It is no secret that, in order for a divorce to be legally binding, court approval and judgment must be rendered. What happens, however, where the former spouses reach a post-divorce agreement between themselves without court approval? Do those types of agreements have any legal effect?

This question was addressed in a recent case by the Massachusetts appeals court. In Smith v. Smith, the court addressed the case of spouses who originally entered into a divorce agreement that set alimony at $650 per week. The agreement also provided that all matters regarding alimony merged into the divorce judgment. Subsequently, the husband reduced the amount of alimony he paid nine separate times, ultimately reducing it to $800 per month. At trial, the judge found that the husband and wife agreed to those reduced rates without filing any complaint for modification. In total, over a four-year period, the husband paid $87,400 less in alimony than what the divorce agreement called for.

The wife filed a complaint for contempt. She also sought the $87,400 in arrearage that she claimed the husband owed to her. The husband, in return, claimed that the wife had agreed to the alimony reductions, and that he made various other payments to cover costs for their emancipated children in exchange. The husband claimed that he otherwise would not have made those payments to the children. At trial, the husband was found not to be in contempt. The trial judge also ordered the parties’ alimony payments to be retroactively modified. The wife appealed.

On appeal, the Court noted that “not every violation of a clear order will constitute contempt, and thus that the requirement to prove “clear disobedience” has teeth.” The Court stated that contempt cases must be judged under the totality of circumstances. In this case, not only did the wife agree to the modified amounts, but “in reliance thereon, the husband had made the payments agreed upon and also had changed his behavior, to his detriment, by assuming “additional financial responsibilities” with respect to the parties’ emancipated children. It was within the judge’s discretion to conclude there was no “clear and undoubted disobedience” on these facts.”

Next, the Appeals Court took up the issue of whether the retroactive modifications should have been ordered by the trial judge. The Court pointed out that it is possible for a party not to be in contempt, yet still owe alimony. “The judge’s analysis and findings in this case were not sufficient to justify the retroactive modification of alimony,” the Court held, because the trial judge failed to address the factors mandated by G. L. c. 208, § 34, such as those dealing with the age of the parties, the length of the marriage, and the parties’ respective income and estates.

In order for an alimony judgment to be modified, those factors must be considered by the judge, the Appeals Court stated—and because they were not so considered here, the retroactive modification should not have taken place. “On remand, the judge should consider and evaluate the factors enumerated in § 34, including whether there has been a “material change in circumstances” with respect to those factors since the divorce judgment entered,” the Court explained. “In this connection the appropriate circumstances for consideration may include postdivorce conduct of the parties such as are present here, where a former spouse made certain statements and the other spouse detrimentally changed position in reliance thereon. Those facts, however, should be considered in the broader context of all the relevant § 34 factors, and any other material postdivorce changes to same. In so ruling, we do not mean to suggest, or to foreclose, any particular outcome after further consideration.”

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.