Paulson v. Paulson

Decision Date10 June 2010
Docket NumberNo. 20090225.,20090225.
PartiesMark PAULSON, Plaintiff and Appelleev.Cheryl PAULSON, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtNorth Dakota Supreme Court



Justin D. Hager, Bismarck, N.D., for defendant and appellant; submitted on brief.

Mark Paulson, plaintiff and appellee; no appearance.

MARING, Justice.

[¶ 1] Cheryl Paulson appeals from a divorce judgment dividing the marital property and failing to award her spousal support. We affirm the marital property division, but conclude the trial court clearly erred in its spousal support determination. We reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


[¶ 2] Mark Paulson and Cheryl Paulson were married in 1994. The couple did not have any children together, however, both parties have children who have reached the age of majority. Mark Paulson filed for divorce in June 2008. He requested an equitable distribution of the marital property. Cheryl Paulson filed an answer and counterclaim for divorce requesting equitable distribution of the marital property, and permanent and rehabilitative spousal support. At trial, the parties testified as to their financial status, Mark Paulson's relationship with a female friend, and the value of a trust, guns, vehicles, tools, and other miscellaneous personal items.

[¶ 3] Mark Paulson testified the couple separated in June 2006 due to conflicts regarding their financial situation and telephone calls he had made to a female friend of his. He had a joint checking account with the same woman after he and Cheryl Paulson separated. Mark Paulson testified he had cash withdrawals from his bank account that he believed he spent on the road during the time he and Cheryl Paulson were still married. Mark Paulson testified he did not support his friend, but he did assist and help her financially, and she paid him back.

[¶ 4] Mark Paulson testified his father set up a trust for him. The Mark Paulson Trust provides for Mark Paulson's children until they reach the age of twenty-three. However, the trust assets may be distributed to Mark Paulson or added to the principal after Mark Paulson's children turn twenty-three, at the discretion of the trustees. He testified his youngest child has turned twenty-three. The trust was established under his father's will before the couple's marriage. Mark Paulson testified that his father passed away at approximately the time the couple was married. Mark Paulson testified that his two brothers and two bank employees are the trustees.

[¶ 5] Cheryl Paulson testified that she has moved twice, to Devils Lake and Bismarck, since the couple's separation. She testified she asked Mark Paulson for financial assistance twice since the separation, but he refused. He testified he does not recall any requests for assistance. Cheryl Paulson testified she was in good health.

[¶ 6] The trial court issued its findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order for judgment. The trial court found:

