We’ve encountered this issue repeatedly. A parent seeks a 209A restraining order in the district court. Notice is given to the alleged abuser that the district court will hold a restraining order hearing. At that hearing, the parent seeking the order asks for child support as well. While the district court issues the restraining order, the judge declines to order child support. Instead, the district court judge directs the parties to the probate and family court, telling the parent seeking child support to ask for it there.
In such a scenario, the Massachusetts Appeals Court recently determined that the district court should not punt on the issue of child support and push it onto the probate and family court. The case is Quilla Q. v. Matt M. There, the Appeals Court held that a Massachusetts district court, the Boston Municipal Court, and the Superior Court (along with the probate and family court) should make a child support determination at a hearing after notice when a party seeks said support under 209A (i.e., restraining order law).
Restraining Order Process in Massachusetts
M.G.L. chapter 209A authorizes judges to issue abuse prevention orders—also known as restraining orders or 209A orders. To be eligible for a 209A restraining order, a person must have suffered abuse, as defined by the statute, by a person with whom they share a certain kind of relationship (see Am I Eligible for a Restraining Order?).
A district court, probate and family court, the Boston Municipal Court, and the Superior Court can issue restraining orders. Depending on their individual circumstances, a person may decide to seek a 209A order in one court department over another.
Sometimes, a judge will issue a temporary restraining order after an ex parte hearing. This means the judge issued the order without the alleged abuser, the defendant, being present at the hearing. This will occur only when a judge believes the person seeking the order is in substantial likelihood of immediate danger of abuse.
The temporary restraining order is only valid for up to 10 business days. During this time, notice of a second hearing must be given to the defendant so that the defendant can appear. At this second hearing, known as the 10-day hearing, the judge will decide whether to extend the restraining order.
With this background in mind, we now turn to the recently decided case.
Quilla Q. v. Matt M. Case Facts
In October 2020, Quilla and Matt married. In 2021, they had a baby. That same year, when the baby was five months old, the proceedings outlined below commenced. At the time, Matt was the sole wage earner in the relationship. Quilla had no income. Childcare expenses for the baby were around $350 weekly.
Restraining Order Proceedings in the District Court
District Court Grants Ex Parte Restraining Order
On September 27, 2021, Quilla petitioned for an ex parte abuse prevention order (i.e., temporary restraining order) from the district court. The district court allowed the temporary restraining order, which: 1) barred Matt from contacting Quilla and the baby; and, 2) awarded custody of the 5-month-old to Quilla.
Quilla submitted an affidavit to the district court when asking for the restraining order. In her affidavit, she told the district court that Matt blocked an exit door and held a knife to Quilla during an argument. He also threatened to punch her in the face and choke her to death. Quilla further recounted that Matt said he wouldn’t have a “‘problem killing again'” since he had killed while serving in the army.
District Court Holds Restraining Order Extension Hearing
On October 13, 2021, the district court held a restraining order extension hearing (i.e., 10-day hearing) with Quilla, her attorney, and Matt present. At the extension hearing, Quilla asked the court for a one-year extension of the restraining order, including the custody provisions. She also requested child support. Matt did not oppose either of Quilla’s requests.
During the 10-day hearing, the district court judge learned that there was a divorce action pending in the probate and family court.
RO Extended but Child Support Not Ordered
The district court judge extended the restraining order for one year, and entered stay away and no contact orders. The district court judge also ordered law enforcement to confiscate any firearms and awarded custody of the baby to Quilla.
However, the district court judge declined Quilla’s child support request, even though Matt did not oppose it. The judge did not order child support because of Matt and Quilla’s pending divorce case in the probate and family court. When Matt said he did not have a problem with a child support order, the district court judge replied, “‘I’m not going to do it sir. I think it’s an improper forum, even though we have the ability to do it. The [P]robate [C]ourt is right downstairs. You can get relief there.'”
Appeals Court: District Court Should’ve Decided Child Support Issue at Extension Hearing
The case then went to the Appeals Court, which said the district court judge should have decided Quilla’s initial request for child support at the 10-day hearing. Specifically, the Appeals Court said that “[t]he judge abused his discretion by declining to consider this initial request for child support.”
The Appeals Court noted that a district court, Boston Municipal Court, and Superior Court judge can make an initial child support order at a 209A restraining order extension hearing. The probate and family court is not the only trial court department vested with this authority. “If the request for a support order is made for the first time in the Superior Court, the District Court, or the Boston Municipal Court,” the Appeals Court said, “the judge should decide it.”
Even when there is an outstanding probate and family court custody and support order, another trial court department judge can modify that order on an emergency basis pending further proceedings in the probate and family court. In fact, in such a scenario, the 209A statute and Massachusetts Trial Court judicial guidelines offer detailed procedures for courts to follow to rectify any potential inconsistencies between such trial court orders and to give the probate court the final say regarding custody and support orders in their cases.
Matter of Public Policy & Safety
Massachusetts district courts, the Boston Municipal Court, and the Superior Court—in addition to the probate and family courts—all have the power to issue support orders under 209A for public policy and safety reasons. Firstly, our legal system enables a plaintiff to choose where to file their 209A case (which appropriate court department). If one judge refers the plaintiff to another court department, the plaintiff may feel discouraged and be exposed to additional danger. Secondly, a plaintiff may require immediate support to escape abuse. And “‘[r]eferring the plaintiff to the Probate and Family Court…to establish a child support order (a process that can take weeks or months) should not substitute for providing relief under c. 209A when the law and facts warrant such relief,'” the Appeals Court said.
The Appeals Court further noted that an initial support order under 209A out of the district court (or Boston Municipal Court or Superior Court) does not usurp the probate and family court’s power. In fact, it simply “bridges the gap between the [RO] extension order and the issuance of custody and support orders by a judge of the Probate and Family Court.” If the parties in the restraining order matter later start proceedings in the probate and family court, a custody or support order or judgment from the probate court will supersede any prior 209A custody or support order.
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