This opinion will be unpublished and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
Lynette Lahr Klein,
n/k/a Lynette Lahr,
Jason Lee Klein,
Reversed and remanded.
Stearns County District Court
File No. F1-99-459
Gerald W. Von Korff, John J. Meuers, Rinke-Noonan, P.O. Box 1497, St. Cloud, MN 56302-1497 (for respondent)
David W. Buchin, Buchin Law Office, 16 North Ninth Avenue, St. Cloud, MN 56303 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Randall, Presiding Judge; Minge, Judge; and Hudson, Judge.
Appellant challenges the district court’s refusal to modify or eliminate his spousal maintenance obligation. Although we do not agree with appellant’s contention that the award was due to clerical error, we do conclude the district court’s findings were not sufficient to support an award of permanent spousal maintenance. Thus, we reverse and remand.
Appellant Jason Klein and respondent Lynette Lahr were married in May of 1996. The parties separated after less than a year of marriage. They have two minor children, born in October 1995 and October 1996. Respondent filed a petition for dissolution of the marriage in February 1999.
The parties proceeded through their dissolution pro se. On March 19, 1999, the parties both appeared, without counsel, at a dissolution hearing in district court. The parties presented the court with two hand-prepared documents; a marital termination agreement (MTA) and a document entitled “Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, Order for Judgment, and Judgment and Decree” (decree). Both were form, fill-in-the-blanks-style documents that the parties had completed themselves and presented for the court to sign. Neither document, as presented to the court, contained the parties’ signatures. The district court acknowledged the lack of a signature page, but because the parties agreed on the record that the documents contained their entire agreement, the court signed the findings of fact and those findings became the decree. The record does not indicate that the district court went through the two documents line by line with the parties to verify that the documents contained what “they thought” it contained.
Pursuant to the decree, appellant was ordered to pay respondent $350 per month in spousal maintenance and $350 per month in child support. After more than two years, appellant had paid no maintenance and very little child support. Stearns County IVD Unit became involved and was pursuing contempt actions against appellant. On April 26, 2001, appellant filed a motion to amend the decree to be consistent with the terms of the MTA or, alternatively, to terminate his maintenance obligation to respondent. Appellant argued that the $350 per month maintenance award was “a mistake,” and that the parties had intended to reserve the issue of maintenance. There is evidence of a mistake. In the box in the MTA, where the question of maintenance came up, the box marked “reserved” was checked. Viewing the documents, it is clear that discrepancies exist between the MTA and the decree. For example, in the Facts section of the MTA, item number 33 asks whether the petitioner (respondent) needs maintenance. The box marked “YES” is checked. The next few lines explain that respondent’s monthly expenses exceed her income. However, in the Agreement section, the box next to item number 9(c) is checked, directing that the issue of maintenance be reserved.
In the decree, item number 33 of the Facts section (“petitioner needs maintenance from respondent: YES NO”), both the “YES” and “NO” boxes are checked. The check in the “YES” box seems to be crossed out, lending support to appellant’s argument that maintenance was not to be awarded at this time, but that the issue was simply to be reserved. Further, no explanation, no findings on respondent’s income, and her needs are listed. No explanation is provided for respondent’s need for maintenance.
In the Conclusions of Law section, item number 9(a) is checked, directing that appellant will pay respondent $350 per month in maintenance. Answers to other questions in the decree appear to have been altered or crossed out before it was submitted to the court.
At a motion hearing on October 5, 2001, appellant’s counsel argued that the $350 per month amount had been intended as child support only, and that it was due to transcription error that it had been repeated as a maintenance award. Respondent’s counsel conceded that the documents were unclear, and, at times contradictory, but argued that, at the very least, respondent should be entitled to litigate, on remand, the issue of maintenance. No decision was issued on this motion until November 14, 2002, when the district court denied appellant’s motion, finding no error in the decree. The court also denied appellant’s alternative motion to terminate his maintenance obligation because appellant had presented no evidence regarding his or respondent’s financial circumstances.
