This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In re the Marriage of:
Richard John Zapfel, petitioner,
Carol Ann Zapfel,
Filed March 18, 2003
Ramsey County District Court
File No. F094439
Dan O’Connell, Garth G. Gavenda, Collins, Buckley, Sauntry & Haugh, P.L.L.P., W‑1100 First National Bank Building, 332 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, Minnesota 55101 (for appellant)
Nancy Zalusky Berg, Nathalie S. Rabuse, Walling & Berg, P.A., 121 South Eighth Street, Suite 1100, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55402-2823 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Kalitowski, Presiding Judge, Hudson, Judge, and Huspeni, Judge.*
Husband challenges the order extending his spousal-maintenance obligation, arguing that the district court misinterpreted the portion of the parties’ stipulated judgment allowing for “reconsideration and review” of his maintenance obligation, thereby erroneously conducting a de novo review, and improperly applying Minn. Stat. § 518.552 (2002). Husband further argues that the district court failed to make adequate findings to support the amount of spousal maintenance awarded. Because the district court’s interpretation of the parties’ judgment was not clearly erroneous, and because the district court did not abuse its discretion in setting the spousal-maintenance award, we affirm.
The approximately 23-year marriage of appellant Richard John Zapfel (husband) and respondent Carol Ann Zapfel (wife) was dissolved by stipulated terms of a judgment entered February 25, 1994. The parties have two adult children, who are presently attending college. Husband is a self-employed orthodontist doing business as Richard J. Zapfel, D.D.S., P.A. Wife is presently employed by the Wilder Foundation as an administrative-services manager.
In the original judgment, the parties stipulated that wife’s $4,000 spousal-maintenance award:
[s]hall be for 8.25 years from January 1, 1994 to March 31, 2002 and thereafter subject to reconsideration and review as requested by either party. In the event of such review, the court shall take into account the fact that the mortgage on [wife’s] homestead should be paid off, the size of the property settlement of [wife]; and any other relevant information or facts that the Court deems appropriate.
(Emphasis added.) The judgment also provided that:
[husband] shall pay no temporary or permanent spousal maintenance in any event to [wife] upon her reaching the age of 59 1/2. [Wife] hereby waives any right to have [husband] pay any temporary or permanent spousal maintenance when she has reached the age of 59 1/2, and the court shall be divest[ed] of jurisdiction over spousal maintenance.
Pursuant to the terms of the judgment, on February 28, 2002, wife brought a motion for an extension and increase of the original maintenance award. The hearing was held in May, 2002, and the parties stipulated that husband had the ability to pay the amount of spousal maintenance wife was requesting. At the hearing, husband argued that wife’s motion was for “modification” of spousal maintenance and that Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2 (2002), governed. Conversely, wife argued that the court should consider her motion as a request for a de novo review of spousal maintenance and that Minn. Stat. § 518.552 (2002) governed.
By order dated August 16, 2002, the district court concluded that, pursuant to the terms of the original judgment, wife’s motion “seeking an extension of the original award of spousal maintenance at the end of its 8.25-year term [was] not a modification motion.” Accordingly, the district court conducted a de novo review and applied the factors in section 518.552, the statute governing an original maintenance award. Based on its findings, the district court concluded that wife lacked sufficient property, resources, and income to provide for her reasonable needs given the standard of living established by the parties during their marriage. Husband was ordered to continue the payment of spousal maintenance at its current level ($4,670 per month), subject to future cost-of-living adjustments, with husband’s maintenance obligation to terminate at the time set in the judgment. This appeal followed.
Husband argues that the district court erred when it concluded that the phrase “reconsideration and review” in the parties’ original judgment meant a de novo review of wife’s motion for an extension of spousal maintenance. Thus, husband argues, the district court erroneously failed to apply Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2 (2002), the maintenance modification statute which husband contends is the proper standard. We disagree.
