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
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
Appellant Marybeth M. Sampsel, Measure Law, P.C., Kalispell,
Appellee Susan G. Ridgeway, Jill Gerdrum, Axilon Law Group,
PLLC, Missoula, Montana
McGrath Chief Justice
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
1. Whether the District Court erroneously concluded that
Adami established a common law marriage with Nelson.
2.Whether the District Court committed procedural errors
3. Whether the District Court erred in granting a
variance from child support guidelines in its calculation of
4.Whether the District Court erred in awarding Adami
AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ...