This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

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







In re the Marriage of Joseph Sisson,






Natasha Nye, f/k/a Natasha Emperador,




Filed September 17, 2002

Reversed and remanded

Anderson, Judge


Ramsey County District Court

File No. DF3001773


John G. Westrick, Tammy L. Merkins, Westrick & McDowall – Nix, P.L.L.P., 400 Minnesota Building, 46 East Fourth Street, St. Paul, MN  55101 (for appellant)


Mary Antonia Wilmes, Attorney at Law, 1337 St. Clair Avenue, St. Paul, MN  55105-2844 (for respondent)


            Considered and decided by Anderson, Presiding Judge, Lansing, Judge and Kalitowski, Judge.


U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N




            Appellant wife challenges the district court’s order granting respondent husband a modification of child support first established by judgment and decree of a California district court.  Wife argues that the district court lacked jurisdiction to modify the California order and that husband failed to show a substantial change in the parties’ circumstances rendering the current support award unfair or unreasonable.  As to jurisdiction, we remand for reconsideration consistent with this opinion.  As to modification, we hold that the district court’s findings are insufficient to permit meaningful review of its conclusions, and we reverse and remand.  Should the district court determine that it has subject-matter jurisdiction over this case, it shall then reconsider the support modification in light of the appropriate statutory factors.



The marriage of appellant Natasha Nye (wife) and respondent Joseph Sisson (husband) was dissolved by a judgment entered October 18, 1991, in San Diego, California.  The judgment awarded husband primary physical custody of the parties’ one child, K.S., born in 1988, but did not award child support.

            In May 1996, the California district court ordered that wife begin paying husband $200 in monthly child support.  In fall of 1998, wife relocated to Missouri.  In November 1998, the San Diego district court ordered that wife’s support obligation be “reserved/suspended.”  In January 1999, husband relocated to Minnesota with K.S. 

            In November 2000, wife filed a motion in Ramsey County district court to modify her visitation schedule.  The district court, by stipulation of the parties, ordered a visitation evaluation and recommendation prepared by Ramsey County Court Services. 

            In July 2001, husband filed a motion in Ramsey County district court requesting child support and attorney fees.  Husband claimed that he had no knowledge of the November 1998 California support hearing and order reserving wife’s support obligation.  Wife argued that the November 1998 order reserving support was still in effect and that she was attending community college full-time and was consequently unable to work or pay child support. 

            In December 2001, a Ramsey County referee issued findings of fact, conclusions of law, an order modifying support, an order modifying visitation, and an order that wife pay husband’s attorney fees.  The referee first concluded that “this court does not have jurisdiction to modify the California Order for fraud or for any other reason.”  In an apparent contradiction, the referee concluded that husband had made a sufficient showing under Minnesota law to warrant a modification of child support and ordered that wife begin paying $329.42 monthly in ongoing child support, an upward modification from the $200 monthly support ordered in the March 1996 order.  The referee also ordered wife to pay husband $1,497 in attorney fees.  The referee established a visitation schedule based on the visitation evaluation and recommendation prepared by Ramsey County Court Services.  The district court approved the referee’s findings of fact and approved the order.

            This appeal followed.  In her reply brief, wife argued for the first time that because husband had never registered any of the California orders with the Minnesota court, the Minnesota court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to modify child support.


            Wife appeals directly from the district court’s order granting husband a modification of child support as established in the 1996 California order.  Because wife did not make a motion for a new trial or amended findings of fact and conclusions of law, “the only questions for review are whether the evidence sustains the findings of fact and whether such findings sustain the conclusions of law and the judgment.”  Gruenhagen v. Larson, 310 Minn. 454, 458, 246 N.W.2d 565, 569 (1976) (citations omitted); see also Sauter v. Wasemiller, 389 N.W.2d 200, 201 (Minn. 1986) (“A post-trial motion for a new trial * * * raising individual errors allegedly occurring at trial is a prerequisite to appellate review of those errors.”).

