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Category: Attorney Fees

How to Fill Out Your Financial Declaration, Paragraph One. By Braxton Mounteer, Legal Assistant

If you find yourself involved in a Utah divorce action (whether child support will be an issue or not) or an action over the support of minor children in Utah (such as a child support action or action for parentage/paternity), you will need to exchange with your spouse or with the other parent an official court form known as the “Financial Declaration” (see Utah Rules of Civil Procedure 26.1). This blog series will concisely walk you through the process of preparing your financial declaration correctly.

As a general matter: you want to ensure your financial declaration is as accurate and complete as you can make it.

There are twelve total paragraphs in the Financial Declaration form.

Paragraph one of your financial declaration is easy to complete. It consists of checking a box declaring whether you are filing your financial declaration with the court.

When do you file your financial declaration with the court?:

  • In the event that you have a hearing regarding an issue of child support, spousal support, marital property, marital debts, attorney fees, court fees, or the court has specifically requested that a financial declaration be filed with the court.

Even if you are not required to file your financial declaration with the court, you are still required by the Rules of Civil Procedure to serve a copy of it (along with supporting documents for the claims and statements you make in your financial declaration) on the opposing party.

Please follow the rest of our posts on preparing your financial declaration, so that you understand better what is required of your financial declaration and why (and why it’s so important to ensure your financial declaration is as accurate and complete as you can make it).

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Elder v. Elder – 2024 UT App 68 – enforcement vs. modification

Elder v. Elder – 2024 UT App 68

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

BRITTANY LEE ELDER, Appellee, v. MATT BLAKE ELDER, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20210902-CA Filed May 9, 2024

Second District Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable David M. Connors No. 154700355

Julie J. Nelson and Jaclyn Robertson, Attorneys for Appellant Steven C. Tycksen, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES RYAN M. HARRIS and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1 The district court issued an order requiring Matt Blake Elder to reimburse his ex-wife, Brittany Lee Elder, for the amount she had paid to satisfy a loan on a townhouse that she had been awarded in the divorce.[1] Matt challenges this ruling on appeal, arguing that it was a procedurally improper modification of the couple’s divorce decree. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2 Brittany and Matt were married in 2008. In early 2015, Brittany filed a petition for divorce. Later that year, Brittany and Matt entered into a stipulated agreement that the district court subsequently adopted in a Decree of Divorce (the Decree). Under a “Division of Property” heading, the Decree divided the couple’s real property, vehicles, and other personal property. Matt received the “marital home along with any accompanying debts and/or equity.” Of note here, Brittany was awarded a townhouse “as an equalization of the distribution of the assets.” The Decree specified that “Matt will be responsible for any loans associated with the townhouse and have them paid off within 120 days of signing this Stipulation.”

¶3        A separate provision in the Decree was captioned “Remedies on Default.” It stated that in “the event that either party defaults in her or his obligations, or must seek relief from the Court in the enforcement of the Decree of Divorce, the nonprevailing party shall be liable to the other party for all reasonable expenses, including attorneys’ fees and court costs actually incurred.”

¶4        Matt failed to remove the loan on the townhouse within 120 days. After that 120-day period expired, Brittany filed a motion for an order to show cause. In this motion, Brittany asked the court to hold Matt in contempt for failing to comply with several terms of the Decree—including, of note here, his obligation to pay off the loan associated with the townhouse. The district court later issued an order in which it refused to find Matt in contempt on the townhouse issue, but it did order Matt to “remove all liens on the townhouse” within 30 days. Matt failed to comply with this order.

¶5        In 2017, Matt filed for bankruptcy. Later that year, Brittany sold the townhouse. “[P]ursuant to a short sale agreement she made with the bank,” she paid off a discounted loan balance of $143,165.

¶6        In April 2019, Brittany filed another motion for an order to show cause relating to the townhouse. In this motion, Brittany requested a judgment in excess of $180,000, a figure that included the final loan balance, realtor’s commissions, closing costs, and repairs that she alleged were necessary to make the townhouse habitable.

¶7        During a hearing in July 2020, the district court noted that a domestic relations commissioner had certified for hearing the issue of “the amount [Matt] should pay [Brittany] due to his failure to have the liens removed from the townhouse.” At that point, Brittany’s counsel expressed the desire to conduct discovery on the issue. In response, Matt’s counsel suggested that she wasn’t sure if discovery was warranted because there was “no petition to modify pending,” after which she asked the court to “clarif[y]” whether it would “allow[] there to be discovery between the parties.” The court responded that it was allowing “discovery” on “what amounts, if any,” it should order Matt to pay Brittany for his “failure to have the liens removed from the townhouse,” and the court specifically ruled that the parties could depose each other on this if they wished.

¶8        Brittany subsequently submitted interrogatories, a request for production of documents, and requests for admission to Matt. For his part, Matt issued several subpoenas duces tecum to financial institutions. At a pretrial hearing in November 2020, Brittany argued that Matt’s responses to her requests for admission had been inadequate. Over the protest of Matt’s counsel, the court agreed that Matt’s responses had been inadequate and ordered Matt to submit more detailed responses. In the course of that hearing, Matt never argued that he was being deprived of the opportunity to conduct discovery of his own.

¶9        A few weeks later, the court held an evidentiary hearing on the question of “potential damages connected with the failure to deliver the title” to the townhouse “free and clear of liens.” At that hearing, both parties presented extensive arguments about their positions.

¶10      After almost a year of additional litigation, the court issued a written ruling on Brittany’s motion for an order to show cause. There, the court first noted that the provision in the Decree that made Matt “responsible” for any loans associated with the townhouse had “never been modified.” The court also ruled that Matt’s bankruptcy had not discharged his obligations relating to the townhouse.

¶11      The court then found that Matt had “failed to satisfy, pay off or remove the liens related to the loans associated with” the townhouse and that Matt’s failure had “forced” Brittany to sell the townhouse in order to pay off the discounted loan balance. The court also found that the “actual amount paid by” Brittany to the bank “to remove the lien” on the townhouse “that was associated with the loan was $143,165.00.” And it further found that the “required payment of this amount” by Brittany “was a direct result of [Matt’s] failure to comply with the provisions of the Decree of Divorce.” The court accordingly awarded Brittany “the actual amount she paid the bank, $143,165,” plus post-judgment interest, though it then determined that she was not entitled to any additional amounts related to the renovation and sale of the townhouse. Finally, the court awarded Brittany her “reasonable expenses, including attorney fees and court costs actually incurred, related to the issue of [Matt’s] failure to comply with his obligations” under the Decree.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶12 Matt challenges the district court’s ruling granting Brittany’s motion for an order to show cause. In Matt’s view, the ruling was not a valid enforcement of the Decree but instead improperly modified it. “We review procedural issues for correctness and afford no deference to the lower court’s ruling.” Berman v. Yarbrough, 2011 UT 79, ¶ 12, 267 P.3d 905.[2]

ANALYSIS

¶13 Matt argues that when the district court ordered him to reimburse Brittany for what she had paid to satisfy the loan on the townhouse, the court modified the Decree. In Matt’s view, because Brittany had only filed an enforcement action, not a modification action, this ruling was procedurally improper. We disagree with Matt’s assessment of the nature of the ruling.

¶14 District courts enjoy “inherent” authority, “when properly invoked,” to “enforce a final judgment.” Little Cottonwood Tanner Ditch Co. v. Sandy City, 2016 UT 45, ¶¶ 23–24, 387 P.3d 978 (quotation simplified); see also id. ¶ 33 (explaining that district courts may “make such orders as may be necessary to carry out and give effect to their decrees” (quotation simplified)). “If a party fails to comply with a specific directive of a judgment, another party to the judgment may move to enforce this directive.” Id. ¶ 24. However, a “court’s power to enforce a judgment is confined to the four corners of the judgment itself.” PacifiCorp v. Cardon, 2016 UT App 20, ¶ 6, 366 P.3d 1226 (quotation simplified). And a “motion to enforce cannot be used to take up matters beyond the contours of the judgment and thereby short-circuit the usual adjudicative processes.” Berman v. Yarbrough, 2011 UT 79, ¶ 15, 267 P.3d 905 (quotation simplified). A motion to enforce is thus “procedurally improper” where a judgment contains neither an “unequivocal mandate” nor a “clear directive” enjoining “the respondent to undertake some action.” Id. (quotation simplified). This is so because, “without a directive or unequivocal mandate, there is nothing for the court to enforce.” Id.[3]

¶15 Separate from the enforcement power, courts in some instances have power to modify a final judgment that has already been entered. And we’ve previously recognized that a key difference between the power to modify and the power to enforce is that the latter does “not generally extend to modifying the substantive rights of parties that have previously been agreed to or adjudicated.” Robertson v. Stevens, 2020 UT App 29, ¶ 8, 461 P.3d 323. In the family law context, “proceedings to modify a divorce decree . . . must be commenced by filing a petition to modify.” Utah R. Civ. P. 106(a). And a petition to modify allows courts to “revisit many of the provisions contained in a typical divorce decree, including provisions pertaining to child custody, child support, alimony, property distribution, and debts,” under the terms set forth by certain statutes. Robertson, 2020 UT App 29, ¶ 7.

¶16      Here, Brittany filed a motion for an order to show cause, which, as noted, was the procedural mechanism at the time for filing an enforcement action. But Brittany did not file a petition to modify the Decree. The question before us, then, is whether the district court moved beyond its enforcement powers when it ordered Matt to reimburse Brittany for what she had paid to satisfy the loan on the townhouse. Put differently, the question is whether this ruling was authorized from within “the four corners of the judgment,” Little Cottonwood, 2016 UT 45, ¶ 24 (quotation simplified), or whether it instead “modif[ied] the substantive rights of [the] parties,” Robertson, 2020 UT App 29, ¶ 8. In our view, this was indeed an enforcement ruling, as opposed to a modification, because it was grounded in the four corners of the Decree itself and did not alter the parties’ substantive rights.

¶17 “We interpret a divorce decree according to established rules of contract interpretation.” Osborne v. Osborne, 2011 UT App 150, ¶ 6, 260 P.3d 202 (quotation simplified). “When interpreting a contract, a court first looks to the contract’s four corners to determine the parties’ intentions, which are controlling.” Bakowski v. Mountain States Steel, Inc., 2002 UT 62, ¶ 16, 52 P.3d 1179. “If the language within the four corners of the contract is unambiguous, then a court does not resort to extrinsic evidence of the contract’s meaning, and a court determines the parties’ intentions from the plain meaning of the contractual language as a matter of law.” Id. Finally, in “interpreting a contract, we determine what the parties intended by examining the entire contract and all of its parts in relation to each other, giving an objective and reasonable construction to the contract as a whole.” G.G.A., Inc. v. Leventis, 773 P.2d 841, 845 (Utah Ct. App. 1989).

¶18 The Decree in question stated that “Matt [would] be responsible for any loans associated with the townhouse and have them paid off within 120 days of signing this Stipulation.” And it further explained that the townhouse was being awarded to Brittany “as an equalization of the distribution of the assets.” In this sense, the Decree plainly contemplated that Brittany would receive the townhouse free and clear. But she didn’t. As indicated, Matt failed to pay off the loan within 120 days. And when the court subsequently issued another order requiring Matt to remove the liens within an additional 30-day period, Matt failed to comply with that order too.

¶19 In the ruling at issue, the court found that Brittany was ultimately “forced to sell” the townhouse and “pay the discounted bank loan balance in the amount of $143,165,” and it further found that the “required payment of this amount” by Brittany “was a direct result of [Matt’s] failure to comply with the provisions of the Decree.” Matt has not challenged these findings on appeal.

¶20 In light of these findings, the order requiring Matt to reimburse Brittany was a proper exercise of the court’s enforcement power. The language of the Decree didn’t narrowly require Matt to pay a particular amount to a particular bank. Rather, the provision in question was worded more broadly, requiring Matt to “be responsible for any loans associated with the townhouse” and requiring him to “have them paid off within 120 days.” (Emphasis added.) As a result, when Brittany was subsequently “forced” to pay the loan off herself due to Matt’s failure to comply with his obligations, the court’s decision to place that financial burden back onto Matt’s shoulders did nothing more than “carry out and give effect” to the Decree’s own terms. Little Cottonwood, 2016 UT 45, ¶ 33 (quotation simplified).

¶21      Matt responds on several fronts, but we find none of them availing.

¶22      First, Matt argues that under the principles set forth in Gullickson v. Gullickson, 2013 UT App 83, 301 P.3d 1011, the court’s order could only have been accomplished through a modification action. We disagree. In Gullickson, the divorce decree had set forth a specific arrangement for how to deal with the marital home after the divorce: namely, the wife was permitted to live in it for a period of five years, during which period she was responsible for making the mortgage payments; at the end of the five years, the husband would be required to either buy out the wife’s share of the equity in the home or instead sell it and give her half of the proceeds. Id. ¶ 2. Of some note, the arrangement under which the wife could remain in the home for five years was “prompted at least in significant part” by the “ongoing special needs” of the parties’ son. Id. ¶ 22. When the wife subsequently faced a changed financial situation, however, she decided to move from the home earlier than planned. Id. ¶ 4. To facilitate this, she “filed a petition to modify the divorce decree,” asking the court to require the husband to either buy her out sooner than was required by the decree (thus changing the time-period set forth in that decree), or to instead agree that she could move from the home and rent it out in order to help her pay the mortgage. Id. ¶ 4. The district court granted the wife’s request and directed the husband to make that choice. Id. ¶¶ 6–7, 13.

¶23 On appeal, we considered various questions relating to whether the district court had properly followed the modification procedures. Id. ¶¶ 21–25. Drawing on aspects of that discussion, Matt now suggests that Brittany’s request in this case could only have been brought as a modification petition. But unlike the wife in Gullickson, Brittany did not file a petition to modify her divorce decree; rather, she filed a motion for an order to show cause, so she chose an entirely different procedural tack all along. Moreover, unlike the wife in Gullickson, Brittany did not ask the court to change any particular term of her divorce decree. Rather, when Brittany asked the court to order Matt to reimburse her for the pay-off amount on a loan that Matt was supposed to have paid from the beginning, Brittany was asking for Matt to be held “responsible” for that loan, which is what her divorce decree already required. Thus, Gullickson involved a modification because the order changed that divorce decree’s terms; by contrast, this case involved an enforcement action because it sought to effectuate the divorce decree’s terms. Gullickson therefore doesn’t mean that Brittany could only proceed through a modification action.

¶24      Second, Matt argues that because the Decree required him to pay off any loans within 120 days, and because the amount at issue had been paid by Brittany much later than those 120 days, the court’s order effectively changed the Decree’s essential terms, thus constituting a modification. If the Decree had only said that Matt was required to pay off a particular loan to a particular bank within 120 days, Matt’s argument might have a little more force (although we might still have some skepticism). But as noted, the Decree wasn’t worded that narrowly. In addition to the language Matt relies on, the Decree said that “Matt will be responsible for any loans associated with the townhouse,” and it further noted that Brittany was being awarded the townhouse “as an equalization of the distribution of the assets.” (Emphasis added.)

¶25 As indicated, when reading contracts or divorce decrees, we interpret surrounding provisions in harmony with each other. The unmistakable intent of the Decree was to require Matt to assume the financial obligations associated with the townhouse. When Matt repeatedly failed to do so in a timely manner, the court had authority to “make such orders as may be necessary to carry out and give effect” to these provisions. Little Cottonwood, 2016 UT 45, ¶ 33 (quotation simplified). Since it’s uncontested on appeal that Matt’s failure to timely pay off the loan “forced” Brittany to sell the townhouse, the order in question placed the financial cost of that sale back onto Matt, thereby making him “responsible” for the loan, which is what the Decree always required.

¶26 Third, Matt complains of the alleged unfairness that resulted from the court treating this as an enforcement action, as opposed to requiring Brittany to proceed through a petition to modify. According to Matt, if this had been filed as a modification petition, the rules would have provided him with delineated discovery powers. In Matt’s view, these discovery powers would have allowed him to obtain evidence to support various defenses, such as “whether Brittany could have (or even did) take mitigating action,” whether Brittany received any benefit from living in the townhouse between the time of the Decree and when Brittany sold it, and whether “the marital estate was smaller than the parties thought when they stipulated to its division.”

¶27      Matt’s concerns seem grounded in the fact that, both before and after the 2021 amendments, the rules don’t provide for formalized discovery relating to an enforcement action (whether filed as an old motion for an order to show cause or instead through a current motion to enforce). But the question of whether a party should automatically be entitled to discovery in an enforcement action is a question best left to those tasked with drafting the rules. Here, however, Brittany filed a motion for an order to show cause, and as explained above, that motion was warranted to enforce the terms of the Decree. We see no basis for overturning the district court’s ruling simply because the rule drafters have not provided for automatic discovery in such cases.

¶28    In any event, even if it’s possible that the absence of automatic discovery might result in some unfairness in some other enforcement action, Matt is not in a position to complain about any such unfairness here. As noted, the district court specifically allowed the parties to conduct discovery—including taking depositions, if the parties desired—on “what amounts, if any,” the court “should order [Matt] to pay [Brittany] due to the failure to have the liens removed from the townhouse.” In reliance on that, Matt issued several subpoenas duces tecum to financial institutions. And Matt never argued below that he was being deprived of the opportunity to conduct any additional discovery.

¶29      Moreover, Matt also has not persuaded us that any of the proposed evidence would have constituted a valid defense to Brittany’s request for relief. Under the Decree, Brittany was entitled to receive the townhouse without any loans as of 120 days after the stipulation was signed. Nothing in the Decree obligated her to take any mitigation efforts if Matt failed to comply with his obligations to pay off the loans, and any benefits that she received from living in the townhouse in the ensuing years were benefits that she was always entitled to receive. As for Matt’s claim that the parties underestimated the marital estate’s size, we note that Matt stipulated to the terms of the Decree. If he later thought that some error had infected that stipulation or the ensuing Decree, he could have made his own request to somehow alter or modify it. But what Matt wasn’t entitled to do was simply not comply with its terms. And in the meantime, Brittany was entitled to ask the court to enforce the Decree as written, which is what she did.

¶30      In short, we conclude that the district court’s order appropriately “carr[ied] out and [gave] effect to” the terms of the Decree. Little Cottonwood, 2016 UT 45, ¶ 33 (quotation simplified). Because of this, the district court did not err in granting Brittany’s motion for an order to show cause.

¶31 As a final matter, Brittany has requested an award of attorney fees and costs that she incurred in this appeal, and she has done so pursuant to the same provision from the Decree that authorized the fee award she received below. That provision stated that in “the event that either party defaults in her or his obligations, or must seek relief from the Court in the enforcement of the Decree of Divorce, the nonprevailing party shall be liable to the other party for all reasonable expenses, including attorneys’ fees and court costs actually incurred.”

¶32      “If the legal right to attorney fees is established by contract, Utah law clearly requires the court to apply the contractual attorney fee provision and to do so strictly in accordance with the contract’s terms.” Vierig v. Therriault, 2023 UT App 67, ¶ 13, 532 P.3d 568 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 537 P.3d 1013 (Utah 2023). And as a general matter, “when a party who received attorney fees below prevails on appeal, the party is also entitled to fees reasonably incurred on appeal.” Tronson v. Eagar, 2019 UT App 212, ¶ 39, 457 P.3d 407 (quotation simplified). Because Brittany has prevailed on appeal, she is entitled to her fees reasonably incurred on appeal. We therefore remand this case to the district court for determination of those fees and an entry of that award.

CONCLUSION

¶33      The ruling in question was a valid exercise of the district court’s power to enforce the Decree. As a result, we affirm the court’s decision and remand for an award of attorney fees reasonably incurred on appeal.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277


[1] Because the parties share a last name, we’ll refer to them by their first names moving forward, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] In his opening brief, Matt surmised that the district court’s ruling might be read as a contempt ruling, and he then argued that the ruling was not justified under the court’s contempt powers. In her responsive brief, Brittany declined to defend the ruling on this basis, instead insisting that it was a valid enforcement action. We accordingly address the ruling solely on those terms.

[3] The rule in effect at the time that Brittany filed the motion at issue allowed her to file an order to show cause, and it further stated that such a motion could be granted for the “enforcement of an existing order.” Utah R. Civ. P. 7(q) (2019). The cases we’ve discussed above referred to a court’s enforcement power.

Under a rule that became effective in May 2021 and that remains in place, a motion for an order to show cause in a “domestic relations action[]” is now referred to as a “motion to enforce.” See Utah R. Civ. P. 7B(a), (i), (j) (2023). (The same is true in civil cases more generally under rule 7A of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.) Rule 7B further provides that its process “replaces and supersedes the prior order to show cause procedure.” Id. R. 7B(j). As with the old regime, however, the new one turns on the court’s enforcement power. See id. R. 7B(a) (allowing a party to file a motion to “enforce a court order or to obtain a sanctions order for violation of an order”).

Neither party in this case has argued that this new rule was intended to alter the substantive scope of a court’s enforcement power, much less that the new rule did so in a manner that would change the outcome of this case. Having surveyed the matter ourselves, we see no authority suggesting that such a change was intended.

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2024 UT App 54 – Tilleman v. Tilleman – custody factors, income, fees

2024 UT App 54 – Tilleman v. Tilleman

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

MICHAEL ROBERT TILLEMAN, Appellant, v. MICHAL CHRISTINE TILLEMAN, Appellee.

Opinion No. 20210637-CA Filed April 11, 2024

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable M. James Brady No. 164402522

Julie J. Nelson, Attorney for Appellant, Douglas B. Thayer, Andy V. Wright, and Jessica Griffin Anderson, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred.

ORME, Judge:

¶1        Michael Robert Tilleman (Father) and Michal Christine Tilleman (Mother) were married and share one child (Child). Following rather contentious divorce proceedings, the trial court awarded sole legal custody of Child to Mother but awarded the parties joint physical custody. The court also imputed federal minimum wage income to Mother for child support purposes, and it awarded her attorney fees and costs.

¶2        On appeal, Father makes various arguments challenging the court’s legal custody award. He also contends that the court abused its discretion in imputing federal minimum wage income to Mother and in awarding her attorney fees and costs. Although we affirm several aspects of the court’s legal custody award, we nevertheless hold that the court abused its discretion in applying the wrong legal standard and accordingly reverse and remand for the court’s consideration of all the statutorily mandated custody factors. We also reverse the court’s imputation of Mother’s income and its attorney fee award and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶3        Mother and Father married in 2013, and Child was born a little over a year later. In 2016, following a separation, Father filed a petition for divorce. This was soon followed by Mother’s counter-petition for divorce. The trial court characterized the ensuing litigation as “contentious” and the parties as “unusually accusatory, intransigent, and uncooperative.” We limit our recounting of the divorce proceedings to facts relevant to the issues raised on appeal.

¶4        In 2018, the court entered a stipulated, bifurcated decree of divorce reserving for trial, in relevant part, the issues of custody, parent-time, child support, and attorney fees. Although the parties each initially sought sole physical custody and joint legal custody of Child, by the time of trial they had each amended their pleadings to request sole physical and sole legal custody of Child.

¶5        In conjunction with her counter-petition for divorce, Mother also filed a motion asking that the court order Father to undergo a psychological examination under rule 35 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure “to properly address his ability to parent” Child.[2] The motion alleged that Father “has exhibited intense anger toward [Mother] and has engaged in mental and emotional abuse,” that “such anger has been exhibited toward” Child, and that he “may be suffering from mental health conditions.”

¶6        Father opposed Mother’s rule 35 motion and denied its allegations. In turn, he asked the court to order that Mother undergo a rule 35 evaluation, alleging that she “has been verbally and physically abusive towards” him, that she “is unable to control her anger and aggressions towards” him, and that “recent irrational and inappropriate actions, behaviors, and instability indicate that she may be suffering from some form of mental illness.”

¶7        In 2017, at a hearing on temporary orders, Mother’s counsel informed the trial court that the parties had stipulated, among other things, “that either party can request and . . . the other party will participate in a Rule 35 mental health exam as long as the requesting party pays the cost up front.” Accordingly, the court’s temporary order included a provision stating that “[e]ither party may request the other party to participate in [a] Rule 35 examination at the requesting party’s expense.”

¶8        Mother subsequently provided Father with a list of three potential rule 35 evaluators, of which Father selected one (First Expert) to conduct his exam. When First Expert requested that Father sign medical releases for his psychological health records, Father refused. In response, Mother filed a motion requesting that the court order Father “to sign and execute all necessary medical releases, upon presentation by [First Expert], so that [Father’s] Rule 35 mental examination can proceed as expeditiously as possible.” At a hearing before a commissioner on the matter, Father argued that he never agreed to sign medical releases and that his understanding of the stipulation was “that he was agreeing to an independent, objective, standardized psychological test.” He also argued that releasing his medical records “prejudices him down the road” because “it allows information that would not otherwise be admissible to become admissible.”

¶9        In ruling on the motion, the commissioner first stated that because the trial court—and not a jury—would be the finder of fact in this case, he did not consider prejudice “to be a significant issue.” Next, in addressing the scope of the rule 35 exam, the commissioner stated that based on his decades of experience interacting with mental health professionals, “the one thing that they all assure me is true [is that] the best predicter of future behavior is past behavior.” The commissioner also noted that the parties had not submitted affidavits from professionals indicating what their usual practice is for such evaluations. Thus, the commissioner recommended, “If it is the Rule 35 examiner’s professional opinion that certain information would assist him in completing his evaluation/report, then both parties shall cooperate in good faith and sign whatever releases for records or information the evaluator wants[.]” Father objected to the commissioner’s recommendation, but the trial court overruled his objection and ordered him to sign the requested medical releases.

¶10 Upon completion of the rule 35 evaluation, First Expert reached the following conclusions, as summarized by the trial court. First Expert noted that “Father was so guarded and defensive when he took the psychological testing that credible information from testing is not available.” First Expert did not observe Father with Child as part of the evaluation. Nevertheless, First Expert concluded, among other things, that Father exhibited “varying degrees” of several negative personality traits; that he “is a very persistent person,” which when “utilized to intimidate and control others” can cause substantial harm to himself and others; and that he “tends to place his own interests before those of others and is not invested in cooperative relationships.” See also infra note 5. First Expert also recommended against joint legal custody of Child.

¶11      In anticipation of trial, Father filed a motion in limine to exclude First Expert’s testimony, contending that his “report and his corresponding testimony have not been shown by [Mother] to be reliable, based on sufficient facts or data, and reliably applied to the facts as required by rule 702 of the Utah Rules of Evidence.” See Utah R. Evid. 702(b). In support of his motion, Father included a report from his own expert (Second Expert) who reviewed the rule 35 evaluation. Second Expert opined, among other things, that “the methodology employed” by First Expert “did not comport with generally accepted standards of practice.” He further stated that First Expert’s “recommendation against joint legal custody is concerning because there is no indication the purpose of the evaluation was to aid the Court in determining custody.”

¶12 Following a hearing, the court ruled that First Expert would be permitted to testify at trial because his “report and his . . . procedures, his methodology, and his data gathering and his qualifications meet that low threshold of showing an indicia of reliability.” But because First Expert’s “qualifications and methodology don’t meet the requirements for a custody evaluation,” the court limited his testimony by precluding him from offering his opinion on that subject at trial.

¶13 Toward the end of 2020, the court held a ten-day bench trial, after which it entered thirty-three pages of findings of fact and conclusions of law. In addressing custody, the court prefaced its findings by discussing Utah Code sections 30-3-10(2) and 30-3-10.2(2), which govern child custody determinations. Section 30-3-10(2) states, with our emphasis, that “[i]n determining any form of custody and parent-time . . . , the court shall consider the best interest of the child and may consider among other factors the court finds relevant, the following for each parent” and then lists various factors. The court interpreted that section to mean that it “is not required to make findings on all factors listed in” that section. Further, section 30-3-10.2(2) provides, again with our emphasis, that “[i]n determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by ordering joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both, the court shall consider the custody factors in Section 30-3-10 and” additional factors listed in section 30-3-10.2(2). The court stated that it understood the interplay between the two sections to mean that when considering joint legal or physical custody of a child, it is “obligated to address the enumerated factors in” section 30-3-10.2(2), but that its consideration of each factor listed in section 30-3-10(2) is not mandatory.

¶14      The trial court then proceeded to make extensive findings pertaining to custody and parent-time, as summarized below. The court found that “[a] primary condition that permeated the marriage was Father’s underlying hostility,” which also “affected the first few years of [Child’s] life and [Father’s] early relationship with, and care for” Child. Throughout Child’s life, Mother has been Child’s primary caregiver. Although “Father rarely, if ever, held, fed, changed, or played with” Child during the marriage, since the separation he has cared for Child during his parent-time. Father and Mother have “demonstrated a strong desire for parent-time since their separation,” and Father “has rearranged work schedules and career goals to accommodate as much time as possible with” Child. His interactions with Child have “significantly improved,” and he “has bonded more with her.” But his “anger towards Mother occasionally interferes with his ability to see, understand, and meet the needs of” Child. Child “has a strong bond with Father” and “enjoys spending time with” him.

¶15 The court found that Mother consistently demonstrated the ability to meet Child’s developmental needs and that Father had demonstrated an improvement in his ability to do so, although the court was unsure whether this was a long-term change. Each parent was able to meet Child’s physical needs and to function as an effective parent, although Father’s “apparent lack of insight of how his anger towards Mother, and his efforts to embroil Mother in allegations of abuse,” see infra ¶ 17, “have physically impacted” Child and have interfered with his parenting abilities. The court determined that both parents have negatively impacted Child’s emotional wellbeing—albeit Mother to a lesser extent—through their poor responses and behaviors when in each other’s presence.

¶16      The court found that although “each parent has shown that they have the capacity and willingness to function as a parent to” Child, “[t]he difficulty lies in their inability to co-parent and properly interact with the other parent,” particularly during drop-off and pick-up, as well as when communicating about Child. Regarding drop-off and pick-up, the court stated that “[t]he difficulty comes about by actions of both parents, although Father more consistently causes [Child’s] transitions to be difficult” by not encouraging her to transition to Mother’s care and by saying things that “weigh negatively on [Child’s] emotions in a manipulative and passive aggressive manner.” Mother also occasionally expressed displeasure about Father’s behavior in Child’s presence. Concerning the parents’ communication, the court stated that in 2017, “[d]ue to the high level o[f] conflict,” it ordered Mother and Father to communicate through a third-party service that reviewed and, if necessary, edited and revised the messages they sent each other. The third-party service had to make substantial edits to many of Father’s messages and advised him that it would “not send emails that are threatening.” Because Father also became adversarial with the third-party service, it withdrew, and the parties had to find another communication intermediary. But in the months leading up to trial, communication between the parties had “been relatively civil.”

¶17 The court next expressed concern regarding Father’s “emotional and sometimes indirect physical abuse of” Child through his repeated claims, “without sufficient justification,” that Mother was physically abusive toward Child. Specifically, between 2017 and 2020, Father made multiple reports of abuse to various police departments, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS), and medical providers. This “exposed [Child] to unnecessary emotional trauma and invasive physical examinations” and never resulted in criminal charges being filed against Mother or in DCFS taking enforcement action against her. “When the agencies did not confirm his opinion, [F]ather became overly focused, argumentative, and belligerent” and “was unwilling to accept the many conclusions of DCFS.” The court found that “Father’s reports of abuse were vexatious and were calculated and designed to harm Mother,” and he either “was not aware of, or did not care about the emotional harm he was causing [Child] through the continuous filing of unsupported claims of abuse.”

¶18      The court then addressed Father’s rule 35 evaluation.[3] At trial, First Expert, Second Expert, and another expert (Third Expert) testified about the evaluation. The court noted that based on First Expert’s own testimony, it appeared that First Expert “primarily identified personality traits of [Father] from testing which [First Expert himself] considered invalid.” The court also agreed with many of Second Expert’s critiques of First Expert’s opinions, including that First Expert’s “opinions based on testing should not be considered” because First Expert “testified that the test results were unreliable due to Father’s high degree of defensiveness”; that First Expert “did not utilize many of the standard tests and methods for determining parenting capacity and therefore his opinions on parenting capacity are not helpful”; and that First Expert did not observe Father interact with Child. Accordingly, the court “found little value in much of [First Expert’s] diagnostic expert opinions,”[4] but it noted that, based on other trial testimony and on its own review of some of the records that First Expert examined that were also submitted into evidence, it agreed with his conclusions regarding Father’s negative characteristics and personality traits. Specifically, the court noted Father’s “historical demonstration of grandiosity, entitlement, interpersonal exploitativeness, lack of empathy, high levels of persistence, rigidity, lack of agreeableness, vexatious intimidation, along with a tendency to resort to arrogant and intimidating behaviors toward others, particularly when encountering others whom he believes stand in his way.” The court, however, rejected several of First Expert’s other opinions.[5]

¶19 The court also found Third Expert to be “qualified,” “credible,” and “an unbiased witness.” Third Expert testified that in counseling sessions, he “worked with Father to understand how to modify his behavior” and that Father had demonstrated improvement. Third Expert described Father’s current character traits as “[p]ersistent,” “[i]ntelligent,” “[e]ven keeled,” “[c]onstant in demeanor,” and “[a]ble to rise and process issues and disagreement more effectively.”

¶20      Turning to the question of legal custody, the court held that the presumption that joint legal custody is in the child’s best interest was rebutted in this case by the parties’ inability “to set aside their personal differences and focus on the needs of” Child, and it awarded sole legal custody to Mother. The court based this decision on several things: the difficulties the parties had in setting aside their personal differences to attend to Child’s needs, although it noted that Mother was better able to do so; Father’s emotional abuse of Child “by subjecting her to repeated interviews and physical examinations when he repeatedly raises allegations of abuse against Mother without sufficient cause”; “Father’s need to control and dominate Mother” and to disrespect her; Father’s “inability to recognize the value of input from others, including Mother”; Father’s history of being unable to effectively communicate with Mother; Father’s aggressive and passive-aggressive behavior during pick-up and drop-off and his failure to make it a less emotionally draining experience for Child; Father’s lack of encouragement that Child “equally share time, love and affection with Mother”; and Mother’s constant meaningful participation in raising Child, while Father did not do so for the first few years of Child’s life due to “his anger issues” and university studies.

¶21 Regarding physical custody, the court determined that it was in Child’s best interest “that Father be actively involved in her life” and that he “should have frequent and consistent time with” her so long as there were orders in place enforcing respectful communication between Mother and Father and reducing their interactions during pick-up and drop-off. Accordingly, the court awarded the parties joint physical custody, with Mother as the primary physical custodian and with Father having “frequent and expanded rights of parent time.”

¶22 The court then considered child support, the main issue of which was the income to be imputed to Mother. The court noted that Mother had left full-time employment when Child was born and that she was not employed at the time of trial, but she was attending university classes. The court found that Mother had the experience and skills to find employment in the fields of marketing and public relations with a likely starting income of between $2,500 and $2,800 per month. But the court also found that as a result, Mother would necessarily incur childcare costs and either have to terminate or significantly modify her studies. Ultimately, the court determined that Mother was voluntarily underemployed. But because there was insufficient evidence presented regarding childcare costs or whether current employment was “available in either of her experience categories, or what the current rate of pay would be,”[6] the court imputed to Mother “the federal minimum wage of $1,257 per month.” And based on Father’s actual income and Mother’s imputed income, the court ordered Father to make $666 monthly child support payments to Mother.

