from Jefferson Circuit Court (DR-15-900960)
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. The father filed an answer to the
mother's complaint to which he attached a copy of the
parties' prenuptial agreement.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 ...