Olson v. Olson, 214 Conn. App. 4 (2022) (subject matter jurisdiction; modification of foreign alimony order)
Officially released July 26, 2022
In Short: The Appellate Court held, 2-1, that Connecticut did have subject matter jurisdiction under UIFSA to modify an alimony order entered into by separation agreement in a United Kingdom divorce.
The facts: Both parties were U.S. citizens. They married in 1998 in Pennsylvania and later moved to the United Kingdom. They divorced in United Kingdom in 2009 via a consent order, which was a separation agreement. The separation agreement distributed assets and assigned spousal and child support. In 2010 Wife moved to Connecticut and Husband moved to New York.
In 2010, Wife filed the United Kingdom divorce decree in Connecticut under principles of comity. In 2011, Wife filed a motion seeking an order to enforce the foreign judgment and approve two QDROs. The trial court entered the two QDROs as orders of the court by agreement of the parties.
In 2011, Wife sought modification of alimony. The separation agreement provided “[e]ither party will remain at liberty during the continuation of the periodical payments to apply for an upward or downward variation, or termination or capitalism of such maintenance.” Wife argued that a substantial change in circumstances had taken place, in that Husband’s income, salary, and bonus structure had changed significantly resulting in Wife receiving greatly reduced alimony under the separation agreement formula. In 2012, Husband filed a motion for modification of alimony alleging Wife began cohabitating.
In 2013, the trial court denied both parties’ motions. The denial was not for lack of jurisdiction, but because of lack of supporting evidence and procedural defects. The trial court stated that Wife failed to provide evidence of the substantive law of the controlling jurisdiction and failed to provide currency conversion calculations. The trial court stated that Husband failed to provide evidence of substantive law of the controlling jurisdiction that would permit modification of alimony based on Connecticut’s co-habitation statute. (Bear in mind, when modifying a foreign judgment, the court must apply the substantive law of the original jurisdiction.) The trial court did, however, order Husband to make certain payments in accordance with the terms of the Judgment.
In 2019, Husband filed a new motion for modification of alimony based on Wife’s cohabitation. Wife then filed her own motion to modify alimony and child support to increase both. Five days prior to the scheduled hearing date, Wife filed a motion to dismiss Husband’s motion to modify alimony, arguing that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to modify. (Challenges to subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time.)
The trial court entered a memorandum of decision concluding that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction to modify the parties’ foreign country spousal support orders because the United Kingdom had continuing exclusive jurisdiction over modification of alimony. The trial court found that the United Kingdom’s law provided the United Kingdom with exclusive continuing jurisdiction and that § 46b-321(b) therefore precluded Connecticut from subject matter jurisdiction. The trial court relied in large part on an explanatory note that was not part of the United Kingdom law itself.
Husband appealed, arguing the trial court erred because it (1) misapplied UIFSA 46b-301 et seq. in determining that the United Kingdom has continuing exclusive jurisdiction over the spousal support order, (2) United Kingdom could not have exclusive continuing jurisdiction because the trial court previously modified alimony in 2013, (3) the doctrine of comity provides Connecticut courts with jurisdiction to modify foreign country orders in this case, (4) the trial court erred in relying on Hornblower, and (5) the trial court erred in relying on United Kingdom statutory instrument.
The Appellate Court interpreted the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (“UIFSA” § 46b-301 et. seq.) to determine whether Connecticut lacked subject matter jurisdiction to modify spousal support orders issued by the United Kingdom. Subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law subject to de novo review. The Appellate Court noted that every presumption favoring subject matter jurisdiction should be indulged.
UIFSA was drafted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in the United States and has been adopted by all states. It governs procedures for establishing, enforcing, and modifying child and spousal support orders. § 46b-321(b) states “A tribunal of this state may not modify a spousal support order issued by a tribunal of another state or a foreign country having continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over that order under the law of that state or foreign country.” Thus, the Appellate Court had to determine whether the United Kingdom, under its laws, has continuing exclusive jurisdiction to modify the spousal support order in question.
The Appellate Court determined that, based on a more complete review of the relevant United Kingdom law, the portions of United Kingdom law relied upon by the trial court and Wife were not applicable to these circumstances. The judgment was registered in Connecticut under the common law principle of comity.
The Appellate Court further determined that nothing in the United Kingdom law provided “exclusive” jurisdiction rather than concurrent jurisdiction in this case. The Appellate Court found no other United Kingdom authority that provides for exclusive jurisdiction over the spousal support at issue. The Appellate Court castigated Wife for not providing a more thorough review of United Kingdom law and, in light of the maxim that every presumption in favor of jurisdiction should be indulged, concluded that the trial court did not lack subject matter jurisdiction to modify alimony.
The dismissal of Husband’s motion was reversed and remanded.
Judge Elgo dissented, opining that the trial court properly considered the explanatory note, which provided necessary context to the enactment of the United Kingdom law and clearly indicated that only the United Kingdom could modify its spousal support order.
Judge Elgo argued that the majority decision failed to apply the precepts of the United Kingdom jurisdiction to interpreting its law. Judge Elgo engaged in a detailed analysis of statutory construction in the United Kingdom versus the US. In the United Kingdom the explanatory notes are admissible as aids to statutory construction, despite not being part of the legislation.