¶23      Finally, the court awarded Mother $161,066.94 in attorney fees and costs pursuant to Utah Code section 30-3-3, holding that Mother had substantially prevailed and finding, among other things, that Father had a greater ability to pay.[7]

¶24      Father appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶25      Father raises five primary issues on appeal. First, Father argues that the trial court erred in awarding sole legal custody of Child to Mother.[8] Specifically, he contends that the “court’s analysis of Utah Code sections 30-3-10 and 30-3-10.2 does not comply with Utah law.” Generally, we review a trial court’s custody award for an abuse of discretion. See T.W. v. S.A., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 15, 504 P.3d 163. “This discretion is broad; indeed, as long as the court exercises it within the confines of the legal standards we have set, and the facts and reasons for the decision are set forth fully in appropriate findings and conclusions, we will not disturb the resulting award.” Id. (quotation simplified). But whether the court correctly interpreted the legal standards set forth in sections 30-3-10 and 30-3-10.2 is a question of law that we review for correctness. See Ross v. Ross, 2019 UT App 104, ¶ 8, 447 P.3d 104. See also State v. De La Rosa, 2019 UT App 110, ¶ 4, 445 P.3d 955 (stating that because “trial courts do not have discretion to misapply the law,” “the abuse-of-discretion standard of review will at times necessarily include review to ensure that no mistakes of law affected a lower court’s use of its discretion”) (quotation simplified).

¶26 Second, Father contends that the court abused its discretion when it found that he had emotionally abused Child. We review the trial court’s findings of fact for clear error. See T.W., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 15. Under this standard, “the factual findings of the district court will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous by being in conflict with the clear weight of the evidence. But the existence of conflicting evidence is not sufficient to set aside a district court’s finding.” Hinds v. Hinds-Holm, 2022 UT App 13, ¶ 28 n.4, 505 P.3d 1136 (quotation simplified).

¶27      Third, Father argues that the trial court erred in allowing First Expert to testify at trial.[9] In reviewing the admissibility of evidence, we review the underlying legal questions for correctness and the “court’s decision to admit or exclude evidence and [its] determinations regarding the admissibility of expert testimony” for an abuse of discretion. Smith v. Volkswagen SouthTowne, Inc., 2022 UT 29, ¶ 41, 513 P.3d 729 (quotation simplified). “However, error in the district court’s evidentiary rulings will result in reversal only if the error is harmful.” Anderson v. Larry H. Miller Commc’ns Corp., 2015 UT App 134, ¶ 17, 351 P.3d 832.

¶28      Fourth, Father challenges the court’s imputation of federal minimum wage income to Mother for child support purposes. “We review the district court’s interpretation of statutory requirements for correctness” and “the court’s ultimate imputation of income . . . for abuse of discretion.” Burggraaf v. Burggraaf, 2019 UT App 195, ¶ 23, 455 P.3d 1071 (quotation simplified).

¶29      Fifth, Father takes issue with the court’s award of attorney fees and costs to Mother under section 30-3-3 of the Utah Code. “We review a district court’s decision to award attorney fees pursuant to this statute for an abuse of discretion,” Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 16, 452 P.3d 1134, but review its underlying legal conclusions for correctness, see De La Rosa, 2019 UT App 110, ¶ 4.

ANALYSIS

I. Legal Custody Factors

¶30      Utah law establishes “a rebuttable presumption that joint legal custody . . . is in the best interest of the child.”[10] Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(3) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023). This presumption “may be rebutted by a showing by a preponderance of the evidence that [joint legal custody] is not in the best interest of the child.” Id. § 30-3-10(4)(b). The Utah Code also provides several factors to aid in the best interest analysis. See id. §§ 30-3-10(2), -10.2(2) (2019).

¶31      In challenging the trial court’s award of sole legal custody to Mother, Father argues that (A) the court wrongly interpreted Utah Code sections 30-3-10(2) and 30-3-10.2(2) to mean that its consideration of the factors listed in section 10(2) was discretionary; (B) the court’s application of the wrong legal standard resulted in its failure to consider certain relevant factors in its custody analysis; and (C) the court “analyzed certain factors only as they related to Father but not to Mother.”[11] We address each argument in turn.

A.        Statutory Interpretation

¶32 At issue is the interplay between Utah Code sections 30-3-10(2) and 30-3-10.2(2). Section 10(2) provides that “[i]n determining any form of custody and parent-time . . . , the court shall consider the best interest of the child and may consider among other factors the court finds relevant, the following for each parent[.]” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2) (LexisNexis 2019) (emphasis added). There then follows a list of factors, (a) through (r), several of which have subparts. See id. Taken in isolation, section 10(2) suggests that while the trial court must consider the child’s best interest when determining custody, the court has discretion as to which specific factors are appropriate for consideration in making that key determination.

¶33      But when joint legal or physical custody is at issue, section 10.2(2) also comes into play. That section provides that “[i]n determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by ordering joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both, the court shall consider the custody factors in Section 30-3-10, and the following factors[.]” Id. § 30-3-10.2(2) (emphasis added). And here again, a number of factors are then listed, (a) through (i), several of which include subparts. See id.

¶34      The parties are at odds on whether, when joint custody is at issue, the court’s consideration of the section 10(2) factors is discretionary or mandatory. We agree with Father that, in undertaking any joint custody determination, courts are required to consider, in some fashion, all the section 10(2) factors and all the section 10.2(2) factors.

¶35 “Our primary goal when interpreting a statute is to ascertain the legislature’s intent,” the best evidence of which “is the plain language of the statute itself.” McKitrick v. Gibson, 2024 UT 1, ¶ 31, 541 P.3d 949 (quotation simplified). In this pursuit, “where the statute’s language marks its reach in clear and unambiguous terms, it is our role to enforce a legislative purpose that matches those terms, not to supplant it with a narrower or broader one.” Id. (quotation simplified). See Brindley v. Logan City, 2023 UT App 46, ¶ 22, 530 P.3d 557 (“When the meaning of a statute can be discerned from its language, no other interpretive tools are needed.”) (quotation simplified). Furthermore, to determine legislative intent “when two statutory provisions conflict in their operation, the provision more specific in application governs over the more general provision.” Taghipour v. Jerez, 2002 UT 74, ¶ 11, 52 P.3d 1252 (quotation simplified). With this charge, we look to the directives our Legislature mandated regarding determinations of joint custody.

¶36      Section 10(2) provides that when “determining any form of custody,” the court may consider, among other things, the factors listed in that section. Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2) (emphasis added). Section 10.2(2), on the other hand, applies when the court is tasked with “determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by ordering joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both.” Id. § 30-3-10.2(2) (emphasis added). Thus, although both section 10(2) and section 10.2(2) purport to govern custody determinations, because section 10(2) applies more generally to “any form of custody,” id. § 30-3-10(2), and because section 10.2(2) “is tailored precisely” to address joint custody—the type of custody at issue here—section 10.2(2) is the more specific of the two provisions and thus governs, see Taghipour, 2002 UT 74, ¶ 14.

¶37 Therefore, based on the plain language of section 10.2(2) that “the court shall consider the custody factors in Section 30-3-10 and” additional factors listed in section 10.2(2), see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.2(2) (emphasis added), our Legislature has deemed it necessary to impose additional requirements and heightened sensitivities regarding a court’s decision to order joint custody. In simple terms, this means that in cases where joint custody is under consideration, trial courts lose much of their discretion about which factors to consider. In other words, when considering the best interest of the child under section 10.2(2), the court is required to consider all the custody factors identified by both section 10(2) and section 10.2(2). Cf. Martinez v. Sanchez-Garcia, 2023 UT App 60, ¶ 21, 532 P.3d 105 (stating that under Utah Code section 30-3-10.4(2), which similarly states that when considering whether modifying a custody order is in the child’s best interest, the trial court shall consider the factors listed in section 10(2) and section 10.2(2), courts “are statutorily required to consider, at least in some form, twenty-five enumerated factors, as well as any other relevant factor”) (quotation simplified).

¶38 We note, however, that “not all [the section 10(2) and section 10.2(2)] factors are on equal footing, and a district court generally has discretion to determine, based on the facts before it and within the confines set by the appellate courts, where a particular factor falls within the spectrum of relative importance and to accord each factor its appropriate weight.” Id. ¶ 22 (quotation simplified). “Some factors might not be relevant at all to the family’s situation, and others might be only tangentially relevant or will weigh equally in favor of both parents.” Id. For example, among the other custody factors, section 10(2) indicates that the court must consider “the relative benefit of keeping siblings together.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(o). But in some cases, such as the one currently before us, the child does not have any siblings. In such circumstances, it is obviously unnecessary to analyze this factor because it is inapplicable to the court’s ultimate decision, although best practice suggests that the court should at least make a note of the factors it considers inapplicable in a given case. See Martinez, 2023 UT App 60, ¶ 22 n.6 (“Even with factors not relevant to the situation or factors that do not move the needle one way or the other, a court is well-served to at least mention those factors in its ruling and briefly indicate that it deems them irrelevant or of equal weight for each party. By mentioning them, even if only to say that they are irrelevant, a court ensures that the parties—and, significantly, a reviewing court—will be able to tell that the court at least considered them.”) (quotation simplified).

¶39 In sum, the trial court erred when it interpreted the relevant statutes to mean that its consideration of the section 10.2(2) factors was mandatory, while its consideration of the section 10(2) factors was discretionary. The court was required to consider, at least to some degree, all factors listed under both sections, and its failure to do so constituted an abuse of discretion. But “unless an appellant demonstrates that an error is prejudicial, it will be deemed harmless and no appellate relief is available.” See Huish v. Munro, 2008 UT App 283, ¶ 8, 191 P.3d 1242 (quotation simplified). We consider this question in conjunction with Father’s argument addressed in the next section of this opinion.

B.        Consideration of All Relevant Factors

¶40      Father argues that the trial court’s misinterpretation of the governing statutes resulted in its failure to consider a number of relevant factors. Specifically, he asserts that the court abused its discretion when it did not consider the parent’s “ability to provide personal care rather than surrogate care”; “the past conduct and demonstrated moral character of the parent”; and “previous parenting arrangements in which the child has been happy and well-adjusted in the home, school, and community,” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(c)(iii), (d), (n) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023), even though he presented evidence at trial relevant to each of these factors.

¶41 As an initial matter, we commend the trial court for providing thirty-three pages of detailed findings in this matter, in which it addressed the majority of the section 10(2) and section 10.2(2) factors. But even given these extensive findings, the court expressly stated that it did not consider certain statutorily mandated factors in making its legal custody determination. Instead, it stated that it would consider the 10(2) factors “if it elects to do so.” Furthermore, because at least one of the three factors Father identifies, i.e., each parent’s “past conduct and demonstrated moral character,” id. § 30-3-10(2)(d), carries some weight in the legal custody determination,[12] we cannot say that the court’s failure to consider all the section 10(2) factors was harmless.

¶42 We therefore vacate the trial court’s legal custody determination and remand the case for consideration of all section 10(2) factors, and for such adjustment in the court’s legal custody determination, if any, as may then become appropriate. See Twitchell v. Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 25, 509 P.3d 806.

C.        Comparative Findings

¶43 A best-interest determination is “based on a number of factors that compare the parenting skills, character, and abilities of both parents in light of a realistic and objective appraisal of the needs of a child.” Woodward v. LaFranca, 2013 UT App 147, ¶ 22, 305 P.3d 181 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 312 P.3d 619 (Utah 2013), abrogated on other grounds by Zavala v. Zavala, 2016 UT App 6, 366 P.3d 422. See Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 23 n.4 (noting that a trial court’s findings should compare both parents’ “relative character, skills, and abilities” and not just that of one parent in particular). In other words, the court is required to undertake a comparative analysis whereby the court must consider the evidence relating to each parent.[13]

¶44 Father argues that the court’s comparative analysis and subsequent findings on a number of factors addressed only him and did not adequately compare the evidence as it related to Mother. Specifically, Father asserts that the court failed to make findings relating to Mother’s emotional stability, Child’s bond with her, her maturity and willingness to protect Child from parental conflict, and her ability to cooperate with Father. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(e), (q) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023); id. § 30-3-10.2(2)(g), (h) (2019). Although Father acknowledges that the court made certain findings relating to these factors, he contends that the findings did not account for specific pieces of evidence he identifies on appeal.[14] But the trial court is not required to recite all evidence presented at trial in its findings of fact; just the evidence that is key to its custody decision. See Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 21 (highlighting that “courts are not required to render a global accounting of all evidence presented or to discuss all aspects of a case that might support a contrary ruling” and instead must present sufficiently detailed findings and “include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached”) (quotation simplified).

¶45      We address each of the factors Father challenges on appeal and ultimately reject his suggestion that a court’s comparative analysis must proceed in a point-by-point, side-by-side comparison of each piece of evidence presented at trial in the context of each custody factor. Overall, the court’s comparative analysis in this case was sufficient.

¶46 Emotional Stability. Father contends that the court included specific findings regarding his emotional stability but did not include similar findings related to Mother despite evidence he presented at trial reflecting negatively on her in that respect. But Father misinterprets the trial court’s charge. The court is required to make only sufficient findings to support its decision. And the trial court is in the best position to weigh the evidence.

¶47      The court found that each parent had shown “the capacity and willingness to function as a parent” but that they both demonstrated an “inability to co-parent and properly interact with the other parent” and that they had “shown [a] limited ability to communicate effectively about [Child] over the years.” The court also found Third Expert to be credible and made findings consistent with his opinion that Father had improved his character traits since the parties’ separation. But despite Father’s improvement, the court also found that Father “says things to [Child] which weigh negatively on her emotions in a manipulative and passive aggressive manner.” Comparatively, the court found that “Mother occasionally expresses her displeasure of Father’s behavior openly in front of [Child] either by word or by her actions.” Based on its charge to make sufficient findings necessary to support its decision, the trial court’s findings are sufficiently comparative as concerns the parties’ emotional stability, particularly as concerns the issue of legal custody.

¶48 Child’s Bond with Parent. Father argues that the court specifically found that Child “has a strong bond with” and “enjoys spending time with” him but made no comparative findings regarding Mother’s bond with Child. He further asserts that the court did not consider evidence he presented that Mother and Child have a weak bond. But the court’s findings demonstrate that the court at least implicitly considered the strong bond between Child and Mother. The court found that “Mother has been the primary caregiver of [Child] from the time she was born, both during the marriage and after separation” and that although Father seemed uninterested in Child during the marriage, since the separation Father’s bond with Child had improved through his beginning to care for her during his parent-time. With the court’s recognition that Child’s bond with Father had improved and became “strong” as he began to show interest in and to care for Child, which Mother has done from the very beginning of Child’s life, the court sufficiently compared Child’s bonds with each parent.

¶49 Maturity and Willingness to Protect Child. Father next contends that the court made findings relating to his maturity and willingness to protect Child from parental conflict but did not make such findings relating to Mother. We disagree. The court specifically found that each parent showed an “inability to co-parent and properly interact with the other parent,” resulting in difficulty surrounding parenting decisions and custody handoffs. The court also found that Mother “occasionally expresses her displeasure of Father’s behavior openly in front of [Child] either by word or by her actions.” Similarly, the court found that Father displayed “inappropriate interactions with [Child] and Mother during pickup and drop off,” demonstrated an “insistence on addressing speculative and false allegations of abuse at the expense of [Child’s] emotional well-being,” did not encourage Child to look forward to being with Mother, and “is either unaware of the emotional upset his behavior causes [Child] or he is aware but prefers to upset her.” Thus, because the court addressed both parents’ interactions on custody handoffs and the like, the court’s findings are sufficiently comparative as to the parties’ maturity and willingness to protect Child from parental conflict.

¶50      Ability to Cooperate. Lastly, Father challenges the court’s findings regarding his inability to cooperate with Mother. He does not assert that the court did not make comparative findings regarding Mother’s ability to cooperate with him. Instead, Father’s argument is limited to asserting that the court’s findings on this point did not reflect evidence he presented at trial regarding his cooperation with Mother and her lack of cooperation with him. But, as discussed above, the trial court is not required or expected to make a finding on every bit of evidence presented. The litigation in this matter comprised numerous motion hearings and a ten-day trial with multiple witnesses, resulting in an appellate record in excess of 6,000 pages. The court made thirty-three pages of specific findings and those findings sufficiently show how the court arrived at its decision.

¶51 For these reasons, while the court did not undertake granular comparisons of each piece of evidence deemed problematic by Father, the court did adequately consider Child’s best interest by making appropriate comparisons. From the court’s extensive findings, it appears that the court made the difficult decision concerning the best interest of Child, who obviously has two very loving parents. See Tucker v. Tucker, 910 P.2d 1209, 1215 (Utah 1996) (“A trial court need not find one parent inadequate before awarding custody to the other.”).

¶52      In conclusion, because the court abused its discretion in not considering every factor it was statutorily required to, we remand this matter with instructions that the court reconsider its joint legal custody award in light of all the factors listed in section 10(2) and section 10.2(2), and in particular each parent’s “past conduct and demonstrated moral character,” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(d), as explained in Part I.B.

II. Emotional Abuse

¶53      Father argues that the court’s finding of his “substantial emotional abuse of [Child] through false allegations” was against the clear weight of the evidence. He primarily asserts that the court did not address the evidence of Child’s repeated injuries (cuts, bruises, and welts) that prompted him to alert authorities, and that “Mother presented little to no evidence that Child was [harmed], or even affected by the reports.”

¶54      As discussed above, under section 30-3-10.2(2) of the Utah Code, the court must address all the factors included in section 30-3-10(2) and make comparative findings for those factors. This includes consideration of “evidence of domestic violence, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, involving the child, the parent, or a household member of the parent.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023). Here, the trial court expressed concern about “Father’s use of emotional and sometimes indirect physical abuse of [Child] by claiming [Mother] has harmed [Child] without sufficient justification” that “exposed [Child] to unnecessary emotional trauma and invasive physical examinations.” The court then provided three pages of findings concerning this factor, including a list of some, but not all, of the reports of physical abuse Father made to the authorities about Mother and their outcomes.[15] But because neither party presented expert testimony at trial to establish or rebut whether Father’s many reports amounted to emotional abuse in a diagnostic sense, the court’s reference to emotional abuse is properly understood as usage in a more colloquial sense with a rather limited purpose.

¶55 The court limited its findings relating to emotional abuse to its legal custody award. Although emotional abuse resulting in harm to Child would absolutely play a significant role in a physical custody determination, the court made no mention of it when it awarded the parties joint physical custody of Child. Instead, the court concluded that it was in Child’s best interest that “Father be actively involved in her life” and “have frequent and consistent time with” her.

¶56 And in addressing legal custody, the court discussed its emotional abuse findings in the limited context of discussing the issue of Mother and Father being unable “to set aside their personal differences and focus on the needs of” Child, which formed the basis for the court’s determination that the presumption in favor of joint legal custody had been rebutted. The court awarded Mother sole legal custody because she was better able to set aside her differences, while “Father is not able to set aside his differences with Mother to give first priority to the welfare of [Child] and reach shared decisions in [Child’s] best interests.” Father’s “subjecting [Child] to repeated interviews and physical examinations when he repeatedly raises allegations of abuse against Mother without sufficient cause” was one such example of this.

¶57 Also notable is that the trial court applied the statutory presumption in favor of joint custody in its analysis (holding that it had been rebutted) when such a presumption does not apply in cases involving emotional abuse. See id. § 30-3-10(3)(a) (stating that the presumption in favor of joint legal custody does not apply in cases involving, among other things, “emotional abuse”). This further illustrates the very limited purpose for which the court applied its findings on “emotional abuse,” focusing on how it reflected that Father’s hostility toward Mother was paramount even if it entailed exposing Child to repeated interviews and physical exams—and not on any harm Child actually suffered as a result.

¶58 With this limited view in mind, we conclude that the court’s findings were sufficiently supported by the evidence. Even in light of all the evidence Father presented at trial supporting the various cuts, bumps, and bruises that prompted him to alert authorities, the court’s finding that his “reports of abuse were vexatious and were calculated and designed to harm Mother” is supported by the sheer number of reports Father made that never resulted in criminal charges being filed against Mother or in DCFS taking enforcement action against her. Several different agencies all investigated Mother and each investigation produced the same result. Although, as Father points out, they could not conclusively rule out the possibility that Mother abused Child, the many investigations did not produce sufficient evidence of abuse to cause intervention by the authorities. After multiple reports of such injuries to various authorities and medical professionals did not produce the desired intervention, it was not unreasonable for the court to find that Father’s primary motivation in continuing to file such reports was his desire to harm Mother.[16]

¶59 For these reasons, and given the limited role the court’s findings related to “emotional abuse” served in the legal custody analysis, we do not disturb those findings.

III. First Expert’s Testimony

¶60      Father argues that the trial court abused its discretion in not excluding First Expert’s testimony as unreliable under rule 702 of the Utah Rules of Evidence. In support of this argument, he points to the court’s ultimate agreement with Second Expert’s testimony that, among other things, First Expert’s “opinions based on testing should not be considered” and that First Expert “did not utilize many of the standard tests and methods for determining parenting capacity and therefore his opinions on parenting capacity are not helpful.” But even assuming, without deciding, that the court’s decision to allow First Expert to testify amounted to an abuse of discretion, such error was harmless here.

¶61      “Not every trial error requires reversal.” State v. Leech, 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 42, 473 P.3d 218 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 481 P.3d 1039 (Utah 2021). “Unless an appellant demonstrates that an error is prejudicial, it will be deemed harmless and no appellate relief is available.” Huish v. Munro, 2008 UT App 283, ¶ 8, 191 P.3d 1242 (quotation simplified). “An error is harmless and does not require reversal if it is sufficiently inconsequential that we conclude there is no reasonable likelihood that the error affected the outcome of the proceedings.” State v. Reece, 2015 UT 45, ¶ 33, 349 P.3d 712 (quotation simplified).

¶62 Here, after agreeing with several of Second Expert’s concerns and critiques of First Expert’s rule 35 evaluation of Father, the court stated that it ultimately “found little value in much of his diagnostic expert opinion” and that it agreed with only some of his “conclusions regarding characteristics and personality traits” of Father. But even here, the court stated that First Expert’s opinions with which it agreed “are consistent with other evidence presented to the Court regarding Father’s historical demonstration of” certain negative personality traits, specifically records submitted into evidence and other trial testimony. Thus, First Expert’s testimony did not serve as the sole basis for the court’s findings regarding some of Father’s characteristics and personality traits. Indeed, the court seemed to emphasize that its agreement with First Expert in that regard was based on the corroboration furnished by the court’s own review of some of the records First Expert examined and on other trial testimony.

¶63 For these reasons, Father has not demonstrated a reasonable likelihood that First Expert’s testimony affected the outcome of the trial, and this argument therefore fails.

IV. Mother’s Imputed Income

¶64 Father contends that the court abused its discretion by imputing Mother’s income at only the federal minimum wage, when a higher income was in order given the evidence before the court. Because the trial court misapplied the controlling legal standard, we agree.

¶65      “Because income imputation itself is primarily focused on a spouse’s ability to produce income, it is not unusual for courts to impute income to a spouse who has not worked during the marriage (or who has not worked for a number of years preceding the divorce) but who is nevertheless capable of producing income.” Petrzelka v. Goodwin, 2020 UT App 34, ¶ 26, 461 P.3d 1134 (quotation simplified). “The purpose of such imputation is to prevent parents from reducing their child support or alimony by purposeful unemployment or underemployment.” Connell v. Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 16, 233 P.3d 836 (quotation simplified).

¶66 Section 78B-12-203 of the Utah Code establishes the guidelines by which income may be imputed. It provides that in contested cases, a trial court may not impute income to a party without first holding a hearing on the matter and entering “findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(8)(a) (LexisNexis 2022). The statute further provides that the court’s imputation of income “shall” be based on the following ten factors, “to the extent known”: “(i) employment opportunities; (ii) work history; (iii) occupation qualifications; (iv) educational attainment; (v) literacy; (vi) age; (vii) health; (viii) criminal record; (ix) other employment barriers and background factors; and (x) prevailing earnings and job availability for persons of similar backgrounds in the community.”[17] Id. § 78B-12-203(8)(b).

¶67 Here, the trial court deemed Mother voluntarily underemployed and found that she “has experience and skills in the workforce that would enable her to find employment in marketing and public relations work.” The court further found that “[i]f Mother were able to find employment as either a PR Specialist or in Advertising Sales her likely income would start around $2,500 to $2,800” per month. But the court opined that to become employed full-time, “Mother would necessarily incur childcare costs for a six (6) year old with transportation to and from school and would need to terminate or significantly modify her current study program” and that the evidence presented at trial “does not provide a calculation of the costs of day care expense necessary for Mother to become full time employed.” The court further stated that “the evidence provided is insufficient for the Court to determine that there is current employment available in either of her experience categories, or what the current rate of pay would be,” presumably given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on those considerations, the court imputed to Mother “the federal minimum wage of $1,257 per month.”

¶68      The court’s reasons for reducing Mother’s imputed income from between $2,500 and $2,800 per month to the federal minimum wage go against the legal standard set forth in section 78B-12-203. As an initial matter, the reasoning that Mother would need to make adjustments to her schooling in order to pursue full-time employment has no legal basis. “[T]he pursuit of a higher education simply does not preclude employment.” Mancil v. Smith, 2000 UT App 378, ¶ 17, 18 P.3d 509. Although section 78B-12-203 provides that a trial court may not impute an income to a parent who “is engaged in career or occupational training to establish basic job skills” when such training “is not of a temporary nature,” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(8)(d)(iii), this is not the case here. Mother already had a bachelor’s degree and was pursuing a graduate program. Moreover, the court already found that she possessed skills and experience in the field of marketing and public relations. See Fish v. Fish, 2010 UT App 292, ¶ 18, 242 P.3d 787 (“The basic job skills training envisioned by the statute is training which can aid a person in achieving an income beyond the minimum wage job which can be had with no training at all, i.e., training for the starting point on a consecutive progressive career track.”) (quotation simplified). Thus, the court incorrectly based its reduction in Mother’s imputed income on her pursuit of higher education.

¶69 As for daycare expenses, at age six, Child would begin school soon, thus drastically reducing childcare costs as well. In any event, Utah law provides that “[t]he child support order shall require that each parent share equally the reasonable work-related child care expenses of the parents.” See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-214(1) (LexisNexis 2022). Accordingly, the child support order—and not Mother’s imputed income—was the appropriate means by which to address childcare costs.

¶70      Lastly, section 78B-12-203(8) mandates that the trial court base its imputation of income on “employment potential and probable earnings” by evaluating the ten enumerated factors, “to the extent known.” Id. § 78B-12-203(8)(b) (emphasis added). The statute thus expressly provides for possible uncertainty regarding the factors. Here, the vocational expert, whom the trial court found to be “qualified and credible,” provided a projection of future job openings in the field and stated that the unemployment rate in the area had doubled from the previous year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Insofar as the court felt that additional information regarding current employment opportunities in the area was necessary, the uncertainty regarding this factor did not support a reduction of the already determined likely beginning wage of between $2,500 and $2,800 per month to the federal minimum wage. To be sure, the trial court has discretion when weighing the statutory factors, but because the statute expressly allows for uncertainty regarding the factors, that uncertainty cannot rationalize the court’s somewhat speculative decision.

¶71      For these reasons, the trial court abused its discretion by applying the wrong legal standard when imputing Mother’s income. See T.W. v. S.A., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 15, 504 P.3d 163. We therefore reverse the trial court’s imputation of federal minimum wage income to Mother and remand for recalculation of her imputed income consistent with this opinion.

V. Attorney Fees and Costs

¶72      Finally, Father contends that in awarding attorney fees and costs to Mother, the trial court misapplied Utah law by incorrectly applying the “substantially prevailed” standard and by basing its decision, in part, on Father’s greater ability to pay. We agree.

¶73      A trial court may award attorney fees in a divorce action pursuant to section 30-3-3 of the Utah Code. “Both the decision to award attorney fees and the amount of such fees are within the district court’s sound discretion.” Lobenduhn v. Lobenduhn, 2023 UT App 137, ¶ 44, 540 P.3d 727 (quotation simplified). But the court must still “make detailed findings of fact supporting its determination.” Connell v. Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 27, 233 P.3d 836.

¶74      Section 30-3-3 “creates two classes of attorney fees—those incurred in establishing court orders and those incurred in enforcing court orders.” Id. ¶ 28 (emphasis in original). Subsection (1) provides,

In any action . . . to establish an order of custody, parent-time, child support, alimony, or division of property in a domestic case, the court may order a party to pay the costs, attorney fees, and witness fees, including expert witness fees, of the other party to enable the other party to prosecute or defend the action. The order may include provision for costs of the action.

Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023) (emphasis added). “[T]he party to be awarded attorney fees under this [subsection] has the burden to prove (1) that the payee spouse has a financial need, (2) that the payor spouse has the ability to pay, and (3) that the fees requested are reasonable.” Lobendahn, 2023 UT App 137, ¶ 44.

¶75      Subsection (2) provides,

In any action to enforce an order of custody, parent-time, child support, alimony, or division of property in a domestic case, the court may award costs and attorney fees upon determining that the party substantially prevailed upon the claim or defense. The court, in its discretion, may award no fees or limited fees against a party if the court finds the party is impecunious or enters in the record the reason for not awarding fees.

Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(2) (emphasis added). In contrast to subsection (1), when “awarding fees under subsection (2), the court may disregard the financial need of the moving party” using the “substantially prevailed” standard as “the guiding factor.” Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 28 (quotation simplified).

¶76 The differing standards of the two subsections are attributed to the different purposes each subsection serves. See id. ¶ 29. “Attorney fees are granted under subsection (1) to enable a party to prosecute or defend the action.” Id. (quotation simplified). Otherwise, “a spouse lacking a separate income would be unable to meaningfully participate in divorce proceedings.” Id. “Consequently, the moving spouse’s need is a sine qua non of a subsection (1) award.” Id. Conversely, “fee awards under subsection (2) serve no equalizing function but allow the moving party to collect fees unnecessarily incurred due to the other party’s recalcitrance.” Id. ¶ 30.

¶77      Here, in addressing the question of attorney fees and costs, the trial court prefaced its findings with the observation that the litigation in this matter “was contentious and relied on a significant amount of documents, which caused a significant amount of fees to be incurred by the parties.” The court first denied Father’s request for attorney fees “as a sanction for [Mother’s] unreasonableness in requiring these proceedings to go to trial,” ruling that “[a]ttorney’s fees as sanctions are not applied because a party has been unreasonable in requiring disputes to go to trial.” The court then turned to Mother’s competing request premised on her “having ‘substantially prevailed.’” The court stated that Mother “did substantially prevail, not only at trial, but at interim hearings on motions prior to trial.”

¶78 Following this preface, the court entered findings regarding the parties’ need and ability to pay. The court found that Mother “has limited income, if any, at this time,” and it noted Father’s annual salary. The court then proceeded to make findings on the parties’ expenses and disposable income, prefacing its findings by stating that it “has limited information regarding each party’s monthly expenses.” The court found that Father has “approximately $44,500 in disposable funds annually.” Turning to Mother next, the court first noted that neither party provided any evidence of her expenses, leaving the court “with no basis to find Mother has any expenses beyond those which are covered by her need for child support.”[18] The court thus found that Mother “has no income and no evidence of expenses.” The court also noted that “it received no evidence that Mother can pay for her costs and attorney fees.” Based on this, the court found that “[a]s between Father and Mother, Father has the greater ability to pay attorney’s fees” and held that “Mother should be awarded her reasonable costs and attorney fees.”

¶79      The court then addressed the reasonableness of Mother’s attorney fees. It again prefaced its findings by stating that “[a]lthough the issues of custody, parent time, and child support are routinely dealt with in our courts, this case is not a ‘usual’ case” because “[t]he parties have been unusually accusatory, intransigent, and uncooperative which has significantly raised the costs of this litigation to both parties.” The court noted that “Father’s decisions caused Mother to successfully bring multiple orders to show cause, motions to compel, and statements of discovery issues,” and have “forced Mother to incur otherwise unnecessary legal costs.” Against this backdrop, the court found that not all Mother’s requested costs and fees, totaling almost $410,000, were “reasonable and necessary,” and it ultimately awarded her $161,066.94 in attorney fees and costs. The court largely based this reduction on Mother’s “duplication of legal services, unnecessary review and consultation between multiple attorneys, and inefficiencies in presenting evidence at trial,” which the court deemed to be unreasonable.

¶80      There are two problems with the trial court’s award. First, the court conflated the two distinct bases for awarding fees under section 30-3-3, resulting in an undifferentiated attorney fees award. See Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 31. The court began its analysis by stating that Mother “substantially prevail[ed], not only at trial, but at interim hearings on motions prior to trial.”[19] This statement in and of itself is concerning as the purpose of the ten-day bench trial was largely “to establish an order of custody, parent-time, [and] child support,” thereby implicating subsection (1). See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(1). But subsection (1) does not apply a “substantially prevailed” standard. See Lobendahn, 2023 UT App 137, ¶ 44; Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 29.

¶81      Although some pre-trial motions dealt with enforcing the court’s temporary orders regarding “custody, parent-time, child support, alimony, or division of property,” thereby falling under the ambit of subsection (2), see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(2), the court did not distinguish between the two distinct statutory bases for awarding attorney fees. Rather, the court took the total amount of attorney fees Mother sought and reduced the amount to the sum it considered reasonable based on multiple inefficiencies on Mother’s part.

¶82 The second problem is that in awarding attorney fees under subsection (1), the court did not expressly find that Father “has the ability to pay” the requested attorney fees. Lobendahn, 2023 UT App 137, ¶ 44. Instead, the court found that between the two, “Father has the greater ability to pay attorney’s fees.” Whether Father is in a better position than Mother to pay attorney fees and whether Father has an actual ability to pay both his and Mother’s attorney fees are two different inquiries. Although the answer to both questions may, on remand, end up being the same, the court nonetheless did not make the required finding when awarding Mother attorney fees. See Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 27 (stating that as part of its attorney fees award, the court “must make detailed findings of fact supporting its determination”).

¶83      In sum, we reverse the trial court’s award of attorney fees and costs and remand with instructions that the court distinguish the fees that fall under subsection (1) and subsection (2) of section 30-3-3, and that it apply the corresponding legal standard to each group of fees. In the course of this effort, the court also needs to make a specific finding regarding Father’s ability to pay Mother’s attorney fees as to any fees awarded under subsection (1).

CONCLUSION

¶84      There remain issues that require additional attention and must be revisited on remand. Although we affirm certain of the trial court’s findings of fact and evidentiary rulings relating to its award of sole legal custody of Child to Mother, we reverse and remand with instructions that the court reevaluate its legal custody award by considering all the statutorily mandated custody factors, in particular the one focused on past conduct and moral character. We likewise reverse and remand for further consideration of Mother’s imputed income and the award of attorney fees and costs in Mother’s favor.[20]

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277


[1] “On appeal from a bench trial, we view the evidence in a light most favorable to the trial court’s findings, and therefore recite the facts consistent with that standard.” Chesley v. Chesley, 2017 UT App 127, ¶ 2 n.2, 402 P.3d 65 (quotation simplified).

[2] As relevant here, rule 35(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure states, When the mental or physical condition or attribute of a party or of a person in the custody or control of a party is in controversy, the court may order the party to submit to a physical or mental examination by a suitably licensed or certified examiner or to produce for examination the person in the party’s custody or control. The order may be made only on motion for good cause shown.

[3] Mother also underwent a rule 35 examination, but it does not appear that those results were admitted into evidence at trial.

[4] The trial court initially found First Expert “to be credible although not entirely unbiased.” But following Father’s post-trial motion, the court did not include that statement in the amended findings of fact and conclusions of law that it later issued.

[5] Specifically, the court rejected First Expert’s opinion that Father “is prone to bouts of depression”; that he “appears to have a disconnect between his emotions and his cognitive abilities, which impedes his ability to utilize constructive feedback and an inability to learn from his experience and mistakes”; and that “[i]t is likely that Father has not emotionally separated, or moved on from his relationship with Mother.”

[6] A vocational expert, whom the court found to be “qualified and credible,” opined at trial that Mother could earn “approximately $2,800 to $3,750 gross per month” as a public relations specialist. But the court stated that the expert’s calculations did not take the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the job market into consideration, and although the expert provided a projection of future job openings in the field, he did not identify any current job openings or pay rates.

