Developments in Connecticut Family Law: 2010

JurisdictionConnecticut,United States
Publication year2021
CitationVol. 85 Pg. 333
Pages333
Connecticut Bar Journal
Volume 85.

85 CBJ 333. DEVELOPMENTS IN CONNECTICUT FAMILY LAW: 2010

Connecticut Bar Journal
Volume 85, No. 4, Pg. 333
December 2011

DEVELOPMENTS IN CONNECTICUT FAMILY LAW: 2010

BY CAMPBELL D. BARRETT, STEVEN R. DEMBO AND JON T KUKUCKA(fn*)

In 2010, the Connecticut Supreme and Appellate Courts released a number of significant cases for family law practitioners. The Supreme Court released two critical cases of first impression governing child support awards for families that earn net income in excess of $4,000 per week. The Court also interpreted, for the first time, the third prong of its seminal McHugh v. McHugh(fn1) test governing the enforcement of prenuptial agreements entered into before October 1, 1995. Several cases also highlighted the importance of pleadings in family matters. Not including memorandum decisions, the Supreme and Appellate Courts decided forty appeals taken from Connecticut's family courts. As evidenced by the relatively high reversal rate of twenty-nine percent in the Appellate Court(fn2) and the even higher reversal rate in the Supreme Court,(fn3) the door is not entirely closed to successful appeals in dissolution cases.(fn4)

I. PRENUPTIAL AGREEMENTS

In 2010, the Supreme Court rendered an important decision concerning the enforcement of prenuptial agreements under the common law. In Crews v. Crews,(fn5) the Court construed, for the first time, the third prong of the 1980 McHugh test.(fn6) Under the third prong of McHugh, a prenuptial agreement is enforceable if "the circumstances of the parties at the time the marriage is dissolved are not so beyond the contemplation of the parties at the time the contract was entered into as to cause its enforcement to work injustice."(fn7) In Crews, the Court determined that this inquiry "is analogous to determining whether enforcement of an agreement would be unconscionable."(fn8) The Court then articulated a multi-part test for the trial court to apply to determine whether a premarital agreement is unenforceable under the third prong of McHugh. Specifically, a trial court must determine: "(1) the parties' intent and circumstances when they signed the antenuptial agreement; (2) the circumstances of the parties at the time of the dissolution of the marriage; (3) whether those circumstances are so far beyond the contemplation of the parties at the time of execution; and (4) if the circumstances are beyond the parties' initial contemplation, whether enforcement would cause an injustice."(fn9)

A critical aspect of the Crews decision is the recognition that the third prong of the McHugh test does not permit a family court to invalidate a premarital agreement simply because the court believes the agreement was not a good bargain for one of the parties. Indeed, the Supreme Court expressly recognized that prenuptial agreements are first and foremost contractual in nature. The Court concluded that "courts of law must allow parties to make their own contracts . . . whether provident or improvident, an agreement moved on calculated considerations is entitled to the sanction of law."(fn10)

Crews also establishes that a substantial change in the economic status of the parties, standing alone, does not operate to invalidate a premarital agreement. Rather, the dramatic change in circumstances must be uncontemplated.(fn11) It remains unclear as to whether the parties' contemplation should be assessed utilizing a subjective or objective standard. A subjective standard would require the court to make specific findings concerning events that the parties actually contemplated at the time they entered into the agreement. An objective standard would require consideration of events that the parties reasonably could have foreseen at the time the agreement was executed. The Appellate Court appears to have applied an objective standard in the 2005 case Winchester v. McCue.(fn12) In that case, the value of the husband's estate allegedly had increased in value by 430 percent between the date the agreement was executed and the date of dissolution. The Appellate Court concluded that "it must have been contemplated" that the defendant husband's income would increase during the marriage and that, with the passage of time, his benefits and investments also would increase in value.(fn13)

