How do Connecticut courts determine what an equitable distribution of property between divorcing spouses is?
Trial courts have broad discretion in determining how to allocate property equitably. (Watson v. Watson, 607 A.2d 383, 221 Conn. 698 (1992), Bender v. Bender, 785 A.2d 197, 258 Conn. 733 (2001))
In exercising its authority to assign property in a divorce, a court must consider the following statutory factors: (1) the length of the marriage; (2) the causes of the divorce; (3) the age, health, station, occupation, amount and sources of income, earning capacity, education, skills, and employability of each spouse; (4) the estate, liabilities, and needs of each spouse; (5) each spouse's prospects for acquiring income or assets in the future; and (6) the contribution of each spouse to the acquisition, preservation, or appreciation in value of their respective estates. (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-81)
The weight to be given one fact or factor over another is within the court's discretion. (Picton v. Picton, 958 A.2d 763, 111 Conn. App. 143 (2008))
In Connecticut, all property of both spouses, or of either spouse individually, is subject to equitable distribution in a divorce, regardless of when the property was acquired or which spouse acquired it. (Lopiano v. Lopiano, 752 A.2d 1000, 247 Conn. 356 (1998), Picton v. Picton, 958 A.2d 763, 111 Conn. App. 143 (2008))
When assessing how to distribute a particular asset, trial courts are not required to place greater weight on the source of the asset, i.e., which spouse owns it, than on other factors. (Picton v. Picton, 958 A.2d 763, 111 Conn. App. 143 (2008))
There are three stages of analysis regarding the equitable distribution of each resource: (1) whether the resource is property to be equitably distributed (classification); (2) what is the appropriate method for determining the value of the property (valuation); and, (3) what is the most equitable distribution of the property between the parties (distribution). (Krafick v. Krafick, 663 A.2d 365, 234 Conn. 783 (1995))
The nonmonetary contributions of one spouse may enable the other spouse to acquire tangible marital assets. Therefore, nonmonetary contributions, including homemaking, are accorded value in equitable distribution determinations. (O'Neill v. O'Neill, 536 A.2d 978, 13 Conn. App. 300 (1988))
A distribution of assets that is not monetarily equal is not inequitable on that basis alone. Equitable distributions may at times be monetarily unequal. Courts are not required to allocate assets equally, but equitably. (Riccio v. Riccio, 194 A.3d 337, 183 Conn. App. 823 (2018))
Valentine v. Valentine, 141 A.3d 884, 164 Conn. App. 354 (2016) provides one example of a court upholding a distribution of assets on the basis that the distribution was equitable. The Connecticut Appellate Court affirmed the trial court's decision to remove a husband from the mortgage on the marital home after eight years. The Appellate Court found that this was fair considering the wife's circumstances, including her capability to seek gainful employment, and that the distribution was not disproportionately unfavorable to her.
In exercising its authority to assign property in a divorce, a court must consider the factors laid out in Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-81(c):
(c) In fixing the nature and value of the property, if any, to be assigned, the court, after considering all the evidence presented by each party, shall consider the length of the marriage, the causes for the annulment, dissolution of the marriage or legal separation, the age, health, station, occupation, amount and sources of income, earning capacity, vocational skills, education, employability, estate, liabilities and needs of each of the parties and the opportunity of each for future acquisition of capital assets and income. The court shall also consider the contribution of each of the parties in the acquisition, preservation or appreciation in value of their respective estates.
As the Connecticut Supreme Court stated in Lopiano v. Lopiano, 752 A.2d 1000, 247 Conn. 356 (1998), Connecticut has an all-property equitable distribution scheme for dividing property upon divorce. Property can be allocated however a court deems appropriate, regardless of the timing or method of the acquisition of the property (at 363-364):
"The distribution of assets in a dissolution action is governed by § 46b-81, which provides in pertinent part that a trial court may `assign to either the husband or the wife all or any part of the estate of the other.... In fixing the nature and value of the property, if any,
[247 Conn. 364]
to be assigned, the court, after hearing the witnesses, if any, of each party ... shall consider the length of the marriage, the causes for the ... dissolution of the marriage ... the age, health, station, occupation, amount and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, estate, liabilities and needs of each of the parties and the opportunity of each for future acquisition of capital assets and income. The court shall also consider the contribution of each of the parties in the acquisition, preservation or appreciation in value of their respective estates.' ... This approach to property division is commonly referred to as an `all-property' equitable distribution scheme. See 3 Family Law and Practice (A. Rutkin ed., 1995) § 37.01  [a] [v], p. 37-19. [Section 46b-81] does not limit, either by timing or method of acquisition or by source of funds, the property subject to a trial court's broad allocative power. A. Rutkin, E. Effron & K. Hogan, 7 Connecticut Practice Series: Family Law and Practice with Forms (1991) § 27.1, pp. 398-400." "(Emphasis in original.) Krafick v. Krafick, 234 Conn. 783, 792, 663 A.2d 365 (1995)."
