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Cavanaugh v Cavanaugh

Mass Supreme Court Decision, August 8, 2022. Major Changes Regarding Alimony and Child Support

On August 8, 2022, the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided the above entitled case. This article will attempt to summarize the 59 page decision for the general public.

The facts in the most basic terms are as follows: The husband and wife were divorced on November 7, 2016, after a marriage of 21 years. The parties were the parents of three boys. The oldest boy had graduated college in May of 2021, the middle son was a cadet at West Point and the youngest son was enrolled in a private preparatory school. During the beginning of the marriage the husband attended physician assistant school and incurred about $80,000.00 of educational debt which got paid off during the marriage. The wife worked as a teacher at a private catholic school before the boys were born and then remained out of the work force to raise the boys. The parties took camping vacations three or four times a year. They drove cars that were generally not older than two or three years which they would then replace. They built a swimming pool in the back yard at the house they bought during the marriage. The children went to private catholic schools beginning in kindergarten, and completed their primary education with private high schools. The wife returned to teaching at a catholic school in 2016. In sum they lived a good lifestyle.

The trial judge found the wife’s weekly income to be $719.24 a week. The husband began working two jobs in 2012 to finance the childrens private educations. His first job was with an orthopedic practice and his second was with a medical center. The judge found his weekly income to be $4,388.00. He and his wife agreed and the divorce judgment provided that the husband’s second job would not be used to calculate either spousal support or child support in consideration that it was being used for education costs of the children and would be used that way for future educational costs.

After the divorce the husband filed for a modification, the wife filed a counterclaim for modification and each also filed contempt complaints against each other.

After a trial on the modifications and contempts in 2021, the trial judge made the following rulings, first the husband was not obligated to pay for the youngest son’s education at the preparatory school. Second, the two older boys are emancipated for child support purposes, Third, the husband must pay child support for the youngest son in the amount of $650.00 per week. Fourth, the husband shall not pay spousal support to the wife and finally that each pay their own attorney fees.

In Massachusetts the divorce laws provided that if the court in a divorce considered and used a spouses income (dollars) to calculate child support, then the court could not use those same dollars to calculate an order for alimony. This had been the long standing rule as a result of the 2011 Alimony Reform Act. This case now makes a major change to that rule. The Supreme Court in Cavanaugh, establishes the new rule that in every case where both child support and alimony can be warranted by the facts of the case that the judge is to consider and calculate a concurrent order for alimony and child support together. The Court went on to state “We understand that, pursuant to the Plain language of s. 53 (c)(2), income that has been used to calculate a child support order may not be used to calculate alimony. However, we interpret this plain language in the context of other provision of the act, discussed supra. Where, as here, a judge chooses to calculate child support and then denies alimony on the basis that s. 53 (c) (2) prevents the uses of the payor’s income to calculate alimony, the judge has abused her discretion because she has failed to do the fact-specific analysis of the family’s circumstances required by s. 53. Therefore in context, we read ss 53(a.), (c)(2), and (g) together to require that a judge consider, under the statutory factors set forth in s 53 (a.), the equities surrounding an award where alimony is calculated first and child support is calculated first.”

The court went on to set out a new three step process and calculation that trial judges must now complete when determining alimony/child support orders, in cases where both of those payments may be available to the parties. The court went on to provide guidance to trial judges that requires the calculation of both child support and alimony concurrently. The trial judge is then to determine which order is the most equitable for the family using the factors judges must consider in every divorce case that are set out in MGL c. 208 sec. 34.

The Court also went on to make other significant changes in the law. First, that income will now include for the child support and alimony calculations employer 401(k) matches and the employer contribution to to pre-tax healthcare accounts. Second, income from interest and dividends will be included for child support calculations. Third, the court suggested that alimony waivers agreed to by the parties that are contained in their divorce agreements (aka separation agreements in Massachusetts) may be able to seek relief in the Probate and Family Court to have the court consider alimony moving forward even though the parties waived it in their agreements. Finally, the Court is now limited to hearing only evidence on subjects that the judge lists as contested subjects in their pre-trial orders. This is a significant limitation on a trial judge’s autonomy and discretion that they have enjoyed as judges presiding in courts of equity.

This case represents a very significant change from business as usual in the representation of clients in divorce cases where the issues of child support and alimony may be awarded. Counsel and judge’s will need to implement the changes in their daily practice moving forward to make sure they do not run afoul of the new rules established in Cavanaugh.

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