Automatic orders effective upon service; dissipation of assets & discretion in property award: Wethington v. Wethington. ___ Conn. App. ___ (2023)

Automatic orders effective upon service; dissipation of assets & discretion in property award: Wethington v. Wethington. ___ Conn. App. ___ (2023)

Wethington v. Wethington. 223 Conn. App. 715 (2023) (automatic orders effective upon service; dissipation of assets & discretion in property award)

Officially released February 13, 2024

In Short: The automatic orders are not effective until they are served (although the court properly considered prior dissipation of funds in fashioning division of assets); the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding Wife 60% of the marital estate where Husband was primarily responsible for the breakdown of the marriage and dissipated funds.

The parties married in 2010, had one child in 2012, began divorce proceedings in 2019, and had a four-day divorce trial in 2021-2022 before Judge Egan.  The trial also addressed six motions for contempt, pendente lite.

The trial court found that the primary causes of the breakdown of the marriage was Husband’s “excessive” drinking as well as his physical and verbal abuse.  The trial court found Husband not to be credible.  Wife was awarded 60% of the proceeds from the marital residence and other assets, Husband was found in contempt on the six motions for contempt and ordered to pay $76k out of his share of the proceeds as well as $25k in counsel fees related to those contempt findings.

Husband appealed, claiming that the trial court improperly (1) granted several motions for contempt pendente lite, (2) distributed the parties’ assets, and (3) denied several postjudgment motions to reargue.

Husband’s first claim addressed in the appeal was that he was improperly held in contempt for violation of the automatic orders prior to them becoming effective against him, and the trial court improperly denied his motion to reargue on that point.  Husband was served with the notice of automatic orders on November 21, 2019.  The trial court’s orders addressed, in part, conduct that predated the service of the automatic orders.

The Appellate Court reviewed the legal question regarding the application of the automatic orders and rules of practice under the plenary standard of review.  The Appellate Court also set forth the standard for reviewing a ruling on a motion to reargue, which is abuse of discretion.  Practice Book § 25-5 provides for service of such automatic orders and renders them effective on the plaintiff upon the signing of the complaint and upon defendant upon service.  The Appellate Court found that the trial court improperly found Husband to be governed by the automatic orders prior to service and improperly denied the motion to reargue on that point.

Husband’s second claim addressed in the appeal was that the trial court improperly failed to credit him money he had escrowed in accordance with a stipulation, pendente lite.  The parties had entered into a stipulation providing for certain pendente lite payments to Wife, as well as a $46,000 escrow account for Wife’s use.  Husband contended that the escrow was merely for security for which he should be credited, whereas Wife argued, and the trial court found, that it was an additional obligation.  The Appellate Court determined that the stipulation was clear and unambiguous and that the escrowed monies were an additional obligation.

Husband’s third claim addressed in the appeal was that his purchase of a Mercedes-Benz E350 during the pendency of the action constituted a customary and usual household expense permitted by the automatic orders, that he needed the second vehicle which he purchased for $14,000 for his use while living in Florida.  The Appellate Court reviewed the trial court’s finding of contempt on this point for abuse of discretion.  The Appellate Court rejected Husband’s argument in light of his ownership of another vehicle and lack of credibility as to his needs found by the trial court.

Husband’s fourth claim addressed in the appeal was that the trial court improperly distributed the assets pursuant to C.G.S. § 46b-81.  The trial court had awarded Wife 60% of the marital assets, plus the sums and fees ordered in connection with the contempt findings.  The Appellate Court applied the abuse of discretion standard, and, in light of the trial court’s findings of cause for the breakdown of the marriage and dissipation of funds, the trial court was well within its broad discretion in entering its orders.

The Judgment was reversed only with regard to the contempt and reargument specifically as to the conduct that occurred prior to the entry of the automatic orders and remanded with direction to enter orders consistent with the opinion in that respect.

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