[7] We recount the relevant details of the trial court’s attorney fees award in Part V.

[8] Father does not challenge the trial court’s physical custody award on appeal.

[9] Father also contends that the trial court erred in ordering him to sign medical releases for his mental health records without first undertaking the analysis set forth in Debry v. Goates, 2000 UT App 58, 999 P.2d 582, cert. denied, 9 P.3d 170 (Utah 2000). See id. ¶ 26. But because Father did not raise this issue below, and instead opposed the release of the records only on prejudice and scope-of-the-stipulation grounds, this argument is not preserved, and we do not address it further.

[10] The presumption in favor of joint legal custody does not apply in cases that include, among other things, “emotional abuse.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(3)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023). Although the trial court in this case did make several findings regarding emotional abuse, the court nonetheless applied the presumption but found that it was rebutted by the parties’ inability “to set aside their personal differences and focus on the needs of” Child.

[11] Father also argues that the trial court made unsupported findings concerning Mother’s financial stability, Father’s involvement in Child’s life, and the parties’ communications. But because Father has not marshaled the evidence in support of these findings, he has not carried his burden of persuasion. See Pankhurst v. Pankhurst, 2022 UT App 36, ¶ 15, 508 P.3d 612 (“A party will almost certainly fail to carry its burden of persuasion on appeal if it fails to marshal the evidence sufficient to overcome the healthy dose of deference owed to factual findings.”) (quotation simplified).

[12] The other two factors, the “ability to provide personal care rather than surrogate care” and the “previous parenting arrangements in which the child has been happy and well-adjusted in the home, school, and community,” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(c)(iii), (n) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023), are more germane to a physical custody rather than to a legal custody determination, and Father conceded as much during oral argument before this court.

[13] The case of Allen v. Allen, 2014 UT App 27, 319 P.3d 770, provides a good example of how appropriate comparison between the parents works in practice. After considering the applicable factors and concluding that “both parents appeared nearly equally capable of caring for” their child, the district court in that case determined that, with respect to two factors where the parents were not equally strong, “the stability offered by [the father] outweighed the apparent empathy of [the mother].” Id. ¶ 5 (quotation simplified). See id. ¶ 12 (holding that given the district court’s observation that the parties were “nearly equally capable of caring for” the child and its findings of fact supporting that determination, the court had adequately considered the “character and quality of [the child’s] bonds with both parents”). The deciding factors in the district court’s view were the father’s stability and the mother’s immaturity, “with a tendency to put her needs above those of others, including” the child. Id. ¶ 10. On appeal, this court concluded that the district court’s “discussion of the parties’ relative maturity, stability, and ability to care for [the child] constitutes adequate consideration of both parties’ ‘past conduct and demonstrated moral standards.’” Id. ¶ 11 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(d) (LexisNexis 2013)).

[14] On this point, Father contends that our decision in Twitchell v. Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, 509 P.3d 806, requires a trial court to make a finding on all evidence presented by either party. Father misinterprets that decision. In Twitchell, we determined that “to ensure that the trial court’s custody determination, discretionary as it is, is rationally based, it is essential that the court set forth in its findings of fact not only that it finds one parent to be the better person to care for the child, but also the basic facts which show why that ultimate conclusion is justified.” Id. ¶ 24 (quotation simplified). The premise of Twitchell is not that a court must make a specific finding regarding each piece of evidence, but simply that a court must make findings on the “basic facts” that support its ultimate conclusion.

[15] The trial court acknowledged that its list was not a comprehensive one. Mother asserts that she presented evidence at trial that Father instigated a total of 28 investigations against her.

[16] In any event, although Father argues that the trial court’s findings are against the clear weight of the evidence given the evidence of Child’s various injuries presented at trial, he has not marshaled the evidence supporting the court’s findings. To successfully challenge a finding, it is not enough to focus only on “evidence that points to an alternate finding or a finding contrary to the trial court’s finding of fact.” Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶ 19, 379 P.3d 890 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, Father has also not carried his burden of persuasion on appeal. See Pankhurst v. Pankhurst, 2022 UT App 36, ¶ 15, 508 P.3d 612 (“A party will almost certainly fail to carry its burden of persuasion on appeal if it fails to marshal the evidence sufficient to overcome the healthy dose of deference owed to factual findings.”) (quotation simplified).

[17] The statute further provides that in cases where “a parent has no recent work history,” a court may impute “an income at the federal minimum wage for a 40-hour work week,” and that “[t]o impute a greater or lesser income, the judge in a judicial proceeding . . . shall enter specific findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(8)(c) (LexisNexis 2022). Although Mother was not working at the time of trial, this did not form the basis for the trial court’s decision to impute the federal minimum wage to her. Rather, it found that she had the potential of earning between $2,500 and $2,800 per month but reduced this amount based on other factors as explained in paragraph 67.

[18] Father argues that Mother bore the burden of establishing her expenses and that the court incorrectly faulted him for not providing evidence of her expenses. But the inability to establish Mother’s expenses only benefitted Father—admittedly to a very limited degree—as the court ultimately did not attribute any expenses to Mother apart from those that are covered by her need for child support in its calculation of disposable funds available to her.

[19] The court awarded some attorney fees to Mother for her success in pre-trial motions along the way. The court also reserved for later determination the issue of attorney fees on certain other pre-trial motions.

[20] Father recently asked that we take judicial notice of developments in legal proceedings involving other parties that he believes are germane to this case. Mother opposes Father’s motion. We are not persuaded that the matters we are asked to take notice of bear on the issues presented in this appeal and so deny the motion. If relevant to the issues the trial court will address on remand, Father may renew his request in that forum.

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McFarland v. McFarland – 2024 UT App 31 – attorney’s fees awards

McFarland v. McFarland – 2024 UT App 31

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

BRUCE RAY MCFARLAND, Appellee, v. NICOLE S. MCFARLAND, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20221044-CA, Filed March 14, 2024

Second District Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable David J. Williams No. 084701533

Angilee K. Dakic, Attorney for Appellant, Jacob K. Cowdin, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1 This domestic dispute between Bruce Ray McFarland (Bruce) and Nicole S. McFarland (Nicole) comes before us for a second time. This time, we are asked to assess the propriety of two aspects of the district court’s most recent set of orders: the court’s decision to modify the parties’ divorce decree and award the house in which the parties lived while they were married (the Home) to Bruce instead of to Nicole, and the court’s decision to require Nicole to pay Bruce’s attorney fees incurred in litigating the petition to modify. We see no reversible error in the court’s award of the Home to Bruce, and we therefore affirm on that issue. But we agree with Nicole that the court erred in awarding attorney fees to Bruce, and we therefore reverse that fee award.

BACKGROUND

¶2        In our previous opinion, we set forth many of the relevant facts underlying the parties’ dispute. See McFarland v. McFarland, 2021 UT App 58, ¶¶ 2–18, 493 P.3d 1146. In the interest of brevity, we recite in this opinion only those facts necessary to our decision.

¶3        Bruce and Nicole’s divorce decree (the Decree) was entered in 2009 following a negotiated settlement. As relevant here, the Decree required Bruce to pay Nicole $1,700 per month in alimony, and it awarded the Home to Nicole “subject to” her “assumption” of the mortgage, tax, and insurance obligations associated with the Home as well as “a judicial lien in the sum of $12,034.24 payable to” Bruce. According to the Decree, Nicole was to pay Bruce the lien amount on the occurrence of the first of these events: (1) when Nicole remarries or cohabits; (2) when the Home is sold or rented; (3) when Nicole “moves from” the Home or no longer uses it as her primary residence; or (4) when the parties’ youngest child graduates from high school. Several of those events have long since occurred; indeed, the district court later found that Nicole “abandoned” the Home in 2010. At no point did Nicole ever make any of the mortgage, tax, or insurance payments on the Home, nor did she ever pay Bruce the lien amount.

¶4        Instead, after a brief period in which he did not live in the Home, Bruce moved back into the Home in 2009 and has lived there at all times since. And after entry of the Decree, Bruce— rather than Nicole—has made all mortgage, tax, and insurance payments on the Home, and he has also maintained and made improvements to the Home. But other than one single payment in January 2009, Bruce paid no alimony to Nicole. Thus, soon after the Decree was entered, both parties began to ignore many of the Decree’s important provisions. But for the next seven years, neither party seemed bothered by the other’s noncompliance, and neither sought to modify or enforce the terms of the Decree.

¶5        In 2017—apparently motivated by a desire to refinance the Home—Bruce filed a petition to modify (Bruce’s Petition), asking the court to modify the Decree to (among other things) award him the Home. Nicole responded not only by resisting Bruce’s Petition, but also by filing two motions asking the court to hold Bruce in contempt for (among other things) failing to pay alimony and for “willfully occup[ying Nicole’s] property,” namely, the Home. Concerning the Home, Nicole asked that the court “immediately restore[]” her “to the use and possession of” the Home. Later, in 2019, the court found Bruce in contempt for failing to pay alimony, and it ordered Bruce to pay Nicole over $150,000 in unpaid alimony. But the court declined to find Bruce in contempt for occupying the Home. The court made no ruling on Bruce’s Petition, however, because that matter had apparently not yet been certified for trial. But the court allowed Bruce to continue living in the Home “on a temporary basis” until the matter was finally resolved.

¶6        Both parties appealed several aspects of the court’s 2019 rulings and, in this case’s first trip to this court, we affirmed the court’s alimony award to Nicole and remanded “the case for further proceedings” regarding (among other things) Bruce’s Petition. Id. ¶¶ 46–47.

¶7        Following remand, the district court held a hearing to consider matters regarding the Home. Bruce asserted that any claim Nicole might make regarding possession of the Home was barred by several equitable doctrines, including waiver and laches. In particular, Bruce claimed that Nicole had waived any claim to the Home by moving out in 2010 and taking no action in the intervening years to challenge Bruce’s possession of it, and that Nicole’s claim was barred by laches because her “delay in bringing her claim” was “unreasonable” and “prejudicial to Bruce.” Nicole resisted all of these arguments and, in addition, claimed that Bruce’s Petition was barred by res judicata.

¶8        At the conclusion of the hearing, the court made an oral ruling granting Bruce’s Petition and denying Nicole’s motion regarding the Home. The court later issued a written ruling setting forth its findings and conclusions. In that ruling, the court found that Nicole’s abandonment of the Home in 2010 constituted “a material and substantial change in circumstances.” The court also rejected Nicole’s claim that Bruce’s Petition was barred by res judicata. And the court determined that modification of the Decree to award Bruce the Home was appropriate; the court found merit in several of Bruce’s equitable arguments. Specifically, the court determined that Nicole had waived any claim to the Home by moving out and failing to make any payments related to the Home since the Decree was entered. And the court concluded that laches also barred Nicole’s claim to the Home because she had delayed bringing any such claim and her delay had prejudiced Bruce because Bruce had made payments and improvements on the Home in the intervening years. The court noted that Bruce had also delayed in bringing his petition, but it found that Nicole had not been prejudiced by Bruce’s delay.

¶9        Bruce asked the court to award him attorney fees incurred in litigating his petition. As the district court interpreted it, this request was grounded not in the attorney fees statute found in the family law code, see Utah Code § 30-3-3, but, instead, in Utah’s bad-faith attorney fees statute, see id. § 78B-5-825. The court granted Bruce’s request, but it made no specific finding that Nicole’s claims and defenses regarding the Home had been “without merit.” It did make an express finding that “Nicole’s effort to pursue an award of [the Home] roughly eight (8) years after abandoning [it] was an act of bad faith” that Nicole undertook with a “retaliatory” motive in reaction to the filing of Bruce’s Petition. And the court noted that, during the intervening years, Nicole “had not satisfied the conditions in the Decree that allowed her to take possession of” the Home. Based on these findings, the court concluded that “law and equity call for an award of attorney fees in Bruce’s favor as it relates to the issue of” the Home. The court later quantified that attorney fee award, ordering that Nicole pay Bruce $7,390.67 for attorney fees he incurred litigating issues related to the Home.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10      Nicole appeals two aspects of the court’s rulings. First, she challenges the court’s order modifying the Decree to award the Home to Bruce. “In this context, we review the district court’s underlying findings of fact, if any, for clear error,” and we review “its ultimate determination regarding the petition to modify[] for an abuse of discretion.” Myers v. Myers, 2023 UT App 20, ¶ 19, 526 P.3d 1253. Whether the court chose and applied the correct legal standard is a question of law “that we review for correctness.” Peeples v. Peeples, 2019 UT App 207, ¶ 11, 456 P.3d 1159.

¶11      As discussed below, our analysis on this point focuses on the court’s application of the doctrine of laches and, in particular, on its determination that Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s delay in asserting a right to possession of the Home. “The application of laches to a particular set of facts and circumstances presents a mixed question of law and fact.” Peterson v. Pierce, 2019 UT App 48, ¶ 9, 440 P.3d 833 (quotation simplified). While “[l]aw-like mixed questions are reviewed de novo,” mixed questions that are more “fact-like” are “reviewed deferentially.” Sawyer v. Department of Workforce Services, 2015 UT 33, ¶ 11, 345 P.3d 1253. For the reasons discussed more fully later, see infra ¶¶ 18–21, we conclude that a district court’s prejudice determination made in the laches context is more fact-like than law-like and, therefore, calls for a more deferential standard of review.

¶12 Second, Nicole challenges the court’s award of attorney fees to Bruce under the bad faith statute. “We review a trial court’s grant of attorney fees under the bad faith statute as a mixed question of law and fact.” Outsource Receivables Mgmt., Inc. v. Bishop, 2015 UT App 41, ¶ 11, 344 P.3d 1167 (quotation simplified).

“A finding of bad faith is a question of fact and is reviewed by this court under the ‘clearly erroneous’ standard,” but a “‘without merit’ determination is a question of law” that we review “for correctness.” Id. (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

I

¶13      We first address Nicole’s challenge to the district court’s grant of Bruce’s Petition and its accompanying order modifying the Decree to award the Home to Bruce. The court based its ruling on several distinct legal doctrines, including waiver and laches. Nicole challenges the application of these doctrines, asserting that none of them apply to the facts at hand. For the reasons discussed, we conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion when it concluded that Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s delay in asserting her claim to the Home, and that therefore the doctrine of laches operates to bar Nicole’s claim. Because we affirm the court’s laches determination, we need not reach the question of whether the court erred in its application of waiver or any other legal or equitable doctrine.

¶14 “Laches” is an equitable doctrine “founded upon considerations of time and injury.” Insight Assets, Inc. v. Farias, 2013 UT 47, ¶ 17, 321 P.3d 1021 (quotation simplified). The thing that the doctrine is concerned about “is not mere delay, but delay that works a disadvantage to another.” Id. (quotation simplified). “In Utah, laches traditionally has two elements.” Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Horne, 2012 UT 66, ¶ 29, 289 P.3d 502. First, the party claiming laches must demonstrate that the other party “unreasonably delayed in bringing” a claim. See Veysey v. Nelson, 2017 UT App 77, ¶ 8, 397 P.3d 846 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 400 P.3d 1046 (Utah 2017). Second, the party claiming laches must demonstrate that it “was prejudiced by that delay.” Id. (quotation simplified); see also Laches, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019) (defining “laches” as “[t]he equitable doctrine by which a court denies relief to a claimant who has unreasonably delayed in asserting the claim, when that delay has prejudiced the party against whom relief is sought”).

¶15      Nicole concedes that the first element of the laches test— unreasonable delay—is met here, given her eight-year delay in objecting to Bruce’s possession of the Home. Because of this concession, we need concern ourselves only with the second element of the laches test: whether Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s unreasonable delay.

¶16      On that point, the district court made a specific finding that Bruce would suffer “clear prejudice” if Nicole were allowed to claim possession of the Home. The court observed that Bruce had raised the parties’ children in the Home, had made “improvements” to the Home, and had taken care of “all financial obligations related to” the Home since 2009. In light of these undisputed facts, the court determined that Bruce would be prejudiced if Nicole were allowed to assert, after all these years, a right to exclusively use and possess the Home.

¶17 Nicole challenges the court’s prejudice determination, asserting that her delay in asserting her rights to the Home was actually “a benefit to Bruce” because it gave him a place to live and because he was able to take “significant amounts of equity out of” the Home “on multiple occasions.” But before we can address Nicole’s challenge to the court’s prejudice determination, we must first determine the appropriate standard of review.

¶18      As previously mentioned, see supra ¶ 11, a district court’s “application of laches to a particular set of facts and circumstances presents a mixed question of law and fact.” Peterson v. Pierce, 2019 UT App 48, ¶ 9, 440 P.3d 833 (quotation simplified). “Mixed questions fall somewhere in the twilight between deferential review of findings of fact and searching reconsideration of conclusions of law.” In re adoption of Baby B., 2012 UT 35, ¶ 42, 308 P.3d 382. The level of deference afforded to district courts in such situations thus depends on whether the determination at issue is more law-like or fact-like. See Sawyer v. Department of Workforce Services, 2015 UT 33, ¶ 11, 345 P.3d 1253. We must therefore assess whether a determination regarding prejudice, in the laches context, is more fact-like than law-like. As far as we are aware, no Utah court has yet rendered a specific ruling on this question.

¶19      When considering whether a question “should be deemed law-like or fact-like, we evaluate the marginal costs and benefits of conducting either a searching de novo review or a deferential review of a lower tribunal’s resolution of the mixed question.” Id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified). To that end, our supreme court has instructed us to consider three relevant factors:

(1) the degree of variety and complexity in the facts to which the legal rule is to be applied; (2) the degree to which a trial court’s application of the legal rule relies on facts observed by the trial judge, such as a witness’s appearance and demeanor, relevant to the application of the law that cannot be adequately reflected in the record available to appellate courts; and (3) other policy reasons that weigh for or against granting discretion to trial courts.

Id. (quotation simplified).

¶20      The first two factors compare “the relative competencies” of “a fact-finding tribunal” and that of “an appellate court.” Id. ¶ 13. District courts and other fact-finding tribunals “are in a superior position to weigh facts that depend upon credibility determinations, the direct observation of witness testimony, and other evidence not fully captured in a written appellate record.” Id. On the other hand, appellate courts are in a better position to fashion “broad rules that can create a greater degree of consistency and predictability to future cases involving a particular mixed question.” Id. An inquiry that is highly “fact-intensive” is not one that “lend[s] itself to consistent resolution by a uniform body of appellate precedent.” Carbon County v. Workforce Appeals Board, 2013 UT 41, ¶ 7, 308 P.3d 477 (quotation simplified). Thus, a district court is “entitled to deference” where its determinations are “fact-intensive” because an appellate court “would be in an inferior position to review the correctness” of such a decision. Id. (quotation simplified).

¶21 Assessing whether a litigant’s unreasonable delay in bringing a claim has caused another party to sustain prejudice is a case-specific, fact-bound inquiry that will depend on the particular circumstances at hand, as well as—at least in many cases, including this one—on the district court’s perception of the progression of the litigation. Indeed, for this very reason, Utah appellate courts have concluded, in a number of analogous contexts, that appellate review of a district court’s prejudice determination should be deferential. See State v. De La Rosa, 2019 UT App 110, ¶ 9, 445 P.3d 955 (reviewing deferentially a district court’s “substantial adverse effect” determination, made in the context of assessing whether a new trial was warranted, “due to [the district court’s] advantaged position to judge the impact of legal errors on the total proceedings” (quotation simplified)); see also State v. Maestas, 2012 UT 46, ¶ 325, 299 P.3d 892 (stating that district courts “have discretion in granting or denying a motion for a mistrial . . . because of the[ir] advantaged position . . . to determine the impact of events occurring in the courtroom on the total proceedings” (quotation simplified)); Butler v. Mediaport Ent. Inc., 2022 UT App 37, ¶¶ 32, 48, 508 P.3d 619 (stating that “we review a district court’s harmlessness determination,” made in the discovery and disclosure context, deferentially “for abuse of discretion” because “a district court will almost always have a better vantage point than we do to make such a call”). We also observe that laches is an equitable doctrine, see Insight Assets, 2013 UT 47, ¶ 17, and “equitable inquiries are designed to be flexible, taking into account all relevant factors in light of the particular circumstances,” Jones v. Layton/Okland, 2009 UT 39, ¶ 17, 214 P.3d 859. “Because of the fact-intensive nature of equitable doctrines,” we generally grant district courts “broader discretion in applying the law to the facts.” Volonte v. Domo, Inc., 2023 UT App 25, ¶ 28, 528 P.3d 327 (quotation simplified). For all of these reasons, we conclude that a district court’s determination that a litigant has (or has not) sustained prejudice as a result of another party’s unreasonable delay in bringing a claim is entitled to deference from appellate courts and is a determination that should be reviewed for abuse of discretion.

¶22 We discern no abuse of discretion in the district court’s determination that Bruce sustained prejudice as a result of Nicole’s eight-year delay in asserting her right to the Home. The court’s ruling was well-reasoned and supported by evidence in the record. As noted, the court relied on the fact that Bruce had lived in the Home the entire time, raised the parties’ children there, and—perhaps most importantly—had taken care of all financial obligations related to the Home, including all maintenance and improvements.

¶23      We acknowledge Nicole’s point that Bruce enjoyed certain advantages as a result of living in the Home. As Nicole points out, Bruce would have had to pay for housing whether he lived in the Home or elsewhere, and Bruce was apparently able to take advantage of the equity in the Home. These facts could have led the district court to make a different determination with regard to whether Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s delay. But the presence of conflicting evidence does not compel reversal here. Given the applicable standard of review, the relevant question is not whether we would have made the same determination had we been sitting as the assigned trial-level arbiters in this case; rather, the relevant question is whether we discern an abuse of discretion in the decision the assigned judge made. See Stichting Mayflower Mountain Fonds v. United Park City Mines Co., 2017 UT 42, ¶ 49, 424 P.3d 72 (stating that “[t]he question presented is not whether we would have granted” the motion in question, but instead “whether we find an abuse of discretion in the district judge’s decision to deny the motion”). Where the court’s decision is supported by evidence in the record and free from legal error, we will not disturb it. And that is the case here.

¶24      Nicole resists this conclusion on three additional grounds. First, she points out that Bruce also delayed in asserting a right to the Home, and she complains that the district court applied the principles of laches in an uneven manner. But on this point, the district court made a specific determination that, although Bruce delayed the invocation of his claim to the Home, Nicole did not sustain any prejudice as a result of Bruce’s delay. The court noted that, during the time between her “abandonment” of the Home and the filing of Bruce’s Petition, Nicole “did not have to satisfy any financial obligations related to” the Home, “including those required by the Decree.” The court’s determination was therefore supported by evidence in the record and, while a different judge might have reached a different conclusion on these facts, we cannot say that the court’s ruling was an abuse of its discretion.

¶25      Second, Nicole asserts that Bruce should not be able to take advantage of equitable doctrines such as laches because, in her view, Bruce had “unclean hands” due to his failure to pay alimony and child support, as required by the terms of the Decree, during the years he lived in the Home. See Goggin v. Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶ 60, 299 P.3d 1079 (“The doctrine of unclean hands expresses the principle that a party who comes into equity for relief must show that his conduct has been fair, equitable, and honest as to the particular controversy in issue.” (quotation simplified)). But while Nicole (successfully, as it turned out) asked the district court to award her back alimony and child support, she never asked the district court to apply the doctrine of unclean hands, and her arguments in this regard are therefore unpreserved for appellate review. See State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 18, 416 P.3d 443 (“A failure to preserve an issue in the trial court generally precludes a party from arguing that issue in an appellate court, absent a valid exception.”).

¶26      Nicole does not explicitly ask us to utilize any of the exceptions to our preservation requirement, but she does assert that the district court erred by failing to “sua sponte” apply the unclean hands doctrine. Certainly, a court may invoke that doctrine without being asked to do so. See 30A C.J.S. Equity § 116 (2023) (“A defense of unclean hands need not be pleaded. The doctrine may be applied by the court sua sponte.”). But the fact that a court may invoke the doctrine in a sua sponte manner does not relieve a party of its otherwise-applicable obligation to preserve issues for appellate review. Indeed, construed liberally, Nicole’s argument—that the district court erred by failing to sua sponte invoke the unclean hands doctrine—is an assertion that the court plainly erred by not concluding that Bruce’s unclean hands barred him from accessing equitable doctrines like laches. But this assertion fails because plain error review no longer exists in civil cases like this one. Kelly v. Timber Lakes Prop. Owners Ass’n, 2022 UT App 23, ¶ 44, 507 P.3d 357. Because plain error review is unavailable, and because Nicole does not ask us to employ any other exception to our preservation requirement, the fact that her “unclean hands” argument is unpreserved requires us to reject her argument without reaching its merits.

¶27      Finally, Nicole asserts that Bruce’s Petition was barred by the doctrine of res judicata. Essentially, she asserts that, because the parties already litigated the issue of entitlement to the Home, and because the Decree awarded the Home to her, Bruce is barred from relitigating that issue now. Nicole correctly asserts that res judicata is not categorically inapplicable in divorce cases. See Throckmorton v. Throckmorton, 767 P.2d 121, 123 (Utah Ct. App. 1988) (“The doctrine of res judicata applies in divorce actions.”). But “Fi]n the family law context, our legislature has given district courts the authority to revisit many of the provisions contained in a typical divorce decree, including provisions pertaining to child custody, child support, alimony, property distribution, and debts.” See Robertson v. Stevens, 2020 UT App 29, ¶ 7, 461 P.3d 323 (emphasis added); see also Utah Code § 30-3-5(5). In this context, a party may seek post-judgment modification of the property distribution provisions of a divorce decree, but in order to succeed in that endeavor the party “must demonstrate that a substantial change in circumstances has occurred since the entry of the decree.” See Toone v. Toone, 952 P.2d 112, 114 (Utah Ct. App. 1998) (quotation simplified); see also Throckmorton, 767 P.2d at 123 (“[T]he application of res judicata is unique in divorce actions because of the equitable doctrine which allows courts to reopen alimony, support, or property distributions if the moving party can demonstrate a substantial change of circumstances since the matter was previously considered by the court.”).

¶28 Thus, modification of the Decree’s property distribution provisions is appropriate—even post-judgment and even taking into account principles of res judicata—so long as Bruce can demonstrate that, since entry of the Decree, there has been a substantial change of circumstances that would justify the court taking a second look at the terms of the distribution. And on that point, Nicole raises no challenge; indeed, in her reply brief on appeal she makes clear that she “is not arguing lack of changed circumstance,” and she affirmatively acknowledges that, in this case, “there have been changed circumstances.” Thus, the court had the authority to revisit the property distribution provisions of the Decree, and we reject Nicole’s argument to the contrary.

¶29    For these reasons, we perceive no abuse of discretion in the district court’s determination that Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s unreasonable delay in asserting her right to possess the Home. Because Nicole does not contest the other element of laches—unreasonable delay—both elements are met. We therefore affirm the district court’s determination that the equitable doctrine of laches barred Nicole’s claim to the Home, and on that basis we affirm the court’s grant of Bruce’s Petition and its accompanying order awarding the Home to Bruce.

II

¶30      Next, we address Nicole’s challenge to the court’s award of attorney fees to Bruce, incurred in connection with litigating issues related to the Home. On this point, we find merit in Nicole’s arguments, and we therefore reverse the court’s fee award.

¶31 Bruce’s fee request was grounded in Utah’s bad-faith attorney-fees statute, which empowers courts to “award reasonable attorney fees to a prevailing party if the court determines that the action or defense to the action was without merit and not brought or asserted in good faith.” See Utah Code § 78B-5-825(1). Before awarding fees under this section, a district court—in addition to determining that the requesting party is the “prevailing party”—must make specific findings that the opposing party’s claim is (1) “without merit” and (2) “not brought or asserted in good faith.” Rocky Ford Irrigation Co. v. Kents Lake Reservoir Co., 2020 UT 47, ¶ 76, 469 P.3d 1003 (quotation simplified). These two findings “must be made independently” from one another. Still Standing Stable, LLC v. Allen, 2005 UT 46, ¶ 12, 122 P.3d 556. Nicole asserts that the court failed to make a specific finding that her claims and defenses regarding the Home were without merit, and she maintains that the fee award was therefore improper. We agree with Nicole.

¶32      While the court made a specific finding that Nicole’s claims and defenses regarding the Home were asserted in “bad faith” and on a “retaliatory” basis, it made no specific finding that Nicole’s claims were without merit. Bruce acknowledges the lack of an express finding on this point, but he asserts that we can infer such a finding from (a) the fact that the court rejected Nicole’s claims on their merits (i.e., that she lost) and (b) the court’s specific bad-faith finding. We see the matter differently.

¶33      First, a determination that a party lost on the merits is not equivalent to a determination that the party’s claims were without merit for purposes of the bad-faith statute. “Without merit” in this context means something worse than just having a losing claim. Indeed, our supreme court has stated that the term “without merit,” as used in the bad-faith statute, “implies bordering on frivolity,” with the term “frivolous” meaning “of little weight or importance having no basis in law or fact.” Cady v. Johnson, 671 P.2d 149, 151 (Utah 1983) (quotation simplified); see also Migliore v. Livingston Fin. LLC, 2015 UT 9, ¶ 31, 347 P.3d 394 (“To determine whether a claim is without merit, we look to whether it was frivolous or of little weight or importance having no basis in law or fact.” (quotation simplified)). And on at least one occasion, our supreme court has concluded that a losing claim was not “without merit,” because the claim—even though it was not the prevailing claim—involved a question of “first impression” and “had a basis in law and fact.” See In re Olympus Constr. LC, 2009 UT 29, ¶ 31, 215 P.3d 129. We therefore may not infer, merely from the district court’s rejection of Nicole’s claims on their merits, that the court considered those claims to be so meritless as to be “bordering on frivolity.” See Cady, 671 P.2d at 151.

¶34 Nor may we draw that inference from the court’s “bad faith” finding. As noted already, the two separate findings— without merit and bad faith—“must be made independently” from one another. Still Standing Stable, 2005 UT 46, ¶ 12. And this makes sense, because the two elements of the statutory test are aimed at two different things. The first element (“without merit”) is concerned with the objective quality of the claim itself, see Migliore, 2015 UT 9, ¶ 31, while the second element (“bad faith”) is concerned with the party’s subjective motivation for bringing it, see Blum v. Dahl, 2012 UT App 198, ¶ 9, 283 P.3d 963 (“A finding of bad faith turns on a factual determination of a party’s subjective intent.” (quotation simplified)). Both elements must be met before a court may award attorney fees under the bad-faith statute. And the presence of one element does not necessarily imply the presence of the other.

¶35 For instance, a party may have a completely frivolous claim that lacks any basis in law or fact, but that party may not be aware of the claim’s lack of merit at the time it was filed. In that situation, the first element of the test is met but, depending on the circumstances, the second might not be. Conversely, a party may have a solid (albeit losing) claim that has a basis in both law and fact, but the party might be bringing that claim for abusive or improper reasons. In that situation, the second element might be met but the first one wouldn’t be. In the case at hand, our review of the record indicates that this might be the situation: Nicole had in her corner a provision in the Decree awarding her the Home, and Bruce had not taken any action to seek modification of that provision in eight years. Given these facts, it is certainly not obvious to us that Nicole’s claims and defenses regarding the Home were “bordering on frivolity,” see Cady, 671 P.2d at 151, even if we take at face value the court’s finding that Nicole brought the claims in a bad-faith effort to retaliate against Bruce.

¶36 Accordingly, we conclude that the absence of any specific finding that Nicole’s claims were without merit renders the district court’s attorney fees award improper.[1]

CONCLUSION

¶37 We discern no abuse of discretion in the district court’s determination that laches barred Nicole’s claims and defenses regarding the Home, and on that basis we affirm the district court’s grant of Bruce’s Petition and its accompanying order awarding the Home to Bruce. But due to the absence of any finding that Nicole’s claims and defenses were without merit, we reverse the court’s award of attorney fees to Bruce pursuant to the bad-faith statute, and we vacate the part of the court’s judgment that required Nicole to pay $7,390.67 in fees to Bruce.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277


[1] Again invoking the bad-faith statute, Bruce asks us to award him attorney fees he incurred on appeal. We must reject this request because we have reversed the award of attorney fees in the district court. Moreover, we do not consider Nicole’s appellate arguments to have been brought in bad faith.

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Why won’t courts test competing custody and parent-time proposals during the pretrial phase of a case?

Do you want to know where the real money is most often made in divorce and family law cases? Child custody and parent-time disputes, hands down.

Rarely do the parents agree on what the child custody and parent-time schedules should be. One parent wants (or says he/she wants) things one way, one parents wants (or says he/she wants) them another way. There are many reasons why (which could be the subject of numerous articles, even several volumes), but in a nutshell, the reasons boil down to a few main categories, and in the following order: money, spite, and genuine concern for the children. Money because one gets or pays more money depending upon how many overnights the children spend in a parent’s custody. Spite because many parents use or try to use a parent’s love for his/her children to wound that parent emotionally and psychologically by scheming to deprive parent and child of spending time together. And finally, sometimes (rarely) there is a genuine dispute over whether a parent is fit to exercise the amount of custody and parent-time he/she seeks.

Because there are so often ulterior motives behind a parent’s proposed custody and/or parent-time schedule, the true test of what schedule realistically subserves the best interest of the children is not (cannot be) which parent is the most credible. That’s way too subjective and fallible a standard.

Instead, and so long as each parent’s proposed custody and/or parent-time schedule is reasonable on its face, why not try them both? Why not see whether the kids do best with one or the other or neither? Rather than determine the custody and/or parent-time schedule on pure or mostly speculative bases (i.e., “I imagine/believe/hope that this proposed, but unimplemented, untested schedule will work better than the other unimplemented, untested schedule”), why not have the court implement, compare, contrast, and test competing child custody and parent time schedules during the pretrial/pendente lite/discovery phase of a child custody and/or parent-time dispute case? That way, the court has hard, real world, case-specific, family-specific data to analyze and on which to base its custody and/or parent-time orders.

In 27 years of practice, I have never had a court implement, compare, contrast, and test competing child custody and parent time schedules during the pretrial/pendente lite/discovery phase of a child custody and/or parent-time dispute case.

As long as the conflicting proposals are not obviously deleterious to the children, it’s fairly arrogant of anyone (parent or judge) to contend that “we will implement one and only one custody and/or parent-time schedule during the months or years these proceedings are pending.” It drives me up the wall when I get to trial in those situations and the court tells me, “There is no evidence that the “temporary” schedule [that’s been in place the entire pendency of the case on the basis of nothing but a proffer hearing] does not work.” Well, of course it “works”. It “works” not because it’s best for the kids, not because it’s been shown to be the best of the proposed schedules, but because we have no idea if anything is better or worse. It’s not because the kids support it or benefit from it, they were given no other choice and no other experience. It’s maddening when courts take the position of, “I won’t order your client’s proposed schedule because you and your client never proved it works.” Of course we didn’t prove it, Your Honor—you saw to it that we couldn’t! It’s a “winning” schedule not by virtue of its merits, but by default. It was never proven best for the children, it was imposed by force of inertia. It is impossible to know whether (and thus to claim that) a decision was “in the best interest of the children” when best efforts were never made in reaching that decision.

Put the parents’ proposed competing custody and parent-time schedules to a real-world test. Implement them both for a period sufficient to give them a fair chance to prove a success or failure. Perhaps one will emerge as the clearly superior schedule. Perhaps both schedules will prove inferior to a different schedule that reveals itself in the process of comparing and testing the competing schedules against each other.

There is no good reason—from a general policy perspective—why a court could not or should not, as a general policy, implement and then compare, contrast, and test competing child custody and parent time schedules during the pretrial/pendente lite/discovery phase of a child custody and/or parent-time dispute case. Indeed, the children, parents, and court have everything to gain from such a practice and nothing to lose by adopting such a practice.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Why do attorneys tell people not to talk to the police? What if I’m innocent or just want to help them?