            Even given our limited scope of review, we feel compelled to reverse the district court’s December 2001 order, which contains findings of fact unsupported by the evidence and conclusions of law unsupported by the findings.

A child-support order can be modified if a party experiences a substantial increase or decrease in earnings that makes the terms of the existing support order unreasonable and unfair.  Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2 (Supp. 2001); Olson v. Olson, 399 N.W.2d 660, 663 (Minn. App. 1987).  When considering a motion for the modification of a support order, a district court must consider specific statutory factors, including the parties’ net incomes at the time of the current award and at the time of the motion and the child’s financial and educational needs.  See Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2(c)(1) (Supp. 2001) (court modifying child support shall consider factors stated in Minn. Stat. § 518.551, subd. 5 (Supp. 2001)).  Even if the record otherwise supports the district court’s decision, failure to make these findings generally requires reversal.  Moylan v. Moylan, 384 N.W.2d 859, 865 (Minn. 1986).  If we are unable to determine from the district court’s findings whether the statutory requirements were properly met, we will remand for further findings.  Stich v. Stich, 435 N.W.2d 52, 53 (Minn.1989). 

The district court made findings both unsupported by the evidence and inadequate under the statutory standard.  The district court specifically found that “neither party appeared at that [November 1998 California support] meeting.”  But at the hearing before the referee, husband’s counsel stated that husband had been present at the meeting; the order filed by the California district court after the meeting states that both parties were present.  The district court’s finding on wife’s imputed income was based solely on the assumption that wife “could earn at least the same amount per hour as [husband]” and by considering wife’s undocumented statement that her last job, in 1998, paid $8.55 an hour.  The proper calculation of imputed income must consider “the parent’s prior earnings history, education, and job skills, and [the] availability of jobs within the community for an individual with the parent’s qualifications.”  Minn. Stat. § 518.551, subd. 5b(d).  The district court’s imputed-income finding is supported neither by the evidence nor by Minnesota law.

 In ordering the support modification, the referee made no findings, as required by Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2(c)(1), concerning either party’s net income at the time the current support award was issued, wife’s current expenses, or the child’s needs, resources, or physical and emotional state.  The finding on wife’s current net income was incorrectly calculated.  The district court’s conclusion that a substantial change in circumstances makes the present child support award unfair was not supported by “sufficiently detailed findings of fact to demonstrate its consideration of all [relevant] factors,” Stich, 435 N.W.2d at 53, and is therefore not susceptible to meaningful review.  See Bliss v. Bliss, 493 N.W.2d 583, 590 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. Feb. 12, 1993). 

Meaningful review of this matter is further inhibited by the district court’s apparently contradictory conclusions of law.  After concluding that it did not have jurisdiction to modify the California order, the district concluded that changed circumstances warranted a modification of the order.  We do not generally assume a district court has erroneously performed its duty to evaluate evidence and make legal conclusions.  See Luthen v. Luthen, 596 N.W.2d 278, 283 (Minn. App. 1999).  But where, as here, the district court’s order contains ambiguous conclusions unsupported by the requisite findings, we must reverse and remand for statutory findings and consistent conclusions of law.  The district court may, in its discretion, reopen the record and receive additional evidence.

The bulk of the arguments on appeal addressed the district court’s support modification.  In her reply brief, wife argued for the first time that the Minnesota district court lacked jurisdiction to modify the March 1996 California order (establishing wife’s support obligation) under chapter 518C, Minnesota’s codification of the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), and under 28 U.S.C. § 1738B (1994 & Supp. IV 1998) (requiring that states give full faith and credit to child-support orders of other states).

The UIFSA allows modification of foreign support obligations only after the foreign support order has been registered with a Minnesota court according to the statute’s mandated procedure.  See Minn. Stat. §§ 518C.609 (2000) (“A party * * * seeking to modify * * * a child support order issued in another state shall register that order in this state in the same manner provided [elsewhere in the UIFSA.]”); see also Rivera v. Ramsey County, 615 N.W.2d 854, 858 (Minn. App. 2000) (registration is prerequisite to modifying an existing child-support order issued in another state).