Absent ambiguity in a judgment, it is not proper for a court to interpret a stipulated judgment. Starr v. Starr, 312 Minn. 561, 562-63, 251 N.W.2d 341, 342 (1977). A document is ambiguous if it is reasonably susceptible to more than one meaning. Landwehr v. Landwehr, 380 N.W.2d 136, 138 (Minn. App. 1985). Whether ambiguity exists is a legal question subject to de novo review. Halverson v. Halverson, 381 N.W.2d 69, 71 (Minn. App. 1986). What an ambiguous provision means, however, is a factual question. Emerick on Behalf of Howley v. Sanchez, 547 N.W.2d 109, 112 (Minn. App. 1996). We review a district court’s findings of fact under a clearly erroneous standard. Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.
In this case, the district court concluded that under the wording of the judgment and the facts and circumstances of the case, the standard of review for the motion was de novo. It is unclear whether the district court intended to rule on this issue as a matter of law, or whether the court implicitly construed the arguably ambiguous provision of the judgment to call for de novo review rather than an application of the maintenance modification standard. On either basis, we would affirm.
We first agree with the district court’s conclusion that, as a matter of law, the phrase “reconsideration and review” in the judgment did not require an application of the maintenance-modification standard under Minn. Stat. § 518.64 (2002). As the district court pointed out, the parties chose the term “review,” rather than “modification,” in the marital termination agreement. “Review” means “[c]onsideration, inspection, or reexamination of a subject or thing.” Black’s Law Dictionary at 1320 (7th ed. 1999). In accord with this definition, we conclude that the district court did not err in concluding that the use of the term “review” in this case implied the intent to reexamine the parties’ circumstances on a de novo basis at the time the motion was brought.
Further, even if we were to determine that the language “reconsideration and review” were ambiguous, we would accord deference to the interpretation of that ambiguity by the district court. We have previously held that
a divorce decree that is ambiguous or uncertain on its face and, because of its language, is of doubtful meaning or open to diverse constructions, may be clarified by the tribunal that ordered it.
Ludwigsen v. Ludwigsen, 642 N.W.2d 441, 449 (Minn. App. 2002) (quoting Mikoda v. Mikoda, 413 N.W.2d 238, 241 (Minn. App. 1987), review denied (Minn. Dec. 22, 1987)).
When an ambiguous judgment provision is interpreted by the district court that issued it, that interpretation is given “great weight[.]” Mikoda,413 N.W.2d at 242. Here, the district court referee who interpreted the judgment was the same referee who originally issued the judgment. Therefore, on this record and in light of the “great weight” to be accorded the district court’s interpretation of the ambiguous provision, we conclude that the district court’s interpretation of that provision as requiring a de novo review, is not clearly erroneous.
Husband, in his argument to the contrary, relies on Videen v. Peters, 438 N.W.2d 721 (Minn. App. 1989), review denied (Minn. June 21, 1989). In Videen,wife successfully moved for modification of the original judgment which provided that spousal maintenance would continue for a period of seven years, or until wife became self-sufficient. Id. at 722. On appeal, this court applied section 518.64, subdivision 2, concluding that an order continuing spousal-maintenance payments is a modification of the original judgment. Id. at 724. But in Videen, it was clear that wife’s motion was for a “modification” of spousal maintenance and, unlike here, did not require the court to interpret any terms in the judgment related to spousal maintenance. Husband also relies on Crampton v. Crampton, 356 N.W.2d 768 (Minn. App. 1984). In Crampton, the judgment provided that “at the conclusion of * * * 96 months, the question of alimony shall be ‘reserved.’” Id. at 769. This court concluded that section 518.64, subdivision 2, the spousal-maintenance-modification statute, is the proper standard when the question of continued alimony has been reserved. Id. at 771 (emphasis added). The supreme court rejected wife’s argument that Harder v. Harder, 312 Minn. 300, 251 N.W.2d 703 (1977), and Van de Loo v. Van de Loo, 346 N.W.2d 173 (Minn. App. 1984), required a de novo review. It concluded that Harder and Van de Loo govern cases where an award of maintenance is initially withheld and court authority reserved for later consideration. Crampton, 356 N.W.2d at 771. The Crampton court declined to extend the doctrine to cases where maintenance is established, but the subject is left open for “review” after the obligation is fully paid. Id.
