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Colton v. Colton

Supreme Court of Alaska

December 23, 2010

Kenneth L. COLTON, Appellant,
v.
Rebecca K. COLTON, Appellee.

Page 1122

Mary A. Gilson and Allison E. Mendel, Mendel & Associates, Anchorage, for Appellant.

Leigh Ann Bauer, Law Offices of Leigh Ann Bauer, Anchorage, for Appellee.

Before: CARPENETI, Chief Justice, FABE, WINFREE, and CHRISTEN, Justices.

OPINION

CARPENETI, Chief Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

Former spouses reached agreement on property distribution and put the agreement on the record. The agreement required the husband to make a cash payment to the wife. The superior court issued findings and conclusions memorializing the agreement and subsequently rejected the husband's request to set the agreement aside. The husband appeals, arguing that (1) the superior court clearly erred in finding that the husband agreed to make the payment because he did not understand that it would result in an unequal property division, and (2) the superior court abused its discretion in enforcing the agreement because it was made without the

Page 1123

husband's full understanding. We conclude that the court did not clearly err in finding that the husband agreed to make the payment. We also conclude that the superior court did not abuse its discretion in enforcing the agreement because the husband did not point to facts showing it was made without his full understanding. Thus, we affirm the decision of the superior court.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

After 20 years of marriage, Ken and Rebecca Colton separated and began divorce proceedings. On April 21, 2008, the parties engaged in court-assisted settlement negotiations. Both Ken and Rebecca were represented by counsel. The parties reached a global agreement on all child custody and property division issues and put it on the record the same day. In this appeal, Ken argues that the agreement is unenforceable because it does not reflect a meeting of the minds. The disputed item is a $47,121.04 cash payment from Ken to Rebecca.

A. Settlement On The Record

At the start of negotiations, Ken and his attorney provided the court with a document called the " Revised Settlement Spreadsheet" (" Ken's spreadsheet" ), a list of all assets and liabilities to be divided between the parties.[1] Ken's spreadsheet placed a value on each item and assigned each item to either Ken or Rebecca. Adding up the values by column, Ken's spreadsheet showed the " Total Assets and Debts" of the parties as $319,287.18 for Ken and $413,529.28 for Rebecca. Below this appeared an item called " Payment to Equalize" ; on this row, $47,121.04 was added to Ken's column and the same amount was subtracted from Rebecca's column. Below this, Ken's spreadsheet listed the ultimate " Total," including the equalization payment, as $366.408.22 for each party.

Although all settlement talks took place off the record, it is clear that Ken's spreadsheet played a large part in the negotiations. When the settlement was put on the record later that afternoon, the court said, " the parties and I have been working principally off" Ken's spreadsheet in crafting the settlement. When the court recited the agreed-upon distribution of several major items-the marital residence, vehicles, lawsuit proceeds, insurance, and retirement plans-the distribution matched that provided on Ken's spreadsheet. The court also stated that " all the rest of the property as reflected on [Ken's spreadsheet] and all of the personal property as previously indicated on [Ken's] personal property spreadsheet ... will each respectively go to the ... spouse indicated.... Then in terms of the debts, they're going to be divided as indicated on" Ken's spreadsheet. Finally, the court said " at the end of the day to make a payment to ultimately settle the case ... [Ken] has offered and [Rebecca] has accepted to receive a payment of $47,121.04 upon the refinancing of the marital home. " [2] Assuming that this means that Ken has offered to pay $47,121.04 to Rebecca, [3] this is the opposite of the " Equalization Payment" item from Ken's spreadsheet, which showed the same amount being paid to Ken from Rebecca. Neither Ken nor his attorney objected. In a brief exchange that followed, the court asked Ken whether he could refinance the marital home within 60 days. Ken promised he would try, and the court said: " If you come into a glitch in any respect that looks like it's going to cause delay, let [Rebecca] know, just so

Page 1124

that [she's] not on the 59th day expecting to receive a check...." Again, neither Ken nor his attorney objected.

Although the court made frequent reference to Ken's spreadsheet, it made clear that the parties were not adopting the spreadsheet wholesale; specifically, the court emphasized that the parties could not come to agreement on the values of particular items, but rather had agreed to disagree on values and settle on the basis of an item-by-item distribution.

The attorneys questioned their clients regarding the settlement agreement. Both Ken and Rebecca agreed that they understood the settlement as it had been put on the record, that they entered into the settlement voluntarily, that they knew it was final and binding, and that they believed it to be fair and equitable. Ken agreed that the court's recitation of the terms was a " fair and accurate description of what [he] agreed to." The court concluded by finding that both parties had made " knowing, reasonable and voluntary decisions" and that the property division was " fair and equitable." The court asked that Ken's attorney prepare findings of fact and conclusions of law and attach as an appendix " the final version of the property spreadsheet that you submitted today which we were working from, as ...


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