We do not determine here the merit or timeliness of wife’s challenge to the district court’s subject-matter jurisdiction.  See Bode v. Minn. Dep’t of Natural Res., 612 N.W.2d 862, 866 (Minn. 2000) (holding that “direct attacks on a judgment based on lack of subject-matter jurisdiction must be raised within a reasonable time”).  We note, however, that husband had no opportunity to argue this dispositive issue before the referee or to brief this issue to this court.  Husband did provide the district court with certified copies of several relevant documents, including the marital settlement agreement and the March 1996 order establishing wife’s support obligation, but he does not claim to have followed the statutory registration procedure.  See Minn Stat. § 518C.602 (2000) (establishing procedure for registering a foreign support order for modification in Minnesota). 

If we determine that the district court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction, we must dismiss the action.  Minn. R. Civ. P. 12.08(c); see also Lueth v. City of Glencoe, 639 N.W.2d 613, 619 (Minn. App. 2002), review denied (Minn. Apr. 16, 2002).  Here, the district court cited no evidence, findings of fact, or legal authority to support its conclusion that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to modify the California order.  Because wife raised the issue just before appellate argument, neither party had an opportunity to develop an adequate record on this issue.  In the interests of justice and developing an adequate record, we therefore remand the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction to the district court to allow the parties to present evidence and arguments.  On remand, the district court may, in its discretion, reopen the record and receive any additional evidence it deems appropriate, including any relevant California orders registered in Minnesota as mandated by the UIFSA.  Should the district court determine on remand that it is competent to hear husband’s motion to modify child support, it shall make the requisite statutory findings and determine what support, if any, is appropriate.

             The district court also ordered that the parties’ California visitation order be modified as stipulated by the parties and as indicated in the visitation evaluation issued by the Ramsey County Department of Community Corrections Domestic Relations Division.  Minnesota has adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) for all custody issues raised after January 1, 2000.  Minn. Stat. §§ 518D.101 – .317 (2000).  Under the UCCJEA, Minnesota can take jurisdiction over this visitation issue only if the California visitation order has been registered in a Minnesota court in accordance with the UCCJEA.  See Minn. Stat. § 518D.305(a) (establishing registration procedures).

Although husband did not raise visitation on appeal, and the parties agreed that Minnesota is the proper jurisdiction to consider this matter, we address it here “because subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived and may be raised by a court at any time.”  Sullivan v. Spot Weld, Inc., 560 N.W.2d 712, 716 (Minn. App. 1997), review denied (Minn. Apr. 24, 1997).  The record concerning the visitation modification is inadequate to permit meaningful review.  On remand, the district court shall receive any evidence it deems necessary, including a California visitation order registered in accordance with the UCCJEA, to allow it to determine its competency to hear this issue.  If it determines that it is competent to modify the California visitation order, it shall proceed accordingly.

            Finally, wife argues that the district court abused its discretion by ordering that wife pay husband’s attorney fees of $1,497.  A district court has discretion to award either need-based or conduct-based attorney fees provided it makes certain findings relevant to the parties’ financial means and the parties’ good faith in pursuing legal action.  Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 1 (2000).  Here, the district court order stated that “[wife’s] unreasonable position prompted this unnecessary litigation causing [husband] unnecessary attorney fees.”

            We are not convinced that wife’s position here was unreasonable.  This litigation began when wife filed a motion for increased visitation.  Husband then moved for increased support and attorney fees.  Husband’s motion contributed to the length and expense of the proceeding.  Indeed, because the parties stipulated to a modification of visitation, no argument was devoted to wife’s motion at the hearing, in the briefs on appeal, or in arguments before this court.  Moreover, the evidence in the record relevant to the parties’ financial resources is inadequate to support the finding that wife has, or that husband lacks, sufficient funds to pay husband’s attorney fees.  We therefore reverse and remand this issue for adequate statutory findings.  After making the findings, and receiving further relevant evidence at its discretion, the district court shall determine the propriety and amount, if any, of an award of attorney fees to husband.

Reversed and remanded.