This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).






In Re the Marriage of:

Connie R. Miller, petitioner,


Errol F. Miller,


Filed March 28, 2000


Crippen, Judge


Polk County District Court

File No. FX95411


Tamara L. Yon, Johannson, Rust, Fagerlund & Unkenholz, P.A., 407 North Broadway, P.O. Box 605, Crookston, MN 56716 (for respondent)


Peter W. Cannon, P.O. Box 480, Mahnomen, MN 56557 (for appellant)


            Considered and decided by Crippen, Presiding Judge, Klaphake, Judge, and Shumaker, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N




            Appellant disputes the trial court’s imposition of a child support modification that tripled the support amount first set in a 1995 divorce settlement.  We affirm.



A 1995 court-approved marital-termination agreement provided that respondent Connie Miller would have physical custody of the parties’ two children and appellant Errol Miller would pay $150 monthly child support for each child, with periodic cost-of-living adjustments.  This support obligation was about one-third less than what was called for under statutory guidelines.[1]

In 1998 appellant was paying $158.50 per month in child support for the one child who still lived at home.  Respondent moved for an upward modification, claiming increased needs of the minor child, who had recently started high school.  Respondent opposed an increase in child support, resting on the agreement of the parties as stated in their 1995 agreement.

The trial court found that neither party’s income had changed substantially but that the minor son’s needs had increased substantially, rendering the original support agreement unreasonable and unfair.  The court ordered a guidelines support award of $477 per month. 



Modification of child support will not be reversed in the absence of an abuse of the trial court’s broad discretion.  Moylan v. Moylan, 384 N.W.2d 859, 864 (Minn. 1986).  “Where the trial court’s determination has a reasonable basis in fact, it must be affirmed.”  Murray v. Murray, 425 N.W.2d 315, 316 (Minn. App. 1988) (citation omitted).  When an appellant disputes the trial court’s “ultimate” findings in circumstances requiring a conclusion drawn from several factors, and the trial court’s other findings are adequately supported by the record, we are limited to the question of whether the trial court abused its discretion.  Maxfield v. Maxfield, 452 N.W.2d 219, 221 (Minn. 1990).  If the trial court may have misapplied the law in its treatment of ultimate facts or mixed questions of law and fact, we are to carefully review the trial court’s explanation of how its findings on the various factors led to its conclusions.  Id. 

            A support award may be modified upon a showing that the current award is unreasonable and unfair because of changes, enumerated in the statute, that include substantially increased or decreased needs of the child that is the object of the award.  Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2(a) (1998).  The terms of a current support order are presumed to be unreasonable and unfair if application of the child support guidelines to the parties’ current circumstances results in a support award that is at least 20% and at least $50 per month higher or lower than the current support order.  Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2(b)(1) (1998).  Furthermore, a guidelines support award is presumptively appropriate.  Minn. Stat. § 518.551, subd. 5 (i) (1998).  And where stipulated support payments are well below the statutory guidelines, almost any change in circumstances should be considered substantial.  See Murray, 425 N.W.2d at 317.

Faced with a motion to modify child support, the court must undertake a two-step analysis under Minn. Stat. § 518.64 (1998):  (1) deciding whether any of the statute’s factors or a combination of those factors creates a substantial change of circumstances that renders the previous child support arrangement unfair and unreasonable, and (2) determining what modification is necessary, considering the child’s needs and the parents’ financial situations.  See Moylan, 384 N.W.2d at 864.

            Appellant contends that the trial court erred in its finding and conclusion that there had been a substantial change in the child’s circumstances, maintaining that the finding is inadequately supported by evidence and the trial court findings are not sufficiently specific.  In addition, appellant argues that an upward modification is inappropriate in light of the parties’ stipulation four years earlier.

            The trial court found a substantial change in the circumstances of the parties’ teenage son:  the court found that because the son is now a high school student, there would be many additional funds needed for such things as choir, sports, 4H, church, and graduation.  The court cited several specific examples of what kinds of activities would need to be funded, and it further found that these expenses would increase as the son nears graduation.  Additionally, the trial court found that these expenses of the child were consistent with the pattern of activities he would have experienced had his parents remained married.  See Minn. Stat. § 518.551, subd. 5(c)(3) (1998) (stating that the court, when setting child support, should take into consideration the “standard of living the child would have enjoyed had the marriage not been dissolved”).  Although these findings could be more detailed, they are sufficient.  Moreover, the statutory presumption favoring a guideline support award applies in all support modification proceedings, whether based on a change in needs or resources.  Here, that presumption permits the application of the guidelines in the present circumstances of the parties.  See Minn. Stat. § 518.551, subd. 5(i). 

            Appellant specifically contests the detailing of the son’s increased needs and expenses as not adequate or specific.  Respondent need not provide precise proof of the son’s increased needs, so long as the allegation is more than conclusory.  See Lenz v. Wergin, 408 N.W.2d 873, 878 (Minn. App. 1987).  Respondent has provided specific examples, with corresponding dollar amounts, to demonstrate some of their son’s increased expenses.  Without stating prices, she also provided other examples of increased activities in which her son is involved and for which it can be fairly assumed that there would be substantially increased costs. 

Appellant contends that the parties intended that their 1995 stipulation never be modified.  Maintaining that the court should have determined the matter by looking at the intent of the parties, appellant challenges the trial court’s decision against allowing testimony of the parties’ former lawyers regarding the original stipulation or admitting exhibits that contained the same information. 

Appellant is in error.  The trial court has broad discretion to admit or exclude evidence, and a court’s ruling will not be reversed absent an abuse of discretion.  Uselman v. Uselman, 464 N.W.2d 130, 138 (Minn. 1990).  As the trial court stated, when dealing with these circumstances, appellant’s proffered assertions are not relevant.  An agreed-on stipulation is only one element to consider when deciding whether or not to modify a child support agreement.  Miller v. Miller, 415 N.W.2d 920, 923 (Minn. App. 1987).  In fact, this court has previously held that “child support stipulations are to be given less weight than other stipulations.”  Murray, 425 N.W.2d at 316.  In light of presumptions stated in sections 518.551 and 518.64, these stipulations do little to protect a below-the-guidelines award that is followed by a substantial change of circumstances. 

Moreover, the 1995 agreement unambiguously sets child support based on the parties’ needs and financial situation at the time.  There is no representation in the stipulation that the child support payment, in amounts less than those presumed appropriate, was a permanent compromise that was “bargained for” in exchange for something else.  See, e.g., Fifield v. Fifield, 360 N.W.2d 673, 675 (Minn. App. 1985) (for fear of discouraging voluntary settlement agreements, the court would not modify a stipulation where the parties had agreed to child support payments that were lower than the guidelines in exchange for tax planning and “compensating provisions for spousal maintenance payments”).  Nothing in the 1995 judgment creates an ambiguity such as to permit speculation as to whether the parties anticipated departing from the normal application of the guidelines in modification proceedings that might occur later.  There also has been no showing that proposed testimony and exhibits would demonstrate that the parties intended the stipulation to be immutable.


[1] Appellant represents in his brief that his 1995 obligation under the guidelines would have been approximately $225 per child.  The guidelines recommend this amount where the obligor’s net monthly income is $1,500.  Respondent acknowledges the original award was less than the guidelines suggest, but the record furnishes no information as to appellant’s net income in 1995.