.

Child Custody

Health care coverage is also a concern is when dealing with child custody issues and determining which parent will be responsible for providing the child or children with health insurance. Similarly to spousal health insurance, the question regarding health insurance coverage for a child is governed by Massachusetts family law in conjunction with the state insurance laws. It must also be noted that while a judge must make these decisions in conformance with the laws, the judge will also consider several factors in determining which parent should provide the health insurance for the child. For example:

  • Which parent currently provides health insurance for the child/children?
  • Is the current coverage available at a reasonable cost?
  • Is providing health insurance going to cause a parent “undue hardship?”

Massachusetts law affords parents several avenues for providing health coverage for their child(ren). These options include but are not limited to providing coverage through their employer, choosing to get coverage through MassHealth, or purchasing health insurance independently. Since Massachusetts law considers health care coverage a component of the child custody, it is mandatory that a child’s health care coverage be incorporated into the child support order. Therefore, if neither parent can provide health care coverage for the child, the courts may allow the parents to come to a written agreement that the child will be covered in an alternative way, such as under the grandparent’s insurance.

While navigating the child custody waters, it’s important to discuss with your family law attorney your concerns with providing health care coverage for your child. Generally, absent an agreement to the contrary, a judge can only order a parent who pays child support to provide health care coverage. However, a judge must use discretion and see if the insurance available to the parent can be obtained at a reasonable cost, and whether providing it would cause the parent an “undue hardship.” The Massachusetts child support guidelines provide that if a parent can obtain health insurance from their employer, it will be available at a reasonable cost. For more information about your child’s health care coverage, you may consult the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, section II.h.

If the coverage is not available at a reasonable cost or it would cause the parent to experience an “undue hardship,” the judge may not order the parent to provide health care coverage for the child. An undue hardship may arise when providing a child with health care coverage would prevent a parent from making child support payments, or if a child experiences extraordinary health care expenses and the cost would greatly exceed the coverage the parent is able to provide.

Ultimately, health insurance and health care coverage will likely come up in divorce and child custody cases. If you are experiencing family turmoil and are concerned about how it will affect you or your child’s health care coverage it is important to contact a family law attorney to discuss your options. If you need more information about family law, you may schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete a contact form and we will respond to your phone call or submission promptly.

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, and you may schedule a free consultation with us.

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 attorney today. Call our offices at 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form online.

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.