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Uniform Interstate Family Support Act: No More Conflicting Court Orders

One order, one court with exclusive jurisdiction.  That is the core concept of the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act ("UIFSA"), M.G.L. c. 209D.  UIFSA seeks to solve the problem of conflicting support orders issued by courts in different jurisdictions.  UIFSA establishes the procedural framework for the establishment, enforcement and modifications of child support and spousal support orders.

Article 2 of the Act delineates which court will have subject matter jurisdiction over a support order and establish the core concept of the Act, that of continuing, exclusive jurisdiction.  It is this concept that prevents the issuance of multiple support orders.  Generally, if there are simultaneous proceedings in two states, only the state where the child resides will have subject matter jurisdiction.  The state which has issued a child support order will have continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over that order as long as the state remains the residence of the obligor, the obligee, or the child or until all of the parties consent to another state assuming jurisdiction over the order. However, once a state's original child support order has been modified in accordance with UIFSA, the modifying state becomes the state with continuing, exclusive jurisdiction and the original state may only enforce the order or provide relief for violations of the order.

With respect to spousal support orders, the state which entered the original order maintains the continuing exclusive jurisdiction through the existence of the support obligation.  No other state may modify such a spousal support order. There is no provision in the Act that permits another court to modify the spousal support order, even if the parties were to consent to another state's jurisdiction.

In the case, Cohen v. Cohen, the Supreme Judicial Court was required to resolve the extent to which the Probate and Family Court has subject matter jurisdiction to enforce or modify a support order issued by a California court in connection with proceedings dissolving the marriage of M. David Cohen and Shelley Cohen. 

Background and prior proceeding:  After a lengthy marriage, the parties separated in 1999, and a California court ordered the father to pay the mother monthly payments for child and spousal support.  The father relocated to the Boston area in January 2002, while the mother and child remained in California. Arrearages accumulated, and in February, 2003, the California Department of Child Services transmitted to the child support enforcement division of the Department of Revenue ("DOR") in Massachusetts the first of two requests for registration of the California support order.  This transmittal sought enforcement in Massachusetts through income withholding.  

In 2003, a judgment of dissolution of the marriage entered in California that increased the father's monthly child support obligation and spousal support.

In March 2004, on request of the California Department of Child Services, the 2003 California support order was registered in the Probate and Family Court, giving Massachusetts court the authority to enforce the California support order. The transmittal document stated that registration was "for enforcement only" and for "collection of arrears."

In March 2004, the DOR initiated contempt proceedings on behalf of the mother against the father in Probate and Family Court.  Each represented by counsel, the parties reached an agreement and the court issued a stipulated order reflecting that agreement.  The stipulated order required the father to make a lump sum payment and further weekly payments to reduce all spousal and child support arrears; to pay one-third of the child's college costs; and to pay the mother's attorney fees.  

Subsequent complaints for contempt were filed by the DOR, and father was found in contempt for failure to pay child support, spousal support, college expenses, child's uninsured medical expenses and mother's legal fees incurred in connection with prior and then pending enforcement proceedings.

Father appealed stating that Massachusetts lacked subject matter jurisdiction.

Here, California issued the original support order.  The mother and child remained residents of California throughout the Massachusetts proceedings and there is no indication that the parents filed with the California court their written consent to grant a Massachusetts court authority to modify the order issued by the California court.  In these circumstances, California remains the state of continuing, exclusive jurisdiction and accordingly is the only state with jurisdiction to modify its support order.

Because the Probate and Family Court lacked jurisdiction to modify the California support  order, the portions of the orders that required the father to pay child support for a period beyond that established by the California court, part of the child's college education costs, and the child's uninsured medical expenses were void, thus the judgment of contempt is vacated on these issues.

However, father is held in contempt for failure to comply with such portions of the Probate and Family Court's orders that enforced the California child and spousal support order and the fees associated with such enforcement.

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