This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In Re the Marriage of: Debra Ann Martin,
Donald W. Martin,
Kandiyohi County District Court
File No. F700112
Ronald R. Frauenshuh, Jr., 129 N.W. Second Street, Ortonville, MN 56278 (for appellant)
Sarah E. Winge, Nelson Oyen Torvik, P.L.L.P., 221 North First Street, P.O. Box 656, Montevideo, MN 56265 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by R.A. Randall, Presiding Judge, Robert Schumacher, Judge, and G. Barry Anderson, Judge.
G. BARRY ANDERSON, Judge
On appeal from the district court’s denial of her motion to vacate a settlement agreement that included child-custody provisions, appellant Debra Ann Martin argues that the court (1) needed to make more specific findings of fact related to an allegation of child abuse or investigate the allegation further; and (2) improperly gave the settlement agreement priority over the best interests of the child. We disagree and affirm.
Appellant sought dissolution of her marriage in December 1999. On March 6, 2000, the district court awarded temporary joint legal custody of the minor child to the parties, and awarded appellant temporary sole physical custody. Court services completed a custody evaluation which was filed with the district court on June 27, 2000.
The parties met for a settlement conference on August 30, 2000. After more than three hours of negotiations, the parties reached an agreement as to all issues which was read into the record. Both parties acknowledged on the record that they understood the settlement agreement, that they understood it to be binding on them, and that they had no further questions.
The custody arrangement set forth in the agreement stipulates that the parties are to share legal custody of the minor child, and that respondent would have sole physical custody. Appellant had liberal visitation rights. The district court directed appellant’s attorney at the time to prepare the judgment and decree.
The next day, on August 31, 2000, counsel for respondent learned that appellant’s attorney had been discharged by appellant, and that appellant wished to repudiate the agreement. On September 1, 2000, respondent’s counsel received a letter from appellant’s new counsel informing him that appellant would be challenging the settlement agreement as voidable.
On September 11, 2000, respondent served and filed a motion requesting enforcement of the agreement and entry of judgment and decree in accordance with the agreement. On September 19, 2000, appellant served and filed her motion to vacate the settlement agreement. Appellant alleged the child was burned on the shoulder with a cigarette and that the burn demonstrated child abuse by respondent. Respondent denied any abuse or neglect. In addition, appellant claimed the settlement agreement was the product of duress, coercion and mistake.
The district court upheld the settlement agreement and denied appellant’s motion. This appeal followed.
The district court has broad discretion in a child custody determination and its decision will not be overturned unless it was an abuse of discretion. Pikula v. Pikula, 374 N.W.2d 705, 710 (Minn. 1985). Our review is limited to determining whether the findings are supported by the evidence and whether the district court properly applied the law. Id. Findings of fact are not set aside unless, when the record is viewed in the light most favorable to the findings, the findings are clearly erroneous. Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01; Ayers v. Ayers, 508 N.W.2d 515, 521 (Minn. 1993).
Appellant, who freely entered into the settlement agreement, now seeks to repudiate the child custody provisions. Stipulations are generally a judicially-favored means of simplifying and expediting dissolution litigation and are “accorded the sanctity of binding contracts.” Toughill v. Toughill, 609 N.W.2d 634, 638 (Minn. App. 2000) (quoting Shirk v. Shirk, 561 N.W.2d 519, 521 (Minn. 1997)). As binding contracts, a party cannot repudiate or withdraw from a stipulation without the consent of the other party, except by leave of the court for cause shown. Id. (citation and quotation omitted).
Although considerable weight is given to stipulations intelligently entered with the benefit of counsel, in determining questions of custody the paramount issue remains the welfare and best interests of the children. The court must in every case exercise an independent judgment and is not bound by the stipulation.
Petersen v. Petersen, 296 Minn. 147, 148, 206 N.W.2d 658, 659 (1973) (citation omitted).
Appellant based her allegation of child abuse on photographs taken of the minor child’s shoulder which reveal a mark of undetermined origin. The photographs were taken August 7, 2000, three weeks prior to the August 30 settlement conference. Appellant made no mention of the photographs or the alleged incident during the settlement conference. In her September 7, 2000 affidavit, appellant alleges, apparently for the first time, that the mark is a cigarette burn that appeared after the minor child spent the weekend with respondent. Appellant’s fifteen-year-old daughter, respondent’s step-daughter, stated in an affidavit that the minor child told her that his cousin, apparently at respondent’s home during the visitation, was responsible for the cigarette burn. Appellant does not allege that respondent actually committed abuse, but rather contends that the minor child and the cousin were under the supervision of the respondent. This was the extent of the evidence presented to the district court in support of the allegations.
The district court found this evidence unpersuasive. Despite prior knowledge of the alleged incident, and despite the presence of the child’s guardian ad litem at the settlement conference, appellant, during the conference, said nothing about any abuse. The record reveals no contact by appellant prior to the conference with the guardian ad litem, law enforcement, social services, or anyone else that could have responded to allegations of child abuse. The district court further found that there were no allegations of abuse by either party, or even an isolated incident, set out in the guardian ad litem’s report to the court. The district court concluded that there was “no indication as to where the [burn mark] came from,” and there was no foundation as to whether it was actually a cigarette burn.
Appellant argues that the district court, by denying her motion, placed the terms of the settlement agreement before the minor child’s best interests. We disagree. The record reveals that the district court exercised independent judgment and acknowledged an obligation to go beyond the agreement to consider the best interests of the child. The district court further acknowledged that it was obligated to examine any allegations of child abuse before determining custody. The district court concluded that it had “carefully examined the allegation of abuse,” and found it to be “thin at best.”
Appellant maintains that the district court needed to make more specific findings of fact related to the allegation of child abuse. We disagree and conclude that this record supports the district court’s decision. See In re Welfare of C. Children, 348 N.W.2d 94, 97 (Minn. App. 1984) (holding that although the district court’s findings were not particularly specific, they were sufficient to afford the court a meaningful review when supplemented by the record).
Finally, appellant contends there remained unanswered questions raised by the record, and that the district court should have ordered further investigation of the child abuse allegation. When the possibility of abuse is raised and the record does not provide answers to the allegations, the district court is obligated to uncover reliable evidence in determining the best interests of the children. See Lucas v. Lucas, 389 N.W.2d 744, 747 (Minn. App. 1986) (remanding for a hearing to obtain reliable information on the current circumstances of the children and whether they were in danger); see also Murray v. Antell, 361 N.W.2d 466, 470 (Minn. App. 1985) (district court must investigate unrebutted evidence of physical abuse).
This is not a case involving unrebutted evidence of physical abuse. The record contains significant evidence refuting appellant’s allegation of abuse, and it was on this basis that the court reached its decision. We conclude that the district court’s findings were supported by the evidence and that the court properly applied the law.
Appellant’s statement of the case raises fraud and duress as an alternative basis on which to vacate the settlement agreement. But because appellant’s brief does not analyze these issues, these claims are deemed waived on appeal. Balder v. Haley, 399 N.W.2d 77, 80 (Minn. 1987). The issues of fraud and duress are thus not properly before this court and we do not address them.