Officially released July 14, 2020.
In Short: (1) Cessation of a court ordered obligation may constitute a substantial change in circumstances for modification of child support; and (2) the trial court has broad discretion within the Maturo/Misthopoulos range.
The parties were divorced pursuant to a separation agreement that required Husband to pay cost of private elementary school through fifth grade. At the time it became enforceable such tuition was $55,000 per year and the child was in fourth grade.
After the child completed fifth grade and enrolled in public school, Wife filed a motion for modification of support on the grounds that the change in school constituted a substantial change in circumstances. Husband filed a motion requesting to decrease his child support obligation on the ground that Wife’s income had increased since the date of the last order.
The trial court found that the savings for Husband in private school tuition represented a substantial change in circumstances, relieving him of substantial preexisting obligation, even though the separation agreement did not expressly link support with tuition or provide for reconsideration upon cessation of tuition. The trial court granted Wife’s motion, finding a substantial change in circumstances had been proven by a preponderance of the evidence, and modified child support within the minimum and maximum amounts prescribed by the guidelines. The trial court did not expressly rule on Husband’s motion. Husband’s obligation was modified from $464 per week to $1,246 per week, the maximum within the guideline range.
Husband appealed claiming that the trial court erred in finding a substantial change in circumstances, by failing to consider the needs of the child in fashioning its order and thus improperly transferring wealth, and by entering its order without ruling on Husband’s conflicting and simultaneously argued motion.
The Appellate Court found no abuse of discretion in the modification of the award. It determined that the trial court’s determination as to change in circumstances was reasonable. Relief of such a large legal obligation can constitute a substantial change in circumstances, even where the parties did not expressly contemplate such change as being a basis for modification. The Appellate Court noted that prior cases have found that a substantial increase in wealth may constitute a substantial change in circumstances for modification of alimony.
The Appellate Court applied the plenary standard of review to Husband’s argument about misapplication of § 46b-84 in the form of wealth transfer, and found no error, as the award fell within the guideline range. The trial court conducted an extensive evidentiary hearing and considered all relevant criteria before entering its orders.
The Appellate Court further held that the trial court did not err by failing to rule on Husband’s motion formally. It expressly acknowledged the motion was before it and effectively denied it by granting Wife’s motion.