This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In re the Marriage of:
James Christian Dittel, Jr., petitioner,
Tammy Marie Dittel,
n/k/a Tammy Marie Frenger,
Filed April 25, 2000
Dakota County District Court
Robert J. Lawton, 1100 West Seventh Street, St. Paul, MN 55102 (for appellant)
Mark A. Lechevalier, 214 West 15th Street, #408, Minneapolis, MN 55403 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Amundson, Presiding Judge, Randall, Judge, and Huspeni, Judge. *
Appellant seeks review of an order denying his motion to modify child support, alleging that the district court erred in concluding that the stipulation entered into by the parties at the time of their dissolution precludes application of the Hortis/Valento formula for determining child support. We affirm.
The parties' marriage was dissolved in July 1996. The dissolution judgment incorporated a stipulation in which the parties agreed (1) to joint physical custody of their two children; (2) that father would pay monthly child support of $569; and (3) that any requests for child-support modification would be determined as if mother had sole physical custody.
Appellant father has several times moved the district court to modify his child-support obligation, most recently arguing that mother’s income has increased to the extent that he would be entitled to a “cross-award” if the Hortis/Valento formula were applied. Following an August 17, 1999 hearing, the district court issued an order denying father’s motion because of the credence that must be given to agreements made by the parties in their judgment and decree and because father failed to show that a substantial change in circumstances occurred, rendering his current child-support obligation unreasonable and unfair. The district court continued father’s child-support obligation at $569 per month.
D E C I S I O N
Decisions relating to modification of child support are within the sound discretion of the district court and this court will reverse only when the district court abuses its discretion. Moylan v. Moylan, 384 N.W.2d 859, 864 (Minn. 1986). On appeal, “[b]ecause the interpretation of a written document is a question of law, we do not defer to the district court’s interpretation of a stipulated provision in a dissolution decree,” but review the stipulation de novo. Anderson v. Archer, 510 N.W.2d 1, 3 (Minn. App. 1993) (citations omitted).
Father argues that the parties have equal responsibilities for the care of the children and the district court therefore erred in concluding that the stipulation he and mother entered into at the time of their dissolution precludes application of the Hortis/Valento formula. That the parties share joint physical custody of their two children is indisputable. But, the amount of time the children spend with each parent is contested.
The Hortis/Valento formula requires a parent sharing joint physical custody to pay guideline child support for only the period of time that the other parent has custody of the child. Valento v. Valento, 385 N.W.2d 860, 862 (Minn. App. 1986), review denied (Minn. June 30, 1986); Hortis v. Hortis, 367 N.W.2d 633, 636 (Minn. App. 1985). Absent a justifiable reason for departing from the guidelines, the district court should apply the Hortis/Valento formula in all joint physical custody cases. Valento, 385 N.W.2d at 862.
Both parties were represented by counsel at the time of the dissolution and agreed to joint physical custody to avoid a trial on the issue of custody. The parties' stipulation contains the following language addressing the issue of child-support modification:
As long as the parties continue to share joint physical custody of both children, future requests for child support modification shall be determined as if the [r]espondent had sole custody of both children.
The district court found that this language indicated the parties had reached a stipulated agreement on child support and precluding application of the Hortis/Valento formula. On this basis, the district court declined to review the substance of the custody arrangement or determine what percentage of time the children spend with each parent.
Stipulations in dissolution cases are favored by courts because they simplify and expedite litigation. Anderson v. Anderson, 303 Minn. 26, 31, 225 N.W.2d 837, 840 (1975). "Stipulations are therefore accorded the sanctity of binding contracts." Shirk v. Shirk, 561 N.W.2d 519, 522 (Minn. 1997) (citing Ryan v. Ryan, 292 Minn. 52, 55, 193 N.W.2d 295, 297 (1971). When a judgment is entered based on a stipulation, the stipulation is merged into the judgment and cannot be attacked by a party seeking relief from the judgment. Id. Accordingly, the district court correctly determined that the judgment memorializing the parties’ stipulated decision to preclude the Hortis/Valento child support formula was enforceable.
Father argues that this court’s decision in Tweeton v. Tweeton, 560 N.W.2d 746 (Minn. App. 1997), review denied (Minn. May 28, 1997), supports his position that the stipulation would not preclude the application of the Hortis/Valento formula because the parties each have care of the children an approximately equal amount of time. But in Tweeton, the parties had not stipulated to the amount of the permanent child-support obligation, as did the parties here. Id. at 747. They stipulated only to custody and visitation, and left the child support issue to the court. Id.
Finally, father argues that the district court erred by refusing to modify his child support obligation because there had been a substantial change in mother’s circumstances. Father asserts that mother’s income has increased significantly since the time of the dissolution, and mother does not dispute this. But any increase in mother’s income is irrelevant because under the stipulation, the support ordered is based solely on father’s income.
We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it enforced the parties’ stipulation that precluded the use of the Hortis/Valento child-support formula.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.