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In re J.K.N.A

Supreme Court of Montana

December 10, 2019

IN RE: J.K.N.A, S.G.N.A, and K.A.N.A., Minor Children, LORA DIANE ADAMI, Petitioner and Appellee, and KAREN CHERYL NELSON, Respondent and Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: November 6, 2019

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Fourth Judicial District, In and For the County of Missoula, Cause No. DR-16-199 Honorable Leslie Halligan, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant Marybeth M. Sampsel, Measure Law, P.C., Kalispell, Montana

          For Appellee Susan G. Ridgeway, Jill Gerdrum, Axilon Law Group, PLLC, Missoula, Montana


          Mike McGrath Chief Justice

         ¶1 Karen Cheryl Nelson ("Nelson") appeals from an order of the Fourth Judicial District, Missoula County, which determined the parties had entered into a common law marriage. As a result of finding a valid common law marriage, the District Court awarded spousal maintenance be paid by Nelson to Lora Diane Adami ("Adami"), equitable division of the Nelson-Adami estate, calculation of Nelson's child and medical support, and attorney's fees to Adami. ¶2 We address the following issues on appeal:

1. Whether the District Court erroneously concluded that Adami established a common law marriage with Nelson.
2.Whether the District Court committed procedural errors requiring reversal.
3. Whether the District Court erred in granting a variance from child support guidelines in its calculation of child support.
4.Whether the District Court erred in awarding Adami attorney's fees.

         ¶3 We affirm.


         ¶4 In 1996, Nelson and Adami, both unmarried, began a relationship as a same-sex couple that continued for a period of nearly twenty years. Since same-sex marriage was not legally available or socially acceptable in states where the Nelson and Adami resided throughout their relationship, they did not marry. Nelson and Adami parented three children ("the children") together, with Adami being the biological mother of all three through artificial insemination: J.K.N.A. (born 2000), S.G.N.A. (born 2002), and K.A.N.A. (born 2005). At the time of trial, Nelson, Adami, and the children had resided in Missoula County for over 180 days prior to the filing of Adami's Verified Petition for Parentage, Parenting Plan, Child Support, and Equitable Division of Property. ¶5 In the late 1990s, Nelson and Adami discussed beginning a family. Ultimately, through a mutual decision, Adami gave up her career as a pharmaceutical sales representative and Nelson continued pursuing her career as a physician. Prior to beginning the artificial insemination process, Nelson and Adami agreed that regardless of legal and societal disapproval, they were committed to each other and to having a family together.

         ¶6 In selecting a sperm donor, Nelson and Adami sought a donor with physical traits like Nelson. They also chose to give each of the children both of their last names to reflect their parenting covenant. Due to legal barriers, Nelson and Adami did not use the word "marriage," but termed their relationship as "a committed relationship." At the time of their decision to raise children together, Nelson and Adami made commitments toward each other to be life partners and function as married couples do. Adami bore three children that Nelson co-parented. All three children were given the last name of Nelson-Adami.

         ¶7 While Adami assumed the role of primary caregiver for the children, Nelson assumed the role as the breadwinner and took steps to financially provide for Adami and the children. Nelson named Adami as the beneficiary of all of her retirement accounts and life insurance policies. In considering new jobs, she only considered those that were in places acceptable to Adami. Nelson ensured that Adami and the children had health insurance through her employment. Nelson cared for Adami post-childbirth. Likewise, Adami took care of Nelson as needed and even cared for Nelson's brother when he was undergoing addiction treatment, including paying $4000 on a credit card in her name for his treatment.

         ¶8 Nelson and Adami jointly chose godparents for their children and asked to be, and were, accepted by their church congregation as a family. Both Nelson's and Adami's extended family treated the other as a member of the family, essentially as if they were married spouses.

         ¶9 In support of Nelson's career, Nelson and Adami frequently moved. After Nelson finished her residency in Virginia, she accepted a job as a physician at a local hospital and opened an outpatient private practice in Palestine, Texas, in 2001. Due to the move, Adami's employment and career became secondary to Nelson's, as Adami was unable to obtain employment in pharmaceutical sales in Palestine. Nelson and Adami agreed that Adami would quit her career and spend her time as a caregiver for their young children. Shortly after, Adami gave birth to their second child in 2002.

         ¶10 In 2004, Nelson's and Adami's third child was born and in 2006 the family moved to Grand Junction, Colorado, where Nelson ran an outpatient pain clinic. In 2009, the family moved to Wyoming, as Nelson accepted a position as the medical director at a pain and spine clinic. In 2012, Nelson accepted a job in Missoula, Montana, with Providence Health and purchased a house on Daly Street ("Daly House"). Adami stayed with the children in Wyoming until the end of the school year and then moved the family and their belongings to Missoula.

         ¶11 In July 2014, Nelson purchased a second residence in Missoula on Connell Street ("Connell House") across the alley from the Daly House. Adami objected to the purchase since it was a major expense ($529, 000), but Nelson rebutted that her parents would live there and pay rent and that she needed a quiet place to do her research work. Nelson's and Adami's business advisor also advised against the purchase and testified they could not afford it. Due to the Connell House purchase, their savings were depleted by improvements and ongoing mortgage payments.

         ¶12 In August 2014, Nelson informed Adami that she was ending their relationship and would move into the Connell House in September. Over Adami's objections, Nelson proceeded to remodel the Connell House so that the children would each have an updated bedroom. The down payment and remodeling of the Connell House used approximately $47, 000 from their joint bank accounts and the mortgage added a debt obligation of $3, 500 each month.

         ¶13 In the fall of 2014, Adami obtained employment, earning $33, 900 annually. Nelson and Adami continued to pool their income and Adami continued to pay the bills from their joint funds. In protest of Nelson's expenditures on the Connell House, Adami withdrew $37, 314.64 from their joint account and deposited it into her personal account. She later removed the remaining funds from the joint account. Nelson began withdrawing funds from a joint stock account.

         ¶14 In January 2015, Nelson was notified that her employment would be ending in June 2015. Adami asked Nelson to sell the Connell House to reduce their debt, but Nelson declined. Instead, Nelson decided to list the Daly House on the market. Despite being offered to move into the Connell House, Adami and the children moved their furnishings into storage and began living in a camper-trailer parked on property belonging to a family friend.

         ¶15 The Daly House sold in September 2015; Nelson shared half of the proceeds from the sale with Adami. Adami used the proceeds to, among other things, secure a rental residence for herself and the children. Around this time, Nelson cut off Adami's access to joint funds. Adami then asked Nelson for child support payments. Adami's full-time income was ...

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