Massachusetts Child Support Task Force Meeting

Every four years, Massachusetts reviews its child support guidelines, and this review is currently taking place. The Honorable Paula Carey, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Trial Court, has appointed a 16 member panel to review current guidelines, which took effect September 15, 2017 (amended June 15, 2018).

The Task Force invites comment from the public and lawyers via email by January 26, 2020 at childsupport@jud.state.ma.us.

The Task Force is also holding three forums, over Zoom, at which citizens can speak for 3 minutes. If you would like to address the Task Force, you should email them at least 15 minutes before a meeting starts with your name, phone number, email, and the date that you would like to speak.

The dates and times of the forum are as follows: January 21, 2021, from 4:00 – 6:00 p.m. (EST); January 22, 2021, from 11 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. (EST); and January 26, 2021, from 2:00 – 4:00 p.m. (EST).

The Zoom link information for joining is:

Join ZoomGov Meeting
Meeting ID: 160 005 3895
Passcode: 352589
There is much that could be improved with child support in Massachusetts child support guidelines, including:
1) The relationship between alimony and child support is unclear. If one takes into account income for child support, that same income can NOT then be used to calculate alimony. If one uses certain income to calculate alimony, that same income CAN then be used to calculate child support. To make thi relationship even more tangled, child support is presumptive (automatic) and alimony is not. The need for alimony must be proven, and there are no guidelines for how much alimony should be. The only existing formulas for alimony suggest what it should not exceed, not how much it should be.
Because you have to calculate alimony first (if doing both alimony and child support), you cannot get to the presumptive support, unless you first negotiate or litigate something that is not presumptive (alimony).
2) Child support remains flat even though the needs of children and caregivers are radically different at different times. A newly divorced caregiver taking care of 3 children who are not yet in school is in a different situation than that caregiver 10 years later. There could easily be a transitional child support that is much higher than the rigid amount that is now applied to all years.
3) Make the amount of child support higher. If a parent makes 150k, and the other stays home with 3 kids, the earner has a very powerful incentive to divorce and pay child support.
The caregiver and 3 kids get $35,516, which is not much above federal poverty line (but $700 too high for Masshealth; maybe the kids go without health insurance this year….). Assuming the money earner pays 30k in taxes, he or she keeps $84,484. This is insane. A higher child support amount or higher transitional child support would take away the huge financial incentives that a person with upper-middle income has to abandon the children.
4) See the Justice Edward Ginsburg column from April 10, 2014 in Lawyers Weekly. Alimony is much higher than child support. A huge percentage of kids in MA are born out of marriage, so the state is impoverishing those kids, since they can’t benefit from alimony, only child support
5) Fix the calculations. They can’t deal with the child care and health insurance costs in a rational way.

Take the example of a couple who have one child, identical incomes ($2500/week), and 50-50 custody. If Spouse A pays $100/week for health care and childcare, it is obvious how to share this cost: they have equal incomes and equal custody, so they should equally share the $100/week for health and child care costs. This would mean Spouse B should reimburse Spouse A $50/week, so that each is contributing $50/week.

When this scenario is run through the 2018 Child Support Guidelines Worksheet, however, the spouse who pays the $100 per week for health care is only reimbursed $18 rather than the $50. So one spouse pays 82% of the health care costs and the other pays only 18%, even though they have exactly equal incomes and exactly equal parenting time. In this case the person who happens to write the check for health care or childcare expenses is punished financially.

 

6) Make modification easier. A primary way to do this is to simply the Financial Statements. If nothing else, the income threshold for requiring the Long Form, which is particularly difficult to fill out, could be raised to $120,000. Because of inflation, the equivalent of $75,000 from the year 2000 is about $115,000 today.

 

7) Give clearer guidelines for how to determine whether child support should continue past age 18 for those who are in college. It’s a bit odd to pay astronomical college costs for a child, pay for that child’s housing for a summer internship, and then continue to pay child support to the ex-spouse when the child really isn’t at home much. It would make sense to connect child support costs and college costs.

You can now search family court records for case information

The state of Massachusetts recently made available an online interface for searching family court records. If you want to find a court case docket number, see the date of a court action, or just see if someone’s divorce is in progress or complete, you can find your answers through this search. The state made the interface very confusing, so I give step-by-step instructions below the URL for the site.

1) Go to: https://www.masscourts.org/eservices/home.page

2) In the lower left, indicate that you are “not a robot” and click on “Click here”

3) On the “Court Department” drop-down menu, select “Probate and Family Court”.

4) On the “Court Division” drop-down menu, select the county where the case was filed and heard.

5) Enter the “Last Name” and “First Name” of one of the parties involved in the case. You do not need to enter any more information on this page. Click “Search” on the lower left, and you will see a list of all probate court actions for people with the name you have entered.

Divorce mediation

When getting divorced in Massachusetts it is important to understand that there are several different processes, governed by different laws, for divorcing. The first distinction is between “fault divorce” and “no fault divorce”. Up until the 1970’s, “fault divorce” was the only process for getting divorced in MA. In order to get divorced, one had to prove that the other partner was at fault, e.g. through adultery, substance abuse, marital violence, etc. in order to divorce. Since 1976, Massachusetts has allowed “no fault divorce”, which means that neither partner has to blame the other or prove the fault of the other in order to divorce. The couple simply have to assert an “irretrievable breakdown” of the marriage.

Today, “fault divorce” is rare, as it is much more expensive and takes much longer than “no fault divorce”.

There are two distinctions in “no fault divorce” processes in Massachusetts: 1) “contested divorce”, in which a judge is asked to rule on a divorce (or specific dimensions of it, such as custody issues, alimony, division of marital assets, or child support), and 2) “uncontested divorce”, in which a couple work together–sometimes with lawyers, sometimes on their own, and sometimes with a mediator–to come up with the terms of their divorce. Over 90% of divorce in Massachusetts end up “uncontested”, i.e., the couple present the terms of their divorce to a judge who signs off on the separation agreement. Contested divorces are sometimes called “1B divorces” and uncontested divorce “1A divorces” after the names of the court forms in MA for the two different kinds of divorces.

There are several different ways of arriving at a separation agreement (the name for a divorce agreement in MA). Some couples hire opposing attorneys who make motions in court or threaten to go to court before eventually working out an agreement that is presented to a judge. This tends to cost $10,000 or more for each spouse and to take at least 1-2 years. Many couples fill out the forms on their own. This is the least expensive way to do it, but it is very easy to make mistakes in the forms, which results in delays, and couples who are divorcing are often experiencing emotions that make it difficult to work together on such a process without the intervention of a third party. Divorce mediation in Massachusetts is often the most practical way to get divorce. A mediator typically charges $2000-$4000 (a cost shared by the couple). A family lawyer mediator is an expert in divorce law, so he or she can guide you through the process and explain the relevant laws. A sensitive mediator can help manage a couple’s emotions and keep them focused on the future, rather than past hurts. This is especially important if a couple have children, whom they need to continue to co-parent. By working together in mediation, the couple prepare themselves for future, cooperative co-parenting.