When it comes to a Massachusetts divorce, not all separation agreements are created equal. In fact, a well-crafted agreement can provide a divorcing spouse with a degree of economic protection that far surpasses what would be guaranteed by state law.
That’s one lesson to be taken from the Massachusetts Appeals Court’s decision in Calabria v. Calabria, in which the Court ruled that divorcing parties sometimes can, by agreement, allow a child support order to be modified retroactively despite Massachusetts law barring such retroactive modifications as a general rule.
This case involved the application of a Massachusetts statute enacted to protect recipients of child support from a downward adjustment in their child support award.
The statute provides that when a child support order is modified by a court, the modification is effective retroactive only to the date when the complaint for modification was served.
The Calabrias divorced in April 2010. Their separation agreement provided that the father was to pay the mother $832 a month in child support and it contained the following clause:
“The parties agree that upon any change in his or her employment of income he or she shall immediately notify mother/father of the change, the child support will be reviewed.
This Wife is currently unemployed. The Husband’s income has been cut in half. Both parties are obligated to notify the other upon any change of employment or salary status. Parties agree to immediately seek to modify the child support obligation and said modification to be retroactive to the change of employment or salary date. Parties shall also exchange by March 15th of each year, any and all W-2’s; 1099’s or other documents evidencing income earned or received.”
After filing a complaint for contempt because the father had violated his contractual obligation to provide current financial information, the mother learned that the father’s salary had increased every year since 2011 even though he was still paying child support at the 2010 level. Armed with this information, the mother filed a complaint for modification.
She sought payment not just for the time period permitted under the law but for the increased amounts the father should have paid in 2011, 2012, and 2013; a total of $9,264. The trial court awarded her that amount, and the father appealed, arguing that the statute prohibited such retroactive adjustment.
The Appeals Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment. While noting that the law generally limited such retroactive orders, in this case, the trial court exercised their discretion to deviate from that rule, both because the parties had agreed to such adjustments in their separation agreement, and because the adjustment resulted in an increase, not a decrease, in the payments an outcome that was in the child’s best interest.
This case illustrates not only the benefits to be gained by a carefully crafted separation agreement; it also illustrates that even when interpreting a statute, the courts will seek to carry out the parties’ intent, particularly when doing so will benefit the child.
If you would like to know more about how the Law Offices of Renee Lazar can help you navigate child support arrangements, please call 978-844-4095 to schedule a FREE one hour no obligation consultatiion.