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Category: Child Support Modification

2024 UT App 51 – Bailey v. Bailey – evidence, sanctions

2024 UT App 51 – Bailey v. Bailey

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

AMY L. BAILEY, Appellee, v. DANNY RAY BAILEY, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20220534-CA Filed April 11, 2024

Second District Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable Michael D. DiReda No. 094701582

Julie J. Nelson, Attorney for Appellant Brian E. Arnold, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES RYAN D. TENNEY and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        In 2019, nine years after her divorce, Amy L. Bailey (Amy) filed a petition to modify the child support provisions of the divorce decree, asserting that her ex-husband Danny Ray Bailey’s (Danny[1] income had significantly increased. The matter proceeded to trial, where the district court sanctioned Danny for noncompliance with pretrial disclosure obligations. Among other sanctions, the court prohibited Danny from presenting any evidence, and from refuting any evidence Amy presented, regarding his income. At the conclusion of this rather one-sided trial, the court made findings and conclusions regarding Danny’s income that Danny believes are inaccurate.

¶2        Danny now appeals those findings and conclusions, as well as the court’s underlying sanctions order. Danny asserts that the sanctions order was inappropriate and that he is entitled to a new trial at which he may present evidence regarding his income. We agree with Danny, and therefore vacate the court’s modification order and remand the case for a new trial.

BACKGROUND
The Petition to Modify

¶3        Amy and Danny divorced in 2010; at that time, the parties were able to reach a negotiated settlement which was later incorporated into a decree of divorce (the Decree). The parties have three children together, all of whom were minors at the time of their divorce; only one of the children was a minor at the time of trial. Under the terms of the Decree, Amy was awarded primary physical custody of the children, and Danny was awarded certain parent-time. Danny is self-employed, and his income for child support purposes was determined to be $8,837 per month. Amy’s earnings at that time were determined to be $4,071 per month. Using these income figures, Danny’s child support obligation was calculated to be $1,485 per month.

¶4        In 2019, nine years after entry of the Decree, Amy filed a petition to modify, seeking, among other things, a modification of Danny’s child support obligation. Discovery and disclosure deadlines were set, with fact discovery scheduled to close in November 2019 and expert discovery scheduled to close in March 2020. The expert discovery deadline passed, and neither party designated any expert witnesses. But in September 2020, Amy filed a statement of discovery issues, asserting that Danny had not disclosed certain financial documents, including his 2019 tax return, and asking that Danny be ordered to do so. Amy further requested that she be allowed “to designate an expert to opine on the limited issue of [Danny’s] expenses versus business expenses.” Danny objected to this request, arguing that expert discovery deadlines were “far past” and that Amy “should not be allowed to re-open expert discovery and further extend this matter.” After a hearing, the court ordered both parties to disclose their 2018 and 2019 tax returns and associated financial documents to the other, but the court agreed with Danny on the expert disclosure issue, denying Amy’s request and stating that it was “not inclined to extend discovery deadlines.”

¶5        Eventually, after some delays due to matters not relevant here, the court scheduled a one-day trial regarding the child-support-related issues to occur on November 10, 2021. In its pretrial order, the court ordered that, “at least 28 days before” trial, the parties were to “provide . . . pre-trial disclosures,” including “[t]he name . . . of each witness who will be called at trial,” “an updated financial declaration,” and “copies of their federal income tax returns for the two most recent tax years.”

¶6        On November 2, eight days before trial, Danny filed a motion to continue, asserting that he had “been unable to complete his 2020 tax return due to problems with his accounting software,” and requesting that the trial be continued so that the parties could “proceed with current and accurate income information.” Additionally, Danny brought to the court’s attention that, on October 20, just twenty-one days before trial— and notwithstanding the court’s previous reticence to extend discovery deadlines—Amy had, “for the first time,” identified two expert witnesses that she intended to call at trial. Danny asserted that these disclosures should have been made “within 14 days after the close of fact discovery,” which, in this case, was some two years earlier in November 2019. Danny asked the court to bar Amy from calling these witnesses at trial and, alternatively, stated that if the court was inclined to allow Amy to call these experts, he should be afforded “the appropriate disclosures and discovery opportunities set forth” in rule 26 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. As an added precaution, Danny filed a notice indicating that—contingent on the court’s ruling as to their admissibility—he would like “to receive written reports” from Amy’s newly-disclosed expert witnesses.

¶7        On the same day Danny filed his request for a continuance, Amy filed an objection. While pressing the court to move forward with the trial as scheduled, Amy simultaneously defended the timing of her expert disclosures. On this point, Amy argued that she was attempting to follow the court’s pretrial order, which stated that the list of witnesses that would be called to testify only needed to be provided twenty-eight days before the trial. And, according to Amy, she was doing just that by identifying in her pretrial disclosures the two expert witnesses she intended to call at trial. She argued that these two witnesses were “absolutely necessary” because she intended to rely on “their expert opinion” to demonstrate Danny’s “true income and the expenses being reported on his personal and business income taxes.”

¶8        Three days later, the court held a hearing on Danny’s motion. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court granted Danny’s request for a continuance of the trial date and rescheduled the trial to occur on March 1, 2022. The court also indicated that it would allow Amy to call the expert witnesses and it further observed that the continuance would give Danny time to consider whether he wanted to call a rebuttal expert witness of his own. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court noted that the main reason for continuing the trial was so that Danny could complete his 2020 tax return and disclose it to Amy, and it asked the parties whether they wanted to “set a deadline on the tax return.” Danny’s attorney stated that he’d rather not set a specific deadline, and Amy’s attorney didn’t argue for one either, stating that he and Danny’s attorney had “worked well together on that kind of stuff” and that he didn’t think any specific deadline for disclosure of the tax return would be necessary. The court pushed back a bit, asking, “Not a deadline? You’re okay just leaving it out there?” Amy’s attorney responded by stating that he was “fine with that.” In accordance with the parties’ wishes, the court set no specific deadline for Danny’s production of his 2020 tax return. The court’s previous pretrial order remained in place, however; as noted, it specified that all pretrial disclosures—including recent tax returns—were due “at least 28 days before” trial, which given the scheduled trial date would be February 1, 2022.

¶9        Not long after the November hearing on the motion to continue, Danny’s attorney withdrew. Danny then elected to proceed to trial pro se.

¶10      On February 3, less than four weeks before the trial date, the court held a status conference. At the conference, Amy’s attorney indicated that he had recently received Danny’s newly-completed 2020 tax return—specifically stating that he “just got those the other day”—but that he was still waiting to receive certain bank statements from Danny. In response, Danny—now representing himself—raised certain issues with Amy’s disclosures, indicating that he had not received all of her bank account information. After hearing from both parties, the court ordered Danny to provide Amy with the requested bank statements and ordered Amy “to do the same.”

¶11      During the status conference, the court also discussed the expert witness issue, and it asked Danny if he “had a chance to speak with or read the report from” Amy’s experts. Danny indicated that he had not received any such report. Amy’s attorney stated that he believed the report had been provided either to Danny or his previous counsel, but he offered to “resend” the report to Danny just in case.

The Trial

¶12      On March 1, the trial proceeded as scheduled, with Danny representing himself and Amy represented by counsel. At the start of the proceeding, before any evidence had been presented, Danny brought to the court’s attention that, two weeks earlier, he had filed an objection to Amy’s experts, asking that they be excluded from testifying because he still had not received any reports from them. At this, the court turned to Amy’s attorney for an explanation. Amy’s attorney this time did not claim that any expert report had ever been disclosed to Danny; instead, Amy’s attorney explained that Amy had been unable to “supplement[]” her earlier disclosures with the new experts’ reports because Danny had failed to timely provide Amy with financial information—including, most significantly, the 2020 tax return— that the court “had ordered [Danny] numerous times” to disclose. Amy’s attorney proposed that if the court was disinclined to allow these witnesses to testify as experts, they could, instead, be allowed to testify as “factual witness[es]” just to “tell [the court] what a line means on a tax return.”

¶13 Concerned about possible disclosure failings on both sides, the court asked Amy’s attorney whether it was “still the case” that Danny had failed to deliver “the documents, the returns, the information that [the court] ordered be delivered.” To this, Amy’s attorney responded, “Not timely.” Seemingly dismayed at the lack of cooperation between the parties, the court reminded them that the reason it had continued the trial was so that the parties could “exchange documents,” yet they had apparently still failed to “timely” comply with its instructions. Addressing Danny, the court stated, “So if you’re going to come to me and ask . . . that I exclude a witness, you’ve got to come in with clean hands. If your hands are soiled because you yourself have not complied with the rule and you’ve not told me that, that’s a problem, because I’m not going to apply the rules unevenly.” The court—without Amy making any specific request for a negative-inference sanction[2]—then told Danny that his apparent untimely disclosure of the 2020 tax return was “a problem that leads [the court] to think that perhaps a negative inference should be drawn against you . . . because why wouldn’t you just turn over the information that is critical to the [c]ourt’s determination on income since this is an income case?”

¶14      Before ruling on the matter, the court wanted to know how much time had elapsed between the completion of Danny’s 2020 tax return and Danny’s disclosure of that return to Amy. Danny indicated that “[p]robably two months” had elapsed between completion and disclosure. The court then asked, “Why wouldn’t you have just disclosed [the return] immediately once you had them done? Why did you wait two months to disclose [it]?” Danny explained that he was looking for new counsel at that time and that his understanding was that his “obligation was to supply” those documents with his pretrial disclosures, twenty-eight days before trial, which he did. Danny also reminded the court—twice—that, at the conclusion of the November hearing, no specific deadline for disclosure of the tax return had been set. The court then, without prompting from Amy’s attorney, began to read from rule 26 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, stating to Danny that, as soon as he learned that his disclosure was “incomplete,” he was required to “timely serve on the other parties the additional or correct information.”

¶15 After allowing both sides to argue the matter, the court determined that “at the end of the day,” Danny was the one who “didn’t disclose timely.” The court therefore told Danny that Amy “couldn’t have given you a full expert report, because you hadn’t given them the predicate information that was needed so the expert could do his or her job.”

¶16      After a recess to allow the parties one last opportunity to negotiate, the court considered what, if any, sanction should be imposed on Danny for his apparent untimely disclosure of his 2020 tax return. The court believed that it could impose any of the sanctions set forth in rule 37(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. After argument, the court determined it would be “inequitable” to allow Danny “to go forward and argue” what he thought his income should be when he “deprived the other side of [the] complete and accurate financial information that their [experts] needed in order to present a complete picture” of Danny’s finances. It therefore ordered that, during the trial, Danny would be prohibited from refuting any evidence that Amy introduced about Danny’s income, and he would not be allowed “to introduce [his] own evidence in support of what [he] believe[d]” his income should be. Basically, the only thing that Danny would be able to do at trial would be to present or challenge evidence presented related to Amy’s income.

¶17      Concerning Amy’s experts, the court determined it would be appropriate to allow them to testify as fact witnesses. Amy ended up calling only one of the two expert witnesses she listed in her pretrial disclosures, a forensic accountant (Accountant). At the beginning of his testimony, Accountant was reminded that he was not permitted to give “expert opinion” because he would, as Amy’s counsel described it, be a “factual witness.”

¶18      During his direct examination, Accountant was presented with exhibits containing Danny’s tax returns—including his 2020 tax return—and other financial documents and was asked questions concerning those documents. For example, Accountant was asked about the purpose of lines “28 A and B” on one of the forms, and he responded, “Those are there to present to the IRS sources of income from businesses that the taxpayer owns.” At another point in the trial, Accountant was also asked whether the W-2 wage on another form was for Danny or if it was “a qualified deduction” from Danny’s company. Accountant responded it was “neither,” and that “the income from the business” would be different from the amount represented on the form “because [it] specifically calculates adjusted income for [that] specific tax deduction.” Direct examination of Accountant continued in this fashion, with him testifying about several line items contained in Danny’s tax returns and what information should or should not be contained therein.

¶19 Amy was the only other witness to testify at trial. After submission of the evidence, Amy’s attorney made a closing argument. The court then went back and forth with Amy’s attorney, discussing the various figures that had been presented and what implications they might have on the calculation of child support arrearages going back to the date Amy filed her petition. After completing the calculation, the court made an oral ruling that, for child support purposes, Danny’s monthly income was $42,555 (as opposed to $8,837 under the original Decree) and that Amy’s monthly income was $6,265 (as opposed to $4,071 under the original Decree). Based on those figures, the court then calculated Danny’s ongoing child support obligation, as well as arrearages owed dating back to the month after Amy filed her petition to modify. Specifically, the court determined that Danny owed Amy $108,027 in back child support. Because of the “sizable back child support due and owing,” the court declined Amy’s request for attorney fees. A few weeks later, the court entered a written order memorializing its oral ruling.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶20 Danny now appeals the court’s modification order. In particular, Danny challenges the court’s findings and conclusions regarding his own monthly income, and he asserts that the court’s determinations in that regard are infirm because it improperly sanctioned him and did not allow him to present evidence supporting his position or refuting Amy’s position on that issue. Thus, Danny’s appeal centers on the court’s application of Utah rules regarding discovery, disclosure, and sanctions.

¶21      A district court’s interpretation of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure is reviewed for correctness. Hansen v. Kurry Jensen Props. LLC, 2021 UT App 54, ¶ 19, 493 P.3d 1131. For this reason, a court’s decision regarding the adequacy of a party’s disclosures is reviewed for correctness. See Butler v. Mediaport Ent. Inc., 2022 UT App 37, ¶ 17, 508 P.3d 619 (stating that “we review for correctness the district court’s conclusion that [a party’s] disclosures were inadequate, because that determination is at root a question of interpretation of” the applicable rules).

¶22      But when a district court’s interpretation of the applicable rules is correct, we extend “a great deal of deference” to the court’s decisions regarding its choice of sanctions, and we will only disturb such rulings “if abuse of discretion is clearly shown.” Raass Bros. Inc. v. Raass, 2019 UT App 183, ¶ 11, 454 P.3d 83 (quotation simplified). Similarly, we review deferentially a “district court’s decision to admit or exclude evidence,” including its “determination regarding the admissibility of expert testimony” for an abuse of discretion. Northgate Village Dev., LC v. City of Orem, 2019 UT 59, ¶ 14, 450 P.3d 1117 (quotation simplified). A court’s determination that a witness’s testimony is “not expert testimony” is similarly reviewed for an abuse of discretion. State v. Rothlisberger, 2006 UT 49, ¶ 8, 147 P.3d 1176.

