In re Marriage of Wilson

Decision Date29 January 2010
Docket NumberNo. 100,780.,100,780.
Citation223 P.3d 815
PartiesIn the Matter of the MARRIAGE of Shannon M. WILSON, Appellee, and Bruce A. Wilson, Appellant.
CourtKansas Court of Appeals

Frederick K. Starrett and Matthew K. Corbin, of Lathrop & Gage LLP, of Overland Park, for appellant.

Robert S. Caldwell, of Caldwell & Moll, L.C., of Overland Park, for appellee.

Before McANANY, P.J., ELLIOTT and LEBEN, JJ.

LEBEN, J.

Bruce Wilson appeals two orders the district court made in Bruce's divorce from his wife, Shannon. First, he argues that the district court's child-support order went beyond the court's authority because $3,500 per month goes into a trust account that could be used by the parties' child after he reaches majority. We agree: Kansas law doesn't require a parent to provide support to a child after majority, and the district court's order effectively does so. Second, Bruce argues that the district court wrongly sanctioned him for his misleading and evasive responses during trial and in his required financial affidavit. We disagree: the district court has the inherent power to sanction a divorce litigant who provides misleading information in financial information that the law required to be disclosed as part of that divorce action.

I. The District Court's Child-Support Order Is Beyond the Court's Authority Because It Provides Post-Majority Support.

The district court ordered Bruce to pay $6,000 per month in child support for the benefit of the parties' only child, Finley, who was almost 5 years old when the case was tried. The district court ordered that Shannon place $3,500 of that amount each month into a trust fund for Finley's special needs or future education. The written journal entry setting out the judge's orders provided that Shannon place the $3,500 "into a trust account for the benefit of the Child or, if agreed by both parties, in the Child's existing 529 Educational Account." The journal entry also provided that child support would cease when Finley turned 18.

We review the district court's award of child support for abuse of discretion. In re Marriage of Winsky, 42 Kan. App.2d 69, Syl. ¶ 4, 208 P.3d 355 (2009). The district court necessarily abuses its discretion when it makes a legal error, so we also review its orders for such errors. See In re Marriage of Kunzle, 2007 WL 3146683, at *4 (Kan.App.2007) (unpublished opinion). When interpreting the applicable statutes and child-support guidelines, we do so independently without any required deference to the district court. In re Marriage of Brown, 279 Kan. 282, 285, 109 P.3d 1212 (2005); Winsky, 42 Kan.App.2d 69, Syl. ¶ 4, 208 P.3d 355.

Bruce contends that the district court exceeded its authority by requiring him to pay child support to be used after Finley reaches majority. The Kansas divorce statutes authorize an award of child support until the child reaches age 18 or, if still in high school, until June 30 of the school year in which the child turns 18. K.S.A. 60-1610(a)(1). No greater duty exists under the common law: a parent's common-law duty to support a child ends at majority. See Arche v. United States of America, 247 Kan. 276, 291, 798 P.2d 477 (1990); In re Marriage of Risley, 41 Kan.App.2d 294, 299-300, 201 P.3d 770 (2009). Thus, absent a parent's written agreement, the parent cannot be ordered to provide support after the child reaches 18 and graduates from high school (though support may continue through June 30). See K.S.A. 60-1610(a)(1); Elrod & Buchele, 2 Kansas Family Law § 14.41(1) (1999).

Shannon suggests that the court's order was proper because the funds could be used before Finley reaches 18. That would indeed have been within the district court's authority. See Ferguson v. Ferguson, 6 Kan.App.2d 287, 291, 628 P.2d 234 (1981). But that does not seem likely here given the lack of evidence of special educational needs at present, the amount of money being placed into trust, and most important the apparent intention of the district court. The district judge's oral ruling showed an intention that Bruce's $3,500-per-month contribution to the trust account could be used for educational expenses after Finley reaches 18: the court said that the $3,500 per month would be placed "into a trust for—a spend-thrift type trust for special needs or future education— special education, or education past majority." (Emphasis added.)

