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Hill v. Hill

March 18, 2009

REGAN RENEE HILL, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLEE,
v.
JONATHAN LEE HILL, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE FOURTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT LAWRENCE COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA. HONORABLE RANDALL L. MACY Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Meierhenry, Justice

CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS ON JANUARY 12, 2009

[¶1.] This appeal involves a divorce action brought by Regan Hill (Regan) against Jonathan Hill (Jon). Jon appeals the trial court's child support determination, distribution of marital assets, and denial of alimony. We reverse and remand the child support determination and affirm the distribution of marital property and denial of alimony.

[¶2.] Jon and Regan Hill were married in 1994 in North Dakota. Jon was an electrical engineer at the time they were married. The couple originally located in Minnesota because of Jon's employment. There, Regan worked as a cashier and as a nurse's assistant. Regan eventually completed a degree in cellular biology and genetics in 1996 at the University of Minnesota. After a one-year deferment for the birth of the parties' first child in 1997, Regan entered medical school at the University of North Dakota Medical School. The family moved to North Dakota, and Jon's employer transferred him to North Dakota where he continued to be employed while Regan attended medical school. A second child was born in 2002.

[¶3.] Regan graduated from medical school in 2002 and entered a residency program in Obstetrics and Gynecology in Saginaw, Michigan. The couple decided on the location because the cost of living in Saginaw allowed Jon to quit his job and care for the children full time. Before moving to Michigan, Jon earned approximately $54,000 per year. During Regan's residency, the family lived on her income of $30,000 to $38,000 per year. Regan also took out student loans in the amount of $87,595 to pay for medical school and the living expenses of the family. The couples' third child was born in 2004, during Regan's residency. After completing her residency in 2006, Regan accepted a position in Spearfish, South Dakota. At the time of trial, Regan earned approximately $285,000 annually as a physician, and Jon earned approximately $65,000 to $70,000 annually as an engineer.

[¶4.] Regan filed for divorce on August 16, 2006, on grounds of mental cruelty or, in the alternative, irreconcilable differences. The couple eventually stipulated to a divorce on grounds of irreconcilable differences. They agreed to joint legal custody of the three children and primary physical custody with Regan. They also agreed on the child visitation schedule. The issues at trial were the amount of Jon's child support, Jon's request for alimony, and the division of property. On appeal, Jon claims that the trial court erred in setting child support without making any findings as to the actual needs and standard of living of the children. He also challenges the trial court's division of marital property and denial of alimony.

[¶5.] Our standard of review is well-settled. We review the trial court's determination of child support, alimony and the division of property under an abuse of discretion standard. Billion v. Billion, 1996 SD 101, ¶14, 553 NW2d 226, 230 (citing Vander Pol v. Vander Pol, 484 NW2d 522 (SD 1992); Kanta v. Kanta, 479 NW2d 505 (SD 1991); Johnson v. Johnson, 471 NW2d 156 (SD 1991); Fox v. Fox, 467 NW2d 762 (SD 1991); Nelson v. Nelson, 454 NW2d 533 (SD 1990)). We review findings of fact under the clearly erroneous standard and questions of law de novo. Laird v. Laird, 2002 SD 99, ¶13, 650 NW2d 296, 299 (citations omitted). An abuse of discretion is "'a discretion exercised to an end or purpose not justified by, and clearly against, reason and evidence.'" Id. (quoting Billion, 1996 SD 101, ¶14, 553 NW2d at 230).

Child Support Obligation

[¶6.] The court is required to set a child support obligation based on an income schedule established by the Legislature. See SDCL 25-7-6.2. According to SDCL 25-7-6.2, "the combined monthly net incomes of both parents shall be used in determining the obligation and divided proportionately between the parents based upon their respective net incomes." The schedule currently provides obligation calculations up to a combined net monthly income of $10,000. Id. For a combined net monthly income above $10,000, "the child support obligation shall be established at an appropriate level, taking into account the actual needs and standard of living of the child." SDCL 25-7-6.9.

[¶7.] The parties' combined income exceeds $10,000. The trial court set monthly child support at $750.*fn1 Jon claims the trial court erred because its determination of a monthly child support amount of $750 was not based on the actual needs and standard of living of the children as required by SDCL 25-7-6.9. A review of the trial court's findings shows that the court made no specific findings on the actual needs and standard of living of the children other than a general finding that "the [$750] amount is an appropriate amount taking into consideration the children's needs and standard of living." Regan argues that even if the trial court failed to set forth specific findings of fact, the error is harmless because the record contained evidence that supported the court's child support award.

[¶8.] We have consistently required adequate findings of fact regarding the child's needs and standard of living when a court sets support above the schedule's maximum. See McKittrick v. McKittrick, 2007 SD 44, ¶12, 732 NW2d 404, 409; Laird, 2002 SD 99, ¶13, 650 NW2d at 296; Watson-Wojewski v. Wojewski, 2000 SD 132, ¶¶17, 24, 617 NW2d 666, 670, 671 (citations omitted), abrogated on other grounds by Roberts v. Roberts, 2003 SD 75, 666 NW2d 477. With only limited findings, we are unable "'to make the appropriate calculations or render a meaningful review.'" Watson-Wojewski, 2000 SD 132, ¶19, 617 NW2d at 671 (citations omitted).

[¶9.] Here, the trial court's findings on child support are limited, and we are unable to determine if the $750 child support amount reflects the actual needs or standard of living of the children. See SDCL 25-7-6.9. Regan presented evidence of her monthly budgetary expenditures, including the cost of a live-in nanny. However, whether the expenses correlate to the child support amount is not apparent from the record, the findings of fact, or the conclusions of law. Consequently, we are unable to make a meaningful review. We reverse on this issue and remand for the trial court to enter specific findings as to the children's needs and standard of living and the correlation to the amount awarded.

[ΒΆ10.] Jon also contends that the trial court erred when it did not grant his request for abatement of his child support obligation during the months he has custody of the children for more than ten days. See SDCL 25-7-6.14. Since the trial court did not specifically address the ...


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