State/Prov.  : Connecticut

Case name    : Mekrut v. Suits

Case #          : 147 Conn. App. 794, 84 A.3D 466 (2014)

Court             : Connecticut Appellate Court

Reviewed by : Nicole DiGiose and David Griffin

Main issue     : Agreements

Husband and Wife entered into a marital separation agreement, which was incorporated into their judgment of divorce. Based on the agreement, the Husband was required to pay $550 per week in alimony until August 13, 2014, and thereafter $450 per week until August 13, 2019.    Two years after the marriage was dissolved, the Husband was terminated from his employment and received $106,528.32 in a severance package. Five months after his termination, the Husband ceased making alimony payments. However, during that time he used more than $30,000 of his severance money on repaying various debts.

The Wife filed a first motion for contempt which was granted by the court. The court found that the Husband owed $8,415 in alimony and his failure to pay was wilful. The Husband filed a first motion to modify his alimony payment, which was denied because he failed to meet his burden of proving that a substantial change in circumstances had occurred. One month later, the Wife filed a second motion for contempt and the Husband filed a second motion for modification.  The Husband requested an evidentiary hearing but the judge denied his request and decided the second motions without a hearing. The court granted the Wife’s second motion for contempt and ordered the Husband to pay his arrears within ten days or face incarceration. The Husband failed to make the required payment and was incarcerated with a purge amount set for $16,460, the total amount of alimony owed. The Husband’s second motion for modification was denied.

“[A] court may not find a person in contempt without considering the circumstances surrounding the violation to determine whether such violation was wilful…. [T]he fact that the defendant had other financial obligations did not excuse him from complying with a clear court order.” The Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s decision that the Husband’s failure to continue making alimony payments was wilful. While he was not required to allocate his entire severance package to alimony, he was obliged to budget the funds in a way that allowed him to comply with the court’s order.

Under Olson v. Mohammadu, 310 Conn. 665 (2013), a party seeking a modification of a support order bears the burden to show a substantial change in circumstances has occurred.  Furthermore, “the alleged inability to pay must be excusable and not brought about by the defendant’s own fault. [I]f a party’s culpable conduct causes the inability to pay an alimony award… then the threshold question of whether a substantial change in circumstances exists is not met.”  In Mekrut, the Appellate Court held that the Husband’s conduct of prematurely spending his severance package was culpable and he therefore could not meet his burden of showing that a substantial change in circumstances existed.

Lastly, the Appellate Court held that the trial court erred in denying the Husband’s repeated requests for an evidentiary hearing. “Due process of law requires that one charged with contempt of court be advised of the charges against him, have a reasonable opportunity to meet them by way of defense or explanation…and have a chance to testify and call other witnesses in his behalf, either by way of defense or explanation….[the party] has the right to demonstrate that his failure to comply with the order of the trial court was excusable.” Instead, the trial court decided the matter on the papers and determined that the Husband must pay the alimony owed within ten days or face incarnation. In doing so, the trial court violated the Husband’s due process rights.

Nicole DiGiose and David Griffin practice family law with the Connecticut law firm of Rutkin, Oldham & Griffin.