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Posted in Child Support on 8th January 2011

Massachusetts Divorce Modify Child Support Verbal Agreement Lawyers Attorneys

BETH WHITE vs. JAMES LAINGOR.
SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT OF MASSACHUSETTS

April 27, 2001

Facts:

The parties were divorced in 1988. In 1993, they stipulated to a judgment under which the father agreed to pay $ 125 a week in support of their two minor children. Two years later, the mother remarried. In March, 1997, the mother filed a complaint alleging that the father’s child support arrearage totaled $ 13,800, and a hearing was scheduled. On May 6, 1997, just prior to the hearing, the father filed a modification complaint seeking to reduce his support obligations. At that point, the parties, through counsel, negotiated a verbal agreement pursuant to which the father would (1) consent to an adoption of the children by the mother’s new husband and (2) make a lump-sum payment of $ 8,000 (representing a reduced amount of the outstanding arrearage), in exchange for a release from all past, present, and future child support obligations.  On June 27, 1997, the father signed the consent to adoption forms, purchased a cashier’s check in the amount of $ 8,000, and ceased making child support payments. However, shortly after the agreement, the parents’ older child became twelve years old and she exercised her statutory rights and refused to proceed with the adoption. Without her consent, the intended adoption could not be perfected.  Thereafter, the father did not transmit the $ 8,000 agreed lump-sum and he made no further support payments.  On December 8, 1998, the mother filed another complaint against the father, claiming arrears in the amount of $ 18,000. After a hearing on the complaint, the judge concluded that the father’s arrearage totaled only $ 8,000 (the reduced amount set by the agreement), and ordered him to make future weekly payments in the amounts of $ 125 (toward child support) and $ 31 (toward arrears).  Appellant, mother, sought review of a child support modification order from the Worcester Division of the Probate and Family Court Department (Massachusetts).

Issues:

Whether the trial court erred in awarding the father’s arrearage totaled only $ 8,000?
Whether the trial court fails to consider the best interest of the children before modifying the child support?

Discussion:

The Court noted that “In many situations, parents are in the best position to negotiate on behalf of their own interests and those of their children. However, in circumstances such as these, we harbor a real concern that the interests of the child may be compromised during the bargaining process. We therefore hold that agreements between parents to reduce child support obligations in exchange for the surrender of parental rights, without a judicial finding that the proposed agreement is in the best interests of a child, violate public policy.  Generally speaking the Massachusetts courts encourage the resolution of marital disputes, including support issues, by the agreement of the parties.  However, “anagreement to fix a spouse’s support obligation for minor children stands on a different footing.  Parents may not bargain away the rights of their children to support.  It is therefore obvious that the public policy of the Commonwealth, which requires children be supported as completely as possible from parental resources will take precedence over the freedom of the parties to enter a binding contract” that could potentially jeopardize the children’s interests.”

The Court finds that in this case the adoption by a stepparent may also be in the children’s best interests, and because that adoption would release the biological parent from future support obligations as a matter of law, an agreement that fixes the amount of the biological parent’s past support as a lump sum, in tandem with the consent to adoption, may well be a suitable resolution.  Indeed, subjecting children to all the uncertainties of future collection efforts is not necessarily in their best interests.  However, before upholding such agreements, judges must be satisfied that the best interests of the child are not compromised.   Therefore, the probate judge must review the arrangement and explicitly conclude that the agreed terms are consistent with “the best interests of the children.

The Court held that the presence of a negotiated agreement between the parents does not exempt judges from the need to protect children. Where, as here, the judge did not make any finding that the agreed-on terms were in “the best interests of the child,” the agreement to reduce child support in exchange for consent to adoption ran afoul of public policy and is not enforceable.

Conclusion:

This court opinion that the agreement was entered into without any judicial determination regarding the best interests of the children, it is unenforceable. The court vacated the order and remands the case for a modification of the arrearage consistent with this opinion.

Disclaimer:

These summaries are provided by the SRIS Law Group.  They represent the firm’s unofficial views of the Justices’ opinions.  The original opinions should be consulted for their authoritative content.

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