In dividing the marital estate and in deciding spousal support under the Ruff- Fischer guidelines; Ruff v. Ruff, 78 N.D. 775, 52 N.W.2d 107 (1952); Fischer v. Fischer, 139 N.W.2d 845 (N.D.1966), the trial court in exercising its discretion is to consider:
1. The respective ages of the parties
Mark is fifty-two years old and Cheryl is forty-nine.
2. Their earning ability
Mark has a high school degree. He has most recently worked as a truck driver based in Cando, earning approximately $53,000 per year. His employment and income are likely to continue. Cheryl has a high school degree and completed two years of college, without earning a degree. She worked at several jobs during the marriage. At the time of trial, she was employed at Missouri Valley Petroleum in Bismarck earning approximately $23,000 per year. Cheryl intends to continue her employment.
3. The duration of the marriage
The parties were married in 1994, but began living together in 1989. They separated approximately three years before trial.
4. The conduct of each during the marriage
Mark testified that the reason he left the marriage was because of fighting and arguing over money. He also stated that Cheryl questioned the number of telephone calls he made to his female friend, [ ]. Mark does have a relationship with [her] that began during the marriage. He paid some of her bills and had a joint checking account upon which both he and [his friend] could draw checks. Mark's explanation for the checking account was that he set it up as a joint account so that [she] could pay Mark's bills for him when he was on the road working. Mark denies a sexual relationship with [her]. However, [she] did answer the door at Mark's residence wearing a “nightie” or pajamas. While there is no proof that Mark has had a sexual relationship with [her], there is evidence that the relationship is one of more than “just friends.”
Mark did provide Cheryl with assistance in raising Cheryl's daughter during the marriage.
5. Station in life
The parties acquired very little personal property during the marriage, and no real property. They do not have a significant amount of debt.
6. Circumstances and necessities of each
Neither party has any unusual circumstances or needs.
7. Health and physical condition
Both Mark and Cheryl are in good physical health.
8. Financial circumstances as shown by property owned at the time. its value at the time. its income producing capacity. if any. and whether it was accumulated or acquired before or after the marriage
The parties filed for bankruptcy shortly after they were married, and their respective debts were discharged. All assets and debts the parties now have were acquired during the marriage. Mark is the beneficiary of a trust created by his father (Ex. 3). The trust was designed to pay for Mark's children's education. The terms of the trust allow assets remaining after the children turn twenty-three years old to be distributed, at the discretion of the trustees, to Mark or to be added to the principal of the trust. Mark has no control over the distribution of the trust assets. His testimony was that he has no interest in receiving money from the trust, but that all income and principal from the trust should go to his children.
Mark and Cheryl had a joint checking account during the marriage. Any income each earned went to paying their bills. Cheryl usually took care of paying the bills. The parties never purchased a house nor other real property, but lived in rental properties throughout the marriage. Mark now rents a property for $250 per month, and Cheryl lives in an apartment and pays $750 per month rent.
9. Any other matters as may be material
Mark had significant health issues that prevented him from working for seven months. He accrued some medical bills that insurance and Medicaid did not cover, and owes his landlord $1,750 in delinquent rental payments. Cheryl receives disability payments due to injuries she suffered in a car accident in 1993.

The trial court valued and divided the marital property and did not award Cheryl Paulson spousal support. Cheryl Paulson appeals, arguing the trial court erred in failing to award her spousal support and erred in its valuation and distribution of the marital estate.


[¶ 7] Cheryl Paulson argues the trial court erred by failing to award her spousal support. According to Cheryl Paulson, the trial court did not provide an analysis of whether the Ruff-Fischer guideline factors favor or disfavor an award of spousal support, and she asserts the guidelines support awarding her permanent spousal support.

[¶ 8] Spousal support is governed by N.D.C.C. § 14-05-24.1, which provides, [t]aking into consideration the circumstances of the parties, the court may require one party to pay spousal support to the other party for any period of time. The court may modify its spousal support orders.” A spousal support determination is a finding of fact that will not be set aside on appeal unless clearly erroneous. Pearson v. Pearson, 2009 ND 154, ¶ 5, 771 N.W.2d 288. “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.” Id.

[¶ 9] When considering whether to award spousal support, the trial court must consider the relevant factors under the Ruff-Fischer guidelines. Overland v. Overland, 2008 ND 6, ¶ 16, 744 N.W.2d 67; see Ruff v. Ruff, 78 N.D. 775, 52 N.W.2d 107 (1952); Fischer v. Fischer, 139 N.W.2d 845 (N.D.1966). The Ruff-Fischer factors include:

[T]he 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.

Heinle v. Heinle, 2010 ND 5, ¶ 22, 777 N.W.2d 590. The trial court is not required to make a finding on each factor, but it must explain its rationale for its determination. Id. Property division and spousal support are interrelated and intertwined and often must be considered together, especially when there is a large difference in earning power between the spouses. Fox v. Fox, 1999 ND 68, ¶ 22, 592 N.W.2d 541.

[¶ 10] While the duration of the marriage is a factor, spousal support is sometimes appropriate even when the duration was short. Weigel v. Weigel, 2000 ND 16, ¶ 10, 604 N.W.2d 462. There is no bright-line rule to determine whether a marriage should be considered long- or short-term. Hitz v. Hitz, 2008 ND 58, ¶ 16, 746 N.W.2d 732; see Wagner v. Wagner, 2007 ND 101, ¶ 16, 733 N.W.2d 593 (considering a twelve-year marriage long-term); Wold v. Wold, 2008 ND 14, ...

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