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Alena Barnett v. Timothy Barnett

August 27, 2010

ALENA BARNETT, APPELLANT,
v.
TIMOTHY BARNETT,
APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Fourth Judicial District, Fairbanks, Robert B. Downes, Judge. Supreme Court No. S-13177 Superior Court No. 4FA-07-00905 CI

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Christen, Justice.

Notice: This opinion is subject to correction before publication in the PACIFIC REPORTER. Readers are requested to bring errors to the attention of the Clerk of the Appellate Courts, 303 K Street, Anchorage, Alaska 99501, phone (907) 264-0608, fax (907) 264-0878, e-mail corrections@appellate.courts.state.ak.us.

OPINION

Before: Carpeneti, Chief Justice, Fabe, Winfree, Christen, and Stowers, Justices.

I. INTRODUCTION

Alena and Timothy Barnett met on the internet in the fall of 2004. In September 2005 Alena relocated to Fairbanks from her home in Belarus with her 18 year-old daughter. Alena and Timothy were married the next month. Timothy filed for divorce in January 2007. In April 2008 the superior court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law dividing the marital property and establishing spousal support. Alena appeals. She challenges the spousal support award on both federal and state law grounds, alleges procedural error by the superior court, and appeals the award of attorney's fees. We affirm the trial court's conclusions that Alena is not entitled to spousal support or attorney's fees under federal law, and we find no procedural error by the trial court. But because the award of spousal support made under state law was premised on an erroneous characterization of courtship costs as marital debt and on findings insufficient to allow us to review whether the award meets Alena's needs, we reverse the award and remand for reconsideration. We also vacate the award of attorney's fees made pursuant to state law.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

Timothy and Alena began a long-distance relationship in the fall of 2004 after meeting on the internet. Alena was living and working in Zhlobin, Belarus; she has a bachelor's degree in railroad transportation engineering, and she was employed by a steelwork company. Timothy was living in Fairbanks; he is the Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF).

Between January and September 2005 Timothy visited Alena in Belarus several times. In March of 2005 he began immigration paperwork for Alena to relocate to Fairbanks, and in May or June of that year Timothy gave Alena $2,500 to complete the purchase of her apartment in Belarus. In September 2005 Alena and her daughter Dasha moved from Belarus to Timothy's home in Fairbanks, where they lived with Timothy and his two teenaged sons. Alena brought $1,000 with her when she moved, and she maintained title to her apartment in Belarus. Timothy paid all of the costs associated with the move. Alena and Timothy married on October 8, 2005. At the time of the marriage, Dasha was 18 years old.

During the marriage, Alena earned between $10.50 and $11.50 per hour working as a salesperson at a hardware store and Timothy continued working at UAF. His income in 2004 was $109,395. Timothy and Alena completed renovations to Timothy's pre-marital home, sharing the work and the expense of the project. Timothy retained sole title to the home but took out a home equity loan to pay down credit card debt, including the costs incurred by Alena and Dasha in their move from Belarus. In Fairbanks, Timothy and Alena purchased a Toyota RAV4 for Alena to drive, and Alena and Dasha used Timothy's tuition reimbursement benefit to take English classes at UAF.

The Barnetts filed immigration paperwork requesting permanent resident status for Alena and Dasha in March 2006. Timothy served as sponsor for Alena and Dasha, and in that capacity he signed an INS Form I-864 affidavit pledging to support them at 125% of the federal poverty level.

Timothy filed a Complaint for Divorce and Motion for Temporary Orders Regarding Possession of Home and Support on January 10, 2007. Alena agreed with the allegations in the complaint and moved out of the Fairbanks home in May 2007. The court ordered that Alena and Timothy agree on an interim support amount, which they did. By May 2007 Dasha was living in her own apartment.

Trial was held in July 2007. On August 15, 2007, the superior court issued an oral decision on record dividing the parties' property and establishing spousal support. The court ordered that Alena receive $5,875 from the couple's 2006 tax refund (compared with Timothy's $4,000 share), the RAV4 (with approximately $20,000 in outstanding debt and $4,000 of equity), cross-country skis, a couch, a diamond ring, and a sewing machine purchased during the marriage. The court also ordered that Timothy pay Alena $1,500 per month in spousal support "for two years or until she remarries or until she dies or until she is living in the same house with another adult whose income she is relying on." The court awarded Alena $2,000 in attorney's fees.

Timothy's attorney raised an oral objection to the court's spousal support award, observing that it seemed to have been based on 125% of the poverty level for a family of five (the size of the entire blended Barnett family pre-divorce), rather than a family of one (the size of Alena's household after the divorce). The trial court judge stated that he would reexamine that portion of the decision and possibly reduce the award.

In March 2008 Timothy filed proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, mostly memorializing the court's oral decisions regarding property division and attorney's fees. The proposed findings granted Alena one-half of the marital portion of Timothy's retirement accounts, car payments on the RAV4 ($482.46 per month) through July 2008, and spousal support of $875 per month through the end of May 2008.*fn1 On April 23, 2008, the superior court adopted the proposed findings and conclusions without alteration.

Alena's Motion to Reconsider and Vacate the April 23 findings of fact and conclusions of law was denied, and she appeals. Alena challenges the superior court's award of spousal support, some of its findings of fact, its adoption of unsolicited findings and ...


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