Divorce Mediation Blog

“Non-compete” Orders in Massachusetts Divorce: Yes they can!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

In recent case of Cesar v. Sundelin, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that a Probate & Family Court judge has the power to order one spouse not to compete with the other spouse after a division of property that includes a business. This is new law here, though it had been addressed by a couple of other jurisdictions earlier.

The argument is: if a judge is going to force one person to buy out the interest of the other in a private business, what is the business owner buying if the other spouse can walk across the street (figuratively or literally), set up shop and compete for the same customers? The counter argument is: if the spouse who is being bought out made a living doing the same or similar work, how can that spouse be prevented from making a living, or without being compensated for the loss of an ability to make one?

This ruling is important for at least three reasons. First, it broadens the powers of Probate & Family Court judges to do something that at least one judge thought he could not do (in Cesar the trial judge had refused to enter a non-compete because he thought he lacked that power – and one suspects that others agreed); and it raises questions about how this should factor in to valuation questions, and with regard to alimony based on the “needs” of the spouse who is restrained from competing. Arguably, this issue is limited to cases in which the spouse shared a business activity, but that makes the alimony question more acute.

Should judges have this breadth of power in divorce cases? The Appeals Court thought so, when it is necessary to protect the integrity of the property division order. We will all see how this plays out, over time.

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