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Lueck v. Lueck

Court of Appeals of Michigan

May 21, 2019

KAREN SUE LUECK, Plaintiff-Appellant,
JAMES FREDERICK LUECK, Defendant-Appellee.

          Oakland Circuit Court LC No. 2013-814443-DO

          Before: Redford, P.J., and Markey and K. F. Kelly, JJ.

          PER CURIAM.

         Plaintiff appeals by leave granted the July 20, 2017 order that terminated defendant's obligation to provide spousal support under the parties' divorce settlement and consent judgment of divorce. We reverse.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff and defendant married in 1985. On September 5, 2014, after 29 years of marriage, they entered into a divorce settlement agreement, and on September 8, 2014, they signed a consent judgment of divorce, which merged and incorporated the terms of their settlement. At the time of their divorce, plaintiff and defendant had two grown children and a sizeable estate. The parties' settlement essentially split their marital assets.

         The parties' consent judgment of divorce provided the following regarding alimony/spousal support:

A. No Spousal Support/Section 71 payments to Defendant by Plaintiff are awarded and same shall be forever waived and barred. This is non-modifiable.
B. Commencing September 1, 2014 Defendant shall pay to Plaintiff each month, through a direct deposit account that Wife will establish, alimony/spousal support in the amount of $10, 000, for a period of 10 years (120 months), until Wife's death, or until Wife remarries, which ever event was to occur first. All such payments of alimony/spousal support shall be deductible to Husband for income tax purposes pursuant to IRC §215 and includable by Wife in her gross income for tax purposes pursuant to ICR §71, and neither party shall file any income tax return inconsistent therewith. The foregoing alimony/spousal support payments to Wife by Husband shall not be modifiable as to amount or duration. [Emphasis added.][1]

         Approximately one year after her divorce, during September 2015, plaintiff met and dated Matthew Bassett. Not long after, plaintiff considered marrying Basset but she decided against it and instead, on December 24, 2015, they participated in a "commitment ceremony" performed at plaintiff's church. Plaintiff considered herself a "spiritual person," did not want to "live in sin," and "wanted to be right with God," and therefore, decided to have a "private prayer ceremony" without guests or witnesses. Plaintiff discussed with her close friend the possibility of losing spousal support and told her that she had done her "homework," and was only having a spiritual ceremony with Bassett because it was not considered legal without a marriage license; and therefore, she could continue to receive spousal support from defendant.

         Plaintiff and defendant's mutual friend, Kimberly Kleinfelter, testified that plaintiff told her that she couldn't be married legally under the terms of the divorce but she desired the blessing of God on her union with Bassett. She told Kleinfelter that she intended not to have a marriage under state law so that she could keep her alimony which was important to her.

         The lead pastor of the First Congregational Church of Traverse City, Chad Oyer, met plaintiff because she attended the church and had been a "very active" member of his congregation. Oyer testified that plaintiff desired to live in a recognized Christian union where "they put God at the center," so she asked Oyer for "a ceremony of Christian commitment for one another." Oyer testified that plaintiff told him that "a legal civil marriage would compromise" her rights and her alimony would be terminated. Oyer obliged her request because he believed that he could perform a "Christian marriage" without it resulting in a legal marriage. Oyer performed "a ceremony of Christian marriage, and all traditional vows were exchanged within the context that this was a Christian marriage, not a legal or civil marriage." Plaintiff and Bassett exchanged the "traditional Christian vows," represented each other as "husband and wife," and exchanged rings. Oyer performed the ceremony without witnesses present or the signing of a marriage license.

         Defendant learned from one of his friends of the private ceremony between plaintiff and Bassett, held at plaintiff's church in Traverse City. Defendant then contacted plaintiff's counsel believing that plaintiff's spousal support should cease under the language of the consent judgment of divorce because she remarried. Plaintiff's counsel told him that plaintiff did not have a "legal" marriage and thus it did not affect his obligation. Defendant, however, understood that the spousal support provision would terminate upon "marriage," and he did not understand the terms of the parties' settlement and consent judgment to mean only upon a "legal marriage." Defendant moved for an order dismissing his alimony/spousal support obligation and requested reimbursement, sanctions, and attorney fees.

         The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on May 15, 2017. Following the hearing, the parties each submitted proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. On July 20, 2017, the trial court issued its opinion and order. The trial court found that plaintiff participated in a private religious ceremony performed by her pastor and afterward held herself out as married in a manner that convinced others that she remarried. The trial court concluded that plaintiff signed no marriage license to prevent the termination of her spousal support. The trial court found that plaintiff lacked credibility and concluded that her actions were done to defraud the court and circumvent the parties' consent judgment of divorce. The trial court stated that divorce actions are equitable proceedings and a court of equity molds its relief according to the character of the case. The ...

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