APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE SECOND JUDICIAL CIRCUIT MINNEHAHA COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA HONORABLE WILLIAM J. SRSTKA, JR. Judge
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Zinter, Justice
CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS OCTOBER 3, 2011
[¶1.] Linda Linge appeals from an order reducing Steven Meyerink's child support obligation. Linge argues that the referee and circuit court abused their discretion in allowing Meyerink a deviation from the child support guidelines based on his financial condition. Linge acknowledges that Meyerink's poor financial condition was caused by his wife's serious medical problems. But Linge argues that Meyerink's obligation to his children takes priority. Under the facts of this case, we affirm.
Facts and Procedural History
[¶2.] Linge and Meyerink married in 1989. When the parties divorced in 2000, Linge retained custody of their two children. Meyerink's initial child support obligation was $674.94 per month. His obligation was reduced to $515 in July 2001. Meyerink's obligation stayed at $515 since that time, and he remained current.
[¶3.] Linge sought modification of Meyerink's obligation in February 2010.
A child support referee heard testimony from the parties. Meyerink testified that his wife suffers from a severe condition that affects her immune system. This condition left her unable to work, and she currently receives Social Security disability benefits. The unreimbursed medical bills associated with the condition are substantial. They have caused Meyerink to incur a significant and continuing accumulation of debt.
[¶4.] Meyerink requested a deviation from the child support guidelines because of his financial condition caused by his wife's medical expenses. Meyerink's insurance covers most of the expenses. But the amount not covered by insurance has forced Meyerink to avoid foreclosure by consulting a debt consolidation company, refinancing his house (interest-only mortgage) and pickup, obtaining unsecured signature loans, and incurring more than $10,000 in credit card debt.
[¶5.] Based on Meyerink's financial condition, the referee allowed a $300 per month downward deviation from the scheduled support obligation. (The worksheet attached to the referee's report shows that Meyerink's obligation would have been $748.55 without the $300 deviation.) See SDCL 25-7-6.2. The referee recommended a new obligation of $449 per month, $66 less than his monthly obligation before Linge petitioned for the modification. The referee's recommendation was partially based on a finding that Meyerink had accumulated $60,000 in credit card debt as a result of the medical expenses.
[¶6.] Linge objected to the referee's report, and the circuit court heard the objections. The court found that the referee had miscalculated the amount of Meyerink's credit card debt. The matter was remanded to the referee for further consideration of Meyerink's financial condition.
[¶7.] On remand, Meyerink testified that although he did not have $60,000 in credit card debt, his total debt, accumulated since his wife began incurring medical expenses, was roughly $60,000. The referee issued a report again recommending a $300 per month deviation. The circuit court adopted the referee's recommendation.
[¶8.] This Court reviews the decision to grant or deny child support under the abuse of discretion standard. Miller v. Jacobsen , 2006 S.D. 33, ¶ 18, 714 N.W.2d 69, 76 (citing Midzak v. Midzak , 2005 S.D. 58, ¶ 17, 697 N.W.2d 733, 738 (additional citations omitted)). A child support referee's findings of fact are reviewed for clear error, while conclusions of law are reviewed de novo. Wagner v. Wagner , 2006 S.D. 31, ¶ 5, 712 N.W.2d 653, 656 (citing Mathis v. Mathis , 2000 S.D.59, ¶ 7, 609 N.W.2d 773, 774). "In addition, when the circuit court has adopted a child support referee's findings and conclusions, we apply the clearly erroneous standard of review to the findings and give no deference to conclusions of law." Id.
Findings of fact are not reversed for clear error "unless we are left with a definite and firm conviction ...