Moore v. Moore, 216 Conn. App. 179 (2022) (modification of deviated child support award; modification of alimony)
Officially released October 25, 2022
In Short: (1) If the trial court deviates from the presumptive child support guidelines without making an explicit finding using the magic words that application of the presumptive guidelines would be “inequitable or inappropriate” then the order of child support is subject to modification without a showing of a substantial change in circumstances. (2) The trial court has substantial discretion when making a finding (or lack thereof) of a substantial change in financial circumstances.
The parties married in 2002 and had three children. They were divorced in 2019 after an evidentiary hearing before Judge Gould in which both parties were self-represented. The trial court found that Wife was earning $2,346/week and Husband was earning $1,000/week.
The trial court ordered that no child support be paid as a deviation from the child support guidelines based on its orders of shared physical custody. The trial court based the deviation on the “best interest of the minor children and … the parents …” The trial court ordered Wife to pay alimony of $100/week for seven years, modifiable as to amount but non-modifiable as to duration. The trial court found that the marital residence had equity of approximately $42k, ordered that it be sold, and ordered that the parties could both remain in it until it was sold.
The marital residence was sold post-judgment, Wife moved into her parents’ vacant home and Husband rented a residence. In 2020, Husband filed a post-judgment motion for modification seeking modification of the child support and an increase in alimony. Husband alleged a substantial change in circumstances based on the sale of the marital residence, end of cohabitation, and changes in the parties’ income and expenses. Husband also alleged that the “current circumstances warrant child support to be paid per the [child support] guidelines.”
The trial court held a post-judgment evidentiary hearing and Judge Gould denied the motion on the basis that he did not conclude there had been a substantial change in circumstances. Husband appealed. Upon order of the Appellate Court, the trial court further articulated the basis for its denial of the motion and its finding that there had been no substantial change in circumstances and also indicated that, even if there were a substantial change in circumstances, it did not warrant modification.
The Appellate Court set forth the abuse of discretion and clearly erroneous standard of review.
Husband’s first claim on appeal was that the trial court erred in denying the modification of child support by (1) concluding there was not a substantial change in circumstances, and (2) not modifying the order based on the fact that the dissolution court at time of judgment had substantially deviated from the presumptive guidelines without making the requisite findings.
The Appellate Court noted that, in order to deviate from the presumptive award of child support, the trial court is required by C.G.S. § 46b-214b to make a finding that strict application of the guidelines would be inequitable or inappropriate. If the trial court did not make such a finding in support of a deviation, C.G.S. § 46b-86(a) permits modification of such awards simply upon a finding that a substantial deviation was entered. Thus, in order to deviate from the guidelines without subjecting the order to relitigation without substantial change, the trial court is required to (1) make a finding as to the presumptive child support guidelines, (2) make a finding that strict application would be inequitable or inappropriate, and (3) provide an explanation of the deviation criteria relied upon. If the trial court does not do so, the award may be modified at any time on the basis of the deviation alone.
Here, the trial court noted the deviation, but did not say the magic words. This is a rare area of family law where a specific set of magic words uttered by the trial court are legally dispositive. Thus, the trial court’s failure to consider whether modification was warranted purely because of the existence of a deviation (since the magic words were not said at the time of the original order) constituted abuse of discretion. The Judgment was reversed in part with direction to hold a new hearing as to modification of child support.
Husband’s second claim on appeal was that the trial court erred in denying modification of alimony by concluding that he had not proven a substantial change in circumstances. The Appellate Court noted that the establishment of changed circumstances is a condition precedent for modification of alimony (no magic words here). The Appellate Court found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s finding that there was no such substantial change. There is no rigid mathematical formula for a substantial change and the trial court had broad discretion to assess the facts. The denial of modification of alimony was affirmed.