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In re Marriage of Murphy

Court of Appeals of Iowa

June 7, 2017

IN RE THE MARRIAGE OF PATRICIA F. MURPHY AND MICHAEL J. MURPHY Upon the Petition of PATRICIA F. MURPHY, Petitioner-Appellee, And Concerning MICHAEL J. MURPHY, Respondent-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Shelby County, Joel E. Swanson, Judge.

         A former husband appeals the district court's denial of his petition to modify the spousal support order in the dissolution decree. AFFIRMED.

          Amanda J. Heims, Council Bluffs, for appellant.

          Matthew V. Stierman of Stierman Law Office, P.C., Council Bluffs, for appellee.

          Heard by Vogel, P.J., and Doyle and McDonald, JJ.

          VOGEL, Presiding Judge.

         Michael Murphy appeals the district court's denial of his application to modify the spousal support provision contained in the 2005 decree that dissolved his marriage to Patricia Murphy. He claims the court should have modified the spousal support award in light of his health issues that are impacting his ability to continue to work and in light of his claim that Patricia is no longer in need of support. He also asks us to reduce or eliminate the district court's award of Patricia's trial attorney fees. We affirm the district court's decision.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         The parties' twenty-five-year marriage was dissolved in March 2005, and in the stipulated decree, Michael was ordered to pay Patricia $2750 per month in traditional alimony until either party died or Patricia remarried. Shortly after the dissolution decree was filed, Michael remarried, and he maintains a law practice with his current wife, Kimberly. Patricia has not remarried, and her sources of income, besides the spousal support from Michael, include social security, a portion of Michael's military pension, a small pension payment, and the income from the rental properties she was awarded in the dissolution proceeding, totaling $3311.63 per month.

         In November 2015, Michael filed a petition to modify the spousal support order of the dissolution decree, asserting his support obligation should terminate at his retirement, which he claimed was imminent in light of his age and declining health. The matter proceeded to a trial on April 22, 2016. At the trial, Michael testified he underwent a quadruple bypass surgery.[1] He also testified he has trouble with regulating his heartbeat, is inflicted with recurrent cellulitis, and has trouble sleeping. He also has physical scars and psychological trauma associated with his military service while in Vietnam. Michael asserted he receives a sixty-percent disability benefit from the military due to his health conditions. He also reported he was more recently having difficulty with his memory-forgetting information in the midst of trial and failing to remember court deadlines. For that reason, Michael testified he has scaled back his law practice to criminal law only, refusing to take cases dealing with family law, personal injury, workers' compensation, or court appointments. Michael asserted his doctors told him to reduce his stress. In order to do so, Michael stated he wanted to retire in light of his age-sixty-six years old-but cannot do so with his monthly spousal support obligation.

         The law practice where Michael works is completely owed by Kimberly, and Michael receives a salary from his work at the firm in the amount of $118, 500. He also receives a monthly veteran disability benefit and pension payment in the amount of $1676.38. He has no administrative obligations for the firm or ownership interest in the firm, and he estimates that he works sixty or sixty-five hours per week. In addition, the law firm is located in a building that is owned by Kimberly's property management company, and Michael also has no interest in that company. The two rental properties Michael was awarded in the dissolution proceeding in 2005 were transferred to Kimberly's property management company during the time Michael was recovering from his heart surgery. While Michael and Kimberly asserted at the modification trial that the properties had no value at the time of the transfer in light of the substantial repairs each required, the financial affidavit Michael filed in the 2005 dissolution proceeding asserted the properties had a net value of over $42, 000.

         Patricia testified at the hearing that she continues to manage the rental properties she was awarded in the dissolution proceeding, work she performed before the parties' dissolution, and has paid off over $200, 000 in mortgage debt attached to the rental properties and the former marital home. While she has typically taken an extended vacation each year, she also has many physical ailments. After the dissolution proceeding, she had knee surgery after falling at work, she had wrist surgery, and more recently she underwent another knee surgery due to a torn meniscus. In addition, she was currently scheduled to have back surgery due to a herniated disc, and she has thyroid disease. Because of her age-sixty-six years old-and her physical condition, Patricia testified she did not believe she could obtain any other employment to support herself.

         The district court issued its order denying the modification petition May 11, 2016. The court noted Michael's concerns regarding his health and his desire to retire from the practice of law but observed Michael's law license is still active and no medical testimony was received into evidence to support his claimed need for retirement. The court also noted that while Patricia's net worth has increased since the dissolution due to her work in maintaining the rental properties and her efforts to pay off her debt obligations, her annual income remained steady-yielding between $23, 000 and $32, 000 annually. The court concluded that while Michael and Kimberly may have a legitimate purpose for transferring Michael's assets to Kimberly's company and preventing Michael from having an ownership interest in the law firm or property management company, there was no consideration given for Michael's support obligation to Patricia in Michael's retirement plans. As the court noted, "Spousal support creates an obligation which must be considered when considering employment practices and in this case retirement." Michael earned an annual salary of $118, 500 and annual disability and pension payments of over $20, 000. He had no responsibility for expenses for the law firm, yet he enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle with Kimberly, remodeling the apartment above their law firm at a cost exceeding $500, 000 and purchasing a motor home at a cost exceeding $87, 000. The court also awarded Patricia her request for $16, 362 in trial attorney fees. Michael appeals.

         II. Scope and ...

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