Impact of nonmonetary spousal contributions in a Connecticut divorce

On Behalf of | Sep 29, 2021 | Property Division

In a Connecticut divorce, there is no simple formula for dividing assets. The courts are not tasked with merely adding up total assets and dividing by two in a clear-cut mathematical operation. Connecticut law gives judges broad discretion when dividing assets between divorcing spouses. The court generally follows statutory guidelines, and evaluates the evidence presented, to arrive at a fair and equitable division of property. What is fair and equitable is not necessarily measured like information on a balance sheet.

The all-property standard

Connecticut is unique as compared to most other states in that it allows the court to reassign ownership of property either spouse owned before marriage or through inheritance or gifting – an “all property” property division method. (Most states consider that kind of asset as off limits for division as separate or nonmarital property.) The court may assign any portion or all of the estate of one litigant to the other, depending on the individual circumstances of the case.

Factors relevant to asset division

The factors that the Connecticut family court judge must weigh in making property division decisions in divorce:

  • Marriage duration
  • Reasons for divorce
  • Ages of spouses
  • Spousal health
  • Stations, meaning standard of living
  • Parties’ occupations
  • Amount and sources of income
  • Earning capacity of each party
  • Spouses’ vocational skills
  • Education of parties
  • Each party’s employability
  • Estate, meaning size and nature of all property subject to division
  • Each party’s liabilities and needs
  • Each spouse’s opportunity to acquire income and capital assets in the future

In addition, the court must consider the “contribution of each of the parties in the acquisition, preservation or appreciation in value of their respective estates.” CT Gen Stat § 46b-82. Disputes may involve issues that go beyond paperwork, tax statements and financial ledgers. Evidence may exist that shows nonmonetary contributions of one litigant to the overall growth of household income, assets and wealth. Notably, the law does not require that the judge consider spousal contribution in the alimony context – just in property division.

No single factor (or subset of factors) has garnered favor with the courts — none is more important than the others. But while they may carry equal legal weight, the court may give the significance it finds appropriate to each factor after considering the evidence. The law does not require the judge to specifically include in their written finding and conclusions how they evaluated any one factor but must only indicate generally that they followed the legal mandate to consider all the factors.

Spousal contribution to asset value

Much has been litigated in Connecticut courts about the kinds of spousal contributions that the court may consider. Obviously, there are measurable, monetary contributions a spouse might make. For example, they could work and use their income to enhance the value of real estate or of personal property.

What about more intangible contributions to property subject to division? The most important Connecticut case on this question is O’Neill v O’Neill, 13 Conn.App. 300 (1988). While O’Neill is from the Appellate Court of Connecticut, the state Supreme Court has declined to review the case and lower courts treat it as the leading authority.

The O’Neill court explained that the statute does not define “contribution” and that the word is ambiguous as written about whether it includes not only financial contributions, but also nonfinancial contributions like homemaking and providing care of children. Because of the ambiguity, the judge looked to legislative intent, concluding that there is no evidence legislators meant to prevent consideration of nonmonetary spousal contributions.

The judge examined with approval decisions from other states in which courts had held that equitable division of property must take into consideration noneconomic contributions like keeping the home, caring for children and playing an “[essential] supportive role in the family unit.”

The court found that property division cannot be equitable without weighing both the economic and noneconomic contributions of both parties. A spouse’s nonmonetary contributions “[enable] the family to acquire tangible marital assets … [and] human capital in homemaking has worth …”

Examples of nonmonetary contributions

In Smith v. Smith, an unpublished trial court case, the judge explained the importance of nonmonetary marital contributions. There, the wife supported the husband’s education and career, and cared for their child as well as her husband’s children. They both worked and maintained their home. The court found that the wife’s contributions to the husband and family over almost 20 years were “as significant and important to the accumulation and preservation of marital assets as are the contributions of the [husband].” 2002 WL 323524 (2002).

To delve further into these concepts, the unpublished trial court decision in the divorce case of Wendt v. Wendt provides an almost 200-page overview of the history of nonmonetary marital contribution and how Connecticut law and courts have approached it historically. This was the divorce of the CEO of General Electric Capital Services, Inc. (GECS), and his spouse who contributed as a homemaker and “corporate wife” after a 31-year marriage. 1998 WL 161165, affirmed on appeal at 59 Conn.App. 656 (2000).

The judge in Wendt wrote that the O’Neill mandate that courts must consider the nonmonetary contributions of both partners in property division is “well entrenched.” There is no presumption that the division should be 50-50 nor is there any formula to apply. The opinion is replete with examples of the difficulty of assigning money value to intangible marital contributions like problem solving, emotional support and love that may have given the other spouse the foundation upon which to build for the family material and financial success. Rather it is within the court’s broad discretion to divide property as equitable in the judge’s opinion.

Preparing the evidence for presentation in court, as well as understanding how each factor may operate among the other factors are important in litigating property division disputes. Understanding how judges evaluate evidence, as well as the interplay between separate facts to compose a complete picture may be beneficial in family court. A sophisticated lawyer can help to provide thorough analysis of all the circumstances and a strategic plan that can be presented to obtain meaningful results.