Let’s discuss this principle in the context of DUIs, but the principle applies in any situation in which you could be questioned in regard to any crime.

What is hard for many people to believe is that quite often (more often than decent people want to believe) the police aren’t in fact trying to catch drunk drivers (‘nothing wrong with catching drunk drivers—more power to them for it) but trying to make bogus arrests for DUI, so that the city can collect the fines and so that officers can advance their careers (‘nothing right about that).

You need to know that while all decent and law-abiding people want to help decent and law abiding law enforcement officers do their jobs well, not all officers are decent and law abiding. Unfortunately, 1) it’s impossible to distinguish a good officer from a corrupt one when you’re being questioned, until it’s too late; and 2) corrupt officers exploit innocent people by getting them to talk. This is why the innocent don’t talk to the police (about anything, not just at traffic stops): the more the innocent talk (and the more guilty talk, but that’s not the point here), the more rope they give corrupt law enforcement officers to twist and to hang them with.

Professor James Duane puts it even better here (these are excellent videos, very engaging, and the advice could literally protect you and your loved ones from being abused by corrupt police officers and prosecutors):

https://youtu.be/d-7o9xYp7eE?si=V5baCl5dMTsxgKZ9

https://youtu.be/-FENubmZGj8?si=4Wgg71H5XbNIBsEZ

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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How do I enforce my husband’s promise to hire an attorney for me in our divorce?

If by this question you mean to state that your husband told you he would pay for your attorney in the divorce action between the two of you, that could turn out various ways.

If you claim that your husband told you he would pay for your attorney in the divorce action, have nothing recorded (nothing in writing, no audio recording), and your husband denies it, then it’s a matter of your word against his, and you would likely not get the court to order your husband to pay your attorney’s fees on those grounds (and even if you did have it in writing or audio recorded, the court might still rule that the mere promise to pay isn’t enforceable). You might still have other grounds for getting the court to order your husband to pay your attorney’s fees, however.

In Utah, for example, where I practice divorce and family law, we have this provision of the Utah Code:

30-3-3. Award of costs, attorney and witness fees — Temporary alimony.

(1) In any action filed under Title 30, Chapter 3, Divorce, Chapter 4, Separate Maintenance, or Title 78B, Chapter 7, Part 6, Cohabitant Abuse Protective Orders, and in any action to establish an order of custody, parent-time, child support, alimony, or division of property in a domestic case, the court may order a party to pay the costs, attorney fees, and witness fees, including expert witness fees, of the other party to enable the other party to prosecute or defend the action. The order may include provision for costs of the action.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/How-do-I-enforce-my-husband-to-hire-me-an-attorney-in-our-divorce/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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Divorce Mediation – To Good to Be True (For Most People)

I know you want to believe that divorce mediation is the trick to a fast, easy, cheap, amicable divorce. I know you want to believe this, and we know why. But if it sounds to good to be true, it likely is. So it is with mediation.

Divorce mediation won’t work unless you and your spouse trust each other to negotiate in good faith and honor any settlement agreement reached. You cannot get out of mediation any more than you put into it.

Divorce mediation was a good idea that the legal profession spoiled by making it mandatory.

Divorce mediation is a good idea when it’s done at the beginning, but divorce lawyers put it off until they’ve squeezed a hefty profit out of their clients through a bunch of pretrial motions and discovery. Thus, mediation typically “succeeds” because by the time the parties get to mediation they’re so emotionally and financially spent that they settle out of resignation and exhaustion; “think win-win” had nothing to do with it.

Mediation worked well when it was voluntary and between two people who both believed they might reach an agreement they trusted each would honor. Now mediation is just one more of the “dumb [and expensive] things I gotta do” before I can get divorced.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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2023 UT App 137 – Lobendahn v. Lobendahn – petition to modify custody

2023 UT App 137  – Lobendahn v. Lobendahn

 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

MARCUS JAMES LOBENDAHN,

Appellant and Cross-appellee,

v.

LEEYEN MOEVAI LOBENDAHN,

Appellee and Cross-appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210278-CA

Filed November 16, 2023

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Thomas Low

No. 164400262

Luke A. Shaw and Jill L. Coil,

Attorneys for Appellant

Julie J. Nelson, Daniel Ybarra, and Alexandra

Mareschal, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES RYAN M. HARRIS and RYAN D. TENNEY

concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

 

¶1        Marcus James Lobendahn (Father) appeals the district court’s denial of his petition to modify the parties’ divorce decree. LeeYen Moevai Lobendahn (Mother)[1] also appeals the court’s order denying her request for attorney fees incurred in responding to Father’s petition to modify. We affirm the district court’s order in all respects.

BACKGROUND

¶2        The parties were married in 2008 in Hawaii. Following their marriage, the parties moved to Utah and had two children— a daughter and a son (Son). In May 2015, Father moved to New Jersey for employment purposes, and Mother and the children followed a little while later. Shortly after Mother arrived in New Jersey, Father asked Mother for a divorce and filed for a divorce in Utah. Mother suggested that the children live with Father in the marital apartment while she rented a separate place and cared for the children while Father was at work. Father declined the offer and advised Mother that she and the children should move back to Utah, which they did. The parties’ divorce was finalized through a stipulated decree in Utah in early 2016 while Father still lived in New Jersey. The decree awarded the parties joint legal and physical custody of the children and Father parent-time under section 30-3-37 of the Utah Code with additional time during certain breaks.

¶3        Father moved back to Utah in the fall of 2016, and Mother allowed him parent-time every other weekend, similar to the schedule provided in section 30-3-35 of the Utah Code. In 2017, Father filed a petition to modify based on his relocation, and the parties resolved the petition through a stipulation modifying the decree of divorce. Based upon their agreement, Father would exercise parent-time as provided in section 30-3-35 until he moved within fifteen miles of Mother’s residence in Utah County, at which time his parent-time would increase pursuant to the schedule described in section 30-3-35.1, with some modifications. Father did not move within fifteen miles of Mother and the children at that time but remarried and moved to his wife’s residence in Salt Lake County. Even so, Mother allowed Father to exercise increased parent-time.

¶4      Mother sent a letter to Father in March 2018, notifying him of her intent to remarry and relocate with the children to Washington state. A few weeks later, Father notified Mother that he had signed a lease for an apartment in an area within fifteen miles of her residence in Utah County. Father continued to reside with his wife in Salt Lake County but would stay at the apartment when exercising parent-time with the children. Thereafter, Father filed a motion to restrain Mother from relocating, which the court denied, concluding that Mother’s move to Washington was in the best interest of the children. Mother remarried and moved to Washington in the summer of 2018.

¶5        While the parties were litigating Mother’s relocation, Father filed a second petition to modify. Father argued that he should be awarded primary physical custody of the children, who should live with him in Utah, and that Mother should be awarded parent-time under section 30-3-37 of the Utah Code. Father’s petition alleged that Mother had not been entirely truthful in describing the reasons for her relocation, that the children struggled in school upon moving to Washington, that Mother had been evasive about Father’s proposal to relocate to Washington to live close to the children, that Mother interfered with his parent-time since she had relocated, that Mother had been uncooperative in planning the children’s travel, and that Mother interfered with Father’s participation in Son’s baptism. Father also requested that a custody evaluator be appointed to make recommendations about what custodial arrangement would be in the best interest of the children, and the court granted that request.

¶6        The court appointed a custody evaluator (Evaluator), who began her evaluation in July and completed her work in November 2019. Evaluator interviewed the parties, their respective spouses, and Son, and she observed the children with both parents in their homes. At the time Evaluator conducted her evaluation, the children had lived in Washington with Mother for approximately one year. Evaluator delivered her recommendations to the parties at a settlement conference in April 2020, and completed her report five months later. Evaluator recommended that the parties continue to share joint physical and legal custody but that the children should relocate back to Utah. Evaluator recommended that if Mother did not return with the children, Father should have primary physical custody with statutory visitation for Mother. Later, at the trial on Father’s petition to modify, Evaluator advised that in her opinion—while both parents shared a close, positive relationship with the children and Mother had been the children’s primary caretaker for their entire lives—Mother did not truly support the children’s relationship with Father and the broad benefit of having access to Father outweighed the potential risk that a second relocation adjustment would be hard for the children. And she acknowledged that her relocation recommendation was based on her understanding that if the court ordered the children to relocate back to Utah, Mother would move back to Utah as well. Evaluator also conceded that by the time of trial, the children had lived in Washington for two-and-a-half years and that the delay between her evaluation and the trial could be significant. She agreed that “some of the facts that [she] relied on to make [her] determinations are now out of date.” She agreed that the children had probably changed and matured emotionally, psychologically, socially, and physically and that she had not had any contact with the children in more than a year and a half.

¶7        The court held a trial in March 2021 on Father’s petition to modify. Father’s petition was based on his contention that Mother’s move to Washington was selfishly motivated and harmed the children and that Mother had failed to facilitate Father’s role in the children’s lives and had excluded him from decision-making. Father testified about particular instances that, in his view, demonstrated Mother’s inability to co-parent and unwillingness to facilitate his role in the children’s lives. These included:

·         Son’s difficulty in school after the relocation and resultant disputes between the parties about whether to move him to a different classroom or have him tested for autism;

·        Son’s baptism in July 2019 and Father’s role in that event;

·        Mother’s apparent unwillingness to commit to living in Washington for the long term when Father was contemplating relocating there to be closer to the children;

·         Father’s participation in obtaining passports for the children so they could visit Mother’s ill father in Tahiti and Father’s contention that he did not intend to use these circumstances to coerce Mother into moving back to Utah; and

·         Mother’s alleged interference with Father’s visitation in February 2019.

·         ¶8        Mother testified to her version of the events and issues raised in Father’s testimony. Specifically, Mother testified:

·         That her decision to move from Utah was not to get herself and the children away from Father;

·        That she addressed Son’s difficulties in school following the relocation and how she wanted to have him tested for autism as recommended by his teacher but Father did not want the school to do any testing;

·         That Son’s school difficulties had mostly been resolved by the time of trial and that his recent less-than-stellar report card had more to do with remote learning than continued transition issues;

·         That given Son’s his age and stage of development, she believed it was appropriate to let him choose who would baptize him and where the baptism would take place and that Mother never interfered with Father’s wish to perform the baptism;

·         That Father caused a big scene before the baptism ceremony, which Son overheard, and Father demanded that he perform both the baptism and the confirmation;

·        That when Father considered moving to Washington and asked Mother to commit to remaining in the area, Mother did not think it was wise to promise Father that she would live in Washington forever because of the constant litigation she had already experienced over custody;

·         That the conflict that arose when Mother tried to obtain passports for the children in 2018 to visit her father in Tahiti after he had been diagnosed with cancer required her to file an order to show cause in December 2019 to compel Father to complete an affidavit and sign the passport applications, which he eventually did, but the children’s passports did not arrive in time for them to travel to Tahiti before Mother’s father passed away; and

·         That Father does a good job keeping up with and supporting the children’s interests.

¶9        At the conclusion of the trial, Mother asked the court to award her attorney fees.

¶10      In its written ruling issued after the trial, the court addressed Mother’s alleged failure to facilitate Father’s role in the children’s lives. Regarding Son’s baptism, the court found that Father had adduced no evidence demonstrating that Mother had broached the subject of baptism with Son in an attempt to create contention, or that Son had suffered any psychological harm from Mother’s actions. The court found, however, that the evidence admitted “demonstrates poor judgment on Father’s part,” that the only evidence of conflict surrounding the baptism was created by Father himself, and that the “only harm [Son] suffered was having to overhear Father yelling at [Son’s] bishop . . . inside the closed bishop’s office.”

¶11 Regarding the circumstances surrounding obtaining the children’s passports, the court was extremely critical of Father’s actions. Among other things, it found that Father’s actions were “senselessly cruel” and “among the most reprobate [the] court [had] encountered in a domestic relations case.” It faulted Father for using “the imminent death of a grandparent as a bargaining chip” and found that his behavior “demonstrates that his control over the children’s welfare must be reduced.”

¶12 The court also addressed Mother’s move to Washington, finding that the move did not cause the children harm or interfere with the parties’ ability to co-parent. Specifically, the court determined that both parents had chosen to live in places that did not prioritize proximity to the other parent—Mother moving to Washington to remarry and attend school after living in Utah for more than three years and Father remaining in New Jersey while Mother and the children returned to Utah and then moving to Salt Lake County with his wife rather than moving to a place within fifteen miles of the children (until Mother indicated she would be relocating). Moreover, the court noted that although Father is “untethered,” in that he is employed for a company that allows him to work from home and he could live and work anywhere, he is unwilling to move unless Mother commits to remain in Washington, which she had not done because she eventually wants to work as a pharmacist and may need to move for that career. The court found that Father’s decision to remain in Utah despite his ability to move reflects his choice not to live close to the children.

¶13      As far as the children’s best interest in staying in their current placement, the court found that Mother’s spouse has an extensive family network with whom the children have grown close and share a Pacific Islander heritage. Besides a strong family connection, the children also have close friends in the area, which the court found to be good for the children. And due in part to the length of time spent in Washington, the court found that “[o]verall, the children’s social network is stronger in Washington” than in Utah. The court also determined that no evidence supported Father’s assertion that the move to Washington caused Son to have behavioral issues at school. If anything, Father’s refusal to allow Son to be tested for autism or to allow him to change classrooms when he started having trouble has potentially caused continuing suffering for Son and created stalemates between the parents that Father chose to address in the courts. Father’s proclivity for litigation, which he can afford and which the court found bordered on harassment, caused harm to the children, created unpredictability, and demonstrated less-responsive parenting.

¶14      The court found that both Mother and Father have capacity to parent and to co-parent and have excellent parenting skills. But the court determined that Mother “exhibits greater respect of Father’s role than Father does of Mother’s.” Specifically, the court found that “[w]hen the children ask Mother a question on which Father should be consulted, she tells them ‘I’ll talk to your dad about that and we’ll decide together.’” The court recognized that the children’s bond with Father is very strong, but it agreed with Evaluator that “the children are more bonded with Mother in light of being under her primary care for their entire lifetimes.”

¶15      The court analyzed the custody factors found in section 30­3-10(2) of the Utah Code and made the following determinations:

·        Both parents demonstrate an appropriate understanding of, and responsiveness to, the developmental needs of the children, but Mother’s openness to the advice and assistance of professionals exceeds Father’s.

·        Both parents have an excellent capacity to parent and co-parent and endorse the other’s role in the presence of the children. Except for Mother’s use of inappropriate terms in some of her written communication (which the court believed was on the mend), “both parents appropriately communicate with the other, encourage the sharing of love and affection, and exhibit a willingness to allow frequent and continuous contact with the other parent.” However, Mother exhibits a greater respect for Father’s role in the children’s lives than Father does for Mother’s.

·         Father has relinquished both custody and parent-time in the past.

·         Both parents desire custody and time with the children. Mother has been the primary caretaker and Father has made it a priority to maintain good contact with the children. But “Mother’s commitment to the care and custody of the children exceeds Father’s.”

·         Both parents have always cared for the children financially and are financially responsible, but “Mother has expressed more constant and less evasive financial responsibility than Father.”

·         The children enjoy a strong social and familial network in Washington with their stepfather and his side of the family and have close friends there. The children also enjoy the close proximity of their stepmother and her family and their maternal aunt and grandmother in Utah. Overall, the children’s social network is stronger in Washington.

·         The children are more bonded to Mother because she has always been their primary caretaker.

·        The children have both benefitted and suffered from the sharing of parental responsibilities. Father is very involved and committed to his role. “But Father’s veto-power over decisions regarding the children’s health, education, and welfare” has prevented Son from being tested for autism, prevented Father from honoring Son’s preferences at his baptism, and “prevented the children from traveling to see their dying grandfather in Tahiti.”

·        The parents are generally able to cooperate with each other and make decisions jointly but struggle to reach agreement on significant decisions in the children’s best interest and these frequent stalemates harm the children. Specifically, the court noted that the parents could not communicate effectively to make Son’s baptism conflict-free and they could not agree on how to address Son’s difficulties in school after the relocation or obtain passports for the children. “Given her less affluent status, Mother usually surrenders in the face of disagreement because she cannot afford to take the matter further. Father, however, has substantial funds at his disposal, and has exhibited the ability and willingness to press his concerns in the courts.”

·         Both parents ensure that the children are protected from conflict, except for Father’s refusal to complete the passport paperwork to allow the children to travel to Tahiti, which harmed the children, and allowing Son to overhear the conflict over his baptism.

¶16      After weighing the evidence and the statutory factors, the court concluded that granting Father’s petition and relocating the children back to Utah would not be in their best interest. The court found that the children are doing well in their current circumstances and that they are primarily bonded with Mother as their primary caretaker. “Father has presented no evidence that removing primary custody from Mother would be in the children’s best interests. . . . [Rather,] doing so would be harmful to the children.” The court determined that “the children are happy in Washington, that the parties have successfully mitigated the effects of distance on parent-time, that Father continues to enjoy a healthy relationship and strong bond with the children, and that the current custody arrangement is working well.” The court noted that the trial evidence “establish[ed] that [Father] and Mother have been extraordinarily successful in managing the geographical distance between them,” “that the children do not grasp the gravity of the distance,” and that “all evidence indicates that the children are happy, thriving, and well-adjusted in the current circumstances.” The court found that none of the statutory custody factors favored a change in custody.

¶17 Accordingly, the court denied Father’s petition to modify custody and his request that he be awarded primary custody if Mother did not relocate to Utah. The court ordered joint legal custody to continue but awarded Mother final decision-making authority as to the children’s health, education, and welfare. It also ordered that Mother “should be designated as the parent with the sole legal right to determine the residence of the children.” The court denied Mother’s request for an award of attorney fees because (1) she presented no evidence of her need for such an award and (2) even though Mother had ultimately prevailed, Father’s petition was not frivolous because it had been supported by Evaluator’s recommendation for a change in custody. But the court then explained that it chose to disregard the custody evaluation because it was “outdated and fail[ed] to adequately address the evidence presented at trial.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶18 Father now appeals the court’s denial of his petition to modify, including its decision to reject Evaluator’s recommendation. “We review custody determinations under an abuse of discretion standard, giving the district court broad discretion to make custody awards.” Hinds v. Hinds-Holm, 2022 UT App 13, ¶ 26, 505 P.3d 1136 (quotation simplified). We will not disturb a district court’s findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous. See Robertson v. Robertson, 2016 UT App 55, ¶ 5, 370 P.3d 569. And “[a]lthough a district court is not bound to accept a custody evaluator’s recommendation, the court is expected to articulate some reason for rejecting that recommendation.” R.B. v. L.B., 2014 UT App 270, ¶ 18, 339 P.3d 137.

¶19 Mother cross-appeals and challenges the court’s denial of her request for attorney fees. We review a district court’s attorney fee determination for an abuse of discretion. Jensen v. Jensen, 2009 UT App 1, ¶ 7, 203 P.3d 1020.

ANALYSIS

¶20 Father argues the district court erred in denying his petition to modify. Father’s challenge comprises two parts. First, Father takes issue with the court’s weighing of the evidence and its associated factual findings and conclusions. Second, Father challenges the court’s decision to reject Evaluator’s recommendation. We address each of Father’s arguments in turn. Lastly, we address Mother’s cross-appeal concerning the denial of her request for attorney fees.

I. The Evidence Supports the District Court’s Determination to Deny the Petition to Modify

¶21      Father’s first argument on appeal is that the district court ignored the evidence presented at trial that supported Father’s position that it was in the best interest of the children to move them back to Utah and that he should be awarded primary custody if Mother did not relocate with them. Father also argues that the court viewed the evidence presented from a biased perspective. In the context of determining custody, the district court is to analyze the best interest of the children through the custody factors outlined in section 30-3-10(2) of the Utah Code. Generally, it is within the court’s discretion to consider each custody factor and accord each factor the appropriate weight. See Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. The “court’s discretion stems from the reality that in some cases the court must choose one custodian from two excellent parents, and its proximity to the evidence places it in a more advantaged position than an appellate court.” Tucker v. Tucker, 910 P.2d 1209, 1214 (Utah 1996). Thus, a custody determination “may frequently and of necessity require a choice between good and better.” Hogge v. Hogge, 649 P.2d 51, 55 (Utah 1982).

¶22      While the district court is accorded discretion in weighing the statutory custody factors, “it must be guided at all times by the best interests of the child,” see Tucker, 910 P.2d at 1214, and it “must set forth written findings of fact and conclusions of law which specify the reasons for its custody decision,” see id. at 1215. “Whenever custody is contested, the district court must provide the necessary supporting factual findings that link the evidence presented at trial to the child’s best interest and the ability of each parent to meet the child’s needs.” K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 27, 414 P.3d 933.

¶23      Moreover, the factual findings of the district court “will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous” by being “in conflict with the clear weight of the evidence.” Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 14, 217 P.3d 733 (quotation simplified). And “the existence of conflicting evidence is not sufficient to set aside a [district] court’s finding.” Bond v. Bond, 2018 UT App 38, ¶ 6, 420 P.3d 53 (quotation simplified). Rather, “to successfully challenge a [district] court’s factual findings on appeal, the appellant must overcome the healthy dose of deference owed to factual findings by identifying and dealing with the supportive evidence and demonstrating the legal problem in that evidence, generally through marshaling the evidence.” Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶ 19, 379 P.3d 890 (quotation simplified).[2] Thus, a party challenging the sufficiency of the evidence to support a custody decision will almost certainly fail to carry its burden of persuasion on appeal if it fails to marshal. See State v. Nielsen, 2014 UT 10, ¶ 42, 326 P.3d 645. In addition, a district court “may make findings, credibility determinations, or other assessments without detailing its justification for finding particular evidence more credible or persuasive than other evidence supporting a different outcome.” Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 6, 406 P.3d 258 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 412 P.3d 1257 (Utah 2018).

¶24      On appeal, Father asserts that the district court ignored evidence that was presented to Evaluator and to the court at trial. But on appeal, Father has not wrestled with the evidence that supports the court’s conclusion that most of the custody factors favor Mother, and he has made no attempt to marshal the evidence that supports the court’s factual findings. Father “clearly views the evidence as compelling a different outcome, but it is not within our purview to engage in a reweighing of the evidence, and [Father] has not demonstrated that the evidence underlying the [district] court’s findings is insufficient.” See id. ¶ 9 (quotation simplified). We address Father’s specific challenges to the court’s conclusions below.

A.        Father’s relinquishment of parent-time with the children by voluntarily choosing not to live close to them

¶25      Father complains that the district court misunderstood and ignored the evidence when it determined that Father had made decisions that minimized his parent-time. But Father has not addressed the evidence the court chose to credit nor demonstrated how that evidence was insufficient for the court to conclude that Father had not prioritized living close to the children to maximize his parent-time. That is, the court found the following evidence convincing:

·         While the family lived in New Jersey in 2015, and after Father announced he wanted a divorce, Mother offered to move out of their apartment so the children could remain with Father. Father declined this offer and advised Mother to return to Utah with the children.

·         Father remained in New Jersey for over a year before moving back to Utah.

·         After the parties mediated a settlement in August 2017 wherein Father could exercise more parent-time if he moved within fifteen miles of Mother’s residence, he did not do so. Instead, Father remarried in 2018 and moved to his wife’s residence in Salt Lake County (Mother’s residence was in Utah County).

·         Father rented an apartment within fifteen miles of Mother’s residence in Utah County only after she had announced her intention to relocate to Washington.

·        Father is employed by a company that allows him to work from home and his wife does not work outside the home, so Father’s employment does not necessarily tie him to Utah. Father has even shopped for houses in Washington but requires a commitment from Mother that she will remain there long term before he will move.

·        Evaluator opined that despite Father’s valid professional and financial motives for staying in New Jersey and then in Utah, Father failed to capitalize on the opportunity for more frequent parent-time by living close to the children.

¶26 Father appears to fault the court for not considering dispositive his testimony that he sought and exercised more than the minimum parent-time once he returned to Utah in 2016. Father asserts that this evidence disproves the court’s determination that Father had not prioritized his time with the children. But “Father [doing] what was within his rights . . . to exercise the expanded parent-time” was not persuasive to the court given the evidence listed above. And Father has not challenged any of the factual findings that support the court’s conclusion that he did not make choices for his living situation to be closer to the children. Father simply challenges how the court considered the evidence that supports his position.

¶27 The existence of conflicting evidence in the record is not sufficient to set aside a district court’s findings. See Nebeker v. Orton, 2019 UT App 23, ¶ 16, 438 P.3d 1053. “The pill that is hard for many appellants to swallow is that if there is evidence supporting a finding, absent a legal problem—a fatal flaw—with that evidence, the finding will stand, even though there is ample record evidence that would have supported contrary findings.” Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 20 n.5 (quotation simplified). The district court’s “mission” is “to consider and weigh all the conflicting evidence and find the facts.” Id. Thus, even though “contrary facts might have been found from all the evidence,” this court defers to the district court’s “pre-eminent role as fact-finder,” and we “take the findings of fact as our starting point, unless particular findings have been shown . . . to lack legally adequate evidentiary support.” Id. Because Father has not directly challenged any of the court’s subsidiary findings supporting its determination that Father made decisions that minimized, rather than maximized, his parent-time, we will not reweigh the evidence.

B.        The circumstances surrounding Son’s baptism

¶28      Father complains that the issue surrounding Son’s baptism “is an issue of legal custody . . . [and] should [have been] discussed between the parents before decisions [were] made.” Father asserts that the district court committed legal error when it failed to rule that a decision about who will perform a child’s baptism is a major parenting decision that should not be left up to a child. Father also takes issue with the court crediting Mother’s testimony about the dispute that occurred before the baptism— and not Father’s testimony that he did not agree with the accounts that he was yelling or losing his cool—to determine that the circumstances of the event demonstrated poor judgment on Father’s part and that Father’s actions caused Son harm.

¶29      On the facts of this case, we cannot fault the district court for its determination that who performs the various parts of a child’s religious ceremonies within the shared religious tradition of both parents (as opposed to whether the ceremonies will be performed at all) is not a major parenting decision requiring the agreement of both parents. Father cites no authority for the proposition that the decision about who performs a religious ceremony is equivalent to decisions concerning a child’s medical care, school attendance, or overall religious practice. Nor has Father challenged any of the factual findings that support the court’s conclusion that Father had failed to demonstrate that Mother’s decision to allow Son to have “input regarding his own baptism was an unhealthy or unwise parenting decision.” Thus, Father cannot show the court erred in considering this decision to be something other than a major parenting decision. And while we understand that Father is unhappy with the court’s conclusion that Father’s behavior before Son’s baptism showed poor judgment on his part rather than ineffective co-parenting on Mother’s part, the evidence in the record supports the court’s conclusion that Mother’s parenting regarding the baptism was not problematic, and we will not reweigh the evidence.

C.        The circumstances surrounding having Son tested for autism

¶30 Father next takes issue with the court’s findings about whether the children have benefitted from the parties’ sharing of parenting responsibilities and about the abilities “of the parents to give first priority to the welfare of the [children] and reach shared decisions in the [children’s] best interest.” See Utah Code § 30-3-10.2(2)(b). Among other things, in determining that Mother should be designated the final decision-maker as to the children’s health, education, and welfare, the court found that Father exhibited an “injudicious use of his veto power over decisions relating to the children’s health” and had “evidenced [a] tendency to act contrary to the children’s interests and to use those interests as leverage against Mother.” But Father’s complaint that the evidence demonstrated that he suggested they not rush into testing Son for autism rather than that he objected to the testing does not diminish the court’s determination that “Father’s veto-power over decisions regarding the children’s health, education, and welfare [] prevented [Son] from being tested for autism at a time when educational professionals believed the test would be helpful to address his needs.” Thus, we agree with Mother that “[e]ven if the court should have used the word ‘delayed’ rather than ‘prevented’” in its finding, Father has not shown how the court’s decision to award Mother final decision-making authority was an abuse of discretion or legal error.

D.        The circumstances surrounding obtaining the children’s passports

¶31 Father next challenges the court’s view of the circumstances surrounding Mother’s attempts to obtain passports for the children in time to visit her cancer-stricken father in Tahiti in 2019. Father argues that the court’s pointed and direct comments about this incident are overly aggressive and suggest that this evidence was the “ultimate basis for [the court’s] ultimate conclusion.” Father asserts that he did not interfere with the passport applications or attempt to condition his facilitation of the passports upon Mother’s promise to return to Utah and suggests that Mother was at fault for not obtaining the passports in time. But, once again, on appeal, Father selectively highlights the evidence he submitted at trial, asserts that the evidence supports a different outcome, and criticizes the court for not crediting his testimony rather than Mother’s. It is not this court’s “purview to engage in a reweighing of the evidence.” Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 9, 406 P.3d 258 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 412 P.3d 1257 (Utah 2018). In fact, when “a foundation for the court’s decision exists in the evidence, [we] may not engage in a reweighing of the evidence.” In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 435. On appeal, this court will look to whether the district court’s decision is supported by the evidence and in cases where the appellant has “merely point[ed] to evidence that might have supported findings more favorable to them” rather than “identify[ing] flaws in the evidence relied on by the [district] court that rendered” the court’s findings clearly erroneous, we will not reverse. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 8 (quotation simplified). Because the court’s decision is supported by the record and Father has identified no fatal flaws in the evidence upon which the court relied, we will not reweigh the evidence.

E.         The reasons and representations given for Mother’s relocation to Washington

¶32 Father next challenges the court’s view of Mother’s relocation. Father appears to attack Mother’s honesty and credibility by asserting that the reasons she gave for her move to Washington were not true. But Father did not appeal the court’s order approving Mother’s relocation, and by not directly challenging the district court’s findings about Mother’s move, Father has failed to persuade us that the court’s determination that “Mother’s move to Washington was not contrary to the children’s interests” was an abuse of discretion or legal error since it “is undisputed that the children are thriving and happy there”.

F.         The district court’s custody factor findings

¶33      Father challenges the court’s determination that evaluation of the statutory custody factors favored denying his petition to modify and awarding Mother more decision-making authority. Specifically, Father argues that the court’s analysis of the custody factors is not supported by the evidence with regard to (1) the parents’ commitment to the care and custody of the children, (2) not disrupting a custody arrangement where the children are happy and well-adjusted in their current circumstances, (3) the respect each parent affords the other parent’s role, (4) the parents’ ability to make decisions jointly, and (5) whether it was better to remain in Washington versus returning to Utah.

¶34      But Father does not tie his argument to a particular custody factor or explain how the court’s findings in these areas are critically important to the overall custody determination. Nor does Father explain how the court’s findings on these factors are against the clear weight of the evidence. “Generally, it is within the [district] court’s discretion to determine . . . where a particular factor falls within the spectrum of relative importance and to accord each factor its appropriate weight.” Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. “While the district court is accorded discretion in weighing these factors, it must be guided at all times by the best interests of the child.” Hinds v. Hinds-Holm, 2022 UT App 13, ¶ 30, 505 P.3d 1136 (quotation simplified).

¶35      Father’s argument that the court disregarded the evidence that supports his preferred evaluation of the statutory custody factors is not persuasive. It is not this court’s role to reweigh the evidence to see if we would reach a different conclusion from that of the district court. Father has not demonstrated that the court’s evaluation of the custody factors lacks evidentiary support or that any finding regarding each factor is against the clear weight of the evidence. Given this, we cannot say that the court abused its discretion or committed legal error in concluding that “none of the factors favor a change in custody” or that “[t]he critically important factors—bonding and continuity of placement— strongly favor leaving primary custody with Mother.”

¶36 In sum, Father has not directly challenged any of the court’s specific findings supporting the determinations listed above. Indeed, he simply highlights evidence he claims the district court ignored. Without a direct challenge to any specific finding, we consider the district court’s findings as established and will not reweigh the evidence.

II. The District Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion When It
Rejected Evaluator’s Recommendation

¶37      Father contends that the district court erred in rejecting the recommendations and testimony of Evaluator. “Courts are not bound to accept the testimony of an expert and are free to judge the expert testimony as to its credibility and its persuasive influence in light of all of the other evidence in the case.” Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 4, 334 P.3d 994 (quotation simplified). “This is because . . . the fact-finder is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony . . . even if that testimony comes from an expert witness.” Woodward v. Lafranca, 2016 UT App 141, ¶ 13, 381 P.3d 1125 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 384 P.3d 570 (Utah 2016). These principles apply to a court’s assessment of the opinions offered by a custody evaluator. Indeed, a “district court is not bound to accept a custody evaluator’s recommendation,” but if a court chooses to reject the evaluator’s opinion, it “is expected to articulate some reason for” doing so. See R.B. v. L.B., 2014 UT App 270, ¶ 18, 339 P.3d 137. In this case, while the court could have perhaps more fully explained its reasons for rejecting Evaluator’s recommendations, in our view the court had sufficient reasons for doing so and adequately explained itself.

¶38      Father first contends that the district court erroneously rejected Evaluator’s recommendations because the court had unreasonable expectations of Evaluator, that it was incumbent on the court to solicit further information from Evaluator through questioning at trial if the court thought her report was insufficient, and that the court should have accepted Evaluator’s recommendation without question because the court did not contest her qualifications and admitted her report into evidence without objection. But the record does not support Father’s complaints, and he does not support his argument with legal citation. The court invited Evaluator to augment her report at trial by “putt[ing] in context or explain[ing] or add[ing] flesh to the bones of the report,” and the court dialogued at length with Evaluator during direct questioning and cross-examination. Father’s complaint that the court discouraged additional testimony or additional explanation from Evaluator because it stated during her examination that “[n]ow that I have received the report, if she’s just going to read it, maybe there’s more effective ways for her to spend her time” is not compelling, especially because Father’s counsel agreed to “expedite the process a bit” by then focusing on Evaluator’s recommendations. Thus, Father does not persuade us that the court abused its discretion or committed legal error in choosing not to ask Evaluator further questions.

¶39      Next, Father takes issue with the court’s decision to reject Evaluator’s recommendation because it was “outdated” at the time of trial.[3] But Father fails to acknowledge that while all the statutory custody factors are equally important, “[a]t the critically important end of the spectrum, when [a] child is thriving, happy, and well-adjusted, lies continuity of placement.” Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. Utah law requires courts to “give substantial weight to the existing joint legal . . . custody order when the child is thriving, happy, and well-adjusted.” Utah Code § 30-3-10.4(2)(c). And here, the court relied heavily on continuity of placement as the basis for rejecting Evaluator’s report. The court found that the evidence presented at trial was “virtually unanimous” in establishing that the children were “happy, well-adjusted, and thriving under [their] current arrangement” and it rejected Evaluator’s contention that relocating the children back to Utah would not be that big of a deal because “[w]e don’t have a child . . . moving into a different developmental phase or a child with specific developmental needs.” Because the court heard the evidence on both sides and it explained why it was rejecting certain evidence, the court did not abuse its discretion or commit legal error. Thus, we see no infirmity in the court’s determination that Evaluator’s report was outdated by the time of trial.

¶40      We are, of course, sensitive to the emotional undercurrents giving rise to Father’s challenges on appeal. This appears to have been a very difficult case for both parties—both of whom love and care for their children. And we acknowledge the district court’s determination that both “parents are well suited to parent the children [who] are surrounded by an unusual amount of love on both sides of the family. . . . All children everywhere deserve to be loved as much as these children are.” But ultimately, the fact that Father disagrees with the court’s decision to deny his petition to modify does not render the district court’s findings inadequate or unsupported by the evidence, nor does it require an outright grant of custody in his favor. See Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 10, 406 P.3d 258, cert. denied, 412 P.3d 1257 (Utah 2018).

