O.A. v. J.A. 342 Conn. 45 (2022) (post-nuptial agreement & pendente lite award of alimony, counsel and expert fees)
Officially released January 27, 2022
In Short: In this interlocutory appeal, the trial court did not err by refusing to address the issue of enforceability of a postnuptial agreement before entering pendente lite orders of alimony and legal and expert fees that were, according to Husband, precluded by the postnuptial agreement. The trial court is not required to address the enforceability of a postnuptial agreement until the matter is tried on the merits.
The parties were married in 2013. Wife was twenty-eight and had a net worth of $275,400. Husband was forty-five, had one daughter of a prior marriage, and a net worth of $32m. Four months after marrying, the parties executed a postnuptial agreement. In 2019 Wife filed for dissolution of marriage. Both were represented by independent counsel and made financial disclosures.
The postnuptial agreement provided certain formulae for the payment of alimony by Husband, which would begin “upon the formal termination of the marriage.” It did not expressly preclude pendente lite alimony. The parties thereafter lived a lavish lifestyle and had two children. The parties’ marriage declined due to “cash flow” problems and Wife’s mental health challenges. In 2018 Wife was involved in an altercation with Husband’s teenage daughter and in 2019 the parties were involved in an altercation resulting in the arrest of Wife. Wife thereafter admitted herself to Silver Hill Hospital. Upon Wife’s discharge she commenced the divorce action and Husband sought and was granted a restraining order barring Wife from the marital home and preventing contact between Wife and Husband, his daughter, and the parties’ children.
Husband filed a cross complaint seeking enforcement of the postnuptial agreement. Wife filed a reply challenging the postnuptial agreement on the basis of duress, lack of full and fair disclosure, and unconscionability. Wife filed motions for pendente lite alimony, counsel fees and expert fees. Husband filed a motion to bifurcate the trial, arguing that the trial court should first determine the enforceability of the parties’ postnuptial agreement before awarding the relief Wife requested pendente lite to which she might not be entitled.
The trial court held an evidentiary hearing and granted, in part, Wife’s motions. The trial court relied upon Fitzgerald v. Fitzgerald, 169 Conn. 147 (1975) in determining that it was not required to determine, prior to deciding the pendente lite motions, whether the postnuptial agreement was enforceable or precluded such relief. The trial court ordered temporary alimony of $20,000 per month, $114,019 in current counsel fees and a retainer of $250,000, and $25,000 in expert fees.
Husband appealed, claiming that the trial court incorrectly determined that it need not determine the enforceability of the parties’ postnuptial agreement before awarding pendente lite fees and alimony, which Husband argued were not permissible under the postnuptial agreement. Husband argued that a prenuptial agreement should be presumed valid and enforceable until the party challenging it successfully demonstrates otherwise. Husband argued that Fitzgerald was distinguishable because it pertained to a separation agreement rather than a postnuptial agreement.
The Supreme Court transferred the appeal directly to itself per Conn. Gen. Stat. § 51-199 (c).
The Supreme Court applied plenary review to the question of law as to whether the trial court properly deferred its decision on the enforceability of the postnuptial agreement. The Supreme Court noted that postnuptial agreements are subject to stricter scrutiny than prenuptial agreements and may only be enforced when they comply with applicable contract principles and the terms are both fair and equitable at time of execution and not unconscionable at time of dissolution. The Supreme Court reviewed the legal standards for pendente lite alimony under § 46b-82 and for counsel fees pursuant to § 46b-62.
The Supreme Court determined that the trial court properly relied on Fitzgerald. The Supreme Court found no distinction between a separation agreement and a postnuptial agreement for these purposes. A determination as to the validity of any agreement may be made when the case is tried on the merits. The Supreme Court explained that Bedrick v. Bedrick, 300 Conn. 691 (2011) supports the notion that a searching inquiry is required with regard to a postnuptial agreement’s enforceability. The Supreme Court reasoned that it would be necessary to value Husband’s assets to determine the enforceability of the postnuptial agreement and that doing so would require considerable discovery given the complexity of Husband’s finances. Thus, if Husband’s request for bifurcation was granted, Wife would be without the means to support herself while that process took place.
The Supreme Court did not foreclose the ability of a trial court to decide to bifurcate determinations of enforceability if the trial court determines that it can do so without working an injustice to either party. The trial court may also fashion pendente lite orders that take into account the existence of a marital agreement that purports to preclude such orders. The trial court does not err, however, when it chooses not to do so.
The trial court’s orders were affirmed.