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In re Marriage of Erpelding

Supreme Court of Iowa

March 2, 2018


         On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Kossuth County, Patrick M. Carr, Judge.

         Further review applicant challenges court of appeals decision reversing district court's denial of request for attorney fees based on waiver of attorney fees in parties' premarital agreement. DECISION OF COURT OF APPEALS AFFIRMED IN PART AND VACATED IN PART; DISTRICT COURT JUDGMENT AFFIRMED IN PART AND REVERSED IN PART, AND CASE REMANDED WITH INSTRUCTIONS.

          Thomas W. Lipps of Peterson & Lipps Law Firm, Algona, for appellant.

          Matthew G. Sease and Christopher R. Kemp of Kemp & Sease, Des Moines, for appellee.

          HECHT, Justice.

         The parties executed a premarital agreement waiving the right to seek an award of attorney fees in the event of a dissolution of their marriage. During their subsequent dissolution proceeding, the parties litigated issues pertaining to physical custody of the two minor children, child support, spousal support, and property division. One of the parties requested an award of attorney fees arising from litigating issues of child custody, child support, and spousal support, claiming the premarital-agreement waiver of her claim for attorney fees was unenforceable because it violates public policy. The district court's decree decided all of the contested issues and denied the request for attorney fees, finding the waiver provision in the premarital agreement was enforceable. On appeal, the court of appeals reversed on the attorney fees issue, concluding the waiver provision violates public policy and is therefore unenforceable to the extent the attorney fees arise from litigation of child-related issues. On further review, we vacate the part of the court of appeals' decision pertaining to attorney fees and hold a premarital-agreement waiver of attorney fees related to child support or spousal support adversely affects the right to such support and is therefore unenforceable under Iowa Code section 596.5(2). We affirm the decision of the court of appeals on all other issues.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background.

         Tim and Jodi Erpelding married on December 1, 1997, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Five days before their wedding, the parties executed a premarital agreement addressing their respective property rights and interests in the event of dissolution of the marriage. The agreement generally provided that, in the event of dissolution, the parties would retain sole ownership of all assets they brought into the marriage or acquired in their individual names during the marriage. The agreement further provided

the Parties shall have no other rights to property, interests in property, property settlement, attorney fees and expenses upon the filing of a petition requesting legal separation, divorce, dissolution or other judicial termination of their marriage, and upon the Court granting any such petition and thereafter.

(Emphasis added.).

         After eighteen years of marriage, Jodi filed a petition for dissolution. The parties litigated issues of child custody and support, spousal support, property division, and attorney fees. The district court ordered split physical care, placing one child with each parent, and adjudicated the support and property issues in a thorough and well-written opinion. The court declined to award Jodi attorney fees, concluding "[i]n the absence of any articulated public policy of the state of Iowa, the Court thinks it does not have authority to ignore the plain language of the parties' prenuptial agreement."

         Jodi appealed, Tim cross-appealed, and we transferred the case to the court of appeals. On appeal, Jodi asserted the Iowa Uniform Premarital Agreement Act (IUPAA) prohibits premarital-agreement provisions that waive the right to attorney fees arising from issues of child custody, child support, and spousal support because the IUPAA prohibits premarital agreements from limiting the right to child and spousal support. The court of appeals reversed the district court's denial of attorney fees, holding "the provision in the Erpeldings' premarital agreement waiving [attorney] fees and costs is void and unenforceable as to child-related issues because it violates Iowa 'public policy by discouraging both parents from pursuing litigation in their child's best interests.' "[1]

         Tim sought and we granted further review. "When considering an application for further review, we have discretion to review all the issues raised on appeal or in the application for further review or only a portion thereof." In re Marriage of Mauer, 874 N.W.2d 103, 106 (Iowa 2016); accord Hills Bank & Tr. Co. v. Converse, 772 N.W.2d 764, 770 (Iowa 2009). We exercise our discretion in this case to limit our review to the issue of premarital-agreement waivers of attorney fees concerning child custody, child support, and spousal support. Accordingly, the court of appeals decision shall be the final adjudication on all of the other issues raised by the parties in this appeal. See In re Marriage of Mauer, 874 N.W.2d at 106.

         II. Scope and Standards of Review.

We review the denial of attorney fees for an abuse of discretion. We reverse the district court's ruling only when it rests on grounds that are clearly unreasonable or untenable. A ruling is clearly unreasonable or untenable when it is "not supported by substantial evidence or when it is based on an erroneous application of the law."

In re Marriage of Kimbro, 826 N.W.2d 696, 698-99 (Iowa 2013) (citation omitted) (quoting In re Marriage of Schenkelberg, 824 N.W.2d 481, 484 (Iowa 2012)). We review issues involving statutory interpretation for correction of errors at law. Johnson Propane, Heating & Cooling, Inc. v. Iowa Dep't of Transp., 891 N.W.2d 220, 224 (Iowa 2017); In re C.F.-H., 889 N.W.2d 201, 203 (Iowa 2016); accord Iowa R. App. P. 6.907.

          III. Analysis.

         Under Iowa law, premarital agreements are subject to the IUPAA, codified in Iowa Code chapter 596. Iowa Code § 596.12 (2016); In re Marriage of Shanks, 758 N.W.2d 506, 511 (Iowa 2008). Iowa Code section 596.5 regulates the matters about which parties may contract in a premarital agreement, and provides in relevant part,

1. Parties to a premarital agreement may contract with respect to the following:
. . . .
g. Any other matter, including the personal rights and obligations of the parties, not in violation of public policy or a statute imposing a criminal penalty.
2. The right of a spouse or child to support shall not be adversely affected by a ...

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