¶41 In sum, Father has failed to meaningfully address the evidence supporting the district court’s findings or persuasively demonstrate that those findings are against the clear weight of the evidence or legally erroneous. We therefore affirm the district court’s denial of Father’s petition to modify custody and its associated adjustment to the parties’ legal custody arrangement.

III. Mother’s Attorney Fees Request

¶42 Finally, we address Mother’s challenge to the district court’s denial of her request for attorney fees incurred in responding to Father’s petition to modify. Mother asserts entitlement to fees under two different statutes, but we reject both of her arguments.

¶43 First, Mother claims that the court should have awarded her fees pursuant to a statute authorizing a court to award fees in cases where the “action” was “filed or answered frivolously and in a manner designed to harass the other party.” See Utah Code § 30-3-10.4(5). The court determined that whether the litigation was frivolous or filed with the intent to harass was “a very close call” but that Evaluator’s change-of-custody recommendation provided Father with at least some basis to file his petition. We agree. The district court has discretion to determine whether an action was filed frivolously or with an intent to harass, and we will not substitute our judgment for that of the district court unless the action it takes is so flagrantly unjust as to constitute an abuse of discretion. See Wall v. Wall, 700 P.2d 1124, 1125 (Utah 1985). We discern no abuse of discretion in the court’s determination not to award fees under section 30-3-10.4(5) of the Utah Code.

¶44      Second, Mother claims that the court should have awarded her fees under a different statute, one that authorizes courts to order one party to pay fees to the other in order “to enable the other party to prosecute or defend the action.” See Utah Code § 30­3-3(1). The court denied Mother’s request for fees under this statute based on its determination that Mother did not produce evidence of her financial need. When reviewing requests for attorney fees in divorce proceedings, “both the decision to award attorney fees and the amount of such fees are within the [district] court’s sound discretion.” Stonehocker v. Stonehocker, 2008 UT App 11, ¶ 10, 176 P.3d 476 (quotation simplified). However, the party to be awarded attorney fees under this statute has the burden to prove (1) that the payee spouse has a financial need, (2) that the payor spouse has the ability to pay, and (3) that the fees requested are reasonable. See Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 168, 459 P.3d 276.

¶45 Here, Mother argues that the district court erred in concluding that an award of fees was not warranted when it determined that “Mother did not adduce any evidence of her need for an award of attorney’s fees under section 30-3-3(1).” Mother contends that there was evidence before the court to demonstrate her need and Father’s ability to pay. Specifically, Mother points to the parties’ stipulated order from 2017 that showed the parties’ incomes and the custody evaluation that reported the parties’ incomes in 2020. But Mother did not point to this evidence in connection with her fee request, and we do not think it is incumbent on a district court to comb through the record to find evidence of a party’s need. Rather, the party to be awarded fees has the burden to submit that evidence or at least point the court to that evidence and ask that the court utilize that evidence to determine need.

¶46      Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s conclusion that fees were not warranted in this case.

CONCLUSION

¶47      We conclude that the evidence supports the district court’s findings and conclusions that relocating the children back to Utah would not be in the children’s best interest and supports the denial of Father’s petition to modify. We further conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Mother’s request for attorney fees. Affirmed.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277


[1] Mother has remarried and has adopted her husband’s surname, Sahim.

[2] As this court stated in Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, 217

P.3d 733:

After all, it is the [district] court’s singularly important mission to consider and weigh all the conflicting evidence and find the facts. No matter what contrary facts might have been found from all the evidence, our deference to the [district] court’s pre-eminent role as fact-finder requires us to take the findings of fact as our starting point, unless particular findings have been shown, in the course of an appellant’s meeting the marshaling requirement, to lack legally adequate evidentiary support.

Id. ¶ 20 n.5.

[3] In addition to rejecting Evaluator’s report for being outdated, the court rejected the report because it “fail[ed] to adequately address the evidence presented at trial.” Specifically, the court noted that the report “mentions but glosses over Father’s sending the children away from New Jersey, choosing several times thereafter not to live near the children (including now), preventing them from traveling to Tahiti, and declining to engage [Son] regarding his baptism.” Father takes issue with the court’s reasoning on each point, arguing that the court “did not agree with [Evaluator’s] expert view and analysis of the evidence.” But his argument is limited to merely explaining his view of why each of these events happened and why Evaluator did not find them important. Father does not show that the court’s view was unsupported by the evidence. And regardless of these stated reasons, the court’s decision to reject the report because it was outdated was entirely proper.

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I am ordered to pay child support to my ex. My ex and I are both ordered to share the cost of our child’s health, medical, dental, and hospital care insurance equally. Is there anything I can do to ensure that I am reimbursed without it costing me more than the value of the reimbursement itself?

Question: I am ordered to pay child support to my ex. My ex and I are both ordered to share the cost of our child’s health, medical, dental, and hospital care insurance equally.

The amount of money that my ex owes me each month for half of the cost of the children’s insurance is less than a hundred dollars each month.

The problem is that I end up paying all of the children’s insurance costs each month, and my ex never reimburses me.

While I pay child support consistently on time and in full each month, my ex does not reimburse me for half the cost of our children’s insurance coverage each month. This is no accident or oversight on my ex as part. My ex is doing this deliberately.

It would cost me more in attorney’s fees and court costs to go after my ex for reimbursement than it would be just to eat that cost myself. Is there anything I can do to ensure that I am reimbursed without it costing me more than the value of the reimbursement itself?

Answer: Yes.

For those of you reading this who are going through a Utah divorce or child custody case, don’t have a final order yet, and know that this issue is going to arise, you can prevent it by incorporating into the child support order this provision from Utah Code § 78B-12-212:

(6)(a) The parent who provides insurance may receive credit against the base child support award or recover the other parent’s share of the child’s portion of the premium.

This subsection of the Code is what allows the court to reduce the amount of child support you pay to your ex each month by that portion of the children’s health insurance premium cost that your ex owes you. So, if you owed your ex $472 per month in child support, and your ex owed you $55 per month for your ex is half of the children’s insurance premium costs, you would end up paying your ex a total of $417 each month instead of $472 ($472 – $55 = $417).

If you didn’t have the presence of mind to include such a provision in the final decree or order of the court, you can still obtain this benefit after the fact by either filing a motion or petition with the court to have this ordered.

Or you can work through the Office of Recovery Services (ORS) to have ORS handle the collection and payment of child support, and in that process, adjust the amount of child support your ex is paid by reducing it by your ex’s half of what your ex owes you for child insurance cost reimbursement.

To request the assistance of ORS to obtain credit against child support for your ex’s half of the children’s monthly health insurance premium costs, I’ve provided a link to ORS’s website on the subject and a link to the contact information for ORS:

Asking for a Credit for the Child’s Portion of Health Insurance

Contact Child Support – State of Utah Office of Recovery Services

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Important things divorce attorney clients need to know but would easily and freely be forgiven for not knowing without being told. No. 5:

Help me help you, will you? The cost of a divorce attorney’s representation in Utah is simply and obviously far too high for most people. We’re talking bankruptcy or near-bankruptcy levels. Does anyone out there know how to obtain the value of a good attorney’s services without either the client or the attorney being short-changed in the bargain?

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Why Your Lawyer Might Drop Your Case By Braxton Mounteer

So, you have gotten news that your attorney has quit. Your attorney wrote you an email informing you that he or she your counsel either will soon withdraw as your counsel or has filed and served a notice of withdrawal of counsel. What does this mean? How does this work?
Did you not pay your lawyer? Were you not cooperating with your lawyer? Were you disregarding your lawyer’s advice? Actively working against your lawyer? Sabotaging your own case?

Was the case just too much for your lawyer? Did your lawyer get sick or did an emergency arise that requires all of his/her attention? Could your lawyer sense that you were disappointed in your lawyer’s performance and didn’t want to stick around?

Regardless of what the reason was, you no longer have or will soon not have legal counsel. You will need to find another lawyer to represent you.

You may believe that you could do better than your legal counsel. You wouldn’t be the first to think that way. You are likely frightfully mistaken.  Unless you are a genius who can learn in weeks what it take others years to master, you will not get a good enough handle on the legal system in time. Even if you did master the law, that doesn’t mean you can succeed as well as a lawyer could.
The law on the books is not always the law handed down in court. Insiders have, and will always have, an advantage over those who aren’t legal professionals.
And the legal profession is not kind to those who “did not pay their dues” in law school and by taking the bar exam. Pro se litigants (i.e., people who represent themselves in court cases) who are the equals of lawyers in their writing and oral arguments make most lawyers feel inferior and threatened (and that includes the former lawyers who are now judges). When pro se litigants are so “presumptuous” as to think they will be taken as seriously as the lawyers, the system tends to discriminate against the pro se litigants. So even if your lawyer is nothing more than a useful prop, get one.
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In re Harding Trust – 2023 UT App 81 – family trust

In re Harding Trust – 2023 UT App 81 – family trust

2023 UT App 81

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

IN THE MATTER OF THE A. DEAN HARDING

MARITAL AND FAMILY TRUST.

ROBERT G. HARDING,

Appellee,

v.

RICKIE TAYLOR AND ESTATE OF MARGENE HARDING,

Appellants,

ESTATE OF MARGENE HARDING,

Appellant,

v.

ROBERT G. HARDING AND JILL H. KENDALL,

Appellees.

Opinion

No. 20200808-CA

Filed August 3, 2023

Fourth District Court, American Fork Department

The Honorable Darold McDade

The Honorable Roger W. Griffin

The Honorable Robert C. Lunnen

No. 153100007

Jared W. Moss,

Attorney for Appellee Robert G. Harding

Russell S. Walker,

Attorney for Appellant Rickie Taylor

D. David Lambert and Leslie W. Slaugh,

Attorneys for Appellant Estate of Margene Harding

Steven H. Bergman,

Attorney for Appellee Jill Kendall

In re Harding Trust

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES JOHN D. LUTHY and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        This case arises from a protracted and multi-faceted dispute among siblings and stepsiblings regarding the use and distribution of the assets in a trust created by Dean Harding. After four years of litigation and a six-day bench trial, the trial court determined that Rickie Taylor, acting as trustee of his deceased stepfather’s trust, engaged in numerous acts of self-dealing and other breaches of fiduciary duties resulting in more than $5 million in damages. After trial, the court also determined—sua sponte—that Margene Harding (Taylor’s mother and the lifetime beneficiary of the trust) had been vicariously liable for Taylor’s actions, and therefore held Margene’s estate (the Estate) jointly and severally responsible for the damages Taylor caused. The court then entered judgment against Taylor and the Estate jointly and severally, and in favor of petitioner Robert Harding, in amounts approximating $5 million. Taylor and the Estate now each separately appeal.

¶2        In his appeal, Taylor raises several challenges. First, he takes issue with the court’s order denying his motion to amend his answer to add certain additional affirmative defenses. Second, he challenges the court’s summary judgment order in which the court determined, as a matter of law, that Taylor made unlawful distributions from the trust. Next, Taylor appeals the court’s orders excluding his expert witnesses. Finally, Taylor makes several complaints about the court’s judgment against him, including the amount of damages ordered. As discussed below, we reject most of Taylor’s complaints, although we find merit in one aspect of his challenge to the court’s damages award.

¶3        In its appeal, the Estate also raises several issues for our consideration. First, it challenges the court’s sua sponte determination that it should be jointly and severally liable for the damages caused by Taylor’s wrongdoing. Second, the Estate appeals the court’s decision regarding the appropriate interest rate to be applied to a debt two of Dean’s children owed the trust. Third, it raises several issues with the form of the judgment. Finally, it takes issue with the court’s decision not to award it attorney fees. We find merit in many of the issues the Estate raises.

¶4        For the reasons discussed herein, we affirm some of the court’s rulings, but detect error in others, and therefore vacate the court’s judgment and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

The Trust and Dean’s Death

¶5        During his lifetime, Dean Harding was a successful businessman who owned and operated a commercial heating, ventilation, and air conditioning company. With his first wife, Dean[1] had three children: Robert G. Harding, Jill H. Kendall, and Jeana Vuksinick. In the mid-1980s, after Dean’s first wife had passed away, Dean married Margene Harding. Margene had several children from previous marriages, including Taylor. After Dean married Margene, Taylor became Dean’s stepson and the stepsibling of Robert, Jill, and Jeana.

¶6        In 1994, in an effort to manage his assets and plan his estate, Dean created the A. Dean Harding Marital and Family Trust (Trust). The beneficiaries of the Trust were Dean’s “surviving spouse”—Margene—and Dean’s three children. Under the terms of the Trust, upon Dean’s death, and if Dean’s “spouse survives” him, “all property subject to [the Trust] shall be divided into two parts known as the marital share and the family share.” Dean’s surviving spouse was to have the use of certain Trust assets during her lifetime, and then after her death the Trust assets were to be distributed to Dean’s three children “in equal shares.” Margene’s own children—including Taylor—were not direct beneficiaries of the Trust.

¶7        Any income earned by any part of the Trust was to be paid to Dean’s spouse, and any excess “undistributed” income from the marital share was, upon the spouse’s death, to pass to the “spouse’s estate.” But aside from such income, “all other properties of” the Trust, including all unused principal, were to pass to Dean’s three children upon the spouse’s death.

¶8        With regard to Trust principal, the Trust documents did not authorize any distribution of principal out of the marital share; those documents state that only the surviving spouse was empowered to receive—but not empowered “to appoint”—“any part of” the marital share’s property, but that even she was empowered to receive “income only.” With regard to the principal assets of the family share, however, the situation was different: to the extent that the Trust’s income was not sufficient to meet the surviving spouse’s ongoing “support and maintenance” needs, as viewed through the lens of “her accustomed manner of living,” the trustee was authorized, in his “discretion,” to use the family share’s principal to meet those needs. In making the determination about whether to dip into family share principal to meet the spouse’s needs, the trustee was to consider any “income or other resources” that the spouse had at her disposal, and was to “be mindful of the fact that [Dean’s] primary concern in establishing the [T]rust is [Dean’s] spouse’s welfare and that the interests of others in the [T]rust are to be subordinate to [Dean’s] spouse.”

¶9        The Trust also allowed for “the primary residence owned by” Dean at the time of his death to be “allocated to” the marital share. In that event, Dean’s surviving spouse would be allowed to “reside personally upon the said premises” during her lifetime but would be responsible for paying property taxes, maintaining “adequate insurance,” and “perform[ing] such repairs and maintenance as may be required to maintain the property in the condition it was maintained prior to [Dean’s] death.”

¶10      Dean’s will—created contemporaneously with the Trust— contained a “spendthrift clause” that all parties now agree was incorporated into the Trust. This provision mandated, in relevant part, that no “interest of any beneficiary” in the Trust “be liable . . . for the debts, contracts, liabilities, engagements, obligations or torts of such beneficiary.”

¶11      Dean passed away in January 2004. When he created the Trust, Dean had named himself as trustee, and had named an accountant (Accountant) as successor trustee. Upon Dean’s death, Accountant became the trustee of the Trust, and he estimated that the Trust contained a total of about $5.8 million in assets. Accountant further allocated some $1.5 million to the family share and about $4.3 million to the marital share. Accountant also allowed Margene to continue to reside in Dean’s residence.

¶12      When Dean died, he was the owner of individual retirement accounts (IRAs) that were valued at approximately $1.5 million. These IRAs were among the assets that Accountant allocated to the marital share of the Trust. Shortly after Dean’s death, Accountant signed certain forms clarifying that the Trust was the primary beneficiary of the IRAs. No such forms executed before Dean’s death are part of the record in this case. But even before Dean’s death, the account statements from the IRAs clearly referenced the Trust as the primary beneficiary.

The Settlement Agreement and the Note

¶13      Soon after Dean’s death, various disputes arose involving the Trust’s beneficiaries, and in June 2004, due to “growing contention,” Accountant resigned as trustee. Margene then appointed her son—Taylor—as the new trustee of the Trust. Later, Margene also gave Taylor power of attorney over her own personal finances, which power Taylor utilized to, among other things, write checks (or otherwise authorize withdrawals) from her personal bank accounts.

¶14      Robert, Jill, and Jeana questioned Taylor’s status as successor trustee, and Taylor took issue with an undocumented $1 million loan (the Loan) that two companies controlled by Robert and Jill had taken from the Trust prior to Dean’s death. Both sides filed competing petitions in court raising these and other disputes, and eventually agreed to resolve their differences in a settlement agreement (the Settlement Agreement). Among other things, the Settlement Agreement provided that Taylor would be allowed to continue as trustee of the Trust, but he would be required to “provide a full accounting . . . of the Trust assets and affairs at least annually,” provide “quarterly trust brokerage statements,” and “communicate with” Robert, Jill, and Jeana through their designated liaison—Jeana—“at least twice per month.” Ultimately, in the ensuing years, Jeana met with Taylor about four times per year to obtain information about the Trust, and neither Jeana nor her siblings, prior to 2015, ever asked for additional information from Taylor.

¶15      With regard to the Loan, Robert—both personally and on behalf of the companies—and Jill agreed to “execute a promissory note memorializing the undocumented Loan,” and agreed to pay “[a]ccrued interest” at a “variable” rate equivalent to “the margin loan rate assessed by S[a]lomon Smith Barney on Brokerage Account No. 298-02528-13 303 . . . as may fluctuate from time to time until paid in full.” The promissory note they later signed (the  Note) also stated that interest payments were to be made quarterly, and that if the Note were to be in “default” that “interest shall accrue at one percent (1%) above” the variable rate specified. Interest paid on the Note was to be considered income from the marital share of the Trust and—under the terms of the Trust—paid to Margene or, if undistributed at her death, to the Estate. Robert and Jill signed the Note as personal guarantors, but each did so “only for one-half (1/2) of the remaining balance plus interest, and only to the extent of [their] inheritance.”

¶16      The Settlement Agreement also had an attorney fees clause, which provided that if any party to the agreement were “required to retain counsel to enforce any of the provisions of this Agreement,” the party “determined to be in substantial default in any subsequent action shall pay the prevailing [party] its costs and reasonable attorney fees.” The Note had such a clause too, pursuant to which Robert and Jill “promise[d] to pay all reasonable costs and expenses of collection of any amount due under this Note including reasonable attorney’s fees.”

A Decade of Taylor’s Trust Administration

¶17      Following execution of the Settlement Agreement, Taylor served as trustee of the Trust for the next thirteen years (until he was removed by court order in January 2018). During that time, he took numerous actions that were later questioned by one or more of Dean’s children.

¶18      Upon assuming the role of trustee, Taylor made little effort to familiarize himself with much of what his duties entailed.[2] An attorney hired by the Trust provided Taylor with a document setting forth some of his duties as trustee, but he read only the pages the attorney said were important, and he was later unable to recollect any of the content of the document. Taylor also later stated that he was unaware of what fiduciary duties are. At one point, when asked whether he had read the Trust documents before beginning to authorize distributions of Trust assets, Taylor stated that he “left that . . . to the attorneys and the accountants.”

¶19      Throughout his tenure as trustee, Taylor was largely unaware whether the distributions he authorized came from the marital or family share of the Trust. He later testified that he was unaware of any written guidelines indicating when it was appropriate to distribute money from the family share. As noted above, the Trust allowed Taylor to distribute family share principal only when the trust income and Margene’s other assets were insufficient to meet Margene’s accustomed needs, but Taylor never analyzed Margene’s needs to determine whether principal distributions were appropriate. Throughout the thirteen years he served as trustee, Taylor never tracked the distributions of principal. In addition, with regard to some of the distributions Taylor made from the Trust—including several five-figure payments—Taylor was later unable to explain the destination or purpose of the payments.

¶20      Taylor was also unaware of whether the required minimum distributions (RMDs) he made from the IRAs were considered income and therefore payable to Margene, or were considered principal and therefore subject to the Trust’s restrictions on distributions of principal. During his time as trustee, Taylor simply paid 100% of the RMDs from the IRAs to Margene, as if they were entirely composed of income. He later learned, however, that pursuant to the provisions of Utah’s Uniform Principal and Income Act (UPIA), only a small portion of the RMDs could properly be classified as income. See Utah Code § 22-3-409.[3]

¶21      During his years as trustee, Taylor used his power of attorney over Margene’s personal finances to make transfers of money from Margene’s accounts (which were largely funded by Trust assets) to accounts controlled by Taylor, and Taylor was unable to explain the reason for many of these transfers. Examples of these transactions include payment for third-row Utah Jazz season tickets in the amount of $74,945; a $123,470.59 payment to a business Taylor owned; purchase of an Arabian horse; a $93,600 payment to Taylor’s sister; and $62,700 in “[f]unds directed to Taylor personally.” Some of these transfers he characterized as “gifts” from Margene to him or his siblings.

¶22      Taylor also failed to properly maintain vehicles owned by the Trust. A motorhome owned by the Trust was used by Taylor’s siblings until, while being used by Taylor’s nephew, it was stolen. A truck and “another car,” also owned by the Trust, were gifted by Margene to Taylor’s sister. And another Trust vehicle was totaled by Taylor’s son.

¶23      While Taylor was acting as trustee, Robert’s ex-wife served a writ of garnishment on the Trust regarding money Robert allegedly owed her in their divorce case. Robert claims to have first become aware of his ex-wife’s actions when a Trust attorney informed him that his ex-wife had served the writ on the Trust. After receiving notice, Robert claims that he hired an expert “to analyze the propriety of the amount of [her] claim” and that he obtained legal counsel to potentially dispute or negotiate the money owed. However, under the threat of the writ of garnishment, Taylor authorized payment from the Trust of some $250,000 to Robert’s ex-wife. Moreover, Robert’s ex-wife had previously obtained approximately $35,000 from the proceeds of a short sale of Robert’s home. Robert took issue with Taylor’s authorization of the payment out of the Trust to his ex-wife, believing that the payment resulted in his ex-wife receiving at least $35,000 more than she was entitled to and that it “undercut any negotiation he had with [her] regarding the [total] amount owed.” However, Robert’s ex-wife did not make any further claims against Robert for the money owed, and Robert later testified that the Trust’s “distributions of funds to [his ex-wife] did extinguish his debt to her.”

¶24      In the years after the Loan was memorialized in the Note as part of the Settlement Agreement, Robert and Jill (and their companies) made only two payments on the $1 million Note. Those payments totaled about $58,000 and appeared to include interest calculated at a 2% rate. But no other payments were made, and the two companies involved eventually went out of business. No party gave the Trust any notice of the companies’ dissolution, so the Trust, perhaps understandably, never made a claim on any of the companies’ assets. A Trust attorney did send a notice of default in 2006. But the Trust never took any other steps to collect on the Note from the companies (prior to dissolution) or from Robert and Jill (as guarantors), and the Note (both principal and interest) remained unpaid until after Margene’s death.

Margene’s Death and the Ensuing Distributions

¶25      Margene passed away in February 2015, and Taylor was appointed personal representative of her estate. The terms of the Settlement Agreement required Taylor to make final distributions of Trust assets within sixty days of Margene’s death, but he did not do so within that time period. About six months after Margene’s death, Taylor made a partial distribution of $775,000 (before deductions) to each of the three beneficiaries. Robert didn’t actually receive any money, though, because Taylor deducted $524,279.25 from both Robert’s and Jill’s distributions to account for the unpaid principal (but not the unpaid interest) on the Loan, and deducted an additional $250,720.75 from Robert’s tally because of the payment made by the Trust, on Robert’s behalf, to Robert’s ex-wife. Jill received a payment of $250,720.75, and Jeana received the full $775,000. Later, in 2016, Taylor was ordered to transfer nearly all the remaining Trust assets to Dean’s three children, and he did so by making a distribution to each of them in the approximate amount of $608,000.

The Lawsuit and the Two Competing Petitions

¶26      In September 2015, Robert filed a petition seeking “full distribution” from the Trust, a “full accounting” of Trust expenditures, and “damages resulting from breach of trust.” The petition named the Trust, Taylor, the Estate, Jill, Jeana, and Robert’s ex-wife as respondents. As to Taylor, Robert alleged that Taylor had unlawfully distributed principal from the Trust, and that at least some of these unlawful distributions had been made “on Margene’s behalf.” As to his ex-wife, Robert alleged that the payment made to her from the Trust violated the spendthrift provision and “interfered with and frustrated [his] settlement negotiations with” her.[4] And as to the Estate, Robert’s only allegation concerned the marital home; he alleged that “Margene failed to repair and maintain the [home] in the condition it was maintained prior to Dean’s death.” He made no other substantive allegations against the Estate, and did not assert that Margene or the Estate was or should be liable for Taylor’s actions.

¶27      In his prayer for relief at the end of his petition, Robert requested a full accounting, and asked that the court order Taylor to make distributions to him and his two siblings as required by that accounting. He also asked the court to order Taylor to “take immediate action to recover the funds distributed to” Robert’s ex-wife. He requested damages against “the Trust and/or Trustee” resulting from any unlawful distributions Taylor had made from the Trust. Against the Estate, he sought only damages “for the loss in value of” the marital home, as well as “a return of principal wrongfully distributed from the Trust.” Although Jill and Jeana were listed as respondents, the petition did not set forth any claims against or requests for relief from them; indeed, as noted, the petition asked the court to order distributions to all three of Dean’s children.

¶28      The Estate filed a counter-petition against the Trust, Robert, and Jill. The petition sought an order compelling Robert and Jill to pay the interest owed on the Loan to the Estate, pointing out that interest is classified as income from the marital share of the Trust and is, under the terms of the Trust, payable to the Estate (whose heirs include Taylor) upon Margene’s death. The Estate’s petition suggested that the total amount of interest owed, at the time the petition was filed, was more than $630,000. With regard to the Trust, the Estate simply asked that “any amounts still owing” to the Estate from the Trust be paid. And in this filing, the Estate included an “objection to” Robert’s petition, arguing that Robert’s prayer for relief addressing the Estate should be stricken “when no such allegations are made in the petition itself.”

¶29      Taylor filed an “objection and response” to Robert’s petition, in which he admitted certain of Robert’s allegations and denied the rest. He set forth no affirmative defenses of his own, although he did “join[]” in the defenses set forth in the response filed by Robert’s ex-wife. In her response, Robert’s ex-wife set forth nine separate affirmative defenses, including the allegation that Robert’s “claims are barred by the statute of limitations for objecting to and/or opposing the” writ of garnishment, “and by the doctrine of laches.”

Pretrial Motions

¶30      Following the filing of the two competing petitions and the responses, the litigation entered the discovery phase. The trial court issued scheduling orders setting certain deadlines, and the parties exchanged written discovery, took several depositions, and attempted mediation.

¶31      About nine weeks prior to the end of the fact discovery period, Taylor filed a motion asking for leave to amend his response to add several specific affirmative defenses, including a claim that he “had a good faith basis for his actions” and a claim that Robert’s petition was “barred by applicable statutes of limitation, including, but not limited to” Utah Code sections 78B­2-305 and -307. In the memoranda supporting his motion, Taylor never asserted that probate petitions aren’t pleadings subject to the usual rules of amendment. Robert opposed Taylor’s motion, arguing that Taylor provided no justification for the delay, that waiting to amend was a “dilatory move” made at least in part to “evade [Robert’s] discovery requests,” and that Robert would be prejudiced because of the little time left in the fact discovery period. After full briefing, the court held a hearing to consider Taylor’s motion, and at the conclusion of the arguments denied the motion from the bench. The court’s minute entry recites that the motion was denied “[f]or reasons as stated” on the record. But the record submitted to us does not include a transcript of this hearing. After the hearing, the court signed an order memorializing the ruling, therein briefly stating that it had denied Taylor’s motion because “adequate justification has not been provided” and because it considered Taylor’s delay “unreasonable.” Taylor had attempted to justify the amendment, at least in part, by asserting that he had intended his incorporation of Robert’s ex-wife’s affirmative defenses to include “all applicable statutes of limitations and laches defenses.” The court rejected this justification as “faulty,” determining that Robert’s ex-wife’s defense was “limited in scope to one specific issue,”

namely, the writ of garnishment, and that Taylor’s incorporation of that defense did not serve to indicate to Robert that Taylor was asserting any different time-based defense.

¶32      Later, Robert moved for partial summary judgment on the narrow question of whether Taylor had violated the “terms of the Trust . . . by invading the principal of the” Trust’s marital share, and had thereby breached his fiduciary duties. In particular, Robert asserted that Taylor had made more than $2.2 million worth of “improper distributions” of principal out of the Trust’s marital share—some $1 million of which involved distributions from the IRAs, and some $1.2 million of which involved distributions from other sources—all of which were contrary to the Trust documents’ command that no such distributions were authorized, and that these actions constituted breach of fiduciary duty. Robert included specific details of the alleged distributions and supported his allegations with bank statements.

¶33      In response, Taylor did not deny making distributions of principal from the marital share, and he in fact admitted to making “over distributions” of principal that “may have been improper,” but argued that the distributions were nevertheless “valid” for various reasons. For instance, he argued that the distributions were valid, at least to some extent, because he was authorized to distribute principal from the family share at his discretion. And with regard to the IRA distributions, Taylor asserted that he relied on the advice of legal and accounting professionals, and that his actions were therefore reasonable, and he asserted that it was unclear whether the Trust was even the proper owner of the IRAs. Taylor also disputed the amount of the distributions he had made from principal. In reply, Robert pointed out, among other things, that Taylor had not included an “advice-of-counsel” affirmative defense in his responsive pleading, and that the court had already rejected his attempt to add additional affirmative defenses, including specifically a defense that he “had a good faith basis for his actions.” Robert thus asserted that Taylor had waived his opportunity to plead an advice-of-counsel defense.

¶34      After full briefing on the motion, the court held oral argument, and in an oral ruling at the conclusion of the hearing granted Robert’s motion, at least in part. The record submitted to us does not include a transcript of this hearing, so the details and scope of the oral ruling are unknown to us. In an order entered about a month later that was intended to memorialize the oral ruling, the court first noted that the Trust authorized Margene to receive “income only” from the marital share, and then concluded that, “[b]ased on . . . Taylor’s admissions and the evidence before the court, . . . Taylor made unlawful distributions of principal from the [marital share] to Margene.” But that was as far as the court went; it recognized that genuine issues of material fact remained regarding, among other things, the amount and calculation of the unlawful distributions, as well as whether Robert and Jill owed money to the Trust or to the Estate related to the Note. The court reserved all of those issues for trial. And at least in its written ruling, the court made no mention of Taylor’s claimed advice-of-counsel defense.

¶35      The court’s order also implicitly rejected Taylor’s argument that the Trust was not the owner of the IRAs, stating that the marital share of the Trust “included several [IRAs]” and that “[t]he required minimum distributions of the IRAs were paid to” the marital share and transferred to Margene. The court shed additional light on this matter in another order issued the same day resolving a separate motion that Robert had filed; in that other order, the court determined that the Estate “is not the owner or beneficiary of the IRAs.” This decision was driven by the court’s determination that the Estate had “fail[ed] to provide any admissible evidence to create a genuine issue of fact” with regard to Robert’s assertion—amply supported by the record—“that the IRAs were properly transferred to and owned by the . . . Trust after Dean’s death.”

¶36      Around the same time, Robert also moved for summary judgment regarding the payment Taylor had authorized to Robert’s ex-wife. After briefing and argument, the court held that the payment violated the spendthrift provision as a matter of law, but that “[t]here are disputed facts regarding,” among other things, “the amount of damages, if any,” and concluded that those issues were reserved for trial. The court, however, noted that “equity prevents” giving Robert a “windfall of $250,000,” and that factual questions remained regarding whether Robert “suffered any interest losses that he . . . may have been entitled to if . . . the money had been kept longer or there had been a [lower amount that his ex-wife] would’ve accepted.”

¶37      There were also pretrial skirmishes regarding expert witnesses. When the time came for Taylor to designate experts, he designated three: a legal expert and two accounting experts. Robert elected to receive written reports from the accounting experts, but opted to take the deposition of Taylor’s proffered legal expert. Taylor did not ever submit expert reports from his two proffered accounting experts. On Robert’s motion, and because Taylor failed to submit reports as required, the court later excluded Taylor’s accounting experts from testifying in Taylor’s case-in-chief, although the court did allow one of them to testify at trial as a rebuttal witness.

¶38      Robert also asked the court to exclude the proffered testimony of Taylor’s legal expert, arguing that the court “should not allow a local attorney to tell [it] how to interpret” the Trust documents. The court granted this motion in an oral ruling made at a hearing; it later memorialized that ruling in a brief written order stating simply that, “[a]fter argument by counsel and review of the briefings filed by the parties, the Court grants [Robert’s] Motion in Limine excluding all legal expert testimony at trial.” The record submitted to us does not contain a transcript of the hearing at which the court rendered its oral ruling, nor does it contain any additional elucidation of the court’s reasoning in granting Robert’s motion to exclude Taylor’s legal expert.

¶39      While Jill and Jeana each hired counsel and participated in the litigation, neither Jill nor Jeana filed their own petitions or made any claims of their own against Taylor; indeed, as noted, they were included as respondents in Robert’s initial petition. But as the litigation went on, Jill and Jeana began to align themselves more and more with Robert; in its post-trial findings, the court observed that, by the time of trial, Jill’s and Jeana’s “interests were eventually aligned with Robert’s.” About two years into the litigation, and recognizing some uncertainty about whether Jill and Jeana were stating claims, Taylor filed a motion attempting to clarify matters and limit Robert’s damages “to his one-third beneficial interest or share of the Trust.” Robert, Jill, and Jeana all separately opposed this motion. In his opposition, Robert stated that, even though he was the only one of Dean’s children who had filed a petition, he was seeking damages “for the benefit of all beneficiaries—[Robert], Jill and Jeana.” After full briefing, the court held argument to consider Taylor’s motion, and denied it in an oral ruling at the conclusion of the hearing. The record submitted to us does not include a transcript of this hearing. A few weeks later, the court memorialized its oral ruling in a written order, concluding that Robert “has standing to assert claims on behalf of all of the Trust beneficiaries” and that “[a]ny damages that are ultimately found against Taylor are not limited to [Robert’s] one-third beneficial interest.”

¶40      As the time for trial grew near, Robert filed a motion to bifurcate, asking the court to separate the trial of the Estate’s claims—chiefly, for interest on the Loan—from the trial of Robert’s claims for damages relating to improper distributions of Trust principal. In this motion, Robert suggested that the claims stated in his petition against the Estate—regarding the marital home—were “likely resolved” in light of a recent ruling the court had apparently made regarding the costs to repair the home.[5] Thus, Robert argued, “the only issue remaining” with regard to his petition “is the amount of damages to be awarded against Taylor as the Trustee of the Trust,” and therefore in Robert’s view the Estate “should not be involved in” the trial of the claims set forth in his petition. The court denied the motion, noting that the case was scheduled to be tried to the bench and stating that “the court is capable of keeping separate the testimony of the various witnesses” regarding the Estate’s petition and Robert’s petition.

¶41      Also prior to trial, on Robert’s motion, the court issued an order removing Taylor as trustee of the Trust. In that same order, the court replaced Taylor with two co-trustees: Robert and Jill.

The Trial

¶42      The issues remaining in the case were tried to the bench in March and April 2019. During the course of the trial, the court heard fact testimony from Robert, Jill, Jeana, and Robert’s current wife, as well as from Taylor. The court also heard testimony from financial experts, one retained by Robert and one by the Estate, as well as rebuttal testimony from one retained by Taylor. In addition, the court heard testimony from an accountant and an attorney who had provided advice to the Trust during Taylor’s tenure as trustee. After the completion of the parties’ four-day evidentiary presentation, the court scheduled time for the parties to present extensive closing arguments, which took place over another two days the following week. At one point during closing arguments, Jeana’s attorney made an oral motion “to conform the pleadings to the evidence that [Jeana] is a one-third beneficiary of the [T]rust, who essentially has been acting as a Petitioner in this case.” Over the Estate’s objection, the court ruled that Jeana “is a Petitioner,” even though the court was not allowing her to “assert any affirmative claims,” and that Jeana had “a third interest, as a beneficiary,” in the case. After closing arguments, the court then took the matter under advisement, and asked the parties to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law that were stipulated “on as many points as possible.”

