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Rubenstein v. Rubenstein

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

April 18, 2017

JEFFREY RUBENSTEIN
v.
BONNIE RUBENSTEIN

          Argued January 17, 2017

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of New London, Hon. Hadley W. Austin, judge trial referee [dissolution judgment]; Moukawsher, J. [motion for modification].

          Michael J. Cartier, for the appellant (defendant).

          Sandra M. McDonough, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          Sheldon, Beach and Pellegrino, Js.

          OPINION

          SHELDON, J.

         The defendant, Bonnie Rubenstein, appeals from the judgment of the trial court modifying the periodic alimony order that she previously had been ordered to pay to the plaintiff, her former husband, Jeffrey Rubenstein. Although the defendant's brief is not a model of clarity, her claims on appeal can be distilled as follows. The defendant claims that the trial court erred in modifying the alimony order because (1) it improperly relied upon the defendant's receipt of an inheritance as the substantial change in circumstances upon which it based said modification, (2) it erroneously concluded that the plaintiff's financial circumstances had worsened since 2006, and (3) it improperly changed the character of the alimony award when it ordered an increased periodic order of alimony instead of the lump sum that the plaintiff had requested. We disagree with all of the defendant's claims, and therefore affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The following facts and procedural history are relevant to our discussion. ‘‘In March, 1996, the plaintiff filed an action seeking to dissolve the parties' three and one-half year marriage. In September, 1997, while the dissolution action was pending, the defendant removed the parties' minor son from Connecticut in derogation of the court's orders. . . . A few months after the disappearance of the defendant, on December 5, 1997, the court, Hon. Hadley W. Austin, judge trial referee, dissolved the parties' marriage and, after finding that the plaintiff had accumulated considerable debt in the search for his son, ordered the defendant to pay alimony and child support to the plaintiff. The alimony order stated specifically that ‘[t]he defendant shall pay to the plaintiff the amount of$50 per week as alimony, without prejudice.' The whereabouts of the defendant and the child were not known until 2002, when they were discovered by federal law enforcement officers and returned to Connecticut.

         ‘‘Following the defendant's return to the jurisdiction, both parties filed motions to modify the December, 1997 alimony and child support award. Following a July 11, 2006 hearing at which both parties testified, the court, Gordon, J., on November 16, 2006, filed a memorandum of decision construing the parties' motions to modify as motions for de novo review of the alimony order. The court concluded that ‘[b]oth the plaintiff and the defendant have good earning capacities, but the plaintiff's financial situation was more dire, and moreover, it was caused by the conduct of the defendant. It is only equitable that she assists his support through a continuing order of alimony. Therefore, the court [orders that] the defendant shall pay to the plaintiff, as alimony, $50 per week until the death of either party. . . .' '' (Footnote omitted.) Rubenstein v. Rubenstein, 107 Conn.App. 488, 491-93, 945 A.2d 1043, cert. Denied, 289 Conn. 948, 960 A.2d 1037 (2008). The defendant appealed the trial court's 2006 alimony order, which this court affirmed. Id.

         In 2015, the court, Moukawsher, J., revisited the alimony order when the parties again filed dueling motions to modify. Following an evidentiary hearing, the trial court issued a memorandum of decision wherein it found that there had been a substantial change in circumstances that justified a modification of the order. After considering the parties' financial circumstances in accordance with the relevant statutory factors set forth in General Statutes § 46b-82, the court modified the periodic order from $50 per week to $200 per week.[1]Thereafter, the defendant moved for articulation of the trial court's decision, which was denied. This appeal followed.

         We begin by setting forth our standard of review. ‘‘An appellate court will not disturb a trial court's orders in domestic relations cases unless the court has abused its discretion or it is found that it could not reasonably conclude as it did, based on the facts presented. . . . In determining whether a trial court has abused its broad discretion in domestic relations matters, we allow every reasonable presumption in favor of the correctness of its action. . . .

         ‘‘Trial courts have broad discretion in deciding motions for modification. . . . Modification of alimony, after the date of a dissolution judgment, is governed by General Statutes § 46b-86. . . . When . . . the disputed issue is alimony, the applicable provision of the statute is § 46b-86 (a), which provides that a final order for alimony may be modified by the trial court upon a showing of a substantial change in the circumstances of either party. . . . The party seeking modification bears the burden of showing the existence of a substantial change in the circumstances. . . . The change may be in the circumstances of either party. . . . The date of the most recent prior proceeding in which an alimony order was entered is the appropriate date to use in determining whether a significant change in circumstances warrants a modification of an alimony award. . . .

         ‘‘In general the same sorts of [criteria] are relevant in deciding whether the decree may be modified as are relevant in making the initial award of alimony. . . . More specifically, these criteria, outlined in . . . § 46b-82, require the court to consider the needs and financial resources of each of the parties . . . as well as such factors as the causes for the dissolution of the marriage and the age, health, station, occupation, employability and amount and sources of income of the parties.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Schwarz v. Schwarz, 124 Conn.App. 472, 476-77, 5 A.3d 548, cert. denied, 299 Conn. 909, 10 A.3d 525 (2010).

         ‘‘Although financial orders in family matters are generally reviewed for an abuse of discretion . . . this court applies a less deferential standard when the decision of the trial court is based not on an exercise of discretion but on a purported principle of law. . . . Notwithstanding the great deference accorded the trial court in dissolution proceedings, a trial court's ruling . . . may be reversed if, in the exercise of its discretion, the trial court applies the wrong standard ...


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