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Dunn v. Jones

Supreme Court of Alaska

November 1, 2019

NICHOLAS RYAN DUNN, Appellant,
v.
DAKOTA CHRISTINE JONES, Appellee.

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage No. 3 AN-13-04609 CI, Frank A. Pfiffner, Judge.

          Nicholas Ryan Dunn, pro se, Marion, Arkansas, Appellant.

          Dakota Christine Jones, pro se, Anchorage, Appellee.

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices.

          OPINION

          STOWERS, Chief Justice.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         A father sought to modify a child support order on the basis that his income had decreased. Additionally, he asked that the support order be changed to not require him to contribute to the children's health insurance costs. The superior court found that his gross income had changed by less than 15% and that he therefore was not entitled to a modification of child support. And because the mother was now paying for health insurance for the children, the court added a health insurance adjustment to its new support order while keeping the basic monthly amount the same. The father appeals. We conclude it was error for the superior court to determine that as a matter of law Dunn was obligated to pay 50% of his children's health insurance costs. Further, it was an abuse of discretion for the court to decline to modify Dunn's child support obligation without first calculating an updated adjusted annual income and monthly child support amount, and we reverse this order and the court's order regarding health insurance costs. In all other respects, we affirm.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         Nicholas Ryan Dunn and Dakota Christine Jones separated in 2012, when Dunn left Alaska for Arkansas. Dunn and Jones are the parents of two children. Jones is also the mother of two older children, who are not Dunn's children.

         In a 2013 child custody determination, the superior court denied Dunn's and Jones's requests for the termination of Dunn's parental rights. It awarded Jones sole legal and sole physical custody of the children. The court issued a child support order, finding that Dunn's annual gross income was $35, 360 and that his annual allowable deductions were $ 1, 498.80 and requiring Dunn to pay $762 in child support each month. Neither parent was required to purchase health insurance. The court ordered that "[i]f insurance becomes available to a parent at a reasonable cost, that parent must purchase the insurance, "at which time "the monthly child support obligation will increase by 50% of the cost of the insurance" if Jones purchased it or decrease by 50% of the cost if Dunn purchased it.

         Dunn returned to Alaska in 2014 and alleges he and Jones reconciled in October 2014 and lived together until separating again in May 2016. Jones concedes that Dunn lived with her during that time and that she added him to her health insurance, but she alleges that they did not live together "as a couple" and that they "were trying to reestablish a friendly relationship for only the children." She asserts that if they had actually reconciled, Dunn would have sought to modify his child support while in Alaska. Dunn argues that while he and Jones lived together, his child support payments constituted his contribution to the household expenses. Both agree that Dunn returned to Arkansas in 2016 and started working for a construction company and that he subsequently quit (possibly in late October) and took a lower-paying job.

         In December 2016 Dunn filed a motion to modify child support, requesting the child support payments be reduced because his income had decreased. He also requested the court change the support order to no longer require him to provide insurance for the children because he could not "afford medical on the children." He attached a child support guidelines affidavit and copies of four pay stubs from November and December 2016.

         Jones opposed the motion. In her accompanying child support guidelines affidavit, she disputed Dunn's income calculations and provided her own calculations based on the pay stub with the second-highest pay of the four Dunn submitted. Her affidavit also noted the children no longer had health insurance through a state children's insurance program as of August 2015 and that she was insuring them through her employer at a monthly cost to her of $448.08.

         The superior court held a hearing in February 2017. Dunn had been given leave to participate telephonically but did not call in; Jones was present. The court found that Dunn's decrease in income was less than 15% and therefore did not constitute a material change of circumstances for purposes of modifying child support.[1] The court also took evidence on health insurance, calculated the costs of the children's insurance, and found the costs reasonable. It issued a child support order that retained the income and basic monthly child support amounts from the 2013 child support order and added a $157.50 health insurance adjustment (50% of Dunn's two children's health insurance costs) to Dunn's total monthly support payments in accordance with the provision in the 2013 order.

         Dunn appeals, arguing that the court: (1) incorrectly determined that his income had not decreased by more than 15%; (2) improperly adjusted the child support upward to account for the children's health insurance costs; (3) misallocated the insurance costs among the covered children (two of the four of whom were his); and (4) incorrectly found that the insurance costs were reasonable.

         III. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         "Trial courts have broad discretion in deciding whether to modify child support orders," and such determinations are reviewed for abuse of discretion.[2] An abuse of discretion is found where a decision is "arbitrary, capricious, manifestly unreasonable, or . . . stem[s] from an improper motive."[3]

         "[F]actual findings, including findings regarding a party's income," are reviewed for clear error.[4] A factual finding is clearly erroneous if, "after reviewing the record as a whole, [we are] left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made."[5]

         "Interpretation of the civil rules is a question of law that we review de novo."[6]

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. It Was Not An Abuse Of Discretion To Rely On Pay Stub #1343 To ...


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