This opinion will be unpublished and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

A03-681

 

 

In re the Marriage of:

Darlene M. Hanson, petitioner,

Respondent,

 

vs.

 

Ronald W. Hanson, Sr.,

Appellant.

 

 

Filed March 16, 2004

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded

Toussaint, Chief Judge

 

Dakota County District Court

File No. F4-97-8412

 

 

Darlene M. Hanson, 1530 Bellows Street, #103, West St. Paul, MN 55118 (pro se respondent)

 

Alan J. Albrecht, Albrecht & Associates, Ltd., 7066 Brooklyn Boulevard, Brooklyn Center, MN 55429 (for appellant)

 

 

Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge; Minge, Judge; and Huspeni, Judge.*

UNPUBLISHED OPINION

TOUSSAINT, Chief Judge

On appeal in this maintenance-modification dispute, appellant argues (a) the district court lacked jurisdiction to modify maintenance because the dissolution judgment included a waiver of modification rights; (b) respondent failed to satisfy her obligation to rehabilitate; and (c) the record does not support the district court’s finding of changed circumstances.  Because we conclude the waiver is insufficient under the applicable statute, we affirm the district court’s jurisdictional determination.  We also conclude there is sufficient evidence in the record to support the district court’s conclusion that respondent made sufficient efforts to rehabilitate.  But because the district court did not make sufficient factual findings under the applicable statute, we reverse and remand.

FACTS

 

           Appellant Ronald W. Hanson and respondent Darlene M. Hansen divorced after 32 years of marriage on March 1, 1998.  The dissolution decree, which was based on a stipulated agreement, provided that appellant would pay respondent temporary and rehabilitative spousal maintenance in the amount of $600 per month in 1998 and 1999, $500 per month in 2000, $400 per month in 2001, and $300 per month in 2002, “at the completion of which [appellant’s] spousal maintenance obligation shall terminate.”  The order further provided that, “[e]xcept for the forgoing spousal maintenance, each party permanently waives all rights to spousal maintenance, past, present and future.”

In December 2002, the final month respondent was to receive temporary maintenance, she moved the district court to modify the original decree and make the spousal maintenance award permanent.  The district court granted the motion, despite appellant’s remonstrations, finding that it had continuing authority to modify because the waiver language was insufficient to divest the court of jurisdiction.  It determined that respondent had financial needs she had been unable to meet, and that her efforts at rehabilitative employment had been reasonable.  Further, the court found that appellant’s increased earnings enabled him to continue to pay maintenance.  It therefore awarded appellant permanent spousal maintenance of $500 per month. 

D E C I S I O N

A district court has broad discretion over issues of spousal maintenance, and this court will not reverse a district court’s decision absent an abuse of that discretion.  Rutten v. Rutten, 347 N.W.2d 47, 50 (Minn. 1984).  When a stipulation fixing the respective rights and obligations of the parties is central to the award, however, it represents the parties’ voluntary acquiescence in an equitable settlement, and district courts should “carefully and only reluctantly” alter its terms.  Claybaugh v. Claybaugh, 312 N.W.2d 447, 449 (Minn. 1981).  Nevertheless, a stipulation “does not operate as a bar to later consideration of whether a change in circumstances warrants a modification.”  Hecker v. Hecker, 568 N.W.2d 705, 709 (Minn. 1997).  Subject matter jurisdiction and the interpretation of statutes and contracts raise questions of law, which we review de novo.  Santillan v. Martine, 560 N.W.2d 749, 750 (Minn. App. 1997).


I.

 

Jurisdiction to Modify Maintenance Award

 

            Appellant first argues that the district court erred by even considering the modification issue, claiming that the express language of the dissolution decree divested the court of jurisdiction.  Examining the record, we conclude that the court correctly found the waiver ineffective.

            The Minnesota Supreme Court has long recognized that a contractual waiver of a party’s statutory right to modify spousal maintenance may be fully enforceable and may divest the court of authority to award maintenance in the future.  Karon v. Karon, 435 N.W.2d 501, 503 (Minn. 1989); McCarthy v. McCarthy, 293 Minn. 61, 66, 196 N.W.2d 305, 308 (1972); Warner v. Warner, 219 Minn. 59, 68-69, 17 N.W.2d 58, 63 (1944).  For such a waiver to take immediate effect, however, its language must be couched in terms explicitly indicating the intent for such an effect, see Loo v. Loo, 520 N.W.2d 740, 745 (Minn. 1994), and must follow the statutory requirements set forth in Minn. Stat. § 518.552, subd. 5 (2002).  Santillan v. Martine, 560 N.W.2d 749, 751 (Minn. App. 1997).

