In a decision released this week, the Connecticut Appellate court once more addressed the issue of whether and to what extent a divorcing couple can agree to make child support and alimony non-modifiable. It has long been clear that absent clear and unambiguous written language to the contrary, both alimony and child support may be changed by the court as the circumstances of the parties change. This language is normally found in the terms of a written separation agreement, i.e., a contract, between the parties which is adopted by the court at the time of the dissolution and made a court order.
Historically, it has been easier to put a lock on an alimony award than on a child support award for reasons of public policy. The courts have always ruled that only under certain very limited circumstances may the parties to a divorce limit the rights of their children to receive support from their parents.
This week’s decision in Malpeso vs Malpeso involved a situation where the husband was to pay $20,000 per month to the wife as” alimony, or separate support for the minor children” . The ambiguity of that language alone, stated in the disjunctive, made the agreement unusual. The agreement went on to provide that this sum, which it now referred to as simply “alimony” would not be modifiable for 8 years. An exception the parties had agreed on as part of the contract was a calamitous circumstance affecting the economy of New York and similar to the events of September 11, 2001. Clearly such an event had not occurred. Still, the husband argued that his circumstances had changed.
In response to her former husband’s motion to modify the order before the 8 years had expired, the wife objected citing the language of the agreement and the trial court agreed. The appellate court reversed saying the agreement was ambiguous as to whether by “alimony” the parties meant to refer to the order that the agreement had earlier characterized to include child support. Based on that ambiguity, the court held that the longstanding presumption favoring the modifiability of child support prevailed.
In an earlier post, we discussed another recent case in which the parties had agreed, at the time of the divorce, on an ending date for alimony. In that case, the court held that selecting a termination date alone did not make alimony non-modifiable as to term. Both of these cases underscore the need for careful drafting of agreements regarding both alimony and child support. In the event of any ambiguity at all, the courts do not look to the original intent of the parties, but instead to the policies that favor modification.
Writing this month for the New York Times, Megan Wood speaks of divorce as an opportunity for women to create a new identity — a trend that is, apparently, gaining some traction.
The idea of name reinvention after divorce was popularized by Cheryl Strayed in her riveting memoir, “Wild — From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail.” The author, born Cheryl Nyland, explains that she needed a meaningful new name after her divorce and, rather than opting to return to her birth name, chose one that fit her history. Cheryl had, she freely admits, strayed. While we question whether most women would find comfort in such a decision — query, can one be passive-agressive toward one’s self? — still the issue of what name to carry forward is one most divorcing women confront.
For most of us, the question is whether we are most comfortable identifying ourselves as we have throughout the years of our marriage, perhaps as the mother of our children — maybe from a prior marriage — or as our father’s daughter. The option of adopting a brand new name is a more radical notion.
The options are not quite as open for women divorcing in Connecticut as Wood reports them to be in New York. Outside of divorce, any Connecticut citizen may apply for a name change in Connecticut courts and, as long as there is no intent to defraud creditors or others, the application will ordinarily be granted. However the free no-fuss name-change option available in family court for divorcing women is limited. Under the family law statute on the subject, you may only elect to resume a birth name or other former name, not a new one.
I’d be remiss in not acknowledging that the name change statute applies to men as well. However, typically this means simply dropping the part of a hyphenated name that already included his birth name — hardly as traumatic a decision as that faced by women.
Last month the Connecticut Supreme Court issued a decision in favor of a fencing contractor who had failed strictly to comply with the terms of the Connecticut Home Improvement Act which provides a checklist which must be followed if a home improvement contract is to be enforceable in court.
In this case, the contractor was allowed to collect the last $11.000 or so the homeowner had originally agreed to pay for construction of a fence in 2004. Almost from the beginning of the collection dispute, it had become clear that the construction contract was unenforceable because it lacked a beginning and ending date — one item on the short statutory checklist. Walpole Woodworker’s only hope was that a court would find that fairness required that it be paid under a theory of fairness known as quantum meruit.
