This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

C0-01-630

 

In Re the Marriage of:

Ngozi Beatrice Nnebedum, petitioner,

Appellant,

 

vs.

 

Joseph Chimezie Nnebedum,

Respondent.

 

Filed November 13, 2001

Affirmed

Gordon W. Shumaker, Judge

 

Ramsey County District Court

File No. FX971256

 

Michael J. Michalski, Michalski Law Office, 923 West Saint Germain, P.O. Box 393, St. Cloud, MN 56302-0393 (for appellant)

 

Joseph M. Hoffman, One Financial Plaza, Suite 1515, 120 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402-1893 (for respondent)

 

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

 

 

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N

GORDON W. SHUMAKER, Judge

            Appellant Ngozi Nnebedum challenges the district court’s determination that her marriage to respondent Joseph Nnebedum is void and further contends that the court’s award of custody of the parties’ three minor children to respondent is not supported by adequate findings.  Respondent alleges that the district court erred in denying his request for an award of child support.  Because appellant has not shown that the custody findings are clearly erroneous and because the district court’s rulings as to the validity of the parties’ marriage and respondent’s request for child support are consistent with the record and the law, we affirm.

FACTS

            The parties to this proceeding are originally from Nigeria.  They met in 1980 and began living together in 1982.  In 1983, appellant married another man in a civil ceremony in Minneapolis.

Without dissolving that marriage and without obtaining a marriage license, appellant married respondent in a religious ceremony in 1984.  In 1989, they obtained a marriage license and married in a civil ceremony in Minnesota. Three children were born of this relationship.

Appellant took the children to Nigeria in 1994.  While they were there, respondent obtained a default dissolution of his marriage to appellant, alleging that the parties had no children and that he did not know appellant’s whereabouts.

When appellant returned to Minnesota, she moved to vacate the default judgment. The district court granted the motion and in its order noted the potential legal problems created by appellant’s undisclosed 1983 marriage.

Respondent then started a marriage dissolution proceeding in Nigeria.  While that matter was pending, appellant brought a dissolution proceeding in Minnesota.  In 1997, the district court dismissed appellant’s dissolution proceeding, and appellant sought relief in this court.  This court reversed and remanded the matter to the district court.  Nnebedum v. Nnebedum, No. C0-97-1884 (Minn. App. June 2, 1998).

On remand, the district court ordered judgment, which, among other things, determined that the parties’ marriage was void, awarded to respondent sole legal and physical custody of the parties’ children, and reserved the issue of child support.  Later, the court denied respondent’s motion for child support.

D E C I S I O N

I.

            Appellant challenges the custody award and several of the supporting findings of fact.  Review of custody awards is limited to whether the district court abused its discretion by making findings not supported by the evidence or by improperly applying the law.  Ayers v. Ayers, 508 N.W.2d 515, 518 (Minn. 1993); see Vangsness v. Vangsness, 607 N.W.2d 468, 477 (Minn. App. 2000) (stating “current law leaves scant if any room for an appellate court to question the trial court's balancing of best-interests considerations” when it awards custody).  The district court’s findings of fact are not set aside unless clearly erroneous.  Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01. 

A finding is “clearly erroneous” if the reviewing court is “‘left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.’”  When determining whether findings are clearly erroneous, the appellate court views the record in the light most favorable to the trial court's findings.  Also, appellate courts defer to trial court credibility determinations. 

 

Vangsness, 607 N.W.2d at 472 (citations omitted).  To successfully challenge a district court’s findings of fact,

the party challenging the findings must show that despite viewing [the] evidence in the light most favorable to the trial court’s findings (and accounting for an appellate court’s deference to a trial court’s credibility determinations and its inability to resolve conflicts in the evidence), the record still requires the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. 

 

Id. at 474.

            Appellant challenges the district court’s findings that the parties “jointly” agreed to send their children to Nigeria, that the Nigerian schools provide education “comparable” to those in Minnesota, that adequate medical care is available to the children while they are in Nigeria, and that respondent was the children’s “primary nurturing parent.”  Appellant also alleges the district court’s findings take her limited contact with the children out of context and unfairly disparage both her and her attempts to explain her limited contact with the children while in Nigeria.  We have thoroughly reviewed the extensive record in this case, and it contains conflicting evidence on numerous points.  Because we must view conflicting evidence in the light most favorable to the district court’s findings, challenging findings by simply marshalling evidence that could support findings other than those made by the district court is inadequate to show the challenged findings to be clearly erroneous; the challenger must address why the evidence upon which the district court based its findings is inadequate to support those findings.  See id. (stating both, “[t]hat the record might support findings other than those made by the trial court does not show that the court's findings are defective” and that only if findings are “clearly erroneous” does it become relevant that the record might support findings other than those that the trial court made); see also Minn. R. Civ. App. P. 128.02, subd. 1(c) (stating that when a party challenges findings of fact, the “evidence * * * tending directly or by reasonable inference to sustain the * * * [challenged] findings * * * shall be summarized”).  Under this standard and on this record, we must conclude that appellant has not shown the district court’s custody-related findings to be clearly erroneous.  See Wilson v. Moline, 234 Minn. 174, 182, 47 N.W.2d 865, 870 (1951) (stating appellate court's function “does not require [it] to discuss and review in detail the evidence for the purpose of demonstrating that it supports the trial court's findings” and that its duty “is performed when [it] consider[s] all the evidence * * * and determine[s] that it reasonably supports the findings”); see also Vangsness, 607 N.W.2d at 474-75 n. 1 (noting Wilson is “one of a series” of cases with such a holding (citing cases)). 

