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What is the standard for amending child support orders?

The process for amending a family court order in Massachusetts begins with the filing of a Complaint for Modification.  If you are able to reach agreement on the amendment of a child support order, you can save time in court by filing an administrative action called a Joint Petition for Modification of Child Support.  Although this process may soon be available for other joint modifications, right now it is only allowed for child support, as we discussed in this previous post.

If you are unable to reach an agreement, then the court will decide if an amendment to your support order is appropriate.  The typical standard for amending a court order is  whether or not there has been a "significant material change in circumstances."   Up until recently, we often advised clients that a good rule of thumb for determining significance is whether or not the change in circumstances would result in a 20% change in the child support order.

However, a 2013 SJC decision in Massachusetts, Morales v. Morales, SJC 11104, differentiates this standard for modification of Child Support orders. In child support modification cases, the SJC has indicated that "modification is presumptively required whenever there is an inconsistency between the amount of child support that is to be paid under the existing support order and the amount that would be paid under the Guidelines."

Despite language that is different in the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, the Court indicated that the statutory language is controlling.  The Court explains a bit of the history behind how the Guidelines may have ended up with a differing standard, but absent some change in the statute, the Court indicates that the trial court must follow the "inconsistency standard" as contained in M. G. L. c. 208, § 28.

While this seems to imply that even a $5 change would require the court's attention, the cost of going to court should be a factor in determining a practical modification standard in each individual case.

In addition, it is also important to note that a Judge can deviate from the guidelines so long as they make a finding regarding the reason deviation is warranted.  Since Judges are given broad discretion with these findings by the appeals court, Judges may use this language to find ways around granting changes in cases that they believe are wasting their time.  In other words, common sense should still prevail.

To calculate what would be paid in a particular case under the current Guidelines visit our Child Support Calculator.


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