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In re Marriage of Dirkx

Court of Appeals of Iowa

July 24, 2019


          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Carroll County, William C. Ostlund, Judge.

         An ex-wife appeals the combined award of spousal and child support in the dissolution-of-marriage decree.

          Gina C. Badding (until withdrawal) and Arthur E. Neu of Neu, Minnich, Comito, Halbur, Neu & Badding, P.C., Carroll, for appellant.

          James R. Van Dyke of Law Office of James R. Van Dyke, P.C., Carroll, for appellee.

          Considered by Potterfield, P.J., and Tabor and Bower, JJ.

          TABOR, Judge.

         After more than two decades of marriage and eleven children, Nora Dirkx filed for divorce from her husband Daniel Dirkx. Although Nora had not worked outside the home since the first year of their marriage, the district court denied her request for traditional alimony. The court awarded her rehabilitative alimony for ten years, but did not set a monthly amount. Instead, the court capped Daniel's total obligation for child and spousal support at $1400.

         On appeal, Nora challenges the district court's calculation of their respective incomes, as well as its fusing of the child support and alimony awards. We affirm the decree. But because we find the support orders to be inequitable, we remand for the court to recalculate Daniel's obligations.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         Daniel and Nora married in 1993. Before the couple had children, Nora worked as a teacher for less than a year. After discovering Nora was pregnant with their first child, Daniel and Nora agreed she would quit teaching to work in the home and provide home schooling for their children. While Nora was a homemaker, she also managed the couple's forty-acre ranch and a horse trail-riding business. On top of those responsibilities, Nora managed the family finances. Daniel was an over-the-road trucker. He worked sixty to eighty hours a week and earned an average annual income of $78, 000.

         Daniel and Nora separated in April 2016. Seven of their eleven children were still under eighteen and living at home. At first, Nora and those children stayed in the family home while Daniel lived elsewhere. Daniel eventually returned, prompting Nora to move with their seven children into her friend Amy's home. During the separation, Daniel cut off financial support for Nora. Yet Nora continued as primary care provider for the children. Nora still collected revenue from a rental property in her name, as well as money from a family trust. But she no longer managed or received income from the trail rides.

         In June 2016, Daniel took one child into his physical care. Daniel also offered Nora some economic assistance that summer, but he did not make regular or fixed payments. In fact, the help amounted to only three weekly payments ranging from $100 to $175, about one-quarter of his trucking income.

         After twenty-three years of marriage, Nora petitioned for dissolution in November 2016. In spring 2017 the couple sold the forty-acre family ranch and paid down the remaining mortgage, resulting in net proceeds of $260, 335. Daniel used $57, 680 of his half of the proceeds to buy a new house. Nora transferred roughly $11, 000 of her half into a retirement account and set aside $28, 000 to pay off her credit card debt. As Daniel admitted in his testimony, Nora used some proceeds to pay $32, 190 in credit card debt in his name. Nora also settled a $10, 000 medical bill and $2000 owed to Samaritan Ministries. Nora saved the remainder of her share. During the dissolution proceedings, Nora supported all seven children who were still under eighteen. Because Daniel did not contribute financially until June 2017, Nora accrued roughly $9000 in credit card debt.

         After a July 2017 hearing, the district court placed the five youngest children in Nora's physical care and the two oldest children with Daniel. The court also ordered Daniel to pay Nora $1256.56 per month as child support for the five children in her care. That number reflected an offset for the two children in Daniel's care.

         In October 2017, the parties stipulated to custody and division of property and debts. Nora requested traditional alimony in the amount of $1500 per month. In the district court's March 2018 decree, it found Nora was entitled to rehabilitative alimony. To calculate child and spousal support, the court determined Daniel's income was $50, 000 and imputed an annual income of $15, 000 to Nora through August 2018, with the expectation Nora's income would increase to $28, 000 in September 2018.[1] Finally, the district court awarded Nora attorney fees of $5000, on top of its previous order requiring Daniel to pay $1500 in attorney fees.

         In April 2018, Nora appealed. The supreme court granted a limited remand for the district court to finalize the child and spousal support amounts. In August 2018, the district court ordered Daniel to pay $1017 in child support, reflecting the impending September adjustment in Nora's imputed income and noting his child support obligation would increase when the two older children leave his care.

         When it came to alimony, the district court assessed Daniel's obligation in tandem with the child support due "[i]n an effort to stabilize the payments." The court ordered Daniel to pay no more than $1400 per month to Nora. The difference between the child support and the $1400 ceiling would be the alimony due. According to the order, if the child support owed Nora exceeded $1400 in a given month, Daniel would have no alimony obligation. The court set a ten-year duration for the rehabilitative alimony.

         Nora appeals the child and spousal support determinations, as well as the attorney fee award. She also seeks appellate attorney fees. We address Nora's claims in turn.[2]

         II. Scope and ...

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