This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).

 

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

A04-1596

 

 

In re the Marriage of:

Timothy P. Mueller, petitioner,

Appellant,

 

vs.

 

Anita L. Mueller,

Respondent.

 

 

Filed June 28, 2005

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded

Robert H. Schumacher, Judge

 

Anoka County District Court

File No. F50211337

 

 

Richard S. Eskola, 3989 Central Avenue Northeast, Suite 600, Columbia Heights, MN 55421 (for appellant)

 

Anita L. Mueller, 2731 181st Street Northwest, Oak Grove, MN 55011 (pro se respondent)

 

 

Considered and decided by Schumacher, Presiding Judge; Wright, Judge; and Poritsky, Judge.*


U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N

ROBERT H. SCHUMACHER, Judge

In this marriage-dissolution action, appellant-husband Timothy P. Mueller challenges the district court's award of permanent spousal maintenance to respondent-wife Anita L. Mueller, the court's determination that certain debts were marital, and the court's valuation of a cabin property acquired by the parties during the marriage. By notice of review, wife challenges the district court's determination that the cabin property is marital property; the court's allocation of marital debt, and the court's property division. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.

FACTS

The parties' 29-year marriage was dissolved by judgment and decree in March 2004 after a trial to resolve contested issues including spousal maintenance, the division of marital property, and the allocation of certain marital debt. In the amended decree, the district court found that husband's net monthly income was approximately $2,600 and his monthly expenses approximately $1,318. The court found that wife cared for the parties' four sons and did all the housework during the parties' marriage, thereby allowing husband to pursue his career and forgoing a career for herself; that wife worked part time, without benefits, in a position that could not be expanded to full time; that wife suffers from lupus, an immune system disorder, which may affect her future ability to remain employed; that wife's net monthly income was approximately $884; and that her reasonably monthly living expenses were $2,405.

At trial, the court received evidence concerning a cabin property the parties purchased from wife's parents for $10,000 in June 1990 and conveyed by quitclaim deed designating the recipients as "Timothy Patrick Mueller and Anita Mueller, husband and wife." The court also received a document drafted by wife's father in August 1990 and signed by both parties stating that should the parties wish to sell the cabin before August 1995, wife's parents would be given right of first refusal to purchase it for $10,000. The court found that there was "no testimony or other evidence to suggest" that wife's parents intended to give a gift solely to wife and not tohusband.

The court found that the fair market value of the cabin at the time of trial was approximately $150,000, the amount indicated by an appraisal submitted by wife. The court received evidence of debts incurred during the marriage, including a $3,000 loan from wife's mother that was used for house payments; uninsured medical expenses incurred treating one of the parties' sons in 2003; and a credit card debt.

The court concluded husband must pay permanent monthly spousal maintenance of $1,100. The court ordered the parties to place their homestead on the market for sale by April 1, 2004, and divide the proceeds equally after deducting any expenses and encumbrances, including the $3,000 owed wife's mother. The court awarded wife the cabin property, subject to a $75,000 lien in favor of husband due within one year of selling the homestead. The court also ordered the parties to divide the medical debt as well as the Sears MasterCard debt arising from the son's medical expenses.


D E C I S I O N

1. Husband challenges the $1,100 monthly permanent spousal maintenance awarded to wife. This court reviews a district court's maintenance award under an abuse-of-discretion standard. Dobrin v. Dobrin, 569 N.W.2d 199, 202 (Minn. 1997). Here, the district court awarded wife maintenance under Minn. Stat. 518.552, subd. 1(b) (2004), which provides that spousal maintenance may be granted when the district court finds that the spouse seeking maintenance "is unable to provide adequate self-support, after considering the standard of living established during the marriage and all relevant circumstances, through appropriate employment." The amount and duration of a spousal-maintenance award depend upon the district court's findings concerning "the financial resources of the party seeking maintenance . . . and the party's ability to meet needs independently" and "the ability of the spouse from whom maintenance is sought to meet needs while meeting those of the spouse seeking maintenance." Minn. Stat. 518.552, subd. 2(a), (g) (2004).

The issue is, in essence, a balancing of the recipient's need against the obligor's ability to pay. Erlandson v. Erlandson, 318 N.W.2d 36, 39-40 (Minn. 1982). Spousal maintenance is determined on the facts of each case, and no single statutory factor is dispositive. Id. at 39.