Section 518.552 provides, in relevant part:

The parties may expressly preclude or limit modification of maintenance through a stipulation, if the court makes specific findings that the stipulation is fair and equitable, is supported by consideration described in the findings, and that full disclosure of each party’s financial circumstances has occurred.  The stipulation must be made a part of the judgment and decree.

 

Minn. Stat. § 518.552, subd. 5 (2002).  Since the statute was enacted in 1989, a waiver cannot be valid without these specific written findings.  Martine, 560 N.W.2d at 751. “We cannot infer the existence of these necessary elements in the face of the legislative mandate for specific trial court findings of fact.”  Id.

            Here, the original judgment and decree provides that “[e]ach party permanently waives all rights to spousal maintenance,” and addresses the distribution of property, pension, assets, debts and insurance.  It does not, however, make specific findings that the agreement is fair or supported by consideration, and does not specifically find that each party has fully disclosed its financial circumstances.  Considering the legislative mandate for these specific findings, the language of this decree clearly fails to divest the court of its authority to modify the maintenance award.  Id.

            Furthermore, notwithstanding the statute, we are not convinced the decree’s language clearly evinces an immediate waiver.  Though the decree here states that each party “waives all rights to spousal maintenance” outside the terms of the stipulation, it also states that appellant’s maintenance obligation would terminate upon the completion of the scheduled payments.  The latter language suggests the parties’ statutory rights to modify the terms of the decree might not be extinguished until the payments were complete. 

For a modification waiver to be effective, the parties must explicitly and immediately waive their statutorily conferred rights.  See Loo v. Loo, 520 N.W.2d 740, 745 (Minn. 1994); Keating v. Keating, 444 N.W.2d 605, 607 (Minn. App. 1989).  It is not appropriate for a court to infer such a waiver.  Keating, 444 N.W.2d at 607-08.   Here, whether such rights were immediately waived is at least ambiguous.  As such, the district court properly held that it retained jurisdiction over the matter.

II.

Sufficient Rehabilitative Efforts

 

Appellant next contends that even if the waiver was ineffective, respondent failed in her obligation to rehabilitate.  He argues that respondent had an opportunity to improve her earning capacity through further education or training and did not do so, and failed to search for a job with greater pay after finding full-time employment at a non-profit organization.   

Recently, this court reversed a district court’s conclusion that a party receiving maintenance had made reasonable attempts to become self-sufficient when the obligee spouse had a two-year degree and a full-time job at the time of dissolution, considered going back to school but decided not to because of convenience and expense, looked for work in the newspaper but did not apply, and did not pursue higher-paying jobs because they required travel.  Youker v. Youker, 661 N.W.2d 266, 268, 270-71 (Minn. App. 2003) review denied (Minn. Aug. 5, 2003).  We stated, “[a]fter temporary maintenance has been awarded, an obligee generally has the duty to rehabilitate.”  Id. at 269.  We concluded the obligee spouse’s efforts constituted bad-faith underemployment.  Id. at 270-71.

            Appellant compares this case to Youker, arguing that respondent’s efforts at rehabilitation consisted only of looking through classified ads in the newspaper and following up on leads through family and friends.  He further argues that respondent failed to seek alternative employment with greater pay once she found full-time employment at the non-profit organization.  Therefore, he argues, her efforts to become self-sufficient were not in good faith.         

            A careful examination of the facts of this case, however, reveals that the circumstances are readily distinguishable from YoukerYouker involved an obligee with adequate skill, training, and experience that intentionally failed to make reasonable efforts to improve her skills and financial position.  Here, however, the record shows respondent was 50 years old at the time of dissolution, and entered the work force after 32 years of marriage with minimal experience, education, and training.  She found employment at the non-profit organization only after spending two years with a temporary employment agency.  And, unlike the obligee in Youker, respondent did not retain her position at the non-profit simply because she was not “interested in anything else.”  Youker, 661 N.W. 2d at 268. 

In order 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 . . . the record still requires the definite and firm conviction that a mistake was made.”  Vangsness v. Vangsness, 607 N.W.2d 468, 474 (Minn. App. 2000).  Here, appellant has failed to show that respondent’s efforts were not reasonable in light of the record and the circumstances of the case.  The district court’s determination shall therefore not be disturbed.


