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Child Support Modification Standard Clarified And Simplified

Recently, the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts clarified the standard for a parent to get a child support order modified. In Morales v. Morales, the SJC held that a divorced parent does not have to prove a substantial change in circumstances in order to modify a child support order.

In Morales, the parties' child was born in 1998. The mother and father were divorced by a judgment of divorce in May, 2008. The parties shared legal custody of the child with the mother having physical custody. Additionally, there was a child support order directing the father to pay $172 per week in child support to the mother. In August, 2008, the father received a promotion resulting in an increase in his salary and his average weekly income from overtime. In April, 2009, the mother filed a complaint for modification of the child support order in the Probate and Family Court. The mother's complaint stated that the father's new position and increased salary had changed the circumstances underlying the original support order therefore, the mother requested an increase in the amount of weekly support to reflect the amount required by application of the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines. A trial commenced before a judge in the Probate and Family Court and the judge found that there was no material and substantial change of circumstances, therefore, no modification was warranted and dismissed the mother's complaint. The mother appealed the ruling arguing that the trial judge erred in application of the law.

On appeal, the SJC agreed with the mother and reversed and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the SJC's opinion.

The SJC held:

We conclude that the trial judge, in ruling on the mother's modification complaint, erred in applying a standard requiring a material and substantial change in circumstances (material and substantial change standard) rather than the standard set forth in G.L.c. 208, §28, as amended through St. 1998, c. 64, §§194, 195 (§28), which provides that a child support order shall be modified 'if there is an inconsistency between the amount of the existing order and the amount that would result from application of the child support guidelines' (inconsistency standard). Accordingly, we remand for the judge to consider the child support modification request under the statutory inconsistency standard. ...

The SJC ruled that the trial judge did not apply the inconsistency standard instead the judge applied the material and substantial change standard which was an error, therefore, remand of the case was necessary to permit consideration of the mother's modification request under the appropriate legal standard.

By this ruling, the SJC has clarified the standard for modification of child support by holding that the Child Support Guidelines control and there is no need to prove a material change in circumstances. Now, a parent needs to simply prove an "inconsistency" between what he or she is paying in child support and what the guidelines say he or she should be paying. This is an easier standard to prove and parents should consider modifications if warranted.

Contact Attorney Mucci if you have questions regarding modification of child support and the child support guidelines.

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