In Bender v. Bender, 785 A.2d 197, 258 Conn. 733 (2001), the Connecticut Supreme Court indicated that trial courts are granted broad discretion in determining how to allocate property equitably. Thus, equitable distribution determinations are reviewed only for abuse of discretion (at 743 -744):
We repeatedly have stated, and several recent decisions from this court reflect, that trial courts are empowered "to deal broadly with property and its equitable division incident to dissolution proceedings." Id., 365. Although the issue of whether unvested pension benefits are property subject to equitable distribution under § 46b-81 is one of first impression for this court, those cases guide our resolution of the present case.
In Thompson v. Thompson, 183 Conn. 96, 98, 438 A.2d 839 (1981), a dissolution action involving property division and alimony orders, the plaintiff claimed that the trial court, in formulating its orders, had abused its discretion by relying on evidence of unvested pension benefits and a potential inheritance that the plaintiff might receive. With respect to the unvested pension benefits, we concluded that they were not "too speculative in nature to be considered by a court fashioning alimony and property assignment orders." Id., 100. We reasoned that "[p]ension benefits represent a form of deferred compensation for services rendered. In re Marriage of Brown, 15 Cal. 3d 838, 845, 544 P.2d 561 [126 Cal. Rptr. 633] (1976). As such they are conceptually
[258 Conn. 744]
similar to wages. General Statutes §§ 46b-81 (c) and 46b-82 both require the trial court to consider, inter alia, the occupation and the amount and sources of income of each of the parties when ordering property assignments and alimony. Just as current and future wages are properly taken into account under these statutes, so may unaccrued pension benefits, a source of future income, be considered. See Foster & Freed, `Spousal Rights in Retirement and Pension Benefits,' 16 J. of Fam. L. 187, 196-200 (1977-78)." Thompson v. Thompson, supra, 100.
In Watson v. Watson, 607 A.2d 383, 221 Conn. 698 (1992), the Connecticut Supreme Court explained that trial courts are granted wide discretion in determining the equitable division of property in any given divorce because this is necessary to account for the infinite range of circumstances that could be relevant, depending on the case at hand (at 712-713):
While we conclude that the trial court did not properly consider the plaintiff's
contribution toward the acquisition of the marital assets, including the family home, we recognize that the trial court must be accorded discretion in fashioning an equitable assignment of property. " 'The power to act equitably is the keystone to the court's ability to fashion relief in the infinite variety of circumstances which arise out of the dissolution of a marriage. Without this wide discretion and broad equitable power, the courts in some cases [221 Conn. 713] might be unable fairly to resolve the parties' dispute ...' " Sunbury v. Sunbury, 210 Conn. 170, 174, 553 A.2d 612 (1989). " 'While the trial court must consider the delineated statutory criteria, no single criterion is preferred over the others, and the court is accorded wide latitude in varying the weight placed upon each item under the peculiar circumstances of each case....' " (Citation omitted.) Id., at 174-75, 553 A.2d 612. Accordingly, we remand this case to the trial court for a new hearing on all financial matters.
In Krafick v. Krafick, 663 A.2d 365, 234 Conn. 783 (1995), the Connecticut Supreme Court laid out the three steps a court takes when determining how to allocate a particular unit of property (at 792-793):
There are three stages of analysis regarding the equitable distribution of each resource: first, whether the resource is property within § 46b-81 to be equitably distributed (classification); second, what is the appropriate[234 Conn. 793] method for determining the value of the property (valuation); and third, what is the most equitable distribution of the property between the parties (distribution). The present case concerns the proper treatment of the defendant's vested pension under all three stages of our equitable distribution scheme.
The Connecticut Appellate Court stated in Picton v. Picton, 958 A.2d 763, 111 Conn. App. 143 (2008) that trial courts have discretion in determining how much weight to give to each of the statutory factors found in Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-81. Specifically, when assessing how to distribute a particular asset, trial courts are not required to place greater weight on the source of the asset, i.e., which spouse owns it, than on other factors (at 152-153):
Here, the court clearly found that the plaintiff was the record owner of the Cape Cod property and that he had been responsible for the major renovations and upgrades made to the home. Although the plaintiff argues that the court did not give sufficient weight to those facts, the weight to be given one fact or factor over another is within the court's discretion. "Although it is not improper for the trial court to consider the actual source or ownership of an asset, these are but two factors to be considered in reaching an equitable division in dissolution proceedings. The fact that a particular asset belongs to one spouse may cause the trial court to be predisposed to awarding it to its named owner; however, if the marital estate is otherwise insufficient to maintain the other spouse, the court must be able to exercise its discretion in arriving at an equitable distribution, taking into consideration the needs and assets of both parties.... Unlike provisions in effect in many other jurisdictions that limit distributions to property based upon how and when it was acquired,
[111 Conn.App. 153]
§ 46b-81 does not draw such
[958 A.2d 769]
distinctions." Lopiano v. Lopiano, 247 Conn. 356, 370-71, 752 A.2d 1000 (1998).