ANALYSIS

¶23      Danny’s primary challenge on appeal concerns the district court’s imposition of sanctions, which he contends were unwarranted. For the reasons discussed herein, we find merit in Danny’s position, and agree that the court erred by imposing rule 37 sanctions on Danny.

¶24 There are two different rules of civil procedure that concern discovery sanctions: rule 26 and rule 37. These two rules, “although couched in different terms,” are both “aimed at encouraging good faith compliance with the discovery obligations imposed under the rules of civil procedure and both provide the court with the authority to sanction those who fail to live up to the requirements of those rules.” PC Crane Service, LLC v. McQueen Masonry, Inc., 2012 UT App 61, ¶ 34, 273 P.3d 396. But despite certain commonalities, the sanctions available pursuant to these rules are different and have distinct prerequisites.

¶25 The sanctions that a court may impose pursuant to rule 26(d) are narrow, but they are also “automatic and mandatory” when the prerequisites are met. See Eskamani v. Auto-Owners Ins. Co., 2020 UT App 137, ¶ 48, 476 P.3d 542. That rule provides, in relevant part, as follows:

(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.

(5)   If a party learns that a disclosure or response is incomplete or incorrect in some important way, the party must timely serve on the other parties the additional or correct information if it has not been made known to the other parties. The supplemental disclosure or response must state why the additional or correct information was not previously provided.

Utah R. Civ. P. 26(d)(4), (5).[3] Thus, when a party fails to comply with rule-based disclosure requirements, that party is “presumptively barred” from relying on that witness, document, or material at trial. See Dierl v. Birkin, 2023 UT App 6, ¶ 31, 525 P.3d 127, cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1107 (Utah 2023). A party seeking sanctions under rule 26(d)—usually a party whose litigation opponent has failed to timely disclose a required item—does not need to file a motion for sanctions and obtain a court order beforehand; rather, sanctions under this rule are “automatic and mandatory” and do “not require a predicate discovery order.” Eskamani, 2020 UT App 137, ¶¶ 47–48. Courts should, upon request, presumptively impose sanctions for noncompliance unless “the party seeking relief from disclosure requirements” can demonstrate that its noncompliance was harmless or excused by good cause. Keystone Ins. Agency, LLC v. Inside Ins., LLC, 2019 UT 20, ¶ 18 & n.7, 445 P.3d 434; see also Utah R. Civ. P. 26 advisory committee notes (stating that sanctions are “the usual and expected result” of noncompliance).

¶26        But the sanctions available under rule 26(d) are narrow and specific: a party who fails to comply with rule-based disclosure obligations, and who cannot show harmlessness or good cause, “may not use the undisclosed witness, document, or material at any hearing or trial.” See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(d)(4). Rule 26, by itself, does not speak of or authorize any other sanction.

¶27        Rule 37, by contrast, is not self-executing: a party wishing to take advantage of its more expansive sanctions menu must first obtain a discovery order from the court. Subsection (a) of that rule allows a party to “request that the judge enter an order regarding any discovery issue.” Id. R. 37(a)(1). And subsection (b) allows a “court, upon motion, [to] impose appropriate sanctions for the failure to follow its orders.” Id. R. 37(b) (emphasis added). Interpreting the language of this rule, we have recently held that imposition of sanctions under rule 37 is available only for violation of a specific court order. See Eskamani, 2020 UT App 137, ¶ 49 (“Unlike rule 26, rule 37 conditions the availability of discovery sanctions upon the failure of a party to follow a discovery order.”).

¶28      But rule 37 offers a wide variety of sanctions options, and it allows for sanctions that can be more severe than the sanction authorized under rule 26. Where the violation in question is disobedience of a court order (as opposed to noncompliance with a rule-based disclosure requirement), rule 37 authorizes a court to (among other things) “deem [a] matter . . . to be established,” give an “adverse inference” instruction, order attorney fees, hold a party in contempt, or even dismiss a party’s claim or defense. See Utah R. Civ. P. 37(b)(1), (4)–(7). As relevant here, a court may also opt to “prohibit the disobedient party from supporting or opposing designated claims or defenses or from introducing designated matters into evidence.” Id. R. 37(b)(2).

¶29      In imposing sanctions on Danny, the district court applied rule 37. It read subsection (b) of that rule to Danny, and then walked the parties through the sanctions options provided by rule 37(b). After discussion, and after a brief break to allow additional negotiations, the court told Danny that he would not be “permitted to refute” any evidence Amy presented regarding his income, and that he would not “be permitted to introduce [his] own evidence in support of what [he] believe[s his own] income should be.” This is one of the sanctions listed in rule 37(b). See id.

¶30      But under these circumstances, this sanction was improper. Rule 37 is properly invoked only for violation of a court order, see id. R. 37(b); Eskamani, 2020 UT App 137, ¶ 49, and Danny was not in violation of any court order. The only potentially applicable order is the pretrial order that commanded the parties to disclose their trial exhibits—including, significantly, their latest tax returns and other updated financial information—at least twenty-eight days prior to trial.[4] Danny complied with this order when he submitted his 2020 tax return on or before February 1, 2022—which was at least twenty-eight days prior to the scheduled March 1 trial date.[5] And on appeal, at least, Amy makes no argument to the contrary.[6] In the absence of any evidence that Danny was in violation of a court order, the court was not permitted to impose sanctions on Danny pursuant to rule 37.

¶31        Danny’s sin, as perceived by the district court, was not the violation of any specific court order. Instead, the court was apparently upset with Danny for waiting some two months after the belated completion of his 2020 tax return to provide a copy of that return to Amy. This action was arguably a violation of rule 26(d)(5), which commands parties to “timely” supplement their initial disclosures. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(d)(5).[7] Courts certainly have authority to punish untimely supplementations. But such punishment must be imposed pursuant to rule 26(d) and not—in the absence of a violation of a court order—pursuant to rule 37(b).

¶32        Under rule 26(d), the court could have penalized Danny for his two-month disclosure delay, but any such penalty should have been limited to preventing Danny from “us[ing]” the 2020 tax return “at any hearing or trial.” See id. R. 26(d)(4). Even if we were to assume, for purposes of the discussion, that under rule 26(d) the court properly barred Danny from introducing that document on his own account, we are aware of no rule or authority that would allow the court to bar him from introducing other properly disclosed evidence about his income, or from attempting to rebut evidence about his income that Amy introduced at trial. In this vein, we note that, during her evidentiary presentation at trial, Amy introduced Danny’s 2020 tax return into evidence; Danny should not have been barred from engaging with that evidence once Amy voluntarily elected to introduce it. Thus, under the circumstances, the district court’s sanctions order was improper and unduly punitive.

¶33      And in this situation, the court’s improper sanctions order prejudiced Danny. Prejudice is demonstrated when a party shows that the court’s error “impacted the outcome of the dispute.” In re Western Ins. Co., 2022 UT 38, ¶ 55, 521 P.3d 851. In other words, a party is prejudiced if “there is a reasonable likelihood that, absent the error, the result would have been different.” Id. (quotation simplified). Danny asserts that his income is actually less than half of what the court found it to be after the one-sided evidentiary presentation, and he argues that, had he been able to present evidence as to his income, the court would not have made the same determination in that regard. Danny asserts that, if he had not been sanctioned, he would have presented (among other things) his earlier tax returns and evidence regarding his “necessary business expenses,” and would have been able to demonstrate that certain income had been improperly attributed to him. Danny plausibly contends that this would have likely made a difference, and here on appeal, Amy makes no argument to the contrary. And it appears that the district court more or less agreed with this notion, at one point stating that the sanctions imposed were “almost the equivalent of a default.”

¶34 In sum, then, the court entered an improper and unduly punitive sanctions order against Danny. That order prejudiced Danny because it prevented him from meaningfully engaging with the court and with Amy on the subject of his own income; absent the sanctions order, we think the court likely would have reached a different conclusion regarding Danny’s income. Accordingly, we vacate not only the court’s sanctions order but also its modification order (the order containing its findings regarding Danny’s income), and we remand this case to the district court for a new trial on Amy’s petition to modify.

¶35 Our opinion could end here. But we elect to address one of Danny’s other criticisms of the court’s handling of Amy’s petition to modify, in the hope that our guidance on this issue might prove useful on remand. See State v. Ogden, 2018 UT 8, ¶ 49, 416 P.3d 1132 (“Although it is unnecessary to our decision, we retain the authority to reach issues when we believe our analysis could prove helpful on remand.”); see also Young H2ORE LLC v. J&M Transmission LLC, 2024 UT App 10, ¶ 48, 543 P.3d 1264 (electing to “offer some guidance that we hope will prove useful” on remand where the issues in question “are certain to arise again”).

¶36 Danny asserts that the court acted improperly when it allowed Accountant to testify at trial as a “factual witness.”[8] We agree with Danny that Accountant’s testimony was improper.

¶37 After Amy made a late designation of expert witnesses (which the court eventually authorized Amy to do), Danny asked for a report from those witnesses, including Accountant, in lieu of taking their depositions. But despite certain initial incorrect representations from Amy’s attorney to the contrary, Amy never provided Danny with any report from Accountant.

¶38      Expert witnesses from whom reports have been requested should not be allowed—absent a showing of good cause or harmlessness—to testify about matters not “fairly disclosed in” the requested reports. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(4)(B) (stating that expert witnesses “may not testify in a party’s case-in-chief concerning any matter not fairly disclosed in the report”); id. R. 26(d)(4); see also R.O.A. Gen., Inc. v. Chung Ji Dai, 2014 UT App 124, ¶ 11, 327 P.3d 1233 (stating that, “where it is undisputed that an expert witness report has been untimely filed, the proper inquiry is whether” the party’s failure to timely submit the report was “harmless” or excused by “good cause” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 337 P.3d 295 (Utah 2014). It follows, then, that an expert from whom a report has been requested but who has not provided one should not be allowed to testify at all, absent a finding of good cause or harmlessness, since nothing was “fairly disclosed” in any report. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(4)(B).

¶39        In this case, the district court allowed Accountant to testify, despite the fact that Accountant never provided an expert report to Danny. The court allowed this, at Amy’s request, on the ground that Accountant would not be asked to offer any expert opinion as to Danny’s income but, instead, would merely be “a factual witness” who would offer testimony about “what a line means on a tax return.” But the court never engaged in any analysis of whether Amy’s failure to provide an expert report from Accountant should be excused for “good cause.” See id. R. 26(d)(4). While Danny’s two-month delay in supplementing his initial disclosures with his 2020 tax return may have provided some cause for Accountant’s inability to timely form opinions regarding Danny’s post-2019 income, neither Amy nor the court ever offered an explanation as to why Danny’s delay in disclosing his 2020 tax return provided any cause for Accountant’s failure to provide a report containing opinions about what line items on a tax return mean.

¶40      And we are not persuaded by Amy’s effort to characterize this kind of testimony as “fact testimony.” As an initial matter, even fact witnesses have to be disclosed in a timely manner, and— although Amy did obtain permission to make a late expert designation of Accountant—Amy did not disclose Accountant as a fact witness in a timely manner. Any such disclosure should have been made in Amy’s initial disclosures, in order to give Danny the opportunity to depose (or seek other discovery from) the witness. It is not proper, absent specific leave of court, for a party to disclose a fact witness for the first time in connection with its final pretrial disclosures. After all, witnesses and exhibits disclosed in final pretrial disclosures are intended to be merely a subset of the witnesses and exhibits already disclosed earlier in the case. See Ader v. SimonMed Imaging Inc., No. CV-17­02085, 2020 WL 13442907, at *2 (D. Ariz. Sept. 22, 2020) (stating that, “[t]ogether, initial and supplemental disclosures reveal the full universe of potentially relevant evidence for every claim or defense,” and that in preparation for making final pretrial disclosures, the parties must then “sift through” that earlier-disclosed evidence to arrive at a “narrowed universe” of evidence “aimed at trial preparation”). Allowing a party to use its pretrial disclosures to introduce new evidence and new witnesses would therefore be contrary to the very purposes of rule 26. See Johansen v. Johansen, 2021 UT App 130, ¶ 18, 504 P.3d 152 (stating that where a party’s pretrial disclosures, submitted only “28 days before trial,” identified for the first time the witnesses that the party intended to rely on at trial, that disclosure was contrary to “the purpose of rule 26, which is to preclude parties from trying to gain an advantage by offering ‘surprise’ testimony at trial that has not been properly disclosed” (quotation simplified)); see also In re Morrissey, No. AP 20-2045, 2022 WL 666803, at *5 (Bankr. D. Utah Mar. 4, 2022) (noting that if a party “were permitted to treat the [pretrial disclosure] deadline as though it were the [initial disclosure] deadline, it would completely undermine the purposes of” the rule governing initial disclosures).

¶41 But more to the point, the testimony that Accountant ended up giving at trial was not fact testimony; it was expert testimony. A “fact witness” is someone “who has firsthand knowledge of something based on the witness’s perceptions through one [or] more of the five senses.” Fact Witness, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019). “Lay fact testimony”—which is the type of testimony that the district court and Amy assert that Accountant provided—is “factual testimony not based on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge.” State v. Rothlisberger, 2006 UT 49, ¶ 11, 147 P.3d 1176; see also Warenski v. Advanced RV Supply, 2011 UT App 197, ¶ 8, 257 P.3d 1096 (stating that testimony that is “clearly based on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge” should be considered as “expert testimony rather than fact testimony” (quotation simplified)), cert denied, 268 P.3d 192 (Utah 2011). A fact witness is thus only allowed to “testify in the form of fact or opinion” if the testimony “is helpful to the finder of fact” and is within the witness’s “personal knowledge or perception.” State v. Sellers, 2011 UT App 38, ¶ 26, 248 P.3d 70; see also Utah R. Evid. 701.

