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Setting Aside Judgments and Orders in Massachusetts Divorce Court

Set Aside of Orders and Judgments – Massachusetts Family Law Attorneys

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We often receive telephone calls requesting information on what can be done after the Family Court judge enters a judgment or order in a divorce or other family law case (such as Paternity matters, child custody matters, and separate support matters).  Depending on the specific circumstances of a case, there may be some options for relief from a judgment or order that is entered in a particular case; however, the party seeking to set aside a judgment or request a new trial must meet very stringent timelines or the motion will be dismissed.

Motions for a New Trial – Amendment of a Judgment

A party may seek a new trial in a particular case and request that the Family Court judge enter an alternative ruling or make a new set of findings after an initial judgment is made.  The grounds for making such a motion can be based on “any” reason that a court has allowed a rehearing in the past (which would constitute a great number of reasons).  A party may also seek to have the court amend or alter a previously entered judgment.  In practice, there should be a compelling reason for the motion and cannot be that the party simply did not like the outcome.

A motion for a new trial or a motion to amend or alter a judgment is permitted by Domestic Relations Procedure Rule 59.  Beware, however, because a motion under this section must be made within 10 days of the date of entry of the judgment.  An affidavit should also be served with the motion setting forth the factual basis that the motion should be allowed and ultimately granted over the objection of the opposing party.

Motions for Relief from a Judgment or Order

The more common mechanism for divorcing (or divorced) parties to request relief from a judgment is through Massachusetts Domestic Relations Procedure Rule 60.  Rule 60 permits the filing of a motion requesting relief from a divorce, separate support or other family law judgment.

What are the grounds to set aside a reconsider a divorce order or judgment?  There are actually several grounds, including:

(1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect;

(2) newly discovered evidence which by due diligence could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Rule 59(b) ;

(3) fraud (whether heretofore denominated intrinsic or extrinsic), misrepresentation, or other misconduct of an adverse party;

(4) the judgment is void;

(5) the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged, or a prior judgment upon which it is based has been reversed or otherwise vacated, or it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application; or

(6) any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment.

What is the timeframe for filing a motion under Domestic Relations Procedure Rule 60?  The statute clearly states that all motions to set aside a judgment must be filed “within a reasonable time, and for reasons (1), (2), and (3) not more than one year after the judgment, order or proceeding was entered or taken.”  Interestingly, the “catch all” item 6, which is “any other reason justifying relief” does not necessarily have to be made within one year.  Rather, so long as the reason is proper in the eyes of the court the motion can be made anytime within the very subjective “reasonable time”.

Additionally, Rule 60 does not impose any time limits for actions for relief based on “fraud upon the court”.  Rule 60 specifically states that there are no time restrictions for a motion based on that type of fraud.

What happens to the judgment while the motion to set aside is pending?  Nothing happens as the judgment or order remains in full force and effect while the motion is pending.

What are some examples of when Rule 60 could apply?  Below are some fact patterns and situations that could arise warranting a motion for relief from a judgment:

  • Fraud in a party’s Financial Statement:  Suppose a party provides false, misleading or fraudulent information relating to their finances in their financial statement, which is signed under penalty of perjury.  These financial statements are filed with the court.  There are certainly grounds to set aside a judgment if the information relied upon by the other party is material enough so as a different outcome may have resulted in the case.  What statute of limitations timeframe do you think applies?  Certainly, “fraud” seems to apply, which means that a motion for relief from a judgment must be brought within one year of the judgment.  Additionally, the party filing the motion for relief can claim that they were surprised to learn that new information exists concerning the other party’s income which makes their previously filed financial statement false, so there could be a basis for the set aside because there is a “mistake, inadvertence, or surprise”.
  • New evidence supporting an alternative judgment or new trial:  The Rule allows for a Rule 60 motion when “new” evidence exists that could not have been discovered within 10 days after the entry of judgment following a divorce trial.  For example, if a defendant was blocking the plaintiff from finding certain information about finances (such as self-employment that could effect child support or spousal support orders) before trial (suppose the self-employed person was hiding certain financial records), a motion based on Rule 60(2) may be successful.
  • Any other reason:  The “catch all” provision of Rule 60(6) allow the Probate and Family Court judge to set aside a judgment or order a new trial for any reason that would further the interests of justice.  There are several cases that provide insight into when such a motion would be appropriate.  Keep in mind that a motion under this part must be filed within 1 year of the date of judgment.

For more information about setting aside Boston divorce judgments, filing a motion for a new trial, or filing a motion for an alternative judgment, contact our office today.

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