Schmidkunz v. Schmidkunz

Decision Date16 March 1995
Docket NumberNo. 940279,940279
Citation529 N.W.2d 857
PartiesDarcie M. SCHMIDKUNZ, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Leslie H. SCHMIDKUNZ, Defendant and Appellee. Civ.
CourtNorth Dakota Supreme Court

Edward H. Johnson (argued), Worthington Law Firm, Bismarck, for plaintiff and appellant.

Thomas M. Tuntland (argued), Mandan, for defendant and appellee.

NEUMANN, Justice.

Darcie Schmidkunz appealed from a divorce judgment dividing marital property and awarding her former husband, Leslie Schmidkunz, custody of their minor child, Bryan. We conclude that neither the custody award nor the property division is clearly erroneous, and we affirm the judgment.

Darcie and Leslie were married in December 1988. Bryan was born in June 1991 and was three years old at the time of the divorce hearing. The parties developed marital difficulties and separated in April 1993. Darcie then filed for divorce, alleging irreconcilable differences.

The trial court granted the parties a divorce and awarded custody of Bryan to Leslie, with liberal visitation rights for Darcie resulting in each party having physical custody of Bryan about half of the time. The court also divided the marital property. Darcie appealed.

Darcie asserts the trial court failed to comply with Rule 52(a), N.D.R.Civ.P., because it adopted Leslie's post-trial brief and signed findings of fact drafted by Leslie's counsel. Rule 52(a), N.D.R.Civ.P., requires the court to "find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law thereon." The rule also provides that findings of fact and conclusions of law may be "stated orally and recorded in open court" or "appear in an opinion or memorandum of decision filed by the court." However, a memorandum opinion is not required, and if there is a discrepancy between the court's written findings of fact and its memorandum opinion, the findings of fact prevail. Schmidt v. Plains Electric, Inc., 281 N.W.2d 794, 801 (N.D.1979). When the court affixes its signature to the findings, even though drafted by counsel, they become the findings of the court, and if they adequately explain the basis of the court's decision it will be upheld. See Kottke v. U.A.M., 446 N.W.2d 23, 26 (N.D.1989); Ned Nastrom Motors, Inc. v. Nastrom-Peterson-Neubauer, 338 N.W.2d 64, 71 n. 8 (N.D.1983).

Following an evidentiary hearing, the trial court issued a short memorandum opinion, stating:

"This is that rare and unusual case where the Court agrees entirely with the issues outlined and the suggested resolution in defense counsel's post-trial brief. It is adopted as the opinion of the Court. Defendant's counsel will prepare and submit the necessary Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, Order for Judgment and Judgment."

Because such an approach may fail to foster the appearance of fairness and impartiality in our courts, and may thereby reduce confidence in our judicial system, we cannot approve it as a practice. It is preferable that the court, if it chooses to issue a written memorandum opinion, state in its own words the rationale and basis for its decision. However, the trial court did note this was the "rare and unusual" case where counsel's brief effectively spoke for the court in its reasoning and analysis of the issues. The court implicitly concluded it could not add anything meaningful to the analysis in counsel's brief, so it directed counsel to prepare findings based upon the brief. Indicative that the court was doing its own thinking, however, is its further statement in the memorandum opinion that Leslie had no right to retain insurance proceeds for damages sustained after the hearing to a car in Darcie's possession.

The trial court subsequently filed extensive findings of fact explaining its decision. It is of no import that the initial draft of those findings was presumably prepared by Leslie's counsel. When the court affixed its signature to those findings they became the findings of the court. We hold the trial court complied with the requirements of Rule 52(a), N.D.R.Civ.P., and did not commit reversible error in the process of deciding the case or setting forth its findings and conclusions.

Darcie asserts the trial court's custody award is clearly erroneous. Under Section 14-09-06.1, N.D.C.C., a trial court must award custody to promote the best interests and welfare of the child. Child custody determinations are findings of fact which will not be disturbed on appeal unless clearly erroneous under Rule 52(a), N.D.R.Civ.P. Weber v. Weber, 512 N.W.2d 723 (N.D.1994). Our scope of review is properly limited by the clearly erroneous rule because the trial court, having had the opportunity to observe the demeanor and credibility of the witnesses, is in a much better position to ascertain the true facts than an appellate court, which must rely upon a cold record. Catlin v. Catlin, 494 N.W.2d 581 (N.D.1992).

The trial court found it would be in Bryan's best interests to award custody to Leslie with liberal visitation for Darcie. The trial court made several specific findings relevant to its custody decision, all of which are supported by evidence presented at the hearing. The court found both parents have strong ties of love and affection for Bryan, but that Leslie has a "greater capacity and disposition to give Bryan love, affection, and guidance." The court found Darcie is noticeably angry and hostile and that her anger and hostility "reduces her capacity to demonstrate love and affection to Bryan." Darcie conceded she sometimes locked Bryan in his bedroom at night, and the court found this conduct has had some detrimental effect on Bryan.

The trial court also found Darcie has a hostile attitude toward visitations between Bryan and Leslie but, in contrast, Leslie has expressed a willingness to foster and encourage regular visitations between Darcie and Bryan. The court apparently gave this factor significant weight in deciding to place Bryan in Leslie's custody. It was appropriate for the court to do so, because visitation between a child and noncustodial parent is presumed to be in the best interests of the child and hostility of a custodial parent toward such visitations could be detrimental to the child's best interests. See Blotske v. Leidholm, 487 N.W.2d 607 (N.D.1992).

The trial court's choice for custody between two fit parents is a difficult one, and we will not retry the case or substitute our judgment for that of the trial court where, as here, its determination is supported by the evidence in the record. See Weber v. Weber, 512 N.W.2d 723, 727 (N.D.1994). We hold the trial court's custody award in this case is not clearly erroneous.

Darcie also asserts on appeal that the trial court's division of property is clearly erroneous. Under Section 14-05-24, N.D.C.C., the trial court must make "such equitable distribution of the real and personal property of the parties as may seem just and proper." However, the trial court's division of property does not have to be equal in order to be equitable. Steckler v. Steckler, 519 N.W.2d 23 (N.D.1994). The trial court's determinations on matters of property division are findings of fact which will not be set aside on appeal unless they are clearly erroneous under Rule 52(a), N.D.R.Civ.P. Steckler v. Steckler, 519 N.W.2d 23 (N.D.1994).

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