It is well recognized that in dissolution actions, a trial court may exercise broad discretion when dividing property and awarding alimony, as long as it considers all relevant statutory criteria. For many reasons, one of which is that a trial judge has the benefit of observing witnesses first hand, an appellate court will not disturb a trial court’s decision unless there has been a clear abuse of discretion. This of course is a very heavy burden for an appellant to satisfy, but the standard makes sense, and is not insurmountable. That being said, the appellate process presents its own challenges and to the extent an appellate court may exercise its own discretion to arrive at a desired result, it can be relatively unpredictable.
In a recent appellate decision, the Court addressed whether it was appropriate for a trial judge to award a wife alimony in addition to a portion of the husband’s business, which provided his sole stream of income. In McRae v. McRae, 129 Conn. App. 171 (2011), the defendant owned a software production company, while the wife owned a decorative painting business. The main issue of contention at trial concerned the value of the husband’s company. Both parties utilized business valuation experts who introduced testimony on the issue, and after hearing evidence, the Court relied on the husband’s expert. Interestingly, the Court also made findings as to the parties’ respective earning capacities, as opposed to their actual earnings. The Court ultimately divided the marital property equally, including the husband’s business as part of the marital estate. In addition, the Court awarded the wife periodic alimony for a term of ten years.
On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court’s decision to take his business into account in both the property division scheme and the award of alimony constitutes improper double dipping, a generally recognized concept. The Appellate Court affirmed the Trial Court’s decision on two main grounds. First, it held that although C.G.S.A. § 46b-81 allows a trial court to consider its property division order when fashioning an alimony award, nothing in the statutory framework forbids a court from awarding periodic alimony to one spouse when the court has made an equitable distribution of the other spouse’s closely held business. The Court also held that the trial court specifically based the alimony award on the parties’ earning capacities- not the husband’s business- which it is permitted to do. This case further exemplifies not only the broad discretion a trial court is permitted to exercise in the context of a dissolution action, but also illustrates the degree of deference the Appellate Court will afford a trial judge when reviewing the underlying decision.
Should you have any questions regarding matrimonial cases, please do not hesitate to contact our office. Attorney DeMeola welcomes inquiries regarding matrimonial matters and can be reached in the firm’s Westport office by telephone at (203) 221-3100 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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