Christian v. Christian

Decision Date13 December 2007
Docket NumberNo. 20070053.,20070053.
Citation742 N.W.2d 819,2007 ND 196
PartiesTimothy CHRISTIAN, Plaintiff and Appellant v. Diane CHRISTIAN, Defendant and Appellee.
CourtNorth Dakota Supreme Court

David R. Bliss, David R. Bliss, P.C., Bismarck, N.D., for plaintiff and appellant.

Sherry Mills Moore, Bismarck, N.D., for defendant and appellee.

SANDSTROM, Justice.

[¶ 1] Timothy Christian appeals from a judgment granting him a divorce from Diane Christian, distributing the marital property in accordance with their settlement agreement, awarding Diane Christian $1,200 per month in permanent spousal support, and awarding her $5,000 in attorney fees. Timothy Christian also appeals from an order denying his motion to amend and make additional findings, his motion for a new trial, and his motion for relief from the judgment. We conclude the district court's award of spousal support is not clearly erroneous and the court did not abuse its discretion in awarding Diane Christian her attorney fees or in denying Timothy Christian's post-trial motions. We affirm.

I

[¶ 2] The parties were married in 1984. Timothy Christian had attended aviation school at the University of North Dakota but did not graduate. He met Diane Christian while working as a pilot with a cloud seeding service in Bowman. Diane Christian had attended one semester of college, but quit school to farm with her father and was working as a waitress in Bowman at the time. After they married, the parties lived in numerous locations in the United States and abroad while Timothy Christian worked as a pilot. Diane Christian was not employed during the early part of the marriage because of the brief durations of their residencies in the various localities. When Timothy Christian obtained his commercial pilot license, Diane Christian began working as a waitress and bartender. The parties' daughter was born in 1992 while they were living in Alaska. Diane Christian quit working, and she and the child moved back to North Dakota, where they lived with her mother while Timothy Christian attempted to find employment closer to the family. The parties eventually bought a home in Glen Ullin, which allowed Timothy Christian to commute to his employment as a commercial airline pilot. As the parties agreed, Diane Christian remained unemployed to devote her time to caring for the child.

[¶ 3] After the parties separated in August 2004, Timothy Christian moved to a Chicago, Illinois, suburb. He currently works as a commercial airline pilot for American Airlines. Diane Christian stayed in Glen Ullin with the child and began working at a nursing home and as a teacher's aide at school. She eventually obtained full-time employment as an interactive television facilitator and special education aide at the school and helps care for a neighbor's disabled child. Timothy Christian brought this divorce action in April 2005. In October 2006, the parties entered into a settlement agreement resolving custody, child support, property division, and debt allocation. Under the agreement, she received custody of the child, and he was obligated to pay $1,071 per month in child support. Regarding the marital property, he received $684,822 of the parties' financial assets, and she received $10,000, the marital home, and real property located in southwestern North Dakota. He also agreed to transfer $246,000 from one of his investment accounts to her. The parties agreed that "this division of marital assets and debts is a just and equitable division of those assets and debts which were acquired during the marriage." The parties were unable to reach an agreement on spousal support. The district court adopted the settlement agreement and tried the issue of spousal support. Following a hearing, the district court ordered that Timothy Christian pay Diane Christian permanent spousal support of $1,200 per month and pay $5,000 of her attorney fees.

[¶ 4] After judgment was entered, Timothy Christian moved to amend and make additional findings, for a new trial, and for relief from the judgment. He alleged that Diane Christian failed to disclose that she had a remainder interest in her mother's real property and the value of that property exceeded $250,000. He also claimed the property that was disclosed in the settlement agreement and awarded to her was undervalued by more than $100,000. The district court denied the motions.

[¶ 5] The district court had jurisdiction under N.D. Const. art. VI, § 8, and N.D.C.C. § 27-05-06. Although Timothy Christian has attempted to appeal from the nonappealable findings, conclusions, and order of the district court, because there is a subsequently entered consistent judgment, we consider the appeal to be from the subsequently entered consistent final judgment. Dvorak v. Dvorak, 2007 ND 79, ¶ 7, 732 N.W.2d 698. The appeal was timely under N.D.R.App.P. 4(a). This Court has jurisdiction under N.D. Const. art. VI, § 6, and N.D.C.C. § 28-27-01.

II

[¶ 6] Timothy Christian argues the district court committed reversible error in awarding Diane Christian $1,200 per month for permanent spousal support.

