This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).




In Re the Marriage of:

Constance M. Snodgrass, petitioner,



Robert T. Snodgrass,


Filed August 12, 1997

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded

Crippen, Judge

Stearns County District Court

File No. F5944317

John R. Koch, Robert H. Wenner, Reichert, Wenner, Koch & Provinzino, P.A., 501 St. Germain, P.O. Box 1556, St. Cloud, MN 56302 (for Respondent)

Richard D. Goff, Shelly D. Rohr, Law Offices of Richard D. Goff, 900 Capital Centre, 386 North Wabasha Street, St. Paul, MN 55102-1308 (for Appellant)

Considered and decided by Crippen, Presiding Judge, Huspeni, Judge, and Willis, Judge.



Appellant assert that the trial court erred by denying his requests to modify placement of his daughter's custody and to reduce his obligations for child support and spousal maintenance. We affirm the trial court's child custody decision but reverse and remand on the issues of child support and maintenance.


In July 1995, the parties negotiated a divorce agreement that provided for joint legal and physical custody of their minor daughter and included appellant's monthly obligation to pay $300 for child support and $1,900 for spousal maintenance. Appellant's employer involuntarily terminated him the following month. A judgment based on the stipulation was issued in November 1995.

After appellant's severance pay ended, he moved to reduce his support and maintenance obligations. In May 1996, the trial court issued an order that suspended appellant's obligation to pay $1,700 of his $1,900 monthly maintenance obligation but provided that the reductions were not forgiven. His support obligation remained at $300.

In April 1996, the then 15-year-old daughter of the parties began to reside with appellant on a full-time basis. Five months later, appellant asked the trial court to modify the daughter's legal and physical custody, to reduce his maintenance obligation, to eliminate his child support obligation, and to order respondent to pay support. In an affidavit, appellant stated that, despite an extensive job search, he still was unemployed, that he was attempting to start his own company, and that his monthly income, including only a veterans' disability payment and rental income, totaled $249. Appellant also submitted the sworn statement of his daughter that she preferred to live with appellant permanently. Following a motion hearing in October 1996, the trial court issued an order denying appellant's motion.


1. Custody

Appellate courts review custody decisions only to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion by making findings unsupported by evidence or misapplying the law. Ayers v. Ayers, 508 N.W.2d 515, 518 (Minn. 1993).

Appellant asserts that the trial court should have granted him sole custody because his daughter moved to his residence, apparently on a permanent basis. A trial court need not preserve a prior custody arrangement when the child has been integrated into the family of the petitioner with the consent of the other parent. Minn. Stat. § 518.18(d)(ii) (1996).[1] But appellant has failed to show that a six-month change in the pattern of caretaking in the joint custody context constitutes the integration of that child into one parent's family with the consent of the other parent in the same manner as would occur when a child leaves the home of a sole custodian. Moreover, a modification is inappropriate unless a change of circumstances makes the alteration "necessary to serve the best interests of the child." Minn. Stat. § 518.18(d). Appellant has not shown circumstances that demonstrate this need. Also, the courts must accord stipulated custody provisions "a good deal of deference." Ayers, 508 N.W.2d. at 520. Because the parties agreed to joint legal and physical custody without limitation on the place of care, a recent change in the pattern of care does little, if anything, to show a need for changing the formal custody arrangement between the parties. Appellant has made no showing of a change in circumstances that requires modification of the original placement.

Appellant asserts that our decision in Ross v. Ross compels a contrary result. 477 N.W.2d 753, 756-57 (Minn. App. 1991) (stating that the choice of an older teenager receives "overwhelming consideration" in modifying custody). Ross does not apply in this case because that case concerned the endangerment standard, not integration, and sole custody, not a stipulated joint custody arrangement.

2. Child Support

The decision to modify child support lies within the trial court's broad discretion. Moylan v. Moylan, 384 N.W.2d 859, 864 (Minn. 1986). Appellant, as the moving party, has the burden to show that the child support terms are unreasonable and unfair. Heaton v. Heaton, 329 N.W.2d 553, 554 (Minn. 1983).

