In 2014 I wrote about a child support trap. In this article I described the trap happening when two parents agree to change child support between themselves without court approval. After years of following the out of court agreement, the parent who received less support files a contempt action. Typically the court will enforce the order and order payment of back child support even if the out of court agreement is fair, in writing, and signed by the parties. The out of court agreement is not recognized as valid for any reduced payments made before the filing of the contempt. A similar fact patern was the subject of a case involving alimony.
In the case of Smith v. Smith, Mass. App. Ct. No. 17-P-765 (6/7/2018) the divorce left the Husband paying alimony to the Wife. Over the years, the parties entered into a series of agreements resulting in the Husband paying money for the benefit of the parties' adult children and reducing the amount of alimony paid to the Wife. After a number of years of these reduced payments, the Wife filed a contempt because the payments by the Husband were less than the court order. Unlike cases involving child support, the Husband argued equitable defenses based on “detrimental reliance” called laches or estoppel. The Court did not rule on the detrimental reliance argument. Instead, the Court ruled that alimony can be modified retroactively to consider the agreements of the parties. The retroactive modification must be based on all of the statutory factors that a Judge is require and permitted to consider when making an alimony decision. The Appeals Court sent the case back to the trial judge to make a decision based on the alimony factors. This probably will cause a second trial for the parties but it is likely that the Husband will have some benefit from a retroactive alimony modification. However, if the Husband had a significant increase in income or the Wife had a significant decrease, it is possible that the Husband could end up paying more in alimony than the original order.
The best course of action and the correct cause of action is that if the parties make an agreement to modify alimony or child support that they should seek court approval of the agreement. Massachusetts has a simplified procedure for modifications by agreement. They are typically approved based on the documents only and don't require that the parties physically appear in court.
If the parties don't want to seek court approval then they run the risk of one party paying large sums of money for arrears of alimony or child support. In this instance, they should put their agreement in writing and each party should sign the agreement before a notary public. While no court has approved this, I have a suggestion on how to write the agreement. Massachusetts does allow alimony to be paid “in kind.” This means that alimony can be paid directly to creditors instead of to the ex-spouse. As an example, if the wife has a history of not paying the mortgage, then the court may order the Husband to pay a portion of alimony each month to the mortgage company and the balance to be paid to the Wife. This concept can be applied to out of court agreements. Using the Smith case as an example, I can illustrate my suggestion.
In the Smith case, the Husband was ordered to pay $650.00 per week. One of the reasons for reduction of alimony was that the Husband paid tuition for the daughter's graduate school tuition. The could have written an agreement that state that the two parties agree to pay $400.00 per week for the daughter's tuition with each party paying $200.00 per week. They could agree that the Husband will pay the Wife's $200.00 per week directly to the school and pay the wife the remainder of $450.00 per week. This could be viewed as a payment in kind and may not be considered a contempt. The problem with this is that the Wife would be taxed on the $200.00 per week and the Husband would have a tax deduction.
When considering an agreement to change a child support or alimony award, the best way to proceed is to consult an experienced family law attorney who can draft an agreement and submit it to the court for approval.