[¶ 7] Under N.D.C.C. § 14-05-24.1, a district court in a divorce case "may require one party to pay spousal support to the other party for any period of time." The decision whether to award spousal support is a finding of fact and will not be reversed on appeal unless it is clearly erroneous. Lorenz v. Lorenz, 2007 ND 49, ¶ 31, 729 N.W.2d 692. A finding of fact is clearly erroneous if it is induced by an erroneous view of the law, if there is no evidence to support it, or if, after a review of the entire record, we are left with a definite and firm conviction a mistake has been made. Rothberg v. Rothberg, 2007 ND 24, ¶ 7, 727 N.W.2d 771. We will not reverse a district court's spousal support award merely because we may have viewed the evidence differently. Wagner v. Wagner, 2007 ND 33, ¶ 5, 728 N.W.2d 318.

[¶ 8] In deciding whether to award spousal support, the district court must consider the relevant factors under the Ruff-Fischer guidelines. Lorenz, 2007 ND 49, ¶ 31, 729 N.W.2d 692. Factors to consider under the guidelines include:

the respective ages of the parties, their earning ability, the duration of the marriage and conduct of the parties during the marriage, their station in life, the circumstances and necessities of each, their health and physical condition, their financial circumstances as shown by the property owned at the time, its value at the time, its income-producing capacity, if any, whether accumulated before or after the marriage, and such other matters as may be material.

Ingebretson v. Ingebretson, 2005 ND 41, ¶ 7, 693 N.W.2d 1 (quoting Staley v. Staley, 2004 ND 195, ¶ 8, 688 N.W.2d 182). The district court is not required to make specific findings on each factor, but we must be able to understand the rationale for the court's decision. Wagner, 2007 ND 33, ¶ 6, 728 N.W.2d 318. A majority of the Court has held that a separate finding that a spouse is "disadvantaged" is not necessary to award spousal support. Lorenz, at ¶ 31.

[¶ 9] In Wagner, 2007 ND 33, ¶ 8, 728 N.W.2d 318, this Court said:

Permanent spousal support is appropriate "when the economically disadvantaged spouse cannot be equitably rehabilitated to make up for the opportunities and development she lost during the course of the marriage." Staley [v. Staley], 2004 ND 195, ¶ 16, 688 N.W.2d 182. "[P]ermanent spousal support is awarded to provide traditional maintenance for a spouse incapable of adequate rehabilitation or self-support." Greenwood v. Greenwood, 1999 ND 126, ¶ 9, 596 N.W.2d 317. "Rehabilitative spousal support is awarded to equalize the burdens of divorce or to restore an economically disadvantaged spouse to independent status by providing a disadvantaged spouse an opportunity to acquire an education, training, work skills, or experience to become self-supporting." Id. (citations omitted).

[¶ 10] In awarding Diane Christian $1,200 per month for permanent spousal support, the district court considered and made findings on the Ruff-Fischer factors. At the time of trial, Timothy Christian was 47 years old, and Diane Christian was 48 years old. Timothy Christian earned approximately $107,000 per year, and Diane Christian earned approximately $25,000 per year. The court found Diane Christian's earning ability was limited by her age, her lack of education, her health problems, which limited her ability to do strenuous work, her long absence from the work force, her "reasonabl[e]" wish to remain in Glen Ullin until their child graduates from high school, and her lack of income if she were to pursue further education or training. The court considered their long-term marriage of more than 20 years. The court noted the parties' decision to enhance Timothy Christian's earning ability required frequent moves and prevented Diane Christian from maintaining significant employment or pursuing educational opportunities during the marriage. The court noted she has an enlarged heart that causes blood clots and requires regular medical care and medication. The court found that she would never approach his income-producing ability even if she returned to school. Considering the terms of the marital property settlement, the court found Timothy Christian also had the financial ability to pay her $1,200 per month in permanent spousal support while still maintaining his standard of living in the Chicago area. The court noted that the parties' incomes would be comparable, but after the child support obligation terminated, his income would be approximately twice as much as hers. We cannot say the district court's findings on any of the Ruff-Fischer factors are clearly erroneous.

[¶ 11] Timothy Christian argues the district court inappropriately attempted to equalize the incomes between the parties "when it should have adjusted the property division or awarded rehabilitative spousal support." Although equalization...

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    • United States
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1 books & journal articles
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    • United States
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