Fault versus Cause of the Breakdown of Marriage Factor

This Week’s Blog by Christopher J. DeMattie

  • Since 1973 Connecticut has been a “No-Fault” divorce state.
  • Despite being a “No-Fault” divorce state, the Court must at least consider “the causes for the annulment, dissolution of the marriage, or legal separation.”
  • The Court has wide discretion in weighing the applicability of the “cause” element of the statutes when fashioning financial orders.
  • In some cases the spouse that “caused” the breakdown of the marriage is financially punished, while in other cases the spouse is not.

At Broder & Orland LLC, we are often asked how fault factors into the final judgment of divorce.  In 1973 the Connecticut Legislature passed Public Act 73-373, which amended Connecticut General Statutes (“C.G.S.”) §46-32 (now known as §46b-40) to permit a decree of dissolution of a marriage upon a finding that the marriage has broken down irretrievably.  Commonly, this is known as the “no-fault” divorce statute.  In Joy v. Joy, 178 Conn. 254, 256, (1979) our Supreme Court held that the statute was constitutional.

C.G.S. § 46b-81(c), provides the relevant statutory criteria that a court shall consider when assigning property, specifically it states:

In fixing the nature and value of the property, if any, to be assigned, the court, after considering all the evidence presented by each party, shall consider the length of the marriage, the causes for the annulment, dissolution of the marriage or legal separation, the age, health, station, occupation, amount and sources of income, earning capacity, vocational skills, education, employability, estate, liabilities and needs of each of the parties and the opportunity of each for future acquisition of capital assets and income. The court shall also consider the contribution of each of the parties in the acquisition, preservation or appreciation in value of their respective estates. (Emphasis added).

In Posada v. Posada, 179 Conn. 568, 572 (1980), our Supreme Court held that “No-fault divorce does not mean that the causes of a marital breakup are always irrelevant, but it does mean that determining cause is not crucial to the judicial administration of matrimonial matters.” (Emphasis added).  The Supreme Court further stated: “In the text of the statutes, the criterion relating to ‘the causes for the … dissolution of the marriage’ is only one item in an extensive list of criteria that the trial court is directed to take into account. While it would be error for the trial court to refuse to hear witnesses who might attest to the causes of the marital breakdown, the court is entitled to weigh this evidence in conjunction with the other statutory criteria…”

In Jewett v. Jewett, 265 Conn. 669, 692 (2003), the defendant claimed that the trial court improperly “made erroneous findings of fact specifically related to [the] defendant’s fault” for the breakdown of the marriage.  The Supreme Court noted that the trial court did not make a specific finding of fault; rather, it dissolved the parties’ marriage on the grounds of irretrievable breakdown. The Supreme Court also held that “the trial court’s findings of fact regarding the defendant’s conduct, specifically his depletion of assets and that he had slapped the plaintiff, were amply supported by the testimony and the record.”  Id.

Thus, even though Courts no longer have to determine if either party was a fault for the marriage ending, the Court is required to at least consider the causes for the breakdown of the marriage when making financial orders.  Courts have found that substance abuse, physical abuse, dissipation, and/or affairs to be the cause of the breakdown of the marriage and have financially compensated the spouse that did not cause the breakdown of the marriage.  Conversely, Courts that have determined that one spouse caused of the breakdown of the marriage did not always financially compensate the other spouse.  This discrepancy is due to the Court having wide discretion when applying the numerous statutory criteria to the unique facts and circumstances of each case.

Broder & Orland LLC, with offices in Westport and Greenwich, CT, concentrates specifically in the areas of family law, matrimonial law, and divorce. As experienced divorce trial lawyers we understand how to effectively present “cause of the breakdown” issues to the Court, as well as how to “value” your case for settlement purposes.