II.

            Appellant also challenges the ruling that the parties’ marriage was void.  With limited exceptions, marriages are “absolutely void” if entered before dissolution of a prior marriage.  Minn. Stat. §§ 518.01, 517.03, subd. 1(a)(1) (2000).  Here, appellant’s prior marriage was never dissolved, and the man she previously married is still alive.  Thus, the only way appellant could have lawfully married respondent is if, at the time of that marriage, the man she previously married had been absent “for four successive years” without appellant knowing whether he was alive.[1]  Minn. Stat. § 518.01.  If appellant married respondent under these circumstances, their marriage would be void “only from the time that its nullity is duly adjudged.”  Id. 

            Appellant alleges that, at the time of the parties’ civil marriage ceremony, the man she previously married had been “missing” for six years and that she did not know whether he was alive.  The missing-spouse exception, however, requires the person who remarries to have a good-faith belief that her missing spouse is dead.  55 C.J.S., Marriage § 18(d) (1998).  Here, appellant’s prior marriage was for immigration purposes, and she and the man she married apparently agreed that they would not see each other after the wedding.  On this record, the district court did not clearly err in finding that appellant lacked a “reasonable belief” that the man she previously married was dead when she attempted to marry respondent.  Thus, appellant lacked the capacity to remarry.

            Appellant cites In re Appeal of O’Rourke, 310 Minn. 373, 246 N.W.2d 461 (1976), for the proposition that the district court may, based on policy considerations, decide which of appellant’s marriages should be deemed valid.  O’Rourke does not cite or explain how it relates to Minn. Stat. §§ 518.01, 517.03, which indicate the parties’ marriage is “absolutely void.”  Even under O’Rourke, however, we cannot say that the determination that the parties’ marriage is void must be reversed.  Although it is clear that the parties conducted themselves as spouses longer than appellant and the man she previously married, it is not clear that the parties arranged their lives around a traditional marriage to each other.  Among other things, the parties do not currently function as a married couple and have not done so for years; and their children were born years before a marriage license was obtained.  The district court found that appellant absented herself from the children in Nigeria and has made little effort to contact them when she was not in Nigeria, and neither party cared for the children (in the traditional sense) for much of the time they were in Nigeria.  Also, because the children’s custody, child support, and visitation have been resolved by the district court, any O’Rourke analysis here would be limited to balancing the policy favoring the children’s legitimacy (and appellant’s possible claims for property and maintenance) against the policy disfavoring marriages entered solely for immigration purposes.  Children born outside a marriage are entitled to legal equality with children born in a marriage.  DeGrande v. Demby, 529 N.W.2d 340, 343 (Minn. App. 1995) (citing authorities), review granted (Minn. May 16, 1995), appeal dismissed (Minn. July 27, 1995).  Moreover, ruling that appellant’s first marriage was superseded by her second marriage could make Minnesota a haven for immigration-related marriages.  We cannot say that balancing these factors weighs in favor of ruling appellant’s marriage to respondent to be valid. 

III.

            The district court refused to award child support to respondent, ruling that respondent had failed to carry his burden of showing the expenses attributable to the children, that he was otherwise not credible, that appellant had incurred excess legal fees in vacating the first dissolution judgment, and that appellant had incurred significant visitation- and transportation-related expenses.  Respondent challenges this ruling.  The record lacks a transcript of the child-support hearing, and it does not appear that respondent ordered one.  See Minn. R. Civ. App. P. 110.02, subd. 1 (if respondent deems transcript in addition to that ordered by appellant necessary, respondent shall either order it or move district court to compel appellant to do so).  Additionally, much of the denial of support was based on the determination that respondent neither adequately documented his child-related expenses nor was credible.  Thus, even if we had a transcript, we would still have to defer to these rulings by the district court.  Sefkow v. Sefkow, 427 N.W.2d 203, 210 (Minn. 1988).  We decline to address whether moving the children back to Minnesota would allow a motion to modify support. 

            Affirmed.



[1] Because the parties’ religious wedding lacked a marriage license and took place the year after appellant married the man in question, that marriage does not fit the missing-for-four-years-without-being-known-to-be-alive exception to Minn. Stat. § 518.01.