The Health of the Parties in Modification of Alimony

After a judgment has been ordered by the court for alimony there are certain situations where either party may take action to modify the judgment.[1] For a party to be successful on a claim for alimony modification, the party must prove to the court that there has been a material change in circumstances that would render a change in alimony just.[2] A judge will then consider all relevant factors to decide if a modification of alimony is appropriate.[3] One of the many factors the court will consider when modifying an existing order is chronic illness or unusual health circumstances of either party.[4]

Since alimony is modifiable the court has discretion to change the amount being paid in situations where the health of a party affects his or her ability to earn an income. When the party receiving alimony payments suffers from a severe mental illness, courts have been inclined to award a more generous alimony amount than if the party were in good health.[5] The judge will consider how severe the mental illness is and how it affects the receiving party’s earning capacity and ability to secure and maintain employment.[6]

In one Massachusetts case, Vedensky v. Vedensky, because the husband’s severe mental illness prevented him from working at his former level, the wife was ordered to pay an amount that exceeded her expected alimony payment. Similarly, a more generous alimony payment has been awarded in situations where the receiving party’s ability to work was compromised due to a physical illness.[7]

Courts have also been known to decrease or eliminate alimony obligations if the party making the payments is experiencing health issues. Where the health of a paying party results in a significate financial hardship, courts have found this to be a material change in circumstances.[8] The court will consider how the parties health affects their ability to work and subsequently their inability to continue making the payments.[9] After evaluating the status of the party’s health coupled with other significant factors, the court may decrease the payments or terminate them altogether.[10] Ultimately, it is up to the courts discretion to determine if the health of either party results in a material change in circumstances that should result in a modification of alimony.

If you need more information about the Massachusetts alimony law or about family law generally, 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.

 

 

[1] Mass. Ann. Laws ch. 208, § 37 (discussing situations where a revision of judgement of alimony would occur).

[2] Bercume v. Bercume, 428 Mass. 635, 704 N.E.2d 177 (1999) citing Schuler v. Schuler, 382 Mass. 366, 416 N.E.2d 197 (1981) (laying out the standard for material change in circumstance).

[3] Id.

[4] Mass. Ann. Laws ch. 208, § 53

[5] Vedensky v. Vedensky, 86 Mass. App. Ct. 768, 22 N.E.3d 951 (2014) (showing an example of a time the court did not abuse their discretion when modifying alimony due to mental illness)

[6] Moran v. Moran, 612 A.2d 26 (R.I. 1992) (showing a situation where a mental illness affected a parties ability to earn income.).

[7] Hogan v. Hogan, 822 A.2d 925 (R.I. 2003) (describing a situation where wife suffered from multiple sclerosis, compromising her ability to work).

[8] Parrett v. Parrett, Conn. Super. (Super. Ct. Oct. 14, 2009).

[9] ARTICLE: Reforming Alimony: Massachusetts Reconsiders Postdivorce Spousal Support, 46 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 13 citing Parrett v. Parrett, No. FA780159581S, 2009 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2855 (Super. Ct. Oct. 14, 2009) (After a 30 year alimony obligation, the obligor obligation to pay alimony ended due to hi a showing of his severe health problems).

[10] Id. at 7

The Respective Estates of the Parties: a Factor in Alimony

Suppose Grace and Will own a home and have pension plans. Now that they are divorcing, they want to know how a court would impose alimony payments. How do the respective estates of the parties factor into the court’s decision regarding alimony?

Alimony is court-ordered support from one spouse to another.[1] 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. In Massachusetts, there are four types of alimony[2]: (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).

In Massachusetts, assets are divided on an equitable basis.[3] A judge’s decision as to what is equitable will not be reversed unless “plainly wrong and excessive.”[4] A court may assign all or any part of the estate of the other, including, but not limited to, retirement benefits, military retirement benefits, pension, profit-sharing, annuity, deferred compensation, and insurance.[5] The definition of estate is broadly defined.[6] As such, Massachusetts courts allow the division of premarital property and post-marital property on a case-by-case basis.[7]

A judge will review the following factors when deciding whether or not to award alimony or for how much the alimony award should be assigned: the length of the marriage; age of the parties; health of the parties; income, employment and employability of both parties, including employability through reasonable diligence and additional training, if necessary; economic and non-economic contribution of both parties to the marriage; marital lifestyle; ability of each party to maintain the marital lifestyle; lost economic opportunity as a result of the marriage, and other factors the court considers relevant and material.[8]

For Grace and Will, a court will evaluate their income levels and the type of alimony that should be awarded (and if any should be awarded). If a judge determines that an alimony award is necessary, the court will factor the estates of the parties in the award on an equitable basis. Courts will also look to determine whether either of the parties wasted marital assets and will make an award based on equitable, not solely “equal” factors.

