In re Erpelding

Decision Date06 July 2018
Docket NumberNo. 16-1419,16-1419
Citation917 N.W.2d 235
Parties IN RE the MARRIAGE OF Jodi Lynn ERPELDING and Timothy John Erpelding Upon the Petition of Jodi Lynn Erpelding, Appellant, And Concerning Timothy John Erpelding, Appellee.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Thomas W. Lipps of Peterson & Lipps Law Firm, Algona, for appellant.

Matthew G. Sease and Christopher R. Kemp of Kemp & Sease, Des Moines, for appellee.

HECHT, Justice.

The parties executed a premarital agreement waiving the right to seek an award of attorney fees in the event of a dissolution of their marriage. During their subsequent dissolution proceeding, the parties litigated issues pertaining to physical custody of the two minor children, child support, spousal support, and property division. One of the parties requested an award of attorney fees arising from litigating issues of child custody, child support, and spousal support, claiming the premarital-agreement waiver of her claim for attorney fees was unenforceable because it violates public policy. The district court’s decree decided all of the contested issues and denied the request for attorney fees, finding the waiver provision in the premarital agreement was enforceable. On appeal, the court of appeals reversed on the attorney fees issue, concluding the waiver provision violates public policy and is therefore unenforceable to the extent the attorney fees arise from litigation of child-related issues. On further review, we affirm the court of appeals decision on its award of attorney fees for child-related issues. We vacate the part of the court of appeals decision regarding attorney fees for spousal support. We affirm the decision of the court of appeals on all other issues. Therefore, we remand the case to the district court to determine the amount, if any, of trial attorney fees and costs the ex-wife is entitled to for the child custody, child support, and spousal support issues litigated in the dissolution matter in the district court. The court should also determine the amount of appellate attorney fees the ex-wife is entitled to for the child custody, child support, and spousal support issues.

I. Factual and Procedural Background.

Tim and Jodi Erpelding married on December 1, 1997, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Five days before their wedding, the parties executed a premarital agreement addressing their respective property rights and interests in the event of dissolution of the marriage. The agreement generally provided that, in the event of dissolution, the parties would retain sole ownership of all assets they brought into the marriage or acquired in their individual names during the marriage. The agreement further provided

the Parties shall have no other rights to property, interests in property, property settlement, attorney fees and expenses upon the filing of a petition requesting legal separation, divorce, dissolution or other judicial termination of their marriage, and upon the Court granting any such petition and thereafter.

(Emphasis added.).

After eighteen years of marriage, Jodi filed a petition for dissolution. The parties litigated issues of child custody and support, spousal support, property division, and attorney fees. The district court ordered split physical care, placing one child with each parent, and adjudicated the support and property issues in a thorough and well-written opinion. The court declined to award Jodi attorney fees, concluding "[i]n the absence of any articulated public policy of the state of Iowa, the Court thinks it does not have authority to ignore the plain language of the parties’ prenuptial agreement."

Jodi appealed, Tim cross-appealed, and we transferred the case to the court of appeals. On appeal, Jodi asserted the Iowa Uniform Premarital Agreement Act (IUPAA) prohibits premarital-agreement provisions that waive the right to attorney fees arising from issues of child custody, child support, and spousal support because the IUPAA prohibits premarital agreements from limiting the right to child and spousal support. The court of appeals reversed the district court’s denial of attorney fees, holding "the provision in the Erpeldings’ premarital agreement waiving [attorney] fees and costs is void and unenforceable as to child-related issues because it violates Iowa ‘public policy by discouraging both parents from pursuing litigation in their child’s best interests.’ "1

Tim sought and we granted further review. "When considering an application for further review, we have discretion to review all the issues raised on appeal or in the application for further review or only a portion thereof." In re Marriage of Mauer , 874 N.W.2d 103, 106 (Iowa 2016) ; accord Hills Bank & Tr. Co. v. Converse , 772 N.W.2d 764, 770 (Iowa 2009). We exercise our discretion in this case to limit our review to the issue of premarital-agreement waivers of attorney fees concerning child custody, child support, and spousal support. Accordingly, the court of appeals decision shall be the final adjudication on all of the other issues raised by the parties in this appeal. See In re Marriage of Mauer , 874 N.W.2d at 106.

II. Scope and Standards of Review.
We review the denial of attorney fees for an abuse of discretion. We reverse the district court’s ruling only when it rests on grounds that are clearly unreasonable or untenable. A ruling is clearly unreasonable or untenable when it is "not supported by substantial evidence or when it is based on an erroneous application of the law."

In re Marriage of Kimbro , 826 N.W.2d 696, 698–99 (Iowa 2013) (citation omitted) (quoting In re Marriage of Schenkelberg , 824 N.W.2d 481, 484 (Iowa 2012) ). We review issues involving statutory interpretation for correction of errors at law. Johnson Propane, Heating & Cooling, Inc. v. Iowa Dep’t of Transp. , 891 N.W.2d 220, 224 (Iowa 2017) ; In re C.F.-H. , 889 N.W.2d 201, 203 (Iowa 2016) ; accord Iowa R. App. P. 6.907.

