Massachusetts Separation Agreement Law

Divorce – Separation Agreements – Massachusetts

Note:  This summary is not intended to be an all inclusive discussion of the law of separation agreements in Massachusetts, but does include basic and other provisions.

General Summary: Separation agreements, when free from fraud and coercion and when fair and reasonable, are valid.  This is subject to the approval of the the court.  If a judge rules, either at the time of the entry of a judgment nisi of divorce or at any subsequent time, that the agreement was not the product of fraud or coercion, that it was fair and reasonable at the time of entry of the judgment nisi, and that the parties clearly agreed on the finality of the agreement on the subject of interspousal support, the agreement concerning interspousal support should be specifically enforced, absent countervailing equities.

The power of a Probate Court to modify its support orders may not be restricted by an agreement between a husband and a wife which purports to fix for all time the amount of the husband’s support obligation.  This is espicially true regarding support provisions under Section 1A of Chapter 208.

Statutes:

PART II.
REAL AND PERSONAL PROPERTY AND DOMESTIC RELATIONS.
TITLE III.
DOMESTIC RELATIONS.
CHAPTER 208.
DIVORCE.

Irretrievable breakdown of marriage; commencement of action; complaint accompanied by statement and dissolution agreement; procedure:

An action for divorce on the ground of an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage may be commenced with the filing of: (a) a petition signed by both joint petitioners or their attorneys; (b) a sworn affidavit that is either jointly or separately executed by the petitioners that an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage exists; and (c) a notarized separation agreement executed by the parties except as hereinafter set forth and no summons or answer shall be  required. After a hearing on a separation agreement which has been presented to the court, the court shall, within thirty days of said hearing, make a finding as to whether or not an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage exists and whether or not the agreement has made proper provisions for custody, for support and maintenance, for alimony and for the disposition of marital property, where applicable.

In making its finding, the court shall apply the provisions of section thirty-four, except that the court shall make no inquiry into, nor consider any evidence of the individual marital fault of the parties. In the event the notarized separation agreement has not been filed at the time of the commencement of the action, it shall in any event be filed with the court within ninety days following the commencement of said action.

If the finding is in the affirmative, the court shall approve the agreement and enter a judgment of divorce nisi. The agreement either shall be incorporated and merged into said judgment or by agreement of the parties, it shall be incorporated and not merged, but shall survive and remain as an independent contract. In the event that the court does not approve the agreement as executed, or modified by agreement of the parties, said agreement shall become null and void and of no further effect between the parties; and the action shall be treated as dismissed, but without prejudice. Following approval of an agreement by the court but prior to the entry of judgment nisi, said agreement may be modified in accordance with the foregoing provisions at any time by agreement of the parties and with the approval of the court, or by the court upon the petition of one of the parties after a showing of a substantial change of circumstances; and the agreement, as modified, shall continue as the order of the court.

Thirty days from the time that the court has given its initial approval to a dissolution agreement of the parties which makes proper provisions for custody, support and maintenance, alimony, and for the disposition of marital property, where applicable, notwithstanding subsequent modification of said agreement, a judgment of divorce nisi shall be entered without further action by the parties.

Nothing in the foregoing shall prevent the court, at any time prior to the approval of the agreement by the court, from making temporary orders for custody, support and maintenance, or such other temporary orders as it deems appropriate, including referral of the parties and the children, if any, for marriage or family counseling.

Prior to the entry of judgment under this section, the petition may be withdrawn by mutual agreement of the parties.  Section 1A.

Case Law:

Separation agreements, when free from fraud and coercion and when fair and reasonable, are valid.  Reeves v. Reeves, 318 Mass. 381, 384 (1945). If a judge rules, either at the time of the entry of a judgment nisi of divorce or at any subsequent time, that the agreement was not the product of fraud or coercion, that it was fair and reasonable at the time of entry of the judgment nisi, and that the parties clearly agreed on the finality of the agreement on the subject of interspousal support, the agreement concerning interspousal support should be specifically enforced, absent countervailing equities.” Knox v. Remick, 371 Mass. 433, (1976).

Decisions have held consistently that the power of a Probate Court to modify its support orders may not be restricted by an agreement between a husband and a wife which purports to fix for all time the amount of the husband’s support obligation.  Ryan v. Ryan, 371 Mass. 430, 432 (1976).  The Probate Court has jurisdiction, in appropriate circumstances, to modify the support provisions of judgments of divorce entered under G.L.c. 208, § 1A.  Stansel v. Stansel, 385 Mass. 510 (1982) 432 N.E.2d 691.  In enacting G.L.c. 208, § 1A, the Legislature did not intend to use the term “merged” in its technical sense.  This is clearly demonstrated by the phrase which follows that term in the statute. If a separation agreement approved by the court and incorporated into an order for judgment were truly to be merged into that order, the separation agreement could not, “by agreement of the parties . . . also remain as an independent contract.”   Stansel v. Stansel, 385 Mass. 510 (1982) 432 N.E.2d 691.

The party seeking a modification of a judgment of divorce normally must demonstrate “a material change of circumstances since the entry of the earlier judgment.” Schuler v. Schuler, 382 Mass. 366, 368 (1981).  Where, however, the parties have entered into a separation agreement that was fair and reasonable when the judgment of divorce entered, was not the product of fraud or coercion, and survives the judgment of divorce, something more than a “material change of circumstances” must be shown before a judge of the Probate Court is justified in refusing specific enforcement of that agreement.

This court has noted two possible grounds on which a judge reasonably might rely in refusing specific performance of a properly pleaded separation agreement: that the spouse seeking the modification is or will become a public charge, or that the party raising the separation agreement as a bar has not complied with the provisions of that agreement.  Osborne v. Osborne, 384 Mass. 591, 599 (1981). The two grounds above are perhaps not the only grounds on which a probate judge may base a refusal to specifically enforce a separation agreement in a modification proceeding. Only in extreme circumstances should a litigant who has properly raised a separation agreement as a bar to Probate Court modification proceedings be forced to bring a separate suit in another forum in order to vindicate his rights under that agreement.

The existence of an independent, enforceable agreement does not deprive the Probate Court of jurisdiction to modify its own judgment. The requirement that Probate Court give full effect to intention of parties as expressed in separation agreement does not limit court’s power to modify subsequent divorce decrees. Ryan v. Ryan, 371 Mass. 430, 432 (1976).   A surviving agreement may prompt a judge “in his discretion” not to modify an order, Knox v. Remick, 371 Mass. 433, 435 (1976); it is not a jurisdictional bar to the action.


Inside Massachusetts Separation Agreement Law