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Hughes v. Hughes

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Third Division

December 13, 2016

MICHAEL PAUL HUGHES, Appellant,
v.
JILLIS A COLLEEN HUGHES, Respondent.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Louis County 2105FC-09706-03 Honorable Sandra Farragut-Hemphill.

          ROBERT M. CLAYTON III, PRESIDIND JUDGE.

         Michael Paul Hughes ("Husband") appeals the trial court's judgment dismissing and denying his motion to modify a maintenance obligation to Jillisa Colleen Hughes ("Wife")- We affirm in part and reverse in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Husband and Wife were married on June 20, 1998. After approximately seven years of marriage, Husband petitioned the court to dissolve the marriage and, on June 30, 2006, the parties were divorced, pursuant to a dissolution judgment entered by the Circuit Court of St. Louis County. There were no children born of the marriage.

         To facilitate and effectuate their divorce, Husband and Wife entered into a Marital Settlement and Separation Agreement ("MSA") which, among other things, set forth the terms of maintenance to be awarded to Wife. The MSA and its terms were approved and incorporated into the trial court's "Dissolution Decree." Together, the Dissolution Decree and the MSA embody the "Dissolution Judgment."

         Pursuant to the MSA, Husband was ordered, inter alia, to pay Wife $2, 500.00 per month in maintenance. In addition, Husband was also ordered to pay Wife $2, 000.00 every quarter in maintenance. In relevant part, the MSA stated the following:

7. MAINTENANCE OR ALIMONY
a. Husband shall pay to Wife maintenance in the following amounts:
(1) Two Thousand Five Hundred Dollars ($2, 500.00) each month commencing July8, 2006[;]
(2) Two Thousand Dollars ($2, 000.00) every quarter beginning on October 1, 2006[;]
(3) An amount equal to the monthly payment due under U.S. Bank Loan [ ] ("Car Loan"), which is secured by the automobile awarded to Wife hereunder, and which may be paid directly to U.S. Bank, until the loan is paid in full;
(4) An amount equal to Wife's COBRA premiums under her current health insurance program until the resolution of Wife's disability claim referred to in paragraph 7b. If Wife's COBRA coverage terminates prior to Wife receiving disability, Husband shall purchase a comparable health insurance plan for Wife at his costs as additional maintenance for Wife. Said obligation shall terminate upon Wife's receipt of health insurance under her disability claim. If Wife is denied disability after the exhaustion of ali appeals, Wife is entitled to, this shall be deemed a change in circumstances and either party may file a motion to modify to seek a change of this order. However, Husband shall continue to pay health insurance premiums until modified by the Court.
b. Wife agrees to hire the law firm of Stone, Leyton & Gershman, P.C. ("SLG") to pursue her social security disability claim under the terms of SLG's standard contingent fee arrangement. Husband's maintenance obligations hereunder shall be reduced, dollar for dollar, by any monthly disability benefits awarded to Wife. In addition, Wife agrees that any award of back pay shall first be applied to retire the Car Loan, next to the payment of health insurance premiums until depleted.
c. To secure his obligations hereunder, Husband will make wife the beneficiary of his SEP IRA in the amount of $150, 000 until her death or remarriage.
d. Husband's maintenance obligations will terminate upon Wife's death or remarriage.
14. The terms of this Agreement shall not be subjected to modification or change regardless of the relative circumstances of the parties, except as specifically provided for in the Agreement.

(emphasis added).

         As previously stated, the trial court incorporated the MSA into its Dissolution Decree. Regarding maintenance, the Dissolution Decree ordered:

Maintenance:
[Husband] is ordered to pay [Wife] per month the sum of: $2, 500.00 commencing July 8, 2006; $2, 000.00 every quarter beginning October 1, 2006; plus additional sums pursuant to the [MSA] marked Exhibit A (Not subject to modification) (Subject to modification).

(strike-out in original).