¶42        Here, Accountant had no firsthand knowledge concerning the family in general or about Danny’s income in particular, yet he was presented with various financial exhibits, including Danny’s tax returns, and was allowed to offer testimony about them. Amy’s attorney then questioned Accountant about certain line items in those documents. At one point, for instance, Accountant explained how a wage on a W-2 form was neither for Danny nor was it “a qualified deduction” from Danny’s company, because “the income from [Danny’s] business” would be different from the amount represented in the form which “specifically calculates adjusted income for [that] specific tax deduction.” We have no difficulty concluding that this sort of testimony was expert testimony, not fact testimony, because it was based not on Accountant’s own personal observations but, instead, on his “technical” and “specialized knowledge.” See Utah R. Evid. 701.

¶43      Accountant should not have been allowed to provide this sort of testimony under these circumstances. Despite the court’s stated intention not to “apply the [discovery] rules unevenly,” in our view that is exactly what happened here. The court imposed an inappropriately severe sanction on Danny, while at the same time allowing Amy to offer undisclosed expert testimony. We trust that, on remand, these errors will be corrected.

CONCLUSION

¶44      Because Danny did not violate any discovery or disclosure order, the court’s effort to sanction him pursuant to rule 37 was improper. In addition, the court erred by allowing Accountant to offer expert testimony without having provided a requested expert report. We therefore reverse the imposition of sanctions on Danny, vacate the court’s order modifying the Decree, and remand the matter to the district court for a new trial.

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


[1] Because the parties share the same last name, we refer to them by their first names for ease of reference, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] Prior to the trial, Amy had filed a document stating a general objection to Danny’s pretrial disclosures, asserting that some of Danny’s exhibits had not been disclosed “in a timely manner” and asking the court to enter an order barring Danny from using such exhibits at trial. Neither in that document nor at trial did Amy ask for a negative-inference sanction (at least not until after the court brought it up on its own).

[3] An earlier version of rule 37 contained a provision similar to rule 26(d)(4). See Utah R. Civ. P. 37(h) (2013). That provision was deleted in 2015, apparently because the drafters considered it redundant. See id. R. 37 advisory committee notes to 2015 amendment (“Former paragraph (h), which prohibited a party from using at a hearing information not disclosed as required, was deleted because the effect of non-disclosure is adequately governed by Rule 26(d).”). In the rules’ current iteration, this language appears only in rule 26(d)(4).

[4] Recall that the court itself—at the hearing at which it ordered a continuance of the November trial date—had been inclined to order a specific deadline for Danny’s disclosure of the belatedly prepared 2020 tax return, but ended up not doing so after both attorneys asked the court not to impose any deadline.

[5] This pretrial order was also in place in advance of the scheduled November 2021 trial date, and Danny was—at least temporarily— out of compliance with that order when he failed to hand over his 2020 tax return within twenty-eight days of the November trial date. He explained, however, that he was unable to generate the tax return because of software issues, and on that basis the court continued the November trial date, rescheduling the trial for March 2022. This continuance had the effect of curing Danny’s temporary noncompliance with the court’s pretrial order; as noted, Danny fully complied with it as it relates to the March 2022 rescheduled trial date.

[6] At trial, Amy’s attorney represented to the court that Danny’s disclosure of the 2020 tax return had been “[n]ot timely.” As discussed below, we generously interpret this as an allusion to Danny’s obligation to timely supplement his rule 26 disclosures. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(d)(5). To the extent that this comment represented an assertion that Danny’s disclosure violated a court order, that assertion was inaccurate. Indeed, on appeal, Amy concedes that Danny produced his 2020 tax return to her “twenty-nine (29) days before trial.”

[7] 7. Conduct similar to Danny’s might, under some circumstances, also be a violation of rule 26.1(f), which provides that a party’s “[f]ailure to disclose all assets and income in the Financial Declaration and attachments” in a domestic relations action “may subject the non-disclosing party to sanctions under Rule 37.” See Utah R. Civ. P. 26.1(f). Indeed, Amy invites us to affirm the court’s sanctions order on this basis. We decline this invitation because, in our view, this alternative ground for affirmance is not apparent on the record. See Pentalon Constr., Inc. v. Rymark Props., LLC, 2015 UT App 29, ¶ 25, 344 P.3d 180 (“We will not affirm a judgment if the alternate ground or theory is not apparent on the record.” (quotation simplified)). As an initial matter, this argument is unpreserved; at trial, there was no discussion of rule 26.1 from any party or from the court, and there is no indication in the record that the court intended to base its sanction on rule 26.1(f). Moreover, it is far from apparent to us that the language of rule 26.1(f) authorizes rule 37 sanctions in the absence of a court order; certainly, Amy has not persuaded us that this is the case, especially given the plain language of rule 37(b) and our case law. See, e.g.Eskamani v. Auto-Owners Ins. Co., 2020 UT App 137, ¶ 49, 476 P.3d 542.

[8] Danny also complains that Amy never submitted initial disclosures, and that—despite a court order—she did not produce any documentation about a second source of income (rental properties). As near as we can tell from the record, Danny’s complaints are accurate. We see no need for further discussion of them here, however; Danny remains free to seek relief from the district court regarding these issues on remand.

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Can Child Support (Whether Prospectively or Retrospectively) Be Waived by the Child Support Payee?

The easiest of these two questions to answer is the second one, i.e., “Can child support be waiver retrospectively by the child support payee? The answer is yes, if the parties comply with

Utah Code § 78B-12-109. Waiver and estoppel

(1) Waiver and estoppel shall apply only to the custodial parent when there is no order already established by a tribunal if the custodial parent freely and voluntarily waives support specifically and in writing.

(2) Waiver and estoppel may not be applied against any third party or public entity that may provide support for the child.

(3) A noncustodial parent, or alleged biological father in a paternity action, may not rely on statements made by the custodial parent of the child concerning child support unless the statements are reduced to writing and signed by both parties.

See Cahoon v. Evans (2011, 257 P.3d 454, 682 Utah Adv. Rep. 58, 2011 UT App 148) at headnotes 3 and 4 and West’s Child Support Key Number 452:

[3] Statute, providing that waiver and estoppel shall apply only to the custodial parent when there is no child support order already established by a tribunal, expressly limits application of waiver and estoppel to those situations where there is no prior child support order.

[4] Mother was not precluded by waiver or estoppel from seeking reimbursement for unpaid child support, given that child support order had previously been entered and statute expressly limited application of waiver and estoppel to those situations where there was no prior child support order.

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

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Why Hiding Your Money in a Divorce and/or Child Support Court Case Won’t Work (and why people still try) By Braxton Mounteer

When those who will be ordered to divide assets with a spouse and/or pay child and/or spousal support (alimony) confront the matter, many try to lie about and to misrepresent their finances and their income in the hope they can avoid paying. Few involved in the support calculation effort–from the would-be support recipient to the court–believes one would tell the truth about his/her income, and this is doubly true for child support obligors who are self-employed. While it is tempting to lie about your income in the hope of receiving more than you should or paying less than you should, that’s wrong (and it most likely would not work anyway).

There are several ways one can try to hide and misrepresent income and assets during a divorce case.

  • hide physical cash in the proverbial mattress or mason jar buried in the backyard
  • hide it in a safe deposit box no one knows of but you
  • hide money in a trust account, in an account opened in the name(s) of your child(ren) or another person, in an offshore account
  • overpay taxes
  • defer salaries or commissions
  • fake debt

The deadbeat dad strategy works like this, you spend all your time working and thus generate income. However, you hate your former spouse and even though you don’t have the time with your kids that you would like you still want to provide for them. So, to avoid paying your former spouse anything, you hide your money in a trust or in an unknown bank account (or some other degree of hiding your cash like skimming or filtering) that they don’t know about. You filter your cash through several fronts (friends, family members, false debt, overpaying taxes) and after the lengthy process of laundering your money, you receive it.

 How do you enjoy the hard-earned cash that you have cleaned your name from? You don’t. You have wandered into the Walter White problem. You have money you can’t spend because that would unravel the lie. You will have to keep this lie going for 18 years, and then hope that your children forgive you in your golden years for the hardship that you put them through during their childhood (this depends on the level of poverty that you have claimed).

The housewife strategy works like this, you spend your time caring for the house and the children and generate no income. You get access to your spouse’s money either through an allowance or through direct access. You then skim off the top every time you pay a bill or get groceries or something similar. This is done through cashback or keeping the change if you are given physical cash. This adds up over time and must be started several years before your divorce. You store your nest eggs either in the form of valuables, or in physical cash. You could get a safety deposit box or a safe or hide the cash in the marital home (under floorboards, in a wall, under the mattress, or in a vase).

How do you enjoy this money? You don’t. These nest eggs are for emergencies or for your quick exit from the marriage. This strategy is entirely dependent on your former spouse not catching on that money is going missing. Hopefully they are asleep at the wheel regarding their finances and not a penny pincher. You then have to maintain the lie and not show that you have money to buy things that your former spouse has not gifted to you. How do you retrieve the money without your spouse getting suspicious? You can’t pawn your wedding ring or fill your house with luxury goods without them noticing (a distant relative can only die so many times before its suspicious).

While both strategies have their ups and downs, both involve underreporting your income and hiding it. You will get caught because you are trying to hoodwink someone who has intimate knowledge of your financial situation. You cannot hide your offshore bank account from your wife who you took to the Bahamas to open it. You can’t hide money or valuables from your husband without tearing the house down. You won’t be able to hide your income because you are trying to lie to people who have seen every trick in the book and then some. You are also required to produce documents, such as your bank account statements and lists of your property. Your spouse will keep you honest.

You are fighting an uphill battle to avoid your legal obligation. Most people do not make enough money to warrant these strategies and if you get caught, you can lose every penny you tried to hide and then some. You can try but you will most likely fail because you do not have the skill, time, money, or ability to maintain these deceptions. Do you really think you will reinvent the wheel?

Honestly, it is easier to just tell the truth because the court can just choose to not believe you. If the lie that you have told to the court has too many holes or just isn’t up to snuff, then you could just lose anyway. You care about your children, so do not give them a reason to hate you just because you want to spite your former spouse.

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How much does a parent have to pay in child support? What is the legally set amount?

Some people believe that child support is the same for all parents. They believe that every parent who is ordered to pay child support pays the same amount of money per child. This is not how child support is calculated in most jurisdictions, and Utah is no exception.

Child support is based upon several factors before it is calculated and ordered:

  • the incomes of both parents;
  • the number of children there are; and
  • the number of overnights that each parent spends with the child or children on an annual basis

Some other factors can affect child support calculations, such as whether a child has special needs, but generally, child support is a factor of parent income and the number of overnights the children spend with each parent. Allow me to explain with this hypothetical example:

John and Jane are the parents of three minor children.

John’s gross monthly income (we use gross monthly income as the income figures for calculating the monthly base child support obligation) is $5,400 per month, and Jane’s monthly gross income is $2,600 per month.

To calculate child support in various custody situations, we are going to utilize the Utah State Office of Recovery Services Child Support Calculator.

If the children spend an equal number of overnights with both parents on an annual basis, then child support looks like this because it is calculated this way under Utah Code § 30-3-35.2[1]:

(2)

(d) Child support for the equal parent-time schedule shall be consistent with Section 78B-12-208.

(e)

(i) A court shall determine which parent receives 182 overnights and which parent receives 183 overnights for parent-time.

(ii) For the purpose of calculating child support under Section 78B-12-208, the amount of time to be spent with the parent who has the lower gross monthly income is considered 183 overnights, regardless of whether the parent receives 182 overnights or 183 overnights under Subsection (2)(e)(i).

Joint Custody P1 – 183 P2 – 182
Joint Custody P1 – 182 P2 – 183

If one parent has the children in his or her custody more or less than on an equal time basis, the calculation looks something like this:

  • I will show what a calculation based upon an unequal physical custody award looks like by calculating child support based upon John spending less than 111 overnights with his children annually)
  • In such a situation, we will treat John as the “noncustodial” parent. “Noncustodial parent” does not mean that John has lost all of his parental rights, but just that he does not have primary physical custody of the children (i.e., that the children are in his care and custody less than 111 overnights annually). Based upon John’s spending less than 111 overnights with the children, the Child Support worksheet would look like this, and would result in John’s child support obligation being as follows:
Sole Custody

And there is yet another way to calculate child support in a “split custody” situation. That’s a situation where, when there are multiple children, some live primarily with one parent and some live primarily with the other (in other words, they don’t spend time all together with one parent at a time).

So, let’s assume in this scenario that two of the children live with John as the custodial parent, and one of the children lives with Jane has the custodial parent of that one child. This is how the child support calculation worksheet would look and what the resulting child support obligations from each parent to the other would be:

Split Custody

As you can see, on a split custody basis, even though each parent has custody of one or more children, it ultimately comes down to one parent’s obligation being offset by what the other parent’s obligation is. This is why John pays $13 to Jane each month, even though Jane’s obligation to John is $355.94 per month because his obligation to Jane is $369.08 per month.

So John’s obligation to Jane of $369.08 per month is reduced by Jane’s $355.94 monthly obligation to John, resulting in a difference of $13.

 

Now, the examples I provided above are not the only ways child custody can be awarded and thus not the only ways that child support can be calculated and awarded, but these examples are the most common that you’ll see. So, now you get an idea of what happens and what the child support calculations and obligations are in these situations.

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


[1] This is not truly an equal custody award because one parent is awarded 183 overnights with the children annually. It does not have to be this way, and indeed, I submit it should not be this way. If you are a parent who wants a true equal custody award made, then calculate custody and child support this way:

  • Agree that each parent is awarded 182.5 overnights with the children annually and note that this will result in one parent naturally having the children in his/her care and custody 183 overnights in one year, then 182 overnights in the next year due to the fact that a year consists of (with the exception of leap years, which occur so rarely as to be statistically insignificant) an odd number of days, i.e., 365.
  • Calculate what child support would be for the obligor parent (“obligor” means the one who pays) if a parent had the children in his/her care and custody 183 overnights annually and 182 overnights annually, and then average those two child support obligations to get what the child support obligation is on a 182.5 overnights annually basis.
  • So, in John and Jane Doe’s hypothetical case, that would mean that John’s monthly base child support payment obligation on a 182.5 perfectly equal custody basis would be $287 per month ($272 + #302 = $574. $574 ÷ 2 = $287).
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Why Hiding or Misrepresenting Your Income in a Divorce and/or Child Support Court Case Won’t Work (and why people still try) By Braxton Mounteer

When those who realize they may be ordered to pay child and/or spousal support (alimony) confront the matter, many try to lie about and to misrepresent their income in the hope they can avoid paying, or at least pay as little as possible. Few involved in the support calculation effort–from the would-be support obligee (“obligee” means the one who receives support payments) to the court–believes anyone would tell the truth about his/her income, and this is doubly true for support obligors (“obligor” means the one who pays) who are self-employed.

