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Raap v. Lenton

Supreme Court of North Dakota

October 4, 2016

Tina M. Raap f/k/a Tina M. Lenton, Plaintiff and Appellee
v.
Lance D. Lenton, Defendant and Appellant and State of North Dakota, Statutory Real Party in Interest and Appellee

         Appeal from the District Court of Ward County, North Central Judicial District, the Honorable Gary H. Lee, Judge.

          Michael S. McIntee (argued), for plaintiff and appellee Tina M. Raap.

          Rodney E. Pagel (argued), for defendant and appellant.

          Tina M. Heinrich (on brief), Special Assistant Attorney General, P.O. Child Support Enforcement Unit, Statutory Real Party in Interest and Appellee.

          OPINION

          McEvers, Justice.

         [¶ 1] Lance Lenton appeals from the district court's amended judgment increasing his child support obligation. We reverse and remand to the district court to calculate Lenton's child support obligation in accordance with the child support guidelines.

         I

         [¶ 2] Tina Raap and Lance Lenton divorced in January 2011. They have one minor child. Lenton is a self-employed farmer. The district court awarded Raap primary residential responsibility of the child, and calculated Lenton's child support obligation at $1, 458 per month. In the original order for child support, the district court considered Lenton's tax returns from 2005 to 2009 and found that relying only on the information contained in the five-year period of Lenton's tax returns was not representative of Lenton's income, rebutting the presumptively correct amount of his child support obligation. Instead of using Lenton's tax returns, the district court used a Farm Credit Service Statement and determined Lenton held grain in storage that he could sell at any time for profit, calculated the profit from the potential sale, and used that amount to offset his farm losses to calculate his child support obligation. Lenton appealed the 2011 judgment, but did not challenge the district court's calculation of his child support obligation in that action. See Lenton v. Lenton, 2012 ND 4, 809 N.W.2d 833 (summarily affirming on the grounds the district court's property distribution was not clearly erroneous).

         [¶ 3] In April 2015, Lenton requested review of his child support obligation through the Minot Regional Support Unit. The child support review conducted by the child support agency resulted in a presumptive child support amount of $637 per month. To calculate this amount, the child support agency relied on tax returns from 2012 to 2014, provided by Lenton. The child support agency averaged Lenton's income over this three-year period. The parties did not stipulate to amending the child support obligation based on the child support agency's determination. Consequently, the child support agency moved the district court to amend its judgment under N.D.C.C. § 14-09-08.8. [1] The district court held an evidentiary hearing to determine Lenton's new child support obligation. The district court found Lenton's tax returns were not a reasonable representation of his income from self-employment, and used a "Ratios & Indicators" ("R & I") document to calculate Lenton's net income. The district court entered an amended judgment setting Lenton's child support obligation at $2, 400 per month. Lenton appeals.

         II

         [¶ 4] Lenton argues the district court's child support calculation is clearly erroneous. Particularly, he argues the district court erred when calculating his child support obligation by not relying on his tax returns, erred by using the R & I document instead of his tax returns, and erred in considering rental and other income in addition to the R & I document.

         [¶ 5] Our standard of review of an appeal from child support determinations is well established:

Child support determinations involve questions of law which are subject to the de novo standard of review, findings of fact which are subject to the clearly erroneous standard of review, and may, in some limited areas, be matters of discretion subject to the abuse of discretion standard of review. The district court errs as a matter of law if it fails to comply with the child support guidelines in determining an obligor's child support obligation.

Halberg v. Halberg, 2010 ND 20, ¶ 8, 777 N.W.2d 872 (quotation marks omitted) (citations omitted). In Verhey v. McKenzie, we expressed the importance of accurately calculating an obligor's net income under the ...


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