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Connor v. Benedict

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex

March 7, 2019


          Heard: November 6, 2018.

         Complaint for divorce filed in the Middlesex Division of the Probate and Family Court Department on June 2, 2014. The case was heard by Kevin R. Connelly, J.

         The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.

          Robert Clark for the husband.

          Marc G. Bellerose for the wife.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Gaziano, Lowy, Budd, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

          LENK, J.

         Layne C. Connor (wife) filed a complaint for divorce in June 2014 against William P. Benedict (husband), to whom she had been married for a little more than two years, and with whom she had lived for much of the prior twelve years. Following a trial, a judge of the Probate and Family Court issued a judgment of divorce nisi that awarded general term alimony to the wife and, among other things, divided the marital estate such that fifty-five percent of the over-all assets were awarded to the husband and forty-five percent to the wife. Although the legal marriage lasted 2.25 years, for purposes of determining the amount of alimony pursuant to the Alimony Reform Act of 2011, St. 2011, c. 124, the judge considered the marriage to have been of slightly more than eight years' duration. In doing so, the judge took into account an approximately six-year period from 2005 to 2011, during which he found that the parties had lived together and had engaged in an economic marital partnership. The husband appealed, and we transferred the case to this court on our own motion.

         The husband challenges the alimony award on two grounds. First, he claims that, as a matter of law, the wife was precluded from entering an economic marital partnership with him during much of the six-year period because she received alimony payments from her former spouse during that time. In the alternative, the husband claims that, even if the wife could have entered into an economic marital partnership, the judge did not make sufficient findings to support a determination that she had done so. The husband also challenges the division of the marital estate on the grounds that the judge selected the wrong valuation date; made an incorrect determination of the assets in the marital estate; improperly assigned liabilities to the husband; and did not clarify the distribution of the retirement accounts. We affirm.

         1. Background.

         We summarize the judge's findings of fact, supplemented by undisputed facts in the record and reserving certain facts for later discussion. See Pierce v. Pierce, 455 Mass. 286, 288 (2009) .

         a. Early years (2000 to 2004).

         When the parties met in August 2000, the wife owned a single-family house. In July 2001, she sold that property and used the proceeds to make a down payment on a house in Maynard. The parties began living together in the Maynard house in August 2001, along with the wife's minor son.[1] At the time, the husband recently had filed for bankruptcy; his name did not appear on the deed or mortgage. Nonetheless, the parties shared the mortgage payments, as well as the costs of utilities, groceries, and other household expenses. At some point in 2001, the wife became disabled and unable to work.[2] In 2003, she began receiving disability payments.

         b. Australia (2004 to 2005).

         From March 2004 to September 2005, the wife relocated to Australia with her son in order to receive medical treatment. The parties arranged for the husband to live in the house in Maynard while he coordinated with a realtor to sell it. In September 2004, after the house had been sold, the husband moved to a rental townhouse in Shirley. Some of the proceeds from the sale were used to pay the wife's medical bills; $5, 000 went to the husband for improvements he had made to the house while the wife was away; the wife received the remainder.

         c. Reunification (2005 to 2012).

         The wife returned to the United States in October 2005, when her Australian medical visa expired. In November 2005, the wife moved into the townhouse in Shirley and the parties resumed living together, sharing rent and utility expenses. The husband provided for the wife's health insurance through his employer's "domestic partner benefits program."

         In November 2006, the parties jointly purchased a house in Townsend (marital home).[3] They each contributed at least $44, 000 to the down payment.[4] They made substantial improvements to the house, including installing hardwood floors, retiling several rooms, and building a gymnasium in the basement. The wife purchased most of the furniture, using credit cards; the husband paid at least some of the credit card bills. The parties also bought additional household items, such as a dining room set, together. Throughout the time they lived in the marital home, they shared the costs of the mortgage, utilities, and other household expenses.

         In December 2008, the husband's employer terminated the wife's health insurance due to a change in company policy concerning "domestic partners." In response, the wife obtained COBRA insurance at a monthly cost of $500, and the husband began contributing "slightly more" to the household expenses.

         The wife's minor son lived with the parties in the marital home and became close to the husband. When the husband's father passed away in 2011, the husband named the wife's son in the obituary as a grandson of the deceased.

         d. Receipt of alimony from prior spouse.

         The wife and her prior spouse had divorced in 2001. After that divorce, the wife received regular child support and alimony payments. By 2006, the husband was "at least somewhat aware" of the alimony payments, which ceased in 2011.

         e. Marriage and separation (2012 to 2014).

         The parties were married on February 18, 2012. Thereafter, the wife again received health insurance through the husband's employer, at that point as his spouse.

         The trial judge found that, throughout the course of the marriage (including at least the 6.33-year period in which they lived together immediately prior to their legal marriage), the parties enjoyed an "upper-middle-income lifestyle." They dined out two to three times per week, and traveled together several times per year to destinations such as Switzerland, the Bahamas, and California. The husband purchased diamond earrings, pendants, rings, and bracelets for the wife.

         During 2013, however, the parties had a series of disagreements. The wife testified to incidents of abuse and harassment by the husband, and both parties suggested that the other had used intoxicating substances to excess. Ultimately, the judge found that the parties suffered from "a great deal of marital discord." The wife and her minor son left the marital home on May 25, 2014, and began renting an apartment, while the husband and his adult son lived in the marital home.[5]

         f. Divorce.

         The wife filed a complaint for divorce in the Probate and Family Court on June 2, 2014; the husband accepted service on June 13, 2014. In July 2014, the wife sought a number of temporary orders, and the motion judge, who was not the trial judge, ordered the husband to pay temporary alimony and all expenses related to the marital home. At trial, the husband and wife testified as the only witnesses, and submitted individual financial statements.

         A judgment of divorce nisi issued on August 25, 2016. The trial judge determined that, at the time of trial, the wife was receiving disability payments, child support, and disability benefits for her child, totaling approximately $1, 375 per week. The husband remained in good health and had been able to maintain his job at a large corporation, where he earned $2, 832 per week, [6] as well as retirement, medical, and other benefits. The judge ordered the husband to maintain payments on the wife's health insurance and to maintain a life insurance policy in her name. The judge also ordered the husband to pay alimony in the amount of $511 per week for a period of sixty-one months. With respect to the division of property, ...

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