Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Family Law

The law governing family relations in the Tribal Court on the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Reservation can be found in the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Laws Annotated at Title 6, chapters 1 -10. (See generally, 6 M.P.T.L. ch. 1-10.)  The law is clearly written and it should prove fairly easy to understand.  At the end of each section, readers will find annotations that describe how the Tribal Court has interpreted the law they have just read.  This helpful tool should aid parties as they prepare their case.

Parties are free to consult with attorneys who might assist them in understanding the law and preparing their case.  A list of attorneys licensed to practice law before the Tribal Court can be found on this web site.  Any attorney licensed to practice in any state can petition to appear on a single case without passing the Mashantucket Bar Exam, so feel free to consult any attorney with whom you feel comfortable.  He or she can obtain a copy of the tribal laws at the courthouse, at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, on MPTNLaw.comWestLaw, and at municipal and law libraries in the region.

There is no need to retain an attorney to dissolve a marriage or establish custody, though the parties may find attorneys to be helpful.  Many parties can agree to the equitable distribution of assets and liabilities and to custody provisions that afford a safe and loving environment for children where the kids are offered adequate access to both parents.  In instances such as these, no trial is necessary and the Court may approve the form of the order, thereby making it enforceable against both parties.  The Court will assist parties as they attempt to reach agreement. 

What is the difference between divorce, dissolution, and annulment?

A "divorce" is the legal separation and termination of the marital relationship, premised upon cause.  The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation requires no legal grounds to dissolve a marriage; therefore the Tribal Court will not enter a decree of “divorce” except upon an application to enter a foreign judgment and divorce decree that has been obtained in a state that recognizes divorce.  Upon application, the Tribal Court will enter and enforce a foreign divorce decree provided the decree has been obtained in accordance with tribal public policy. 

“Dissolution" of marriage is a form of no fault termination of the marital relationship.  Dissolution may be obtained by agreement or upon a finding by a court of competent jurisdiction that the marriage has broken down irretrievably.  (One party may usually testify to this fact.)  The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation provides for “no-fault” dissolution so upon petition for dissolution and a brief evidentiary hearing, any party may obtain a dissolution to terminate the marital relationship.  Thereafter or contemporaneously thereto, the Tribal Court may enter a judgment and order relating to the division of marital property, spousal support, parental rights and responsibilities, and child support.

An "annulment" is a decree from a court determining that the marriage is legally invalid because of some defect that existed at the time the parties entered into the marriage. An annulment decree declares that a marital status never existed.  This is quite different from a divorce or dissolution because it returns the parties to the positions they enjoyed prior to the creation of the marriage.  The marriage is void.  The grounds for an annulment are not established under the tribal laws but may include (at common law): an underage marriage; bigamy (i.e. one of the parties has another living spouse); mental incompetence of one of the parties; fraud; duress; or any ground for annulment recognized within the state where the marriage license was issued.

How is a marital dissolution started?

A dissolution case is commenced by the filing of a complaint. The spouse who files the complaint is called the plaintiff. The other spouse is called the defendant.  The complaint must allege that the plaintiff or defendant is a tribal member; must indicate the date and place of marriage along with the name and birth dates of any minor children; there must be an allegation that the marriage is broken irretrievably, and; it must contain a demand for the relief being requested from the court. If the defendant is not a tribal member, the complaint must allege that the tribe has sufficient ties to the defendant to enter a decree of dissolution.  The simple act of being married to a tribal member may not be sufficient to justify tribal court jurisdiction in the eyes of state courts (where the decree must ultimately be recognized and enforced) so it is a good idea to describe how the parties to the marriage interacted with the tribe itself.  (Did the tribe provide benefits to the family?  Are the children enrolled in the tribe or eligible for enrollment?  Did the family ever live on the reservation or did family members attend tribal events and / or participate in cultural activities?) 

