It is not unusual for custody arrangements to need adjustments to change as the children get older. Visitation schedules often change. Children’s friends and activities need to be taken into account. Sometimes children move from one parent’s home to the other and primary custody changes. The courts encourage cooperation between parents and generally support all custody and visitation changes that occur through agreements. Even if these changes occur without approval from a Probate Court Judge they seldom are the cause for a contempt action in court. It is almost unheard of a court actually finding a parent in contempt for not returning a child to a parent where there is an agreement for a change of schedule.
Changes in child custody can effect the amount of child support paid. The current Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines use as a factor the amount of time spent with each parent. As a result, when child custody changes, the amount of child support changes as well. Parents who can cooperate to change custody and visitation for the benefit of the child may also cooperate to adjust child support. Just as parents change custody without judicial approval, they may also change child support by agreement and without judicial approval. This results in a trap for the parent who reduces or stops paying child support.
In the case of Taylor v. Taylor, Mass.App.Ct. 13-P-997 (5/13/2014) the daughter moved from father’s home to mother’s. The parties agreed that the mother would stop paying child support due to this change in custody. The father even signed a written waiver of child support. Three years later the father filed a contempt for unpaid child support. The court found that despite the written waiver by the father, the mother still violated a court order and was in contempt of that court order. As a result, she had to pay the three years of child support with interest and penalties even though the daughter lived with her and she supported the daughter. The trap is that despite an agreement of the parties, the mother paid to support he daughter and then paid years of child support to the father.
While Massachusetts encourages agreements between the parties, it is necessary to seek approval of financial agreements by a judge. There is a simplified procedure for approval of such matters. Frequently, the court approves these agreements without the necessity of a court appearance.
If parties are contemplating an agreement to modify a child support order, they should consult an experienced family law attorney to avoid falling into the child support trap.