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Martens v. Blasingame

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division IV

February 7, 2018

CRAIG MARTENS APPELLANT
v.
MELANIE MARTENS BLASINGAME APPELLEE

         APPEAL FROM THE WHITE COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 73DR-14-319] HONORABLE CRAIG HANNAH, JUDGE

          Wright Law Firm, by: Victor D. "Trey" Wright III, for appellant.

          Lightle, Raney, Streit & Streit, LLP, by: Susannah R. Streit, for appellee.

          PHILLIP T. WHITEAKER, JUDGE.

         Craig Martens appeals a White County Circuit Court order denying his request for automatic termination of alimony payments upon the remarriage of his ex-wife Melanie Martens (now Blasingame). For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm.

         Martens and Blasingame were married in May 1996 and divorced in January 2015. The parties agreed on several issues, which were set forth in the divorce decree. They agreed on child custody, visitation, and child support. They also agreed on property division; specifically, Blasingame was awarded sole ownership of the parties' GMC Acadia and agreed to indemnify, defend, and hold Martens harmless from any and all indebtedness owed on the vehicle. Additionally, they agreed on alimony, and the decree awarded Blasingame "alimony" in the amount of $702.34 for 48 consecutive months-the exact amount and duration of the car payments on the Acadia.

         After the decree was entered, Martens made only two spousal-support payments. Martens unilaterally ceased his alimony payments, believing Blasingame had begun cohabitating with her boyfriend in March 2015. In May 2015, Blasingame remarried. On December 15, 2016, the Office of Child Support Enforcement notified Martens that it would begin withholding past-due and future claims for child and spousal support from his wages.[1]As a result, Martens filed a motion to clarify the divorce decree relating to alimony. Citing Arkansas Code Annotated section 9-12-312, Martens argued that he no longer owed spousal support because his liability for alimony automatically ceased in March 2015 upon Blasingame's cohabitation, or at the very latest, in May 2015 when Blasingame remarried.

         The court held a hearing on the motion to clarify. At the hearing, both Martens and Blasingame testified to the nature of the alimony award within the decree. Blasingame testified that the parties had entered into an agreement that Martens would pay her $702.34 for 48 consecutive months in periodic alimony, representing the remaining balance of car payments on the GMC Acadia that she had been awarded. Martens agreed that the amount of spousal support was calculated based on the car payment, but that it was designated as "alimony" so that he could deduct it from his taxes and so that it would automatically terminate if Blasingame remarried. Since Blasingame had remarried, Martens took the position that his obligation to pay alimony terminated by operation of law. Blasingame acknowledged that the law terminates alimony upon remarriage of the receiving spouse, unless otherwise ordered. However, she understood that, because the "alimony" was calculated based on the remaining balance on the automobile loan, Martens was still required to make the payments under their agreement. Martens admitted that he was unaware that spousal support could continue after remarriage if the parties agreed.

         After hearing the testimony and arguments of counsel, the trial court held that, although designated as alimony, the $702.34 was in actuality a payment pursuant to a property-settlement agreement reached by the parties. In so finding, the court noted that the "alimony" payments were derived from the amount owed on the vehicle. It also noted that the way the other property was divided in the divorce, along with Blasingame's apparent lack of need at the time, further militated toward a finding of property settlement over alimony. As a result, the trial court refused to find that the payments were terminated upon Blasingame's remarriage. Martens appeals.

         In reviewing domestic-relations cases, we perform a de novo review. Taylor v. Taylor, 369 Ark. 31, 250 S.W.3d 232 (2007); Farrell v. Farrell, 365 Ark. 465, 231 S.W.3d 619 (2006). We will not reverse the trial court's finding of fact unless it is clearly erroneous. Id. A finding is clearly erroneous when the reviewing court, on the entire evidence, is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed. Id.

         Martens contends that the trial court erred in characterizing the "alimony" payments in the divorce decree as a property-division settlement. We agree that the trial court erred in finding that the "alimony" payments in the decree were provisions of a property-settlement agreement and not, in actuality, alimony payments. The clear and unambiguous language of the decree designates the payments as alimony. Both parties admitted at the hearing that they had agreed that the payments were to be considered alimony. Thus, the payments set forth in the divorce decree were, in fact, alimony payments.

         Next, Martens argues that the court erred in concluding that the alimony payments were nonmodifiable and in denying his request for termination of alimony by operation of law. We disagree.

         Martens bases his argument on the application of Arkansas Code Annotated section 9-12-312(a)(2):

Unless otherwise ordered by the court or agreed to by the parties, the liability for alimony shall automatically cease ...

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