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In re Marriage Stenzel

Court of Appeals of Iowa

January 24, 2018

IN RE THE MARRIAGE OF JOEL D. STENZEL AND CHERYL A. STENZEL Upon the Petition of CHERYL A. STENZEL, Petitioner-Appellee, And Concerning JOEL D. STENZEL, Respondent-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Dallas County, Randy V. Hefner, Judge.

         Joel Stenzel appeals from the spousal support provisions of the decree dissolving his marriage to Cheryl Stenzel.

          James S. Blackburn of Finley Law Firm, P.C., Des Moines, for appellant.

          Anjela A. Shutts and Van T. Everett of Whitfield & Eddy, P.L.C., Des Moines, for appellee.

          Heard by Danilson, C.J., and Doyle and Mullins, JJ.


         Joel Stenzel appeals from the spousal support provisions of the decree dissolving his thirty-two-year marriage to Cheryl Stenzel. Joel characterizes the support awarded to Cheryl as reimbursement support, which he contends is improper here. He also maintains the statutory language that support should be "at a standard of living reasonably comparable to that enjoyed during the marriage" is not forward looking and, thus, his "current and future earnings should not be a primary focus of the case." Joel asserts the court's consideration of certain of Cheryl's expenses is not allowed under Iowa Code section 598.21A(1).[1] Additionally, Joel objects to the amount of spousal support ordered both before and after retirement, the equalization fee related to attorney fees, and the court's finding that Joel's cosmetic dental costs paid from marital assets should be reimbursed to Cheryl. Finding no failure to do equity in the court's rulings, we affirm.

         I. Background Facts.

         Both parties agreed Cheryl was entitled to permanent spousal support but disagreed as to the amount and duration. At trial, Joel proposed Cheryl receive $3500 per month until he reaches the age of sixty-six;[2] Cheryl asked for $15, 000 per month until she reaches the age of sixty-seven and $4000 per month thereafter until the death of either party or her remarriage. The court ordered spousal support in the amount of $12, 000 per month, which would decrease to $8000 per month when Joel reached the age of sixty-two (the court found this age was consistent with Joel's testimony that he anticipated a career change in six or seven years, as well as being consistent with the couple's plan that Joel's move would expedite his retirement). The support would decrease again to $4000 per month when Joel reached the age of full social security retirement (age sixty-seven).

         Having thoroughly reviewed the testimony and exhibits, we agree with and adopt the following fact findings of the district court:

