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Posted in Child Support on 7th January 2011

Massachusetts Essex Division Family Child Support Agreement Contempt Lawyers Attorneys

JOAN M. QUINN  vs. SEAN J. QUINN.
We take the plaintiff’s name as it appears on the complaint.
APPEALS COURT OF MASSACHUSETTS
December 14, 1999, Argued
April 20, 2000, Decided

PORADA, J. On October 2, 1996, the plaintiff filed in the Probate and Family Court an amended complaint for contempt alleging that the defendant had failed to comply with an order of the court to pay child support in the sum of $ 350 weekly for the parties’ minor children.

The defendant filed an answer to the complaint in which he alleged as one of his defenses the plaintiff’s agreement of April 9, 1993, to accept the lesser sum of $ 275 weekly for child support. The Probate Court judge dismissed the contempt complaint based on his belief that the plaintiff’s agreement constituted a bar to her complaint for contempt. The judge also reduced prospectively the order of child support from $ 350 weekly to $ 322.50, based on the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines (guidelines).  Plaintiff appealed dismissal of her contempt complaint from Essex Division of the Probate and Family Court Massachusetts.), as barred by plaintiff’s agreement to accept less child support and downward modification of child support amount.

Whether an agreement between the parties relating to child support made subsequent to the entry of their divorce judgment and without court approval continued to constitute a defense to a contempt complaint?
Whether the judge erred in modifying the child support order?

The Court finds that an agreement between the parents relating to child support, which was fair and reasonable and free from fraud, and which was entered into after the entry of their divorce judgment, could constitute a defense to a complaint for contempt.  In light of the passage of G. L. c. 119A, § 13(a), this action raises the issue whether an agreement between the parties relating to child support made subsequent to the entry of their divorce judgment and without court approval continues to constitute a defense to a complaint for contempt. This Court concludes it cannot for the reasons discussed below.  Under G. L. c. 119A, § 13(a), an action to enforce a child support order takes on the semblance of an action on a judgment. In an action on a judgment, an agreement to accept less money than due, absent proof of new consideration, does not constitute a defense to the action.  The same principle should apply to a civil proceeding to enforce a child support order. Of greater import, however, is the fact that G. L. c. 119A, § 13(a), no longer permits a judge to moot or reduce arrearages for child support except for any period during which there is pending a complaint for modification. Thus, the ground on which we based our decision in part in Gridley v. Beausoleil, 16 Mass. App. Ct. at 1007-1008, is no longer valid.

Therefore this Court concludes that the plaintiff’s agreement to accept less money than provided by the court orderin this case did not constitute a defense to the plaintiff’s complaint for contempt. The judgment must be reversed and the action remanded to the Probate Court for further proceedings to establish the arrearages due under the adjudication of contempt.

The Court observed that the record does not disclose that there was any evidence of a material change of circumstances, but the record also does not disclose whether the prior order of $ 350 was based on the court’s approval of the parties’ separation agreement at the time of the divorce, a rebuttal of the guidelines, or the guidelines at the time of the entry of the divorce judgment.  As such, based on the record presented, this court declines to set aside the judge’s modification of the prior order which was allegedly based on a presumptive application of the guidelines. Nevertheless, because the issue was not fully addressed in the contempt proceeding and the action is being remanded for purposes of establishing the arrearages due on the judgment for contempt, the parties may address the issue anew at the hearing on the arrearages or by means of filing a complaint for modification.

Hence the order modifying the child support to $ 322.50 weekly is affirmed, but the judgment holding the defendant not in contempt is reversed, and the action is remanded to the Probate Court for further proceedings 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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