Van Orden v. Van Orden, Docket No. 47857

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Idaho
Writing for the CourtZAHN, Justice.
Citation515 P.3d 233
Parties Dexter C. VAN ORDEN, Petitioner-Appellant-Cross Respondent, v. Christine M. VAN ORDEN, Respondent-Cross Appellant.
Docket NumberDocket No. 47857
Decision Date03 August 2022

515 P.3d 233

Dexter C. VAN ORDEN, Petitioner-Appellant-Cross Respondent,
Christine M. VAN ORDEN, Respondent-Cross Appellant.

Docket No. 47857

Supreme Court of Idaho, Boise, November 2021 Term.

Opinion filed: August 3, 2022

Castleton Law Office, Blackfoot, for Appellant. Trevor L. Castleton argued.

Beard St. Clair Gaffney PA, Rexburg, for Respondent. Jeffrey D. Brunson argued.

ZAHN, Justice.

This matter concerns the enforceability of a property settlement agreement entered into by a married couple prior to their divorce. Dexter Van Orden ("Dexter") appeals an intermediate appellate decision of the district court ruling that the property settlement agreement he executed with Christine Van Orden ("Christine") was void and unenforceable. Christine cross-appeals the district court's decision affirming other conclusions of the magistrate court. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm in part and reverse in part.


A. Factual Background

Christine and Dexter married in August 2007 and have four minor children born during their marriage. Christine works as a nurse in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit ("NICU"). Dexter and Christine also operated a ranch during their marriage. Dexter performed most of the ranch's day-to-day business and Christine performed some of the ranch's bookkeeping.

In late November 2016, Christine told Dexter she wanted a divorce. This revelation prompted a series of contentious discussions regarding the dissolution of their marriage, including how the community estate would be divided. Dexter maintains that Christine's position on the division of property was clear from their first conversation—she wanted her "car paid for and [her] student loans paid off." He claims that Christine was steadfast in this desire, expressing it in subsequent conversations about property division. Christine does not dispute that she requested to leave the marriage debt-free with her student loans paid off and her vehicle paid for. Christine noted that she believed that agreeing to less property would make Dexter more amenable to negotiating child custody. In addition, both Christine and Dexter discussed their desire to avoid a "nasty" divorce. Dexter later testified during the trial that nasty, to him, meant "destroy[ing] each other ... [or] hurt[ing] our kids."

Christine and Dexter's discussions about the divorce continued into the late hours of December 21, 2016, and into the morning of December 22. A few days prior, Dexter had contacted an attorney to draft a property settlement agreement ("the PSA") dividing the community estate should the parties divorce. The attorney finished drafting the PSA by December 22 and Dexter drove to Christine's work that afternoon seeking to have her sign the PSA.

The parties’ narratives about the circumstances surrounding the execution of the PSA vary dramatically. Christine testified that she was very emotional when confronted with the PSA and completely unaware Dexter had it drafted with help from counsel. She stated that she read the PSA at least three times, each time finding some provision or term she did not understand. However, she did not verbalize any questions or concerns to Dexter at the time. All the while, she contends that Dexter paced back and forth, never straying more than about twenty-five

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feet from where she was reading the PSA. Finally, she stated that she told Dexter she would like to have an attorney read the PSA before she signed. She contends that Dexter, in response, told her that if she did not sign the PSA at that time "things would get nasty." At that point, Christine signed the PSA.

As to what Christine perceived Dexter to mean when he stated things would get nasty, she testified at trial that

him being nasty – after knowing this man for nine years, being married to this man for nine years, "nasty" to me meant nasty with my kids, nasty financially, nasty with the reasons with my dad. He had threatened many times to get a restraining order against my dad to explicit [sic] everything: My family name, my dad, my whole family. So when he says he's going to get nasty, I feel like this was him being gentle and soft in the fact that we were in a public place, in the lobby in the middle of the NICU. And again, "nasty" being, yeah, we both didn't want a nasty divorce but nasty only on his terms that if I sign this or not.

