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Cohen v. Cohen

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex

February 23, 2015

M. David Cohen
v.
Shelley Cohen

Argued: October 9, 2014

Registration for enforcement of a foreign order of support filed in the Middlesex Division of the Probate and Family Court Department on March 31, 2004.

A complaint for contempt was heard by Randy J. Kaplan, J.

After review by the Appeals Court, the Supreme Judicial Court granted leave to obtain further appellate review.

Anna S. Richardson for the father.

Present: Gants, C.J., Spina, Cordy, Botsford, Duffly, Lenk, & Hines, JJ.

OPINION

Duffly, J.

[25 N.E.3d 841] This case requires that we resolve the extent to which the Probate and Family Court has subject matter jurisdiction to enforce or modify a support order issued by a California court in

Page 709

connection with proceedings dissolving the marriage of M. David Cohen (father) and Shelley Cohen (mother). After the parties separated in 1999, a Los Angeles County Superior Court entered a judgment establishing monthly child and spousal support payments payable by the father to the mother. The father moved to Massachusetts in [25 N.E.3d 842] 2002. In 2004, the California support order was registered in the Probate and Family Court, upon request of the Los Angeles County Department of Child Services (California CSSD). Pursuant to the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), which has been adopted by both California and Massachusetts, Massachusetts courts thus acquired jurisdiction to enforce the support order. See Cal. Fam. Code, § § 4900, 4950, 4951 (West 2013); G. L. c. 209D, § § 6-601, 6-602. The child support division of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR), acting on behalf of the mother, initiated contempt proceedings against the father in the Probate and Family Court, and a Probate and Family Court judge subsequently issued multiple orders that sought to enforce the California support order. The orders incorporated the parties' stipulated agreements, which, inter alia, obligated the father to pay the child's uninsured medical expenses and to contribute to her college education costs; neither of these items had been included in the order of the California court. In 2010, a Probate and Family Court judge found the father in contempt for having failed to make payments in the amounts agreed toward support arrears, to pay the agreed share of the child's college costs and her uninsured medical expenses, and to pay previously-awarded attorney's fees and costs incurred by the mother in seeking enforcement. The father challenges the jurisdiction of the court to enter this judgment.

We conclude that, in the circumstances of this case, the jurisdiction of the Probate and Family Court was limited to enforcement of the California support order, and that the parties' stipulated agreements did not extend the jurisdiction of the Probate and Family Court to modify the California support order. To the extent the Probate and Family Court orders modify the California support order, they are therefore void, and the court accordingly had no authority to enforce these orders or to find the father in contempt for failing to comply with them. The Probate and Family Court nonetheless retained jurisdiction to continue to enforce the California child support and spousal support order, at least until the father returned to live in California and California

Page 710

resumed enforcement. The Probate and Family Court judge therefore had authority to hold the father in contempt for failing to comply with orders that he pay the mother's attorney's fees and costs incurred in connection with enforcement of the California order.

Background and prior proceedings.

1. California proceedings.

The father and the mother lived in Los Angeles with their daughter. After a lengthy marriage, the parties separated in 1999, and a Los Angeles County Superior Court ordered the father to pay the mother monthly payments for child and spousal support.[1] The father relocated to the Boston area in January, 2002, while the mother and child remained in California. Arrearages accumulated, and, in February, 2003, the California CSSD transmitted to the child support enforcement division of the DOR the first of two requests for registration of the California support order. This transmittal sought enforcement in Massachusetts through income withholding, pursuant to G. L. c. 209D, § 6-602 ( a ).[2] In June, 2003, [25 N.E.3d 843] a " judgment of dissolution of marriage" entered in the Los Angeles County Superior Court that increased the father's monthly child support obligation to $1,035, and his spousal support to $600; the judgment also reserved jurisdiction over arrearages.

In March, 2004, on request of the California CSSD, the 2003 California support order was registered in the Probate and Family Court, giving the Massachusetts court authority to enforce the California support order. See G. L. c. 209D, § § 6-601 to 6-603. The child support enforcement transmittal document stated that ...


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