Survey of 1990 Developments in Connecticut Family Law

Publication year2021
Connecticut Bar Journal
Volume 65.

65 CBJ 103. Survey of 1990 Developments in Connecticut Family Law


Survey of 1990 Developments in Connecticut Family Law


1990 may stand as a landmark in Connecticut family law. 1990 saw more appellate decisions with significant day-to-day impact on family cases than in any other year in recent memory. Judicial examination of rehabilitative alimony, modification of post-age 18 obligations, fraudulent conveyances, the filing of financial affidavits, opening judgments because of fraud, the patient-psychologist privilege, joint custody, and the role of counsel for the minor child have caused, and will continue to cause, all matrimonial lawyers to alter fundamental approaches in family cases. In short, 1990 saw many remarkable developments in Connecticut family law.


A. Dissolution Of Marriage

1. No Error

In 1990, for the most part, the Connecticut Appellate Court upheld trial court financial orders entered in connection with dissolutions of marriage. (fn1) Only a few of those decisions are of interest.

In Caristia v. Caristia, (fn2) an order requiring that the wife be made fifty percent beneficiary of a pension plan was, inter alia, upheld. Caris& appears to be the first Connecticut appellate decision in which a trial court divided a pension. (fn3)


In Febbroriello v. Febbroriello, (fn4) pendente lite alimony and support orders had entered. The action was dismissed and, after a considerable period of time, the dismissal was opened. During that time, the husband paid less than what the orders had required. The wife claimed that the pendente lite orders should have continued in effect during the period of dismissal and that the husband should be ordered to pay her what was unpaid. The trial court held that the pendente lite orders terminated upon the dismissal of the action and did not automatically reinstate merely because of the later opening of the dismissal. The trial court did, however, order the husband to pay his wife the sum of $7,500 for his failure to provide reasonable support during the period of time when the action was dismissed. That sum represented the difference between the amount he would have been obligated to pay under the pendente lite orders, but for the dismissal and the amount he actually paid.

The husband appealed and claimed, in part, that the trial court erred in, effectively, making an alimony and support order retroactive. The Appellate Court affirmed, stating that the husband had violated his statutory obligation to provide "reasonable support" to the family. (fn5) In so concluding, the Court held that the complaint need not contain a specific request for past alimony and support.' It sufficed that the complaint requested


further relief as law and equity may provide. The Appellate Court employed classic language to reach that result:

The paramount role of a court when considering domestic relations cases is one of a "court of equity." The court's equity powers are essential to its ability to fashion the appropriate relief in domestic relations cases. "The power to act equitably is the keystone to the court's ability to fashion relief in the infinite variety of circumstances which arise out of the dissolution of a marriage. Without this wide discretion and broad equitable power, the courts in some cases might be unable fairly to resolve the parties' dispute .... These powers, although not expressly given to the court by statute, have been held to be inherent powers of the trial court . . . ." (fn7)

As in the past, that the Appellate Court may have felt the trial court awarded too much or too little was of no moment. "We cannot, absent a manifest abuse of discretion, intrude in this intricate process even where we disagree with the result." (fn8) Thus, financial orders incident to dissolution decrees were routinely upheld. (fn9)

2. Time Limited Alimony

a. Error

Where the issue on appeal was duration of alimony, however, the Appellate Court, in two cases, found error. (fn10) In Roach v. Roach, the trial court had ordered that the wife was to receive alimony for three years. The wife claimed, on appeal, that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding time-limited alimony. The Appellate Court agreed!

