Bender v. Bender, (SC 16434)

CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
Writing for the CourtBORDEN, J.
Citation785 A.2d 197,258 Conn. 733
PartiesSHARON BENDER v. MARK BENDER
Docket Number(SC 16434)
Decision Date18 December 2001

258 Conn. 733
785 A.2d 197

SHARON BENDER
v.
MARK BENDER

(SC 16434)

Supreme Court of Connecticut.

Argued May 22, 2001.

Officially released December 18, 2001.


Borden, Norcott, Katz, Vertefeuille and Zarella, Js.

Barry T. Pontolillo, for the appellant (defendant).

Joseph R. Galotti, Jr., for the appellee (plaintiff).

Arnold H. Rutkin of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and Sarah S. Oldham of the Connecticut Bar Association Family Law Section filed a joint brief as amicus curiae.

Opinion

BORDEN, J.

The principal issue in this certified appeal is whether, in a dissolution action, unvested pension benefits are property subject to equitable distribution pursuant to General Statutes § 46b-81.1 Following our grant of certification to appeal, the defendant

258 Conn. 736
appeals from the judgment of the Appellate Court affirming the judgment of the trial court. The trial court had ordered, among other things, that the plaintiff, Sharon Bender, would be entitled, in the event that the pension of the defendant, Mark Bender, ultimately vested, to one half of the pension benefits earned by him through the date of the dissolution decree. The defendant claims that the trial court's award of his unvested pension benefits was impermissibly speculative. We conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in formulating its financial award with respect to the defendant's pension benefits. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court

The trial court found the following facts. The plaintiff and the defendant, who were married in 1976, have four children, two of whom were minors at the time of trial. In July, 1997, the plaintiff brought this dissolution action, claiming custody of the minor children, child support, alimony and a property distribution.

The principal cause for the breakdown of the marriage was the fact that nearly all of the defendant's free time was spent in pursuits that did not include the plaintiff or their children, including his hobbies of motorcycling, boating and fishing. The defendant also had at least one adulterous relationship during the marriage. The court further found that there had been some violence on the part of the defendant. Despite the defendant's fairly good income, additional income from the plaintiffs part-time employment and from the defendant's lawn services and snow plowing, and minimal housing expenses, the parties had acquired virtually no assets and no savings. Furthermore, nearly all of the parties' discretionary income had been expended on the defendant's personal pursuits.

The following facts relate to the defendant's retirement benefits. At the time of trial, the defendant had

258 Conn. 737
been employed as a firefighter by the city of Meriden for approximately nineteen years. The defendant is entitled to a pension as a firefighter in the event that he reaches twenty-five years of service. His pension, therefore, is unvested,2 except for purposes of disability. If the defendant were to leave the fire department before twenty-five years of service, other than for a disability, he would receive only his contributions made to the pension, which, at the time of trial, were valued at approximately $27,741

In October, 1998, the trial court rendered a judgment dissolving their marriage. The trial court awarded joint custody of the minor children to the parties, and ordered the defendant to pay child support to the plaintiff for the minor children in the amount of $255 per week. In addition to issuing certain orders of property distribution, the court ordered the defendant to pay the plaintiff periodic alimony of $200 per week. The court expressly ordered that the defendant's alimony obligation would not be terminable upon any remarriage or cohabitation of the plaintiff. The amount of alimony ordered would be modifiable upward at any time, and

258 Conn. 738
modifiable downward in the event that the plaintiff actually began to receive payments pursuant to, what the trial court characterized as, a qualified domestic relations order, or QDRO.3

Pursuant to that domestic relations order, the trial court ordered "that until such time, if any, as [the] defendant's right to receive retirement benefits from the city of Meriden vests, [the] plaintiff shall be the beneficiary of, and be entitled to receive, the refundable contributions, with accrued interest or yield thereon, if any, made by or on behalf of [the] defendant if such contributions, etc., shall ever become payable by the city of Meriden. And there is hereby entered a [domestic relations order] assigning to [the] plaintiff one half of the disability and/or retirement benefits earned by [the defendant] from his employment by the city of Meriden for his labors for said city through the date of this decree. (The court is aware that [the] defendant's right to receive retirement benefits has not yet vested.)" The court further ordered "that the defendant shall maintain, and promptly pay all premiums therefor, life insurance on his life in the unencumbered face amount of $100,000.00 payable to [the] plaintiff until such time as the plaintiff begins to receive payments pursuant to the [domestic relations order]...."

The defendant appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court, claiming that, in formulating

258 Conn. 739
its financial orders, the trial court improperly had awarded the unvested pension benefits to the plaintiff instead of utilizing the known present value of the contributions into the pension. Specifically, the defendant argued that, because the only evidence presented at trial with respect to the pension's value was the present value of his contributions into the pension fund, there was no evidence in the record to support the trial court's treatment of the unvested pension benefits. The Appellate Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court. Bender v. Bender, 60 Conn. App. 252, 257, 758 A.2d 890 (2000)

The defendant filed a petition for certification to appeal from the judgment of the Appellate Court to this court. We granted certification limited to the following issue: "Did the Appellate Court properly conclude that the trial court's award of the defendant's nonvested pension benefit was not impermissibly speculative?" Bender v. Bender, 255 Conn. 914, 763 A.2d 1037 (2000). After reviewing the record and the parties' briefs, however, we rephrase the issue as follows: "In a dissolution action, are unvested pension benefits property subject to equitable distribution pursuant to § 46b-81, and, if so, how should they be valued and distributed?" See Stamford Hospital v. Vega, 236 Conn. 646, 648-49 n.1, 674 A.2d 821 (1996) (this court may rephrase certified questions in order to render them more accurate in framing issues that case presents). We conclude that the unvested pension benefits are property subject to equitable distribution, and we set out in part II of this opinion the permissible methods of valuation and distribution. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.

