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.
from the Iowa District Court for Black Hawk County, Linda M.
Monat appeals from the decree dissolving his marriage to
Heather A. Prendergast of Roberts, Stevens & Pendergast,
PLLC, Waterloo, for appellant.
J. Harris of Hope Law Firm, PLC, West Des Moines, for
Considered by Vogel, C.J., and Vaitheswaran and McDonald, JJ.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 ...