Before anyone in the business gets comfortable with the idea that the courts can and will step in to protect contractors who have been careless about their contracts, they should consider that it took almost 8 years including a trial and two levels of appeals for the contractor finally to get the help he wanted from the courts.
Here’s what really happened: In 2004, Walpole Woodworkers, Inc. signed a contract with homewner, Sid Manning, to build a fence for $22,318. As soon as Walpole Woodworkers received a deposit of $11,000 the work was done. When collection of the balance became a problem, they first tried to appease the homeowner by modifying the fence so it would better contain his small dog. Next came the lawsuit. Now, almost 8 years from the signing of the defective contract — after the expenses of a trial in Superior Court, an appeal to the Connecticut Appellate Court and a review by the Connecticut Supreme Court — the contractor has finally been awarded the “fair value” of the work completed in 2004 and 2005. Faced with a number of tests for determining what fair value was, the Court chose a simple one — the balance that the parties had originally agreed to under the faulty contract.
The Supreme Court makes no mention of interest or costs of collection probably because collection costs must be included in the contract, and, absent an enforceable contract, cannot be charged to the losing party. We wonder whether the Plaintiff now believes that the “win” was worth the costs and efforts involved — costs and efforts that could have been avoided by simply checking his contract against the statute.
A new Connecticut Appellate Court case provides us with a window into what may be a shift in judicial attitudes on the issue of whether to look at earning capacity vs. actual or reported earnings in alimony and support cases.
In 2009 when Sandy and Scott McRae — both small business owners — were divorced, the trial court entered an alimony award based not on the couple’s respective financial affidavits, but instead on what the court estimated their real earning capacities to be — a higher number for both husband and wife. Based on those assumptions, the court entered an order that, in theory at least, equalized their incomes.
Mr. McRae wasted no time petitioning the court to reduce the award. On his third attempt in 2011, he finally met with success. Judge Trial Referee Herbert Berall reduced Mr. McRae’s weekly alimony obligation from $250 to $150 per week. Better still, from Mr. McRae’s point of view, the court allowed one half of that amount, $75 per week, to be treated as payments toward a substantial arrearage Mr. McRae had accumulated by unilaterally reducing his alimony payments without the benefit of a court order. At that rate, Mr. McRae’s arrearage would not be fully paid for approximately 7 years and, meanwhile, even the remaining $75 — the new current order — would drop away before long under the terms of the original decree.
Sandy McRae appealed the order on a number of grounds. The question that interests us the most was whether the court erred by comparing apples to oranges — 2009 earning capacity to 2011 reported earnings. The court made it clear on the record that it considering Mr. McRae’s financial affidavit and tax returns in deciding whether to modify the 2009 alimony rather than looking beyond those numbers as the first court had done to consider, instead, Mr. McRae’s earning capacity.
The point is a technical but important one. Under Connecticut law and the law of most other states as well, courts cannot modify alimony without first finding, as a matter of fact, that there has been a substantial change in the financial circumstances of one or both of the parties. There were two sides to Ms. McRae’s argument. If the trial judge had looked at earning capacity rather than his actual reported earnings, then the judge hearing the motion for modification should have done the same thing.
Conversely, she argued, if the court was considering Mr. McRae’s reported income in 2011, it should compare it, not with his 2009 earning capacity, but with what he had reported his real earnings to be in 2009 — about the same number he reported in 2011. Effectively, her argument was that if the court had compared apples to apples — reported earnings with reported earnings — it should not have modified her alimony because Mr. McRae was reporting about the same level of income in 2011 that he had reported in 2009.
The appellate court disagreed even though the judge who modified the order clearly said that he was basing the new order on Mr. McRae’s financial affidavit and recent tax returns. The judge said this about the 2009 finding that Mr. McRae had higher earning capacity than his real earnings suggested: ” Well reality set in … [s]o much for predictions. I will tell you, this court, certainly in the last year and a half, has made no decisions finding people’s earning capacity.”
The appellate court rejected Ms. McRae’s arguments finding essentially that the modifying judge based his decision on an assumption that Mr. McRae’s earnings and earning capacity were one and the same so the order was still based on a comparison between past and present earning capacity. This despite the lower court judge’s own words.
