Bologna v. Bologna, 208 Conn. App. 218 (2021) (clarification versus modification of separation agreement)
Officially released October 12, 2021.
In Short: Wife’s requested relief in a motion for clarification constituted an impermissible modification of the underlying agreement, not clarification, and was properly denied by the trial court.
The parties were marred in 1997 and had two children. They were divorced in 2010 by separation agreement. Pursuant to the separation agreement, the parties were to jointly list the marital home in Stamford for sale by June 30, 2012, and equally divide the proceeds. The separation agreement provided that Wife would continue living in the home and pay the expenses, including the mortgage payments and taxes. An additional provision provided an alternative to sale, in which one party could buy out the other’s interest, calculating the 50% interest based on the fair market as determined by the average of three appraisals less the mortgage. At the time of the Judgment, the mortgage was adjustable rate and payments only applied toward interest. In July of 2012, the terms reset, and payments included the mortgage principal.
Post-judgment, the parties agreed Wife would continue to live in the martial home beyond the 2012 sale date in order to keep the children in the same home and school district. Wife continued to live in the home and paid the mortgage from 2012 to 2019, reducing the principal balance by more than $170,000 and making improvements to the home. Throughout those years, the parties discussed several options to buy out the defendant’s interest but were unable to agree to the specific terms.
Wife filed a motion for clarification in 2019 requesting that the Court Order that the buyout price be calculated using the mortgage balances from 2010 rather than 2019. Wife argued that Husband would receive a windfall and would be unjustly enriched whereas Wife would be deprived of a fair and equitable division of the marital assets. Husband objected arguing the terms of the agreement were clear and unambiguous.
The trial court held an evidentiary hearing and ordered the sale of the marital home, set the list price, and ordered that the proceeds of the sale be equally divided. The trial court concluded that it did not have authority to modify the parties’ separation agreement relating to the division of the martial home post-judgment. The buyout provision required the parties to reduce the fair market value of the marital home by any outstanding mortgages.
Wife appealed, arguing that the trial court improperly modified the dissolution judgment when it denied her motion for clarification. Wife argued (1) the court improperly modified the original decree by failing to recognize the initial noncompliance, (2) the denial gave a windfall to Husband for the proceeds he would receive from the sale and (3) the mortgage liabilities should be used in calculating the net value upon sale.
The Appellate Court applied plenary review to the issue of clarification versus modification of the judgment. The Appellate Court concluded that the trial court correctly construed Wife’s motion for clarification to be an impermissible motion for modification.
Wife relied on Schneider v. Schneider, 161 Conn. App. 1 (2015). In Schneider, the plain terms of the parties’ separation agreement provided that plaintiff would reside in the marital home, and, in lieu of child support, defendant would be responsible for one half of the home’s holding costs until the home’s sale or the plaintiff’s first court-ordered payment of $10,050 toward college expenses. Once either event occurred, defendant would be fully responsible for all holding costs until the house was sold. Plaintiff and defendant continued to pay one half of the mortgage payments two and one-half years after plaintiff made the court-ordered college payment. Plaintiff sought an order for reimbursement, which the trial court denied. Plaintiff argued that the trial court’s denial of his motion impermissibly modified the dissolution judgment. The Appellate Court held that the defendant violated the court’s order by failing to make the court-ordered payments and the trial court’s determination was an additional transfer of property that resulted in an improper modification of the original judgment.
The Appellate Court distinguished this case from Schneider, finding that, under the terms of this separation agreement, Wife was solely responsible for paying the holding costs of the marital home. Thus, Wife was simply doing what was required under the judgment in light of the parties’ voluntary post-judgment conduct. Wife cannot seek to modify the judgment merely because the parties decided not to sell the home or complete a buyout in 2012. The trial court properly effectuated the terms of the existing separation agreement and denied an impermissible modification request.
The Judgment was affirmed.