As to the amount of maintenance, husband challenges several of the district court's factual findings concerning wife's income and expenses, specifically alleging the court erroneously failed to consider the amount of rental income wife was receiving from the parties' sons, the legitimacy of expenses wife was incurring maintaining the cabin, which was in her sole possession, and the fact that wife would no longer have a monthly mortgage expense upon the court-ordered sale of the parties' homestead. "Findings of fact concerning spousal maintenance must be upheld unless they are clearly erroneous." Gessner v. Gessner, 487 N.W.2d 921, 923 (Minn. App. 1992).

We agree with husband that the district court's order does not specifically consider the income and expense issues he raises, thereby compromising our ability to conduct a meaningful review of the calculations used by the court in arriving at the amount of maintenance awarded. See Stich v. Stich, 435 N.W.2d 52, 53 (Minn. 1989) (stating that "[e]ffective appellate review . . . is possible only when the trial court has issued sufficiently detailed findings of fact to demonstrate its consideration of all factors relevant to an award of permanent spousal maintenance"). We therefore conclude it is necessary to remand to allow the district court to make clearer findings concerning wife's net monthly income and expenses and to calculate the amount of the award accordingly. The district court may, in its discretion, request further documentation from the parties relevant to this issue.

Husband also argues the district court erred in calculating the amount of maintenance by failing to consider that once the homestead is sold, the cabin property is sold, and wife receives her portion of husband's pension plan, she will receive sufficient assets to render monthly maintenance from husband unnecessary. But spouses should not be required to invade the principal of their property settlement to meet their monthly needs. Fink v. Fink, 366 N.W.2d 340, 342 (Minn. App. 1985). We conclude the district court correctly excluded wife's share of the property settlement from its calculation of her monthly finances.

Husband also challenges the duration of the maintenance award. When determining the amount and duration of maintenance, the district court must consider all relevant factors, including factors that address the financial resources of the spouse seeking maintenance to provide for his or her needs independently, the time necessary to acquire education to find appropriate employment, the age and health of the recipient spouse, the standard of living established during the marriage, the length of the marriage, the contribution and economic sacrifices of a homemaker, and the resources of the spouse from whom maintenance is sought. Minn. Stat. 518.552, subd. 2(a)-(h) (2004). If the need for permanent maintenance is uncertain, the district court shall order permanent maintenance and leave the order open for later modification. Minn. Stat. 518.552, subd. 3 (2004); Gales v. Gales, 553 N.W.2d 416, 419 (Minn. 1996) (observing "legislature has established with unmistakable clarity a presumption in favor of awarding permanent maintenance" provided the district court considers the requisite statutory factors).

The district court specifically found that wife's primary role throughout the 29-year marriage was as a homemaker who raised the parties' children, thereby allowing husband to pursue his career while forgoing her own. The court also found that wife's age, history of a lack of full-time employment, and health problems make her future employment prospects questionable. These findings are supported by the record and support the district court's decision as to the duration of maintenance. But because we are remanding for clearer findings concerning the amount of maintenance, we also reverse the court's determination that maintenance be permanent and remand for further consideration in light of the findings concerning wife's finances. We conclude the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding wife permanent maintenance.

2. Both parties challenge aspects of the district court's division of certain marital debts: the $3,000 loan from wife's mother that was used for house payments; uninsured medical expenses incurred treating one of the parties' sons in 2003; and certain credit card debt. A district court's apportionment of marital debt is treated as distribution of property and will therefore not be altered absent an abuse of discretion. See Justis v. Justis, 384 N.W.2d 885, 889 (Minn. App. 1986), review denied (Minn. May 29, 1986); see also Rutten v. Rutten, 347 N.W.2d 47, 50 (Minn. 1984).

Husband argues the $3,000 loan from wife's mother was nonmarital because the parties were separated at the time and the loan was "contracted for" by wife. The district court found that because the loan was used for mortgage payments made on the homestead while the parties were still married, it represented a marital debt. We agree. We also affirm the district court's determination that the son's 2003 medical expenses and the credit card debt were marital and should be equally shared by the parties.

3. Husband argues the district court abused its discretion in adopting wife's appraisal of the cabin property's value and by not ordering the parties to immediately sell the property and divide the proceeds. The district court has discretion to establish the value of property. Petterson v. Petterson, 366 N.W.2d 685, 687 (Minn. App. 1985). The district court considered both parties' appraisals, adopted wife's appraisal, and awarded wife the property, subject to a $75,000 lien in favor of husband due within one year of selling the homestead. We cannot conclude the district court abused its discretion by adopting wife's appraisal and not ordering the parties to sell the cabin immediately.

