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Appellate Court Says ‘Normal’ Visitation Expenses Don’t Justify Lower Support

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In a case set to be released on May 21, 2013 the Connecticut Appellate Court has overturned a lower court’s ruling that lowered the child support of a visiting father from a presumptive amount of $100 under existing guidelines to $75 as a result of the mother’s relocation within the state.

The trial court in Kavanah vs Kavanah found that Leo Kavanah’s costs in traveling back and forth between Southington, Connecticut and Monroe, Connecticut were ‘extraordinary’ within the meaning of Connecticut’s child support guidelines as they address reasons for deviation from presumptive support amounts.

The higher court held that the trial court had not sufficiently explained the basis for its conclusion that Mr. Kavanah, who had been ordered to do the driving for visitation, would be incurring extraordinary expenses — as opposed to normal expenses — as a result of his wife’s relocation.

This, alone, would not necessarily affect future cases assuming that parents seeking deviation for this reason were careful to present evidence of their visitation costs and that judges ordering deviation were careful to make specific findings about why they were reducing support.

However the Appellate Court did not stop at finding fault with the thoroughness of the lower court’s decision. In addition, they cited with approval another Superior Court decision, Weissman vs. Sissell, in which the court had observed that “[m]any non-custodial parents have some transportation costs to see their child—for parents living within driving distance of each other, for example, the non-custodial parent is likely to pay for fuel and other costs picking up or dropping off the child,
but these ordinary expenses usually do not warrant a deviation from the presumptive amount.’’

Appeals are expensive and, in the case of family law, difficult to win, so it is relatively rare to see a support case with so little at issue reach the Appellate Court.

This is not to say that the difference between $100 and $75 was insignificant to the parties in this case or to other divorcing parents. Certainly the Kavanah case has not closed the door on deviations for low-income individuals for whom in-state or other short-distance travel costs are burdensome, but it raises the bar for how the issue must be presented to the courts and makes it imperative that the court be reminded to make appropriate findings to justify why — in a particular case — transportation expenses that might be normal for some people are extraordinary in the context of the individual circumstances of the family before the court.

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Alimony Order Against Unemployed Lawyer Overturned

In a decision to be released next week, Keller vs. Keller,  the Connecticut Appellate Court has overturned a hefty order of alimony and support entered by a Superior Court judge.

The Defendant husband held a law degree from Columbia University and was licensed to practice in two states.  After a brief practice, he had gone into finance and most recently had owned a hedge fund that had , at first, done very well but had later turned sour. At the time the order entered, the fund was closed. The evidence showed that  Attorney Keller had no income and the family was living on borrowed money and the last of their liquid assets.

In Connecticut and elsewhere, judges may make orders of alimony and support based on a finding that the payor has earning capacity even if he or she is unemployed or underemployed.  Tn the Keller case, the judge did just that, finding that Attorney Keller had a gross earning capacity of $25,000 per month.  Based on that finding, the court ordered him to pay combined alimony and support of $9,000 per month during the pendency of the case.

The Appellate Court overturned the order, not because the lower court did not have discretion to consider earning capacity but because the court failed make a finding as to Attorney Keller’s net earning capacity.   Under Connecticut law, orders of alimony and support must be based on net income whether that income is real or merely imputed.

The lesson for litigants hoping to obtain orders against their unemployed or underemployed spouse is to present evidence specifically on the subject of what they believe their spouse could earn after taxes.


NEW CONNECTICUT APPELLATE COURT FAMILY CASE ILLUSTRATES PERILS OF DIY APPEAL

After more than 20 years of marriage that ended in divorce in 2003, Connecticut resident Peter Larson seems to have been no stranger to the courts.  When he returned to court in 2010 to seek a reduction of child support and alimony orders, he had two previous efforts at modification under his belt and  probably felt confident that he would win his pro se bid for relief.  After all, his income had gone from about $85,000 in 2003  to about $21,000 and he was unemployed.

And, in fact, he did come away with some degree of success without the help of a lawyer. The trial court recalculated his child support dropping it from its original level of $347 per week to $115 per week. In addition the court reduced his alimony order to $1 per year — not a permanent victory on the alimony front, but still an important win.

Unfortunately, Mr.Larson’s former wife, Matilde, did hire a lawyer who filed a  counter-motion for contempt seeking past due child support and attorney’s fees.  Ultimately, although he received a break in his current orders, Mr. Larson was also ordered to pay almost $100,000 in past-due support and was also ordered to pay almost $27,000 in attorney’s fees.

In a per curiam decision of the Connecticut Appellate Court scheduled for release next week, the Court upheld the trial court’s action.

