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In re Marriage of Bliek

Court of Appeals of Iowa

December 19, 2018

IN RE THE MARRIAGE OF DANIEL DEAN BLIEK AND LORI LEE BLIEK Upon the Petition of DANIEL DEAN BLIEK, Petitioner-Appellant, And Concerning LORI LEE BLIEK, Respondent-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Fae E. Hoover-Grinde, Judge.

         Daniel Bliek appeals from the district court's order granting Lori Bliek's petition to modify the spousal support provision of the parties' 2013 dissolution decree. REVERSED.

          Mark D. Fisher of Nidey Erdahl Fisher Pilkington & Meier, PLC, Cedar Rapids, for appellant.

          Kristen A. Shaffer of Shuttleworth & Ingersoll, PLC, Cedar Rapids, for appellee.

          Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Doyle and Mullins, JJ.


         Daniel and Lori Bliek divorced in 2013 after thirty-one years of marriage. The 2013 dissolution decree incorporated a stipulation under which Daniel agreed to pay Lori spousal support of $2100 per month for 138 months or the earlier of her sixty-second birthday, Lori's death, or her remarriage.

         Two years and three months after the dissolution decree was filed, Lori petitioned to modify the child and spousal support awards. She alleged a "substantial and material change in circumstances, including but not limited to a change in income since support was calculated." See Iowa Code § 598.21C(1) (2016) (authorizing modification of support awards "when there is a substantial change in circumstances"). Following a hearing, the district court denied Lori's request to modify child support but granted her request to modify the spousal support award. The court found a substantial change of circumstances since the entry of the decree, warranting an increase in Daniel's spousal support obligation to $4100 per month for 138 months, retroactive to "three months after Daniel accepted service of the" modification petition. The court ordered Daniel to pay an additional $1000 per month until the accrued support was paid in full as well as $3000 toward Lori's trial attorney fees.

         On appeal, Daniel contends, "In the less than three years between the original Decree and the modification trial, there simply were no substantial changes in circumstances." In responding to Lori's brief, he asserts, "one may come to the conclusion that this is an appeal of an original alimony award. It is not."

         Daniel is correct in his characterization of the appeal. The dispositive question is whether circumstances substantially changed in the two plus years between entry of the dissolution decree and filing of the modification petition. See In re Marriage of Rietz, 585 N.W.2d 226, 229 (Iowa 1998) (articulating standards for modification of support awards).

         Preliminarily, it is worth noting that the fact Lori stipulated to the $2100 monthly support amount does not prevent her from seeking a modification of the award. See Pedersen v. Pedersen, 17 N.W.2d 520, 522 (Iowa 1945) (concluding stipulation "would not preclude modification of the decree" because the stipulation merged with the decree); see also In re Marriage of Jacobo, 526 N.W.2d 859, 862, 864 (Iowa 1995) (noting stipulation but finding substantial change of circumstances). As the Iowa Supreme Court stated: "[T]here are some rare situations where, notwithstanding an agreement and decree to the contrary, later occurrences are so extreme in their nature as to render the initial understanding grossly unfair and therefore subject to change." In re Marriage of Wessels, 542 N.W.2d 486, 489 (Iowa 1995), as amended on denial of reh'g (Dec. 14, 1995). These situations "will exist only when the subsequent changes demand that the original order cannot, in fairness and equity, continue to stand." Id. The subsequent changes in this case did not demand a modification.

         Daniel had a bachelor of science degree and, throughout the dissolution and modification proceedings, worked for an avionics company in Cedar Rapids. At the time of the dissolution trial, he earned $155, 000 annually and received a twelve percent incentive bonus most years.[1] At the time of the modification hearing, he was employed in the same position and earned base pay of $165, 315 with an expected bonus of $20, 036.

         Lori was fifty-three years old. She completed one year of college and earned a paraprofessional certification. During the marriage, she served as primary caretaker of the parties' five children, working outside the home only thirty to forty hours a year. At the time of the modification hearing, she worked full-time as a student support associate for one of the local school districts, earning $12.57 per hour. She held another job in the summers, earning $17.00 per hour.

         During the modification hearing, Lori testified she understood at the time of the dissolution proceedings that Daniel's income would increase. She also conceded the amount of the annual increases were within her expectation. See Rietz, 585 N.W.2d at 229 ("[T]he change in circumstances must not have been within the contemplation of the trial court when the original decree was entered."). She equivocated on her knowledge of Daniel's bonuses, but a financial affidavit she filed in 2013 listed his salary at $170, 000, well over his base salary at the time. ...

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