Cheryl and Joel were married on August 11, 1984. Cheryl was [twenty-three] and Joel [twenty-four] years of age. [At the time of trial, ] Cheryl [was] [fifty-five] years and Joel [fifty-six] years of age. Neither brought any significant property or debt into the marriage. The parties did not execute a prenuptial agreement.
At the time of the marriage, Joel had just completed his second year of medical school at the University of Iowa. Cheryl entered pharmacy school at the University of Iowa shortly after the marriage. Joel graduated from medical school in 1986. He completed a family medicine residency in Cedar Rapids following medical school, and he completed a residency in pediatrics from 1987-1990 at what is now Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines. Between 1990-1993, Joel completed a fellowship in neonatology at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. He returned to Des Moines in 1993 and worked for Newborn Care Consultants. Iowa Methodist Medical Center purchased this practice in approximately 1994 or 1995, and the practice was integrated into Blank Children's Hospital. Joel worked at Blank until early 2013. He then took a position with Newborn Specialists in Tulsa. Joel is board certified in pediatrics and neonatal-perinatal medicine. He is licensed to practice medicine in Oklahoma and Iowa.
Cheryl graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1983 and then attended pharmacy school from 1984-1987. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in pharmacy in 1987. She has been a licensed pharmacist in Iowa since 1987 and is now also licensed in Oklahoma. She does not, however, have a Doctor of Pharmacy degree [(Pharm. D.), which is currently required to become licensed].
Two sons were born to the marriage, both now adults. . . .
Cheryl describes her health as excellent. Joel is in relatively good health, but he testified that he is taking medication for anxiety, depression, and hyperlipidemia. He believes these conditions may be related to stress associated with his current employment and the dissolution of the marriage.
A basic understanding of the practice of neonatology is necessary to contextualize Joel's contentions. Neonatology is the care of critically ill newborns. By necessity it is hospital-based. Neonatologists cover deliveries as necessary and neonatal intensive care units [NICU's]. Critically ill newborns require round-the-clock care. Neonatologists thus work night and weekend shifts. Some neonatologists are employed by a hospital and are paid a salary, as at Blank, and some neonatologists, such as those at Newborn Specialties, contract with hospitals to provide neonatology services privately and are paid on a service-provided basis.
Four neonatologists served Blank when Joel originally began working there. This number eventually increased to seven. Night, weekend, and day shifts were divided evenly among the physicians. According to Joel, he would work [forty] to [fifty] hours per week, although Cheryl testified that she recalled Joel working substantially more hours while at Blank. He received five weeks of vacation and other benefits.
During the 2005-2006 timeframe, Joel was contacted by Newborn Specialties, a neonatology group in Tulsa, about relocating and joining that practice. Joel and Cheryl traveled to Tulsa, but ultimately decided to remain in Des Moines for personal and family reasons, including the fact that their sons were in private school and they did not wish to relocate them to Tulsa.
Joel was recruited by this group again in 2013. The original group was splitting, and several of the physicians were intending to remain in private practice and serve two area hospitals. They required the services of one or more additional neonatologists to provide adequate coverage.
Until this time, Joel and Cheryl had not planned to leave the Des Moines area. Joel testified that he would "probably" have worked at Blank until his mid-[sixties]. But by 2013, both [sons] had graduated from high school. Joel recognized that the work hours in Tulsa would be substantially greater than at Blank, but he also realized that he would earn substantially more income. Joel and Cheryl discussed the benefits of accepting the Newborn Specialties position and moving to Tulsa. By doing so, they anticipated that Joel's income would increase substantially, but in turn his retirement date would be accelerated. They ultimately decided to make this move.
Joel moved to Tulsa in March of 2013. Cheryl remained in this area at least in part to sell their home in Norwalk where they had lived for [fifteen] years. That house was ultimately sold in July of 2014 for $420, 000.
According to Cheryl, in May of 2014, [the couple experienced a breach of trust]. They discussed conditions that Cheryl imposed in order "to restore the trust in the marriage and to prove to [Cheryl] that [Joel] was committed to [the] marriage." As a result, Cheryl decided not to move to Tulsa but to remain in Iowa. Cheryl filed the petition to dissolve the marriage in May of 2015 when she learned that Joel was involved in a relationship in Tulsa.
The district court also examined the earnings history of the parties.
According to Joel's social security earnings statement, his income at Blank increased from $183, 125 in 1994 to $293, 676 in 2012. His gross income from 2008-2012, his last five years at Blank, averaged $300, 204. Substantial contributions were made into Joel's 401(k) account during this time.
Joel bought a [twenty percent] interest in Newborn Specialties for $150, 000 in 2013. This buy-in was financed with a seller note which provided that $30, 000 per year would be forgiven. This constitutes reportable income but does not constitute disposable income.
Joel originally agreed to a $350, 000 salary at Newborn Specialists plus his proportionate share of profits. This base salary was incrementally increased to its current level of $500, 000. His gross earnings in 2013, the year he moved from Blank to Newborn Specialists, totaled $608, 811. His earned income in 2014, his first full year with Newborn Specialists, was $677, 531 and $529, 771 in 2015. These amounts include the annual $30, 000 of debt forgiveness, but do not include rental income of $51, 157 in 2014 and $34, 053 in 2015. They also exclude $23, 000-$24, 000 of [yearly] contributions to Joel's retirement account. Joel's current income is based upon the $500, 000 salary plus periodic profit distributions.
Joel's compensation package includes [a] full panoply of benefits, including family medical insurance, life insurance, a retirement plan with employer contributions, disability insurance, a continuing education allowance, and reimbursement for medical licensure fees. Joel testified that it is not foreseeable that the practice will "slow down" in the near future. Though income may be affected by such variables as Medicaid reimbursement rates, those changes are by their nature unforeseeable. It is probable that Joel's income will remain stable or will increase over at least the next five to six years, and his annual income from all sources will exceed $600, 000.
Joel asserts that his increase in income comes at a cost. He is currently working longer hours with less time off than he had at Blank. He testified that he does not believe that he will be physically or mentally capable of maintaining his current work schedule and demands beyond the age of [sixty-one] or [sixty-two]. He testified that he would likely pursue a different career path or retire at that time.
Joel's testimony regarding his retirement plans was quite clearly affected, not only by the stress of the practice, but also by the stress of this proceeding. Any number of factors will ultimately affect Joel's decision to retire or make a significant career change. For example, the practice could restructure to lessen the burden on the doctors. (The practice is currently hiring more doctors.) Joel may make another career move with unforeseeable financial consequences. All that can be reasonably forecast at this juncture is that Joel's annual income will remain in excess of $600, 000 for the next [six] or [seven] years, and that he may reduce his workload by age [sixty-two]. His most likely retirement date based upon this record is [sixty-seven], his social security full retirement age.

