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Vandyke v. Choi

Supreme Court of South Dakota

December 14, 2016

JASON VANDYKE, Plaintiff and Appellee,
v.
JIEUN CHOI, Defendant and Appellant.

          CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS ON AUGUST 29, 2016

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE SEVENTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT PENNINGTON COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA, THE HONORABLE ROBERT GUSINSKY Judge.

          ROBERT D. PASQUALUCCI Rapid City, South Dakota, Attorney for plaintiff and appellee.

          DOYLE D. ESTES of Estes Campbell Law Firm Rapid City, South Dakota, Attorneys for defendant and appellant.

          GILBERTSON, Chief Justice.

         [¶1.] Jieun Choi raises in her appeal the issue of whether the trial court erred in modifying an award of alimony. Choi and Jason Vandyke were briefly married from January 2, 2013, until September 23, 2014, divorcing due to irreconcilable differences. On September 23, 2014, the court held a default divorce hearing, during which Vandyke stated that he had prepared-subject to alterations made by Choi's counsel-a Stipulation and Settlement Agreement (Agreement). The Agreement provided for alimony in the form of 19 payments of $1, 500 a month to Choi. Commencement of alimony required Choi to vacate the marital home and execute a quitclaim deed against the property in favor of Vandyke. The Agreement was incorporated into the decree of divorce.

         [¶2.] Vandyke, after making 14 of the 19 payments, sought termination of alimony upon discovering that Choi had been employed fulltime by Black Hills State University. On November 11, 2015, a motion hearing was held, and Vandyke testified that the alimony was intended to support Choi while she sought employment. The court ordered termination of alimony, finding the payments excessive given Choi's financial circumstances and ability to work. Choi appeals the trial court's ruling to terminate alimony payments, arguing that the alimony was either an unmodifiable lump-sum award payable in installments over a fixed period or part of a division of property. Choi also requests appellate attorney fees. We affirm.

         BACKGROUND

         [¶3.] Jieun Choi and Jason Vandyke married on January 2, 2013, in Abilene, Texas. Within a month of their marriage, the two considered an annulment. Choi and Vandyke eventually decided to divorce on grounds of irreconcilable differences. A Stipulation and Settlement Agreement was drafted and signed by both parties in July 2014, and the court entered a decree of divorce incorporating the document on September 23, 2014. The Agreement contained a clause labeled "Property Settlement, " which provided:

1. Wife shall have a right to remain in the marital residence until Husband begins payment of alimony as described in Paragraph (3) below. Upon commencement of alimony payments, Wife shall execute a Quit Claim Deed to said real property in favor of Husband.
2. Upon execution of the Quit Claim Deed, Wife will not be held financially liable for any debts, liabilities, fees, costs, or other expenses associated with the aforesaid real property.

         Another clause, labeled "Alimony (Spousal Support), " provided:

Wife shall receive alimony from Husband in the amount of $1, 500 each month for a period of 19 consecutive months, or until remarriage/cohabitation of Wife or the death of either party. In order to effectuate this payment, Husband shall establish an allotment through the Defense Finance and Accounting Service via the Finance office of the military base at which he is stationed. Alimony is tax deductible to the spouse paying it and taxable income to the spouse receiving it.

         Choi was unemployed at the time of the divorce. In a financial affidavit dated July 28, 2014, Vandyke deducted $1, 500 in spousal support from his federal income taxes.

         [¶4.] On September 23, 2014, the trial court held a default divorce hearing, where Choi furnished the Agreement signed by both parties. The court asked whether Vandyke would accept the Agreement. Vandyke responded that he did not "fully agree with it" and requested to withdraw from it. Vandyke testified that, although he drafted the agreement himself and had it reviewed by legal counsel at the Air Force base where he worked, it was later modified to his dissatisfaction by Doyle Estes, an attorney and friend of Choi's. According to Vandyke, the Agreement remained largely the same, but he disagreed with the spousal support provided in the Agreement. Vandyke stated that he feared a prolonged legal fight with Choi based on her communications to him, however, and signed it. The trial court granted Vandyke's motion to withdraw from the Agreement, but cautioned him that the costs of litigation would likely exceed the amount Vandyke then owed to Choi. Vandyke then rescinded his request to withdraw, stating, "in that case, much to [Choi's] delight, I will stick with the one that's filed."

         [¶5.] Vandyke later learned that Choi had obtained employment at Black Hills State University, prompting him to seek termination of alimony payments. At a motions hearing on November 11, 2015, Vandyke testified that he signed the Agreement under the belief that "it would have been more detrimental to remain married to [Choi] throughout [his] deployment overseas, " which was scheduled to begin less than two weeks after the September 23 hearing. Vandyke also stated that the alimony was intended to provide Choi "support during the time that [Vandyke] expected it to take her to actually find a job[.]" Vandyke believed Choi would encounter difficulty obtaining employment because she "hadn't been working and would take some time to find a job . . . [and because] she was just getting over or still getting over her divorce from her first husband and [Vandyke] saw the emotional state that it put her in." Under cross-examination conducted by Estes, Vandyke reiterated that he had prepared the Agreement, albeit "[w]ith a lot of input from [Estes]." The court, after listening to the evidence and reviewing the affidavits, found that the alimony was designed to "give [Choi] a leg up to find employment" and indicated that a change in circumstances warranting a modification occurred when Choi obtained employment at Black Hills State University.

         [¶6.] On November 13, 2015, Choi filed an affidavit in support of alimony. Choi contended that the alimony payments were not contingent on her being unemployed. Moreover, she was no longer employed at Black Hills State University because she had grown ill. Although she obtained a subsequent job at Rapid City Regional Hospital, the work was too demanding given her physical condition, forcing her to quit. Incurring even further medical expenses due to treatment for a second illness, Choi found herself in debt and unemployed, although she was then seeking employment with the military. Choi currently lives in the home of her married friends. On November 17, ...


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