On December 6, 2002, appellant moved for amended findings, arguing that the transcript of the March 1999 hearing (now available) did not support the court’s November 14 order. The district court denied this motion, and refused to consider the transcript of the March 1999 dissolution hearing as evidence of the parties’ intent. This appeal follows.
To properly award spousal maintenance to a party in a marriage dissolution action, the district court must consider several factors, including the parties’ financial resources, the amount of time the requesting party would require to become self-sufficient, the marital standard of living, and the duration of the marriage. Minn. Stat. § 518.552, subd. 2 (2002). These considerations should be reflected in the court’s findings. Parties may stipulate to various terms of maintenance, but the court must make specific findings that “the stipulation is fair and equitable, * * *, and that full disclosure of each party’s financial circumstances has occurred.” Id., subd. 5 (2002). The stipulation must be made part of the judgment. Id. The district court’s review of what the parties offered was limited, and the record reflects the district court’s dissatisfaction with the parties appearing pro se with hand-drawn documents.
Appellant argues that the award of $350 per month in maintenance to respondent was due to a clerical error. We disagree that our decision can rest on “clerical error.” Clerical errors generally involve mistaken calculations, transposed numbers, or substitution of words. See, e.g., Johnson v. Johnson, 379 N.W.2d 215, 218 (Minn. App. 1985) (substitution of word “respondent” for “petitioner” is clerical error caused by oversight). Clerical errors are readily visible and can be corrected by reference to the record only. See Wilson v. City of Fergus Falls, 181 Minn. 329, 332, 232 N.W.2d 322, 323 (1930). Viewing the record here, we cannot say that the award of $350 monthly maintenance to respondent is “clearly” due to an oversight or transcription error by the parties.
Here, the parties submitted the MTA and proposed decree. The parties prepared these documents without the assistance of counsel. The decree awards respondent $350 per month in spousal maintenance. The MTA reserves the issue of maintenance. The documents provide little or no relevant information about the parties’ respective financial circumstances, their earnings, and their needs. The MTA reveals that appellant was unemployed at the time of the dissolution, and that respondent had a very low income and was receiving public assistance. The decree seems to state that appellant had a monthly income of $800 dollars (no explanation as to where, when, or what source), but no more information about appellant’s income or expenses is provided in either document. The decree contains several lines that were crossed out or altered as the document was prepared. The documents are, in parts, sloppy and ambiguous. There is no information in this record that makes it clear to this court what the parties intended their agreement to be. Because it is unclear, we cannot say that the maintenance award was purely a clerical error. In this respect, the district court did not err in denying appellant’s motion to modify the judgment and delete maintenance on the basis that it was correcting a clerical error.
Now, as appellant notes, the decree does not reflect whether the district court considered the statutory factors before awarding maintenance to respondent. There is no finding that the amount of the award, $350 per month, is fair and reasonable, no finding it is needed, and no specific findings showing appellant’s income and expenses or respondent’s income and expenses. The documents the parties submitted are ambiguous on the issue of maintenance, and tend to support appellant’s argument that no immediate payment of maintenance was intended. We find it hard to believe, on this record, that this couple planned on awarding permanent maintenance for respondent. At the time of the dissolution, both parties were in their very early 20’s. They lived together as a married couple for just ten months before they separated. There is nothing in the record to indicate that respondent gave up a good job or educational training to marry appellant. The parties had one child before their marriage, and one born shortly after they were married. This marriage is not close to the traditional definitions expressed in such cases as Gales v. Gales, 553 N.W.2d 416, 421 (Minn. 1996) (permanent maintenance not appropriate for a woman in her early 30’s at the time of the dissolution, who worked during the 10-year marriage and pursued her own career). We agree Gales does not provide the exclusive definition of a marriage in which permanent maintenance is appropriate, but the statutory factors set out in Minn. Stat. § 518.552, subd. 2 (2002) must be considered. Neither Gales nor the statute point toward an award of permanent maintenance in this case. On these facts, the reservation of maintenance contained in the MTA seems to indicate a better and more understandable approach to this issue than the actual dissolution decree where under the line questioning whether respondent needs maintenance, both boxes, “yes” and “no”, are checked, and then the yes box appears to be scribbled out.