Post-Trial Developments

¶43      Perhaps predictably, the parties were unable to reach agreement on any matter in the findings and conclusions, and by mid-May they had each submitted individual proposed findings instead. In Robert’s set of suggested findings, he did not propose any finding or conclusion that the Estate was (or should be) vicariously liable for Taylor’s actions, although Robert did propose that the court “impose[] a constructive trust on the assets of the Estate” and order that “all remaining [Estate] assets payable or distributable to Taylor be used to pay the outstanding judgments in this case.” The court reviewed the parties’ respective findings and began work on its own written ruling.

¶44      For the next six months, the court held periodic status hearings approximately every sixty days—in July, September, and November—sometimes asking for “clarification” or additional information on issues, and on one occasion stating simply that it had called the hearing to let the parties know that it “need[ed] a little additional time to finish” the ruling and offering its view that “this hearing will technically give [the court] another 60 days.” In the November 2019 status hearing, the court indicated that it was nearly finished with its written ruling, and actually announced portions of that ruling during the hearing. In the course of making those announcements, the court declared— sua sponte—that it would be “finding that the [E]state is liable,” along with Taylor, for Taylor’s actions; the court explained that Taylor “controlled the expenditures of Margene” and “had power of attorney” and “represented both” the Estate and the Trust, and that the Estate “benefited from [Taylor’s] misuse of” Trust funds.

The court indicated that it was “struggling a little bit on what the proper law is to divide up the liability between” the Estate and Taylor, and it asked the parties for supplemental briefing on that question and certain other issues.

The Court’s Initial Written Ruling

¶45      A couple of weeks later, while the supplemental briefing was still in process, the court issued a lengthy written ruling containing both findings of fact and conclusions of law. In that ruling, the court found, among other things, that Taylor did not trouble himself to “read the Trust document prior to making distributions,” that he “was ignorant and at times willfully blind of the duties he assumed as a fiduciary under Utah law,” “that he did not make reasonable efforts to inform himself of those duties,” and that he had, in various ways, breached those duties as trustee of the Trust. In particular, the court determined that Taylor had breached several different fiduciary duties, including his duty to administer the Trust in good faith and as a prudent person would, his duty of loyalty, and his duty to enforce and defend claims against the Trust. The court also found that Taylor had breached a duty to maintain the marital home, explaining that, even though the Trust documents placed that duty on Margene and not on the trustee, “Taylor as trustee can be imputed a duty to maintain the marital home for the welfare of Margene.” And the court offered its view that, at least in some respects, Taylor’s “testimony lacked any indicia of credibility.”

¶46      With regard to Taylor’s trust administration, the court found that Taylor’s conduct not only “fell short of the required standard” but “crossed over into ‘reckless indifference’ towards Trust assets, or to acts of bad faith.” In the court’s view, Taylor “acted as trustee in a dilatory, haphazard, uncaring and slipshod fashion,” at times “making use of the Trust as if it were his own personal piggy-bank.” The court found that Taylor “showed a blatant lack of care about tracking monies coming out of the Trust,” and that “Taylor frequently invaded Trust corpus principal . . . with no consideration of the limiting terms of the [T]rust agreement.” The court found “that Taylor did not make an analysis of his mother’s needs when expending trust funds,” specifically noting that “Margene had significant assets of her own . . . that [Taylor] should have . . . considered as sources to provide for her care and maintenance prior to expenditure of Trust corpus principal,” including two other properties and some $2 million in “Zions stock.”

¶47      With regard to Taylor’s duty of loyalty, the court found that Taylor had engaged in frequent acts of self-dealing, for himself, his wife, and his siblings, and that he “used his position as trustee to engage in acts of extensive, repeated, and prolonged self-dealing” by “repeatedly authoriz[ing] transactions that directly benefited himself.” The court specifically listed the Jazz tickets, the Arabian horse, and direct payments to Taylor’s family members as examples of Taylor’s self-dealing. The court also mentioned Taylor’s “fail[ure] to control [the] vehicles titled in the name of the Trust,” stating that it appeared to the court as though Taylor was unaware that the Trust even owned any vehicles. The court found that “Taylor’s treatment of the vehicles . . . is typical of his reckless treatment of other Trust assets and his ignorance of his fiduciary duties as Trustee.”

¶48      On the question of damages caused by Taylor’s mismanagement of the Trust, the court adopted the calculations offered by Robert’s damages expert, explaining that her “methods provide a reasonably certain calculation of damages” that “accounts for both excess distributions and losses incurred due to present value of money.” Based on the methods used by Robert’s expert, the court calculated that the Trust had sustained damages, as the result of Taylor’s actions, in the amount of $5,229,095.

¶49      The court also made findings about the marital home, determining that it “was in excellent repair and condition” at the time of Dean’s death, but that Margene did not continue to properly maintain the property afterwards. As noted, however, the court held Taylor responsible for this conduct, imputing Margene’s duty onto Taylor. The court determined that the total damages regarding the home were $33,500, and that this amount was “owed to Jeana,” because Jeana had purchased the home for full value and then made the repairs to the home herself.[6] The court took the $33,500 amount from estimates provided by Jeana, even though, during a separate legal proceeding, Jeana had claimed she was owed only $29,439 for the repairs.

¶50      The court also determined that Taylor “violated his duty to enforce and defend claims against the Trust” when he authorized the $250,000 payment to Robert’s ex-wife. The court found that Taylor “failed to adequately communicate with Robert . . . regarding any merits or defenses to [Robert’s ex-wife]’s writ of garnishment . . . , or even to ascertain whether the amounts claimed were proper.” The court ruled that Taylor was “liable for the consequences of” this breach, but in its initial post-trial ruling the court made no effort to quantify that amount or identify who the damaged party was. During closing argument and his post-trial proposed findings, Robert had asked the court to award $35,000 plus interest on this issue. Nevertheless, the court later determined, after additional post-trial briefing, that Taylor was liable for the entire payment of $250,720.25.

¶51      In its initial written ruling, the court also made findings regarding the Estate’s petition. As noted, the Estate’s main issue concerned the unpaid interest on the Loan the Trust had made to Robert and Jill and their companies and, specifically, what the appropriate interest rate was. While the Note memorializing the Loan called for an interest rate tied to a particular brokerage account at Salomon Smith Barney, there were several lengthy “gap period[s],” ranging from several months to several years, during which “an interest rate was not published on the account.” The Estate’s expert used the published rate for the months it was available, but for the gap periods he employed two different methods (more fully explained below, in Part II.B) to estimate what the brokerage account interest rate would have been. Using these methods, the expert calculated the unpaid interest on the Note as $922,219.77.

¶52      The court, despite finding that the Estate’s expert’s averaging “method to cover short gap periods [was] reasonable,” declined to apply the expert’s interest rates for any of the gap periods. Instead, the court chose to apply a statutory default interest rate—one that turned out to be much lower than the rates suggested by the expert—to all the gap periods. See Utah Code § 70A-3-112 (“If an instrument provides for interest, but the amount of interest payable cannot be ascertained from the description, interest is payable at the judgment rate in effect at the place of payment of the instrument and at the time interest first accrues.”). In its initial post-trial ruling, the court asked the parties to provide supplemental calculations of the amount of interest owing, using the methods laid out in the ruling. After supplemental briefing, the court later determined that the total amount of unpaid interest owing on the Note was $565,314.97.

¶53      Finally, the court briefly considered the question of attorney fees, which had been requested by the Estate, Robert, and Taylor. The court determined that Taylor was “not entitled to any attorneys’ fees he incurred,” but that Robert was entitled to both (a) reimbursement of $187,595.71 from the Trust for fees incurred in defending the administration of the Trust, and (b) additional attorney fees from Taylor, pursuant to Utah’s bad faith statute, as the “prevailing party” in the litigation. See id. § 78B-5-825. The court specifically found that “Taylor’s defenses against the claims raised” in Robert’s petition “were brought in bad faith,” and asked Robert to submit an affidavit of fees and costs.

Joint and Several Liability of the Estate

¶54      After receiving the court’s lengthy written ruling, the parties continued working on their supplemental briefing, not only about the interest calculation but also about the joint-and-several-liability issue raised by the court, sua sponte, in the November 2019 hearing. After full briefing, the court heard argument on that issue, and at the conclusion of the hearing took the matter under advisement. A few weeks later, the court issued a written ruling, making two significant determinations. First, the court determined that the issue of Margene’s (and therefore, by extension, the Estate’s) vicarious liability for Taylor’s actions— despite not having been raised in the pleadings—had been tried by the consent of the parties. Second, the court officially found the Estate jointly and severally liable for Taylor’s actions. It specifically did not employ a constructive trust theory to render the Estate’s assets available for collection; instead, it noted that “Taylor had power of attorney over his mother’s financial affairs while exercising authority and powers as the trustee of” the Trust, and concluded that Taylor had the “intent to unlawfully pilfer the . . . Trust and preserve his mother’s estate for his own benefit and the benefit of his siblings.” The court offered its view that it “need not retreat to any equitable theory”—such as constructive trust— where there was “an express contract covering the subject matter of the litigation,” which contract was, in the court’s view, the Trust document. The court later clarified that it had not rejected Robert’s constructive trust theory, stating that the fact that it “didn’t rule on that theory . . . doesn’t mean that [the court] didn’t accept it,” and explaining that it had simply made a ruling “on an alternative ground.” Indeed, the court went so far as to say that, if a constructive trust theory was “what the parties believe is a more proper finding,” the court may be willing to “find that I’m ordering a constructive trust.”

Attorney Fees

¶55      After the trial, the court also made additional rulings regarding attorney fees. The court had already determined, in its lengthy written ruling, that Robert was entitled to recover reasonable attorney fees from Taylor. Later, Robert submitted an affidavit claiming $441,546.50 of attorney fees and $137,148.38 in costs, which the court determined were reasonable.

¶56      The Estate also requested attorney fees from Robert on the Loan/Note issue, invoking the Note’s attorney fees provision and asserting that it had been the prevailing party on the question of unpaid interest on the Loan. The Estate submitted detailed declarations—from two different attorneys—setting forth the fees incurred in that endeavor. In the motion accompanying the declarations, the Estate was careful to point out that “the fee declarations allocate between time spent on issues pertaining to the claim for interest on the Note and time spent on other matters,” directing the court’s attention to line items in the declarations that had been excluded from the request. The Estate asserted that the items remaining in its request were either directly related to its claim for unpaid interest or, alternatively, were inextricably intertwined with that claim such that they could not meaningfully be separated.

¶57      However, the court denied the Estate’s fee request in its entirety, concluding that the Estate had “fail[ed] to properly allocate claimed fees for claims upon which it prevailed.” The court acknowledged that the Estate had “made some effort to adhere to the Court’s admonition” to properly allocate attorney fees, but ultimately concluded that the Estate’s attempts in that regard were inadequate because, in the court’s view, the Estate’s fee request included fees for “legal work that sought to advance theories and arguments which the Court did not adopt and upon which the [E]state did not prevail.”[7]

The Form of the Judgment

¶58      During this same post-trial time period, the court also addressed questions regarding the form of the judgment, including who should be ordered to pay whom and how much. Robert submitted a proposed form of judgment, listing himself as the only judgment creditor, and indicating that Taylor owed him some $5.8 million and that the Estate, through joint and several liability and after an offset for unpaid interest, owed him some $5.2 million. This proposed judgment drew initial objections from the Estate and Taylor. In response to these initial objections, the court clarified that Taylor was solely liable for the payment to Robert’s ex-wife, but that the Estate was jointly and severally liable for the marital home damages and fee payments. And it ruled that Robert and Jill were each liable for “one half of the unpaid interest,” but it did not add Jill as a judgment debtor, reasoning that “[t]he amount of interest is to mitigate damages owed by the Estate” and should be accounted for as “an offset against amounts owed.”

¶59      Just days after the court’s ruling on the initial objections to the form of the judgment, the Estate lodged another objection, pointing out that—even though the court had previously held that Robert was not limited to pursuing damages only for his one-third share, had noted that Robert has standing to bring a claim on behalf of his siblings, and had even stated in its written ruling that the damages to the marital home were “owed to Jeana”—the only judgment creditor listed in the judgment was “Robert G. Harding,” apparently in his personal capacity. The Estate argued that the proper judgment creditors should be Robert and Jill “as trustees” of the Trust, because the claims presented at trial were largely “related to claims by the Trust, not claims by Robert G. Harding personally.” Robert opposed this objection, asserting that the language of the proposed judgment “is consistent with the procedural history” of the case and with the court’s written rulings. The court made no express ruling on this final objection and instead went ahead and signed its judgment without further comment, thus implicitly overruling the objection.

¶60      The signed judgment lists “Robert G. Harding” as the only judgment creditor, and Taylor and the Estate as the only judgment debtors. The document recites that Robert is “awarded Judgment against” Taylor in the amount of $5,815,599.71, and that Robert is “awarded Judgment against” the Estate in the amount of $4,999,564.49.[8] The difference between the two figures—the amount owed by Taylor as compared to the amount owed by the Estate—is $816,035.22, which is the sum of the offset for the unpaid interest on the Note ($565,314.97) and the amount paid to Robert’s ex-wife ($250,720.25).

¶61      Following entry of the judgment, the Estate filed a motion to amend the court’s rulings, findings, and judgment. In this motion, the Estate argued, among other things,[9] that the court had erred by accounting for the Estate’s recovery against Robert and Jill for unpaid interest through a setoff mechanism, instead of entering a separate judgment in favor of the Estate and against Robert and Jill. The Estate pointed out that this was especially problematic with regard to Jill, who was not a judgment creditor and therefore had no positive judgment against which her interest obligation could be set off. After full briefing and argument, the court denied the Estate’s motion.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶62      Taylor and the Estate each separately appeal. In his appeal, Taylor raises four issues for our review. First, he contends that the court erred in denying his motion to amend to add additional affirmative defenses. When reviewing a trial court’s decision on a motion to amend, “we give considerable deference to the [trial] court, as it is best positioned to evaluate the motion to amend in the context of the scope and duration of the lawsuit” and we “defer to the trial court’s determination.” Daniels v. Gamma West Brachytherapy, LLC, 2009 UT 66, ¶ 60, 221 P.3d 256 (quotation simplified). Thus, “[w]e overturn a trial court’s denial of a motion to amend . . . only when we find an abuse of discretion.” Kelly v. Hard Money Funding, Inc., 2004 UT App 44, ¶ 14, 87 P.3d 734.

¶63      Second, Taylor argues that the court erred in determining, on summary judgment, that he had breached his fiduciary duties by making distributions from marital share principal. Summary judgment is appropriate “if the moving party shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Utah R. Civ. P. 56(a). “We review the summary judgment decision de novo.” Salo v. Tyler, 2018 UT 7, ¶ 19, 417 P.3d 581 (quotation simplified).

¶64      Third, Taylor takes issue with the court’s exclusion of his three disclosed expert witnesses. There are “[t]wo different standards of review [that] apply to claims regarding the admissibility of evidence.” Smith v. Volkswagen SouthTowne, Inc., 2022 UT 29, ¶ 41, 513 P.3d 729. “The first standard of review, correctness, applies to the legal questions underlying the admissibility of evidence.” Id. (quotation simplified). “The second standard of review, abuse of discretion, applies to the [trial] court’s decision to admit or exclude evidence and to determinations regarding the admissibility of expert testimony.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶65      Fourth, Taylor challenges the court’s ultimate determination of damages. “A trial court’s findings of fact will not be set aside unless clearly erroneous.” Traco Steel Erectors, Inc. v. Comtrol, Inc., 2009 UT 81, ¶ 17, 222 P.3d 1164 (quotation simplified). “The award of damages is a factual determination that we review for clear error.” Saleh v. Farmers Ins. Exch., 2006 UT 20, ¶ 29, 133 P.3d 428.

¶66      In connection with its appeal, the Estate raises four issues for our consideration. First, the Estate challenges the court’s determination to hold it jointly and severally liable for Taylor’s actions, and its challenge takes two forms. As an initial matter, the Estate takes issue with the court’s conclusion that the vicarious liability issues—which were not present in Robert’s pleadings— were tried by the consent of the parties, and that Robert’s pleadings could therefore be amended post-trial pursuant to rule 15(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. “We review the [trial] court’s application of rule 15(b) for correctness. However, because the trial court’s determination of whether the issues were tried with all parties’ implied consent is highly fact intensive, we grant the trial court a fairly broad measure of discretion in making that determination under a given set of facts.” Hill v. Estate of Allred, 2009 UT 28, ¶ 44, 216 P.3d 929 (quotation simplified). And more substantively, the Estate challenges the merits of the court’s conclusion that it is vicariously liable for Taylor’s actions. In some contexts, a vicarious liability ruling involves issues of fact. See, e.g.Newman v. White Water Whirlpool, 2008 UT 79, ¶ 10, 197 P.3d 654 (stating that “[w]hether an employee is in the course and scope of his employment” for purposes of vicarious liability “presents a question of fact for the fact-finder”). In other contexts, though, such a ruling is inherently legal. See, e.g.Wardley Better Homes & Gardens v. Cannon, 2002 UT 99, ¶ 19, 61 P.3d 1009 (stating that “[w]hether a principal is vicariously liable for an agent’s acts” presents a “legal question[]”). While—as discussed below—the precise legal basis for the trial court’s ruling is somewhat unclear, Robert defends the ruling by pointing to principles of agency law. We agree that, under the circumstances, the trial court’s vicarious liability ruling was a legal one, not a factual one, and we therefore review it for correctness.

¶67      Second, the Estate argues that the court erred in determining the rate for the unpaid interest due on the Note. Both sides agree that, at least under the circumstances of this case, we should review this issue for correctness. See USA Power, LLC v. PacifiCorp, 2016 UT 20, ¶ 32, 372 P.3d 629 (stating that ascertaining “the appropriate interest rate” is “a question of law that we review for correctness”).

¶68      Third, the Estate raises several issues with the form of the court’s judgment. In particular, it wonders who the proper judgment creditors are, and contends that the court erred in setting off the Estate’s award of interest against the amounts the court determined it owed to Robert and Jill for vicarious liability. Challenges to offset determinations often involve mixed questions of fact and law and are “reviewed under a clearly erroneous standard for questions of fact and a correctness standard for questions of law.” Hale v. Big H Constr., Inc., 2012 UT App 283, ¶ 11, 288 P.3d 1046 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 298 P.3d 69 (Utah 2013). The issue we address here regarding offset—namely, whether offset was appropriate when one of the parties did not receive a judgment—presents a legal question reviewed for correctness. See Fisher v. Fisher, 2009 UT App 305, ¶ 7, 221 P.3d 845 (noting that whether “an offset is allowed under [a] cause of action” is a question “of law, which we review for correctness”), cert. denied, 230 P.3d 127 (Utah 2010). And in addition, the Estate challenges the court’s award of damages for repairs to the marital home. “The award of damages is a factual determination that we review for clear error.” Saleh, 2006 UT 20, ¶ 29. However, “[w]e review the court’s legal conclusions for correction of error.” Hale, 2012 UT App 283, ¶ 13.

¶69      Finally, the Estate takes issue with the court’s rejection of its claim for attorney fees incurred in furtherance of its successful claim for unpaid interest on the Note. “The award of attorney fees is a matter of law, which we review for correctness. However, a trial court has broad discretion in determining what constitutes a reasonable fee, and we will consider that determination against an abuse-of-discretion standard.” Jensen v. Sawyers, 2005 UT 81, ¶ 127, 130 P.3d 325 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

I. Taylor’s Appeal

¶70      As noted, Taylor asks us to consider four issues in connection with his appeal. First, he challenges the court’s denial of his motion to amend to add additional affirmative defenses. Second, he takes issue with the trial court’s ruling, made on summary judgment, that Taylor had breached his fiduciary duties by making unlawful distributions from the Trust’s marital share principal. Third, he challenges the trial court’s decision to exclude his expert witnesses. Finally, he raises certain challenges to the court’s damages determinations. We address each of Taylor’s arguments in turn.

A. Taylor’s Motion to Amend

¶71      First, Taylor asks us to examine the court’s ruling denying his motion to amend his responsive pleading to add several additional affirmative defenses, including a more specific statute of limitations defense and a defense that he “had a good faith basis for his actions.” The court denied Taylor’s request on the basis that Taylor had engaged in “unreasonable delay” and had “failed to provide adequate justification [as to] why he did not [seek to] amend his pleading earlier.” We discern no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s decision.

¶72      In deciding a motion to amend, courts are instructed to consider several factors, including whether the movant “was aware of the facts underlying the proposed amendment long before its filing, the timeliness of the motion, the justification for the delay, and any resulting prejudice to the responding party.” Jones v. Salt Lake City Corp., 2003 UT App 355, ¶ 16, 78 P.3d 988 (quotation simplified) (affirming the denial of a motion to amend where it was filed about a year after the deadline for amending pleadings and where the movant provided no justification for the delay), cert. denied, 90 P.3d 1041 (Utah 2004). In this case, the court denied Taylor’s motion in an oral ruling from the bench, and the record submitted to us does not include a transcript of that oral ruling. But in a subsequent written order memorializing its ruling, the court focused on two of these factors: timeliness and justification. The court was of the view that Taylor had waited too long to seek amendment of his responsive pleading, despite apparent awareness of the relevant issues, and that his delay was not justified by any good reason. The court rejected as “faulty” Taylor’s excuse that he had been under the impression that his original answer—which incorporated by reference the statute of limitations defense pleaded by Robert’s ex-wife—included “all statute of limitations” defenses. The court’s written ruling made no specific mention of Taylor’s desired “good faith” defense.

¶73      In his appellate brief, Taylor does not engage with the trial court’s reasoning, and provides no specific response to the court’s conclusion that his motion was untimely and his delay was unjustified. Instead, he makes two arguments in support of his appellate challenge. First, he asserts that his unpleaded statute of limitations defense was meritorious. But this is beside the point here; if the trial court was within its discretion to deny Taylor’s motion to amend on delay and justification grounds, then the merits of Taylor’s unpleaded defenses are not directly relevant.

¶74      Second, Taylor suggests that, because this case was a probate action initiated by a “petition” rather than a “complaint,” the rules of civil procedure regarding timeliness of pleadings do not apply. But this argument is unpreserved; Taylor did not make it at the trial court level—at least not in his written filings; as noted, the record includes no transcript of the hearing—and thus did not give the trial court an opportunity to rule on it. See Gowe v. Intermountain Healthcare, Inc., 2015 UT App 105, ¶ 7, 356 P.3d 683 (stating that, “to preserve an argument for appellate review, the appellant must first present the argument to the [trial] court in such a way that the court has an opportunity to rule on it,” and observing that “we generally do not address unpreserved arguments raised for the first time on appeal” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 364 P.3d 48 (Utah 2015). Therefore, we decline to consider this argument for the first time on appeal.

¶75      Under these circumstances—where Taylor does not provide us with a transcript of the trial court’s oral ruling, does not directly engage with the court’s reasoning, and offers an argument that is apparently unpreserved—Taylor has not carried his burden, on appeal, of demonstrating that the court abused its discretion by denying his motion to amend his responsive pleading to add additional affirmative defenses. We therefore affirm the court’s denial of that motion.

B. The Summary Judgment Ruling

¶76      Next, Taylor challenges the trial court’s determination, made on summary judgment, that he made unlawful distributions from the Trust’s marital share principal and thereby breached his fiduciary duties. In particular, he asserts that this ruling was inappropriate because genuine issues of material fact remained to be decided in connection with these issues. But Taylor has not borne his burden, here on appeal, of demonstrating error in the court’s summary judgment ruling.

¶77      As a threshold matter, it is important to recognize that the ruling in question was brief and quite narrow. In that ruling, the court noted that, under the terms of the Trust, Taylor was not allowed to distribute principal from the marital share, and it noted that Taylor had admitted to making distributions of principal from the marital share. The court therefore determined, as a matter of law and under the plain terms of the Trust documents, that these distributions were “unlawful.” It reserved all other issues for trial, including “the amount of damages that resulted from” any such unlawful distributions.

¶78      Taylor does not challenge the court’s determination that, under the terms of the Trust documents, he was forbidden from distributing principal out of the marital share. And he does not take issue with the court’s observation that, in discovery, Taylor admitted that he had indeed made distributions of principal out of, among other sources, the IRAs that Accountant had placed in the marital share. Thus, his challenge to the court’s summary judgment ruling is limited: he takes issue only with the court’s conclusion that those admitted distributions were unlawful as a matter of law. In this regard, Taylor makes three arguments, which we consider in turn.

1

¶79      First, Taylor asserts that his actions were not unlawful—at least not as a matter of law—because he had merely been following advice given to him by professionals (namely accountants and attorneys) retained to advise him in his role as trustee, and that questions of fact therefore remained regarding the reasonableness of his conduct. But on the record before us, this argument cannot carry the day for Taylor.

¶80      Under Utah law, a trustee who violates a duty owed to a beneficiary has breached fiduciary duties. See Utah Code § 75-7­1001 (“A violation by a trustee of a duty the trustee owes to a beneficiary is a breach of trust.”); see also id. § 75-7-801 (stating that trustees must “administer the trust expeditiously and in good faith, in accordance with its terms and purposes”). And it does not matter that the trustee’s actions were merely negligent (rather than knowing or intentional). See Restatement (Third) of Trusts § 93 cmt. b (Am. L. Inst. 2012) (“A breach of trust occurs if the trustee, intentionally or negligently, fails to do what the fiduciary duties of the particular trusteeship require or does what those duties forbid . . . . [A] trustee may commit a breach of trust by conduct (action or inaction) that results from a mistake . . . , typically [one] regarding the nature or extent of a trustee’s duties or powers.”).

¶81      In this case, the plain language of the Trust documents clearly forbade Taylor from making any distributions from the principal assets of the Trust’s marital share. He therefore had a clear obligation not to authorize distributions of principal from the marital share. He violated that obligation by repeatedly authorizing such distributions, and this is true even if one assumes, for purposes of the argument, that Taylor made the distributions negligently rather than intentionally or knowingly. Unless otherwise excused, that action constitutes a breach of the fiduciary duties that Taylor, in his capacity as trustee, owed the beneficiaries of the Trust.

¶82      However, under the Restatement’s approach, in certain circumstances, a court has the authority, where equity demands it, to excuse a trustee from having to pay a liability resulting from a breach of duty. See id. § 95 cmt. d (stating that, where a court concludes that “it would be unfair or unduly harsh to require the trustee to pay . . . the liability that would normally result from a breach of trust, the court has equitable authority to excuse the trustee . . . from having to pay that liability”); see also Restatement (Second) of Trusts § 205 cmt. g (Am. L. Inst. 1959) (“In the absence of a statute it would seem that a court of equity may have power to excuse the trustee in whole or in part from liability where he has acted honestly and reasonably and ought fairly to be excused.”). For instance, where case law upon which a trustee relied is later overruled, courts might conclude that a trustee should be equitably relieved from the consequences of a breach of duty. See Restatement (Third) of Trusts § 95 cmt. d (Am. L. Inst. 2012). And as relevant here, courts may reach a similar conclusion where “a trustee has selected an adviser prudently and in good faith, has provided the adviser with relevant information, and has relied on plausible advice on a matter within the adviser’s competence.” See id. § 93 cmt. c.

¶83      In the trial court, Taylor opposed Robert’s summary judgment motion by arguing, among other things, that his actions were reasonable because he relied on professional advice; in so doing, however, Taylor did not cite the Restatement or ask the trial court to apply its approach. Robert replied by asserting that “advice of counsel” was an affirmative defense that Taylor had waived by not pleading it and by failing to obtain leave to add that defense in an amended pleading. We do not know if Taylor’s advice-of-counsel defense (or Robert’s waiver argument made in response to it) was discussed during the oral argument on Robert’s summary judgment motion, because the record submitted to us does not include a transcript of that hearing. And the court’s rather brief written order memorializing its summary judgment ruling makes no mention of the issue.

¶84      There are several plausible ways the trial court could have handled Taylor’s advice-of-counsel defense at the summary judgment stage. First, the court could have determined that Utah law does not allow an advice-of-counsel defense under the circumstances presented here. We are unaware of any Utah authority adopting the Restatement’s approach, so it is unclear whether that approach is consonant with Utah law; certainly, Taylor makes no effort to so persuade us in his appellate brief.[10] Second, the court may have adopted Robert’s argument that Taylor waived this defense by failing to plead it in his answer and by failing to persuade the court to allow amendment of that answer. As already noted, several months before the summary judgment hearing the trial court did deny Taylor leave to amend his responsive pleading to add a “good faith” defense, ruling that any such amendment was too late and unjustified. On appeal, Taylor does not refute Robert’s assertion that he waived the defense, and he makes no effort to show that advice of counsel is not the sort of affirmative defense that must, upon penalty of waiver, be pleaded in an answer.[11] Third, the court may have determined that resolution of Taylor’s advice-of-counsel defense was not necessary at the summary judgment stage. In fact, the written summary judgment ruling is not necessarily at odds with that defense: even if the distributions from the marital share are considered unlawful, the court could, during the damages phase of the proceedings, potentially equitably relieve Taylor from the consequences of those unlawful distributions. And here on appeal, Taylor makes no argument that he was prevented, at trial, from presenting evidence relating to his advice-of-counsel defense. Fourth, the court could have determined, at the summary judgment hearing, that the undisputed evidence regarding Taylor’s advice-of-counsel defense was insufficient to present a genuine dispute of material fact that would prevent summary judgment. Or fifth, the court could have completely ignored the issue, and simply made no ruling on it at all.

¶85      We do not know what the court did with Taylor’s advice-of-counsel argument at the summary judgment phase, because its written ruling is silent on the matter and its oral ruling is not included in the appellate record. It is certainly not obvious, from the record before us, that the trial court erred in the way it handled Taylor’s asserted advice-of-counsel defense in connection with Robert’s summary judgment motion. It is an appellant’s responsibility “to include in the record a transcript of all evidence relevant to a finding or conclusion that is being challenged on appeal.” Gines v. Edwards, 2017 UT App 47, ¶ 21, 397 P.3d 612 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 398 P.3d 52 (Utah 2017). “When an appellant fails to provide an adequate record on appeal, we presume the regularity of the proceedings below,” and “when crucial matters are not included in the record, the missing portions are presumed to support the action of the trial court.” State v. Pritchett, 2003 UT 24, ¶ 13, 69 P.3d 1278 (quotation simplified); see also Bank of Am. v. Adamson, 2017 UT 2, ¶ 11, 391 P.3d 196 (stating that an appellant’s brief must “contain the contentions and reasons of the appellant with respect to the issues presented . . . with citations to the authorities, statutes, and parts of the record relied on” (quotation simplified)).

¶86      In situations like this one, where “crucial matters are not included in the record, the missing portions are presumed to support the action of the trial court.” Pritchett, 2003 UT 24, ¶ 13 (quotation simplified). While it is perhaps not always necessary for an appellant challenging an adverse summary judgment ruling to include in the appellate record a transcript of the oral argument on the summary judgment motion, cf. Gines, 2017 UT App 47, ¶ 21 (noting that “an appellant is not required to provide the transcript from every proceeding that occurred in the case”), in our view this is necessary in cases where the court issued an oral ruling at the conclusion of the hearing and where the court’s eventual written order is silent with regard to the matter being challenged. In such cases, a transcript of the hearing is necessary for us to effectively review the challenged issue. Without the transcript, we do not know what evidence or argument the court relied on in rendering any decision. Indeed, in this case we do not know if the court even made a decision on the point Taylor challenges. Under these circumstances, Taylor “has not provided this court with the tools necessary to determine whether the [trial] court” erred, and therefore his “claim of error,” in this regard, “is merely an unsupported, unilateral allegation which we cannot resolve.” R4 Constructors LLC v. InBalance Yoga Corp., 2020 UT App 169, ¶ 12, 480 P.3d 1075 (holding that the appellant did not show an abuse of discretion where he failed to include a necessary transcript in the appellate record). Accordingly, Taylor has not carried his burden of persuasion on appeal, and the trial court’s summary judgment ruling is not now assailable on the basis that questions of fact remained to be decided regarding whether Taylor reasonably followed professional advice.

2

¶87      Second, Taylor asserts that the IRAs from which many of the allegedly unlawful distributions of principal were made were not part of the Trust at all, and therefore the distributions could not have been unlawful. But the trial court did not err in determining that no genuine issue of material fact existed on this point. As noted above, the court issued a separate ruling, signed on the same day and arising out of the same summary judgment hearing, determining that Robert had conclusively demonstrated that “the IRAs were properly transferred to and owned by the [Trust] after Dean’s death.” And in the summary judgment ruling at issue here, signed by the court just minutes later, the court simply noted that the marital share of the Trust “included” the IRAs. Taylor asserts that there existed questions of fact about the ownership of the IRAs, because the parties were never able to locate a “signed beneficiary designation” executed prior to Dean’s death. But Robert submitted quite a bit of evidence, including account statements from the IRAs dated prior to Dean’s death, indicating that the IRAs were in fact part of the Trust.[12] And Accountant—the first successor trustee of the Trust—certainly saw it that way. Taylor did not meaningfully rebut this evidence; the mere absence of a signed beneficiary designation is not, under these circumstances, enough to create a genuine issue of material fact regarding ownership of the IRAs.

3

¶88      Finally, Taylor asserts that his distributions of principal from the marital share, including distributions from the IRAs, can be considered lawful if they are offset against distributions of principal he could have hypothetically lawfully made from the family share. As noted above, Taylor had conceptual authority to make distributions of principal from the family share for Margene’s “support and maintenance” if the Trust income and Margene’s other assets were not sufficient to address her needs. In other words, Taylor asserts that the beneficiaries would not be entitled to any damages resulting from his otherwise unlawful distributions of marital share principal if Taylor can show that those distributions could, in his discretion, have been made from the family share instead. But even if this is true, this argument serves only to reduce the damages sustained by the beneficiaries as the result of Taylor’s breaches of duty; this argument does not somehow transform Taylor’s unlawful distributions into lawful ones. As noted, the court reserved for trial, among other things, all questions regarding “[t]he total amount of damages that resulted from Taylor’s unlawful distributions of principal from the” marital share. And in addition, there is no evidence that Taylor actually engaged in the analysis required prior to making lawful distributions from the family share principal—assessing whether Margene’s reasonable needs could be met from her own assets and the income from the Trust.

¶89      In the end, we perceive no error, on this record, in the trial

court’s narrow ruling, made on summary judgment, that Taylor had made unlawful distributions of principal from the Trust’s marital share, and that he had thereby breached the fiduciary duties he owed to the beneficiaries.

C. Taylor’s Expert Witnesses

¶90      Taylor next challenges the court’s orders prohibiting his disclosed expert witnesses from testifying in his case-in-chief at trial. The court excluded two of these experts—Taylor’s financial experts—because Taylor failed to serve the required report from the experts.[13] And the court excluded the third expert—Taylor’s legal expert—for reasons we cannot, on this record, ascertain. Under the circumstances presented here, Taylor has not persuaded us that the court’s orders regarding his expert witnesses are subject to reversal.