At first blush, the holding in Crampton suggests that wife’s motion here should have been deemed a motion for modification of spousal maintenance because maintenance had already been established in the initial judgment. But we also note that the Crampton court used the term “review” generically, placing no particular emphasis or significance on its meaning. Thus, the cases husband cites do not clearly support the proposition that the terms “reconsideration” or “review,” as used in the present judgment, require that section 518.64, subdivision 2, govern a motion for extension of spousal maintenance. We therefore conclude that the district court acted within its authority and did not clearly err when it concluded that the phrase, “reconsideration and review” required a de novo review of wife’s motion for an extension of spousal maintenance.
Husband next argues that the district court failed to make adequate findings to support the amount of spousal maintenance awarded. Specifically, husband contends that the district court erroneously allowed in wife’s budget expenses for a first and second mortgage, expenses for the support of adult children, and other expenses not supported by the evidence. Husband also contends that the district court abused its discretion when it used wife’s 2000 income to calculate husband’s spousal-maintenance obligation, even though wife’s 2002 income was provided. We disagree.
The standard of review on appeal from a maintenance award is whether the district court abused its wide discretion. Chamberlain v. Chamberlain, 615 N.W.2d 405, 409 (Minn. App. 2000), review denied (Minn. Oct. 25, 2000). A district court’s findings of fact regarding maintenance will be upheld unless clearly erroneous. Gessner v. Gessner, 487 N.W.2d 921, 923 (Minn. App. 1992). A district court’s maintenance decisions will be affirmed unless the court abused its broad discretion and reached “a clearly erroneous conclusion that is against logic and the facts on record.” Rutten v. Rutten, 347 N.W.2d 47, 50 (Minn. 1984).
1. First and second mortgages
Husband argues that the district court erroneously allowed wife’s budgeted expenses for a first and second mortgage because the parties stipulated in the original judgment that in the event of a review, “the court shall take into account the fact that the mortgage on [wife’s] homestead should be paid off.” Because wife refinanced the first mortgage and took out a second mortgage, the homestead mortgage had not been retired. As a result, husband contends that the court should have attributed the mortgage payments to wife and eliminated those payments from wife’s budget in determining wife’s spousal-maintenance award.
In general, a district court should defer to a stipulation entered into by the parties. LeRoy v. LeRoy, 600 N.W.2d 729, 732 (Minn. App. 1999), review denied (Minn. Dec. 14, 1999). Here, the district court recognized that wife’s mortgage, which the parties stipulated “should” be paid off by the time spousal maintenance was set to end, had not been paid off. In fact, wife refinanced her first mortgage within one month after the entry of the original judgment and obtained a second mortgage within two months after entry of the original judgment, to make home repairs. Husband contends that the subsequent mortgages were unnecessary because wife was awarded nearly $60,000 in the original property settlement specifically for home repairs. But we find no support in the record that this money was earmarked specifically for that purpose. Wife claimed that the home repairs were unanticipated at the time of the original judgment. The district court, however, found this explanation “disingenuous” because the repairs could have been anticipated at the time of entry of the judgment, as evidenced in part by the fact that most of the repairs were completed within five months after entry of the judgment. Nonetheless, the district court concluded that wife’s monthly mortgage expenses are “real and necessary.” We cannot say that the district court abused its wide discretion in allowing wife’s mortgage payments as part of her monthly budget expenses.