If you need more information about the Massachusetts alimony law or about family law generally, 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.

 

 

[1] Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 208 § 48

[2] Id.

[3] Adams v. Adams, 459 Mass. 361, 371 (2011) (citing to Bowring v. Reid, 399 Mass. 265, 267 (1987))

[4] Adams, 459 Mass. at 371 (citing to Redding v. Redding, 398 Mass. 102, 108 (1986))

[5] M.G.L. c. 208 § 34

[6] Rice v. Rice, 372 Mass. 398, 400 (1977) (holding that an estate is all property to which the party holds title, however acquired.)

[7] Moriarty v. Stone, 41 Mass. App. Ct. 151, 156 (1996) ; Brower v. Brower, 61 Mass. App. Ct. 216, 218 (2004)

[8] Alimony Award Process, https://www.mass.gov/service-details/how-the-court-decides-if-alimony-will-be-awarded-alimony; Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 208 § 34

What is the new Family Drug Court?

For many Massachusetts families, the issue of substance abuse hits home. Parents may struggle to care for their children while working on their own substance abuse issues. At a time when substance abuse has hit a high, Massachusetts families may need extra assistance from the judicial system. This assistance comes in the form of the new Family Drug Court in Massachusetts.

Unique to Massachusetts, the Trial Court Department unveiled a Family Drug Court in Massachusetts in 2016.[1] The Family Drug Court operates through the Franklin County Probate and Family Court, located in the western part of Massachusetts. Wanting to address the “growing numbers [with] opioid addiction” in western Massachusetts, the Franklin County Probate and Family Court and the Franklin County Opioid Task Force joined together to establish a Family Drug Court to handle the ever-increasing number of court matters relative to family law, custody issues, and parenting where substance abuse is a factor.[2]

The Family Drug Court uses a phased structure, so that as parents with recovery issues move through the phases of their drug abuse treatment, their court appearances are less frequent.[3] A parent is eligible to participate in the Family Drug Court if their substance use and abuse (including alcohol) “jeopardizes custody of, or parenting time with, their children.”[4] The court allows the parent or parents to seek treatment, and children are entitled to trauma assessments. Any contact between the parent or parents and child or children is allowed, so long as said contact is in the best interest of the child or children.

When a parent or parents complete the drug court phase program, the “court will hold a celebration involving the whole family.”[5] Massachusetts also has other specialty courts, including drug courts, mental health courts, veterans’ treatment courts, and a homeless court.[6] In fact, there are a total of 39 specialty courts in Massachusetts.

If you need more information about the Massachusetts Family Drug Court or about family law generally, you may schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete a contact form here, and we will get back to you at our earliest opportunity.

 

 

[1]Trial Court Opens First Family Drug Court in Massachusetts >http://www.mass.gov/courts/news-pubs/sjc/2016/trial-court-opens-first-family-drug-court-in-massachusetts.html<

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

Challenges Faced by Grandparents Seeking Custody or Visitation

Forget the sappy Hallmark ads depicting grandparental bliss. Forget the press about the important relationship forged between grandparents and grandchildren. When it comes to visitation, grandparents using the courts to assert their rights to see their grandkids face an uphill battle. Count Massachusetts among roughly 20 states with restrictive visitation statutes.

The notion that parents have the right to custody, control and care of their offspring is well-established in law. In a 2000 case[1], the U.S. Supreme Court found a “presumption that a fit parent will act in the best interest of his or her child” regarding whether grandparent visitation should occur.

Under Massachusetts law[2], grandparents may petition a probate court for visitation rights with their unmarried minor grandchild if that minor child’s parents:

  • are divorced;
  • married but living apart;
  • under a temporary order or judgment of separate support;
  • are one or both deceased; or
  • bore the child out of wedlock and paternity has been adjudicated or acknowledged in writing and the parents do not reside together.

