R.A. v. R.A., 209 Conn. App. 327 (2021) (custodial appeal mooted by subsequent action; order of visitation by agreement of parties upheld; appellant must demonstrate harm)
Officially released December 21, 2021
In Short: (1) Claims of error for including a child of a prior relationship in these custodial orders was rendered moot by a subsequent order of custody in another action. (2) The trial court may enter orders that visitation take place by agreement of the parties where there is evidence to justify that such order will be consistent with the children’ best interests. (3) If the non-custodial parent is not ordered to pay any child support, the non-paying non-custodial parent has not suffered any harm that can be remedied on appeal by the trial court’s alleged errors in assessing the parties’ finances.
Mother had a child of a prior relationship, “O.” The parties met while Father was stationed in the Navy in Hawaii, they married in February 2011, and they had three children together. Father was transferred to Groton in April 2016 and Mother moved to Washington where she resided with the four children for six months, before she relocated to Connecticut.
In December, 2016, an altercation ensued between the parties at the submarine base that resulted in a car crash. The trial court ultimately credited Father’s testimony that Mother struck his car with hers to prevent him from leaving the scene. Father obtained an emergency ex parte order of custody thereafter and filed for divorce.
Mother filed a motion to dismiss the dissolution action arguing that Connecticut lacked jurisdiction under the UCCJEA, and hearings were held as to custody and jurisdiction, resulting in an emergency order and then an exclusive jurisdiction order by the trial court, as well as orders of supervised visitation to Mother.
Mother filed several motions requesting increased access which were denied. At that time, O was the subject of concurrent neglect proceedings with the juvenile court. Father was awarded temporary custody of O by the juvenile court. That order was entered as an exhibit before the trial court.
Trial commenced in February of 2018 and concluded in May 2018. Father had counsel and Mother represented herself. At trial, the trial court concluded that the juvenile court had deferred further action to the trial court in this case.
The trial court included O, via footnote, in the orders awarding Father sole custody of the minor children. The trial court entered orders regarding Mother’s visitation rights, specifying visitation by agreement and instructing Father to take steps to facilitate the contact. Mother was not required to pay any child support other than the outstanding arrearage payments for O.
Mother appealed, arguing that the trial court (1) improperly included Mother’s child from a previous relationship in the custody order, (2) inequitably set forth procedures for the parties to collaborate on a visitation scheme, and (3) relied on inaccurate information regarding Father’s finances in ordering child support.
While the appeal was pending Mother brought a separate action seeking custody of O. Both Father and O’s biological father were parties to that action. That action proceeded to trial over two days, resulting in an award of sole legal and physical custody of O to Father. The Appellate Court determined that the subsequent orders rendered the appeal moot as to Mother’s first claim.
Mother’s second claim was that the trial court’s order, by requiring agreement as to terms of visitation, did not adequately safeguard against Father unilaterally refusing her access to the children. The Appellate Court reviewed this claim under the abuse of discretion standard. The Appellate Court found that the trial court had fairly relied upon the testimony of multiple witnesses, including a family relations counselor who conducted an investigation in determining that it was appropriate to have Father facilitate Mother’s access by agreement. The Appellate Court found no abuse of discretion.
Mother’s third claim was that the trial court relied on inaccurate information regarding Father’s finances in fashioning child support orders, that it failed to consider receipt of certain government benefits. Father counter-argued that Mother failed to demonstrate any harm suffered as a result of the order. The trial court had substantial evidence regarding the parties’ relative financial standing, employment histories and future prospects, and the trial court had emphasized possible costs that Mother would incur to visit the children following their proposed relocation to Florida with Father. The Appellate Court reasoned that the order in question provided that Mother pay zero support for the children and thus Mother could not have suffered any harm from the order.
The appeal was dismissed in part and the Judgment was affirmed in all other respects.