"Service" of the complaint must be made on the defendant in order to bring him or her within the jurisdiction of the court. There are several methods of service available under Rule 4 of the Mashantucket Pequot Rules of Civil Procedure, even if the defendant spouse lives off of the reservation.  Individuals over the age of 18 who are qualified to be a witness may serve a party to a lawsuit in accordance with local court rules.  Tribal Police can serve individuals on the reservation and Connecticut Marshalls can serve people within the state of Connecticut who reside off of the reservation.  The Court may, via court order, authorize any individual to affect service and / or to employ a specific method of service. 

The defendant spouse should then file an answer to the complaint, admitting or denying the allegations in the complaint.  If the defendant denies the allegations he/she may also raise any defenses he/she has. Additionally, the defendant spouse may also file a "counterclaim" asserting any claim he/she has against the plaintiff spouse for divorce or for a legal separation.

If the defendant spouse files a counterclaim, the plaintiff must file an answer to counterclaim, either admitting or denying the allegations contained in the counterclaim and raising any defenses that the plaintiff may have.

What if the defendant spouse cannot be located or evades service of the complaint?

Where the current residence of the defendant is unknown or upon other sufficient proof that he/she is evading service, constructive service may be made on him/her by publication or any other means deemed appropriate by the Tribal Court. Service by publication permits the court to commence the case and rule on the status of the marriage and the marital property located within the reservation boundary. It may also allow the court to rule on matters such as support and custody of minor tribal children who result from the marriage and reside with the petitioning parent on the reservation.  Without personal service, the Tribal Court may do little to resolve matters beyond the reservation boundary.  Additionally, judgments pertaining to spousal maintenance (commonly referred to as alimony), child support, and custody may not be enforceable off the reservation in a foreign court if the means used by the Tribal Court to inform the defendant of this case are deemed to be inadequate by a state court asked to enforce those provisions.  This caution is provided because all matters resolved by the Tribal Court that pertain to off reservation activity are ultimately subject to entry and enforcement in state courts.

What if the defendant is served with the complaint but does not file an answer or otherwise make an appearance in the case?

The court rules preclude the granting of a default judgment in a dissolution case.  Instead, where the defendant has been personally served but has failed to file an answer or otherwise appear, the plaintiff must merely present sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case to allow the court to grant the dissolution and rule on the division of property, parental rights and responsibilities regarding the children, and any support orders.

What are the major legal issues in a marital dissolution?

Because dissolutions are granted without consideration of fault, the only issues of interest to the proceeding will involve parental rights and responsibilities (custody, child support, visitation), spousal support (alimony), and the division of the marital property and debts of the parties.

What happens after the filing of the complaint and answer/counterclaim?

Before the final decree of dissolution is entered, either party can request temporary orders pertaining to child support, spousal maintenance (alimony), parental rights and responsibilities (custody), restraint (no contact).  As a general rule, no party may remove the children from the jurisdiction, dispose of property or engage in abusive behavior.

How can the parties learn the truth about the other’s income and personal circumstances?

The parties are permitted to engage in discovery procedures, such as the propagation and service of interrogatories (written questions) and the noting of depositions (oral examination) to aid them in determining what assets are involved in the case, what plans the parties have for the children, and any other matters that are relevant to the dissolution action. Experts may be retained to appraise property and businesses. All parties must complete financial affidavits.

In rare circumstances and only upon a showing of good cause, the court may order psychological or psychiatric evaluations of the parties and/or the children to aid the court in making determinations with regard to the parental rights and responsibilities concerning the children.  The court may request home studies to help it determine the best living conditions for the parties and children.  

The court shall hold one or more pretrial conferences during the discovery phase of the proceeding in an attempt to determine whether a mutually agreeable resolution can be reached.  If agreement cannot be realized, the parties will be asked to agree on as many things as possible to limit the time needed for trial.  This should also alleviate the stress associated with trial.  If the case cannot be resolved at a pretrial conference, the court will set dates for the conclusion of the discovery procedures, for the production of expert reports and evaluations, and for the date of the final hearing (trial).

