During the past term, the Supreme Court has readdressed how child support awards should be developed when the parents are high income earners.
At trial of Tuckman v. Tuckman, 308 Conn. 194 (2013), the defendant sought an unallocated alimony and child support order. The trial court awarded her no alimony and child support of $250 per child per week. The defendant asked the court to articulate whether it had accepted either party’s child support calculation worksheet and to identify what the trial court had found the net income of each party to be. The court did not address these requests.
The defendant appealed, claiming that the child support award was insufficient. The Appellate Court held that the trial court had abused its discretion by failing to follow the guidelines’ tables, and by failing to make any reference to the child support guidelines in its memorandum of decision. It reversed the financial orders of the lower court and ordered a new trial. It did not reach other issues raised by the defendant.
The Supreme Court granted certification, initially, on two issues: 1) whether the Appellate Court properly invoked the mosaic rule to reverse all financial orders when it had not considered the defendant’s arguments concerning alimony, property and attorney’s fees; and 2) whether the Appellate Court properly determined that the trial court failed to apply the child support guidelines when the defendant had not filed the required guidelines worksheet and had sought unallocated alimony and child support.
The plaintiff argued that the trial court was not required to make reference to the guidelines nor to state deviation criteria because the defendant sought an unallocated order and did not make reference to the guidelines in her proposed orders at trial. He further argued that by seeking unallocated support of more than $7,500, the defendant had conceded that the child support guidelines would be inapplicable to the case. The Supreme Court disagreed.
Citing to the 2010 case of Maturo, the Court reiterated that the guidelines are to be considered in all determinations of child support, regardless of the wealth of parents. Furthermore, if the trial court determines that the amount of an award that would result from the application of the guidelines to the facts of the case is inappropriate, it must make a specific finding on the record that the guidelines result would be inequitable or inappropriate. That determination must be based upon the deviation criteria enunciated in the guidelines.
The Court’s opinion also addressed an issue that the defendant had raised but which had not been reached at the Appellate Court: whether the trial court had properly determined that the defendant’s Subchapter S income should be included in her annual net income for purposes of setting child support. The Court agreed with the defendant that the trial court improperly relied on her personal tax returns when setting alimony and child support orders and should have analyzed whether pass through income of an S Corporation of which she was a shareholder was available to her for purposes of support.
Because the trial court failed to determine the defendant’s available income and abused its discretion as to the child support orders that it entered, the Court affirmed the Appellate Court’s judgment, directing that there be a reversal of “the entirety” of the trial court’s financial orders and a remand for a new trial.
Given the rulings in Kelman and Hughes relaxing the precision with which a court must demonstrate its compliance with the imperative of basing support orders on net income, it is noteworthy that the Court found that it was not enough that the trial court had stated that it had considered the parties’ gross and net income because it had not determined their net income in its memorandum of decision. Also, of interest, given the remand of only the child support orders in Maturo and Misthopoulos, was that the Court did not take the opportunity to further erode the mosaic rule, finding that the trial court’s errors left it uncertain whether the remaining financial awards “will remain intact.”
Interpreting The Guidelines
In Dowling v. Szymczak, 309 Conn. 390 (2013), the Court affirmed a trial court child support judgment. A family support magistrate found that the combined net weekly amount of the father’s income and the mother’s earning capacity was $14,154 per week and that the father’s income accounted for 86 percent of the net combined weekly income. The magistrate ordered that the father pay the mother $1,440 per week of child support and that she would bear the cost of child care. The maximum basic child support amount under the Child Support and Arrearage Guidelines (2005) is $473 for one child. The maximum income percentage is 11.83 percent of combined net weekly parental income. In calculating the amount of child support, the magistrate used the top income percentage and determined that with the mother paying all of the child care costs the father would be paying approximately 9 percent of his net income as child support.
The Court reiterated that the guidelines principles apply to all child support awards, including those where the combined net weekly income of the parents exceeds the maximum $4,000 per week reflected on the child support obligations schedule. One of those principles is that as household income increases, “the proportion of household income spent on children declines….”
The Court found that the amount prescribed at the top of the guidelines schedule is the presumptive minimum amount to be awarded in cases in which the parental combined net weekly income exceeds $4,000 but that the regulations do not address the maximum permissible amount. In such cases, the child support payments should presumptively not exceed the maximum percentage of net income set forth in the guidelines schedule and in most cases should reflect less than that. The “presumptive ceiling of income percentage or presumptive floor of dollar amount” may be rebutted by the deviation criteria enumerated in the guidelines and the statutory factors set forth in Connecticut General Statutes § 46b-84(d).
Since the total support obligation in Dowling was in the range between the presumptive minimum dollar amount and the presumptive maximum percentage of net income, the Court found that the trial court and the magistrate’s application of the law were correct. The Court commented that the commission tasked to update the guidelines every four years might “account for the exceptionally affluent families in this state in future revisions to the guidelines.”
There are a few other cases of import to family law practitioners which can be easily summarized but bear reading, in some cases for the rigorous review of relevant law.
Those cases include Berzins v. Berzins, 306 Conn. 651 (2012), in which the Court reversed an award of attorney fees as unwarranted because it relied on an improper interpretation of the Ramin case. While the Ramin Court had ordered a “limited expansion” of the trial court’s authority to award attorney fees in the case of litigation misconduct, the Berzins Court clarified that the expansion was limited to discovery misconduct.
In Simms v. Seaman et.al, 308 Conn. 523 (2013), the Court majority held that the defendant-attorneys who had represented the plaintiff’s former wife in family law proceedings were protected from liability for their alleged misconduct during judicial proceedings by the common law doctrine of absolute immunity. The plaintiff-former husband had made claims for fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress based upon the defendants’ alleged failure to disclose material information about their client’s financial circumstances.
A parent does not have a due process right to have counsel present at a child custody evaluation with the Family Relations Office of the Court Support Services Division of the Judicial Branch. Barros v. Barros, 309 Conn. 499 (2013). The determination of a child’s best interest is served by a “disinterested” custody assessment. A parent’s protected liberty interest in parenting his child does not outweigh the government’s interest in protecting the best interests of the child
In Tanzman v. Meurer, 309 Conn. 105 (2013), the Court required the trial court to specify the dollar amount of a party’s earning capacity when it had based its alimony award on such a capacity. While the Tanzman case arose out of the denial of plaintiff’s post-judgment motion to modify an alimony order based upon an unspecified earning capacity attributed to him at dissolution, the Court ordered the trial court to conduct a hearing to determine what the plaintiff’s earning capacity was at the time of the original order.
The dissent stated that the trial court had a sufficient basis for the denial of plaintiff’s motion because it had determined that the plaintiff had not proven that he was any more committed to maximizing his earnings at the modification hearing than at the dissolution trial. The dissent also addressed the potential vagaries that could develop from application of the majority’s dictates in the context of the procedural posture of Tanzman.
This term’s decisions refine and in some cases, synthesize prior case law.•