In O'Neill v. O'Neill, 536 A.2d 978, 13 Conn. App. 300 (1988) ("O'Neill"), the Connecticut Appellate Court established that nonmonetary contributions to a marriage, just like monetary contributions, are among the factors that should be considered in the equitable distribution analysis (at 311):
A property division ought to accord value to those nonmonetary contributions of one spouse which enable the other spouse to devote substantial effort to paid employment which, in turn, enables the family to acquire tangible marital assets. The investment of human capital in homemaking has worth and should be evaluated in a property division incident to a dissolution of marriage. We hold, accordingly, that an equitable distribution of property should take into consideration the plaintiff's contributions to the marriage, including homemaking activities and primary caretaking responsibilities.
The Connecticut Appellate Court established in Riccio v. Riccio, 194 A.3d 337, 183 Conn. App. 823 (2018) that equitable distribution does not mean equal distribution. Just as a spouse's nonmonetary contributions are relevant to determining an equitable distribution in the first place (as stated in O'Neill, supra), nonmonetary considerations are relevant when an appellate court considers whether a lower court abused its discretion. Accordingly, a distribution will not be set aside solely on the basis of being monetarily unequal. Distributing 78 percent of marital property to one spouse is not necessarily inequitable; nor is distributing 90 percent to one spouse. The only requirement is that the court consider the statutory factors to determine what it deems equitable (at 827-828):
We have considered carefully the plaintiff's various arguments in support of his claim regarding the court's financial orders, and we conclude that he has not established that the court has misapplied the law, abused its discretion or committed clear error. The court's distribution of the parties' assets, although not equal in monetary terms, is not inequitable solely on the basis of that disparity. See, e.g., O'Brien v. O'Brien, 326 Conn. 81, 122, 161 A.3d 1236 (2017) ("[A] distribution ratio of 78 percent to 22 percent is not, on its face, excessive, as the
[183 Conn.App. 828]
plaintiff contends. Indeed, we have upheld distributions awarding as much as 90 percent of the marital estate to one party."). Our thorough review of the record leads us to conclude that the court properly considered the appropriate statutory factors, and that its orders were both supported by its findings and within its broad discretion.
The Connecticut Appellate Court considered a trial court's distribution of divorcing spouses' property in Valentine v. Valentine, 141 A.3d 884, 164 Conn. App. 354 (2016). The Court upheld the trial court's decision to award the marital home to the wife, while removing the husband from liability on the mortgage after eight years. The trial court also had ordered the wife to seek to refinance the mortgage within that time, and to sell the home after eight years if unable to refinance it. The Appellate Court held that this distribution was equitable, reasoning that it did not impose an overly burdensome financial obligation on the wife or render her destitute. The Court found that the distribution was fair and reasonably considered the wife's abilities (at 366-367):
Despite the court's finding that the defendant had been the primary wage earner during the marriage, and had utilized savings and an inheritance of stock worth $50,000 from his father to pay bills, as well as evidence that the defendant also had contributed to the upkeep of and improvements to the marital home, the court awarded the defendant no interest in the home, but did determine that it was fair to remove him from liability on the mortgage after no more than an eight year period of time. In sum, there was a reasonable basis in the evidence for the court to conclude that in eight years' time, the plaintiff would be capable of continuing to pay the mortgage payments and improving both her income and credit circumstances in order to refinance the mortgage loan and relieve the defendant, who was not awarded any part of the parties' only significant marital asset, from any liability on the loan. If the plaintiff is unable to do this after eight years, she will have to sell the home, but at that time the parties' youngest child, born in 2003, will have attained majority and she
[164 Conn.App. 367]
will be able to keep any proceeds from the sale. We therefore conclude that the court's order was fair and equitable and that it did not constitute the imposition of a financial obligation on the plaintiff that she cannot possibly meet or that rendered her destitute. The court's orders with respect to the marital home do not offend the basic elements of fairness in light of the plaintiff's age, education, talents, good health, sources of unsalaried income, and ability to seek gainful employment. She has not been ordered
[141 A.3d 893]
to refinance the home during the next eight years, but only to make an attempt to do so. She can choose not to participate in a refinancing and elect to sell the home, in which the court determined she had substantial equity, pay off the mortgage and keep any proceeds of the sale. In view of financial orders and a property division where she obtained a greater share of the marital assets, we conclude that the court's division of the parties' sole significant asset was not disproportionately unfavorable to the plaintiff.