Those who hope to receive child support are also tempted to lie about their income as well because the less income they can get the court to believe they have, the more they hope to be paid.

While it is tempting to lie about your income in the hope of either receiving more than you should or paying less than you should, that’s wrong (and it most likely would not work anyway).

Many will earn more than they claim to earn by getting paid under the table or working a side hustle.

But how do you enjoy the hard-earned cash that you have cleaned your name from (i.e., the Walter White problem)? If you spend the money you haven’t reported, you risk unraveling the lie. For example, if your personal expenses are $10,000 per month, but you report an income of only $6,000 per month and don’t show yourself incurring $4,000 worth of debt every month, then clearly you have income of some kind that enables you to cover your $10,000 of monthly living expenses.

Avoiding your legal obligations often proves to be more trouble than it’s worth. It is both easier and easier on your conscience just to tell the truth. Most people aren’t good enough liars to keep everyone fooled forever. Don’t give your children reason to hate you for being greedy.

Now, we get it: some of you would feel a lot better about paying child support if you knew the parent receiving the support money was actually spending it for the child’s support and not for that parent’s own selfish benefit. But that’s a subject for another blog.

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

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H.B. 20 “Parental Rights Amendments”

Today’s blog post treats House Bill 20, one of several proposed family law-related pieces of legislation for the 2024 Utah legislative session.

H.B. 20 is entitled “Parental Rights Amendments”

According the bill’s own “General Description,” this bill:

  • addresses the voluntary relinquishment of parental rights.
  • clarifies the requirements and procedure for an individual to consent to the termination of parental rights or voluntarily relinquish parental rights.

Utah Code Sections Affected (if passed): It would amend Utah Code § 80-4-307

Here is the proposed text:

24          80-4-307. Voluntary relinquishment — Irrevocable.
25          (1) The individual consenting to termination of parental rights or voluntarily

26     relinquishing parental rights shall sign [or confirm] the consent or relinquishment, or confirm a
27     consent or relinquishment previously signed by the individual, under oath before:
28          (a) a judge of any court that has jurisdiction over proceedings for termination of
29     parental rights in this state or any other state, or a public officer appointed by that court for the
30     purpose of taking consents or relinquishments; or
31          (b) except as provided in Subsection (2), any person authorized to take consents or
32     relinquishments under Subsections 78B-6-124(1) and (2).
33          (2) Only the juvenile court is authorized to take consents or relinquishments from a
34     parent who has any child who is in the custody of a state agency or who has a child who is
35     otherwise under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.
36          (3) (a) The court, appointed officer, or other authorized person shall certify to the best
37     of that person’s information and belief that the individual executing the consent or
38     relinquishment, or confirming a consent or relinquishment previously signed by the individual,
39     has read and understands the consent or relinquishment and has signed the consent or
40     relinquishment freely and voluntarily.
41          (b) A consent or relinquishment is not effective until the consent or relinquishment is
42     certified pursuant to Subsection (3)(a).
43          (4) [A voluntary relinquishment or consent for termination of parental rights is
44     effective when the voluntary relinquishment or consent is signed and may not be revoked.A
45     consent or relinquishment that has been certified pursuant to Subsection (3)(a) is effective
46     against the consenting or relinquishing individual and may not be revoked.
47          (5) (a) The requirements and processes described in Section 80-4-104, Sections
48     80-4-301 through 80-4-304, and Part 2, Petition for Termination of Parental Rights, do not
49     apply to a voluntary relinquishment or consent for termination of parental rights.
50          (b) When determining voluntary relinquishment or consent for termination of parental
51     rights, the juvenile court need only find that the relinquishment or termination is in the child’s
52     best interest.
53          (6) (a) There is a presumption that voluntary relinquishment or consent for termination
54     of parental rights is not in the child’s best interest where it appears to the juvenile court that the
55     primary purpose for relinquishment or consent for termination is to avoid a financial support
56     obligation.

57          (b) The presumption described in Subsection (6)(a) may be rebutted if the juvenile
58     court finds the relinquishment or consent to termination of parental rights will facilitate the
59     establishment of stability and permanency for the child.
60          (7) Upon granting a voluntary relinquishment the juvenile court may make orders
61     relating to the child’s care and welfare that the juvenile court considers to be in the child’s best
62     interest.

The main reason for H.B. 20 is the questions that the recent Utah Court of Appeals case of State in Interest of A.G. (2022 UT App 126) raised about it. In that case,

4

Infants

Statute outlining steps for voluntary relinquishment of parental rights requires relinquishing parent to sign a document effectuating the relinquishment and if no such document is signed by the parent, the relinquishment is incomplete and ineffective. Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-307.

The Utah Court of Appeals described the issue this way:

¶1 This case requires us to determine whether, under the language of the governing statute [§ 80-4-307], parents who intend to relinquish their parental rights in connection with a child welfare proceeding may effectuate that relinquishment under oath orally in court, without ever signing anything, or whether they must at some point sign a document effectuating that relinquishment.

¶2 In this case, S.A. (Mother)—while under oath—told the juvenile court that she wanted to relinquish her parental rights to A.G., J.K., and D.K. (collectively, the Children), and that she was doing so knowingly and voluntarily. Relying on those sworn representations, the court accepted Mother’s relinquishment, and later entered an order terminating Mother’s parental rights. But Mother did not sign any document indicating that she was relinquishing her rights, and on that basis she challenged her relinquishment as incomplete and invalid. The juvenile court rejected that challenge, interpreting the governing statute as allowing relinquishment, under certain circumstances, without a signed document from the parent.

¶3 Mother now appeals that determination, asserting that the juvenile court’s interpretation of the governing statute was incorrect. We agree with Mother that the statute requires the relinquishing parent to—at some point—sign a document effectuating the relinquishment. Accordingly, we reverse the termination order and remand this case for further proceedings.

In describing the requirements of § 80-4-307, the court stated:

[T]to summarize, all relinquishments regarding children “in the custody of a state agency” or “under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court” must involve a juvenile court judge. See id. § 80-4-307(2). A parent who is relinquishing rights to any such children must “sign or confirm the consent or relinquishment under oath before” that judge. Id. § 80-4-307(1). The judge, in turn, must “certify to the best of [his or her] information and belief” that the parent who is “executing the consent or relinquishment” understands it and has “signed [it] freely and voluntarily.” Id. § 80-4-307(3). And the relinquishment “is effective when the voluntary relinquishment or consent is signed.” Id. § 80-4-307(4).

In its concluding paragraph, the Utah Court of Appeals stated:

CONCLUSION

¶25 The statute at issue here requires a person relinquishing parental rights to—at some point—sign a document effectuating the relinquishment. Even though Mother appeared in court and, under oath, indicated her willingness to relinquish her parental rights, she never signed a document to that effect. Accordingly, her relinquishment did not become effective, and the juvenile court erred by declining to set aside that nascent relinquishment and by proceeding to terminate her parental rights. We therefore reverse the juvenile court’s termination order and remand the case for further proceedings, which may include a rescheduled termination trial.

H.B. 20 was proposed to prevent future confusion by parents, attorneys, and judges in the future when confronting questions of whether a parent does in fact voluntarily relinquishment of parental rights.

Is H.B.20 a good idea, then? Yes, yes it is.

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

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Family Law Legislation for the 2024 Utah State Legislative Session

Here is a list of the current proposed family law legislation for the 2024 Utah State Legislative session, along with a (very) brief description of the proposed legislation. If you want to read the complete bill, I have provided the links each of them.

Next month, I will provide my comments and those of others who have expressed their opinions on whether and why these bills should or should not be passed into law.

House Bills

House Bill 20

Title:  Parental Rights Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0020.pdf

Purpose: This bill: clarifies the requirements and procedure for an individual to consent to the termination of parental rights or voluntarily relinquish parental rights.

House Bill 81

Title: Domestic Violence Modifications

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0081.pdf

Purpose: This bill adds the crime of propelling a bodily substance or material to the list of crimes that qualify as a domestic violence offense in certain circumstances; and makes technical and conforming changes.

House Bill 110

Title:  Sex and Kidnap Offender Registry Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/static/HB0110.html

Purpose: This bill changes references from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Public Safety; clarifies the purpose of the Department of Public Safety keeping certain information for individuals on the Sex and Kidnap Offender Registry; and clarifies the requirements the Bureau of Criminal Identification and the Department of Corrections must check for when an individual petitions to be removed from the registry.

House Bill  129

Title:  Child Support Requirements

Purpose: This bill provides that a parent or other obligated individual is not responsible for child support for a child who is in the custody of the Division of Child and Family Services; and makes technical and conforming changes.

House Bill  131

Title:  Clergy Child Abuse Reporting Requirements

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0131.pdf

Purpose:  This bill clarifies that a member of the clergy may report suspected child abuse or neglect in certain circumstances; and makes technical corrections.

House Bill  134

Title:  Marriage Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0134.pdf

Purpose: This bill addresses the validation and recognition of a marriage regardless of the race, ethnicity, or national original of the parties to the marriage; repeals a provision on interracial marriage; and makes technical and conforming changes

House Bill  140

Title:  Parental Notification Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0140.pdf

Purpose: This bill amends the advisory guidelines for a custody and parent-time arrangement to allow for parental notification when a parent is residing with an individual, or providing the individual access to the parent’s child, and the individual has been convicted of certain crimes; amends the advisory guidelines for a custody and parent-time arrangement in regard to notification of a parent in the event of a medical emergency; and makes technical and conforming changes.

House Bill  157

Title:  Child Custody Factors Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0157.pdf

Purpose: This bill provides that a parent’s approval or disapproval, in itself, of a child’s gender identity, is not a factor to be considered: in a Division of Child and Family Services determination regarding removal of a child from parental custody; and when determining child custody as part of a divorce or other family law proceeding.

House Bill  194

Title:  Child Placement Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0194.pdf

Purpose: This bill amends the definition of “relative” for purposes of child placement, including adoption; and addresses when a court holds a hearing concerning a contested adoption.

House Bill  198

Title:  Child Welfare Placement Review Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0198.pdf

Purpose: This bill addresses the analysis a juvenile court undertakes when evaluating whether to terminate parental rights; and makes technical and conforming changes.

House Bill  199

Title: Child Welfare Revisions

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0199.pdf

Purpose: This bill amends definitions related to child welfare in the Utah Juvenile Code

House Bill  200

Title:  Order for Life Sustaining Treatment

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0200.pdf

Purpose: This bill modifies professional conduct standards for physicians, advance practice registered nurses, and physician assistants to include obtaining a parent or guardian signature when completing an order for life sustaining treatment for a minor; and makes technical and conforming changes.

House Bill  219

Title:  Divorce Imputed Income Requirements

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0219.pdf

Purpose: This bill provides standards for imputing income to a spouse who will be receiving alimony payments from another spouse; provides potential limitations on imputation of income for alimony purposes in some circumstances where the recipient spouse has no recent full-time work history or has been diagnosed with a disability; excludes situations where the recipient spouse has been determined to be at fault; and makes technical and conforming changes.

House Bill  220

Title:  Divorce Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0220.pdf

Purpose: This bill adds factors to be considered when determining the standard of living that existed during a marriage; requires a specific look-back period for information provided to demonstrate the financial conditions and needs of a spouse seeking to be awarded alimony; places restrictions on when a court can reduce a showing of need related to alimony; provides alternative means for demonstrating income and the standard of living during a marriage; and  modifies provisions related to when a court may elect to equalize income between parties by means of an alimony award.

House Bill  234

Title:  Birth Certificate Modifications

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0234.pdf

Purpose: This bill requires an individual when petitioning the court for a name or sex designation change on the birth certificate to indicate on the petition whether the individual is registered with the Sex and Kidnap Offender Registry; and authorizes the court to obtain additional information from an individual that is registered with the Sex and Kidnap Offender Registry to determine whether to grant a name or sex designation change petition.

House Bill  272

Title:  Child Custody Proceedings Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0272.pdf

Purpose: This bill defines terms; in certain proceedings involving child custody: specifies requirements for the admission of expert evidence; and  requires a court to consider evidence relating to domestic violence or abuse by a parent; imposes certain requirements and limitations regarding orders to improve the relationship between a parent and a child; requires the state court administrator to make recommendations regarding the education and training of court personnel involving child custody and related proceedings;  requires that certain protective order proceedings comply with specific standards; and makes technical and conforming changes.

SENATE BILLS

Senate Bill 70

Title:  Judiciary Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/sbillint/SB0070.pdf

Purpose: This bill increases the number of district court judges in the Third Judicial District, Fourth Judicial District, and Fifth Judicial District; increases the number of juvenile court judges in the Third Judicial District and the 15 Fourth Judicial District; and makes technical and conforming changes.

Senate Bill 88

Title:  Juvenile Justice Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/sbillint/SB0088.pdf

Purpose: This bill defines terms; clarifies requirements regarding the collection of a DNA specimen from a minor adjudicated by the juvenile court; provides that a minor may not be placed in a correctional facility as an alternative to detention; provides a time period in which an agency is required to send an affidavit to an individual who is the subject of an expungement order by the juvenile court; and makes technical and conforming changes.

Senate Bill 95

Title:  Domestic Relations Recodification

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/sbillint/SB0095.pdf

Purpose: This bill recodifies Title 30, Husband and Wife, to Title 81, Utah Domestic Relations Code; recodifies Title 78B, Chapter 12, Utah Child Support Act, to Title 81, Chapter 6, Child Support; defines terms; clarifies provisions related to a claim of a creditor when the joint debtors divorce or are living separately under an order of separate maintenance; clarifies the validation of a marriage to an individual subject to chronic epileptic fits who had not been sterilized; clarifies the validation of an interracial marriage; clarifies the validation of a marriage to an individual with acquired immune deficiency syndrome or other sexually transmitted disease; clarifies provisions regarding the rights and obligations during a marriage; clarifies provisions regarding the dissolution of a marriage, including: an order for separate maintenance; an annulment; and a divorce; clarifies provisions regarding child support, including: the requirements for a child support order; the general requirements for calculating child support; and the requirements for calculating child support for a sole physical custody case, a joint physical custody case, and a split physical custody case; clarifies provisions regarding custody, parent-time, and visitation; repeals statutes related to domestic relations, including a statute on the appointment of counsel for a child; and makes technical and conforming changes.