¶91      The court had good reason to exclude Taylor’s two financial experts. Following Taylor’s disclosure of these two experts, Robert opted to require the experts to produce a written report. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(4)(C)(i), (ii) (stating that “the party opposing the expert may serve notice electing either a deposition of the expert . . . or a written report” from the expert). Taylor failed to timely provide those reports. The court’s order excluding those experts on that basis is therefore sound. See id. R. 26(d)(4) (“If a party fails to disclose or to supplement timely a disclosure or response to discovery, that party may not use the undisclosed witness, document, or material at any hearing or trial unless the failure is harmless or the party shows good cause for the failure.”); see also Clifford P.D. Redekop Family LLC v. Utah County Real Estate LLC, 2016 UT App 121, ¶¶ 15–16, 378 P.3d 109 (upholding a trial court’s exclusion of an expert witness when the party did not timely provide a written report by the deadline or provide “good cause” for failing to do so). And on appeal, Taylor does not attempt to argue that his failure to provide reports was harmless or spurred by good cause. Instead, Taylor merely informs us of what the witnesses would have testified about and asserts that the witnesses’ testimony “would have been of great benefit to the court.” This is insufficient to establish that the court abused its discretion. See R.O.A. Gen., Inc. v. Chung Ji Dai, 2014 UT App 124, ¶ 11, 327 P.3d 1233 (“We have held that the sanction of exclusion is automatic and mandatory unless the sanctioned party can show that the violation of rule 26 . . . was either justified or harmless.” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 337 P.3d 295 (Utah 2014).

¶92      Taylor’s third witness, the legal expert, was dismissed after a hearing. In his motion asking the court to exclude Taylor’s legal expert, Robert argued that the court “should not allow a local attorney to tell [it] how to interpret” the Trust documents. The court granted this motion in an oral ruling made at the conclusion of the hearing; the court’s minute entry contains very little information about the basis for the ruling. A few weeks after the hearing, the court signed a written order, prepared by counsel, that was intended to memorialize the oral ruling; that order stated simply that, “[a]fter argument by counsel and review of the briefings filed by the parties, the Court grants [Robert’s] Motion in Limine excluding all legal expert testimony at trial.” And as noted, the record submitted to us does not contain a transcript of the hearing at which the court rendered its oral ruling, nor does it contain any additional elucidation of the court’s reasoning in granting Robert’s motion to exclude Taylor’s legal expert.

¶93      Under circumstances like these, an appellant fails to carry its burden of persuasion on appeal. As already noted, it is an appellant’s responsibility “to include in the record a transcript of all evidence relevant to a finding or conclusion that is being challenged on appeal.” Gines, 2017 UT App 47, ¶ 21 (quotation simplified) (affirming a trial court’s decision on a motion in limine because the appellant did not provide a transcript of the hearing); see also Pritchett, 2003 UT 24, ¶ 13 (stating that, in the absence of an adequate record, “we presume the regularity of the proceedings below,” and that “when crucial matters are not included in the record, the missing portions are presumed to support the action of the trial court” (quotation simplified)).

¶94      In this non-legal-malpractice case, we can easily envision good reason for the court to have excluded Taylor’s proffered legal expert. See Steffensen v. Smith’s Mgmt. Corp., 862 P.2d 1342, 1347 (Utah 1993) (“Even though experts can testify as to ultimate issues, their testimony must still assist the trier of fact under rule 702. Opinion testimony is not helpful to the fact finder when it is couched as a legal conclusion.” (quotation simplified)). And where, as here, material gaps in the appellate record exist, we must presume the regularity of the proceedings, and presume that the court had good reason to take the action it took. Under these circumstances, Taylor has simply not persuaded us that the court abused its discretion in excluding his legal expert witness.

¶95      Accordingly, we reject Taylor’s assertions that the trial court abused its discretion in ordering the exclusion of all three of Taylor’s disclosed expert witnesses.

D. The Court’s Damages Award

¶96      Finally, Taylor raises two challenges to the court’s damages determinations. He first makes a general challenge to the court’s damages award, asserting that the court should not have used the damages calculation offered by Robert’s damages expert because that expert “made too many mistakes and relied on assumptions that are too speculative.” He next asserts that Robert did not suffer $250,000 in damages from the distribution to Robert’s ex-wife because Robert “received full credit against the judgment for the money distributed.” We reject Taylor’s first challenge, but find merit, at least to some extent, in the second.

¶97      Taylor’s general attack on Robert’s damages expert—and, by extension, on the court’s damages computation—is not well-taken. As examples of the “faulty assumptions” Robert’s expert made, Taylor points to the expert’s assumptions—held at least prior to trial, if not afterward—that three specific transactions (or sets of transactions) constituted “distributions” of Trust assets: (1) a $200,000 transfer between Trust accounts, (2) several five-figure checks of unknown purpose, and (3) a separate sale of an investment in the Trust portfolio. But as Robert points out, the expert herself—after receiving additional information at trial— backed away from the first assumption, and ended up not including the $200,000 transfer in her ultimate recommendation to the court. And most importantly, it does not appear that the trial court actually included any of the identified transactions in its damages award—at least, Robert asserts that it didn’t, and Taylor does not take issue with that assertion. So, to the extent that these identified transactions constitute “mistakes” on the part of Robert’s expert, the court appears to have accounted for those mistakes in its damages award.

¶98      As noted above, we review the court’s damages calculations for clear error. See Saleh v. Farmers Ins. Exch., 2006 UT 20, ¶ 29, 133 P.3d 428 (“The award of damages is a factual determination that we review for clear error.”). And we perceive no clear error in the court’s general adoption—with apparent adjustments—of Robert’s expert’s damages calculation. In its post-trial ruling, the court described Robert’s expert as “an experienced professional in the field of accounting and a licensed financial analyst,” and found that her methodologies “provide[d] a reasonably certain calculation of damages” that “account[ed] for both excess distributions and losses incurred due to [the] present value of money.” And as noted, the court in making its award apparently made adjustments, based on the evidence presented, to the expert’s computations. Under these circumstances, Taylor simply hasn’t carried his burden of demonstrating any clear error in the court’s general adoption of Robert’s expert’s damages methodologies, as adjusted.[14] See id.

¶99      However, we do see clear error in the court’s award of $250,000 in damages to Robert for Taylor’s payment of Trust assets to Robert’s ex-wife. The court found that this payment was made in violation of the Trust’s spendthrift provision and was therefore unlawful. But the court also found that the payment “did extinguish [Robert]’s debt to [his ex-wife],” which debt was a non-zero amount. The court, in a previous order, correctly noted that Robert’s damages on this point should be limited to “any interest losses that he . . . may have been entitled to” and money he would have saved if he could prove that his ex-wife would have accepted a lower amount. And of course, his damages calculation would need to account for any excess amounts paid to his ex-wife from other sources, such as his allegation that she received an extra $35,000 from the sale of one of his properties; it is notable that Robert, in his proposed post-trial findings, asked the court to award him only $35,000 plus interest on this point. But the court did not engage in a comprehensive analysis here, nor did it make specific findings on these recoverable damages; instead, it simply awarded Robert the entire $250,000 amount.

¶100      The court erred by awarding Robert damages for the full $250,000, at least without making specific findings as to why that amount was appropriate. As the court itself was aware, the $250,000 distribution to Robert’s ex-wife had at least some value to Robert—the extinguishing of his debt to his ex-wife—that should have been valued and offset against the $250,000 amount. And the court should have explained why it chose to award Robert the full $250,000 instead of the $35,000 (plus interest) that he asked for in his proposed findings.

¶101      Therefore, while we reject Taylor’s general complaint about the court’s adoption of Robert’s expert’s methodologies, we find merit in Taylor’s specific complaint about the court’s calculation of Robert’s damages related to the payment to Robert’s ex-wife. We therefore vacate—and remand for reassessment—that specific portion of the damages award.[15]

¶102      In sum, then, we reject all of Taylor’s claims on appeal, except for the second of his two damages-related assertions.[16]

II. The Estate’s Appeal

¶103      We now turn to the Estate’s appeal. As noted, the Estate asks us to consider four issues. First, the Estate asks us to reverse the court’s determination to hold it vicariously liable for the actions Taylor took as trustee. Second, the Estate challenges the court’s conclusion regarding the appropriate rate to be applied in calculating the interest that Robert and Jill owe on the Note. Third, the Estate raises various issues with the form of the judgment. And finally, the Estate asks us to review the court’s rejection of its claim for attorney fees incurred in furtherance of its successful claim for interest on the Note. We address each of these arguments in turn.

A. Vicarious Liability

¶104      The Estate’s main challenge on appeal—the one on which it spends the bulk of its energies—concerns the court’s ruling that the Estate should be held vicariously liable for the unlawful actions Taylor took as trustee. The Estate criticizes this ruling on two specific grounds, one procedural and one substantive. The procedural challenge has to do with whether the issue was properly before the court for decision in the first place. And the substantive challenge has to do with whether the court’s decision was correct. We find merit in both of the Estate’s challenges to the court’s vicarious liability ruling.

1

¶105      The Estate begins its argument by pointing out, correctly, that Robert did not plead or seek vicarious liability in his petition or in any other place in his voluminous pretrial filings in this case. In his petition, Robert sought specific relief against the Estate for damages related to the marital home. Aside from that particular request, the petition sought only one other thing from the Estate: “a return of principal wrongfully distributed from the Trust.” In the petition, Robert never asked the court to hold Margene or the Estate vicariously liable for Taylor’s conduct.

¶106      Not only did Robert fail to plead a claim for vicarious liability, but as the litigation proceeded, he implicitly disavowed making any such claim. Prior to trial, Robert filed a motion to bifurcate, asking the court to separate the trial of the Estate’s claims—most notably, for interest on the Loan—from the trial of Robert’s claims relating to Taylor’s alleged breaches of fiduciary duty. In this motion, Robert suggested that the claims stated in his petition against the Estate—chiefly, regarding the marital home— had already been “likely resolved” in a recent ruling. In particular, Robert asserted that “the only issue remaining” with regard to his petition “is the amount of damages to be awarded against Taylor,” and he argued that the Estate “should not be involved in” the trial of his claims against Taylor. Had Robert been seeking a vicarious liability ruling against the Estate, he would never have taken that position.

¶107      To its credit, the trial court recognized these realities and, in announcing its ruling that the Estate should be held vicariously liable, did not attempt to assert that the issue had ever been raised prior to trial. Instead, the court held that the issue of the Estate’s vicarious liability had been tried by consent during the multi-day bench trial. See Utah R. Civ. P. 15(b)(1) (“When an issue not raised in the pleadings is tried by the parties’ express or implied consent, it must be treated in all respects as if raised in the pleadings.”). Here on appeal, the Estate asserts that the trial court incorrectly concluded that this issue was tried by consent. We agree.

¶108      Under rule 15(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, “implied consent to try an [unpleaded] issue may be found where one party raises an issue material to the other party’s case or where evidence is introduced without objection, where it appears that the parties understood the evidence is to be aimed at the unpleaded issue.” Hill v. Estate of Allred, 2009 UT 28, ¶ 48, 216 P.3d 929 (quotation simplified). In such instances, the pleadings are deemed amended after the fact, in order “to conform them to the evidence” presented at trial. See Utah R. Civ. P. 15(b)(1). “The test for determining whether pleadings should be deemed amended under Utah R. Civ. P. 15(b) is whether the opposing party had a fair opportunity to defend and whether it could offer additional evidence if the case were retried on a different theory.” Hill, 2009 UT 28, ¶ 48 (quotation simplified). “When evidence is introduced that is relevant to a pleaded issue and the party against whom the amendment is urged has no reason to believe a new issue is being injected into the case, that party cannot be said to have impliedly consented to trial of that issue.” Id. (quotation simplified); see also Archuleta v. Hughes, 969 P.2d 409, 412 (Utah 1998) (“Implied consent of the parties must be evident from the record.” (quotation simplified)).

¶109      Robert asserts that “the Estate showed awareness of its potential liability” several times during the lawsuit. For instance, it lodged an objection to the portion of the prayer for relief in Robert’s petition that requested the return of wrongfully distributed principal from the Estate, and it informed the court, at trial and in certain post-trial hearings, that one of the Estate’s goals in the litigation “was to assure that liability for Taylor’s wrongful acts did not ‘slop over’ to the Estate.” But awareness of an unpleaded issue does not necessarily constitute consent that the issue be tried, especially here where the Estate demonstrated its awareness of the issue by objecting (rather than consenting) to the issue’s presence in the case. More is required. There must be some indication that the Estate expressly or impliedly consented to the litigation of the merits of the unpleaded issue at trial. See Archuleta, 969 P.2d at 412 (“There must, of course, be either express or implied consent of the parties for the trial of issues not raised in the pleadings.”). And here, the record does not support the proposition that the Estate expressly or impliedly consented to try the issue of its vicarious liability for Taylor’s conduct.

¶110      Certainly, there is no indication that the Estate ever expressly consented to amendment of Robert’s pleadings to add the issue of its vicarious liability. Neither Robert nor the trial court directs our attention to any such evidence.

¶111      And in our view, the record cannot support the conclusion that the Estate ever impliedly consented to trial of that specific unpleaded issue. As noted, awareness of the issue is not enough. Neither Robert nor the trial court points us to evidence “introduced without objection, where it appears that the parties understood the evidence is to be aimed at the unpleaded issue.” Hill, 2009 UT 28, ¶ 48 (quotation simplified). In the court’s ruling on this point, it recited evidence that Taylor had conflicts of interest, was acting in several different capacities, and used his authority in those capacities to benefit his mother; the court concluded therefrom that “[t]hese circumstances are sufficient grounds to find that the issue of liability as to the Estate was tried by consent.” This is incorrect. All of this evidence—regarding Taylor’s conflicts of interest, breaches of duty, and actions taken to benefit Margene—is relevant to Robert’s overarching claims against Taylor. Its presence in the case would not have signaled to the Estate that the unpleaded issue of its vicarious liability for all those actions was somehow being litigated.[17] See id. (“When evidence is introduced that is relevant to a pleaded issue and the party against whom the amendment is urged has no reason to believe a new issue is being injected into the case, that party cannot be said to have impliedly consented to trial of that issue.” (quotation simplified)). We are aware of no evidence presented at trial that clearly and exclusively went to the issue of whether the Estate should be held vicariously liable for Taylor’s actions.

¶112      But perhaps the most telling sign that the vicarious liability issue was not tried by implied consent of the parties is that even Robert didn’t appear to believe, after the trial, that the issue had been tried. In the set of proposed findings and conclusions he submitted about a month after the trial ended, Robert included no findings or conclusions regarding the Estate’s vicarious liability, and he did not ask the court to so rule. The closest he came to the issue was asking for a finding that imposed “a constructive trust on the assets of the Estate” and an order that “all remaining [Estate] assets payable or distributable to Taylor be used to pay the outstanding judgments in this case.”

¶113      Thus, the issue of the Estate’s vicarious liability was never pleaded or sought by Robert and was never tried by consent of the parties. The trial court came up with the theory all on its own, many months after the trial had concluded. This was procedurally inappropriate. We therefore reverse the court’s ruling that this unpleaded issue was tried by the consent of the parties.

2

¶114      Because the issue of the Estate’s vicarious liability was neither pleaded nor tried by the consent of the parties, the trial court’s ruling holding the Estate vicariously liable for Taylor’s actions is infirm and subject to reversal for that reason alone. But the court’s vicarious liability ruling was also wrong on its merits, and we opt to explain why, in order to provide certain guidance that may be useful on remand.

¶115      There appear to be three different theories, floated by the parties (or the court) at various times in the case, as to how Robert and his siblings might access the assets of the Estate to compensate them for the unlawful acts Taylor took as trustee of the Trust.[18] First, there is the court’s own vicarious liability theory, which we refer to as the “conflict of interest” theory. As the court explained it, Taylor wore several somewhat-conflicting hats at various times throughout the case: he was trustee of the Trust, he had power of attorney over Margene’s personal finances, he was (after Margene’s death) personal representative of the Estate, and he (along with Margene’s other children) is one of the beneficiaries of the Estate. In the court’s view, Taylor was motivated to benefit himself and the Estate where he could, and he used his authority in these various roles—most notably as trustee of the Trust—to do just that. Essentially, the court ruled that, because many of the unlawful actions Taylor took as trustee of the Trust benefited Margene and the Estate, the Estate should be vicariously liable for Taylor’s actions, and should therefore answer to Robert (and his siblings) for Taylor’s conduct.

¶116      Second, there is the agency law theory upon which Robert largely relies here on appeal: that Taylor was an “agent” of Margene (and, by extension, the Estate) in carrying out his unlawful acts, and that the Estate—as principal—should be vicariously liable for its agent’s activities.

¶117      Finally, there is a constructive trust theory—expressly sought in Robert’s proposed post-trial findings—under which the Estate is not necessarily vicariously liable for Taylor’s actions as a general matter but, instead, the assets of the Estate may be used to satisfy Robert’s judgment against Taylor, at least to the extent that those assets stem from the Estate’s receipt of unlawful distributions from the Trust. Specifically, Robert’s proposed post-trial findings asked for the imposition of “a constructive trust on the assets of the Estate” and an order that “all remaining [Estate] assets payable or distributable to Taylor be used to pay the outstanding judgments in this case.”

¶118      The first two of these theories do not work. Even accepting the court’s central proposition—that Taylor had conflicting responsibilities—we cannot see how that fact leads to a legal conclusion that the Estate is generally liable for unlawful actions Taylor took in his capacity as trustee of the Trust. Under the Trust documents, only Taylor (as trustee) had any authority to make distributions. Margene (as “surviving spouse”) had no such authority, with the Trust documents stating that “[t]he surviving spouse shall have no power to appoint” Trust property to any other person. Taylor’s unlawful distributions were undertaken in his capacity as trustee of the Trust, and Margene had no authority to make any distributions of Trust assets; because she had no such authority, she couldn’t have delegated any of it to Taylor, via the power of attorney or otherwise. In other words, Taylor’s authority to take actions as trustee didn’t come from Margene, it came directly from the Trust documents themselves. We acknowledge that it certainly appears that the Estate may have benefited from Taylor’s unlawful actions. But we are aware of no authority— neither Robert nor the trial court cited any—indicating that an entity that benefits from someone else’s bad acts is thereby vicariously liable for those bad acts.

¶119      And the second theory—that Taylor was acting as Margene’s (or the Estate’s) agent when he committed the unlawful acts—fails for similar reasons. As an initial matter, there is no evidence that Taylor was acting as Margene’s agent at all when, acting as trustee of the Trust, he made distributions from the Trust to Margene. That is, there is no evidence that Margene instructed him to make any distributions, or that he was acting on Margene’s behalf when he did so. The mere fact that Margene benefited from Taylor’s actions does not mean that Taylor was acting as Margene’s agent; this is especially true where, as here, the alleged principal (Margene) possessed no authority to make the distributions in question.

¶120      But more substantively, even if we assume that Taylor was acting as Margene’s agent, a principal is liable for an agent’s actions only under certain circumstances. See Stein Eriksen Lodge Owners Ass’n Inc. v. MX Techs. Inc., 2022 UT App 30, ¶ 25, 508 P.3d 138 (“Under agency law, an agent cannot make its principal responsible for the agent’s actions unless the agent is acting pursuant to either actual or apparent authority.” (quotation simplified)). “Actual authority may either be express or implied.” Hussein v. UBS Bank USA, 2019 UT App 100, ¶ 32, 446 P.3d 96, cert. denied, 455 P.3d 1062 (Utah 2019). “Express [actual] authority exists whenever the principal directly states that its agent has the authority to perform a particular act on the principal’s behalf.” Drew v. Pacific Life Ins. Co., 2021 UT 55, ¶ 54, 496 P.3d 201 (quotation simplified). “Implied [actual] authority includes acts which are incidental to, or are necessary, usual, and proper to accomplish or perform, the main authority expressly delegated to the agent.” Id. (quotation simplified). And apparent authority exists “when a third party reasonably believes the actor has authority to act on behalf of the principal and that belief is traceable to the principal’s manifestations.” Id. ¶ 55 (quotation simplified). Robert makes no effort to persuade us that Taylor was acting pursuant to either actual or apparent authority from Margene when he committed the unlawful acts.

¶121      Robert does observe—correctly—that Margene gave Taylor power of attorney over her personal finances. But he does not explain how this narrow grant of authority led to the unlawful acts Taylor committed as trustee, or constituted the type of authority by which the Estate can be held vicariously liable for Taylor’s malfeasance. The scope of this grant of authority extended only to Margene’s own personal finances; Margene had no authority to disburse Trust funds, and therefore could not have granted, by her power of attorney, any such authority to Taylor, either expressly or impliedly. And as a practical matter, nothing Taylor did with Margene’s personal finances could have, by itself, impacted the Trust; after all, by the time Taylor took actions pursuant to his power of attorney—e.g., moving money from Margene’s personal accounts to, say, his own—he would by definition have already committed the unlawful acts in question— distributing Trust principal into Margene’s accounts in the first place. That is, the specific bad acts at issue here weren’t undertaken pursuant to any authority Margene gave Taylor; they were committed pursuant to authority Taylor already possessed, as trustee, under the Trust documents. Under these circumstances, Robert has not borne his burden of persuading us that vicarious liability exists here under principles of agency law.

¶122      Moreover, as noted, the trial court did not rely on this theory; if we were to rely on it here, we would be affirming on a different ground, something we may do only if that ground is “apparent on the record.” See Croft v. Morgan County, 2021 UT 46, ¶ 43, 496 P.3d 83 (quotation simplified). It is certainly not apparent from this record that Taylor had authority from Margene to act on her behalf in making unlawful distributions of Trust principal.

¶123      Thus, on the record before us, we see no basis in law for the Estate to be held vicariously liable, as a general matter, for acts Taylor committed as trustee of the Trust. We therefore reverse the trial court’s ruling to that effect.

¶124      Before concluding our analysis, however, we discuss the third theory by which assets of the Estate might conceivably be used to satisfy a judgment entered against Taylor in connection with his malfeasance as trustee: Robert’s apparent request that the court impose a constructive trust on the assets of the Estate, at least to the extent that those assets are derived from unlawfully distributed Trust assets. As noted, this theory is more limited than a vicarious liability theory—imposition of a constructive trust would not connote that Margene or the Estate did anything wrong and would not result in the Estate being generally liable for Taylor’s unlawful actions. But imposition of a constructive trust would enable Robert (and his siblings) to reach at least certain assets of the Estate to compensate them for Taylor’s malfeasance. See Lodges at Bear Hollow Condo. Homeowners Ass’n, Inc. v. Bear Hollow Restoration, LLC, 2015 UT App 6, ¶ 31, 344 P.3d 145 (“Constructive trusts are usually imposed where injustice would result if a party were able to keep money or property that rightfully belonged to another.” (quotation simplified)).

¶125      It is unclear to us whether Robert properly pleaded and pursued this theory or, if not, whether it was tried by consent of the parties. Robert certainly asked for this relief in his proposed post-trial findings, at least regarding Taylor’s share of the Estate’s assets. But the trial court specifically eschewed this theory during post-trial proceedings, offering its view that it “need not retreat to any equitable theory”—for instance, constructive trust—to support its determination regarding vicarious liability. However, the court expressly stopped short of rejecting a constructive trust theory, stating in a later ruling that it had not ruled on the theory, but instead had merely “ruled on an alternative ground,” and further clarifying that the fact that it “didn’t rule on that theory . . . doesn’t mean that [the court] didn’t accept it.” Indeed, the court went so far as to say that, if a constructive trust theory was “what the parties believe is a more proper finding,” the court may be willing to impose such a trust.

¶126      On remand, the court should consider whether Robert properly pleaded a claim for constructive trust and, if not, whether that claim was tried by consent of the parties. If the court determines that the claim is properly before the court, it should then consider the merits of the claim, and evaluate whether and to what extent a constructive trust should be imposed on the assets of the Estate in favor of Robert and his siblings. The merits of these questions have not been briefed in connection with this appeal, and we express no opinion on them, nor do we express any opinion regarding whether, on remand, these questions can or should be decided on the existing evidentiary record or whether additional proceedings would be appropriate.

B. Interest Rate

¶127      Second, the Estate asks us to examine the trial court’s ruling regarding the rate to be applied in calculating the amount of interest that Robert and Jill owe on the Note associated with the Loan. Despite the fact that the only expert—the Estate’s expert— to offer an interest calculation at trial calculated that interest to be $922,219.77, the court concluded that the total amount of unpaid interest owing on the Note was $565,314.97.

¶128      Under the terms of the Note, Robert and Jill agreed to pay “variable interest . . . at the margin loan rate assessed by S[a]lomon Smith Barney on Brokerage Account No. 298-02528-13 303 . . . as may fluctuate from time to time until paid in full.” But the calculation is not as straightforward as it may sound, because Robert and Jill failed to repay the Note for eleven years, and there were “some months” during that time span “where an interest rate was not published on the account” referenced in the Note.

¶129      For the months in which an interest rate on the specific account was published, the Estate’s expert used the published rate, which varied by month and ranged from 4.125% to 11%. For most of the “gap periods”—those months for which no interest rate was published on the account—the expert looked at the rate published for the month before the gap and the rate published for the month after the gap, averaged the two rates, and applied that average rate for each month during the gap period. Some of these gap periods were short, involving a gap of just a month or two, but other gap periods were quite long, involving periods up to three years without a published interest rate. But for the last gap period—a long one stretching from September 2011 through February 2015—the expert did not use an “average rate” methodology, because he could find no rate for the end month. Instead, he “made some calls and talked to a Smith Barney representative” who gave him “a range of rates”—from 4.75% to 5.5%—used “during that period of time” on various brokerage accounts. The expert then attempted to “corroborate that” range by comparing those rates to “rates published in the Wall Street Journal” and by discussing the issue “with [his] colleagues,” and eventually determined that a “reasonable rate” to use for the last gap period was 4.75%, a rate the expert considered to be “a very conservative rate . . . on the low end of the range.” The expert noted that this choice was only “an increase of 1.5% over the prime rate,” which he considered to be another sign that his chosen rate was “conservative and reasonable.” Applying this methodology, the expert calculated the total amount of interest owing, over the entire eleven-year period, as $922,219.77.

¶130      The trial court found the expert’s methodology to be “reasonable,” at least for “short gap periods,” but nevertheless did not accept the Estate’s expert’s methodology. It determined that the “Note’s repayment of interest term was ambiguous” with regard to the gap periods because the Note did not specify “what should occur if” no monthly interest rate was published for the account in question. It also found that “the intent of the parties” with regard to this ambiguity was “ascertainable sufficient to enforce it.” But even though it professed to be considering “extrinsic evidence to clarify the intent of the parties,” the court did not actually utilize any such evidence. Instead, it observed that the Note was a “negotiable instrument,” and it turned to a statute, located in Utah’s Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), for guidance. See Utah Code § 70A-3-112. That statute states, in relevant part, that if a negotiable “instrument provides for interest, but the amount of interest payable cannot be ascertained from the description, interest is payable at the judgment rate in effect at the place of payment of the instrument and at the time interest first accrues.” Id. § 70A-3-112(2). The court concluded that this statute “provides an adequate remedy at law to execute the intent of the parties as represented in the Note.” And it decided to apply this statutory default rate—which turned out to be 3.28%—to all gap periods, regardless of their length, noting that the statutory rate “provides a reliable method at law that relieves the Court from adopting” the expert’s methodologies for the gap periods. Notably, the court did not ever find that the Estate’s expert’s methodology was unreasonable; as noted, it found the methodology reasonable as to short gap periods and, even with regard to the longer gap periods, the court stated that it “appreciate[d]” the expert’s “efforts to determine reasonableness of his proposed rates by comparing them with the contemporaneous prime rate.” Later, using the published rate for the months in which one existed and the UCC rate for all other months, the court calculated the unpaid interest as $565,314.97.

¶131      The Estate ascribes error to the court’s approach, asserting that, after making its ambiguity determination, the court should not have jumped directly to the UCC rate but, instead, should have “determine[d] the parties’ intent from extrinsic evidence,” including the expert’s testimony. The Estate points out that the Note is far from silent on the interest-rate question, and indicates the parties’ intent to apply a rate equivalent to the brokerage rate for a particular account. And they assert that the UCC rate “applies only where the instrument is silent on how to calculate interest,” and not where the parties’ instructions in that regard are simply ambiguous. We find merit in the Estate’s argument.

¶132      As an initial matter, we note that the Estate’s argument is in line with general principles of contractual interpretation, including the bedrock proposition that, when “a contract term is ambiguous, [trial] courts should consider extrinsic evidence to resolve the ambiguity.” See Brady v. Park, 2019 UT 16, ¶ 29, 445 P.3d 395. Neither side takes issue with the court’s determination that, at least for the gap periods, the Note was ambiguous with regard to interest rate.[19] But the Estate persuasively argues that, even for gap periods, the Note does give some indication of the parties’ intent: they wanted to apply a rate equivalent to the Salomon Smith Barney brokerage rate. And the Estate points out that its expert came up with a methodology, in keeping with the parties’ expressed desire to use brokerage rates rather than presumably lower statutory rates, for estimating the brokerage rates for the gap periods, and points out that the trial court even found that methodology to be “reasonable,” at least as applied to the shorter gap periods.

¶133      Moreover, courts that have construed the UCC interest rate statute have concluded that it should not be applied in situations where “an ascertainable interest rate is provided but the sum certain requirement fails for lack of evidence concerning a reasonable rate of interest.” See Commercial Services of Perry, Inc. v. Wooldridge, 968 S.W.2d 560, 565 (Tex. App. 1998). In particular, at least where competent extrinsic evidence exists that can be utilized to estimate a reasonable rate commensurate with the parties’ intentions, courts have declined to apply statutory default rates where the parties agreed, in their instrument, to an interest rate tied to a specific bank’s prime rate and where that bank goes out of business. See, e.g.Ginsberg 1985 Real Estate P’ship v. Cadle Co., 39 F.3d 528, 533 (5th Cir. 1994) (applying “an analogous prime rate,” rather than a default statutory rate, to calculate interest after a bank failure, where the contract called for interest at that bank’s prime rate plus 1%); FDIC v. Blanton, 918 F.2d 524, 532–33 (5th Cir. 1990) (determining that a default statutory rate was “inapplicable” where the parties had agreed upon an interest rate equivalent to a specific bank’s rate plus 1% and where the bank had failed, holding that “[t]he trial judge could have applied an analogous prime rate as consistent with the intent of the parties”). We consider the failed-bank situation helpfully analogous to this one, and find the analysis applied by the courts in those cases persuasive and useful in this situation.

¶134      In those cases, courts examine extrinsic evidence to make a finding regarding a rate that would be reasonable and most in line with the parties’ intent. See Central Bank v. Colonial Romanelli Assocs., 662 A.2d 157, 158 (Conn. App. Ct. 1995) (“When a variable interest rate is based on the rate of a failed institution, the trial court must determine whether the substitute rate is reasonable by examining the documents and testimony offered by the plaintiff.”); FDIC v. Cage, 810 F. Supp. 745, 747 (S.D. Miss. 1993) (“Because the rate of interest is a term which is essential to a determination of the rights and duties of the parties and because the parties to this action understandably failed to specify the interest rate to be applied upon the failure of [an institution], it is left to the Court to determine a reasonable rate of interest.”). Importantly, “in determining reasonableness” in situations involving a failed bank, “the court need not determine the exact methodology used by the failed bank in calculating its internal interest rate; such a determination would be impossible in many circumstances. Rather, the court must determine whether the substitute rate was reasonable based on all the circumstances of the particular case.” Ninth RMA Partners, L.P. v. Krass, 746 A.2d 826, 831 (Conn. App. Ct. 2000) (quotation simplified).

¶135      In this case, the trial court did not undertake this type of analysis. Instead, without fully evaluating the reasonableness of the Estate’s proffered extrinsic evidence (chiefly, the expert’s methodology), the court jumped straight to the UCC default rate, stating that “the UCC provides an adequate remedy at law to execute the intent of the parties” and “relieves the Court from adopting” the expert’s methodology. And the court did so without making any finding that the expert’s unrebutted testimony was unreasonable or unreliable; to the contrary, the court expressly found the expert’s methodology “reasonable,” at least for use over shorter gap periods. And it made little effort to explain why it found the expert’s methodology reasonable for shorter gap periods but not necessarily for longer ones; it stated only that the expert’s gap period rates were “hypothetical and speculative,” a criticism that would seem to apply to all gap periods regardless of their length, and that will apply, at least to some extent, any time an effort is made to estimate an interest rate for a bank that, for instance, has gone out of business. Instead of explaining why it rejected the expert’s conclusions, the court simply stated that it “does not adopt” the expert’s “method as a proper means to ascertain interest,” and instead elected to apply the UCC rate. Contrary to the court’s statement, the statute did not “relieve” the court of its obligation to apply an interest rate commensurate with the intentions of the parties, nor of its obligation to grapple with, and make specific findings regarding, the credibility and reasonableness of the extrinsic evidence offered by the Estate and its expert.

¶136      Certainly, if the court had made specific and supported findings that the expert’s methodology was unconvincing and unreasonable across the board, and that therefore the Estate’s extrinsic evidence was not credible, it may have been possible for the court to default to the UCC rate. In that scenario—where the other side (Robert and Jill) did not offer any extrinsic evidence of their own and where the Estate’s evidence was deemed not credible—there would exist no competent extrinsic evidence to assist the court in ascertaining a rate reasonably equivalent to the one the parties intended, and therefore defaulting to a statutory rate may be appropriate. But absent such findings, the court should make a determination, based on the extrinsic evidence offered, as to the interest rate most reasonably equivalent to the intent of the parties as expressed in the Note.

¶137      We therefore vacate the court’s interest-rate determination, and remand the case to the trial court for reassessment of a reasonable rate of interest that best approximates the intentions of the parties. In so doing, the court should specifically assess the reasonableness of the Estate’s expert’s methodology. To the extent the court finds the expert’s methodology reasonable—as it already has with respect to short gap periods—it should apply that methodology, given the absence of other extrinsic evidence. The court should resort to the UCC statutory rate only to the extent it finds the expert’s methodology unreasonable, and not merely because the expert’s effort to estimate a rate that, by definition, does not exist is somewhat hypothetical. We imagine that this reassessment might be done by resort to the existing evidentiary record, but it will certainly be within the court’s discretion to hold additional proceedings if necessary.

C. The Form of the Judgment

¶138      Next, the Estate raises several issues with the form of the judgment the court entered in this case. First, the Estate challenges the court’s award of damages against it related to repairs to the marital home. Second, the Estate wonders who the proper judgment creditors are. Finally, and relatedly, the Estate raises setoff-related issues arising from the fact that it obtained an award against both Robert and Jill; it asks us to instruct the trial court to enter a separate judgment in favor of Robert and Jill, or to otherwise resolve the issues related to the court’s decision to set off the money owed to the Estate against the money the Estate owes to Robert. We find merit, at least to some extent, in all of the Estate’s complaints related to the form of the judgment, and we therefore vacate the court’s judgment and remand these issues to the trial court for clarification.

1

¶139      First, the Estate complains about the court’s award of damages to Robert, and against the Estate, for damages to the marital home. Its main complaint in this regard is that Robert did not point to any evidence that he—as opposed to Jeana—had actually been damaged.[20] This challenge is well-taken.

¶140      The trial court found, in determinations not challenged on appeal, that the marital home “was in excellent repair and condition” at the time of Dean’s death, but that Margene did not continue to properly maintain the property afterward. After Margene’s death, Jeana purchased the home, and made significant repairs that were necessitated by Margene’s failure to properly maintain the home. The court found that Jeana purchased the home for full value—without the benefit of any discount for the condition of the home—and then made the repairs to the home out of her own pocket. In view of these apparently undisputed facts, the court determined, in its main post-trial ruling, that the damages related to the home repairs were “owed to Jeana.”

¶141      Despite determining that any damages in this regard were owed to Jeana, the court’s judgment—entered some months after its main post-trial ruling—reflected that these damages were to be paid to Robert. Robert offers no good explanation for this, asserting simply that he and Jeana, “as beneficiaries” of the Trust, “have standing and are entitled to damages” related to the repairs to the marital home. But standing is one thing; evidence of damages is another. We agree with the Estate that Robert— personally, as distinct from Jeana—offered no evidence that he sustained damages related to the repairs to the home, and that the judgment in this case should be modified to remove any obligation by the Estate to pay Robert for those damages.

