This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2006).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In re the Marriage of:
John Joseph Foster,
Filed July 3, 2007
Washington County District Court
File No. FX-98-3728
Tracey A. Galowitz, William T. Armstrong, Lawson, Marshall, McDonald, Galowitz & Wolle, P.A., 3880 Laverne Avenue North, Lake Elmo, Minnesota 55042 (for respondent)
Gary A. Debele, Melissa J. Chawla, Walling, Berg & Debele, P.A., 121 South Eighth Street, Suite 1100, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55402 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge; Halbrooks, Judge; and Hudson, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
In June 2000, the parties dissolved their marriage. The judgment and decree incorporated the parties’ stipulation with regard to spousal maintenance:
That prior to the commencement of these proceedings, the Petitioner had returned to school. She is currently applying to obtain her doctorate in psychology, a program which is estimated to take an additional Five (5) years to complete, based on her current class and part-time work schedule, and her desire to continue to be available for the minor children, one of whom has special needs. This will result in a need for spousal maintenance during this time and is anticipated to leave the Petitioner with additional education-related expenses and school loan costs.
. . . .
That the amount of Two thousand eight hundred dollars ($2,800) per month is appropriate spousal maintenance to be paid by the Respondent to the Petitioner, for a period of Six (6) years from and after April 1, 2000, with the Petitioner entitled to bring a motion to extend spousal maintenance for a period of Two (2) years beyond that Six (6) years.
The Respondent and Petitioner have agreed on the amount and duration of spousal maintenance from the Respondent to the Petitioner, as outlined herein, and the parties have waived any right to a modification of the amount or duration, upon consideration as outlined elsewhere herein, unless Petitioner remarries as contemplated by statute.
Before the expiration of the initial six-year term, respondent brought a motion in district court for the two-year extension. After a hearing, the district court granted the extension, finding that: (1) respondent had no income; (2) respondent’s monthly expenses were $4,300; (3) appellant stipulated that he has the ability to pay spousal maintenance; (4) respondent has two more years of schooling to complete her degree; and (5) respondent is pursing her degree in good faith in an effort to become self-sufficient. The district court denied respondent’s motion for attorney fees, costs, and disbursements. This appeal follows.
argues that respondent’s motion was, in effect, a motion to modify spousal
maintenance and that: (1) the district
court’s findings are insufficient to support its decision to grant respondent’s
motion for a two-year spousal-maintenance extension; and (2) the district court
abused its discretion because it did not find that there had been a substantial
change in circumstances in accordance with Minn. Stat. § 518A.39,
subd. 2(a) (2006). The modification
of spousal maintenance is within the district court’s discretion. Youker
v. Youker, 661 N.W.2d 266, 269 (
the district court may modify the terms of spousal maintenance upon a showing
that a substantial change in circumstances has rendered the existing terms
“unreasonable and unfair.”
Here, the parties stipulated that respondent would receive spousal maintenance for six years while pursuing her doctorate degree in psychology. As part of the stipulation, the parties agreed to waive their right to seek modification of the amount and duration of spousal maintenance. But respondent retained the right to file a motion to “extend” maintenance for two years beyond the initial six-year award. The stipulation, however, did not explicitly articulate the standard by which the district court is to determine whether to “extend” maintenance.
Respondent properly filed a motion for a two-year extension of spousal maintenance. The district court granted the motion, basing its decision on findings that respondent “has at least two more years of schooling to complete” and is “pursuing her degree in good faith in an effort to become self-supporting.”
Appellant strongly disputes that respondent has pursued her degree in good faith and argues that respondent has made no substantive attempt to otherwise become self-sufficient. In support of these claims, appellant points to respondent’s decision to pursue a doctoral program that allows students to progress at whatever pace the student desires and respondent’s decision not to work. But the district court’s findings to the contrary are supported by the record, in particular, by affidavits submitted by respondent and her academic advisor indicating that respondent is currently enrolled in a doctoral program and has completed her coursework quickly and in a satisfactory manner.
also argues that the district court abused its discretion because it did not comply
with the modification statute and determine that there had been a substantial change
in circumstances. But appellant has not
offered any legal authority supporting the proposition that the district court
must apply the substantial-change-in-circumstances standard to cases where the
parties have stipulated to the conditions precedent for a spousal-maintenance
extension. And, generally, district
courts defer to a stipulation entered into by the parties. LeRoy
v. LeRoy, 600 N.W.2d 729, 732 (
respondent’s motion is not accurately characterized as a motion to modify
spousal maintenance. Rather, she moved the
district court to enforce the maintenance provision stipulated to by the
parties in the judgment and decree. That
stipulation plainly indicates that the parties contemplated a two-year
extension of spousal maintenance if respondent had not completed her degree
before the expiration of the initial six-year period. The requirement that respondent is pursuing
her degree in good faith is implied from the stipulation agreement. See
Hecker v. Hecker, 568 N.W.2d 705, 710 n.4 (
Appellant argues that the district court erred in granting respondent’s motion for a two-year spousal-maintenance extension without first making findings on respondent’s financial need for maintenance in accordance with Minn. Stat. § 518A.39, subd. 2(d) (2006). Because the parties’ stipulation contemplated an extension of spousal-maintenance based on respondent’s educational progress, without reference to financial need, appellant’s argument has no merit. In addition, the district court’s findings that respondent has no income and $4,300 in monthly expenses indicates a continuing need for maintenance.
filed a notice of review arguing that the district court abused its discretion
by denying her motion for need-based attorney fees, costs, and
disbursements. A decision of whether to
award attorney fees, costs, and disbursements rests almost entirely within the
district court’s discretion and will not be reversed absent a clear abuse of
that discretion. Yeager v. Yeager, 405 N.W.2d 519, 523 (
(1) that the fees are necessary for the good-faith assertion of the party’s rights in the proceeding and will not contribute unnecessarily to the length and expense of the proceeding;
(2) that the party from whom fees, costs, and disbursements are sought has the means to pay them; and
(3) that the party to whom fees, costs, and disbursements are awarded does not have the means to pay them.
“Although fees are often awarded in
actions to enforce the terms of a judgment of dissolution, the specific facts
of a case may warrant the denial of fees.”
Yeager, 405 N.W.2d at 523
(citations omitted). Here, the district
court denied respondent’s motion without making any specific findings regarding
fees, costs, and disbursements.
Respondent cites to Wende v. Wende,
386 N.W.2d 271, 276 (
Wende, this court held that the
complete absence of findings on each party’s financial position and the
petitioner’s need for assistance required the district court, on remand, to
make findings necessary to exercise its discretion.
addition, this court has held that a district court does not abuse its discretion
when denying attorney fees if spousal maintenance was deemed sufficient to pay
the recipient’s attorney fees. Yeager, 405 N.W.2d at 523. In Reinke
v. Reinke, this court held that the district court does not abuse its
discretion by denying fees when the property distribution and award of
maintenance balanced the parties’ income and property. 464 N.W.2d 513, 516 (
Respondent also argues that she is entitled to conduct-based attorney fees under Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 1, because appellant’s actions have unreasonably contributed to the length and expense of the proceeding. The district court has the discretion to impose fees, costs, and disbursements upon a party “who unreasonably contributes to the length or expense of the proceeding.” Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 1. Respondent’s argument focuses on appellant’s decision to stipulate that he was able to pay spousal maintenance instead of acquiescing to respondent’s discovery requests. But this decision directly benefited respondent by decreasing her litigation costs. Thus, this argument has no merit.
respondent urges this court to award fees, costs, and disbursements, associated
with this appeal. This court may award
attorney fees upon its own motion or when moved by the party seeking fees.