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What happens in court if I file for divorce but my husband has an active case on me for child support? Will I get the child?

Whether you “get the child” (meaning whether you will be awarded physical custody of the child) has little to no relevance to the fact that your spouse is seeking child support from you.

My guess is, based upon the way you phrased your question, that 1) you and your husband are separated and were separated before you filed, or before you have contemplated filing, for divorce; 2) the children have been, on an informal basis (i.e., no court order) your spouse has been exercising sole or primary custody of the children for a while since the separation occurred; and 3) your spouse has applied for an administrative order or court order for child support without having filed for a divorce. Under such circumstances, what would weaken your case for awarding custody to you would be the fact that the children have been in the sole or primary custody of your spouse during separation (and thus, the argument would go, that is the way it should stay, if and when a court issues a decree of divorce), not that he/she has sought child support from you.

If the children have been in the sole or primary custody of your spouse since separation and this is not due to your spouse having concealed the children from you, having absconded with the children, or having otherwise not obtained and exercised this de facto sole/primary custody wrongfully, then it’s not the fact that your spouse is seeking child support from you that hurts your case for custody. What hurts your case for custody being awarded to you is the fact that your spouse stepped up to take care of the kids and you did not.

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

Eric Johnson’s answer to What happens in court if I file for divorce but my husband has an active case on me for child support? Will I get the child? – Quora

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My Ex-wife Is Married. Should Her and Her New Husband’s Total Household Income Be Used When Determining Child Support?

I really don’t understand why this question gets asked, and it is asked frequently. Actually, that’s not true. I do know why.

The people who usually ask this question are child support obligors (payors) who are suffering under the burden of their child support obligation. They resent having to pay so much child support, or even any child support of all. Frankly, I sympathize. Often, child support is calculated incorrectly, based upon an income that the child support obligor does not earn and never did earn. Sometimes child support is based upon the obligee falsely reporting his/her income is much lower than it really is. Other times, child support is based upon an award of child custody that is unfair to parent and child alike.

And so there are many discouraged child support obligors who become obsessed with finding a way to pay less or no child support. This obsession clouds their judgment. They begin to see “reasons” for reducing or eliminating the child support obligations that make no sense. One of these so-called reasons (that isn’t really a reason) is when the child support obligee remarries. The thinking goes in the minds of these hapless child support obligors that the remarried parent now has a new income source in the form of the income of the new spouse’s income. The problem with this argument is that while the parent may have a new spouse, that new spouse is a stepparent to the child, not that child’s parent. The child still has only two parents who are financially responsible for that child’s support. Stepparents do not have an obligation to support their stepchildren in Utah. And that is why parents who remarry do not have their spouses’ incomes included in their own incomes for child support calculation purposes in Utah.

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Can the Mom End up Paying Child Support to the Father if He Was Abusive?

There are so many things wrong with this question. But thank you for asking it because it can be the start of a beneficial conversation and lead to a better understanding of divorce and family law, child custody, and support.

First, the question implies that only women receive child support from men, and thus only men pay child support to women. Wrong. Child support is paid to a parent (man or woman) who can demonstrate that he/she needs payment from the other parent to help the child maintain the lifestyle that his/her parents’ respective lifestyles can and ought to support. Many times, the child support payee (recipient) is the mother. This could be because the mother has the child in her care and custody for a greater portion of the year than does the father. It could also be because the mother earns less money than the father.

But if the father were awarded physical custody of a child for more time during the year than the mother and/or made less money than the mother, then the father could be awarded child support. Many fathers (not as many fathers as mothers, but some fathers) find themselves in this exact situation, which is why many fathers receive child support from mothers.

Just being a mother will not guarantee that a woman will receive child support. Whether a parent committed abuse rarely has anything to do with whether that parent will pay child support (see above), although it may have an indirect effect on child support if, due to a parent’s abuse, the other parent is awarded more custodial time with the child.

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How Is Child Support Determined When the Non-custodial Parent Doesn’t Have a Job, but Is Living on Millions of Inheritance?

This is a more complex question than it might at first appear.

First, we need to address the matter of people who confuse beliefs with facts. If I had a dollar for every client or potential client parent who came to me claiming that the other parent was far more wealthy than he or she was letting on, I myself would be a millionaire. But that doesn’t stop most parents from making utterly unfounded allegations to the court that the other parent has income greater than he or she is reporting, has money stashed away in all kinds of secret bank accounts and other places, and or is receiving income from unearned sources, such as trusts or inheritance or investments or rental properties or intellectual property, etc.

Please bear in mind that the court is not required to believe claims uncorroborated by any credible evidence, no matter how strenuously you may assert those beliefs.

Now, in situations where in fact, a parent is not employed but does receive unearned income of some kind or another, that income can, and almost certainly will be, considered for child support calculation purposes. At the risk of oversimplifying the definition of unearned income, it is basically money that is not earned from active employment.

The Utah Code defines actual (as opposed to imputed*) income for child support calculation purposes as follows:

(1) As used in the guidelines, “gross income” includes prospective income from any source, including earned and nonearned income sources which may include salaries, wages, commissions, royalties, bonuses, rents, gifts from anyone, prizes, dividends, severance pay, pensions, interest, trust income, alimony from previous marriages, annuities, capital gains, Social Security benefits, workers’ compensation benefits, unemployment compensation, income replacement disability insurance benefits, and payments from “nonmeans-tested” government programs.

(78B-12-203.  Determination of gross income — Imputed income.)

*But what if a parent is capable of earning an income but simply fails or refuses to work for an income? That is where imputation of income comes into play. In Utah, in the context of child support calculation, “imputed income” means income that if a parent is found to be capable of earning a certain amount of money, then that parent is treated for child support calculation purposes as if he/she is earning that income, even if he/she is not in fact earning it. Here is how the Utah Code imputes (and does not impute, in certain situations—see subsection 8(d) below) income for child support calculation purposes:

(8)

(a)       Income may not be imputed to a parent unless the parent stipulates to the amount imputed, the parent defaults, or, in contested cases, a hearing is held and the judge in a judicial proceeding or the presiding officer in an administrative proceeding enters findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.

(b)       If income is imputed to a parent, the income shall be based upon employment potential and probable earnings considering, 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.

(c)       If a parent has no recent work history or a parent’s occupation is unknown, that parent may be imputed an income at the federal minimum wage for a 40-hour work week. To impute a greater or lesser income, the judge in a judicial proceeding or the presiding officer in an administrative proceeding shall enter specific findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.

(d)       Income may not be imputed if any of the following conditions exist and the condition is not of a temporary nature:

      (i)        the reasonable costs of child care for the parents’ minor children approach or equal the amount of income the custodial parent can earn;

      (ii)       a parent is physically or mentally unable to earn minimum wage;

      (iii)     a parent is engaged in career or occupational training to establish basic job skills; or

      (iv)      unusual emotional or physical needs of a child require the custodial parent’s presence in the home.

So, in answer to your question about whether a parent can be ordered to pay child support even if he or she does not have a job and earn an income that way, the answer is yes, that parent can be ordered to pay child support.

(78B-12-203.  Determination of gross income — Imputed income.)

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

(3) Eric Johnson’s answer to How is child support determined when the non-custodial parent doesn’t have a job, but is living on millions of inheritance? – Quora

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The Father of My Child Told Me He Can Unilaterally Give Up His Parental Rights. Can He? He Thinks This Way He Will Get Out of Child Support. Can He Do This?

There is more than one question to answer here.

First, does a parent have the unilateral power simply to “give up” his or her parental rights (and accompanying obligations)? No. The only way to terminate a parent’s parental rights and obligations is by court order after a petition to terminate that parent’s parental rights has been filed and granted.

Can a parent have his/her parental rights terminated? Yes. By court order after a petition to terminate that parent’s parental rights has been filed (either by that parent himself or herself) and granted by the court.

Does the termination of parental rights (not to be confused with merely the desire or intent to have one’s parental rights terminated) also terminate a parent’s obligations to support that child? Yes.

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

(8) The father of my child told me he is giving up his parental rights. He thinks this way he will get out of child support. Can he do this? – Quora

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Nelson v. Nelson – 2023 UT App 38 – Claim Preclusion and Child Support

2023 UT App 38

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STASHIA NELSON,

Appellee,

v.

ISAAC SCOTT NELSON,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210345-CA

Filed April 13, 2023

First District Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Brian G. Cannell

No. 154100713

Sara Pfrommer, Ronald D. Wilkinson, and Nathan S. Shill, Attorneys for Appellant

Jacob A. Watterson and James C. Jenkins, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        This case raises issues regarding the claim preclusion

branch of the doctrine of res judicata in the context of divorce proceedings. Two years after Stashia and Isaac Nelson divorced, their circumstances had changed enough that Isaac[1] asked the district court to modify their divorce decree to give him shared physical custody of their children and to lower his monthly child support obligation. Isaac was behind in his support payments, and in response to his petition, Stashia asserted that Isaac’s “claims [were] barred, in whole or in part, because of [his] unclean hands in not being current in his child support obligation.”

¶2        The parties engaged in mediation and were able to agree on a new custody and parent-time arrangement and on a reduced monthly child support obligation for Isaac going forward. They presented their agreement to the court, and it entered a modified divorce decree that incorporated the terms of the agreement.

¶3        Stashia then initiated a separate proceeding to collect the child support that Isaac had failed to pay under the original decree. Isaac argued that all child-related financial matters, including his child support arrears, had been resolved in the proceeding to modify the divorce decree and that Stashia was therefore barred under the claim preclusion branch of the doctrine of res judicata from collecting the unpaid support. The court disagreed and ordered Isaac to pay past-due support. In response, Isaac filed a certificate of readiness for trial on an issue that he had not raised previously, namely, whether the reduction in his monthly support obligation should be backdated to when he filed his petition to modify the divorce decree. The district court ruled that there were no issues to certify for trial and entered judgment against Isaac for unpaid support in the amount of $2,835.40 plus interest. Isaac appeals.

¶4        We see no error in the conclusion that claim preclusion does not bar Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support. We also see no error in the district court’s ruling that there were no issues to certify for trial. We therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND

The Parties’ Marriage and Divorce

¶5        Isaac and Stashia married in 2007 and together had two children. Stashia later initiated divorce proceedings, during which the parties reached an agreement that was incorporated into a divorce decree in March 2016.

¶6        The divorce decree provided for the parties’ joint legal custody of the children, while giving Stashia sole physical custody and Isaac parent-time. The decree also ordered Isaac to pay $768 per month in child support, based on Stashia having sole physical custody of the children and on her lack of employment at the time.

Isaac’s Petition to Modify the Divorce Decree

¶7        In June 2018, Isaac petitioned to modify the divorce decree, based on “substantial and material changes in the circumstances of the parties.” In support of modifying the decree’s custody order, Isaac alleged that he had a more “stable residence” and “flexible work schedule” than when the parties divorced; that he was also more able to “provide additional familial support” because he had recently remarried; and that Stashia, on the other hand, had violated several of the custody and parent-time provisions in the divorce decree. Based on these allegations, Isaac requested “increased parent time” and “joint physical custody.”

¶8        In support of modifying the decree’s child support order, Isaac alleged that Stashia had become employed full time and that her increased income, along with the parties’ joint physical custody of the children, if the court awarded it, merited a reduction in his child support obligation.

¶9        In her answer to Isaac’s petition, Stashia alleged, among other things, that Isaac was “not current in his child support obligation.” She then asserted, as one of several affirmative defenses, that Isaac’s “claims [were] barred, in whole or in part, because of [his] unclean hands in not being current in his child support obligation.”

¶10 During discovery, the parties exchanged financial declarations outlining their incomes, assets, and expenses, but neither party produced documents or information regarding Isaac’s past child support payments or alleged arrears.

¶11      In October 2018, the parties participated in mediation and stipulated to a temporary modification of the divorce decree. The stipulation, the terms of which were incorporated into an order, contained temporary parent-time provisions and an agreement to participate in a custody evaluation. It did not mention or modify child support, and it concluded by saying: “All issues not specifically addressed herein that have been raised or could have been raised by the parties are, hereby, reserved.”

¶12      After the agreed-upon custody evaluation was completed, the parties again participated in mediation, in May 2019. Later the same day, the district court commissioner held a settlement conference at which the parties orally presented stipulated terms to be incorporated into an amended divorce decree.

¶13      As to custody, the parties’ attorneys told the commissioner that the parties had agreed to “a joint legal, joint physical custody arrangement,” and the attorneys then explained the details of that arrangement. As to child support, they said that the parties had agreed that “[c]hild support would be 600 per month effective June 1st, 2019.” The attorneys then said that the parties had agreed that “all prior orders that are not specifically modified here . . . would remain in full force and effect.”

¶14 Toward the end of the settlement conference, the commissioner asked Isaac and Stashia if they were “willing to accept those terms as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in [the] matter.” Each responded, “Yes.”

¶15 In October 2019, the court issued an amended divorce decree incorporating the terms the parties had orally agreed to during the settlement conference. The amended decree sets forth the parties’ custody arrangement; contains provisions regarding parent-time; restates the parties’ parenting plan; provides that Isaac’s “child support obligation shall be modified to $600.00 per month effective June 1, 2019”; contains provisions regarding claiming the minor children for tax purposes; and states the parties’ responsibilities regarding medical and childcare expenses. It then provides: “This order shall be a consolidated order on custody, parent-time, and child related financial matters.”

Stashia’s Motion for an Order to Show Cause

¶16 In February 2020, Stashia filed a motion for an order to show cause,[2] alleging that Isaac owed child support arrears that had accrued between September 2016 and February 2020.

¶17 Isaac opposed Stashia’s request for unpaid child support. He noted that in response to his petition to modify the original divorce decree, Stashia “had raised the issue that [Isaac] had child support arrearage.” He pointed to the parties’ statements during the May 2019 settlement conference that they were willing to accept the terms outlined at that conference “as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in [the] matter.” (Emphasis omitted.) And he pointed to the language of the amended decree that says that the amended decree is “a consolidated order on custody, parent-time, and child related financial matters.” The district court commissioner “reviewed the pleadings on file and . . . considered the evidence and arguments presented” and disagreed with Isaac, finding that “[Stashia] did not waive [Isaac’s] child support arrears at the [May 2019] mediation between the parties or by stipulating to the Amended Decree of Divorce.”

