What if a party in a family law proceeding is unable to testify at trial or a hearing in person? Should the court permit him or her to testify through the use of video or telephone? The Massachusetts Appeals Court addressed this issue in a recent case.
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. He visited his wife and son often. By 2009, the parties moved to Cape Cod, where they lived 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. At that time, 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. The wife also asserted that the child’s passport expired; she could not renew it 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. She claimed 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 did not receive 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.”
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