Silverman v. Spiro

Decision Date24 February 2003
Citation438 Mass. 725,784 N.E.2d 1
PartiesRobert D. SILVERMAN v. Claudia A. SPIRO.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Michael J. Traft, Boston (Rosanne Klovee with him) for the defendant.

Debra Grossman, Chelmsford (Patricia M. Davis & John K. Leslie with her) for the plaintiff.



This litigation involves complaints brought by the plaintiff, the former husband, against the defendant, his former wife, for modification of a judgment of divorce nisi and for contempt. We shall refer to the plaintiff as the father, and the defendant as the mother. We transferred the case to this court on our own motion to decide, among other questions, whether a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) that required the mother to pay attorney's fees and costs (attorney's fees) to the father out of her retirement fund violated the QDRO exception to the antiassignment and antialienation provision of the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), see 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3)(2000). We conclude that the QDRO was properly entered, but that the amount of funds specified therein must be recalculated. On other issues argued by the mother, we conclude that (1) the judge did not abuse her discretion in the assessment of attorney's fees; (2) the exclusion of evidence offered by the mother at trial does not warrant a new trial; (3) the mother may move, if she chooses, to have the order concerning visitation reexamined in light of present circumstances; (4) the judge erroneously awarded the father sole ownership of property he removed from the former marital home; and (5) the mother was properly found in contempt.

The background of the case is as follows. The mother filed a complaint in the Probate and Family Court seeking to terminate her eleven-year marriage to the father. Following the execution of a separation agreement, a judgment of divorce nisi entered on August 6, 1998. The separation agreement (with the express exception of the division of marital property) was integrated and merged in the judgment. The judgment of divorce nisi provided that the parties would share legal custody of their three minor children. The mother assumed primary physical custody of the children, with visitation granted to the father.1

In December, 1998, the father filed a complaint for modification, alleging that the mother had repeatedly interfered with his visitation, and requesting sole legal and physical custody of the children. In the complaint, the father stated that the children's school reported that the mother had removed the children for a two-week period and their whereabouts were unknown. The father also filed a complaint for contempt, alleging that the mother had violated the judgment of divorce nisi by (1) denying him visitation; (2) failing to sign the title of their Geo automobile over to him; and (3) failing to provide him with information needed to prepare their joint tax return. After a hearing, the father was granted temporary physical custody of the children and a capias issued for the mother's arrest. The father was also permitted to enter the former marital home to retrieve certain personal property that he claimed was needed to establish a home for the children.

In March, 1999, the mother was arrested in Texas, on parental kidnapping charges. (The charges were eventually dropped.) The father went to Texas, took custody of the children, and brought them back to Massachusetts. The mother unsuccessfully sought to regain custody. In July, 2000, the father's complaints for modification and contempt were tried together.

After the trial, the judge entered a modification judgment, followed by a statement of factual findings and conclusions that we now summarize. On or about December 12, 1998, the mother left Massachusetts in her automobile with the children. She did not obtain the father's consent to leave, or notify him that she was intending to remove the children from Massachusetts. The mother's destination was Texas, and she told the children that they would never see their father again. The judge did not find credible the mother's assertions that she was taking the children to Texas for a vacation or to conduct a job search there, and that the mother could not return to Massachusetts for over two months because she had trouble with her automobile. The judge found that the mother "had no intention of returning to Massachusetts with the children."

While in Texas, the children and the mother lived in a shelter. The children were registered in school under the mother's last name. When the father went to Texas to retrieve the children, he found one of his sons ill with strep throat and a fever of 105 degrees. The mother had not attended to his medical care.

The children incurred trauma as a result of the trip to Texas, living in a shelter, and being told that they would never see their father again. On returning to Massachusetts, the father engaged a therapist for the children. Each of the children suffered some form of posttraumatic stress disorder from the experience. The children no longer trusted their mother, believed that she had lied to them, and feared that if they were left with her, she would take them away again.

The children have made progress while living with their father and wish to continue living with him. The mother has failed to acknowledge the trauma she caused the children and blames the father for past behavior. The judge determined that the mother's contentions on the custody issues had been essentially refuted in the investigation conducted by the guardian ad litem (GAL). The judge concluded that the best interests of the children called for the father to have sole legal and physical custody.

The judge accepted the GAL's recommendation that the mother remain involved in the lives of her children in some manner. The judge explained that the children "will need a transition to incorporate the mother into their lives again. However, this must be done slowly and with great consideration. The children have only recently regained a sense of security, which must be protected at all costs. As a result, in order for there to be any contact between the mother and the children, it must first begin with a family therapist, as more specifically set forth in the [m]odification [j]udgment." The modification judgment, as to this issue, contained the provisions set forth below.2

In the modification judgment, the judge also ordered that the father "shall have sole ownership of the property he removed from the former marital home ... and the mother shall have no further claim to the said property." The judge directed that the mother pay child support in the amount of $90 a week to the father, as well as a specified amount of back child support. (We shall provide further background on the child support award subsequently when we decide the QDRO issue.) In addition, the judge ordered that the mother pay attorney's fees to the father's counsel in the amount of $44,465. She explained: "The father was forced to incur substantial fees and costs in locating the mother and children after she wrongfully removed the children from Massachusetts. Since the recovery of the children, the mother has been uncooperative in providing information in the process of discovery and unreasonable in her refusal to resolve this case without the necessity of trial, thereby causing the father to incur an inordinate amount of fees and costs in bringing this matter to a conclusion." The judge ordered:

"Payment of the attorneys' fees and costs shall be effected through a transfer of the [retirement] funds currently held for the benefit of the mother under an account ... in the amount of $55,000. The increase of some $11,000 over and above the award of fees and costs gives some consideration to the tax consequences and penalties which may be incurred in the event the father liquidates any portion of the transferred funds. Counsel for the father shall prepare a [QDRO] for approval by the [c]ourt so that the funds can be transferred within the next 30 days. The [c]ourt shall at that time release from the [t]rustee [p]rocess sufficient funds to allow for the transfer."

The judge entered a separate judgment of contempt for the mother's failure to comply with the terms of the judgment of divorce nisi permitting the father visitation with the children, requiring the parties to file their 1997 joint tax return within twenty-one days of the entry of the judgment of divorce nisi, and requiring the mother to "promptly sign over the title" of the parties' Geo automobile to the father after he paid the few remaining car payments. Thereafter, another probate judge approved a QDRO in the amount of $55,000 to effect payment of the father's attorney's fees.

1. We reject the mother's arguments that the judge erred in setting the amount of attorney's fees and lacked authority to enter the attorney's fees QDRO.

(a) As long as an award of attorney's fees is "not incommensurate with an objective evaluation of the services performed ... `[t]he award of such costs generally rests in sound judicial discretion.... [T]he award ... may be presumed to be right and ordinarily ought not to be disturbed.'" Ross v. Ross, 385 Mass. 30, 38-39, 430 N.E.2d 815 (1982), quoting Smith v. Smith, 361 Mass. 733, 738, 282 N.E.2d 412 (1972). Our review of the affidavits submitted by the father's counsel discloses that the judge's award reflects approximately seventy per cent of the actual fees and costs incurred, thus demonstrating the judge's consideration of the issues raised by the mother, including the disparity of the parties' income. The attorney's fees sought, contrary to the mother's contention, were commensurate with the services performed, and significantly, those fees were awarded in connection with bo...

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