2

¶142      The Robert-or-Jeana issue related to repairs to the marital home is just one confusing result of the court’s decision to list Robert—and only Robert—as judgment creditor. By this point in the opinion, it should be apparent that—for the most part, and with certain exceptions such as perhaps the payment to Robert’s ex-wife—the damages Taylor caused were visited upon the Trust, and all its beneficiaries, and not just upon Robert. Yet the trial court—over objection—determined to list Robert as the sole judgment creditor, even though it awarded the full amount of the Trust’s damages. This was error and requires us to vacate the judgment and remand the issue for clarification.

¶143      The court can remedy this overarching error in one of two ways. First, it could elect to enter judgment in favor of not just Robert but, instead, either (a) the Trust (or, alternatively, the trustees of the Trust in their official capacity) or (b) all three beneficiaries, each to the extent of their damage. Second, it could elect to have Robert remain as the sole judgment creditor but, in this event, it would need to reduce the damages award to reflect the fact that Robert is entitled to receive only one-third of any damages sustained by the Trust.

¶144      We offer no opinion as to which option the court should choose on remand. Each has potential procedural pitfalls; from our review of the record, the party status of Jill and Jeana is somewhat unclear. But one thing the court may not do is enter judgment in favor of Robert, personally, in the full amount of the Trust’s damages.

3

¶145      Next, the Estate raises the related issue of how to memorialize the judgment in its favor, and against Robert and Jill, for unpaid interest on the Note. The court’s judgment resolved this issue by way of setoff, awarding damages to Robert and against the Estate associated with the Estate’s determined vicarious liability for Taylor’s actions as trustee, and then setting off against that amount the interest Robert owed to the Estate. The Estate complains about the way the court handled this, pointing out that—even if the court correctly applied setoff principles with regard to Robert—the court awarded no money in Jill’s favor and therefore could not have applied setoff principles with regard to Jill’s obligation to pay interest to the Estate. In other words, the Estate complains that the court held that it was entitled to recover several hundred thousand dollars from Jill but gave the Estate no way to actually go about collecting on this award. Again, the Estate’s complaint is well-taken; the court erred in the way it applied setoff principles under these circumstances.

¶146      This issue may, however, be rendered moot by this court’s determination that the Estate is not vicariously liable for Taylor’s actions as trustee, see supra Part II.A, and by its determination that the Estate is not liable to Robert (as opposed to, potentially, Jeana) for the repairs to the marital home, see supra Part II.C.1. Unless the court, after reconsidering Robert’s potential claim for constructive trust, actually imposes such a trust, no judgment will be entered against the Estate in favor of Robert or Jill. In any event, and even if the court ends up entering a judgment for constructive trust against the Estate and in favor of the Trust’s beneficiaries, the court in clarifying judgment-related issues should make sure that the judgments properly account for the Estate’s award against both Robert and Jill for unpaid interest.

D. Attorney Fees

¶147      Finally, the Estate appeals the denial of its request for attorney fees incurred in support of its claim for unpaid interest on the Note. Its claim is rooted in the language of the Settlement Agreement and related Note, which both have attorney fee provisions; the one contained in the Note requires Robert and Jill “to pay all reasonable costs and expenses of collection of any amount due under this Note including reasonable attorney’s fees.” Neither Robert nor Jill contests the Estate’s claim that, at least conceptually, the Estate would be entitled to recover attorney fees incurred in obtaining its judgment for unpaid interest on the Note. After all, the Estate prevailed on that specific claim. Indeed, in its attorney fees ruling, the trial court acknowledged that Robert and Jill “as guarantors of the [N]ote would owe fees [to the Estate] pursuant to a strictly construed reading of” the Note’s attorney fees provision.

¶148      But the trial court nevertheless denied the Estate’s claim for attorney fees, for several reasons. First, and chiefly, the court denied the Estate’s claim because, in the court’s view, the Estate had failed to sufficiently allocate its incurred fees between its successful and unsuccessful claims. Under our law, a party requesting attorney fees has an obligation to allocate its fees between claims on which it is entitled to fees and claims “for which there is no entitlement to attorney fees,” and should limit its fee request to only those specific fees incurred in aid of claims on which it is entitled to fees. See Zion Village Resort LLC v. Pro Curb USA LLC, 2020 UT App 167, ¶ 62, 480 P.3d 1055 (quotation simplified). A requesting party who fails to do so “makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the trial court to award . . . fees because there is insufficient evidence to support the award.” See Jensen v. Sawyers, 2005 UT 81, ¶ 132, 130 P.3d 325. Indeed, if a requesting party makes no effort to allocate its fees, a court “may, in its discretion,” elect to “not award wholesale all attorney fees” or may “deny fees altogether for failure to allocate.” Burdick v. Horner Townsend & Kent, Inc., 2015 UT 8, ¶ 59, 345 P.3d 531 (quotation simplified). But a court’s discretion in this regard is not unlimited, and “is not an invitation to forego a reasoned analysis.” Id. ¶ 60. Indeed, in Burdick, our supreme court determined that a trial court had abused its discretion by denying a request for attorney fees, in its entirety, for failure to allocate, noting that the movant’s “affidavit clearly identifie[d] 282 hours attributable only to” the successful claim. Id. The court remanded the matter to the trial court to “conduct a reasonableness analysis and attempt to discern what fees may be divided between the” successful claims and the unsuccessful claims. Id. ¶ 61.

¶149      In this case, some of our rulings described herein (see supra Parts II.A, II.B, and II.C) have changed the landscape with regard to allocation enough to require a remand, so that the Estate can resubmit its fee request in light of our rulings and so that the trial court can, in light of those rulings, reassess the quality of the Estate’s effort to allocate its requested fees. Most notably here, the fees the Estate incurred in advocating for its expert’s methodology for calculating the rate of interest may—depending on how proceedings on remand turn out—need to be included in the award. But in any event, we have some concerns with the trial court’s original analysis, and we express those concerns here in an effort to provide guidance on remand.

¶150      First, we are not convinced that the Estate’s allocation efforts—even the first time around—were so poor as to necessitate a complete denial of its attorney fees claim. In its ruling, the trial court acknowledged that “the [E]state made some effort to” allocate fees, “as it removed or modified fees claimed for work advancing arguments or upon which it did not prevail.” The record bears this out. The Estate eliminated (wholly or partially) from its fee request some forty-eight line items totaling nearly $30,000 of fees. To be sure, the Estate requested over $174,000 in fees, even after the allocation, and one could conceivably argue, depending on the circumstances, that reducing only $30,000 from fees totaling more than $200,000 does not constitute sufficiently deep cuts. But the Estate’s allocation effort does, to our eye, appear to be detailed, targeted, and undertaken in good faith. The Estate’s main claim—and the primary reason for its presence in the litigation—was the one for unpaid interest on the Note; it does not seem to us implausible that the majority of its fees would have been incurred in aid of litigating that claim. In situations like this, where a party has taken a good-faith and detailed run at allocation, the better approach—if a trial court remains of the view that the cuts are not quite deep enough—is to make a reduced award rather than to deny the request in its entirety. Wholesale denial of a fee request on allocation grounds should be reserved for situations where a party either makes no effort to allocate at all, see Burdick, 2015 UT 8, ¶ 59 (stating that a court may “deny fees altogether for failure to allocate” (emphasis added)), or where a party makes only token or wholly inadequate attempts to allocate.

¶151      Next, the court mentioned several other factors that influenced its decision to deny the Estate’s fee request that were, in our view, not a proper basis for denial. For instance, the court noted that, for many years, “no significant steps were taken to timely collect on the [N]ote,” and appeared to hold this against the Estate in assessing its claim for fees. But it was the Trust’s responsibility for pursuing repayment of the Note, at least until Margene’s death (at which point unpaid interest became payable to the Estate); any delays in pursuing collection from 2004 through 2015 cannot be laid at the feet of the Estate and are, in any event, beside the point. After Margene’s death, and after the principal amount of the Note was effectively paid off in connection with the first distribution to the Trust beneficiaries, the Estate soon pursued this action to recover the unpaid interest. There is no basis to hold delays in enforcement against the Estate in connection with assessing its claim for fees.

¶152      Next, the court speculated that the provision of the Settlement Agreement directing that unpaid interest on the Note was to be paid to the Estate, rather than to the Trust and its three beneficiaries, “was contrary to the intent and past practice of” Dean, and the court stated that it was “troubled” by that provision. The court noted that this sentiment was “not central to its decision,” but it should go without saying that the court should not have taken this into account at all in connection with assessing the Estate’s fee request.[21]

¶153      In short, we vacate the court’s order denying, in its entirety, the Estate’s claim for attorney fees; we do so largely because, in our view, the rulings set forth elsewhere in this opinion have changed the landscape enough to necessitate a reassessment of that claim. And we remand the matter to the trial court for reassessment of that claim consistent with this opinion.

CONCLUSION

¶154      We reject all but one of Taylor’s arguments on appeal. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Taylor’s motion to amend. Taylor has not carried his burden, on appeal, of showing error in the court’s partial summary judgment ruling, or of demonstrating abuse of discretion in its decision to exclude Taylor’s experts. We also affirm much of the court’s damages award against Taylor, but vacate the court’s award of damages against Taylor related to the payment to Robert’s ex-wife.

¶155      We find merit in most of the Estate’s arguments on appeal. The court erred in holding the Estate vicariously liable for the actions Taylor took as trustee. The court also erred in its approach to calculating the interest owed to the Estate on the Note, as well as in various aspects of its judgment. In addition, we remand the question of the Estate’s entitlement to attorney fees.

¶156      Accordingly, we vacate the judgment entered by the trial court, and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion; those proceedings should, among other things, involve evaluation of Robert’s potential claim for constructive trust against the Estate, reassessment of the amount of interest the Estate is owed, clarification of the judgment, and reassessment of the Estate’s claim for attorney fees incurred in connection with its successful claim for unpaid interest.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277


[1] Because several of the individuals involved in this case are members of the same family, we often refer to them by their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] This fact, along with the others in this factual recitation, is presented “in a light most favorable to the trial court’s findings,” as is required of us in an “appeal from a bench trial.” See Huck v. Ken’s House LLC, 2022 UT App 64, n.1, 511 P.3d 1220 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1260 (Utah 2022).

[3] In 2020, our legislature amended and renamed this statute, titling it the “Uniform Fiduciary Income and Principal Act.” Utah Code § 22-3-101. No party suggests that the recent amendments are relevant to this case. In this opinion, we refer to this statute as the UPIA, the title it had during the events giving rise to this case.

[4] Robert’s ex-wife was eventually dismissed from the lawsuit prior to trial, and is not a party to this appeal.

[5] This ruling was later amended to remove all reference to any such costs.

[6] The record is somewhat unclear as to the identity of the person(s) or entity from whom Jeana purchased the home—that is, whether she purchased the home from the Trust or bought out her siblings’ interest in the home directly after it had been conveyed to them as tenants in common. Ultimately, this issue is immaterial to our analysis.

[7] Jill and Jeana also requested an award of attorney fees, but the court denied those claims for various reasons. The propriety of those rulings is not at issue in this appeal.

[8] The judgment also recites that the court “will award attorneys’ fees to” Robert, but it makes no effort to quantify those fees. As noted, the court did later quantify those fees in a ruling issued about four months after it signed the judgment, awarding Robert $441,546.50 in fees and $137,148.38 in costs. But the record submitted to us does not include any amended or supplemental judgment including those fees.

[9] In addition to the issue it raised regarding the form of the judgment, the Estate also raised objections relating to the court’s ruling that it was jointly and severally liable for Taylor’s actions.

[10] At one point in his appellate brief, Taylor mentions in passing that the trial court “made no finding under Utah Code § 75-7­814(2) regarding whether or not a lay trustee may rely on professional counsel and accounting advice, and whether such reliance demonstrates reasonable care.” That statute provides that trustees may delegate “investment and management functions” to a professional as long as the trustee engages in certain oversight, and if trustees do so, they are “not liable to the beneficiaries or to the trust for the decisions or actions of the agent to whom the function was delegated.” Utah Code § 75-7-814(2). But Taylor did not invoke this statute in opposing Robert’s summary judgment motion, and any argument that the trial court erred by not considering the statute is therefore unpreserved. And in any event, Taylor does not argue that he delegated any specific task or function to any professional pursuant to this statute.

[11] Whether advice of counsel is the sort of affirmative defense that is considered waived if not pleaded in a responsive pleading is an interesting question. We are aware of Utah law stating that, at least in certain contexts, “reasonable reliance on the advice of counsel is an affirmative defense.” See Hodges v. Gibson Products Co., 811 P.2d 151, 159–60 (Utah 1991). But other courts have held that, at least in some circumstances, advice of counsel does not need to be pleaded in an answer. See, e.g.LG Philips LCD Co. v. Tatung Co., 243 F.R.D. 133, 139 (D. Del. 2007). Because the parties have not briefed this issue, and because it is only tangentially related to the question at hand, we offer no opinion on whether advice of counsel is the sort of affirmative defense that is waived if not included in a responsive pleading.

[12]  Taylor argues that the court should not have considered much of this evidence because it was attached to Robert’s reply brief submitted in support of his summary judgment motion. He argues that Robert’s “obligation was to present all claimed relevant facts with his initial motion” and that “[n]ew materials cannot be raised in a reply memorandum.” But Robert did not raise any new issue in his reply; he merely responded to Taylor’s claims—included in his memorandum opposing Robert’s motion—regarding IRA ownership. The court did not err in considering the materials Robert submitted in connection with his reply brief in support of his motion.

[13] The court did, however, allow one of Taylor’s financial experts to offer rebuttal testimony at trial.

[14] In this same vein, Taylor makes a cursory and unsupported allegation in his brief that Robert cannot recover for “hypothetical growth in value” of Trust assets because his expert “[r]elied on [s]peculative [a]ssumptions.” But he does not suggest what these speculative assumptions were. Thus, this allegation, like some of his other damages assertions, is inadequately briefed.

[15] Taylor does not appeal the question of whether he—as opposed to Margene or the Estate—should be liable for the repairs to the marital home. Per the Trust, it was Margene—and not the trustee—who was responsible for “perform[ing] such repairs and maintenance as may be required to maintain the property in the condition it was maintained prior to [Dean’s] death.” Because this issue was not appealed, we do not address its merits.

[16] We are also aware of Taylor’s motion, filed with this court on June 30, 2023, asking us, “pending [our] imminent ruling,” to stay enforcement of the judgment. However, now that we have decided the case, the motion to stay has been rendered moot. See M.N.V. Holdings LC v. 200 South LLC, 2021 UT App 76, ¶ 17 n.10, 494 P.3d 402 (determining that a motion to stay had been mooted by the issuance of the opinion); Koyle v. Davis, 2011 UT App 196, ¶ 7, 261 P.3d 100 (per curiam) (recognizing that our resolution of a case on appeal “renders the motion to stay moot”), cert. denied, 263 P.3d 390 (Utah 2011).

[17] Similarly, the Estate’s failure to object to evidence that could conceivably have supported a constructive trust claim does not constitute implied consent to trial of an unpleaded vicarious liability claim. See Hill v. Estate of Allred, 2009 UT 28, ¶ 48, 216 P.3d 929. As discussed below, Robert may or may not have properly pleaded a claim that a constructive trust be imposed on Estate assets, at least to the extent that those assets consist of wrongfully distributed Trust principal; we offer no opinion on that question. But even assuming, for purposes of this discussion, that he did properly plead a claim for constructive trust, such a claim is a far cry from a claim for complete vicarious liability for all actions, and the Estate’s perceived acquiescence in admission of evidence supporting a constructive trust claim does not necessarily signal consent to trial of a vicarious liability claim.

[18] At oral argument before this court, Robert’s attorney hinted at a fourth theory, and suggested that the court, in ruling that the Estate was vicariously liable for Taylor’s actions as trustee, might have been applying a contract-based construct. But the court’s written rulings on this topic do not appear to rely on any such theory. In addition, we are aware of no specific contractual obligation that might be utilized for this purpose. The only obligation Margene had under the Trust documents was the duty to keep the home in good condition. She was never the trustee, never had any authority to distribute Trust assets, never signed the Trust, and did not receive Trust assets upon any condition, and therefore never had any contractual obligation regarding those assets. See, e.g.Bloom Master Inc. v. Bloom Master LLC, 2019 UT App 63, ¶ 13, 442 P.3d 1178 (“To form an enforceable contract, the parties must have a meeting of the minds on the essential terms of the contract.” (quotation simplified)). We therefore reject any contract-based argument for vicarious liability.

[19] And neither Robert nor Jill makes any argument that the UCC rate should apply whenever contractual ambiguity exists with regard to the interest rate. In general, “a court’s legal determination that ambiguity exists within a text leads to the conclusion that” a factfinder will need to consider extrinsic evidence. See Jessup v. Five Star Franchising LLC, 2022 UT App 86, ¶ 42, 515 P.3d 466. This general principle appears to apply here. At least, neither Robert nor Jill makes any assertion that, given the language of the UCC, this constitutes one of those “other specific areas of the law . . . where clarity between parties is itself at issue” and in which “the presence of ambiguity . . . suggests that a party may be entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Id. (describing some of those exceptional situations). That is, Robert and Jill do not assert that the UCC rate should apply whenever ambiguity in the words used in the instrument prevents a court from easily ascertaining the agreed-upon interest rate. See Utah Code § 70A­3-112(2). Because Robert and Jill do not make this argument, we offer no opinion as to its merits.

[20] The Estate also complains about the amount of this damages award, asserting that it should be for $29,439 instead of $33,500. There was evidence supporting both damages figures, and the trial court was within its discretion to select the slightly higher one. We therefore reject the Estate’s challenge to the amount of this portion of the damages award.

[21] The Estate also asserts that the trial court more heavily scrutinized its fee request than it did Robert’s, asserting that—like the Estate—Robert also failed to prevail on all of his claims and motions, and therefore should also have been required to allocate his requested fees between successful and unsuccessful endeavors. The propriety of the court’s fee award to Robert is not at issue in this appeal, and we therefore decline to comment on the court’s handling of Robert’s fee request, other than to state that courts should, of course, evaluate fee requests from the various parties in the case by the same standards.

What Are the Benefits of Hiring an Experienced Family Law Attorney for Your Divorce and Custody Matters Instead of Representing Yourself?

I am a divorce lawyer. You may believe, consequently, that my response to your question is going to be self-serving and that I am going to tell you that you should hire an experienced family law attorney. You are wise and prudent to be skeptical.

That stated, you can ask those of your circle of friends and family members whom you trust and who are as wise as or wiser than you whether hiring an experienced family law attorney for your divorce and custody matters instead of representing yourself. They will tell you, unequivocally and without question, that the answer is “yes.”

That stated, the benefits of hiring a divorce attorney are not as great as they were a generation ago. There are still many benefits to hiring a divorce attorney these days, but much of what an attorney—and only an attorney—could do for you in the past (due to the specialized knowledge your attorney, and only your attorney or other attorneys like him/her, is now possible to obtain and enjoy through sources other than an attorney. Almost any family law question can be answered by some diligent Internet research (be warned, however: there’s infinite supplies of misinformation, myths, and mindless drivel on the Internet too, so conduct your research with a careful and discriminating eye).

If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you could become a fairly formidable pro se (meaning “self-represented”) family law litigant. Many jurisdictions are also starting to permit people other than lawyers, such as specially certified or licensed paralegals, to practice some limited scope legal services in family law cases. Candidly, when you opt to represent yourself or hire a non-lawyer, it should come as no surprise that you almost always get what you pay for. Otherwise stated, the amount of money you “save” by not hiring a skilled attorney is usually “paid” in the form of excessive amounts of time and effort you have to expend to gain the benefits equivalent to simply hiring a skilled attorney. There’s no free lunch, there are no shortcuts.

 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-benefits-of-hiring-an-experienced-family-law-attorney-for-your-divorce-and-custody-matters-instead-of-representing-yourself/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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How Much Is a Family Attorney?

The American Bar Association has general rules on fees you can find here: ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.5.

I will answer this question as it applies in the jurisdiction where I practice divorce and family law (Utah). Each jurisdiction has its own rules governing the fees attorneys charge.

According the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.5 (Fees):

(a) A lawyer shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an unreasonable fee or an unreasonable amount for expenses. The factors to be considered in determining the reasonableness of a fee include the following:

(1) the time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved and the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly;

(2) the likelihood, if apparent to the client, that the acceptance of the particular employment will preclude other employment by the lawyer;

(3) the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services;

(4) the amount involved and the results obtained;

(5) the time limitations imposed by the client or by the circumstances;

(6) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client;

(7) the experience, reputation and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services; and

(8) whether the fee is fixed or contingent.

(b) The scope of the representation and the basis or rate of the fee and expenses for which the client will be responsible shall be communicated to the client, preferably in writing, before or within a reasonable time after commencing the representation, except when the lawyer will charge a regularly represented client on the same basis or rate. Any changes in the basis or rate of the fee or expenses shall also be communicated to the client.

(c) A fee may be contingent on the outcome of the matter for which the service is rendered, except in a matter in which a contingent fee is prohibited by paragraph (d) or other law. A contingent fee agreement shall be in a writing signed by the client and shall state the method by which the fee is to be determined, including the percentage or percentages that shall accrue to the lawyer in the event of settlement, trial or appeal; litigation and other expenses to be deducted from the recovery; and whether such expenses are to be deducted before or after the contingent fee is calculated. The agreement must clearly notify the client of any expenses for which the client will be liable whether or not the client is the prevailing party. Upon conclusion of a contingent fee matter, the lawyer shall provide the client with a written statement stating the outcome of the matter and, if there is a recovery, showing the remittance to the client and the method of its determination.

(d) A lawyer shall not enter into an arrangement for, charge, or collect:

(1) any fee in a domestic relations matter, the payment or amount of which is contingent upon the securing of a divorce or upon the amount of alimony or support, or property settlement in lieu thereof; or

(2) a contingent fee for representing a defendant in a criminal case.

(e) A licensed paralegal practitioner may not enter into a contingent fee agreement with a client.

(f) Before providing any services, a licensed paralegal practitioner must provide the client with a written agreement that:

(1) states the purpose for which the licensed paralegal practitioner has been retained;

(2) identifies the services to be performed;

(3) identifies the rate or fee for the services to be performed and whether and to what extent the client will be responsible for any costs, expenses or disbursements in the course of the representation;

(4) includes a statement printed in 12-point boldface type that the licensed paralegal practitioner is not an attorney and is limited to practice in only those areas in which the licensed paralegal practitioner is licensed;

(5) includes a provision stating that the client may report complaints relating to a licensed paralegal practitioner or the unauthorized practice of law to the Office of Professional Conduct, including a toll-free number and Internet website;

(6) describes the document to be prepared;

(7) describes the purpose of the document;

(8) describes the process to be followed in preparing the document;

(9) states whether the licensed paralegal practitioner will be filing the document on the client’s behalf; and

(10) states the approximate time necessary to complete the task.

(g) A licensed paralegal practitioner may not make an oral or written statement guaranteeing or promising an outcome, unless the licensed paralegal practitioner has some basis in fact for making the guarantee or promise.

———————-

COMMENT

Reasonableness of Fee and Expenses

[1] Paragraph (a) requires that lawyers charge fees that are reasonable under the circumstances. The factors specified in (a)(1) through (a)(8) are not exclusive. Nor will each factor be relevant in each instance. Paragraph (a) also requires that expenses for which the client will be charged must be reasonable. A lawyer may seek reimbursement for the cost of services performed in-house, such as copying, or for other expenses incurred in-house, such as telephone charges, either by charging a reasonable amount to which the client has agreed in advance or by charging an amount that reasonably reflects the cost incurred by the lawyer.

Basis or Rate of Fee

[2] When the lawyer has regularly represented a client, they ordinarily will have evolved an understanding concerning the basis or rate of the fee and the expenses for which the client will be responsible. In a new client-lawyer relationship, however, an understanding as to fees and expenses must be promptly established. Generally, it is desirable to furnish the client with at least a simple memorandum or copy of the lawyer’s customary fee arrangements that states the general nature of the legal services to be provided, the basis, rate or total amount of the fee and whether and to what extent the client will be responsible for any costs, expenses or disbursements in the course of the representation. A written statement concerning the terms of the engagement reduces the possibility of misunderstanding.

[3] Contingent fees, like any other fees, are subject to the reasonableness standard of paragraph (a) of this Rule. In determining whether a particular contingent fee is reasonable, or whether it is reasonable to charge any form of contingent fee, a lawyer must consider the factors that are relevant under the circumstances. Applicable law may impose limitations on contingent fees, such as a ceiling on the percentage allowable, or may require a lawyer to offer clients an alternative basis for the fee. Applicable law also may apply to situations other than a contingent fee, for example, government regulations regarding fees in certain tax matters.

Terms of Payment

[4] A lawyer may require advance payment of a fee but is obligated to return any unearned portion. See Rule1.16(d). A lawyer may accept property in payment for services, such as an ownership interest in an enterprise, providing this does not involve acquisition of a proprietary interest in the cause of action or subject matter of the litigation contrary to Rule 1.8(i). However, a fee paid in property instead of money may be subject to the requirements of Rule 1.8(a) because such fees often have the essential qualities of a business transaction with the client.

[5] An agreement may not be made whose terms might induce the lawyer improperly to curtail services for the client or perform them in a way contrary to the client’s interest. For example, a lawyer should not enter into an agreement whereby services are to be provided only up to a stated amount when it is foreseeable that more extensive services probably will be required, unless the situation is adequately explained to the client. Otherwise, the client might have to bargain for further assistance in the midst of a proceeding or transaction. However, it is proper to define the extent of services in light of the client’s ability to pay. A lawyer should not exploit a fee arrangement based primarily on hourly charges by using wasteful procedures.

Prohibited Contingent Fees

[6] Paragraph (d) prohibits a lawyer from charging a contingent fee in a domestic relations matter when payment is contingent upon the securing of a divorce or upon the amount of alimony or support or property settlement to be obtained. This provision does not preclude a contract for a contingent fee for legal representation in connection with the recovery of post-judgment balances due under support, alimony or other financial orders because such contracts do not implicate the same policy concerns.

Disputes over Fees

[7] If a procedure has been established for resolution of fee disputes, such as an arbitration or mediation procedure established by the Bar, the lawyer must comply with the procedure when it is mandatory, and, even when it is voluntary, the lawyer should conscientiously consider submitting to it. Law may prescribe a procedure for determining a lawyer’s fee, for example, in representation of an executor or administrator, a class or a person entitled to a reasonable fee as part of the measure of damages. The lawyer entitled to such a fee and a lawyer representing another party concerned with the fee should comply with the prescribed procedure.

[8] This rule differs from the ABA model rule.

[8a] This rule differs from the ABA Model Rule by including certain restrictions on licensed paralegal practitioners.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/How-much-is-a-family-attorney/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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U.S. Marriage and Divorce Statistics

My name is Stephanie from flingorlove.com and honestly, I usually wouldn’t bother emailing about this, but I researched and gathered as much data and stats as I could about various divorce statistics and put it all together in a massive blog post (84 stats to be precise).

This is it here: https://flingorlove.com/divorce-statistics/

I thought it might be useful to you and your readers as a reference in your blog.

Stephanie

https://flingorlove.com/

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Flat Fee Billing Questions

I am frequently asked questions about my flat fee billing.

I bill on a weekly flat fee basis. Usually $500 per week, although the weekly fee can be higher if the case is a an unusually challenging or demanding one. The most common questions I get about my flat fee billing are:

So, it will be $500 a week until the divorce is final? What if no progress or work has been done that week?

The main concern behind that question is really, “How bad is the cost of hiring a divorce lawyer going to get?” It’s a very important question. And the answer is: retaining a good lawyer’s services will be expensive. There is, unfortunately, no way around that. Hiring cheap divorce lawyers usually results in you getting what you pay for.[1]

My flat fee structure is, however, one of the least expensive ways to get high quality legal services.

When you pay your lawyer by the hour, you’re handing the lawyer a blank check.

This is why I state my fees up front as a weekly flat fee of $500. And I subject each week’s fee to a “satisfaction or you don’t pay” guarantee for each week’s fees.

Candidly, if I billed by the hour, I would make more money. People who become a divorce lawyer’s client for the first time usually don’t have a very good idea of how much time and effort an attorney puts into the work.

A 10-page memorandum can take several days to research and write. If the attorney bills at the rate of $300 per hour and spends 3-4 hours per day for three days on the memorandum, that’s $2,700. In just three days. I bill $500 flat fee per week. Thus, it should not come as a surprise if, in a particular day or week, I do several thousand dollars’ worth of work (had the work been billed at an hourly rate) and then the next day/week I do comparatively very little work, if any work at all. The point is that the fees even out over time.

I modeled my flat fee billing on the “budget programs” that many utility companies implemented. If you’re not already a part of such a program yourself, they work like this: the utility company figures out what you spend each month for heat or electricity in a year.

Most people use more natural gas and electricity for heat in the fall and winter months than in the spring and summer months. If you paid as needed, you would pay less in the spring and summer and more in the fall and winter. That can make it hard to stick to a monthly budget when your expenses fluctuate each month.

The budget program helps make it easier to budget for your payments by taking the average of what you pay each month over a year’s time and then charging you that average amount each month. That way you know what you’re paying each month, instead of each month being a surprise, and the utility companies still get paid in full for what they provided. Budget plans, like my flat fees schedule, make it easier to budget what you’ll be paying each month because you know up front what you pay each month.

Other questions that arise when talking about my flat fee billing are:

  • Do I pay $500 per week until the divorce is final?
  • What if no progress has been made or no work has been done that week?

To answer those questions:

  • A client pays $500 per week, with the exception of substantial lulls in the case when there is no work to be done while we wait on someone or some event. If all the work that needs to be done is done and we’re just waiting for a week or several weeks before a hearing, for example, then the $500 weekly fee is suspended during such lulls.
  • Subject to the exceptions I described in response to Question 1, a client pays $500 per week until the proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and proposed Decree of Divorce has been submitted to the court for signing.

And I don’t get this question enough, so I will ask and answer it myself here: Question: are there any other costs besides the $500 per week?

Answer: Yes, there can be and usually are. They include:

  • Fees Charged on a Full-day or Half-day Basis. Fees charged in addition to you your weekly fixed fee, in the amount of $2,400 per full day (no less than 5 hours and no more than 7 hours per day), or $1,200 per half day (up to 4 hours) include fees for: a) Mediation (you almost certainly will go to mediation); b) Evidentiary Hearings (these rarely occur in the typical divorce case); c) Depositions (it is likely you may depose the opposing party or be deposed by the opposing party in your case), the fee for a deposition is paid in advance of the date(s) set for the deposition(s).
  • Proffer Hearing or Pretrial Conference Fee. If you have any proffer hearings or pretrial conferences (you probably will), the fee for proffer hearings and pretrial conferences is $500 per hearing/conference. “Proffer” means an offering of proof. In a proffer hearing your attorney summarizes for the court what you and other witnesses would have said, instead of actually having you or the witness(es) testify in court.
  • Trial preparation fee. If the case is ready to certify as ready for trial or is actually certified as ready for trial by the opposing party, the trial preparation fee (in addition to your weekly fixed fee, any other expenses, expert witness fees, equipment fees, fees charged by third parties, and other litigation expenses) is $4,800 for every day of trial, which fee is due within seven calendar days of date the firm notifies you a) that it is ready to certify the case as ready for trial; or b) the opposing party has certified the case as ready for trial, whichever comes first. To ensure there is no confusion, understand that the preparation fee for each day of trial is $4,800. Each full day in trial is an additional $2,400, and each half day in trial is $1,200.
  • Fees for additional and/or unanticipated work, if any. You understand that unforeseen circumstances can arise and/or that the court, the opposing party/opposing counsel, or other people or organizations may act in ways that were not planned for, that were unforeseen, and/or that are beyond the firm’s control and that may require further time and charges not contemplated by this fixed fee agreement. Any additional fees for any additional and/or unanticipated work that you may need or want done over and above what the firm intended and anticipated the weekly $500 fixed fee to cover will be agreed upon between you and the firm and reduced to writing before any such additional work is performed and charged.
  • All expenses the firm may incur or advance in connection with providing legal services will be billed to you separately. All variable expenses will be billed according to the actual amount of the expense. Examples of variable expenses include, but are not limited to, filing fees, recording fees, deposition costs, expert witness fees, investigator fees, postage, photocopying, parking, etc. Court filing fees. The court itself, not the firm, charges a $333 filing fee to file a complaint for divorce, a $100 court fee to file a counterclaim for divorce. If your case requires paying a filing fee, your court filing fee is an expense that you pay.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

[1] That stated, it isn’t true that the more you pay a divorce lawyer the better you’ll do. You can waste money on a lawyer who charges too much just as easily as you can waste money on a lawyer who charges you too little to get the job done right. Make sure you find the best value for the money when you retain a lawyer’s services.

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Is There a Way to Get Legal Action on Child Support for Free?

Free or inexpensively?

Yes, there are ways.

Each jurisdiction has different ways of providing these free and/or inexpensive legal services.

With rare, if any, exception, these free and/or inexpensive legal services are limited to those who are poor, those who can demonstrate that they are unable to afford to pay for the legal services they want or need. So you may not qualify if your income exceeds the level at which one qualifies for the free or discounted services.

To find out about such free and/or inexpensive legal services, visit or inquire with the local courthouse, the law school closest to you, the state and/or local bar association for your jurisdiction, government welfare offices, and browse the Internet.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/Is-there-a-way-to-get-legal-action-on-child-support-for-free/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Is It a Conflict of Interest and Is It Unethical if I Saw My Divorce Attorney Hug My Husband in Court?

Not likely.

Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019) defines conflict of interest as:

  1. A real or seeming incompatibility between the interests of two of a lawyer’s clients, such that the lawyer is disqualified from representing both clients if the dual representation adversely affects either client or if the clients do not consent. See Model Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 1.7(a) (2013).

Conflict of interest can also include, in the legal representation context, as actions of one’s attorney that exploit the attorney-client relationship for the lawyer’s personal benefit or to the client’s detriment.

So, unless one could somehow show that your attorney hugging your husband in court somehow harming your case or benefiting your attorney at your expense, I don’t see how your attorney hugging your spouse would be a conflict of interest.

It may be awkward or in bad taste from under some circumstances, but a conflict of interest? Not likely.

If the hug raises suspicions as to whether there is a relationship between your husband and your attorney that is itself a conflict of interest, that would not mean that the hug itself is itself an act constituting a conflict of interest.

Each state is different in the way it sets its code of attorney ethics, but the American Bar Association has a model code that many states either adopt or adapt. Here are the three main rules governing conflicts of interest from the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct:

Rule 1.7: Conflict of Interest: Current Clients

Rule 1.8: Current Clients: Specific Rules

Rule 1.10: Imputation of Conflicts of Interest: General Rule

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

(10) Eric Johnson’s answer to Is it a conflict of interest and is it unethical if I saw my divorce attorney hug my husband in court? – Quora

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If you give a divorce lawyer a retainer on a divorce and then change your mind within a few days, are they obligated to return the retainer?

While I cannot speak for all jurisdictions and for all situations, generally an attorney to whom you have paid a retainer or advance deposit is obligated to return the unearned portion of that retainer/deposit if you terminate that attorney’s services, especially if you terminate the attorney’s services within days of retaining the attorney.

You will need to read your contract/representation agreement that you have with your attorney and gain an understanding of the ethical rules that govern attorney compensation in your jurisdiction to determine if there are exceptions to this general principle.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/If-you-give-a-divorce-lawyer-a-retainer-on-a-divorce-and-then-change-your-mind-within-a-few-days-are-they-obligated-to-return-the-retainer/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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