So what does all this mean? In part that depends on how many other judges agree that lower incomes are more likely to be the result of economic reality than of divorce game-playing. The case-law in Connecticut makes it clear that courts have the right to consider a person’s earning capacity if they believe that the individual is under-employed. We often encounter clients who insist that their spouses are deliberately under-reporting income or keeping his or her earnings artificially low in order to achieve better results in divorce court. Now it seems, convincing the court of that may be harder in a bad economy than it has been in years past.
This does not mean that earning capacity is lost as a concept in divorce law, but it does mean that the standards of assembling proof, including the use of expert witnesses where appropriate, are higher than ever.
We see it all the time — divorced or divorcing parents who see every compromise on issues of visitation or custody as a loss and who return to the courts time and again to settle everyday disputes.
In a case to be released next week, Lori Hibbard vs. Tony Hibbard, the Connecticut Appellate Court upheld the decision of a trial court to pick a side in such a case, and to do so in a big way.
The couple divorced in 2007 returning in less than a year with disputes about money and visitation. In the next 4 years, the parties filed a total of 30 post-judgment motions between them. According to the appeals court, the disputes increasingly involved access to their daughter –only two years old at the time of the divorce.
Initially, it appears from the decision that the plaintiff mother had a fair amount of success managing to limit the defendant father’s access more and more. At various points, this even involved requiring that visits be supervised and that overnight visits be suspended.
By the time they returned to court to litigate their last set of four motions — two filed by each party– visitation by the father had been whittled to one weekday afternoon and two 7-hour weekend visits every other week together with some specified holidays and birthdays.
The mother’s two motions sought further restrictions on the father’s access, the father, for his part, asked that the mother be held in contempt of court for failing to allow him several scheduled visits and –more importantly –asked that custody of their child be granted to him.
The mother defended against the contempt motion claiming that although she had not allowed the visits it was because her daughter had reported being touched inappropriately by a friend of the father during an earlier visit.
The trial court did not find the mother’s claim to be credible noting in a detailed 20-page decision that, in the past, the mother had made various other unrelated claims that had not been substantiated by investigators or by the child’s therapist. She had argued that the child was afraid of her father, but again was not backed up the child’s therapist. The judge further noted that the mother had terminated therapy for the child when the therapist asked to meet with the father and had terminated longstanding daycare arrangements after a worker shared information about the child with the father’s current wife.
Concluding that the mother’s strategy was to eliminate the father from their child’s life, the judge awarded sole custody to the father, granting the mother visitation rights. Considering that she had originally been awarded custody and had historically succeeded, at least to some extent, in controlling the father’s access, it is a fair guess that this was an unexpectd result.
The mother appealed and lost.
In this blog, we have commented before about the toll that contentious and protracted custody and visitation litigation takes on families, and especially on children. The adverse effects of serious and prolonged parental wrangling on children — not just while it is happening but well into adulthood — has been amply documented.
For most families, the financial toll taken by the cost of serial court appearances makes a difference in the quality of life of the entire family and colors the attitudes of the adults towards each other. This, in turn, makes it even less likely that the children who are at least the official subject of the fighting, can enjoy a carefree, guilt-free and happy childhood.
We do not claim to be in position to judge or evaluate the merits of Ms. Hibbard’s attacks on Mr. Hibbard’s parenting. What we can say, however, from many years of experience, is that once custody and visitation issues have been addressed and decided — whether by agreement or by trial — future efforts to change the deal become subject to increasing skepticism. As lawyers, we must always respect the obligation of parent’s to do what they believe to be in the best interest of their children. At the same time, however, we must always counsel our clients — as the experienced lawyers in this case no doubt did — to consider at every step, whether they are motivated by genuine concern for their children or by relationship issues between the adults. At a minimum, they should be made aware that this will be a question that the court will consider in every instance.
Writing recently for the New York Times, author Matt Richtel in an article entitled, ” Till Death, or 20 Years, Do Us Part”, mused about whether setting an expiration date for marriage might be the best way to address new attitudes about marriage — those that render it expendable depending on circumstances.
