When a couple with children gets divorced or the unmarried parents of children decide to separate, an agreement about how to support the children must be fashioned. In Massachusetts, courts look to statutory language and the Child Support Guidelines to establish the amount of support required for the children. The most recent changes to the Guidelines went into effect on August 1, 2013.
Pursuant to federal law, in the late 1980s each state came up with Guidelines that would be used by courts to set child support orders, to decide whether or not an agreement for support should be approved and to modify existing support orders. The states were also required to review and, if necessary, revise these Guidelines every three years. In 2012, it had been four years since the Massachusetts Guidelines were last reviewed. Thus, last year, a Task Force was convened to engage in a comprehensive review of the Guidelines.
The Child Support Guidelines Task Force
The Task Force heard from members of the public, attorneys and judges. In addition, economists weighed in on the issue, providing information about the cost-of-living data relative to raising a child in the state, according to a press release issued by the Public Information Office of the Supreme Judicial Court.
The Task Force also reviewed cases in which courts had made rulings on the Guidelines previously in place. One case in particular had an impact on the Task Force’s findings and led to a change that is present in the most recent version of the Guidelines. The case, Morales v. Morales, was appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, which issued its decision on March 12, 2013.
The Morales decision
One of the issues before the Morales court was what standard a Probate and Family Court judge should use when reviewing a complaint for the modification of a child support order. The husband in the case was ordered to make weekly child support payments to the wife for their minor child at the time of the couple’s 2008 divorce. A year later, the wife requested an upward modification of the order to reflect an increase in the father’s income resulting from a promotion he received at his job.
The Probate and Family Court judge who heard the case found that there was no material and substantial change in circumstances, and thus no reason to modify the child support order. The material-and-substantial-change standard for modification is found in the 2009 Guidelines. However, there is also a statute applicable to the modification of child support orders. The statute states that modification is presumptively required whenever there is an inconsistency between the amount of child support to be paid under the existing order and the amount that would be paid under the Guidelines.
The Supreme Judicial Court found that the lower court erred when it applied the material-and-substantial-change standard. The Court pointed out that the modification provision in the Guidelines was not consistent with the language of the statute. As a result of the error, the Supreme Judicial Court remanded the case, sending it back to the Probate and Family Court to be decided under the statutory standard.
Based on the Morales case, the Task Force clarified the standard required for modification. In addition, the Task Force made other significant changes. If you have questions about whether these changes may affect a current order or if you are considering requesting modification, contact a family law attorney for advice.