Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Joint Petition for Modification: A Proposal for an Expanded & Simplified Procedure

UPDATE:  The changes proposed in this post were adopted on June 25, 2013 and became effective August 1, 2013.

Massachusetts Supplemental Probate and Family Court Rule 412 currently allows for the filing of a Joint Petition for Modification of Child Support when two parents agree that the child support figure should be amended.  Often when there has been a material change in circumstances, two parents can agree that the child support should change to reflect the new circumstances.  If the new agreement can be reduced to a writing, then it can be submitted to the court with a Joint Petition under Rule 412, and the court may approve it without requiring a hearing (although the court may schedule a hearing if they have questions about the agreement).

The obvious benefit to this joint petition process is avoiding the cost and stress of unnecessary trips to court when an agreement is reached between the parties.  When parties can't agree on whether child support should change or not, then a Complaint for Modification may still be necessary.  However with more and more parties trying to save money and stress by turning to mediation and collaborative law, even post-judgment disagreements are often resolved outside of court.

The problem with Rule 412 is that it is limited to child support changes.  If parties agree to changes which involve custody, alimony or other modifiable issues, the court doesn't currently allow a Joint Petition to be filed.  This means that even in cases with a full Agreement for Modification, a Complaint still needs to be filed, served and then presented at a hearing.  This results in unnecessary cost and stress and discourages parties from reaching agreements, which is why the court is considering making changes:

Proposed Amendments to Rule 412 of the Supplemental Rules of the Probate and Family Court

The proposed amendments expand the Joint Petition option to cover any judgment or order in the family court.  This would allow for the same stream-lined process if a couple agrees to modify alimony, medical insurance, parenting plans, or any other such order or judgment.  The court still reserves the right to require a hearing, and in many cases this may be necessary to clarify for Judges why the changes are being made, especially in cases where agreements may be unclear.

However, with well written agreements, this new process will open up many cases to be handled without a court appearance, and encourage parties to use mediation and collaborative law options more often for post-judgment negotiations.  Overall, this could mean a reduction in the number of court cases and reduced stress and cost for many families.

The new provisions would still exclude 209A restraining order cases from the Joint Modification provisions.  This means that a hearing would still be required for changes to orders or judgments in restraining order cases, even under the new Rule.

According to the Press Release: comments on the proposed amendments should be directed to the Probate and Family Court Bench/Bar Committee on Rules, c/o Evelyn Patsos, Esq., and sent via facsimile to (617) 788-6605 or by email to evelyn.patsos@jud.state.ma.us on or before Friday, February 15, 2013.

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