Can the children's interests be protected?

A "guardian ad litem" (GAL) can be appointed by the court at the request of either party or upon the court's own motion to represent the interests of the minor children. The GAL is usually an attorney familiar with domestic relations law and his/her job will be to act in the best interests of the children. The parties will generally be required to pay the fees of the GAL based upon their ability to pay.  The GAL will be asked to make recommendations to the court and will have considerable influence when it comes time for the court to make determinations relating to the children.

How will the matter be decided by the court?

All marital dissolutions must be tried before a judge; jury trials are not permitted.  Both parties will provide the judge with information and documentation regarding all of the issues relevant to the case. The court will have any of the various expert reports that may have been ordered during the time that the case has been pending. The court will hold hearings to determine any motions and will hold a trial to resolve the entire matter.  At trial, the parties may testify, present witnesses, including expert witnesses, and offer any other evidence that the court believes to be properly admitted. The judge will consider the recommendations of the guardian ad litem, if one has been appointed. The judge may interview the children if requested or if he/she feels it would be beneficial to do so. The judge is then required to make a decision based on the evidence presented and the law by entering a fair and equitable distribution of property and liabilities, and a custody order that serves the best interests of the children.  While the judge has some discretion, he/she must comply with the law and base evidentiary findings upon substantial evidence.

Can I appeal the judge’s final decision?

A party who is not satisfied with the final decision of the trial judge has a right to appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals. Appeals are relatively expensive and generally, the only questions on appeal pertain to the judge’s exercise of discretion and application of the law.  A trial judge may be overturned if he (a) abuses his discretion or (b) misapplies the law.  An appeal is not a new trial. It is a wholly different type of procedure and is strictly a legal proceeding. No witnesses or evidence are presented. An appeal is based solely on the proceedings before the trial court.  The Court of Appeals will examine the record to determine if substantial justice was done.

If my spouse and I are ready to agree to dissolve our marriage, what will the judge inquire about before signing our orders?

The judge will,

  1. Confirm jurisdiction of the court, the elements of complaint, the children’s names and birthdates, the prayer for relief, financial resource needs of the parties, status of unborn children, equitable distribution of assets / liabilities, propriety of custody provisions and support.
  2. Ask the parties (or attorneys),
    1. Whether they are in agreement that the court has jurisdiction over the matter and that they are consenting to the court’s exercise of jurisdiction over them for purposes of this agreement;
    2. Whether they understood the terms of the settlement agreement that was just announced or provided in writing;
    3. Whether they were present when this settlement agreement was prepared and weather the agreement provides (in their opinion) a fair and equitable distribution of assets;
    4. Whether the agreement provides (in their opinion) for the best interests of their children;
    5. Whether they have any questions that they have not asked their attorneys about this settlement;
    6. Whether they have freely and voluntarily entered the agreement and confirming that the agreement was not obtained through threats of coercion;
    7. Whether either party is under the influence of medicine, alcohol or drugs that would affect their ability to understand the nature of what they have agreed to today;
    8. Whether they have had a full opportunity to consult with their attorneys and gain advice of counsel about each provision that is being entered today;
    9. Whether a party is pregnant and whether names will be changed and otherwise whether the parties will hold one another harmless for their remaining liabilities;
    10. Whether they understand that the Court of Appeals will not regularly hear an appeal from an agreed order like the one they are entering.

This page is designed to assist families in obtaining a practical understanding of the process for dissolving a marriage and establishing child custody in the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court.  It is offered for informational purposes only through the office of the Chief Judge.  The material on this page is not designed to substitute for the law.  The tribal law governs the dissolution and custody process.  If any material on this page conflicts with the law, the law shall control.  Parties are encouraged to review the Mashantucket Pequot Rules of Evidence, keeping in mind that a judge may relax the rules of evidence in all family proceedings.  For procedural guidance, parties should review the Mashantucket Pequot Rules of Procedure.