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Dufour v. Damiani

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

December 13, 2017

MELANIE DUFOUR, Appellant,
v.
ERNEST DAMIANI, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, Palm Beach County; Karen Miller, Judge; L.T. Case No. 502013DR007707 XXXXNB.

          John F. Schutz and Ralph T. White of Schutz & White, LLP, West Palm Beach, for appellant.

          No appearance for appellee.

          KLINGENSMITH, J.

         Melanie Dufour (the Wife) appeals the trial court's denial of her motion for contempt filed in response to Ernest Damiani's (the Husband) failure to pay one-half of the mortgage on their marital home pursuant to a marital settlement agreement incorporated into a final judgment of dissolution. The Wife argues on appeal that her exclusive use and possession of the home and the Husband's obligation to pay one-half of the mortgage was an aspect of child support, enforceable by the trial court's contempt powers. The Husband asserts that his obligation to pay one-half of the mortgage ended when the Wife filed a tax return and claimed her mother as a dependent. Based on the facts presented here, we agree with the Wife and reverse the order denying the motion for contempt.

         "A contempt order is reviewed for an abuse of discretion or fundamental error." Ford v. Ford, 153 So.3d 315, 317 (Fla. 4th DCA 2014). However, "[a]s with any contract, a marital settlement agreement is construed as a matter of law." Levitt v. Levitt, 699 So.2d 755, 756 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997). "As such, this court is on equal footing with the trial court as interpreter of the written document." Id. Therefore, if a trial court's ruling is based on the interpretation of a settlement agreement, then it is a decision of law reviewable de novo. See Schwartz v. Greico, 901 So.2d 297, 299 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005). Similarly, conclusions of law by lower tribunals are reviewed by this court on a de novo basis. Van v. Schmidt, 122 So.3d 243, 259 (Fla. 2013) (holding that "an appellate court reviews the trial court's conclusions of law de novo"); see also Bluth v. Blake, 128 So.3d 242, 245 (Fla. 4th DCA 2013) ("[T]o the extent the trial court's orders were based on conclusions of law, we apply de novo review.").

         The parties' marital settlement agreement stated, in relevant part:

The Husband and Wife agree to jointly retain ownership of the marital home and be responsible until such time that the house is sold or the Wife refinances. The Wife shall have exclusive use and possession of the home and reside in the home with the two children only. In the event that anyone other than the Wife and the two children are residing in the home, the Husband's responsibility to pay half the mortgage will be suspended without interfering with the Husband's equitable interest in the property at the time of the sale or refinance as described below.
The Husband and the Wife will equally share the mortgage on the marital property and reasonable maintenance costs, as agreed to by the parties, from time to time, until such time as they mutually agree to sell the property at a price mutually agreed upon.

(Emphasis added).

         The Wife testified before the general magistrate that she paid her mother $6, 800 to "help her live." However, testimony from a third party revealed that the mother had lived with that third party since March of 2013, and not with the Wife. The third party also testified that she did not charge the mother rent, and that the mother paid for nothing other than groceries, despite the Wife's assertion to the contrary. The Husband argued that his obligation to pay one-half of the mortgage on the marital home ended once the Wife filed her 2014 tax return and claimed her mother as a dependent. The Husband referred to an I.R.S. Publication in his testimony and the magistrate interpreted his argument as follows:

[A] parent can be claimed as a dependent and you as the Child can file as 'Head of Household' even if you[r] parent doesn't live with you. However, you must be able must provide more than half the cost of keeping up a home that was ...

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