Decided April 27, 2020.
In Short: Death of a party will not prevent the substitution of his or her estate where a motion to open a judgment of dissolution on the basis of fraud was already pending (so long as the motion is not seeking to reinstate the marriage).
Background Facts: The trial court dissolved the parties’ marriage in 2011 by separation agreement. Four years later Wife sought to open the Judgment based on fraud, or, in the alternative, mutual mistake. Wife alleged that Husband had failed to disclose assets totaling several million dollars held in bank accounts in Switzerland.
The parties stipulated that the judgment could be opened for the limited purpose of conducting discovery regarding the allegations of fraud. Husband was thereafter held in contempt for failing to comply with orders of discovery. Husband died while the motion to open was pending and after the judgment had been already opened for the limited purpose of discovery.
Wife moved to substitute the coexecutors of Husband’s estate in his place pursuant to § 52-599. The trial court denied Wife’s motion, reasoning that granting the motion to open would reinstate the marriage, which would result in automatic dissolution under § 46b-40 due to his death, preventing any relief under § 52-599(c).
Wife appealed and the appeal was transferred directly to the Supreme Court. Wife argued that the granting of a motion to open judgment of dissolution for purposes of financial orders does not reinstate the parties’ marriage and, thus, does not abate upon the death of either party.
The Supreme Court held that a motion to open a judgment of dissolution for the limited purpose of financial fraud does not reinstate the marriage, thus substitution is permissible under § 52-599(a). The Supreme Court further held that Wife’s motion to open was for the limited purpose of financial orders.
The Supreme Court held that plenary review was appropriate rather than abuse of discretion, because the appeal called into question the trial court’s legal authority to grant the substitution, and to gauge the applicability of statutes. The Supreme Court was guided by the plain meaning rule, § 1-2z.
The Supreme Court held that a motion to open, if granted, may vacate the dissolution of marriage and pointed to prior cases where such orders had been entered. However, it held that not every such motion necessitates vacating the dissolution nor does every such motion seek that relief. The Supreme Court also noted that when such motions have been granted for the limited purposes of financial orders, the date for valuation of property is the original dissolution date, providing the inference that the original judgment of dissolution remained intact. This is also consistent with valuation of property when dissolution judgments have been reversed for reconsideration of financial orders. Sunbury v. Sunbury, 216 Conn. 673 (1990).
The Supreme Court held that, where the motion does not explicitly seek to open the Judgment only as to financial award, the court may look to the substance of the motion and relief sought to determine whether such limited opening is appropriate. The Supreme Court found that Wife’s motion sought relief consistent with opening the Judgment for the limited purposes of the financial orders.
The Judgment was reversed as to the denial of the motion to substitute.