The Boston Business Journal reports that Jonathan Fields, partner at Fields and Dennis LLP, has been appointed as a member of the Massachusetts Trial Court’s Child Support Guidelines Task Force. The Task Force is responsible for conducting the quadrennial review of the guidelines required under federal law. A link to more info can be found here.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Curt Pfannenstiehl v. Diane Pfannenstiehl recently came to an important decision regarding how Massachusetts treats spendthrift trusts in divorce. By doing so, the court overthrew the controversial decisions of the lower courts, which would have radically adjusted the way trusts are viewed in Massachusetts. The function of these trusts is to protect beneficiaries from outside creditors and overspending, so it may be a relief to many that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has chosen to interpret the trust as the settlor intended it, rather than, as the lower courts did, viewing it as “property” that can be divided as a marital asset in divorce.
The case concerned a husband and wife who had an arrangement during the marriage to fund their daily living expenses from the husband’s trust. The husband’s income wasn’t sufficient to cover these expenses, and the wife had given up her career in order to look after the couple’s children. The couple used the trust to fund their lives year to year.
The Appeals Court relied upon the trusts “ascertainable standard” to determine that the trustees were “required” to make distributions to the husband Curt Pfannenstiehl. The reasoning behind this was that the trust was to provide for the welfare of the beneficiaries, and during the marriage, it was used to provide for the family’s living expenses. However the court’s interpretation seemed extreme, given that trustees generally have discretion in their distributions rather than being compelled to pay out. In addition, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court disagreed with the lower courts’ opinion that the trust was a certain interest for Curt, instead viewing it as too speculative to be considered “property”. The Supreme Court also disagreed that Curt was entitled to a quantifiable fraction of the trust (the lower courts valued his interest as a simple 1/11th piece because it was shared with 11 other people) because of the history of how the trustees used their discretion to make unequal payments or no payments at all, and of course, the spendthrift clause, which means the trust isn’t supposed to benefit creditors or ex-spouses in the first place.
It was a good thing for Curt Pfannenstiehl that the courts ruled the way they did. When after trial, he was ordered to pay his ex-wife Diane approx. $1.4 million that he didn’t have and couldn’t earn, he was prosecuted for contempt after he couldn’t pay the judgement, and put in shackles. The Appeals Court reversed based on inability to pay, and the Supreme Court eventually decided not to treat the trust as marital property, but there was a brief moment when the protection the trust had seemed to offer Curt evaporated. Pfannenstiehl v. Pfannenstiehl shows that divorce has the potential to derail even the most painstaking plans parents have made for future generations. Thankfully, even in such a fraught situation, the courts have chosen to acknowledge that the original purpose of such a trust is to provide for future generations, and that this should be safeguarded.
Sheryl Dennis is an expert in matters of trusts and estates. With over 24 years of experience in family law helping families resolve complex issues, Sheryl is the right choice for people looking to navigate sensitive family law issues related to estates, inheritances. Please contact Fields and Dennis today to see how we can help.
Fields and Dennis LLP is proud to announce that Jonathan E. Fields has been appointed as a member of the Massachusetts Trial Court’s Child Support Guidelines Task Force. The Task Force is responsible for conducting the quadrennial review of the guidelines required under Federal law.
Jon joins the Chairperson of the Task Force, the Honorable Angela M. Ordonez, Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court Department, along with other members including representatives from the Probate and Family Court, the Department of Revenue, the domestic relations bar, and legal services organizations.
Jonathan E. Fields was recently selected by his peers for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America ® 2015 edition in the field of Family Law. The listing is based entirely on exhaustive peer-review surveys and, according to the publisher, “is the oldest and most respected peer-review publication in the legal profession.” A Federal Court judge praised the list as “a shorthand way of knowing a person is possessed of all the skill, the integrity, and the qualifications to serve and meet the highest ideals of a lawyer.”
With the proper estate planning, the following situations could have been avoided. The truth is, many fail to adequately plan their estate, which can potentially lead to outcomes such as these 5 worst-case scenarios. Read more.
Case Law Updates by Attorney Jonathan Fields from Family Mediation Quarterly, October 2013, including:
- PC Agreement Held Enforceable.
- Post-Retirement Alimony Obligations.
Thinking about the holiday season can be a daunting experience when going through a divorce. While it is only October, we understand the apprehension of facing the upcoming season of cheer when you are feeling anything but cheerful. Divorce is an extremely personal and emotional experience, and there is no right or wrong way to feel – but you are not alone, and the holidays, while different, do not have to be a dreaded occurrence.
Here are some tips for finding enjoyment from the holidays, or at the very least getting through them. Read More.
Case Law Updates by Attorney Jonathan Fields from Family Mediation Quarterly, July 2013, including:
- “Agreed upon Educational Expenses” and the Price of Silence.
- Probate Court has Authority to Allocate Federal Dependency Exemptions.
- New Child Support Guidelines.
What standard must a Probate and Family Court use when faced with a modification of a child support order when the case is within the Child Support Guidelines? The trial judge in this case dismissed the modification complaint because, although the ex-husband’s income had increased, she found there was not a “substantial and material change in circumstances.” Notably, the judge’s decision did not mention the “inconsistency standard” in G.L. c.208, s.28 which states that a modification is appropriate “if there is an inconsistency between the amount of the existing order and the amount that would result from applying the Guidelines.” Nevertheless, the Appeals Court affirmed her judgment. The SJC, however, reversed; it held that the “inconsistency standard” rather than the “material change in circumstances” applies where modifications of child support within the Guidelines are concerned. Morales v. Morales, 464 Mass. 507 (March 12, 2013)
As mediators and lawyers, we are often confronted with out-of-state divorce judgments. Since Massachusetts has the most generous emancipation statute in the country, those out-of-state judgments often provide that support ends long before a child’s 23rd birthday, depending on the state. Steve and Mary Ellen Freddo had four children and were divorced in Florida. Following the divorce, they both moved to Massachusetts. Mr. Freddo brought a complaint for modification in Massachusetts when all of the children were over eighteen. Mr. Freddo’s argument was (1) that under Florida law, children are emancipated at age eighteen, with exceptions not relevant here, and the age of emancipation is a non-modifiable matter and (2) under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), if an obligation is non-modifiable in the “issuing state” (Florida, in this case), then the “responding state” (Massachusetts) cannot modify it. The Probate and Family Court found Mr. Freddo’s complaint frivolous and dismissed it, relying on the “post-eighteen” provisions of G.L. c.208 s.28. In this significant case of first impression, the Appeals Court reversed, holding that Massachusetts could not modify the age of emancipation where it could not have been modified in Florida. Acknowledging the inconsistency between G.L. c.208 s.28 and UIFSA, the Appeals Court found that the latter takes priority; both the “full faith and credit purpose” of UIFSA and the fact that it was enacted after G.L. c.208 compel this conclusion. Freddo v. Freddo, 83 Mass.App.Ct 353 (February 26, 2013)