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In re Marriage of Monat

Court of Appeals of Iowa

March 6, 2019

IN RE THE MARRIAGE OF HEATHER M. MONAT AND BENJAMIN LEE MONAT Upon the Petition of HEATHER M. MONAT, Petitioner-Appellee, And Concerning BENJAMIN LEE MONAT, Respondent-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Black Hawk County, Linda M. Fangman, Judge.

         Benjamin Monat appeals from the decree dissolving his marriage to Heather Monat.

          Heather A. Prendergast of Roberts, Stevens & Pendergast, PLLC, Waterloo, for appellant.

          Danni J. Harris of Hope Law Firm, PLC, West Des Moines, for appellee.

          Considered by Vogel, C.J., and Vaitheswaran and McDonald, JJ.

          McDonald, Judge.

         This case arises out of the dissolution of the marriage of Heather and Benjamin (Ben) Monat. In this appeal, Ben challenges the district court's award of physical care of the children to Heather, the division of the parties' property, and the award of spousal support to Heather. Heather requests an award of appellate attorney fees.

         I.

         The record reflects the following. The parties married in December 2007. Prior to the marriage, but after the parties' engagement, Ben purchased a house from his grandmother outside Independence, Iowa. Ben and Heather lived in the house after the marriage and improved it over time.

         At the time of the marriage, Heather had just completed her undergraduate studies and began graduate school, studying speech pathology. Ben worked for John Deere. Eventually Ben completed a bachelor's degree and MBA paid for by John Deere.

         The couple's first years of marriage were marked by moments of contention. Heather wanted to live in Cedar Falls rather than the Independence area. The couple disagreed about where Heather should complete her practical experience requirements for her graduate program. On one occasion, after a sharp disagreement regarding the issue, Heather tried to drive away from the home. Ben stopped her. He later characterized his efforts as protective. He stated he carefully rotated Heather's legs around and out of the car as she sat in the driver's seat. He stated he then stood her up so he could embrace her to calm her down as he would a child. Heather remembers the event differently. She recalled Ben angrily and forcefully pulled her out of her car as she tried to hold onto her steering wheel. Following this event, the parties' parents became involved. Heather's mother encouraged her to make the relationship work. Because Heather did not believe in divorce, she returned to the marital home.

         Two children were born into the marriage: G.M. in 2013 and I.M. in 2014. At the time of G.M.'s birth, Heather worked full-time as a speech pathologist. However, the parties mutually agreed she should reduce her work schedule following G.M.'s birth. Around the same time, the couple moved to Cedar Falls at Heather's urging; they used the proceeds from the sale of their first home to purchase their Cedar Falls home. The parties' relationship did not improve following the move. Heather kept a personal bag stored at a neighbor's house should she need to flee the home. Heather provided most of the care for G.M., and Ben continued to excel at work. Following I.M.'s birth, Heather further reduced her work schedule at the parties' mutual agreement. They intended Heather would work only part-time until the children entered elementary school. When Heather worked, the children attended daycare.

         G.M. began having problems with peer interaction at daycare. Heather became concerned G.M. was mirroring Ben's behavior. Ben often became frustrated with G.M. and would yell at him when he did not immediately comply with instructions. As a result, Heather sought play therapy for G.M. with Ben's approval. The play therapist diagnosed G.M. with an adjustment disorder with anxiety. The therapist also met with Heather and Ben. Through therapy, Ben became aware that G.M. was more attached to Heather because G.M. was fearful of him. Ben admitted he yelled at G.M. too much and became frustrated easily with him. Ben worked toward developing new parenting techniques to improve his relationship with G.M. The therapist's notes indicate Ben made significant progress and his relationship with G.M. improved.

         The record reflects an alleged incident of child abuse against Ben. In March 2017, Ben was bathing G.M. one evening. Heather remembers that G.M. splashed around, but she also remembers G.M. crying out that Ben hurt and pinched him. The following morning, Heather observed several bruises on G.M.'s leg. Heather photographed the bruises. She packed up the children and took them to her parent's home. She and her mother took G.M. to his doctor's office so that G.M.'s leg could be examined. Heather recounted her version of the prior night's events. As a result, the doctor contacted the Iowa Department of Human Services ("IDHS"). Ben stated G.M. splashed around and Ben put his hand up to prevent G.M. from splashing him and directed G.M. to stop splashing. IDHS investigated and confirmed the incident as abuse but declined to place Ben on the Central Abuse Registry. Ben then appealed. Heather sought to intervene in the appeal but was denied. On appeal, IDHS found the incident was not confirmed as abuse and reiterated that Ben would not be placed on the abuse registry.

         Heather sought a temporary restraining order against Ben and filed her petition for dissolution. Ben was notified and instructed to leave the marital home. He complied, and the parties mutually agreed to a restraining order that permitted Heather to remain in the home with the children and limited the parties' contact to (1) text or email communication regarding the children, (2) attendance at G.M.'s therapy, (3) attendance at G.M.'s weekly gymnastics class, and (4) bringing the children to the other parent's front door when dropping off the children. The agreement limited Ben's time with the children to two hours on Monday evenings and four hours on Saturdays.

         By June 2017, the district court entered an order on temporary matters in the dissolution proceeding. The court found Ben "has always been a very active participant with the children and their events and has been trusted by [Heather] to care solely for both children while [she] goes on extended vacations without the children and [Ben]." The court then awarded the parties joint physical care of the children. The court permitted Heather to stay in the marital home and required Ben continue to pay the mortgage and other monthly expenses, including groceries, utilities, and gas. The court ordered that Ben provide Heather access to his health spending account to cover the children's medical expenses. It also ordered Ben pay Heather monthly child support.

         In late August or early September 2017, Ben and Heather had a joint account to be used for Heather to purchase groceries, but Ben closed the account after Heather used account funds to purchase two tires for her car. She reasoned her use of this account was reasonable because she regularly deposited a mileage reimbursement check from her employer into the account for such expenses. Ben also removed Heather from a Quik Star gas account and removed her from the health spending account. In October, Ben had the home's utilities transferred to Heather's name. As a result, Heather was using income from her part-time job to pay the utilities, the children's out-of-pocket medical expenses, groceries, gas, and other living expenses.

         In October, Heather sought out another therapist for G.M. Ben resisted and contacted G.M.'s past therapist for her assistance, detailing his difficulties with Heather. The new therapist eventually treated G.M. and also diagnosed him with an adjustment disorder with anxiety. The new therapist's notes do not mention any aggressive behavior from Ben directed at G.M.

         The dissolution proceeding was tried in January 2018 over three days. During the trial, Ben paid Heather for several months of unpaid child support. Both Heather and Ben testified. Ten other people also provided testimony. They include members of both Heather and Ben's families, their friends, and their former babysitter (a friend of Ben's family). The witnesses provided conflicting testimony about Ben's parenting skills, past involvement with the children, and temperament. All generally agreed Heather is a good mother. The court declined Ben's request for joint physical care of the children and instead granted Heather physical care of the children. It evenly divided the parties' property, ordering Ben to make an equalization payment to Heather. Finally, the ...


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