RICHARD P. GABRIEL v. DIANA K. GABRIEL, SC 19571

Judicial District of Stamford-Norwalk

 

      Dissolution of Marriage; Whether Trial Court Improperly Modified Alimony and Child Support Order and Improperly Relied on General Statutes § 46b-224 in Excusing Plaintiff’s Unilateral Reduction in Amount of his Unallocated Alimony and Support Payment. The parties divorced in 2011.  Under the separation agreement incorporated into the dissolution judgment, the plaintiff was to pay unallocated alimony and child support to the defendant, and the plaintiff had the right to seek a modification of alimony on the basis of a substantial change in circumstances, so long as the change in circumstances was not based on the defendant's cohabitation.  The parties also agreed that they would share joint legal and physical custody of their minor children.  In 2012, the defendant relocated to California, and the parties entered into a stipulation, accepted by the court, that the children would reside primarily with the plaintiff.  The plaintiff then filed a motion for a downward modification of his child support obligation, claiming that the parties' financial circumstances had changed due to the defendant's relocation.  Before that motion was ruled on, the plaintiff unilaterally decreased his payments from $54,666 to $20,000 per month, and the defendant challenged that action by filing a motion for contempt.  The trial court, finding that the defendant's financial needs were reduced significantly by her relocation and cohabitation with a man who was paying a portion of her household expenses, granted the plaintiff's motion for modification, reducing his alimony payments to $20,000 per month.  The court also denied the defendant's motion for contempt, explaining that, because General Statutes § 46b-224 suspends child support payments by operation of law if custody is transferred to the obligor, the plaintiff did not engage in self help or act wilfully in unilaterally reducing his unallocated payments to the defendant.  The defendant appealed, and the Appellate Court (159 Conn. App. 805) reversed, finding that the trial court improperly granted the plaintiff’s motion for modification of child support and improperly denied the defendant’s motion for contempt.  The plaintiff appeals, and the Supreme Court will decide whether the Appellate Court properly concluded that the trial court improperly (1) modified the unallocated alimony and child support order without first making specific findings under the child support guidelines, when the award was modified to an alimony award because the obligor became the primary custodial parent and the recipient no longer receives child support; (2) considered the financial impact of the defendant's cohabitation in fashioning a modified alimony award, despite the fact that a substantial change in circumstances was established on a different basis; and (3) relied on § 46b-224 in concluding that the plaintiff had not acted wilfully in unilaterally reducing the unallocated alimony and support payments to the defendant after he became the primary custodial parent.