¶18      Isaac objected to the commissioner’s recommendation. He argued that, based on “the principles of the ‘claim preclusion’ prong of the doctrine of res judicata,” the modification proceedings and amended divorce decree had “a preclusive effect” on a claim for child support arrears that accrued before entry of the amended decree. The district court overruled Isaac’s objection and entered judgment against Isaac for child support arrears “in an amount to be determined . . . based on the accountings submitted by the Parties.” After the parties submitted their accountings, the court found that Isaac’s child support arrears totaled $2,835.40.[3]

Isaac’s Certificate of Readiness for Trial

¶19      Isaac then filed, in March 2021, a certificate of readiness for trial, in which he asserted: “This case is ready for trial on the reserved issue of [whether] the June 1, 2019 child support adjustment should be backdated to the date of the filing of the Petition to Modify (June 2018).” Isaac had not previously asked the court to backdate the modified child support order to June 2018.

¶20      The district court ruled that “[t]here [were] no issues to certify for trial” and entered judgment against Isaac in the amount of $2,835.40 plus interest. Isaac now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶21      Isaac asks us to reverse the district court’s judgment against him for unpaid child support. He contends that Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support is barred by the claim preclusion branch of res judicata.[4] Ultimately, “[w]hether a claim is barred by res judicata is a question of law that we review for correctness.” Gillmor v. Family Link, LLC, 2012 UT 38, ¶ 9, 284 P.3d 622.

¶22      Part of our claim preclusion analysis in this case, however, requires a determination of the intended scope of ambiguous language in the stipulated amended divorce decree. Where the language of a written stipulation is ambiguous, “the trial court ordinarily considers extrinsic evidence in an effort to resolve the ambiguit[y] and will make findings of fact to resolve any disputed evidence.” Christensen v. Christensen, 2018 UT App 53, ¶ 6, 420 P.3d 106 (footnote omitted). When a court looks outside the four corners of a written stipulation to determine its intended scope, that determination presents a question of fact, “which we review for clear error.” Fuller v. Bohne, 2017 UT App 28, ¶ 9, 392 P.3d 898, cert. denied, 398 P.3d 51 (Utah 2017).

¶23      Isaac also asks us to reverse the district court’s ruling, in response to his filing of a certificate of readiness for trial, that “[t]here [were] no issues to certify for trial.” The legal effect of a certificate of readiness for trial is a question of law, and “[w]e review questions of law for correctness, giving no deference to the ruling of the court below,” see Madsen v. Washington Mutual Bank FSB, 2008 UT 69, ¶ 19, 199 P.3d 898.

ANALYSIS

I. Stashia’s Claim for Unpaid Child Support
Is Not Barred by Res Judicata.

¶24 Isaac contends that the district court erred in allowing Stashia to bring a claim for unpaid child support. As we have noted, the substance of his argument is that Stashia’s claim for unpaid support is barred by the claim preclusion branch of res judicata. See supra note 3. This court has previously observed that, indeed, “[t]he principles of res judicata apply fully in the context of divorce proceedings.” Krambule v. Krambule, 1999 UT App 357, ¶ 13, 994 P.2d 210 (citing Jacobsen v. Jacobsen, 703 P.2d 303, 305 (Utah 1985)), cert. denied, 4 P.3d 1289 (Utah 2000). But this observation merits explanation.

¶25 Both res judicata and the law of the case doctrine can operate to give an earlier decision on a particular claim or issue preclusive effect when the same claim or issue is raised again. See Utah State Bar v. Rasmussen (In re Discipline of Rasmussen), 2013 UT 14, ¶¶ 17–18, 299 P.3d 1050. A key difference between the two doctrines, however, is that generally “[r]es judicata applies as between multiple cases while the law of the case doctrine applies to successive proceedings within one case.” State v. Waterfield, 2014 UT App 67, ¶ 39 n.12, 322 P.3d 1194, cert. denied, 333 P.3d 365 (Utah 2014).

¶26 This distinction could suggest that in a single divorce case—over which a district court has continuing jurisdiction to enter orders modifying the original decree, see Utah Code § 30-3-5(5)—only the law of the case doctrine would ever apply. To the contrary, however, we have held that res judicata applies as between “[original] divorce actions and subsequent modification proceedings.” Smith v. Smith, 793 P.2d 407, 410 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). Accordingly, in Krambule v. Krambule, 1999 UT App 357, 994 P.2d 210, cert. denied, 4 P.3d 1289 (Utah 2000), we concluded that a petition to modify a divorce decree to require an ex-husband to pay support for a child conceived through artificial insemination without the ex-husband’s knowledge was “barred under the principles of res judicata” since that claim “could and should have been asserted in the original divorce action.” Id. ¶ 16. And in Throckmorton v. Throckmorton, 767 P.2d 121 (Utah Ct. App. 1988), we upheld on res judicata grounds the denial of a petition to modify a divorce decree to give an ex-wife an interest in her ex-husband’s retirement benefits, which had not been included in the original decree. See id. at 123.

¶27 In other words, we treat an original divorce proceeding and each subsequent proceeding to modify the divorce decree as separate “cases” for res judicata purposes. At the same time, we treat a divorce proceeding leading to a decree or an amended decree and any subsequent proceeding to enforce that decree or amended decree as successive proceedings within the same case. Thus, in this second context, we apply the law of the case doctrine. See Robinson v. Robinson, 2016 UT App 32, ¶¶ 26–29, 368 P.3d 147 (holding, in a proceeding to enforce a stipulated divorce decree, that law of the case barred a husband from relitigating a factual issue decided previously), cert. denied, 379 P.3d 1185 (Utah 2016).[5]

¶28      This appeal is somewhat unusual in that the “first case” for

purposes of res judicata is the modification proceeding and the “second case” is the order to show cause proceeding to enforce the child support order from the original decree. But because the order to show cause proceeding is based on the original decree, it is a separate “case” from the modification proceeding that resulted in the amended decree. We therefore apply the principles of res judicata as we analyze the potential preclusive effect of the amended decree in the order to show cause proceeding.[6]

¶29      “The doctrine of res judicata embraces two distinct branches: claim preclusion and issue preclusion.” Macris & Assocs., Inc. v. Neways, Inc., 2000 UT 93, ¶ 19, 16 P.3d 1214. “[C]laim preclusion corresponds to causes of action[;] issue preclusion corresponds to the facts and issues underlying causes of action.” Oman v. Davis School Dist., 2008 UT 70, ¶ 31, 194 P.3d 956.

¶30      “Claim preclusion . . . is premised on the principle that a controversy should be adjudicated only once.” Pioneer Home Owners Ass’n v. TaxHawk Inc., 2019 UT App 213, ¶ 41, 457 P.3d 393 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 466 P.3d 1073 (Utah 2020). It “bars a party from prosecuting in a subsequent action a claim that has been fully litigated previously.” Hansen v. Bank of N.Y. Mellon, 2013 UT App 132, ¶ 5, 303 P.3d 1025 (cleaned up). “Whether a claim is precluded from relitigation depends on a three-part test.” Mack v. Utah State Dep’t of Com., 2009 UT 47, ¶ 29, 221 P.3d 194.

First, both cases must involve the same parties or their privies. Second, the claim that is alleged to be barred must have been presented in the first suit or be one that could and should have been raised in the first action. Third, the first suit must have resulted in a final judgment on the merits.

Id. (cleaned up).

¶31 Here, it is undisputed that Stashia and Isaac were the parties to both the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree—the “first case”—and the proceeding on Stashia’s subsequent claim for unpaid child support under the original decree—the “second case.” It is also undisputed that Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree resulted in a final judgment on the merits, in the form of the amended divorce decree. Thus, we focus our analysis on the second requirement of the claim preclusion test: whether Stashia presented or was required to present her claim for unpaid child support during the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the decree.

A. Stashia did not present a claim for unpaid child support in the modification proceedings.

¶32 The second requirement of the claim preclusion test is satisfied if the claim at issue was presented in a prior action. See Mack, 2009 UT 47, ¶ 29. Isaac argues that Stashia’s answer to his petition to modify the divorce decree presented a claim for unpaid child support. Specifically, he points to Stashia’s allegation that Isaac was “not current in his child support obligation” and to her assertion, as an affirmative defense, that Isaac’s “unclean hands in not being current in his child support obligation” should bar modification of his support obligation.[7]

¶33      However, while Stashia alleged that Isaac was in arrears in

his child support payments, neither that allegation nor the affirmative defense based on that allegation presented a “claim.” “An original claim, counterclaim, cross-claim or third-party claim must contain a short and plain: (1) statement of the claim showing that the party is entitled to relief; and (2) demand for judgment for specified relief.” Utah R. Civ. P. 8(a). Stashia’s answer to Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree did not allege how much Isaac owed in unpaid child support or make a demand for relief. We cannot, therefore, say that Stashia’s affirmative defense presented a claim for res judicata purposes. See Airfreight Express Ltd. v. Evergreen Air Center, Inc., 158 P.3d 232, 237 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2007) (holding that “affirmative defenses are not claims” for purposes of “[t]he doctrine of claim preclusion”); cf. Norman A. Koglin Assocs. v. Valenz Oro, Inc., 680 N.E.2d 283, 288 (Ill. 1997) (“A counterclaim differs from an . . . affirmative defense. A counterclaim is used when seeking affirmative relief, while an . . . affirmative defense seeks to defeat a plaintiff’s claim.”).

¶34      This is consistent with our analysis in Berkshires, LLC v. Sykes, 2005 UT App 536, 127 P.3d 1243. In that case, the plaintiffs were poised to purchase and develop multiple parcels of land when the defendants recorded a document purporting to grant an easement that would significantly hinder the anticipated development. Id. ¶ 4. The plaintiffs sued “for slander of title and interference with economic relations, claiming that [the defendants] had intentionally fabricated the [e]asement [d]ocument.” Id. ¶ 6. Late in the litigation, the defendants moved for partial summary judgment, asserting that as a matter of law under the undisputed evidence “Hope Lane, a road running [across the parcels at issue], was a public road.” Id. ¶ 9. The trial court denied the motion on the ground that the defendants had not presented a claim for Hope Lane to be declared a public road because their “original answer merely stated that ‘[a]s a separate and affirmative defense, [the] [d]efendants . . . allege that Hope Lane is a public road,’ without making any further affirmative claim for relief.” Id. (first alteration and omission in original).

¶35 On appeal, the defendants argued that the trial court improperly refused to treat their Hope Lane affirmative defense as a counterclaim. See id. ¶¶ 16–17. We said that among the factors a court could consider when deciding whether to treat an affirmative defense as a counterclaim was “whether the defense as argued or articulated in the pleadings sufficiently states a claim for relief and a demand for judgment as required by rule 8(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.” Id. ¶ 18. In concluding that the trial court had not abused its discretion by refusing to treat the Hope Lane affirmative defense as a counterclaim, we explained:

At the heart of the matter here is whether Plaintiffs should have recognized that Defendants’ statement “Hope Lane is a public road” was in reality a counterclaim, though labeled an affirmative defense. Here, the statement on its face is not readily identifiable as a counterclaim; it requests no relief and does not demand judgment. . . . Defendants did not properly plead a counterclaim . . . .

Id. ¶ 19. In sum, although it was in a different context, we have previously concluded that an affirmative defense that requests no relief and does not demand judgment does not present a claim. Our reaching the same conclusion here in the res judicata context “is not much of a jurisprudential leap.” Atkinson v. Stateline Hotel Casino & Resort, 2001 UT App 63, ¶ 19 n.6, 21 P.3d 667.

B. The district court’s finding that the amended divorce decree did not preclude Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support was not clearly erroneous.

¶36      Even if a party does not present a claim in her pleadings or otherwise during litigation, she might still agree to settle that unpled claim with the intent to foreclose its future litigation. If such an agreement becomes the basis of a stipulated decree, the second requirement of claim preclusion is met, and claim preclusion may apply to the settled but unpled claim. See Keith v. Aldridge, 900 F.2d 736, 741 (4th Cir. 1990) (holding, in the context of a “consent judgment,” that “[i]f the parties intended to foreclose through agreement litigation of a claim, assertion of that claim in a later suit, whether or not formally presented in the earlier action, is precluded”); 18A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 4443 (3d ed. April 2022 update) (“[Following a consent judgment,] [i]f it is clear that the parties agreed to settle claims that were not reflected in the original pleadings, preclusion may extend to claims that were not even formally presented.”).[8]

¶37      Isaac relies on this principle. He contends that the amended

divorce decree, which was the product of a settlement agreement and stipulation, “expressly and unambiguously resolved” any claim for child support arrears that predated the amended decree. In support, he points to the provision of the amended decree that states: “This order shall be a consolidated order on custody, parent-time, and child related financial matters.” (Emphasis added.) Isaac interprets the phrase “child related financial matters” to mean that the amended decree was an order resolving all child related financial matters, including his child support arrears. But this is not the only plausible reading of this provision.

¶38 The amended decree addresses several child-related financial matters explicitly: the modified child support award, income tax deductions related to the children, health insurance and medical expenses for the children, and childcare expenses. It never mentions child support arrears. Thus, the phrase “child related financial matters” can plausibly be read as encompassing only the child-related financial matters explicitly addressed in the amended decree. Because this provision of the amended decree supports two plausible readings, it is ambiguous. See Moon v. Moon, 1999 UT App 12, ¶ 19, 973 P.2d 431 (“Language in a written document is ambiguous if the words may be understood to support two or more plausible meanings.” (cleaned up)), cert. denied, 982 P.2d 89 (Utah 1999).

¶39 “Ordinarily, we interpret a divorce decree as we would any other written instrument, construing it in accordance with its plain meaning and according no deference to the district court’s interpretation.” Christensen v. Christensen, 2018 UT App 53, ¶ 6,

420 P.3d 106. “But where, as here, the agreement is ambiguous, the trial court ordinarily considers extrinsic evidence in an effort to resolve the ambiguit[y] and will make findings of fact to resolve any disputed evidence . . . .” Id. (footnote omitted).

