Modifying a Child Support Order in Massachusetts
In general, Massachusetts child support orders can be modified at any time until the final emancipation of a child through a Complaint for Modification filed by either parent seeking a change in child support. The amount of child support is determined by the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines. A child support judgment may be modified for any of the following reasons set forth in the Guidelines as follows:
There is an inconsistency between the amount of the existing order and the amount that would result from the application of the guidelines.
Previously ordered health care coverage is no longer available.
Previously ordered health care coverage is still available but no longer at a reasonable cost or without an undue hardship.
Access to health care coverage not previously available to a parent has become available.
Any other material and substantial change in circumstances has occurred.
Most child support modifications are driven by a change in the child support guideline calculation order based on an increase or decrease in one or both parties’ gross incomes. Such modification actions are often triggered by the filing parent’s job loss or a promotion or new job for the other parent.
Many child support modifications start with the filing of a Complaint for Contempt, which requires the parties to file financial statements, which then leads to a recalculation of child support. Similarly, a major change in parenting time – i.e. a change in primary physical custody between parents, or a change from shared physical custody to sole custody for one party – can also trigger child support modifications, since amount of child support under the Guidelines varies widely based on whether the parties share physical custody of the child(ren) versus one parent serving as the primary custodian.
Courts can also modify child support based on “material and substantial change in circumstances”. A change in circumstances must be significant enough to render the initial child support order inappropriate under the circumstances. For example, if a parent loses a job through no fault of their own, they may seek a modification to reduce their child support, at least until they become gainfully employed again.
Similarly, if a child developed a medical condition that required the use of adaptive equipment—such as a wheelchair, or crutches—and routine physical therapy treatments, a party can request the court to modify the child support order to increase the amount of payments to help cover the additional expenses arising from the child’s medical condition. (Often, however, the parties have an agreement that they will split equally the cost of any uninsured medical expenses for the child, so a modification of base child support in that situation may not be necessary.) A parent’s illness can also justify a modification in support, in both the child support and alimony contexts. (Indeed, the law includes very specific remedies if the child support paying parent begins receiving SSDI.)
The Guidelines also provide judges broad discretion to modify child support for unusual, unexpected circumstances affecting the lives of a party or child. Perhaps a parent’s new spouse contracts a terminal illness. Perhaps a child is admitted in a special education facility full-time. Perhaps one parent hits the lottery. Courts can increase or decrease child support based on a wide variety of factors. However, to the extent that the new child support judgment represents deviation from the Child Support Guidelines, judges are required to enter written findings explaining the purpose of the deviation.