Appellant has provided several grounds to support a determination that the trial court abused its discretion by not modifying his child support obligation. The trial court made no findings either on appellant's current income or his ability to pay support. Appellant also should not have to pay child support to respondent for those months in which he has custody. Valento v. Valento, 385 N.W.2d 860, 862 (Minn. App. 1986) (holding that, in all joint physical custody situations, a parent is liable for support only for the months when the other parent has custody), review denied (Minn. June 30, 1986); Hortis v. Hortis, 367 N.W.2d 633, 636 (Minn. App. 1985) (same). Moreover, uncontradicted evidence in the record establishes that the application of the child support guidelines to appellant's current monthly income creates a rebuttable presumption that the terms of his current obligation are unreasonable and unfair under Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2(a) (1996).[2] Finally, the trial court's previous findings that appellant has made a good-faith attempt to obtain new employment produces a significant barrier to findings that he should continue to pay his present support obligation based on earning capacity.

We remand for further proceedings on appellant's request for a child support reduction. The trial court may open the record as required to receive evidence needed for its decision on the issue.

3. Spousal Maintenance

Absent the trial court's abuse of its discretion, an appellate court will affirm the court's spousal maintenance decision. Erlandson v. Erlandson, 318 N.W.2d 36, 38 (Minn. 1982). A court may modify spousal maintenance if a party's earnings substantially decrease. Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2(a)(1).

Appellant also has demonstrated that the trial court abused its discretion by not further reducing his maintenance obligation. Again, the trial court made no findings on appellant's decreased earnings. See DonCarlos v. DonCarlos, 535 N.W.2d 819, 821 (Minn. App. 1995) (stating that when a court modifies a maintenance order, its "[f]ailure to make specific findings compels a remand"), review denied (Minn. Oct. 18, 1995). Moreover, when a maintenance obligor seeks to modify a decree on the ground that a good faith "career change" has resulted in decreased earnings, the maintenance obligee and child "should share in the hardship" as they would have if the family had remained together. Giesner v. Giesner, 319 N.W.2d 718, 720 (Minn. 1982) (on modification of maintenance and support sought by former husband, who had started his own business after being involuntarily terminated and unable to find suitable employment, remanding for findings on good-faith and directing trial court to consider such alternatives as reducing, deferring, or abating obligations). Because the trial court previously has found that appellant has made a good faith attempt to secure employment and appellant has documented extensively his continuing job search, the trial court abused its discretion by not further reducing his maintenance obligation. This issue must also be revisited by the trial court on remand.

4. Maintenance Abatement

The reviewing court will not reverse a trial court's decision on motions to forgive spousal maintenance arrearages absent a clear abuse of discretion. Sulzbach v. Sulzbach, 395 N.W.2d 451, 453 (Minn. App. 1986).

Appellant asserts that the trial court abused its discretion by permitting his spousal maintenance arrearages to continue to accrue. Appellant's abatement request is premature because the trial court has not yet determined whether it ultimately will hold him responsible for the accrued arrearages. The trial court suspended his remaining maintenance obligation because appellant still may obtain profitable reemployment. The trial court did not abuse its discretion by presently refusing to address this question.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

[ ]1A court may modify custody upon finding (1) that "a change has occurred" in the child's or parties' circumstances since the last custody determination, (2) that "the modification is necessary to serve the best interests of the child," and (3) either both parties agree to the change, "the child has been integrated into the family of the petitioner with the consent of the other party," or the present situation endangers the child's health. Minn. Stat. § 518.18(d) (1996).

[ ]2Applying appellant's claimed monthly income of $249, the statutory child support guidelines provide for a support obligation "based on the ability of the obligor to provide support at these income levels, or at higher levels, if obligor has the earning ability." Minn. Stat. § 518.551, subd. 5(b) (1996). Even using the percentage corresponding to the immediately higher income bracket, the guidelines provide for a monthly obligation of only $39.84 (16% x $249 = 39.84). Id.