¶40      The district court here considered extrinsic evidence to determine whether Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support was encompassed within the amended decree, and it made a factual finding that the claim for unpaid child support was not encompassed within the decree. Among the evidence considered were the oral representations the parties made during their May 2019 settlement conference and a declaration provided by Isaac, both of which Isaac directed the court to when he opposed Stashia’s motion for an order to show cause. The district court considered this evidence and found that Stashia did not waive her claim for unpaid child support.

¶41      When, as here, a court looks outside the four corners of a stipulated judgment to determine its intended scope, that determination is a determination of fact, which we review for clear error. See Noel v. James, 2022 UT App 33, ¶ 11, 507 P.3d 832 (“The scope of a stipulation presents a question of fact, which we review for clear error.” (cleaned up)); Fuller v. Bohne, 2017 UT App 28, ¶ 9, 392 P.3d 898 (same), cert. denied, 398 P.3d 51 (Utah 2017). And “[f]indings of fact are clearly erroneous only if no reasonable factfinder could review the evidence presented and arrive at the disputed finding.” Blackhawk Townhouses Owners Ass’n Inc. v. J.S., 2018 UT App 56, ¶ 23, 420 P.3d 128.

¶42      We see no clear error in the district court’s finding that the parties’ amended decree was not intended to be preclusive of Stashia’s claim for child support arrears. Isaac’s child support arrears were not mentioned at all during the May 2019 settlement conference. A reasonable factfinder might therefore believe it a stretch to assume that when Stashia and Isaac told the commissioner they were “willing to accept [the] terms [that had been outlined in the settlement conference] as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in [the] matter,” they would have thought that those issues included Isaac’s alleged child support arrears.

¶43 Moreover, after the parties said that the modified child support obligation would become effective June 1, 2019, they told the commissioner that “all prior orders that are not specifically modified [as outlined in the settlement conference] . . . would remain in full force and effect.” A reasonable view of this evidence is that when the parties accepted the terms of the stipulation “as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in this matter,” these were the terms that they intended to accept: that the child support order prior to June 1, 2019, as well as any outstanding obligations under it, “would remain in full force and effect.”

C. Stashia was not required to present her claim for unpaid child support in the modification proceeding.

¶44      Even if a claim was not presented or settled in an initial action, the second requirement of the claim preclusion test can be met by showing that the subsequently raised claim “could and should have been raised in the first action.” Mack v. Utah State Dep’t of Com., 2009 UT 47, ¶ 29, 221 P.3d 194 (cleaned up). A subsequent claim could and should have been brought in an earlier action “if [both claims] arise from the same operative facts, or in other words from the same transaction.” Id. ¶ 30. To determine if two claims arise from the same transaction, a court may consider “whether the facts [of each] are related in time, space, origin, or motivation, whether they form a convenient trial unit, and whether their treatment as a unit conforms to the parties’ expectations.” Gillmor v. Family Link, LLC, 2012 UT 38, ¶ 14, 284 P.3d 622 (cleaned up). But “no single factor is determinative.” Id. (cleaned up). “Therefore, every consideration need not be addressed or considered in every case.” Id.

¶45      Here, Isaac’s claims for modification of the divorce decree were not related in origin to Stashia’s later claim for unpaid child support. Isaac’s claims to modify the divorce decree originated from alleged changes to his work and home life since the entry of the original decree (including his recent remarriage), alleged violations by Stashia of the divorce decree’s custody and parent-time provisions, and Stashia’s recent full-time employment. In contrast, Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support originated from Isaac’s alleged failure to abide by the divorce decree’s child support order. These differing origins suggest that the parties’ respective claims do not arise from the same transaction. See In re Marriage of Potts, 542 N.E.2d 179, 181–82 (Ill. App. Ct. 1989) (observing that “[t]here [was] no significant evidentiary overlap” between a father’s claim for unpaid child support and the mother’s claim for modification of the support obligation and, thus, holding that res judicata did not bar the father’s separate action for unpaid support); Zickefoose v. Muntean, 399 N.W.2d 178, 180–81 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987) (concluding that a stipulation to amend a divorce decree to reduce the father’s child support obligation was “a totally different and distinct action” from the mother’s later “motion to compel payment of child support arrearages” and, thus, that res judicata did not bar the mother’s later action for arrearages).

¶46 Additionally, neither Isaac nor Stashia conducted discovery related to Isaac’s alleged child support arrears during the modification proceeding, which suggests that it was not their expectation that Isaac’s claims for modification of the original decree and Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support under the original decree would be treated as a single trial unit.

¶47      Moreover, Utah Code section 78B-12-210(9)(a) provides for the filing of a petition to modify a child support order based on a substantial change of circumstances, while our rules require a motion—previously a motion “for an order to show cause,” see Utah R. Civ. P. 7(q) (2020), and now “a motion to enforce order,” see Utah R. Civ. P. 7B—to recover unpaid child support. By providing different procedures for modifying a child support order and enforcing a child support order, our code and rules also implicitly recognize that these two types of actions generally do not arise from the same transaction. Cf. In re P.D.D., 256 S.W.3d 834, 842, 844 (Tex. App. 2008) (reasoning in part that because the Texas Family Code “does not require their joinder,” actions for “delinquent child support” and actions for “modification of . . . future child support obligations” are “separate and definable questions” and the one is not barred by the other under a “transactional approach” to res judicata).

¶48      The differing origins of Isaac’s and Stashia’s respective claims, the apparent expectations of the parties, and the procedural scheme set forth in our code and rules demonstrate that Isaac’s claim for modification of the original child support order and Stashia’s claim for enforcement of the original order did not arise from the same transaction. Thus, Stashia was not required to present her claim for unpaid child support during the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree.

¶49      Because Stashia neither presented nor settled her claim for unpaid child support during the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree, and because she was not required to present her claim for unpaid child support during that proceeding, the doctrine of claim preclusion does not apply to bar Stashia’s claim.[9]

II. The District Court Did Not Err by Concluding that There
Were No Issues to Certify for Trial.

¶50      Isaac also argues that “[t]he district court erred when it

refused to allow [him] to counter Stashia’s Order to Show Cause with his request to retroactively apply the child support modification.” His request to retroactively apply the child support modification took the form of a certificate of readiness for trial filed nearly a year and a half after the modification proceeding to which it related had concluded. Because the modification proceeding had concluded, and because Isaac filed no rule 59 or 60(b) motion to alter or relieve him from the resulting judgment—i.e., the amended divorce decree, with its June 1, 2019 effective date for the modified support order—Isaac’s certificate of readiness for trial landed in a legal vacuum and had no legal effect.[10] With no pending proceeding to which retroactive application of the modified support order applied, the district court was correct to conclude that “[t]here [were] no issues to certify for trial.”

CONCLUSION

¶51      Stashia did not present an affirmative claim for child support arrears during the modification proceeding. The district court did not clearly err in finding that Stashia’s claim for those arrears was not encompassed within the modified divorce decree. And Stashia’s claim for those arrears did not arise out of the same transaction as the claims Isaac made in his petition to modify the decree. Accordingly, Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support is not barred by res judicata. Additionally, the district court’s ruling in response to Isaac’s certificate of readiness for trial—that there were no issues to certify for trial—was not in error.

¶52 Affirmed.

 

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[1] As is our practice, because the parties share the same last name, we use their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] The “motion to enforce order” procedure outlined in rule 7B of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure has now “replace[d] and supersede[d] the prior order to show cause procedure” in the context of “domestic relations actions, including divorce.” Utah R. Civ. P. 7B(a), (i), (j). A similar “motion to enforce order” procedure outlined in rule 7A now applies in the context of other civil proceedings. See id. R. 7A. In recommending rule 7B, the Utah Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on the Rules of Civil Procedure left untouched rule 101(k), which addresses motion practice before district court commissioners and still recites requirements for “[a]n application to the court for an order to show cause.” Id. R. 101(k). The committee may wish to revise rule 101(k) to conform rule 101(k)’s provisions to those of rule 7B.

 

[3] Our resolution of this appeal makes determining the portion of this amount that accrued before entry of the amended divorce decree unnecessary.

[4] Isaac does not always frame his argument in terms of “claim preclusion” or “res judicata.” In one section of his principal brief, he asserts that the claim for unpaid child support was “resolved” by the amended divorce decree. In another, he argues that “the issues to which the parties have stipulated [have] become ‘settled’ and ‘not reserved for future consideration.’” And at one point he does explicitly invoke “the ‘claim preclusion’ prong of the doctrine of res judicata.” Regardless of their phrasing, each of these arguments is, in substance, an argument for application of the doctrine of res judicata. See infra ¶¶ 26-28; Mel Trimble Real Estate v. Monte Vista Ranch, Inc., 758 P.2d 451, 453 (Utah Ct. App.) (explaining that res judicata “bars the relitigation . . . of a claim for relief previously resolved” (emphasis added)), cert. denied, 769 P.2d 819 (Utah 1988); Res judicata, Black’s Law Dictionary (abridged 6th ed. 1991) (defining res judicata as “a thing or matter settled by judgment” (emphasis added)).

Because Isaac never uses the terms “issue preclusion” or “collateral estoppel” and never cites a case applying that branch of res judicata, and because he did not do so in the district court, we address only the claim preclusion branch of res judicata. See generally 438 Main St. v. Easy Heat, Inc., 2004 UT 72, ¶ 51, 99 P.3d 801 (“Issues that are not raised at trial are usually deemed waived.”); State v. Sloan, 2003 UT App 170, ¶ 13, 72 P.3d 138 (declining to address an inadequately briefed issue).

[5] Application of res judicata in the divorce context might be seen as “distinguish[able]” from its application in other contexts in another way as well. See Smith v. Smith, 793 P.2d 407, 410 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). That is because in the divorce context the preclusive effect of res judicata can be avoided based on “the equitable doctrine that allows courts to reopen [prior] determinations if the moving party can demonstrate a substantial change of circumstances.” Id. In fact, some prior determinations in divorce cases may be reopened on a showing of a material change of circumstances that is less than substantial. See, e.g.Miller v. Miller, 2020 UT App 171, ¶ 18, 480 P.3d 341 (observing that “when modifying parent-time (as opposed to custody), the petitioner is required to make only some showing of a change in circumstances, which does not rise to the same level as the substantial and material showing required when a district court alters custody” (cleaned up)). Though this might be seen as a distinguishing feature of res judicata in the divorce setting, it is consistent with our statement that “[t]he principles of res judicata apply fully in the context of divorce proceedings,” Krambule v. Krambule, 1999 UT App 357, ¶ 13, 994 P.2d 210, cert. denied, 4 P.3d 1289 (Utah 2000), because a decision based on a changed set of material facts is not a decision on the same question as the one presented previously.

[6] We are not alone in this approach. See, e.g.In re Marriage of Potts, 542 N.E.2d 179, 180–82 (Ill. App. Ct. 1989) (applying res judicata principles to hold that, under the facts of the case, an amended divorce decree that modified a child support obligation did not bar a claim for child support arrears that accrued under the prior decree); Zickefoose v. Muntean, 399 N.W.2d 178, 180–81 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987) (same).

[7] “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.” Goggin v. Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶ 60, 299 P.3d 1079 (cleaned up).

[8] “In Utah, . . . the rules of claim preclusion are ‘virtually identical’ to the federal rules . . . .” Haik v. Salt Lake City Corp., 2017 UT 14, ¶ 9, 393 P.3d 285 (citation omitted).

[9] The district court expressed its ruling against Isaac’s claim preclusion argument by finding that Stashia “did not waive” her claim for unpaid child support. Our ruling is that Stashia neither waived nor forfeited her right to assert that claim. “Though principles of waiver and forfeiture are often used interchangeably, the two concepts are technically distinct.” Reller v. Argenziano, 2015 UT App 241, ¶ 30, 360 P.3d 768 (cleaned up). “Forfeiture is the failure to make the timely assertion of a right, whereas waiver is the intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right.” Id. (cleaned up). Stashia did not waive her known right to bring a claim for unpaid support since, as we have concluded, she did not intentionally relinquish it through settlement or otherwise. Nor did she forfeit that right by the issue of failing to timely assert it since, as we have concluded, she was not required to present her claim during the modification proceeding. See id. ¶ 31 (holding that failure to timely amend a complaint to assert a claim for retroactive child support amounted to a forfeiture). We leave for another day the question of whether or how a claim for unpaid child support may be settled without running afoul of the statutory limitation on the waiver of child support claims. See generally Utah Code § 78B-12-109(1) (“Waiver and estoppel [of child support] shall apply only to the custodial parent when there is no order already established by a tribunal if the custodial parent freely and voluntarily waives support specifically and in writing.”); Cahoon v. Evans, 2011 UT App 148, ¶ 3, 257 P.3d 454 (holding that Utah Code section 78B-12-109 “rules out waiver and estoppel in all instances where there is a child support order already in place”).

[10] Isaac makes no attempt to address this procedural reality. Instead, he uses the certificate of readiness for trial as a vehicle to argue that he stipulated to a June 1, 2019 effective date for the modified child support order only “[i]n exchange” for Stashia giving up the right to pursue her claim for child support arrears. But the district court found that the parties did not intend such an exchange, and we have affirmed that finding. See supra ¶¶ 36–43.

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What Can I Do if Ex-spouse Wants to Pay/Receive Less Child Support by Misrepresenting His/Her Income?

I will answer this question in the context of Utah law because Utah is the jurisdiction where I practice divorce and family law. It could be that other jurisdictions have similar laws or rules, but you will need to inquire with a lawyer who is licensed to practice law in your particular jurisdiction to be sure.

In Utah, the legislature and courts are aware of and wise to 1) those who would try to avoid paying child support 2) those who would try to obtain excessive child support by “self-impoverishing”, i.e., claiming to earn or being able to earn less than they actually do or can. This is why there are code sections and court rules to enable a party and the court to dig into the income history of the opposing party.

For example, the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure provide means by which opposing parties can conduct what is known as “discovery”, which is simply a legal term for the ability to obtain and the process for obtaining documentation and other forms of evidence relevant to the legal action. Through discovery a party can obtain bank, credit card, and other financial institution records of the opposing party. Through discovery a party can obtain business records, titles, can inspect land and buildings, require an opposing party to submit to a physical examination and income-potential evaluations, etc. in an effort to find out the extent of the opposing party’s income or reasonable ability to obtain income, if that party is currently unemployed.