In Roach, the parties had been married almost 35 years. They had six children, all of whom were adults at the time of the trial. The husband had moved out in 1970, leaving the wife to care for the six children, whose ages, at that time, ranged between 5 and 15. At the time of the dissolution, the wife was 60 years old, her only income was payments of social security disability of $403 a month, and she had not worked in ten years. The husband, who was 58 years old, earned $50,000 a year. He owned a co-op worth $220,000, $140,000 in a profit sharing plan, IRAs worth about


$16,000, several cars, and $20,000 in miscellaneous savings. Neither party was in good health, and the wife was undergoing psychiatric treatment. (fn11) The trial court found that the irretrievable breakdown was caused by the wife. It ordered the husband to convey his half interest in the family home to the wife. (fn12) It also ordered him to pay alimony of $300 weekly for three years. The trial court found it inappropriate to impose on the husband the $33,000 guardian ad litem and legal fees sought by the wife.

The Appellate Court reversed, stating:

Our standard of review in domestic relations cases is a very narrow one. We will not reverse a trial court's ruling with regard to . . . financial orders unless the court incorrectly applied the law or could not reasonably have concluded as it d1a. While the trial court need not make an express finding on each of the mandatory statutory criteria . . . the record must contain some indication as to the reasoning of the court in making an alimony award of limited duration. (fn13)

Because neither the record nor the trial court's opinion supplied a rationale for limiting the duration of alimony, the Appellate Court reversed. The Court also said: "Although time limited alimony awards are usually rehabilitative in purpose, there may be other valid reasons for awarding such alimony. No such valid reason exists here." (fn14) The Roach Court did not, however, indicate what those other valid reasons might be.

The Roach Court was undoubtedly influenced by factual errors evident in the trial court's decision. (fn15) The trial court was mistaken about the value of the home. (fn16) The trial court's finding that the wife had caused the breakdown of the marriage was based, in part, on her "bitter and erratic trial testimony." (fn17) The Appellate Court disagreed, stating that:

[T]he demeanor of a party while testifying, particularly a party for whom the court has appointed a guardian because of


admitted mental infirmities, cannot be converted into the cause for the breakdown of the marriage. (fn18)

The Appellate Court also took issue with the trial court for having found that the wife's failure to seek alimony in the past was relevant to the determination of whether to award her alimony incident to the decree of dissolution. And, the Court rejected the trial court's determination that the wife should not share in many of the assets because they had been acquired after the parties had separated.

While the court has discretion to allow or disallow one spouse to share in the assets acquired by the other after separation, a court is not prohibited from awarding one souse a share in the other's assets no matter when acquire even if the acquisition occurs after a separation. (fn19)

The Roach reversal was not aberrational. In another case involving an award of time-limited alimony, Watson v. Watson," the Appellate Court again found error. In Watson, the husband's earnings were $362 a week. The wife earned about $157 a week cleaning houses. She suffered from physical problems, including arthritis which affected her knees. The husband had fraudulently conveyed the home to the parties' children. (fn21)

The wife was awarded custody of the two children of the 17 year marriage. The husband was ordered to pay $50 per week for each of the two minor children" and periodic non-modifiable


alimony of $35 per week for three years. The wife was awarded exclusive use of the marital home until the youngest child attained the age of 18 years when the husband would have possession of the home and was to pay the wife a lump sum of $80,000 in two installments. The wife appealed.

In setting aside the alimony award, the Appellate Court again held that: "At a minimum, the record should indicate that the trial court considered relevant statutory factors in making an alimony award containing an automatic termination date." (fn23) The trial court's award of alimony was, according to the Appellate Court, logically inconsistent with its finding of facts. The Court:

failed to see the logic behind the trial court's award of alimony in light of these findings regarding the length of marriage, the plaintiff's physical disability and the facts relating to her employability. These findings do not support the court's award of time limited alimony. (fn24)

b. No Error

Notwithstanding Roach and Watson, awards of time-limited alimony were not always reversed. In Brash v. Brash, (fn25) the Appellate Court affirmed an award of time-limited alimony. The husband's earnings were $671.33 per week. The wife of this ten year marriage had only one year of college and had worked only at unskilled jobs. There were two children, ages 6 and 9. There was real estate worth between $250,000 and $265,000 with a mortgage of $55,000. Other debts approximated $31,000. The trial court awarded the wife 75% of the real estate. The court also ordered...

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