As he had at the trial court level, Mr. Larson represented himself on appeal. His arguments of error were;

  • The trial court hadn’t reduced child support enough
  • The trial court should not have found him in contempt of prior orders
  • The order of attorneys fees was excessive because the fees were unreasonable

The Court’s response to these claims makes it clear that Mr. Larson would have benefitted from consulting with a lawyer before filing his motion and, later, before filing his appeal.  First, the court stressed the enormous discretion accorded to trial courts by appeals courts in family matters.  It is never enough on appeal that the appellate judges might have decided the case differently.  This means that strategic errors at the trail level can rarely be corrected on appeal.

Second,  Mr Larson would have been cautioned that, because he was not fully in compliance with existing orders,  he should have expected a counter-offense if he chose to seek a modification.  Based on the amount of the arrearage that the court found, it is clear that his former wife had tolerated his non-compliance for a very long time up to the point that he made the first move in 2010.    To the extent that Mr. Larson thought his current financial situation would — or even could — protect him from being held in contempt for falling behind, he was  mistaken and any experienced lawyer would have made that clear to him.

Third, he would have been advised that law that requires courts to consider the respective finances of the parties when allocating responsibility for attorneys fees in divorce cases, does not apply in enforcement proceedings where there has been a finding of willful contempt.  In such cases, attorney’s fees can be shifted to the party who failed to obey a court order as a simple matter of punishment.

While Larson complained that he had not been given a fair chance to challenge the reasonableness of the fees, the appellate court noted that, not only had the trial court afforded him the opportunity to do that, but  had actually scheduled a separate hearing for that very purpose.  Although Larson attended the hearing he did not, according to the court, present any evidence on the subject.  It is not unusual for inexperienced litigants to expect the trial judge to take the lead in a factual inquiry.

In a 201o op-ed piece published in the New York Times entitled “A Nation of Do-It-Yourself Lawyers”  John T Broadrick, chief justice of New Hampshire, and Ronald M. George, chief justice of California, stressed the disadvantages faced by litigants who, for financial reasons, feel compelled to go it alone.  The authors urged members of the bar to step up to help mitigate the problem by offering so-called unbundled legal services so that litigants who could not afford comprehensive representation could nonetheless receive limited assistance in the form of consultation, coaching, and help with document preparation.

What many do not understand is that limited representation can be a minefield for lawyers since the rules in many states do not adequately protect them.  We cannot reasonably expect lawyers who would otherwise be willing to play a supporting role in a lawsuit, to risk taking responsibility for the final outcome of litigation they do not fully control or to be required to provide additional or even comprehensive services without remuneration.

Still, in every community there are lawyers who recognize the problem and who are willing to address it as long as roles are clearly defined and the expectations are clear.  When the stakes are high, it makes sense to seek them out.


NEW REPORT SAYS 79% OF SEPARATIONS END IN DIVORCE — CAN POST-MARITAL AGREEMENTS EASE THE PAIN?

According to a recent article published in USA Today,  a study of over 7000 individuals conducted by researchers at the Ohio State University found that 79% of marital separations end in divorce.

The study found that the average length of separations that resulted in reconciliation was two years, while the average of those ending in divorce was three years. Surprisingly, the chances of reconciliation virtually disappeared among this group beyond the three-year mark.   While many couples who  lived apart for three or more years eventually divorced, others simply continued the separation indefinitely.

The study found that women with children under 5 years old were more likely to separate from their husbands rather than to divorce immediately.

All of this means that a great number of couples either delay or forego altogether the protection of laws designed to shield them financially in the event their marriage comes apart.  These include laws governing the division of marital assets  as well as laws regarding spousal and child support.

In  a relatively new trend, some couples seriously contemplating trial separation begin the experiment by  negotiating  a formal  post-marital agreement that sets out their respective financial obligations while still legally married  and also in the event of an eventual divorce.   In this way, they are able to enter into a trial separation — or in some cases even continue living under the same roof — with the security of an agreed-upon set of rules.  This provides each of them with a degree of certainty about their financial future that would not otherwise  be possible absent divorce litigation.  With financial issues resolved, they are better able to understand the choices they face and to focus on other issues in their relationship.

Just like prenuptial agreements, post-marital agreements must meet certain standards in order to be enforceable.  These standards are governed by the laws of individual states, but certain features are universal.  First, they must be accompanied by full mutual disclosure of financial information.  Second, they must be entered into voluntarily and both parties must have had at least  the opportunity to have the agreement reviewed by independent counsel.   All courts reserve the right to review  both prenuptial agreements and post-marital agreements for fairness, but, provided there are no egregious flaws in the contract, courts generally support and enforce them as a matter of public policy.

Impending separation is not the only reason to consider a post-marital agreement.  Events such as the birth of a child, a return to school,  or the launch of a business can be good reason for couples to consider adding a post-marital agreement to their financial plan.