While the written journal entry doesn't specifically mention use of the trust fund for education past majority, it doesn't say anything that conflicts with that intention either. The district court's child-support award thus appears to have been based upon an intention that some of the money could be used for education after Finley turns 18, which is not allowed by court order (except for finishing high school). Thus, the district court's child-support award is based upon an error of law—that the district court could require that Bruce send money to Shannon to be put into an account to be used for education past majority.

Bruce asks us simply to strike the $3,500 amount, leaving Shannon with a child-support award of $2,500 per month. We cannot do so because we do not know that the district court considered $2,500 per month an adequate overall child-support award. The district court has authority to order some portion of the child support be used for a specific purpose, as took place in Ferguson, so long as it's not for use past majority. The district court did not state that all of the trust funds would be used after Finley turned 18; the court merely indicated an intention that some of the funds might be used that way.

We must respect the district court's role in establishing the proper amount of child support. That decision rests within the discretion of the district court, and an appellate court, which has not heard directly from any of the witnesses, should not make that discretionary call. We therefore reverse the district court's award of child support and remand the case for the district court to determine, from the date support was initially awarded, the proper amount.

II. The District Court's $30,000 Sanction Against Bruce Was Within the Court's Authority in Light of Bruce's Attempt to Mislead the Court.

The district court sanctioned Bruce $30,-000—to be paid to Shannon—based upon Bruce's attempt to mislead the court about his income and assets. Bruce contends that he had no duty to update the court about a large increase in his income; that the court's sanction was excessive under constitutional double-jeopardy grounds since the court had already separately awarded one asset to Shannon based upon Bruce's failure to disclose information about it; and that any fault for failing to disclose the information was that of his attorney, not Bruce.

We review the district court's sanction orders for abuse of discretion. Stone v. City of Kiowa, 263 Kan. 502, 518, 950 P.2d 1305 (1997). Once again, since the district court necessarily abuses its discretion when it makes a legal error, we also review its orders for such errors. Kunzle, 2007 WL 3146683, at *4. To the extent that the district court's sanction order is based upon its factual findings, we must accept those findings if substantial evidence supports them. See In re Marriage of Wherrell, 274 Kan. 984, 987, 58 P.3d 734 (2002). We first look then to determine whether the facts support the district court's conclusion that Bruce intentionally misled the court about his income and one specific asset.

If the district court's order is based on a valid finding that Bruce intentionally misled the court, we would then turn to the legal issues that Bruce has raised. As to legal matters, we must first determine whether the district court had the authority to sanction Bruce for the conduct at issue. If so, we must determine whether the sanction violated double-jeopardy rules, as Bruce claims. Our last review, if the district court's sanction order has passed those first two, will be for reasonableness: a district court abuses its discretion when no reasonable person would agree with its ruling. Stone, 263 Kan. at 518, 950 P.2d 1305.

A. The District Court's Factual Finding that Bruce Intentionally Misled the Court Is Amply Supported in the Record.

Based on Bruce's testimony throughout the trial, the district court found that Bruce tried to mislead the court about his current income and about the existence of one asset, the repayment of part of a loan Bruce had made to a friend. Since the entirety of his testimony is critical to our review, we have included all of the relevant portions as an appendix to this opinion. After reviewing Bruce's testimony, the district court concluded that Bruce and his attorney had "orchestrated such deception" and that Bruce's deception was thus intentional. Based on these findings, the district court sanctioned Bruce $30,000, to be paid to Shannon, "as a matter of equity and as a form of sanctions."

The trial began—and all testimony was presented—on January 8, 2008. Bruce had filed his first domestic relations affidavit in September 2007; it listed his gross income from self-employment as $294,448 per year. Less than a month before trial, in a pretrial questionnaire, Bruce continued to say that his average gross income from 2004 through 2006 had been $294,448. At trial, Bruce presented an amended domestic relations affidavit dated January 7, 2008; it listed his gross income as $472,500 but had an asterisk leading to additional information: "All figures are based on 2006 income tax return."

After admission of the amended domestic relations affidavit, Bruce's attorney asked him some questions about his income. Bruce emphasized that his income could fluctuate from year to year and that he'd had some years in which he had no income. After explaining years in which he made little or no money, his attorney asked whether 2007 was an unusual year. Bruce, a commodities trader, said it was unusual because wheat had doubled in...

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