R~ (the insured number holder (NH)) provided a copy of a temporary order modifying
his spousal support obligations and directing the garnishment of his Social Security
benefits. The order was issued by a Massachusetts court. An earlier spousal support
order was issued by a Florida court. No additional evidence was provided. The question
presented is whether the agency should effectuate the garnishment order and, if so,
whether the fact that the order is “temporary” would alter any effectuation.
The garnishment order cannot be effectuated without additional evidence showing that
Florida no longer retains continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over the matter. The
NH should provide a copy of the spousal support order issued in Florida. Garnishment
should be effectuated only if the Florida order shows that the NH’s spousal support
obligations expired before the Massachusetts order was issued. The temporary nature
of the order has no effect on garnishment.
We reviewed an October XX, 2015 garnishment order issued by the Probate and Family
Court of Massachusetts (Bristol Division). Pending a hearing on the merits, the order
temporarily directs the reduction of the NH’s alimony obligation and orders the payment
to be garnished from his Social Security benefits—effective November 1, 2015. The
order also notes that a judgment of Separate Support was previously entered in Florida.
The court asserts jurisdiction to modify or terminate the alimony order and over the
divorce case based on: (1) the NH’s residency in Massachusetts for over one year;
(2) the fact that both parties resided in the Commonwealth for part of their marriage;
and (3) the wife’s current residency in Washington.
1. Federal Law
Social Security benefits may be garnished to enforce an individual’s legal obligation
to provide alimony in accordance with state law. See 42 U.S.C. § 659(a) (notwithstanding the provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 407, garnishment
is available for alimony and/or child support); see also POMS GN 02410.001, GN 02410.200.
Alimony is defined as periodic payment for support and maintenance of a spouse or
former spouse, in accordance with state law. See 42 U.S.C. § 659(i)(3); POMS GN 02410.200.E. SSA is required to comply with legal process that is served in a manner provided
by the applicable State law. See POMS GN 02410.205A.
Legal process means any writ, order, summons or similar process in the nature of garnishment
that is issued by a court or administrative agency with proper jurisdiction, or an
authorized official pursuant to a court order or pursuant to state or local law. See 42 U.S.C. § 659(i)(5); POMS GN 02410.200B; see also Social Security Ruling (SSR) 79-4 (stating that benefits are generally subject to
garnishment or other similar legal process to enforce an alimony or child support
obligation). Under POMS GN 02410.210, the garnishment order must also meet the laws of the issuing state and must be based
on the state law where the garnished NH lives.
2. Massachusetts Law on Modification of Spousal Support Orders Issued by Other States.
In Massachusetts, the modification of out-of-state spousal support orders is governed
by the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (“UIFSA”) . Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 209D, § 1-101 et seq. As relevant here, Section 2-205,
titled “Continuing, exclusive jurisdiction,” provides that an award of spousal support
can be modified only in the court in which the original order was entered. Mass. Gen.
Laws Ann. ch. 209D, § 2-205(f). Specifically, the section states:
A tribunal of the commonwealth issuing a support order consistent with the law of
the commonwealth has continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over a spousal support order
throughout the existence of the support obligation. A tribunal of the commonwealth may not modify a spousal support order issued by a
tribunal of another state having continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over that order
under the law of that state.
Id. (emphasis added).
Unlike the child support provisions in the UIFSA, which provide a means for transferring
jurisdiction if, inter alia, all parties have left the State that issued the original
order, Section 2-205 states that continuing, exclusive jurisdiction to modify spousal
support exists only in the court that issued the original order. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann.
ch. 209D, §§ 2-205(f), 6-611(a). A Massachusetts court may, however, request that
a court in another state enforce or modify a support order issued in that state. Mass.
Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 209D § 2-206(a).
The question here is whether Florida retains continuing, exclusive, jurisdiction over
the matter. If the answer is yes, then a Massachusetts court is barred from modifying
the terms of the spousal support order.
Without additional evidence, the Massachusetts garnishment order should not be effectuated.
As noted above, a Massachusetts court cannot modify a spousal order issued in another
state if that original state retains continuing, exclusive jurisdiction. Mass. Gen.
Laws Ann. ch. 209D, § 2-205(f). Cf. Cohen v. Cohen, 470 Mass. 708, 709, 25 N.E.3d 840, 842 (2015) (“We conclude that…the jurisdiction
of the Probate and Family Court was limited to enforcement of the California support
order, and that the parties’ stipulated agreements did not extend the jurisdiction
of the Probate and Family Court to modify the California support order. To the extent
the Probate and Family Court orders modify the California support order, they are
therefore void…”). In this case, it appears that Florida, not Massachusetts has continuing,
exclusive jurisdiction because it issued the initial judgment of separate support.
If, however, Florida’s separate support judgment provides that the NH’s support obligation
ended prior to the issuance of the Massachusetts garnishment order, then Florida’s
exclusive jurisdiction may have already ended. See, e.g., Kauffman v. Kauffman, 54 Mass. App. Ct. 1111, 766 N.E.2d 128, n.6 (2002) (“The judge also noted that,
because the husband’s alimony obligation terminated in December, 1998, Pennsylvania
no longer had exclusive jurisdiction over “the expired alimony obligation.”).
A Florida case, Sootin v. Sootin, 41 So. 3d 993 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2010), illustrates the strict application of the
UIFSA when an out-of-state court attempts to modify a spousal modification order.
When the parties in Sootin divorced in Florida in 1998, the former husband was ordered
to pay permanent alimony. Sootin, 41 So. 3d at 994. Later, both parties moved to Tennessee, where the former husband
filed a petition in a Tennessee court to register and modify the Florida judgment.
Id. The former wife moved to dismiss the petition, arguing a lack of subject-matter
jurisdiction, pursuant to the UIFSA. Id. Like Massachusetts, both Tennessee and Florida
have adopted the continuing, exclusive jurisdiction provision from the UIFSA. See Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 209D, § 2-205, Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-5-2211; Fla. Stat. Ann.
§ 88.2111. During a telephone conference, the Florida court decided to transfer the
cause to Tennessee, and the former wife appealed from the transfer order. Sootin, 41 So. 3d at 994. Citing provisions of UIFSA, the Florida appellate court reversed
the transfer order, stating: “Despite the obvious logic of allowing the two former
spouses now living in Tennessee to resolve their dispute there, we must reverse. Under
UIFSA, the [Florida] court has ‘continuing exclusive jurisdiction over a spousal support
order throughout the existence of the support obligation.’” Id. (emphasis in original).
Based on the continuing, exclusive jurisdiction provision of the UIFSA, which was
adopted in both Massachusetts and Florida, as well as the case law addressing the
issue, the Massachusetts garnishment order should not be effectuated unless the NH
can demonstrate that his support obligations under the Florida separate support judgment
ended before the Massachusetts order was issued.
Unless the NH can provide additional evidence to show that his alimony obligations
under the Florida separate support judgment ended prior to the issuance of the Massachusetts
garnishment order, the Massachusetts order should not be effectuated.
Regional Chief Counsel (Acting)
By: Candace Lawrence
Assistant Regional Counsel