TN 19 (05-16)
PR 04015.024 Massachusetts
A. PR 16-072 Whether the agency should give effect to a Massachusetts court order modifying a spousal support obligation that originated in Florida.
DATE: January 27, 2016
The insured number holder (NH)) provided a temporary order modifying his spousal support obligations 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. Garnishment under the Massachusetts court order should be effectuated only if the Florida order shows that the NH’s spousal support obligations expired before the subsequent Massachusetts order was issued.
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
. Under 42 U.S.C. § 666, which took effect in 1996, States were required to adopt UIFSA by January 1, 1998 or face loss of federal funding for child support enforcement. Every U.S. State has adopted either the 1996 or a later version of UIFSA, though with some variations.