Richtel, who writes most often about technology, makes his case for a twenty-year contract with tongue in cheek but does make the serious point that no real mechanism exists, short of prenuptial contracts, to mitigate the drama and stress of divorces that happen at statistically predictable stages of marriage.
Richtel implies that making marriage contracts renewable might have the double advantage of lessening the stigma of divorce where it proves inevitable, and, conversely, of raising the consciousness of couples whose marriages will grow stronger if re-examined and effectively re-negotiated at intervals that coincide with marriages’ biggest stressors. Various experts cited in the article suggest that these milestones involve the birth of a child, a job change, the death of a family member, or when the couple finds themselves living in an empty nest. While most of these events are unpredictable, others are not. Generally, for example, empty-nest syndrome shows up at roughly the twenty-year mark. The president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Kenneth Altshuler, quoted in the article, noted that, in his own practice, divorces seem to cluster around the 7 and 20 year marks. As it turns out, the seven year itch may be more than a movie title.
None of this is to suggest seriously that renewable marriage contracts are really ripe for serious thought given the tenor current political dialogue on the overall issue of marriage. Instead, however, Richtel’s article makes us think more seriously about what should be done at the beginning of a marriage to lessen the trauma and bitter discord that so often characterizes the end.
True, prenuptial agreements do put a temporary crimp in the image of unsullied romance that we expect to survive from the first date to the end of the honeymoon. (Although anyone who has ever planned a large wedding knows that only a strong dose of denial can keep that illusion alive.)
On the other hand, at what other point in a relationship will a frank and, mercifully, hypothetical discussion about the practical issue of divorce take a lesser toll on a couple’s relationship? Balance this against the angst that the couple will suffer if their marriage is among the half that end in divorce and at a time when love and goodwill are no longer the most important underpinnings of the negotiations. Once that comparison is made, the only remaining question is what will better serve the couple and their future children — betting everything that they will beat the odds, or promising from the start to do the right thing in the unexpected event that they won’t?
According to an article published this summer in the Wall Street Journal, there is an increasing trend among divorce lawyers to market their practices specifically to men.
As a marketing tool, from the perspective of the lawyer, this makes perfect sense. There is nothing new about niche marketing and boutique divorce firms have been all the rage for years. A lawyer who can convince his or her demographic that he or she is a champion of men and understands the injustices that too often befall them in divorce court, can gain a leg up on colleagues who trust clients to understand that experience representing both men and women benefits clients of both genders.
Jennifer Smith, the author of the WSJ article entitled “Lawyers Carve out ‘Divorce for Men’ Niche”, makes it clear that the trend is about marketing and not about law. The article discusses packing lawyers’ websites with SEO rich keywords and phrases appealing to men’s fears and concerns. There are plenty of plausible reasons for this, none having to do with outcomes for clients. Lawyers who limit their practices in this way may believe that any focus in advertising is a good thing, or may have a personal bias that male clients are generally in a better position than women to finance divorce.
The question for men facing divorce, by contrast, is whether the fact that their lawyer markets exclusively to men will make a difference in the outcome of their cases. When pressed for answers on what kind of special advice such firms offered, self-described men’s lawyers reported advising clients not to get into arguments with their wives which might result in false claims of abuse, and not to relocate to distant places if they planned to seek joint custody of their children. Hardly profound insights or advice different from that which any experienced divorce lawyer would offer.
There is no doubt that at least some of the lawyers, who limit their divorce practice to men, genuinely believe that men tend to be short-changed in divorce court. Many might be proponents of alimony reform — a hot issue across the country.
Query, though, whether any judge is likely to be swayed in his or her decision by the politics of the husband’s lawyer as opposed to by the facts of the case. To the extent that gender biases exist in any jurisdiction, count on the fact that the experienced lawyers in that jurisdiction are aware of them and are prepared to address them on behalf of their clients. All of us are bound by Rules of Professional Conduct that require us to represent our client’s zealously.
Before selecting a lawyer who touts himself or herself as a man’s divorce lawyer, men should first ask: does it cost extra, and, if so, exactly why?