III.

Sufficient Factual Findings

Appellant’s final argument is that the district court erred in finding a change in circumstances sufficient to warrant permanent maintenance.  Though he concedes that respondent’s monthly living expenses exceed her present income, he argues that such a discrepancy existed under the terms of the original decree and that the circumstances therefore have not changed.  He further argues that the district court failed to make adequate factual findings to justify the modification. 

“A movant for maintenance modification must not only demonstrate the existence of a substantial change of circumstances, but is also required to show that the change has the effect of rendering the original maintenance award both unreasonable and unfair.”  Beck v. Kaplan, 566 N.W.2d 723, 726 (Minn. 1997).  In determining whether a “substantial change” has actually occurred, a court must follow the guidelines provided by statute:

The terms of an order respecting maintenance or support may be modified upon a showing of one or more of the following: (1) substantially increased or decreased earnings of a party; (2) substantially increased or decreased need of a party . . . ; (3) receipt of assistance . . . ; (4) a change in the cost of living for either party . . . , any of which makes the terms unreasonable and unfair . . . .

 

Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2(a) (2002).

            The inability to become self-supporting has been deemed a “substantially increased need” under the statute.  In Hecker v. Hecker, 568 N.W.2d 705 (Minn. 1997), the Minnesota Supreme Court held that a stipulation providing that the wife would receive rehabilitative maintenance did not preclude a later modification where the maintenance stipulation was made “in presumed anticipation of her efforts to achieve some level of self-sufficiency.”  Hecker, 568 N.W.2d at 709.  The court held that the “substantial change was the frustration of the parties’ expectations of self-sufficiency and the resultant substantial increase in [wife’s] need for maintenance.”  Id.  It therefore determined that the trial court’s maintenance modification was warranted.  Id. at 709-10.

The circumstances in this case are similar to those in Hecker.  The original decree states that the maintenance agreement was intended to be “temporary and rehabilitative,” and therefore in anticipation of respondent’s self-sufficiency.  And, according to the record, respondent has been unable to become fully self-sufficient despite her reasonable efforts.  Thus, like Hecker, the parties’ “expectations of self-sufficiency” were frustrated, resulting in a substantially increased need for maintenance.

There is one important distinction between this case and Hecker, however.  The district court here failed to explicitly state that there was a “substantial change” rendering the original decree unreasonable or unfair.  See id. at 708.  Though the record may ultimately support such a determination, “it is nevertheless inadequate if that record fails to reveal that the trial court actually considered the appropriate [statutory] factors.”  Moylan v. Moylan, 384 N.W.2d 859, 865 (Minn. 1986).  As such, because of this statutory requirement, we may not make an independent review of the record in order to uphold the district court’s ruling.  Id.

Furthermore, even if the district court had found a “substantial change,” we are not convinced that its factual findings adequately demonstrate it weighed the appropriate factors under Minn. Stat. § 518.552.  The Minnesota Supreme Court has held that a district court’s failure to make findings on statutory factors requires a remand.  See Stich v. Stich, 435 N.W.2d 52, 53 (Minn. 1989) (remanding maintenance question because findings were inadequate to allow review); Moylan, 384 N.W.2d at 865 (Minn. 1986) (stating independent review of record by appellate court is improper where it is unclear whether district court considered statutory factors).

Here, the district court made findings about respondent’s age, work experience, training and education, efforts at rehabilitation, and monthly expenses.  It further noted appellant’s “increased earnings . . . enable him to pay spousal maintenance necessary for [respondent’s] maintenance.”  Absent from the district court’s findings, however, is any reference to appellant’s current monthly living expenses and his ability to meet his own needs, or such relevant issues as respondent’s health or prospects of future income potential.  See Rapacke v. Rapacke, 442 N.W.2d 340, 343 (Minn. App. 1989).  Without complete findings by the district court under Minn. Stat. § 518.552, we cannot meaningfully review whether the court properly exercised its discretion.  Id.  We must therefore reverse and remand to the district court so that it may make these essential findings.

Because the stipulation failed to conform to the statutory requirements of Minn. Stat. § 518.552, subd. 5 (2002), we affirm the district court’s determination that it had jurisdiction to modify maintenance.  We also hold that the record supports the district court’s determination that respondent’s rehabilitative efforts were sufficient.  But because the district court did not make adequate factual findings to warrant modification of appellant’s spousal maintenance obligation, we must reverse and remand for further findings.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.



* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.