2. Expenses of adult children
Husband argues that the district court clearly erred because it allowed expenses for the parties' adult children in wife’s monthly expenses. The needs of adult children are not to be taken into consideration by the district court in setting the amount of maintenance. Musielewicz v. Musielewicz, 400 N.W.2d 100, 103 (Minn. 1987), review denied (Minn. March 25, 1987). The record indicates, and husband concedes, that the district court deducted wife’s claimed expenses that related specifically to the adult children ($60 for cell phones, $550 for son’s rent, and $100 in assistance to the daughter). Furthermore, the district court specifically found that it lacked the jurisdiction to obligate husband to make any contribution to the education or living expenses of his adult children. Accordingly, it did not allow these expenses.
Husband contends that the district court missed a number of wife’s claimed expenses that relate solely to the adult children and accepted these expenses without findings or consideration. But the record indicates that the district court did consider many of these expenditures, some of which were, in fact, one-time gifts from wife rather than regularly-occurring expenses. For example, the district court recognized that wife used proceeds from the refinancing of the second mortgage to purchase a car for the son as a high-school graduation gift and that $4,000 was given to the daughter as a gift. But the district court found that the majority of the mortgage refinancing (approximately $51,000) was applied to homestead repairs and maintenance. In regard to wife’s vacation expense, the district court found that the family enjoyed several yearly vacations when the parties were married. In granting a maintenance order, the court should consider the standard of living established during the marriage. Minn. Stat. § 518.552, subd. 1(a), 2(c) (2002). Gifts and travel are certainly the by-product of an affluent lifestyle. Given the parties’ high standard of living during the marriage, the district court concluded that these claimed expenses were reasonable and necessary. On this record, we conclude that the district court did consider wife’s claimed expenses and acted within its wide discretion in determining which expenses were reasonable and necessary.
3. Unsupported expenses
Husband argues that the district court did not support its findings regarding wife’s current budget expenses, and therefore a remand is required. We disagree. The district court made specific findings that included the duration of the marriage, the standard of living established during the marriage, wife’s education and employment history, wife’s financial resources, property apportioned to wife and husband in the original judgment, wife’s age and physical health, and husband’s stipulated ability to pay the maintenance requested. These findings are sufficient to show that the district court considered the relevant statutory factors in Minn. Stat. § 518.552 (2002) in reaching its conclusion. See Currey v. Currey, 393 N.W.2d 683, 686 (Minn. App. 1986) (particularized findings are necessary to show that relevant statutory considerations were considered).
Additionally, the district court rejected wife’s claimed expenses for additional savings and retirement because wife has an IRA valued at more than $429,000, a 401(k) plan through her employer that continues to receive contributions based on wife’s employment, and savings and investments valued at more than $77,000. Accordingly, the district court concluded that wife’s claimed expense for savings and retirement were not a necessity for the purposes of spousal maintenance. As previously mentioned, the district court also rejected wife’s claimed expenses relating to the adult children, while considering wife’s claimed expenses for vacation and travel reasonable, given the parties’ established standard of living. Thus, the record does not support husband’s argument that the district court failed to make specific findings.
4. Wife’s income
Lastly, husband argues that the district abused its discretion when it used wife’s 2000 income to calculate husband’s spousal-maintenance obligation instead of her 2002 income, which was higher and was made available to the court. We disagree. The record shows that three different amounts were given as wife’s monthly income for 2002. In wife’s affidavit, dated February 28, 2002, the amount given is $2,620. In husband’s affidavit, dated May 1, 2002, the amount listed is $3,073. In wife’s answer to husband’s interrogatories, dated April 22, 2002, the amount is stated as $1,207/bi-weekly. Given the variance in these amounts, and the fact that the figures reflect income for less than half of 2002, the district court acted within its discretion when it relied on wife’s official W-2 from the year 2000 to determine wife’s monthly income.
We agree with the district court’s conclusion that wife’s motion for an extension and increase of spousal maintenance was subject to de novo review. Moreover, the record supports the amount of spousal maintenance awarded.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.