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Can an out of state divorce decree be modified by a Massachusetts Courts?

| Mar 8, 2015 | Firm News |

In a recent case, Cohen v. Cohen, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Massachusetts had no jurisdiction to modify a California divorce decree to order college expenses and child support. This case is easily misunderstood as the decision is limited to a particular type of case.
In the Cohen case, the parties were divorced in California and the Wife and child continued to live in California. The husband moved to Massachusetts. This meant that the Wife had to use the Massachusetts Courts to enforce the California divorce judgment. She could have hired a Massachusetts lawyer to collect her child support or she could have used the California child support agency to collect the money. She selected the California child support agency.
Every state has an agency which collects child support for residents of the state. In the Cohen case, the California agency initiated an interstate child support collection action under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA.) Both Massachusetts and California (and probably all other states) have enacted UIFSA into their state law. While it was California in this case it could have been any state. Under UIFSA, California asked Massachusetts to file a case to enforce the California divorce decree and California law. An action was filed in Massachusetts by the Department of Revenue (DOR.) to enforce the judgment. While the Massachusetts Court had all of the powers under Massachusetts law to enforce the judgment, it had no power to modify the judgment. In the Cohen case, the divorce decree made no provisions for college education or medical bills of the child. The Massachusetts Court was unable to make any orders relating to payment of college education or medical bills.
This case doesn’t mean that the Wife in the Cohen case could never ask a Massachusetts Court to modify the California Judgment. It only means that she couldn’t modify under UIFSA. She could have hired a Massachusetts lawyer to enforce the California decree and modify the judgment. Had she proceeded in this manner, she would have enabled the Massachusetts Court to use all of its powers and authority including the power to modify the California judgment. If the Wife had filed an action in Massachusetts it would have been very expensive. She would have had to pay for a Massachusetts lawyer instead of having DOR represent her for free. She would have had to travel to Massachusetts for the trial and possibly for a pre-trial conference instead of staying in California. Of course, there is no guarantee that a Massachusetts court would apply Massachusetts law and modify the judgment. Instead, the court could have ruled that the Wife must file a modification in California or that Massachusetts would apply California law. As a general rule, using UIFSA for interstate child support enforcement is a better choice.
Interstate child support enforcement is a complicated area of law. If you have a case that crosses state lines you should consult an experienced family law attorney.
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