Modifying a Judgment in a Massachusetts Probate and Family Court

A Judgment is the legal document that is issued at the conclusion of every case, and it must be followed until and unless it is changed.  If a party to that Judgment wants to change it, s/he must request a Modification from the Probate and Family Court.  This process begins by filing a Complaint for Modification.

And -- to be clear -- it IS a process.

A Judge in the Probate and Family Court will not change the prior Judgment for any reason at all.  The party seeking the change (the "plaintiff") must establish two things -- first, that a material change in circumstances has occurred since the entry of the Judgment the plaintiff is trying to change; and, second, that the changed circumstances justify the change the plaintiff is seeking to the existing Judgment.

The first element is often misunderstood.  Notice that the phrase is "a material change in circumstances has occurred since the entry of the Judgment."  This is very different from a plaintiff seeking a change because s/he is tired of complying with the existing Judgment, feels that s/he has complied for long enough, or because the plaintiff feels that a mistake was made when the existing Judgment was entered.  You have to prove that something changed after the Judgment entered, and not just any change, but a material (think, "substantial" or "significant") change.

Assuming the changes at hand are material and did occur after the entry of the existing Judgment, the plaintiff must also prove that those changes justify a particular change to the Judgment based on the factual circumstances and applicable law.  For instance, a classic -- and the simplest - modification occurs when a child support payor's income changes, let's say through involuntarily losing his/her job after the existing Judgment entered.  In that scenario, most would agree that a change to the child support is warranted and that the Child Support Guidelines should be applied to the support payor's now-reduced income.  A more complicated, but not uncommon example, is a custody modification, which can occur, for example, when circumstances change in the custodial parent's life that result in a custody change being in the child's best interest.

Procedurally, a Modification case is like any other case before a Probate and Family Court.  You don't just pop into the courthouse one day, submit your change order, and leave with a modified Judgment.

Like I said, it's a process.

The modification process is started by the filing of a Complaint for Modification, and the process ends with a Judgment of Modification (or, if the Judge decides the plaintiff has not sustained his/her burden, then a Judgment of Dismissal.)

There is an important difference, however, in the modification process, and it is one that plaintiffs sometimes find frustrating.  When a Complaint for Modification is pending, the parties -- by definition -- already have a Judgment governing them (unlike parties to a Complaint for Divorce who, at the filing of the Complaint, have had no prior court involvement.)  Consequently, the Judge will not issue Temporary Orders on a Complaint for Modification in the absence of an extreme emergency, particularly if the requested modification is a change of custody (and, I really mean an extreme emergency.)  The high (and almost impossible) legal standard that must be met to obtain Temporary Orders on a Complaint for Modification is legally appropriate; but, understandably, no less frustrating to a plaintiff who must wait months for a trial after first requesting a change.

In my free online course -- The Road Map through Your Divorce, Custody or Support Case -- I walk you step-by-step through the process from beginning to end.  You can access the free course by clicking here.

I hope this information has been helpful to you.  If you would like to book a complimentary call with me to discuss your own situation, you can click here to schedule your call online.

Talk to you soon.

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