We come just short of reversing the award of maintenance on appeal. We leave the issue of maintenance, and/or its reservation, for remand for reasons discussed later. In the interests of judicial economy and in the interests of equity to respondent, respondent can, at her option, bring a motion to modify child support should she lose maintenance.
The problem in this case is simple. The judiciary needs to take note of it and make the necessary modifications and accommodations. The parties to this dissolution were pro se. The couple approached the district court with hand-executed, form documents. To say that these documents are less than satisfactorily executed would be an understatement. Even though they are a pain in the “gavel,” and the record reflects the district court’s displeasure with the “do-it-yourself” process (and we are not in disagreement with the district court on this issue), it is still incumbent on the courts to examine the documents line by line to make certain they meet the minimum statutory requirements on the important issues of child support and maintenance, and what is reasonable for the obligee and what is reasonable for the obligor to be expected to pay. While there is just enough in the preprinted forms here to justify child support (and that issue is not in dispute and not being appealed), there is nothing in the forms to indicate that, under Minn. Stat. § 518.552, subd. 2, respondent is entitled to an award of maintenance. There is nothing in the form to indicate that appellant had the ability to pay maintenance. We see nothing in the record coming even close to detailed findings about respondent’s reasonable needs for herself and her financial resources. There is not the barest outline of appellant’s financial information.
The situation may be analogous to a plea bargain in a criminal case. Even with two competent attorneys involved, the district court sua sponte has the obligation to be sure the record shows that the defendant voluntarily and intelligently admits the elements of the crime (or that it is an Alford-Goulette plea), and that there is a factual foundation on the record for both accepting the plea and imposing the bargained-for sentence. The district court does not blindly accept the bargain proffered by the parties, but rather has an independent obligation to make sure the agreement is reasonable. In a dissolution matter, it is essential for the district court, when presented with pre-printed forms purporting to award child support and maintenance to one party, and to require another party to pay it, to inquire into both the obligee’s reasonable needs and the obligor’s reasonable ability to pay the agreed-to amount. If the proper inquiry is done and it is later claimed by the obligee that there is a default and arrearages, the court system now has a reasonable background against which to consider motions for contempt, assessment of arrearages, and enforcement of the original order. The court must act as a third party to the action, and must protect the interests of both the parties and the state by ensuring that the agreement is fair and reasonable. Karon v. Karon, 435 N.W.2d 501, 593 (Minn. 1989).
Here, because it appears appellant was unemployed at the time of the dissolution, his ability to pay maintenance at the time of the March 1999 hearing cannot be presumed. Because the record does not contain adequate findings or information regarding the parties’ respective financial circumstances, we cannot say whether any award of maintenance was appropriate. We therefore remand to the district court with instructions to “go back to the beginning.” The maintenance awarded to respondent, $350 per month, and any arrears from that award, are vacated. On remand, the parties should provide evidence of their financial situations at the time of the dissolution, so that the district court may properly determine if an award of maintenance was appropriate. This determination will allow the district court to determine what maintenance arrears, if any, appellant owes to respondent. If the district court awards a new amount of maintenance dating back to the 1999 decree, and either party feels the award is not fair and equitable, the burden will be on that party to move for modification of that award.
Respondent left the hearing with $700 per month, split equally between child support and maintenance. If it turns out that, on remand, the facts do not justify an award of permanent maintenance to respondent, that hearing would be an appropriate time for respondent to bring a motion to modify her child support, if she believes that more child support is needed and is fair and reasonable, and if it is shown that appellant has the ability to pay more. When parties, without the assistance of counsel, start figuring out who pays what to whom, it can be assumed that the obligee was looking for some package of dollars per month and the obligor was negotiating for some dollars per month that he felt he could afford. Thus, the elimination of maintenance, or its reservation, may upset the balance of needs and resources between respondent and appellant. We do not state that it does, we merely state that it may be the case. The district court is in the best position on remand to do what is fair and reasonable.
The district court, in its discretion, can direct the parties (who are encouraged to get legal assistance at this time) to bring whatever evidence the district court feels would be useful, documentary and/or testimony, to an evidentiary hearing.
Reversed and remanded.