The probate court may grant “reasonable visitation rights” to the grandparents, even if the minor child’s parent(s) object, if the court deems, in writing, that doing so serves the minor child’s “best interest.” The statute, however, offers no insights into gauging “best interest.” Moreover, adoption of the minor child by anyone other than a stepparent precludes granting grandparent visitation rights or terminates any such rights that were in effect pre-adoption.

The seminal Massachusetts case[3] on this subject involved a maternal grandfather who sought visitation of the minor child of unmarried parents where paternity had been adjudicated. The mother successfully argued in probate court that the visitation statute unconstitutionally violated her due process rights. The Supreme Judicial Court reversed the judge’s dismissal of the grandfather’s claim and upheld the statute’s validity, but imposed on grandparents the burden of proving “failure to grant visitation will cause the child significant harm by adversely affecting the child’s health, safety, or welfare.”

The high degree of risk to a minor necessary to rebut the presumption favoring parents deciding their child’s best interest was demonstrated in another Massachusetts case.[4] In that case, the Appeals Court reversed the dismissal of a maternal grandmother’s visitation complaint where the parents didn’t cohabit. The parents had cut off contact between the child and the grandmother, who had previously obtained a restraining order against the father for alleged abusive and harassing phone calls. Grandparent visitation was warranted, the Appeals Court concluded, to deter the possibility of the minor facing isolation from family and physical abuse.

A parent’s death or incarceration often underlies visitation disputes. Courts weighing visitation examine factors, including the preexisting relationship between the petitioner and grandchild, the child’s emotional needs, and the danger of physical or emotional abuse to determine whether the grandparent’s absence would significantly affect the child.

A visitation petition[5] should detail the nature of the grandparent’s relationship with the minor, describe present access to the grandchild, how curbing or denying access significantly harms the minor, and propose a visitation schedule. The minor’s parents must be informed of the petition, which often triggers a court appointment of a guardian ad litem to investigate and offer a recommendation to the court.

If parents abdicate their child-rearing obligations, a grandparent may seek legal custody. No specific statute provides for grandparents to sue for custody. Unless the parents consent, are deemed unfit, or are otherwise unavailable to provide care, grandparents will be hard-pressed to obtain guardianship of their minor grandchildren. Besides foster care and adoption, the Commonwealth does permit a parent to sign a revocable Caregiver Authorization Affidavit that gives a grandparent a concurrent voice with the parent regarding decisions affecting the minor’s health care and education.

 

[1] Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000).

[2] M.G.L. c. 119, §39D

[3] Blixt v. Blixt, 437 Mass. 649 (2002)

[4] Sher v. Desmond, 70 Mass. App. Ct. 270 (2007)

[5] Affidavit of Care and Custody

Custody Disagreements Regarding Religious Upbringing

As the divorce rate of interfaith couples increases, judges are forced to address the issue of “spiritual custody,” determining custody disagreements regarding religious upbringing. Often, religion is something a person holds near and dear, especially during the emotional time of divorce. As such, determining which faith one’s child will be raised is extremely important.

During the divorce or custody process, a judge will award each party with rights based on equitable distribution and a fairness to each party. In custody disputes, the judge has broad discretion to decide what is appropriate for the minor child by applying the “best interest of the child” standard. This standard has been expanded and is now being applied to a spiritual custody disputes.

Under the best interest of the child standard, a judge can use his or her discretion to grant physical custody of the child to one parent, but may find it is in the best interest of the child the non-custodial to be awarded spiritual custody. A child will live primarily with a parent who is awarded physical custody, and thus is the custodial parent. However, if a judge decides the child’s interest is best served by being raised in the non-custodial parent’s faith, this would bar the custodial parent from raising the child in his or her faith.

The notion of “spiritual custody” refers to a parent’s right to direct the religious upbringing and education of the child. As we noted in a previous blog post, the Court does not look at the interests of the parents, the “rights” of the parents, the preferences of the parents, or even the relative morality or lifestyles of the parents—unless it affects the welfare and best interests of the child.  It is important to note that resolving the issue of spiritual custody may directly affect the custodial parents’ rights to the free exercise of religion.

