Pursuing Self-Help Rather Than Court Modification? Expect a Contempt Motion Not In Your Favor

Appellate Court of Connecticut: post-dissolution action

In a post-dissolution action involving a contempt motion, the Appellate Court of Connecticut affirmed in part and reversed in part a trial court’s findings that the defendant was in contempt of a court order. The plaintiff wife and defendant husband were married in 1985 and had four children through the course of their eighteen-year marriage. In September 2003, the parties submitted a separation agreement to the court, which the court incorporated into its judgment for dissolution. In relevant part, the agreement stated that while the husband remained unemployed, he was responsible for one-half the cost of the children’s extracurricular activities. In addition, regardless of his employment status, the husband was required to pay three-quarters the cost of the children’s undergraduate education.

Modification Agreement

In February 2007, the parties entered into a modification agreement, which was approved by the court the following month. However, in December 2007, the wife filed a motion for contempt in which she alleged that the husband failed to comply with several obligations set forth in the separation agreement. The husband argued that because he was employed, the provision regarding extracurricular activities did not apply to him, and he contested the manner in which he was to pay for his children’s college expenses. The trial court ruled in the wife’s favor, and the husband appealed.

Separation Agreements

Separation agreements that are incorporated in a judgment of dissolution are treated as contracts, which must be construed to reflect the parties’ intent. A court will look to the language itself and ascertain a fair and reasonable construction pursuant to common, natural, and ordinary meaning and usage. In reviewing a finding of contempt, an appellate court must first determine whether or not the terms of a court order were sufficiently clear and unambiguous. It must then look for an abuse of discretion by the trial court in issuing or refusing to issue a judgment of contempt. Nonetheless, any order of the court must be followed until it has either been modified or successfully challenged.

The Case

In this case, the Appellate Court agreed with the husband that the contempt finding with respect to the extracurricular activities was improper. The language of this provision was sufficiently clear – the husband would cover half the cost for as long as the husband remained unemployed. Because this condition was not met, the contempt finding constituted an abuse of discretion.

However, the court agreed that the husband was in contempt for failure to pay his portion of college expenses. The husband never disputed this fact, but he insisted that the payments be made from custodial accounts, not from him directly. Self-help does not obviate a finding of contempt, and the Appellate Court did not find an abuse of discretion by the trial court.

Whether advancing or defending a post-judgment motion involving the enforcement or modification of a separation agreement, a divorced individual is best served by consulting with an experienced family law practitioner. Should you have questions regarding matrimonial matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com. Call today to schedule a free initial consultation.