This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

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






In re the Marriage of:

Charlotte Kay Sailors, petitioner,





James Thomas Sailors,



Filed January 16, 2007

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

Ross, Judge


Goodhue County District Court

File No. FX-96-1290


Kristine L. Dicke, Ryan & Grinde, Ltd., 407 14th Street Northwest, P.O. Box 6667, Rochester, MN 55903 (for respondent)


John T. Burns, Jr., Melissa C. Kantola, Burns Law Office, 200 American Bank Building, 14300 Nicollet Court, Burnsville, MN 55306 (for appellant)


Considered and decided by Ross, Presiding Judge; Willis, Judge; and Crippen, Judge.*

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N

ROSS, Judge

On appeal in this spousal-maintenance modification dispute, appellant husband James Sailors argues that the district court abused its discretion by refusing to modify his stipulated permanent spousal-maintenance obligation despite the changes in his health and in the parties’ financial circumstances.  By notice of review, respondent wife Charlotte Sailors argues that the district court erred by permitting husband to reduce the amount of a life-insurance policy used as security for his maintenance obligation.  Because of the multiple material discrepancies between the income and expense figures in the parties’ affidavits and those found by the district court without clear explanation of the differences or their bases, we are unable to provide meaningful review.  We reverse in part and remand with instructions to the district court to clarify the bases for its determination of the parties’ income and expense amounts to support its determination that there has not been a substantial change in the parties’ financial positions that requires modifying the spousal-maintenance obligation.  Because we find that the district court did not abuse its discretion by allowing husband to reduce his life-insurance policy, we affirm that part of the district court’s order.


In October 1997, a Goodhue County district court dissolved the parties’ nearly 27-year marriage based on their stipulation for dissolution.  The judgment divided property and directed husband to pay permanent spousal maintenance.  At the time of dissolution, husband was 59 years old and had a monthly income of about $2,176, which included $2,034 from a retirement pension and $142 from crop-land rent.  His average monthly living expenses were $1,564, leaving a surplus of about $612.  Wife, then 53 years old, had an average monthly income of $1,005 and average monthly living expenses of $1,866, for a deficit of $861.  The judgment obligated husband to pay wife $650 monthly permanent spousal maintenance until she died, remarried, or the court ordered otherwise.  The judgment also required husband to maintain a $160,000 life-insurance policy for wife’s benefit as security for his maintenance obligation.  At the time of the judgment, husband paid a monthly premium of $81 for the policy.

In the following years, husband’s health deteriorated.  His health problems increased his medical expenditures, and he incurred significant debt.  He sold his house and moved to a rental unit.  Wife also developed health problems, which required her to seek chiropractic treatments twice a week and take vitamin supplements that apparently were not covered by insurance.

In November 2005, husband moved to reduce his spousal-maintenance obligation and to terminate the life-insurance policy.  He based the motion on the claimed substantial financial change resulting from his deteriorated health, his decreased net income, and wife’s increased income.  He argued that the need for the life-insurance policy as security for the maintenance obligation no longer existed because wife would be eligible to receive his monthly social-security payments of $1,206 at age 65 should he predecease her.  He also proposed reducing the maintenance obligation to equalize the parties’ gross incomes, reasoning that his net income now was substantially less than his expenses but that wife’s net income, when including the maintenance award, was substantially higher than in 1997.  Wife argued that both parties’ income and expenses had increased by similar amounts, but she emphasized that husband’s income consists of guaranteed pension and social-security payments.  By contrast, her income is strictly from her employment, the continuation of which is not guaranteed.  She also argued that her future entitlement to husband’s social-security benefits was present speculation upon which no change in circumstances should be based.

The district court denied husband’s motion to modify spousal maintenance because it found that no substantial change in circumstances had occurred and that husband had failed to show that the current terms of the obligation were unfair or unreasonable, noting that each party’s income and expenses had increased.  The court allowed him to reduce his life-insurance policy to $30,000 and maintain it through August 2009, when wife reaches age 65.  The court reasoned that her entitlement to husband’s $1,206 monthly social-security death benefit rendered the original policy amount inequitable.  Husband moved the court to reconsider, claiming that he mistakenly underestimated his current expenses.  The district court denied the motion.  Husband now appeals his continuing maintenance obligation.  By notice of review, wife challenges the district court’s decision to permit husband to reduce the life-insurance policy.



A district court has broad discretion to modify a spousal-maintenance obligation, and this court will not reverse its decision absent an abuse of that discretion.  Dobrin v. Dobrin, 569 N.W.2d 199, 202 (Minn. 1997).  A district court abuses its discretion when it makes a “clearly erroneous conclusion that is against logic and the facts on record.”  Meyers v. Meyers, 409 N.W.2d 532, 534 (Minn. App. 1987).  A finding is clearly erroneous if we are left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.”  Vangsness v. Vangsness, 607 N.W.2d 468, 472 (Minn. App. 2000) (quotation omitted).  But we do not reweigh the evidence and instead give due deference to a district court’s broad discretion to evaluate testimonial and documentary evidence, “precisely because [the district court is] in the best position to determine which witnesses are credible and to weigh the evidence.”  Haefele v. Haefele, 621 N.W.2d 758, 763 (Minn. App. 2001), review denied (Minn. Feb. 21, 2001).

