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Jeannine Ann Barton v. Donald L. Barton

June 6, 2012

JEANNINE ANN BARTON,
PLAINTIFF AND APPELLEE,
v.
DONALD L. BARTON,
DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE SEVENTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT PENNINGTON COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA THE HONORABLE JOHN J. DELANEY Retired Circuit Judge

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

CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS ON MARCH 20, 2012

[¶1.] Jeannine Barton and Donald Barton divorced and the circuit court awarded Jeannine permanent alimony, a monetary judgment, and attorney fees. After Donald filed for bankruptcy, the court issued an order clarifying the nature of the monetary judgment. After an appeal of this order, Jeannine and Donald entered into a settlement agreement regarding the judgment. The agreement, which was not incorporated into the divorce decree, resolved a dispute regarding the judgment and released all present and future claims between the parties. Nine years later, Jeannine moved to modify alimony. The circuit court granted Jeannine's motion, increasing Jeannine's monthly alimony award. The court also extended Donald's alimony obligation beyond Donald's death. Donald appeals. We reverse.

BACKGROUND

[¶2.] Jeannine and Donald divorced in 1993. The circuit court awarded Jeannine: (1) $700 per month in permanent alimony until her remarriage or death or until Donald's death; (2) a judgment against Donald for $150,000 as an equalizing property distribution; and (3) attorney fees.

[¶3.] Later in 1993, Donald filed for relief in federal bankruptcy court. Jeannine moved for an order to show cause in South Dakota circuit court as to why the $150,000 judgment and all attorney fees should not be considered alimony or support and thus, non-dischargeable in bankruptcy proceedings. In February 1994, the circuit court clarified its order and ruled that $40,000 of the $150,000 award and all of the attorney fees were in the nature of maintenance and support. Donald appealed the court's decision to this Court. This Court affirmed. Barton v. Barton, 534 N.W.2d 48, 52 (S.D. 1995).

[¶4.] Following the appeal, Jeannine and Donald entered into a "post-appeal settlement agreement" (Agreement). The Agreement was not incorporated into the divorce decree. The Agreement's purpose was to "settle all questions, including dischargeability, as to their respective rights and obligations under the terms of [the $150,000 judgment]." Under the Agreement, Donald would pay Jeannine just over $66,000 by certain dates. Donald would also pay Jeannine's attorney $13,991.20 in attorney fees. Donald waived "any and all legal defenses to the payments required within [the Agreement] including the protection that may be available to him pursuant to U.S.C. Title 11[.]" The Agreement also provided that Donald's "obligation to pay [Jeannine] permanent alimony in the sum of . . . $700 per month, until her remarriage or death, or the death of [Donald], shall remain undisturbed."

[¶5.] In exchange, Jeannine released Donald from "any and all other claims, demands, causes of action or suits of any kind or nature whatsoever, which have resulted in the past or may in the future develop as a result of the contacts, transactions and dealings by and between [Jeannine] and [Donald] in connection with the marriage of [Jeannine] and [Donald]." The Agreement also provided that "[s]o long as [Donald] is in full compliance with the alimony payments and the two remaining agreed upon property payments on the [$150,000] Judgment, [Jeannine] agrees not to proceed with any collection efforts." Jeannine was represented by counsel when negotiating this Agreement.

[¶6.] Donald made all required payments for the $66,000 and Jeannine recorded a satisfaction of judgment. Donald has also timely made all monthly alimony payments to Jeannine. Since the divorce, Jeannine obtained her teaching degree, secured fulltime employment, purchased a home, a car, and established a $140,000 retirement savings.

[¶7.] In October 2009, Jeannine moved to modify alimony. Jeannine claimed that she was forced to leave her employment to care for her aging parents. Jeannine also claimed that her health was failing and that Donald's financial position had steadily improved since the divorce. Donald stipulated to his ability to pay. In March 2011, the court concluded that Jeannine demonstrated a change in circumstances and granted Jeannine's motion. The court ordered Donald to pay $1,500 per month in alimony. The court also ordered that the alimony terminate only upon Jeannine's death or remarriage. Thus, the alimony obligation would continue beyond Donald's death.

[¶8.] Donald appeals, arguing that: (1) Jeannine waived the right to claim additional alimony and should be estopped from doing so because of her release of claims under the Agreement; (2) Jeannine failed to demonstrate a change in circumstances for a modification of alimony; and (3) the court erred in extending Donald's alimony obligation beyond his death.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶9.] "Statutory interpretation is a question of law, reviewed de novo." State ex rel. Dep't of Transp. v. Clark, 2011 S.D. 20, ¶ 5, 798 N.W.2d 160, 162. We review a circuit court's modification of an alimony award under the abuse of discretion standard. Moore v. Moore, 2009 S.D. 16, ¶ 10, 763 N.W.2d 536, 539. "An abuse of discretion is a discretion exercised to an end or purpose not justified by, and clearly against, reason and evidence." Id. "We ...


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