With respect to Christine's concerns about Dexter impugning her family name and her father, Christine expressed concern that Dexter would disclose highly sensitive details about her private family life, particularly allegations of childhood sexual abuse by her father.

Dexter, in contrast, disputed nearly every aspect of Christine's testimony concerning her execution of the PSA. For instance, he testified that Christine, far from being emotionally overwhelmed, appeared relieved following their conversation on the evening of December 21 and into the early morning hours of December 22. In addition, he stated that he did not "hover" over Christine while she reviewed the PSA, nor did he recall Christine asking for an attorney to look over the PSA before she signed. Dexter also claimed that Christine was aware that he had contacted an attorney to draft the PSA and did so at Christine's request. Finally, Dexter testified that he never told Christine that if she did not sign the PSA that things would turn "nasty."

As to the content of the PSA, it purported to "establish and determine the rights [that Christine and Dexter] shall have in certain community and/or separate real and personal property[.]" The PSA noted the parties’ intentions, including: "to avoid litigation and intrusion into their professional and personal lives ... which would otherwise occur if th[e PSA] had not been entered into by them" and "to protect Christine from certain debts and business risks associated with Dexter's ranching business." Additionally, the PSA provided that "Christine acknowledges that even though Dexter is receiving an uncertain dollar amount of equity in real and personal property transferred to him by th[e PSA], it is fair because th[e PSA] insulates her from most, if not all, of the liability associated with Dexter's ranching business."

With respect to the couple's real and personal property, the PSA provided that Christine

relinquishes and quitclaims all right, title and interest to Dexter's ranching business including the following described real ... property ... [a] BLM lease; [and] Longhurst ranch property which is also the subject of quitclaim deed(s) which describe said property in more complete detail and [sic] executed by Christine to carry out the intent of this Agreement[.]

Under the PSA, Christine received no real property but did receive the following items of personal property: a 2008 GMC Yukon vehicle, the furniture in the marital home, and her personal effects. In addition, the PSA insulated Christine from responsibility for any of the financial obligations of the ranching business and required Dexter to pay off the balance of Christine's student loans and the car loan for the 2008 GMC Yukon. The PSA did not address child custody or visitation.

Beginning in November 2016, concurrent with the parties’ discussions concerning divorce, Christine entered into an affair with a coworker. It is unclear when, precisely, Dexter learned of the affair, but he confronted Christine about it on or around January 1, 2017. However, he testified that Christine did not tell him directly that she had an affair

515 P.3d 240

until after he filed for divorce on January 11, 2017.1

B. Procedural History

Dexter filed his original petition for divorce on January 11, 2017. In that petition, Dexter did not request enforcement of the PSA and instead requested that the parties’ community property and debts be divided equitably between them. Dexter later moved the magistrate court to allow him to file an amended petition for divorce. Shortly thereafter, the parties stipulated to Dexter filing an amended petition.

In his amended petition for divorce, Dexter requested that the magistrate court enforce the terms of the PSA between the parties. Christine answered on April 14 and asserted affirmative defenses of duress and unconscionability with respect to enforcement of the PSA.

Following the amended petition and Christine's response, the parties engaged in extensive and acrimonious litigation concerning the temporary custody of the children. On October 30, 2017, Dexter moved to bifurcate the trial in this matter, seeking to have one trial on the validity and enforceability of the PSA and another relating to the custody and visitation of the children. The magistrate court granted the motion to bifurcate on November 2.

Subsequently, on February 7, 2018, the magistrate court conducted a one-day bench trial on the enforceability of the PSA. Both Christine and Dexter testified as to the circumstances surrounding the execution of the PSA. In addition, Dexter testified as to the value of the real and personal property he received pursuant to the PSA and the outstanding liabilities of the ranch. The magistrate court also admitted a balance sheet, created in anticipation of...

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