Crews v. Crews

Decision Date29 April 2008
Docket NumberNo. 26996.,26996.
Citation107 Conn.App. 279,945 A.2d 502
CourtConnecticut Court of Appeals
PartiesMelinda CREWS v. Stephen CREWS.


This case highlights the difference between dissolution actions that proceed in equity and those subject to an antenuptial agreement entered into before 1995, which are adjudicated under principles of contract law. On appeal, the defendant, Stephen L. Crews, claims that the trial court improperly (1) failed to enforce the terms of the parties' antenuptial agreement (agreement), (2) ordered him to maintain a life insurance policy in the amount of $1.5 million, (3) ordered him to make certain periodic payments and (4) made clearly erroneous factual findings. We agree that the court improperly failed to enforce the agreement and thus reverse, in part, the judgment of the trial court.

The plaintiff, Melinda Crews, initiated this action in May, 2004. In her one count complaint, the plaintiff alleged the date of the parties' marriage, that there were two minor children of the marriage and that the marriage had broken down irretrievably, in addition to the necessary jurisdictional allegations. In her prayer for relief, the plaintiff asked for a dissolution of marriage, alimony, child support, sole custody of the minor children, assignment of the defendant's interest in 3 Fairview Drive, Westport (marital home), an equitable division of the marital assets, attorney's fees and such other relief as the court deemed fair and equitable.

The defendant filed an answer and a two count cross complaint on April 18, 2005. The defendant admitted all of the allegations of the plaintiff's complaint. The allegations of count one of the defendant's cross complaint essentially mirrored the allegations of the plaintiff's complaint. In count two, the defendant alleged that the parties validly and voluntarily had entered into the agreement on June 24, 1988, following full disclosure of their individual financial affairs. He also alleged that at the time the agreement was signed, each of the parties was represented by independent counsel. Furthermore, he alleged that the circumstances of the parties at the time of dissolution were not so beyond their contemplation on June 24, 1988, that enforcement of the agreement would cause an injustice. With respect to count one, the defendant sought a dissolution of the parties' marriage, joint custody of the minor children, an assignment of so much of the plaintiff's estate as the court deemed reasonable and proper and such other relief consistent with equity and good conscience. As to court two, the defendant prayed for a dissolution of the parties' marriage, joint custody of the parties' minor children and enforcement of the agreement. The plaintiff admitted in her answer to the cross complaint that the parties had signed the agreement but denied the remainder of the allegations of count two.

After the parties presented evidence in June, 2005, the court recounted the following evidence relevant to the issues on appeal. The parties met at a corporate outing when they both were employed by the General Electric Corporation (General Electric). At the time, the defendant was the divorced father of three children. The plaintiff had not been married previously. The defendant holds a bachelor's degree; the plaintiff has bachelor's and master's degrees. The defendant was then residing in the future marital home, a house that he had purchased from his mother in an arm's-length transaction on December 31, 1986. The plaintiff owned a condominium unit in Bridgeport. At the time, each of the parties had bank accounts, pension plans and investments.

The parties became engaged in January, 1988, and were married on June 25, 1988. About one year prior to their wedding, the defendant raised the subject of an antenuptial agreement. The defendant believed he had been "burned" in his previous divorce and declared: "No agreement; no wedding!" The plaintiff told the defendant that she was "no fan, but agreed with him in concept." The defendant described the agreement as a precondition to the wedding itself and presented the plaintiff with a draft of the agreement on May 31, 1988. The parties signed the agreement on June 24, 1988, one day before they were married.

Following their marriage, the parties resided in the marital home and had two children, a daughter born in May, 1989, and a learning disabled son born in May, 1992. Both parties were employed during their marriage, and initially each of them traveled extensively in connection with his or her employment. At the time of trial, the defendant had been employed by General Electric for thirty-nine years, where he earned an annual base salary of $131,0001 and regularly received annual bonuses. His annual net income was $98,540 at the time of dissolution. The court made no finding that the nature of the defendant's employment changed during the marriage from what it had been prior to the marriage. During the marriage, he also acquired General Electric stock and stock options, some of which was encumbered by margin loans. He also participated in two executive compensation plans in the 1990s.

The plaintiff was fifty-three at the time of dissolution. From 1981 through 1986, she was a technical writer for General Electric, earning $50,000 per year. She left General Electric to join Practice Media and later the NYNEX Corporation. She worked steadily during the marriage, except for a three month maternity leave she took following the birth of each child. After the birth of the parties' children and an automobile accident, the plaintiff decided that corporate travel was too much for her in addition to her responsibilities at home. In 1993, she formed her own business known as M. Crews & Company, LLC, which she operated out of the marital home until just prior to trial. The value of the plaintiff's business then was about $96,000, and she had an annual net income of $69,056.

The court found that the parties drifted apart over time and that both of them contributed to the disintegration of the marriage, but that the defendant bore a greater share of the blame for the breakdown because he "set the tone" for the marriage. He set the tone "starting with the antenuptial agreement"; (emphasis added); segregating assets, particularly the marital home, and by imposing a "heavy double burden" on the plaintiff to obtain gainful employment and to maintain the household, including primary responsibility for the children.

The court rendered judgment of dissolution by way of a memorandum of decision filed August 16, 2005.2 Pursuant to a motion to open, reargue and clarify filed by the defendant on August 25, 2005, the court issued an amendment to the memorandum of decision on September 19, 2005.

The court ordered the defendant to pay the plaintiff $1000 per month as nonmodifiable periodic alimony until the death of either party, the remarriage of the plaintiff or August 31, 2010, whichever occurred first, as well as $1439 monthly child support until the older child reached the age of eighteen at which time child support was to be adjusted in accordance with the child support guidelines or as the court may direct. The defendant also was ordered to maintain and pay for health insurance for each of the minor children as long as he is obligated to pay child support for the child. The court awarded the defendant exclusive possession of the marital home as of November 1, 2005, but ordered him to pay the plaintiff $450,000, nontaxable to her, for her contribution to the appreciation of the family home and a portion of his General Electric and SunW stock acquired since the time of the marriage. The defendant was ordered to maintain $1.5 million of existing life insurance, naming the plaintiff and the minor children as equal beneficiaries as long as he is obligated to pay alimony or child support. In addition, the court ordered the defendant to pay the plaintiff $25,000 for attorney's fees related to this action.

The court awarded the plaintiff a portion of the defendant's pension, deferred income and investment programs and permitted her to retain all of her own investments and pension plans, as well as her business and condominium. The parties retained their personal bank accounts. Additional facts will be discussed where necessary.

Although it is a creature of statute, generally speaking, a dissolution action is equitable in nature. See Loughlin v. Loughlin, 280 Conn. 632, 641, 910 A.2d 963 (2006). "The power to act equitably is the keystone to the court's ability to fashion relief in the infinite variety of circumstances which arise out of the dissolution of a marriage.... [I]n the exercise of its inherent equitable powers it may also consider any other factors [besides those enumerated in the statutes pertaining to dissolution] which may be appropriate for a just and equitable resolution of the marital dispute.... [I]n ... questions arising out of marital disputes, this court relies heavily on the exercise of sound discretion by the trial court.... A less deferential standard applies, however, when the decision of the trial court is based not on an exercise of discretion but on a purported principle of law." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., at 641, 910 A.2d 963. "An antenuptial agreement is a type of contract and must, therefore, comply with ordinary principles of contract law." McHugh v. McHugh, 181 Conn. 482, 486, 436 A.2d 8 (1980). "[A]ntenuptial agreements are to be construed according to the principles of construction applicable to contracts generally. The basic purpose of construction is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the...

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