SC Year In Review: Child Support Rulings Focus On Wealthy Parents
During the past term, the Supreme Court has readdressed how child support awards should be developed when the parents are high income earners.
At trial of Tuckman v. Tuckman, 308 Conn. 194 (2013), the defendant sought an unallocated alimony and child support order. The trial court awarded her no alimony and child support of $250 per child per week. The defendant asked the court to articulate whether it had accepted either party's child support calculation worksheet and to identify what the trial court had found the net income of each party to be. The court did not address these requests.
The defendant appealed, claiming that the child support award was insufficient. The Appellate Court held that the trial court had abused its discretion by failing to follow the guidelines' tables, and by failing to make any reference to the child support guidelines in its memorandum of decision. It reversed the financial orders of the lower court and ordered a new trial. It did not reach other issues raised by the defendant.
The Supreme Court granted certification, initially, on two issues: 1) whether the Appellate Court properly invoked the mosaic rule to reverse all financial orders when it had not considered the defendant's arguments concerning alimony, property and attorney's fees; and 2) whether the Appellate Court properly determined that the trial court failed to apply the child support guidelines when the defendant had not filed the required guidelines worksheet and had sought unallocated alimony and child support.
The plaintiff argued that the trial court was not required to make reference to the guidelines nor to state deviation criteria because the defendant sought an unallocated order and did not make reference to the guidelines in her proposed orders at trial. He further argued that by seeking unallocated support of more than $7,500, the defendant had conceded that the child support guidelines would be inapplicable to the case. The Supreme Court disagreed.
Citing to the 2010 case of Maturo, the Court reiterated that the guidelines are to be considered in all determinations of child support, regardless of the wealth of parents. Furthermore, if the trial court determines that the amount of an award that would result from the application of the guidelines to the facts of the case is inappropriate, it must make a specific finding on the record that the guidelines result would be inequitable or inappropriate. That determination must be based upon the deviation criteria enunciated in the guidelines.
The Court's opinion also addressed an issue that the defendant had raised but which had not been reached at the Appellate Court: whether the trial court had properly determined that the defendant's Subchapter S income should be included in her annual net income for purposes of setting child support. The Court agreed with the defendant that the trial court improperly relied on her personal tax returns when setting alimony and child support orders and should have analyzed whether pass through income of an S Corporation of which she was a shareholder was available to her for purposes of support.
Because the trial court failed to determine the defendant's available income and abused its discretion as to the child support orders that it entered, the Court affirmed the Appellate Court's judgment, directing that there be a reversal of "the entirety" of the trial court's financial orders and a remand for a new trial.
Given the rulings in Kelman and Hughes relaxing the precision with which a court must demonstrate its compliance with the imperative of basing support orders on net income, it is noteworthy that the Court found that it was not enough that the trial court had stated that it had considered the parties' gross and net income because it had not determined their net income in its memorandum of decision. Also, of interest, given the remand of only the child support orders in Maturo and Misthopoulos, was that the Court did not take the opportunity to further erode the mosaic rule, finding that the trial court's errors left it uncertain whether the remaining financial awards "will remain intact."
Interpreting The Guidelines