In Rungta v. Dhanda, the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed multiple contempt judgments against father that were issued by the Probate and Family Court.
Pursuant to the parties’ divorce judgment from 2013, mother could “claim the child for [F]ederal and [S]tate income tax exemption/dependency purposes.” The divorce judgment also awarded legal and physical custody of the minor child to mother. However, at the end of 2016, the minor child began living with father and, in 2020, father started receiving child support from mother.
In 2019, father filed a modification action. In 2021, mother filed a contempt action against father for claiming the minor child as a dependent in 2020. A contempt judgment issued that same year, requiring father to amend his 2020 return and sign the appropriate form allowing mother to claim the minor child. Pursuant to his modification action, father was then awarded legal and physical custody. Father sought relief from the contempt judgment, which was denied. Father appealed.
Mother then filed another contempt action alleging father’s noncompliance with the contempt judgment. Another contempt judgment issued in 2022, requiring father to amend his 2020 return, sign the appropriate form allowing mother to claim the child, and pay sanctions. Father appealed.
Finally, in 2022, mother filed another contempt action related to father’s 2020 and 2021 returns. Another contempt judgment issued in 2022, requiring father to amend his 2021 return, sign the appropriate form allowing mother to claim the child, and pay sanctions. Father sought relief from the contempt judgment, which was denied. Father appealed. Also in 2022 (before the contempt judgments), Father filed another modification action that “raised the allocation of the tax exemption.”
Father argued “that the contempt judgments were improperly issued, primarily due to the 2016 shift in the child’s living arrangements, and the June 2021 change in custody. He claims that these changes rendered the divorce judgment’s tax provision invalid, or at least made its enforcement inequitable.” The Appeals Court effectively determined that the standard for contempt—“(1) clear disobedience of (2) a clear and unequivocal command” (citation omitted)—was met for all three contempt judgments. For one reason or another, the exemption allocation provision of the divorce judgment was never modified, and no contempt judgments were stayed. The Court stated, “[i]t may be that the father eventually secures the modification he seeks. But until he does, the divorce and contempt judgments remain clear, and the father’s mere request for modification does not excuse his conscious disregard of unequivocal court orders. Court orders are to be obeyed, not ignored because a litigant believes they are incorrect.” (footnote and citation omitted).