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Wehrkamp v. Wehrkamp

September 16, 2009



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Konenkamp, Justice (on reassignment).


REASSIGNED 07/06/2009

[¶1.] In a divorce stipulation, the father agreed to pay for his daughter's college expenses. The daughter enrolled in college when she was thirty-two years old and married. When the father refused to pay, the mother moved the circuit court for an order requiring the father to comply with the stipulation. The father sought to modify the divorce decree, and both sides moved for summary judgment. In granting summary judgment for the father, the court ruled that the claim for college expenses was barred by the six-year limitations period for enforcement of contracts and also by the doctrines of waiver and laches. We reverse and remand because the twenty-year statute of limitations for enforcement of judgments applies here and the doctrines of waiver and laches are inapplicable.


[¶2.] Jenece L. Wehrkamp (Deis) and Larry L. Wehrkamp were married in 1968. One child, Denece, was born to the marriage on October 30, 1975. The parties divorced in 1977. Their support, property settlement, and child custody agreement was incorporated into the parties' judgment and decree of divorce. That stipulation provided in relevant part:

[The father] agrees to and shall pay to, for or on behalf of the said child all costs and expenses reasonably necessary to permit the said child to attain a four (4) year college education at a college of [the mother's] choice, and the reasonability of said cost and expenses for such purposes shall be measured by and commensurate with [the father's] then station in life and financial status.

[¶3.] In 1994, shortly after Denece graduated from high school, she asked her father for $761 to enroll in a community college. According to Denece, he refused, saying he could not afford the expense. Denece later learned, however, that her father took his family from a later marriage on an African Safari. Denece decided not to enroll in the community college after her father refused to fund her education. She had recently given birth to a child.

[¶4.] In 2000 and 2001, Denece attended college at Regis University in Fort Collins, Colorado, as a benefit of her employment with Sun Microsystems, Inc. Then, toward the end of 2007, at age thirty-two, Denece enrolled at Denver University to complete a degree in construction management. She funded her education with private and federal loans. She expects to take eight quarters to complete her degree. She is married and the mother of two children.

[¶5.] Following Denece's enrollment, her mother, Deis, sought an order to show cause to enforce the parties' stipulation. Denece's father responded by moving the court to modify the divorce decree to relieve him of any obligation to pay for her college expenses. Thereafter, both parties moved for summary judgment, arguing that the issue could be decided as a matter of law. The circuit court denied Deis's order to show cause and the father's motion to modify the divorce decree. But the court granted the father's motion for summary judgment, concluding that Deis's claim was barred by the expiration of the statute of limitations, as well as by the doctrines of waiver and laches. Deis appeals on the grounds that the court erred when it concluded that the statute of limitations expired and that the doctrines of waiver and laches apply.*fn1

Analysis and Decision

1. Statute of Limitations

[¶6.] The father argues that Deis had six years from 1994 to bring her claim to enforce the parties' stipulation. In particular, he contends that because the stipulation is a contract governed by SDCL 15-2-13(1), and Denece requested that he pay for her schooling in 1994, the cause of action accrued in 1994 and expired in 2000. The circuit court agreed, finding that Deis's claim accrued in 1994, when Denece first requested money for her education from her father. The court held that the parties' agreement was controlled by the contract-based statute of limitations, and the claim expired six years after it accrued. The circuit court was misled by our language in Fox v. Burden, 1999 SD 154, ¶26, 603 NW2d 916, 923, where we mistakenly noted that because the divorce stipulation (incorporated into the decree) was "governed by the rules of contract[,]" the contract statute of limitations applied to enforcement of the stipulation. This was error, and to that extent Fox is overruled.

[¶7.] While we have consistently applied contract principles to the interpretation of a divorce agreement, when it comes to the limitations period for enforcement of the agreement, if it is incorporated into the divorce decree, such agreement merges into the decree and becomes part of the judgment. Culhane v. Michels, 2000 SD 101, ¶21, 615 NW2d 580, 587 (citing SDCL 15-2-6(1); Hershey v. Hershey, 467 NW2d 484, 486 (SD 1991)). Deis's claim for enforcement of the stipulation is "[a]n action upon a judgment or decree[.]" See SDCL 15-2-6(1). Therefore, it is not the six-year statute of limitations applicable to contracts, but the twenty-year limitations period applicable to judgments that pertains to this action. See SDCL 15-2-6(1). Deis's suit to enforce the stipulation was timely brought because ...

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