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Murphy v. Murphy

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

October 20, 2017

Morgan Murphy
v.
Erica Murphy

         Appeal from Jefferson Circuit Court (DR-15-900960)

          THOMAS, JUDGE.

         Morgan Murphy ("the father") and Erica Murphy ("the mother") were married on February 14, 2014. There is one child ("the child") of the marriage. On June 5, 2015, the mother filed a complaint in the Jefferson Circuit Court seeking, among other things, a divorce from the father, an award of joint legal custody of the child, an award of "primary" physical custody of the child subject to the father's "liberal custodial periods, " and an award of child support.[1] The father filed an answer to the mother's complaint to which he attached a copy of the parties' prenuptial agreement.

         The circuit court entered a judgment ("the divorce judgment") that, in pertinent part, divorced the parties, purported to adopt the terms of the parties' prenuptial agreement, awarded "joint and legal custody" of the child to the parents and "primary" custody of the child to the mother, awarded the father visitation with the child, ordered the father to pay child support, and ordered the father to pay $10, 000 toward the mother's attorney fees. The father filed a timely postjudgment motion, the circuit court entered an order denying the father's postjudgment motion, and the father filed a timely notice of appeal.[2]

         Several comments made during the divorce trial demonstrate that the circuit court would not permit the father to offer testimony in support of an award sole physical custody of the child to the father because he had not filed a counterclaim seeking custody. For example, the circuit-court judge made the following comment to the father's attorney:

"You have no counter complaint, Counsel. You filed no counter complaint. I have no subject matter jurisdiction in regard to any relief. That's why I say he can defend, but there's no counter complaint that you've filed on his behalf. So I have no subject matter jurisdiction to consider custody but for the mother. There's no counter complaint."

         On appeal, the father argues that the circuit court erred as a matter of law by failing to recognize that § 30-3-1, Ala. Code 1975, provides that, "[u]pon granting a divorce, the court may give the custody ... of the children of the marriage to either father or mother, as may seem right and proper, " and that that error violated his right to due process. There is no dispute that the circuit court denied the father an opportunity to present evidence in support of an award of sole physical custody of the child to him; thus, the material facts regarding the issue are undisputed and present a question of law, not a question of fact. See Poffenbarger v. Merit Energy Co., 972 So.2d 792, 794-95 (Ala. 2007). When the material facts are undisputed and the only issues presented involve pure questions of law, the appellate court's review is de novo. Christian v. Murray, 915 So.2d 23, 25 (Ala. 2005); Alabama Republican Party v. McGinley, 893 So.2d 337, 342 (Ala. 2004); and Magrinat v. Maddox, 220 So.3d 1081, 1084 (Ala. Civ. App. 2016).

         Notwithstanding the fact that the father did not file a counterclaim regarding the child's custody, § 30-3-1 provides that a circuit court hearing a divorce case has the authority to enter a judgment awarding "either father or mother, as may seem right and proper, " the custody of children of the marriage.

"The circuit court's jurisdiction to do so is derived from the principles of equity; where a child is physically present within the jurisdiction of a circuit court in this state, the court has inherent authority to act to protect the welfare and best interests of the child. [Ex parte] Handley[, 460 So.2d 167 (Ala. 1984)]. A party need not specifically invoke the circuit court's inherent jurisdiction; rather, any pleading showing on its face that the welfare of a child requires an order with respect to its custody and support is sufficient to invoke the jurisdiction of the circuit court to settle the matter. Handley. Once the circuit court's jurisdiction is thus invoked, any matter affecting a child may become the subject of its adjudication. Handley."

Ex parte Lipscomb, 660 So.2d 986, 989 (Ala. 1994). The circuit court incorrectly concluded that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to award the father custody of the child and erred to reversal by denying the father an opportunity to present evidence in support of an award of sole physical custody of the child to him.[3]

         Next the father argues that the circuit court failed to give effect to the plain language of the parties' prenuptial agreement by ordering him to pay $10, 000 toward the mother's attorney fees. In Laney v. Laney, 833 So.2d 644, 646 (Ala. Civ. App. 2002), we explained that,

"[a]lthough the ore tenus presumption applies to the trial court's findings of fact, no such presumption adheres to the trial court's application of the law to those facts. Ex parte Agee, 669 So.2d 102, 104 (Ala. 1995). The [parties'] arguments are based upon the interpretation of certain provisions and terms in the parties' antenuptial agreement; such interpretations, like the interpretation of unambiguous contracts, are questions of law. See Agee, 669 So.2d at 105; Stacey v. Saunders, 437 So.2d 1230, 1233 (Ala. 1983)."

         "[T]rial courts may not dispose of property addressed in an antenuptial agreement in a manner that is inconsistent with that agreement." Hubbard v. Bentley, 17 So.3d 652, 654 (Ala. Civ. App. 2008). The divorce judgment reads, in pertinent part:

"[T]he parties executed a prenuptial agreement prior to their marriage. Neither party challenged the validity of said prenuptial agreement. A copy of the prenuptial agreement was made a part of the Court's file. The provisions of the prenuptial agreement ...

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