Des Moines County Doctor Not In Contempt for Failing to Pay College Tuition

Iowa case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: divorce, contempt, college tuition.

In re marriage of Robert M. Hinnen and Jill M. Hinnen. Iowa divorce, contempt, college tuition

Robert M. Hinnen and Jill M. Hinnen were divorced in 2006. Under the decree, the husband was required to pay the college tuition for the three children for four years or until the child reached the age of 23. The decree made clear that these payments were to go directly to the child and/or the school, but not to the wife. The decree also provided that he would claim the child as a dependent for tax purposes in years in which he made these payments.

The husband paid the youngest child's tuition for her freshman and sophomore years at a school in Indiana. He did this by making payments to the school throughout the semester. Prior to her junior year, he announced that he wouldn't be paying that year's tuition. The mother picked up the tab, and the father subsequently filed for chapter 13 bankruptcy. The mother made a bankruptcy claim, and this was paid by the bankruptcy trustee.

The father was a family physician with an income of about $205,000 per year. He paid about $3000 per month in alimony, and an additional $2400 per month in debt payments under the bankruptcy. The wife continued to pay the tuition payments, and the husband reimbursed her when he was able.

In his 2011 tax return, the husband claimed the daughter on his tax return. He learned that his ex-wife had already done so, and he went to court. After he filed with the court, the his ex-wife voluntarily agreed to drop the daughter from her tax return, and the he voluntarily dismissed the court application.

But then the wife filed an application for an order to show cause, claiming that he had willfully failed to meet his obligations, and that claiming the daughter as a dependent was improper. The trial court in Des Moines County dismissed the application, since it found that there was no willful violation.

Dissatisfied with this ruling, the wife appealed the case to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

The wife argued that the trial court should have found her ex-husband in contempt for failing to pay. The Court of Appeals first noted that the trial court had found that the husband had tried to pay his obligation and even believed that he had done so. In particular, the court had focused on the language that he was not permitted under the decree to make payments directly to the wife.

The Court of Appeals stated that the trial court is in the best position to make these kinds of determinations, and found that the trial court had not abused its discretion. The case must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and willfulness must be proven. In this case, the husband's financial status and bankruptcy made it difficult for him to pay. And it also found that he had a reasonable belief that he was allowed to claim the daughter as a dependent. Given all of the circumstances, the Court of Appeals found that the lower court was within its discretion in ruling as it did.

Both parties asked the Court of Appeals for an award of attorney fees on appeal, but the Court denied both requests.

No. No. 3-1015 / 13-0369 (Iowa Ct. App. Feb. 5, 2014).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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