The Appellate Court also released a decision in 2010 that underscores the importance of pleadings in cases involving prenuptial agreements. In McKenna v. Delente,(fn14) the parties executed a prenuptial agreement five days prior to their marriage. Over one year after filing for divorce, the plaintiff husband filed an amended complaint seeking to enforce the prenuptial agreement. In her amended answer, the defendant wife denied the existence of the agreement. No special defenses were filed. During trial, the defendant wife attempted to amend her answer to assert the special defenses of nondisclosure of material facts and unconscionability. The plaintiff husband objected to the late disclosure of the special defenses and the trial court sustained the objection. Notwithstanding her failure to plead any special defenses, the defendant wife attempted to introduce evidence demon-strating that the plaintiff husband did not make a fair disclosure of his assets. The plaintiff husband objected, claiming that the evidence was outside the scope of the pleadings. The trial court, relying on the civil rules of pleading articulated in Practice Book Section 10-50, sustained the objection. The trial court enforced the prenuptial agreement, and reasoned that a general denial as to the existence of the agreement could not be utilized to attack the validity of the agreement. The defendant wife appealed. On appeal, the Appellate Court affirmed, concluding that the defense of unconscionability must be set forth in a special pleading.(fn15) Although the Supreme Court effectively overruled McKenna in Bedrick v. Bedrick,(fn16) the Practice Book was amended in 2011 to incorporate special pleading requirements in cases involving premarital and postnuptial agreements.(fn17) A party seeking to enforce a premarital agreement should be sure to request enforcement of the agreement in a complaint or answer. Likewise, a party seeking to challenge the enforcement of a prenuptial agreement should set forth all defenses in a special pleading.(fn18) The failure to adhere to such pleading requirements could be catastrophic.

II. CHILD SUPPORT

The Supreme and Appellate Courts released a number of significant decisions in 2010 governing child support orders. Two Supreme Court decisions, Mature v. Mature(fn19) and Misthepeules v. Misthepeules,(fn20) pertain to awards of child support where a family's net income exceeds $4,000 per week. The Appellate Court released Temlinsen v. Temlinsen,(fn21) which requires the trial court, in appropriate circumstances, to enforce provisions of separation agreements that prohibit the parties from modifying a child support obligation.

In Maturo, the defendant husband was employed at Merrill Lynch, where he earned a base salary of $200,000.(fn22) He also received annual bonus income. The Supreme Court noted that the bonus had fluctuated "wildly" between $489,449.50 to $1.368 million.(fn23) As to child support, the trial court ordered him to pay $636 per week, plus twenty percent of his annual net cash bonus and twenty percent of any future tax refund that he might receive.(fn24) In addition to child support, he was ordered to pay 100 percent of the children's private school tuition until they completed high school and "all work related day care expenses and summer day camp and extracurricular activities."(fn25)

The defendant appealed, claiming that the trial court improperly ordered him to pay twenty percent of his annual net cash bonus award as child support.(fn26) The Supreme Court reversed, holding in a plurality opinion(fn27) that the support order was "inconsistent with the statutory criteria and with the principles expressed in the guidelines."(fn28) The plurality disapproved of "an open-ended, variable child support award that constituted an increase, rather than a decrease, in the percentage of the parties' combined net weekly income over that established for families at the upper limit of the guidelines' schedule."(fn29) The plurality determined that the trial court had "misapplied the deviation criteria and failed to expressly consider the factors set forth in § 46b-84(d), thus providing no acceptable rationale for its decision."(fn30)

To support its conclusion, in a section of its opinion entitled "Application of Deviation Criteria," the plurality looked to the governing statutes and regulations. The Supreme Court concluded that:

The legislature has thrown its full support behind the guidelines, expressly declaring that "[t]he . . . guidelines established pursuant to section 46b-215a and in effect on the date of the support determination shall be considered in all determinations of child support amounts . . . . In all such determinations, there shall be a rebuttable presumption that the amount of such awards which resulted from the application of such guidelines is the amount of support. . . . A specific finding on the record that the application of the guidelines would be inequitable or inappropriate in a particular case, as determined under criteria established by the [commission] under section 46b-215a, shall be required in order to rebut the presumption in such case." General Statutes Section 46b-215b (a).(fn31)

To comply with the child support guidelines in cases where the parties earn net income in excess of $4,000 per week, a support order must fall within certain parameters. The Supreme Court concluded that "[w]hen the parents' combined net weekly income exceeds [$4,000], child support awards shall be determined on a case-by-case basis, and the current support prescribed at the [$4,000]...

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