         Thereafter, in 2009, Husband filed a motion to modify the maintenance terms set forth in the Dissolution Judgment. Husband and Wife eventually entered into a consent modification judgment ("Prior Consent Modification"), which was approved and incorporated by the trial court. Under its terms, Husband's maintenance obligation was reduced and he was ordered, inter alia, to pay Wife $1, 953.34 per month. For all other purposes of this appeal, the Prior Consent Modification furnished no other adjustments, amendments, or modifications to the Dissolution Judgment. The Prior Consent Modification provided no analysis on the question of modifiability of the maintenance obligation.

         In 2010, Wife began a romantic relationship with David Lewis ("Lewis"). In 2012, Wife moved into Lewis' house in Chesterfield, where she has since continuously resided. There is no dispute Wife and Lewis are currently, and desire to remain, in a committed, romantic relationship, yet there exists no evidence Wife and Lewis intend to marry.

         Relying in significant part upon Wife's cohabitation with Lewis, Husband filed a second motion to modify ("Motion to Modify") in May 2014. In response thereto, Wife filed a motion for contempt ("Motion for Contempt"), requesting the trial court to set aside the Prior Consent Modification and order Husband to satisfy purported past due maintenance obligations. In addition, Wife filed an answer and motion to dismiss Husband's Motion to Modify ("Motion to Dismiss"), arguing, in part, that the MSA prohibited any modification of the maintenance awarded in the Dissolution Judgment. Neither party requested any specific findings of fact and conclusions of law.

         Following a bench trial on Husband and Wife's respective motions, the trial court entered a judgment granting Wife's Motion to Dismiss, denying Husband's Motion to Modify, and denying Wife's Motion for Contempt. The trial court focused its conclusion upon paragraph 14 of the MSA, finding:

The [MSA] clearly states that the "terms of this Agreement shall not be subjected to modification or change, regardless of the relative circumstances of the parties, except as specifically provided for in the Agreement." [Husband] has not offered any evidence or argued that his Motion [to Modify] is based upon any condition "specifically provided for" in the [MSA], and accordingly his motion fails.

         The trial court's judgment does not contain any reference as to the consequence of the Prior Consent Modification. Husband now appeals.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Husband raises three points on appeal. In his first point, Husband argues the trial court erred in dismissing his Motion to Modify upon finding that the maintenance award was not modifiable.[1] In Husband's second and third points on appeal, he argues the trial court erred in finding Wife's relationship and cohabitation with Lewis neither terminated Husband's maintenance obligation nor constituted a substantial and continuing change in circumstances sufficient to warrant modification. Husband asserts the trial court's finding was against the weight of the evidence as well as not supported by substantial evidence.

         A. Standard of Review

         This Court reviews a ruling on a motion to modify to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence, whether it is against the weight of the evidence, or whether it erroneously declares or applies the law. Kunce v. Kimce, 459 S.W.3d 443, 446 (Mo. App. W.D. 2015); see also Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo. banc 1976). We view all evidence and reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, and all -factual issues upon which the trial court elected not to make specific findings of fact are considered to have been found in accordance with the trial court's judgment. Swartz v. Johnson, 192 S.W.3d 752, 754 (Mo. App. W.D. 2006); see Rule 73.01(c).[2] Further, we will defer to the trial court even if the evidence could support a different conclusion. Butts v. Butts, 906 S.W.2d 859, 861 (Mo.App. S.D. 1995).

         B. Mod if lability of Maintenance Award

         In his first point on appeal, Husband contends the trial court erred in dismissing his Motion to Modify upon finding that the maintenance award was not modifiable.

         1. The Type of Maintenance Awarded by the Trial Court

         As a threshold matter, the parties agree that the trial court awarded "separation agreement decretal maintenance, "[3] authorized by section 452.325 RSMo 2000, [4] which reads:

1.... the parties may enter into a written separation agreement containing provisions for the maintenance of ...

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