Ostapowicz v. Wisniewski, 210 Conn. App. 401 (2022) (rules of practice do not implicate subject matter jurisdiction; conflicting or inconsistent orders)
Officially released February 1, 2022
In Short: (1) Under §46b-1, the trial court has broad jurisdiction over family matters involving dissolution of marriage — including prenuptial agreements — and the rules of practice pertaining to pleadings do not impact subject matter jurisdiction. Thus, the trial court had discretion and jurisdiction to enforce a prenuptial agreement despite Husband’s failure to strictly comply with Practice Book § 25-2A. (2) The Appellate Court gives great deference to the trial court to weigh the evidence presented and determine the credibility and effect to be given to the evidence. (3) An order that Wife be responsible for a line of credit was reversed because the line of credit had been used, in part, to pay Husband’s attorney’s fees, and the trial court also ordered that each party pay their respective counsel fees. This order was deemed severable and not interdependent with the other orders.
The parties were married in 2006. Prior to the marriage, they executed a premarital agreement (“Prenup”). In October 2017, Wife commenced this dissolution action. In May 2018, Husband filed an answer alleging that the marriage should be annulled on the basis of fraud, a cross complaint, and a “notice” with the Prenup attached. The case was tried over several days between April and July of 2019.
The trial court found that Wife was born in Poland and came to the United States in 2004 on a tourist visa, then obtained a student visit, and later attained permanent resident status when she married Husband in 2014. Husband was also born in Poland and came to the United States with his parents when he was 14 years old.
The trial court found that Husband and his family had pooled their money, resources, and labor to buy, maintain, and sell investment real estate for the past fifty years. The family has held various bank and investment accounts, each in the name of more than one family member. The trial court also found that the family business was an informal venture and no contracts or written agreements exist. The trial court noted it did not ascribe any nefarious motives to the informal way the family conducted its business, nor did it question the fact there were no written agreements or contracts.
In November 2015, shortly after Husband suffered serious health issues, he asked Wife to sign an addendum to the Prenup stating that she would not make any claim against any of the properties or accounts Husband acquired through his family business prior to or since the date of marriage. Wife refused to sign the addendum. The trial court found multiple events between 2015 and 2017 put a strain on the parties, which ultimately led to the breakdown of the marriage.
Regarding Husband’s claim of fraud, the trial court found that Husband failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Wife married him to obtain legal status. Thus, the trial court found a valid marriage between the parties.
Husband testified he would not have married Wife had she not signed the Prenup. Husband further testified that he showed Wife account statements for the family business at the time of signing and the statements were mailed to the marital home throughout the marriage. Wife testified that Husband told her most of the money listed on his financial affidavit was family money but claimed that Husband never told her how much of the family money was his.
The trial court found that Husband helped Wife prepare her financial affidavit for the Prenup and explained the Prenup to her in Polish, and that Wife met separately with a Polish-speaking attorney and asked questions about the Prenup prior to signing it.
The trial court noted that under General Statutes § 46b-36a, a premarital contract is not enforceable if: it was not signed voluntarily; it is unconscionable; a party was not provided fair and reasonable disclosure of the amount, character and value of property, financial obligations and income of the other party; or a party was not provided a reasonable opportunity to consult with independent counsel before signing it. Wife did not dispute that both parties signed the Prenup and that it was not unconscionable, but instead claimed that Husband did not tell her that the bank accounts he disclosed were co-owned by family members and argued that she did not have a meaningful opportunity to review the Prenup with counsel. The trial court found that Husband provided Wife with a fair and reasonable disclosure of the amount, character and value of his property, that Wife had met with counsel, and concluded that the Prenup was valid and enforceable.
Regarding the substance of the Prenup, the trial court found that the terms pertaining to “Termination of Marriage” meant that “neither party shall have a claim against the separate property or claim against the property existing as of the date of the [a]greement/subsequent marriage (all the assets in schedules A and B), or any future real estate or investments that flow from these original assets.” (Emphasis added.) The trial court found that the family business was a direct result of the premarital assets Husband was in possession of at the time of the marriage. The trial court then concluded that Wife had no right or claim to Husband’s interest in the family business assets he had listed on his financial affidavit.
Wife filed a motion to reargue on the grounds that the trial court erred in classifying and assigning property it determined was Husband’s separate property and in ordering the parties to be responsible for their own attorney’s fees and assigning the debt on the home equity line of credit to her. The trial court denied the motion.
Wife’s first claim on appeal was that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to enforce the Prenup because Husband did not comply with Practice Book § 25-2A. The Appellate Court reviewed the claim of subject matter jurisdiction under the plenary standard of review. Wife argued that Husband failed to include a demand for the enforcement of the Prenup with his claim for relief in violation of §25-2A and, thus, the Prenup was not properly before the court and could not be enforced. The trial court denied Wife’s motion to preclude the Prenup by exercising its discretion as to the timing of the demand to enforce the Prenup. The Appellate Court relied upon §46b-1 that the Superior Court has broad jurisdiction over family matters involving dissolution of marriage, including prenuptial agreements. The Appellate Court further noted that the rules of practice pertaining to pleading requirements do not implicate a court’s subject matter jurisdiction.
Wife’s second claim on appeal was that there was insufficient evidence for the court to find that, at the time of dissolution, certain properties constituted Husband’s “separate property” under the Prenup. The trial court cited a provision of the Prenup, which stated, “. . . [t]he parties shall have no right against each other by way of. . . division of property existing [as] of this date. . . .” (Emphasis added.) The trial court found that Wife had no interest or right in the family business assets as they were a direct result of premarital assets acquired from separate funds. Wife further argued that the trial court was required to trace Husband’s separate property pursuant to paragraph C of the Prenup which required the parties to keep records of their transactions in separate property and make those records available to the other. The Appellate Court reviewed this claim under the abuse of discretion standard. The Appellate Court noted two important findings by the trial court, namely, (1) Husband complied with the Prenup’s record keeping provision and (2) Wife removed, without Husband’s consent, several boxes of documents with Husband’s financial records and information from Husband’s computer, which made it difficult for Husband to trace the premarital assets. The Appellate Court concluded there was sufficient evidence for the trial court to determine Husband’s separate property and noted that Wife’s removal and failure to produce Husband’s financial records ultimately prevented Husband from providing the kind of tracing that Wife claims was required.
Wife’s third claim on appeal was that the court abused its discretion in assigning to her the entire outstanding debt on the parties’ home equity line of credit. The parties had obtained a home equity line of credit and used some of the funds to pay off Wife’s personal line of credit for $24,000 and for their respective attorney’s fees. The trial court found Husband borrowed $10,000 from this line of credit and ordered Wife solely responsible for the payment on the home equity line of credit, while also ordering that each party was solely responsible for their respective attorney’s fees. The Appellate Court found that the order regarding the line of credit conflicted with the order regarding attorney’s fees. The Appellate Court relied on Tuckman v. Tuckman, 308 Conn. 194, 214 (2013) for the principal that financial orders and severable when not interdependent with other orders and reversed the judgment only as to the responsibility for the debt on the home equity line of credit.
The Judgment was affirmed with the exception of the partial remand as to the line of credit.