Marriage of Axelberg

Marriage of Axelberg, 2015 MT 110 (March 11, 2015) (Wheat, J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court should have considered the net worth of the marital estate before dividing the property; (2) whether the district court erred in awarding Tracy certain pre-marital and post-separation property; (3) whether the district court abused its discretion by refusing to award maintenance to Delynn; (4) whether the district court erred by retroactively modifying Tracy’s obligations under the interim support agreement; and (5) whether the child support order was clearly erroneous or an abuse of discretion.

Short Answer: (1) No; (2) no; (3) no; (4) no; and (5) no.


Facts: Delynn and Tracy married in 1998 and separated in 2010. Delyn filed for divorce in June 2011. The parties entered an interim support agreement in February 2012 under which Tracy paid Delynn $5,000 a month in temporary support.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Trial was held in May 2012, and a final order or dissolution was entered in May 2014. The district court ordered Tracy to pay $2,225 per month in child support, decided an award of maintenance was not appropriate, terminated Tracy’s support obligations under the interim agreement and made the termination retroactive to the first day of trial, and divided the parties’ property between them. Delynn appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: (1) Equitable apportionment of the marital estate does not require a specific finding of net worth prior to apportionment. Instead, district courts must make findings sufficient for the Supreme Court to determine the estate’s net worth and review whether the distribution is equitable. The district court did that here.

The district court made computational errors in its Property Distribution Schedule, but did not make them in its order. These are not sufficient to require reversal.

(2) After making findings on all relevant facts and the factors required by § 40-4-202(1), MCA, the district court apportioned each party the value of his or her pre-acquired assets. This is not an abuse of discretion.

(3) Delynn does not argue that the district court’s findings are clearly erroneous, but instead argues the district court abused its discretion by failing to consider other factors in its decision not to award maintenance. Maintenance is not favored. The district court found that Delynn is underemployed and reasonable capable of earning sufficient income to provide for her needs. Delynn was awarded 55% of the marital estate, which had a value in excess of $800,000. The district court did not abuse its discretion.

(4) Delynn argues that the interim support agreement required Tracy to pay her $5,000 a month until the district court entered an order terminating the obligation, and that the district court erred in terminating it retroactively to the first day of trial. The parties do not argue, and the Court does not address, whether parties to a dissolution can bind the district court through their agreement. However, Delynn acquiesced to the error by arguing whether the agreement should be modified, not whether it could be modified. At trial, neither party disputed that modification was within the court’s discretion.

(5) The district court is required to set forth the essential and determining facts underlying its child support order so that the Court can review the reasons why the court used the amounts it did. Here, each party retained experts to calculate child support. Their calculations differed on the amount of income they imputed to Delynn. The district court adopted one of the three calculations provided by Tracy’s expert, which imputed $33,750 annual income to Delynn, and credited Tracy with tuition payments and miles driven to exercise long-distance parenting. The calculation does not conform to the district court’s findings of fact, which found that Delynn is capable of earning $34,520 a year. However, the child support award is not inconsistent with this factual finding, is not based on a mistake, and is not otherwise clearly erroneous or an abuse of discretion.