         In regard to Cheryl's employment and earnings history the district court observed:

From 1987 until 1990 Cheryl worked full-time at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines, and she continued working full-time after [their first son] was born and until the family moved to Houston.
She worked at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston from 1990-1993 while Joel pursued his neonatology fellowship. After [the younger son] was born in 1992, Cheryl left the work force and earned no income for the years 1993-1995. She returned to work part-time for Medicap in 1996 when [the younger child] began preschool. She worked for Dahl's part-time from 2007-2014. She left that employment in anticipation of the move to Tulsa. Dahl's went out of business, and she accepted a position as an on-call pharmacist for Target in late 2014. She worked there for approximately one year. She then took a part-time position with DGS Foods, LLC, under its trade names of Price Chopper and Cash Saver, primarily to secure more consistent hours and reduce travel.
Cheryl is working approximately [thirty] hours per week, including every other weekend, earning $48.25 per hour. She receives no benefits. She is entitled to participate in the company's 401(k) retirement plan, but she is not entitled to an employer contribution. Health insurance, and perhaps other benefits, may be available to her if she works more than [thirty-two] hours per week, but her ability to increase her hours is speculative.
From 1984, the year the parties were married, until 2006, Cheryl's highest annual income was $30, 283. During that timeframe, she earned in excess of $30, 000 in only two of those years-1988 and 1989. Her income at Dahl's from 2010-2013 ranged from $44, 674 to $73, 277.
Cheryl testified that she could earn $90, 000 to $100, 000 per year if she could find full-time employment working [forty-two]- [forty-four] hours per week. Cheryl has applied for full[-]time pharmacy positions in the Des Moines area but has not been successful. Her employability is limited to some extent by modification of entry-level education requirements or expectations for pharmacists [(a Pharm. D.)]. Though Cheryl has a valid pharmacist license in Iowa, her education is less than that required of more recent pharmacy graduates . . . . Her ability to find full-time employment is also limited, in her opinion, by her age.
Cheryl's current plan is to stay at her present position. She admitted that this decision is in part based upon personal considerations. She prefers to retain some flexibility to travel and see her sons.
Based upon Cheryl's age, education, experience, and health, it is reasonable to conclude that her earning capacity is $75, 000 per year.

         Cheryl was also entrusted with many responsibilities of the family and home. The district court noted, "As a result of Joel's schedule, Cheryl was also primarily responsible for managing the household and caring for the children throughout the marriage. She was responsible for everything from managing the family finances, getting the boys to school, overseeing homework, shopping, laundry, cooking and cleaning."

         The parties also presented evidence of their standard of living during their ...

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