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Bobblis v. Costa

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Plymouth

October 18, 2018

LISA BOBBLIS
v.
ANDREW J. COSTA.

          Heard: January 12, 2018.

          Complaint for divorce filed in the Plymouth Division of the Probate and Family Court Department on March 2, 1998. A complaint for modification, filed on February 19, 2016, was heard by Lisa A. Roberts, J.

          Patricia Michaels-Hamilton for the husband.

          John Foskett for the wife.

          Present: Vuono, Agnes, & McDonough, JJ.

          McDONOUGH, J.

         This is an appeal from a judgment dismissing a complaint for retroactive modification of a child support order. The complaint was filed by Andrew J. Costa (father) to terminate his child support obligation to his former wife, Lisa Bobblis (mother), for one of their two children. As we discuss in more detail below, pursuant to a separation agreement that was incorporated into the judgment of divorce, the father was required to pay child support until the child became emancipated. The agreement provided that emancipation would occur at the age of twenty-three if the child attended college or other accredited post high school training or education. The agreement further stated that emancipation would occur if the child entered the military. The child in question attended college as a full-time student and joined the United States Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at the beginning of his junior year. The father claims that joining the ROTC is the equivalent of entering the military and, as a result, the child was emancipated at the time his participation in the ROTC program began. Consequently, the father argues, his child support obligation terminated at the beginning of the child's junior year of college. Following a trial at which both parties appeared pro se, a judge of the Probate and Family Court rejected the father's argument. In a well-reasoned memorandum of decision, the judge ruled that the child was not emancipated by virtue of his enrollment in the ROTC and dismissed the father's complaint. We affirm.

         Background.

         We summarize the undisputed material facts as follows.[1] After eleven years of marriage, the parties divorced in 2000 pursuant to a divorce judgment that incorporated the parties' separation agreement. The mother had physical custody of both children. The parties agreed that the father would pay weekly child support "until the emancipation of all the children." They further agreed that a child's emancipation would occur upon the earliest of certain future events, of which only two are relevant here: first, "if the child attends college or other accredited post-high school training or education, emancipation shall be at age 23 or such time as the child completes such training or education"; or second, upon "[e]ntry by the child into the military."

         In August of 2012, the child enrolled at Springfield College. He received a scholarship award from the college and also obtained a number of educational loans.[2] In addition, through its long-standing ROTC program, the Army awarded him a scholarship beginning in his junior year of college. Following his graduation in May of 2016, the Army commissioned him as an officer, assigned him to its field artillery branch, and ordered him to report for duty at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.

         A trial was held on September 23, 2016. Both parties presented their respective cases and offered uncontested documentary evidence.[3] Those documents included an ROTC enlistment document and an ROTC scholarship cadet contract cadet contract), both signed by the child and an Army official. The documents were interlinked: both made reference to the other, for purposes of supplying details of his participation in the ROTC college program as well as his later military service (if any) in the Army.

         In her memorandum of decision, the judge referred to the ROTC documents, indicating how each confirmed the distinction between the ROTC program, which provided some specialized training to a student cadet, and the military service that an ROTC cadet formally commits to undertake upon graduation. Based on the ROTC documents, Federal statutory law, and relevant case law (including reported decisions of other State courts), the judge concluded that the child did not become emancipated by virtue of his participation in the ROTC.[4]

         Discussion.

         We review a judge's decision denying or allowing modification of a child support order for abuse of discretion. See Lizardov.Ortega, 91 Mass.App.Ct. 687, 691-692 (2017); Wassonv.Wasson, 81 Mass.App.Ct. 574, 576 (2012).[5]An abuse of discretion may be found where a trial judge has made a clear error in weighing the relevant factors for a modification, so that the "decision falls outside the range of reasonable alternatives." L.L. v.Commonwealth, 470 Mass. 169, 185 n.27 (2014). A judge's interpretation of the meaning of a term or ...


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