III. Analysis.

A. Relevant Statutory Provisions . Under Iowa law, premarital agreements are subject to the IUPAA, codified in Iowa Code chapter 596. Iowa Code § 596.12 (2016); In re Marriage of Shanks , 758 N.W.2d 506, 511 (Iowa 2008). Iowa Code section 596.5 regulates the matters about which parties may contract in a premarital agreement, and provides in relevant part,

1. Parties to a premarital agreement may contract with respect to the following:
g. Any other matter, including the personal rights and obligations of the parties, not in violation of public policy or a statute imposing a criminal penalty.
2. The right of a spouse or child to support shall not be adversely affected by a premarital agreement.

Iowa Code § 596.5(1)(g ), (2).

B. Attorney Fees for Child Support and Spousal Support. Both the district court and court of appeals based their respective analyses on whether a premarital-agreement waiver of attorney fees concerning child support or spousal support violates public policy. See id. § 596.5(1)(g ). We conclude, however, that the attorney fees issue regarding child support or spousal support can be resolved without an enunciation of Iowa’s public policy on the enforceability of premarital-agreement provisions waiving attorney fees. We rely, instead, on our well-established principles of statutory interpretation in discerning the meaning of "adversely affected" in section 596.5(2) and conclude a premarital-agreement waiver of attorney fees pertaining to child support or spousal support is unenforceable because it adversely affects a spouse’s or child’s right to support in contravention of section 596.5(2).

"When interpreting a statute, we seek to ascertain the legislature’s intent." Dakota, Minn. & E. R.R. v. Iowa Dist. Ct. , 898 N.W.2d 127, 136 (Iowa 2017). We begin with the text of the statute, construing "technical words and phrases, and such others as may have acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in law, ... according to such meaning," and all others "according to the context and the approved usage of the language." Iowa Code § 4.1(38) ; accord Second Injury Fund of Iowa v. Kratzer , 778 N.W.2d 42, 46 (Iowa 2010). After having done so, we determine whether the statute’s language is ambiguous. Rolfe State Bank v. Gunderson , 794 N.W.2d 561, 564 (Iowa 2011).

"A statute is ambiguous ‘if reasonable minds could differ or be uncertain as to the meaning of a statute.’ " Id. (quoting Holiday Inns Franchising, Inc. v. Branstad , 537 N.W.2d 724, 728 (Iowa 1995) ); accord City of Waterloo v. Bainbridge , 749 N.W.2d 245, 248 (Iowa 2008). Ambiguity may arise from the meaning of specific words used and "from the general scope and meaning of a statute when all its provisions are examined." Rolfe State Bank , 794 N.W.2d at 564 (quoting Holiday Inns Franchising , 537 N.W.2d at 728 ).

If the statute is unambiguous, we do not search for meaning beyond the statute’s express terms. Id. However, if the statute is ambiguous, we consider such concepts as the "object sought to be attained"; "circumstances under which the statute was enacted"; "legislative history"; "common law or former statutory provisions, including laws upon the same or similar subjects"; and "consequences of a particular construction." Iowa Code § 4.6 ; accord State v. McCullah , 787 N.W.2d 90, 95 (Iowa 2010). Additionally, we consider the overall structure and context of the statute, Rolfe State Bank , 794 N.W.2d at 564, "not just isolated words or phrases," Kline v. SouthGate Prop. Mgmt., LLC , 895 N.W.2d 429, 438 (Iowa 2017).

Tim contends a premarital-agreement provision waiving a claim for attorney fees adversely affects only the right to seek attorney fees. Put another way, he argues such a provision does not contravene section 596.5(2) because it does not inhibit a spouse’s or child’s right to support—it merely inhibits one party’s right to seek reimbursement from the other party for the cost of pursuing such support. Conversely, Jodi contends such a waiver provision violates section 596.5(2) because, without the possibility of recovering...

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23 cases
  • Riemann v. Toland
    • United States
    • Maine Supreme Court
    • February 15, 2022
    ..."provisions in a premarital agreement that limit child custody rights are void as a matter of public policy."11 In re Marriage of Erpelding , 917 N.W.2d 235, 246 (Iowa 2018). It then concluded that, "[a]s a corollary, provisions in a premarital agreement that contain fee-shifting bars as to......
  • Riemann v. Toland
    • United States
    • Maine Supreme Court
    • February 15, 2022 a premarital agreement that limit child custody rights are void as a matter of public policy."[11] In re Marriage of Erpelding, 917 N.W.2d 235, 246 (Iowa 2018). It then concluded that, "[a]s a corollary, provisions in a premarital agreement that contain fee-shifting bars as to the litiga......
  • Kiene v. Wash. State Bank (In re Radda)
    • United States
    • Iowa Supreme Court
    • February 19, 2021
    ...premarital agreements from including a waiver of the right to attorney fees incurred to obtain child or spousal support. 917 N.W.2d 235, 246–47 (Iowa 2018). Erpelding is inapposite. Courts have discretion to award attorney fees in marital dissolution actions under Iowa Code chapter 598. See......
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    • Iowa Court of Appeals
    • November 7, 2018
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1 books & journal articles
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    • United States
    • ABA General Library Family Law Quarterly No. 53-4, January 2020
    • January 1, 2020
    ...agreed to raise the child. Reversed and remanded for custody determination. Attorney Fees Iowa. In re Marriage of Erpelding , 917 N.W.2d 235 (Iowa 2018). The wife iled an action to dissolve the marriage, requesting attorney fees; however, the parties were bound by a premarital agreement tha......

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