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Strayton v. Willwerth, 92 Mass.App. 118 (2017) (Unpublished Disposition)

In Strayton, the Appeals Court reversed a judgment which required a party to pay forty-five percent of their child’s college expenses.

The parties divorced in 2001. Their separation agreement provided that the mother have primary custody of the child and the father pay alimony and child support totaling $90,000 per year. The separation agreement provided that support would continue until emancipation, as defined in the agreement. Said definition included a change in custody, such that child support would terminate if the child began living with the father. The separation agreement further provided that the father would be responsible for all of the child’s college education costs. The provision merged into the judgment of divorce. In 2002, the parties entered into a modification agreement which, in part, terminated alimony as a result of the mother’s remarriage and reduced child support. In 2012, the child moved in with the father and another modification judgment entered whereby the child would reside with the father and neither party would pay child support to the other. The provisions regarding college education remained unchanged and the modification judgment specifically provided that “in all respects not modified herein, the prior Judgments…remain in full force and effect.” In November, 2014, the father sought a modification requesting that the mother pay for half of the child’s college education expenses. The child’s annual tuition was approximately $60,000. The trial court found a material change in circumstances based upon the change in custody and the change in child support and ordered both parties to pay forty-five percent of college education costs.

The Appeals Court held that “that when modifying a provision of a separation agreement that has been incorporated into a judgment, the Court “will review the findings to determine whether the judge gave appropriate consideration to the parties’ intentions as expressed in their written agreement… and to any changes in circumstances since the last modification.” The Court noted that a modification judgment “should take into account the earlier, expressed desires of the parties.” The Appeals Court could not confirm that the judge had done so in this instance, as the separation agreement expressly provided for a termination of child support upon a change in custody. The Court found that “had the parties intended for a custody change to trigger a modification of the father’s college obligation” they could have easily included that language. The Court further noted that the separation agreement even required the father to provide a death benefit from his assets sufficient to fulfill his college expense obligation and further, there was no provision in the agreement that altered that obligation. The Court found nothing in the agreement to suggest the parties intended for a change in custody to result in a new financial obligation with respect to college. Moreover, at the time of the last modification when custody was modified, the parties expressly agreed that prior judgments in the case, not otherwise modified, would remain in full force and effect. In fact, the parties had “reaffirmed, rather than modified, the college expense provisions despite that college was on the horizon.” Thus, the Appeals Court concluded that the separation agreement demonstrated that the parties actually “intended for the father to pay for the entirety of child’s college education notwithstanding a change in custody.”

The Appeals Court further concluded that the change in custody and the change in child support, including the waiver of support from the mother, did not constitute a material change in circumstances. Since the change in custody and child support waiver were effectuated by the last modification, they could not properly form the basis for a subsequent modification. The Appeals Court found that the judge was incorrect to examine what would be in the child’s best interest, as the relevant inquiry was “whether and to what extent, the parties’ financial circumstances have changed since the entry of the prior judgment.” The record showed that neither parties’ financial circumstances had materially changed since the last modification. Even though the father’s income had decreased since the divorce, there had been no decline in his income and assets since the last modification. The Court noted that even if they were to measure the change in income back to the date of divorce, the mere fact that his income deceased would not alone compel a modification. The Court found that the decrease in his income had been offset by a decrease in his living expenses. Finally, the Court determined that the judge had improperly considered the income and assets of the mother’s current husband, who has no obligation to support the child at issue.

The Appeals Court concluded that the record failed to demonstrate there had been a material change in circumstances and that it was error to modify the college related provisions of the parties’ separation agreement and judgment of divorce.

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