When a stipulation fixing the rights and obligations of the parties is central to the original judgment of dissolution, the district court should exercise discretion to modify “carefully and only reluctantly alter the terms of a stipulation governing maintenance.”  Claybaugh v. Claybaugh, 312 N.W.2d 447, 449 (Minn. 1981).  A party seeking to modify a spousal-maintenance obligation must show both that there has been a substantialchange in circumstances since the original determination and that the change renders the existing obligation unreasonable and unfair.  Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2(a) (2004) (listing, among other factors, a substantial increase or decrease in a party’s earnings, needs, or cost of living as grounds for modifying maintenance); Youker v. Youker, 661 N.W.2d 266, 269 (Minn. App. 2003) (stating that moving party must demonstrate that changed circumstances make current obligation unreasonable and unfair), review denied (Minn. Aug. 5, 2003).  When a spousal-maintenance order rests on a stipulation, the provisions of the stipulation establish the “baseline circumstances against which claims of substantial change are evaluated.”  Hecker v. Hecker, 568 N.W.2d 705, 709 (Minn. 1997).

Husband argues that the district court abused its discretion by refusing to decrease his maintenance obligation because his increased medical expenses constitute a substantial change in circumstances.  He adds that the “substantial disparity in the parties’ incomes” renders the current maintenance obligation unreasonable and unfair by comparison to the 1997 judgment, which essentially equalized their net incomes.  But the district court’s findings and the record regarding the disputed financial conditions of the parties are not sufficiently clear to allow for meaningful appellate review of this issue.  The district court’s figures differ from those discernable to us from the supporting record or explainable by the parties, who were unable to assist this court in understanding which items and amounts are included in the district court’s calculation.

We do not doubt that the district court acted within its discretion by its analysis and conclusion that the current maintenance obligation is neither unreasonable nor unfair if its figures are supported by the record.  According to the district court’s figures, after accounting for the maintenance payment, husband had a monthly deficit of $39 and wife had a deficit of $211 in 1997.  In 2005, by contrast, the district court found that husband had an overall net deficit of $129 and wife had an overall net deficit of $882.  The court apparently did not use the expense estimates submitted by the parties, and depending on the bases for these figures, they may support the district court’s finding that husband failed to show both a substantialchange in circumstances and that the change renders the existing obligation unreasonable and unfair.  But there are too many unaccounted-for discrepancies between the district court’s findings and the record for us to determine whether the findings and conclusions are supported.  It is not clear, for example, whether the district court’s figures include the monthly $650 spousal maintenance, the savings of approximately $200 in reduced monthly insurance premiums, or the parties’ monthly debt obligations as listed on their affidavits.  Only by understanding what is represented in the parties’ current income and expenses by comparison to the original determination of income and expenses can we assess the extent of the alleged change in circumstances.  We therefore remand for further proceedings to allow the district court to set out the parties’ financial conditions with explanation and reference to the record.  The district court may choose to reopen the hearing and take further evidence to resolve the discrepancies.


By notice of review, wife challenges the district court’s order allowing husband to reduce his life-insurance policy designated as security for his spousal-maintenance obligation.  The district court has broad discretion to determine whether an award of maintenance should be secured with life insurance.  Laumann v. Laumann, 400 N.W.2d 355, 360 (Minn. App. 1987), review denied (Minn. Nov. 24, 1987); see also Minn. Stat. § 518.24 (2004) (authorizing court to require sufficient security to ensure payment of maintenance or support obligations).  Among the factors bearing on security of maintenance are a grant of permanent maintenance, the duration of a marriage, and the spouse’s age and possession of marketable skills.  See Arundel v. Arundel, 281 N.W.2d 663, 667 (Minn. 1979) (listing factors to consider when addressing whether to secure a maintenance award).  Here, when the parties stipulated to permanent maintenance, they were married for nearly 27 years and wife, who was 53 at the dissolution, had little employment experience and had been diagnosed with a learning disability.  The district court found, and the record supports, that the reason for the negotiated life-insurance policy was only to guarantee the $650 monthly maintenance obligation if husband predeceased wife.  The court found that only $30,000 of security is still required and we do not see the reduction to that amount as an abuse of discretion in light of wife’s entitlement to husband’s social-security benefits.

But wife also asserts that the district court’s finding of her entitlement to benefits under husband’s social-security account upon his death is merely speculation.  We disagree.  The district court found that because wife will be entitled to husband’s monthly social-security death benefit of $1,206 when she turns 65 in August 2009, the guarantee of the maintenance obligation through life insurance was only required until that time.  As a threshold matter, anticipated social-security payments may be considered future income when deciding spousal maintenance payments.  Taylor v. Taylor, 329 N.W.2d 795, 799 (Minn. 1983).  Our view of the applicable statute suggests wife’s rights to widow’s insurance benefits have already vested.  See 42 U.S.C. § 402(e) (2000) (identifying circumstances under which surviving divorced wife is entitled to husband’s benefits).  Husband relied on this statute in the district court and cited it to this court, but wife does not explain how her rights are not vested under the statute or otherwise support her assertion that her entitlement is speculative.  We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by considering wife’s anticipated social-security payments as future income.

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.