Before reaching the defendant's claim on appeal, we briefly address the applicable standard of review. "An appellate court will not disturb a trial court's orders in domestic relations cases unless the court has abused

258 Conn. 740
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.... Knock v. Knock, 224 Conn. 776, 795, 621 A.2d 267 (1993)." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Smith v. Smith, 249 Conn. 265, 282-83, 752 A.2d 1023 (1999)

As a general framework, "[t]here are three stages of analysis regarding the equitable distribution of each resource: first, whether the resource is property within § 46b-81 to be equitably distributed (classification); second, what is the appropriate method for determining the value of the property (valuation); and third, what is the most equitable distribution of the property between the parties (distribution). [Krafick v. Krafick, 234 Conn. 783, 792-93, 663 A.2d 365 (1995)]." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Lopiano v. Lopiano, 247 Conn. 356, 364, 752 A.2d 1000 (1998).

The certified question requires us to address: (1) whether unvested pension benefits, as a threshold matter, are "property" within the meaning of § 46b-81 subject to equitable distribution upon dissolution; and (2) if so, what methods are available to value and distribute such benefits. We address these in turn.

I

We distill from the defendant's brief his claim that his unvested pension benefits are not property subject to equitable distribution under § 46b-81. The plaintiff claims, to the contrary, that the defendant's interest in his unvested pension benefits is not a mere expectancy, but rather, a presently existing property interest, and, therefore, his unvested pension benefits constitute

258 Conn. 741
property subject to equitable distribution.4 We agree with the plaintiff.

The threshold question of whether unvested pension benefits constitute "property" pursuant to § 46b-81 presents a question of statutory interpretation. "The process of statutory interpretation involves a reasoned search for the intention of the legislature. Frillici v. Westport, 231 Conn. 418, 431, 650 A.2d 557 (1994). In other words, we seek to determine, in a reasoned manner, the meaning of the statutory language as applied to the facts of this case, including the question of whether the language actually does apply. In seeking to determine that meaning, we look to the words of the statute itself, to the legislative history and circumstances surrounding its enactment, to the legislative policy it was designed to implement, and to its relationship to existing legislation and common law principles governing the same general subject matter.......

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112 practice notes
  • Lee v. Aig Cas. Co., No. 3:08CV01897.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Connecticut)
    • January 24, 2013
    ...the “Bender formulation.” State v. Courchesne, 262 Conn. 537, 563, 816 A.2d 562 (2003) (citing [919 F.Supp.2d 228]Bender v. Bender, 258 Conn. 733, 785 A.2d 197 (2001)). In Courchesne, the Court noted that under the Bender formulation, it must engage in “a reasoned search for the meaning of ......
  • Sousa v. Sousa, No. 19504.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • August 30, 2016
    ...v. Foster, 125 Conn.App. 441, 446, 8 A.3d 545 (2010) (same), cert. denied, 300 Conn. 904, 12 A.3d 572 (2011) ; see also Bender v. Bender, 258 Conn. 733, 761–62, 785 A.2d 197 (2001) (§ 46b–86 “confers authority on the trial courts to retain continuing jurisdiction over orders of periodic ali......
  • Mickey v. Mickey, No. 18126.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • July 21, 2009
    ...distribution within the meaning of § 46b-81 at the time of dissolution under the controlling two part test set forth in Bender v. Bender, 258 Conn. 733, 748-49, 785 A.2d 197 (2001). 974 A.2d 653 We begin our analysis by determining the appropriate standard of review. We are called on in thi......
  • Reville v. Reville, SC 18452
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • July 8, 2014
    ...subject to distribution pursuant to § 46b-81. In so concluding, the court reasoned that this court's decision in Bender v. Bender, 258 Conn. 733, 785 A.2d 197 (2001), which held that a party's unvested pension benefits were distributable marital property pursuant to § 46b-81, was inapplicab......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
112 cases
  • Lee v. Aig Cas. Co., No. 3:08CV01897.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Connecticut)
    • January 24, 2013
    ...the “Bender formulation.” State v. Courchesne, 262 Conn. 537, 563, 816 A.2d 562 (2003) (citing [919 F.Supp.2d 228]Bender v. Bender, 258 Conn. 733, 785 A.2d 197 (2001)). In Courchesne, the Court noted that under the Bender formulation, it must engage in “a reasoned search for the meaning of ......
  • Sousa v. Sousa, No. 19504.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • August 30, 2016
    ...v. Foster, 125 Conn.App. 441, 446, 8 A.3d 545 (2010) (same), cert. denied, 300 Conn. 904, 12 A.3d 572 (2011) ; see also Bender v. Bender, 258 Conn. 733, 761–62, 785 A.2d 197 (2001) (§ 46b–86 “confers authority on the trial courts to retain continuing jurisdiction over orders of periodic ali......
  • Mickey v. Mickey, No. 18126.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • July 21, 2009
    ...distribution within the meaning of § 46b-81 at the time of dissolution under the controlling two part test set forth in Bender v. Bender, 258 Conn. 733, 748-49, 785 A.2d 197 (2001). 974 A.2d 653 We begin our analysis by determining the appropriate standard of review. We are called on in thi......
  • Reville v. Reville, SC 18452
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • July 8, 2014
    ...subject to distribution pursuant to § 46b-81. In so concluding, the court reasoned that this court's decision in Bender v. Bender, 258 Conn. 733, 785 A.2d 197 (2001), which held that a party's unvested pension benefits were distributable marital property pursuant to § 46b-81, was inapplicab......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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