In one Massachusetts case, the Supreme Judicial Court held that the party who sought to restrict the other parents from exposing their children to their religious practices and beliefs has the burden to “demonstrate in detail that exposer to the [mother’s] religion would cause the children ‘substantial injury, physical or emotional, and [would] have a like harmful tendency for the future.’” Kendall v. Kendall, 426 Mass. 238, (1997). The court has added that for the parent looking to restrict the other parent’s religious rights, there must be “an affirmative showing of harm caused by exposure to the conflicting religious teachings.” Id. at 243-244.

Without clear evidence that exposing children to a religion would lead to substantial injury of the child, courts have been reluctant in restricting a parent’s religious liberties. See Lapat v. Lapat, 83 Mass. App. Ct. 1123 (2013). In general, Massachusetts state courts follow the actual or substantial harm standard when ruling in child custody cases involving religious disputes. When applying this standard, the court will only restrict a parent’s First Amendment right to raise their child under the religion of their choosing only if that parent’s religious practice causes actual or substantial harm to the child.

If you have any questions about issues of child custody or support, you may schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete our contact form online, and we will get back to you at our earliest opportunity.

Property Attachment and Divorce

A property attachment is a possibility during divorce: either spouse, under Massachusetts divorce laws, may attach the other spouse’s real and personal property to ensure suitable support for the attaching spouse and children in his/her care and custody[1].

Consider the example of Betty and Bob, who made their marital residence a ranch home Bob purchased in his name before their union. When the marriage dissolved, Bob tried to sell the home, despite a restraining order that prohibited him from putting the home up for sale. In such a scenario, a writ of attachment filed in the Registry of Deeds of the county in which the couple resides will notify any would-be buyer that title to the property is not clear because of pending litigation. This includes Betty’s spousal lien, which preserves her rights to distributable property in the separation agreement.

A writ of attachment, signed by the applicable Probate Court clerk under the Commonwealth court’s seal, must include the following information:

  • the parties’ names and residences;
  • the divorce complaint date;
  • the name and address of the plaintiff’s attorney, if any; and
  • the name of the justice granting the attachment and the approval date[2].

The writ directs the applicable county sheriff or deputy, or other individual duly authorized by law, to attach the defendant’s targeted real or personal property in the court-approved amount and return the process to the court.

The spouse seeking the property attachment must file the complaint for divorce, along with a motion for attachment backed by an affidavit containing facts based on the spouse’s own knowledge or belief. The defendant spouse must be given notice of the application for the attachment, which, after hearing, a justice may grant only after finding “a reasonable likelihood that the plaintiff will recover judgment, including interest and costs, in an amount equal to or greater than the amount of the attachment over and above any liability insurance shown by the defendant to be available to satisfy the judgment[3].” Attachment must be made within 30 days of the writ’s approval.

A property attachment may be made by a court-ordered injunction that would enable a party to attach in equity stock shares and other property unreachable in actions at law. Alternatively, attachment may be made by trustee process, under which service of a summons is made on a trustee notifying the trustee to attach designated goods, effects and credits of the defendant in the trustee’s hands[4].

Another form of encumbrance is a lis pendens, whereby a party makes a claim of right to title to real property or its use and occupation. If, after a hearing, a judge approves the motion, a memorandum is filed in the appropriate registry of deeds identifying the court where the case is pending, the date of the writ, and a description of the property and town where it is located.

Attachment of property in a divorce action may also be made by a counterclaim, cross-claim or third-party complaint. The rules allow one party to seek an attachment “ex parte.” A court must find reasonable likelihood of recovery by the plaintiff and circumstances such as not having jurisdiction over the defendant spouse or evidence that the defendant will destroy, conceal or try to unload the targeted property if notified in advance of the attachment action.

If you have any questions about issues of divorce or property assignment, you may schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete our contact form online, and we will get back to you at our earliest opportunity.

[1] M.G.L. c. 208 §12; Mass. Dom. Rel. Proc. Rule 4.1 (a).

[2] Mass. Dom. Rel. Proc. Rule 4.1 (b).

[3] Mass. Dom. Rel. Proc. Rule 4.1 (c).

[4] M.G.L. c. 208, §13; Mass. Dom. Rel. Proc. Rule 4.2.