That is not all. The Utah Rules of Civil Procedure also provide that each spouse in a divorce action or each ex-spouse in an action to modify child support must exchange a financial declaration form, with supporting documents. See Utah Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 26.1; parties must, in the financial declaration:

  • identify their employer(s) and rate of pay or annual salary
  • report their gross monthly income
  • calculate their monthly tax deductions and net, after tax income
  • identify in detail their monthly expenses for each party and and any spouse, children or other dependents in the household
  • business interests and valuation of the business(s)
  • financial assets
  • real estate interests
  • personal property (Such as vehicles, boats, trailers, major equipment, furniture, jewelry, and collectibles)
  • debts owed
  • and provide:

o    For every item and amount listed in the Financial Declaration, excluding monthly expenses, copies of statements verifying the amounts listed on the Financial Declaration that are reasonably available to the party.

o    For the two tax years before the petition was filed, complete federal and state income tax returns, including Form W-2 and supporting tax schedules and attachments, filed by or on behalf of that party or by or on behalf of any entity in which the party has a majority or controlling interest, including, but not limited to, Form 1099 and Form K-1 with respect to that party.

o    Pay stubs and other evidence of all earned and un-earned income for the 12 months before the petition was filed.

o    All loan applications and financial statements prepared or used by the party within the 12 months before the petition was filed.

o    Documents verifying the value of all real estate in which the party has an interest, including, but not limited to, the most recent appraisal, tax valuation and refinance documents.

o    All statements for the 3 months before the petition was filed for all financial accounts, including, but not limited to checking, savings, money market funds, certificates of deposit, brokerage, investment, retirement, regardless of whether the account has been closed including those held in that party’s name, jointly with another person or entity, or as a trustee or guardian, or in someone else’s name on that party’s behalf.

o    If the foregoing documents are not reasonably available or are in the possession of the other party, the party disclosing the Financial Declaration must estimate the amounts entered on the Financial Declaration, the basis for the estimation and an explanation why the documents are not available.

By way of another example, here is an excerpt from 78B-12-203 (Determination of gross income — Imputed income):

(5)

(a) When possible, gross income should first be computed on an annual basis and then recalculated to determine the average gross monthly income.

(b) Each parent shall provide verification of current income. Each parent shall provide year-to-date pay stubs or employer statements and complete copies of tax returns from at least the most recent year unless the court finds the verification is not reasonably available. Verification of income from records maintained by the Department of Workforce Services may be substituted for pay stubs, employer statements, and income tax returns.

(c) Historical and current earnings shall be used to determine whether an underemployment or overemployment situation exists.

(6) Incarceration of at least six months may not be treated as voluntary unemployment by the office in establishing or modifying a support order.

(7) Gross income includes income imputed to the parent under Subsection (8).

(8)

(a) Income may not be imputed to a parent unless the parent stipulates to the amount imputed, the parent defaults, or, in contested cases, a hearing is held and the judge in a judicial proceeding or the presiding officer in an administrative proceeding enters findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.

(b) If income is imputed to a parent, the income shall be based upon employment potential and probable earnings considering, 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.

(c) If a parent has no recent work history or a parent’s occupation is unknown, that parent may be imputed an income at the federal minimum wage for a 40-hour work week. To impute a greater or lesser income, the judge in a judicial proceeding or the presiding officer in an administrative proceeding shall enter specific findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.

(d) Income may not be imputed if any of the following conditions exist and the condition is not of a temporary nature:

(i) the reasonable costs of child care for the parents’ minor children approach or equal the amount of income the custodial parent can earn;

(ii) a parent is physically or mentally unable to earn minimum wage;

(iii) a parent is engaged in career or occupational training to establish basic job skills; or

(iv) unusual emotional or physical needs of a child require the custodial parent’s presence in the home.

(emphasis added)

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https://www.quora.com/What-can-I-do-to-protect-my-rights-if-my-ex-husband-wants-to-pay-less-child-support-by-just-saying-he-makes-less-money-last-year-without-actual-proofs-Can-I-make-him-provide-his-income-and-bank-statements-every

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How Does a Parent Avoid Paying Child Support if His/Her Employer Garnishes Their Paycheck for It?

They don’t.*

They don’t because their employer automatically garnishes child support from the parent’s paycheck.

The only way to prevent their employer from garnishing child support from their paycheck is by not getting a paycheck from the employer.

Indeed, this is what many parents whose paychecks are garnished for child support payments realize, and if such parents don’t want their paychecks garnished any longer, some of them quit their job with that employer and then try to find a job where they can keep the fact that they owe child support a secret, so that their paychecks are not garnished for the payment of child support.

*So, as you can see, not exactly.

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Do I Need a Lawyer for Child Support Hearing?

If you’re smart, yes.

If you’re cautious, yes.

If you’re not penny wise and pound foolish, yes.

Why? The law and the legal system are not intuitive. Courts are generally not that patient, friendly, or all that sympathetic with people either. If you think that you can simply go to court for a friendly chat and that you “reason” with the opposing side’s lawyer and/or the court, think again. People who are not lawyers and who try to handle legal matters without a lawyer’s representation almost always regret it, whether immediately or over the long term. Child support is no exception.

Divorce and family law lawyers exist and make money because what they know about the law how to navigate the legal system has value to those who don’t work within the legal system. In other words, the cost of a good lawyer is greater than the savings (or costs, if you will) of going it alone. Yes, there are many divorce and family lawyers who are incompetent and/or cheats. They are useless—often worse than useless—and they are to be avoided like the plague (take care in vetting who your lawyer will be). But a knowledgeable, skilled, diligent lawyer is worth the fees he/she charges.

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https://www.quora.com/Do-I-need-a-lawyer-for-child-support-hearing/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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What Happens When Someone Refuses to Pay Child Support?

I cannot answer this question for all jurisdictions, but I can tell you how the law applies in the jurisdiction where I practice divorce and family law (Utah).

Many things can happen. What follows is not an exhaustive list of consequences of not paying child support, but it’s a pretty good one just the same. Not paying child support as court-ordered can result in:

  • damage to your negative credit score/reports
  • judgments can be issued for the unpaid amount of child support, which judgment can be collected by various means, including
    • garnishing wages to collect arrearages (“arrearage” means an amount of money owed that is past due for payment);
    • garnishing funds in your bank or other financial accounts;
    • additionally, the judgment can include interest on the unpaid judgment amount and the costs of collection, if any.
  • the delinquent child support obligor (an “obligor” is a person obligated to make payments) being held in contempt of court and then penalized (also known as “sanctioned”) for noncompliance with the court order. Those sanctions can include:
    • a fine not exceeding $1,000;
    • incarceration in the county jail for up to 30 days; or
    • both a fine not exceeding $1,000 and incarceration in the county jail for up to 30 days
    • an award of attorney’s fees in favor of the prevailing party against the party who is found in contempt,
    • having one’s licenses revoked until the child support arrearages are fully paid. Which licenses, you may ask?:
      • driver’s license
      • professional license(s)
      • hunting, fishing, and other recreational licenses
  • the delinquent obligor being criminally prosecuted for what is known as “criminal nonsupport”
  • the Office of Recovery Services can:
    • intercept the delinquent obligor’s state and/or federal income tax refunds;
    • cause use of the delinquent obligor’s passport to be suspended or cause it to be revoked until the arrearages are paid.
  • liens can be issued against your vehicle or other kinds of property.

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

https://www.quora.com/What-happens-when-someone-refuses-to-pay-child-support/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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My question to Utah Office of Recovery Services (ORS):

Good morning, 

I am a divorce and child custody lawyer. I have a question that all of my clients ask me that I don’t have the answer to: 

“Why does ORS and/or the court need my child’s Social Security Number in a child support case? I can see why they would need the Social Security Numbers for both parents, but why for the kids?” 

It’s a good question. Do you know the answer why (other than “it’s in the rules”), and if you don’t, can you point me in the direction of who knows the answer? 

We are unable to answer this question on behalf of the courts, but can provide you some of the reasons why ORS needs a child’s Social Security Number.  

When ORS establishes legal paternity for a child, we are required to report the paternity establishment to vital records, and this process requires the child’s Social Security Number to be sent with the child’s other information (name, date of birth, etc.).  On the enforcement side, ORS is required to enforce medical insurance in conjunction with enforcing child support.  As part of this process we send the parent’s employer the National Medical Support Notice ordering the child to be enrolled in insurance. The form includes the child’s Social Security Number, because it is required to enroll the child in insurance. This is a federal form all child support agencies are required to use.   

Thank you for your time and email. 

Customer Service 

Office of Recovery Services 

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

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How should the child support payment system in the U.S. be changed?

How should the child support payment system in the U.S. be changed to make it more fair? 

What is unfair about child support for the child support payor (also known as the child support obligor): 

  • tying child support to the number of overnights the child spends in the custody of a parent entices many parents to seek being awarded as many overnights as possible, thereby ensuring that the one receiving child support receives as much as possible or ensuring that the one who pays child support pays as little as possible. Even when the child would benefit from being in the joint (or even joint equal) physical custody of the parents, many parents try to seek sole or primary physical custody awards simply to gain the child support calculation process. 
  • child support recipients (also known as the child support payees or obligees) who use child support money for the their own personal expenses and not for the child’s actual support.  
  • lack of accountability on the part of the child support recipient for how the child support monies are spent, to ensure that the monies are being spent on the financial support of the child, as opposed to the personal expenses of the child support recipient. 
  • child support calculation formulae that are not commensurate with the child’s actual financial needs, i.e., orders that someone has to pay more money each month (in some cases substantially more money) than is necessary to meet the child needs. 
  • child support awards that “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs” by requiring such a high amount of child support be paid that the child support payor cannot meet his/her own basic monthly costs of living. 

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

https://www.quora.com/How-should-the-child-support-payment-system-in-the-U-S-be-changed-to-make-it-more-fair/answer/Eric-Johnson-311 

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Our agreement says no child support, can my ex ask for it anyway?

Can my ex ask for child support? I have a 50/50 custody and no child support divorce agreement, but his mother alienated him against me and now he refuses to visit me. The kid is 16 years old. 

I cannot speak for all jurisdictions, obviously, because 1) I do not know the law in every jurisdiction and 2) I am not licensed to practice law in every jurisdiction, but I can tell you what I know and what I’ve experienced in the jurisdiction where I practice divorce and family law (Utah). 

SHORT ANSWER: Possibly. Likely. 

LONG, MORE EXPLANATORY ANSWER: The scenario is as follows: 

  • the court has made a certain child custody and parent-time award 
  • but the child refuses too comply with the court-ordered child custody and parent time schedule, and spends all of his/her time living with one parent and refuses to spend any time in the care and custody of the other parent 

The questions are : 1) can the fact that the child has, in essence, create a de facto sole custody arrangement, and if so, 2) can that de facto sole custody arrangement result in the de facto noncustodial parent being forced to pay child support to the de facto custodial parent, even though that parent’s de facto noncustodial status is in no way that parent’s fault? 

The answer is: 1) yes, it can (it’s not inevitable, but it can happen), and 2) yes, it can (it’s not inevitable, but it can happen).  

Why? Before I address that question, let’s discuss a bit of child support policy. 

  • Some would argue that the purpose of the child support payment obligation is to ensure that each parent has sufficient funds to provide for the child’s financial needs and maintain a lifestyle commensurate with the parents combined earnings.  
    • So if one parent has a lower income than the other parent, the court will order the more affluent parent to pay the other parent some money to help the less affluent parent maintain the lifestyle that the child ostensibly enjoys when in the care and custody of the more affluent parent. It’s not the only way to craft child support policy, but it’s a reasonable way.  
    • Courts that subscribe to this way of thinking then argue that if a child refuses to comply with, say, a joint physical custody award (resulting in only one parent being burdened with fully or primarily having to shelter, feed, clothe, educate, and entertain the child), it would thus be unfair to burden the de facto primary or sole custodial parent with all the financial burdens associated with the child’s needs.  
    • The other parent, so the thinking goes, needs to pay his/her “fair share” of the child’s financial support needs. When children spend time in the care and custody of both parents, then the financial support burdens are divided between both parents. That make sense. That’s patently fair.  
    • When the child spends all of his/her time in the care and custody of just one parent, then it would be unfair for that parent to be solely responsible for the child’s financial support. If courts followed such a policy, then it is feared that as a means of avoiding the financial obligations of child support, parents would fight to ensure that only one parent has sole or primary custody of the child. 

So even when a court-ordered joint custodial parent has, through no fault of his/her own, been rendered a de facto noncustodial parent by the child refusing to comply with the court’s custody order, many courts (many, not all) might react to this situation by 1) modifying the child custody order to reflect the de facto situation; and 2) consequently modifying the child support award.  

Some courts may take a different approach in such a situation, although such an approach is, in my experience less common. That approach would be based on the idea that children don’t have the power to dictate child custody and parent time schedules to the court; therefore, if a child refuses to comply with the court’s child custody and parent time orders, the court is not going to punish the innocent de facto noncustodial parent. But you can see why such an approach leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many people, not leastwise the de facto custodial parent. 

If the parent in the de facto custodial parent position can prove that he/she did not compel or induce the child to refuse to comply with the court’s custody and parent time orders, that parent could certainly argue that he/she is innocent too, and should not be punished for the circumstances created by a noncompliant child.  

Which raises the next question (and brings the discussion full circle): why not have the court compel the child to comply with its child custody and parent time orders? I have addressed that question on Quora.com many times, but most recently in response to these two questions here:  

https://www.quora.com/Teenager-Child-16-refuses-to-see-me-after-spending-a-month-with-my-ex-I-have-50-custody-What-can-I-do-about-it-Im-a-stricter-parent-unlinke-my-ex-who-lets-him-play-computer-games-all-day-and-night 

and here:  

https://www.quora.com/What-will-happen-if-the-court-ruled-in-favor-of-a-mother-to-have-the-custody-of-her-child-but-the-child-refuses-to-go-with-her-and-she-prefers-to-stay-with-the-father 

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

https://www.quora.com/Can-my-ex-ask-for-child-support-I-have-a-50-50-custody-and-no-child-support-divorce-agreement-but-his-mother-alienated-him-against-me-and-now-he-refuses-to-visit-me-The-kid-is-16-years-old/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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