4. Wife argues the district court erred by not finding that she had a nonmarital interest in the fair-market value of the cabin property, less the $10,000 she and her husband paid for it. She maintains that the value of the property in excess of the $10,000 purchase price was a gift exclusively to her from her parents and, relying on Schmitz v. Schmitz, 309 N.W.2d 748 (Minn. 1982), that any increase in the value of her nonmarital interest is nonmarital. "Whether property is marital or nonmarital is a question of law that this court may review with independent judgment." Swick v. Swick, 467 N.W.2d 328, 330 (Minn. App. 1991), review denied (Minn. May 16, 1991). The district court's underlying findings of fact will only be set aside if they are clearly erroneous. Id.

"Marital property" means property acquired by either spouse during the marriage. Minn. Stat. 518.54, subd. 5 (2004). It is presumed that all property acquired during the marriage is marital property. Olsen v. Olsen, 562 N.W.2d 797, 800 (Minn. 1997). "The presumption of marital property is overcome by a showing that the property is nonmarital property," for instance, by a showing that the property was a "gift . . . made by a third party to one but not to the other spouse." Minn. Stat. 518.54, subd. 5, 5(a). "The most important factor in determining whether a gift is marital or nonmarital is the donor's intent." Olsen, 562 N.W.2d at 800.

Wife contends that because she, her husband, and her parents all knew at the time the parties purchased the property in 1990 that the actual value of the property exceeded the $10,000 purchase price, the excess value was a gift to her from her parents, and was therefore nonmarital. She argues that an increase in the value of nonmarital property attributable to inflation or to market forces or conditions, retains its nonmarital character. See Nardini v. Nardini, 414 N.W.2d 184, 192 (Minn. 1987). She therefore argues that she should be entitled to the current fair market value of the property, less the $10,000 purchase price.

Wife argues her mother testified "credibly" and "convincingly" that she and wife's father intended to keep the property in the family and that the presence of husband's name on the deed did not express an intent to name him as a recipient of the property. Generally, the parol-evidence rule "prohibits the admission of extrinsic evidence of prior or contemporaneous oral agreements, or prior written agreements, to explain the meaning of a contract when the parties have reduced their agreement to an unambiguous integrated writing." Alpha Real Estate Co. of Rochester v. Delta Dental Plan of Minn., 664 N.W.2d 303, 312 (Minn. 2003) (quotation omitted). Consequently, "when parties reduce their agreement to writing, parol evidence is ordinarily inadmissible to vary, contradict, or alter the written agreement." Hruska v. Chandler Assocs., Inc., 372 N.W.2d 709, 713 (Minn. 1985). But when a contract is ambiguous, the court may admit parol evidence to determine the intent of the parties and clarify the ambiguity. Nord v. Herreid, 305 N.W.2d 337, 340 (Minn. 1981). "A contract provision is ambiguous if, judged by its language alone, it is reasonably susceptible to more than one meaning." Rick v. B.D.M.S., Inc., 347 N.W.2d 65, 66 (Minn. App. 1984).

The district court concluded mother's testimony was insufficient to overcome the presumption that the cabin property was marital, based upon its findings that both the deed executed at the time of conveyance and the paper memorializing wife's parents' right of first refusal unambiguously name both wife and husband as the joint owners of the property. This conclusion is sound. First, the deed is unambiguous, precluding the necessity and admissibility of wife's mother's testimony intended to clarify the deed. Second, we defer to the district court's assessment of witness credibility and testimonial weight. We conclude the district court did not err in concluding wife failed to overcome the presumption that the cabin is marital property.

5. Wife argues the district court abused its broad discretion by failing, in dividing the property, to account for husband's failure to pay support or contribute to homestead and cabin expenses between the parties' July 2002 separation and the February 2003 temporary order. The court's property division meticulously inventories the parties' property and attempts to address all the evidence before it in allocating real property, personal property, assets, and debts. The district court is not required to make an exact equal division of marital property but rather a "just and equitable" division. Minn. Stat.  518.58, subd. 1 (2004).

The court here considered evidence concerning the parties' finances following the separation. With respect to the loan taken to make homestead mortgage payments during the separation, the court ordered that $3,000 from the sale of the homestead be used to repay the loan. With respect to the cabin property expenses, the court awarded husband a $75,000 lien interest in the property, which is half of the lowest appraisal value the court received and which therefore likely represents less than half of the property's value. The
district court did not abuse its discretion by declining to adjust the property division in the manner requested by wife.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.



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