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Category: Contempt of Court

Your Divorce Lawyer is Serious About Deadlines By Braxton Mounteer, Legal Assistant

Throughout the divorce process you will have to meet many deadlines.

The court will even provide you with a list of due dates known as a notice of event due dates. If your lawyer does not provide you with a copy, ask for a copy, so that you know the deadlines for yourself.

The consequences for failing to meet the deadlines set by the court and the rules of court in your case can be damaging, even fatal to your case.

When a petition for divorce is filed and served, there is a deadline by which you must file and serve responsive pleadings, meaning your answer or answer and counterclaim. If you don’t respond by the set deadline, default judgment could be entered against you.

If you do not complete discovery or provide your initial disclosures by the deadlines, you may be barred from gathering or presenting evidence or witnesses at trial.

What about extensions of time? You might get an extension on a deadline if you have a legitimate reason to ask for one and if the opposing party agrees to grant you an extension or the court grants your request for an extension. Be careful when asking for extensions, however. If you get an extension on one deadline, the opposing party will almost surely expect a favor from you too in the future.

You are better off (and better for it) by religiously adhering to deadlines. Complying with the deadlines set by the court and the rules of court results in the fewest errors and setbacks and in the fairest and most equitable treatment from the court. And that results in your greatest changes of success.

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

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

Elder v. Elder – 2024 UT App 68

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

Opinion No. 20210902-CA Filed May 9, 2024

Second District Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable David M. Connors No. 154700355

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

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

TENNEY, Judge:

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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What Would Happen if One Parent Does Not Bring Their Child for a Utah Court-Ordered Custody Exchange?

First, we need to learn and understand the term for violating a court order. That term is “contempt of court.” In Utah, one commits contempt of court in a civil proceeding (like a child custody case in a divorce or between unwed parents) if, and only if, all of the following criteria are met:

As a general rule, in order to prove contempt for failure to comply with a court order it must be shown that the person cited for contempt knew what was required, had the ability to comply, and intentionally failed or refused to do so. The district court must make explicit findings, whether written or transcribed, on the three elements of contempt. In a civil contempt proceeding, those elements must be proved by clear and convincing evidence.

(Koehler v. Allen, 466 P.3d 738, 2020 UT App 73 (Court of Appeals of Utah))

So, if the parent did not meet for the child custody or visitation/parent-time exchange because his/her car was out of commission or because the flight home was delayed for weather or because he/she was in a coma (you get the idea), then that parent couldn’t be held in contempt because a) that parent did not have the ability to comply (at least at that time), and b) did not intentionally fail or refuse to comply with the court’s order, that parent cannot be held in contempt.

If the parent could comply with the order and intentionally violated the order, that parent can be held in contempt.

To hold a parent in contempt, you would need to file a motion to hold the parent in contempt. You could move for (but are not required to move for) sanctions against the parent for his/her contemptuous actions. Here is where you can find the forms for this, if you want to file them yourself, instead of retaining the services of an attorney to file and prosecute the motion for you (warning: rarely do people who aren’t attorneys fill out, file, and serve these forms correctly, and oftentimes a winning motion is lost because of it):

Motion to Enforce Order (utcourts.gov)

What kinds of sanctions can the court impose for contempt of court for noncompliance with the child custody and parent-time orders?

See Utah Code Section 78B-6-316:

Utah Code § 78B-6-316.  Compensatory service for violation of parent-time order or failure to pay child support.

(1) As used in this section, “obligor” means the same as that term is defined in Section 81-6-101.

(2) If a court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that a parent has refused to comply with the minimum amount of parent-time ordered in a decree of divorce, the court shall order the parent to:

(a) perform a minimum of 10 hours of compensatory service; and

(b) participate in workshops, classes, or individual counseling to educate the parent about the importance of complying with the court order and providing a child a continuing relationship with both parents.

(3) If a custodial parent is ordered to perform compensatory service or undergo court-ordered education, there is a rebuttable presumption that the noncustodial parent be granted parent-time by the court to provide child care during the time the custodial parent is complying with compensatory service or education in order to recompense him for parent-time wrongfully denied by the custodial parent under the divorce decree.

(4) If a noncustodial parent is ordered to perform compensatory service or undergo court-ordered education, the court shall attempt to schedule the compensatory service or education at times that will not interfere with the noncustodial parent’s parent-time with the child.

(5) The person ordered to participate in court-ordered education is responsible for expenses of workshops, classes, and individual counseling.

(6) If a court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that an obligor has refused to pay child support as ordered by a court in accordance with Title 81, Chapter 6, Child Support, the court shall order the obligor to:

(a) perform a minimum of 10 hours of compensatory service; and

(b) participate in workshops, classes, or individual counseling to educate the obligor about the importance of complying with the court order and providing the children with a regular and stable source of support.

(7) The obligor is responsible for the expenses of workshops, classes, and individual counseling ordered by the court.

(8) If a court orders an obligor to perform compensatory service or undergo court-ordered education, the court shall attempt to schedule the compensatory service or education at times that will not interfere with the obligor’s parent-time with the child.

(9) The sanctions that the court shall impose under this section do not prevent the court from imposing other sanctions or prevent any person from bringing a cause of action allowed under state or federal law.

(10) The Legislature shall allocate the money from the Children’s Legal Defense Account to the judiciary to defray the cost of enforcing and administering this section.

What else can the court order?

See Utah Code Section 78B-6-310:

Utah Code § 78B-6-310.  Contempt — Action by court.

(1) The court shall determine whether the person proceeded against is guilty of the contempt charged. If the court finds the person is guilty of the contempt, the court may impose a fine not exceeding $1,000, order the person incarcerated in the county jail not exceeding 30 days, or both. However, a justice court judge or court commissioner may punish for contempt by a fine not to exceed $500 or by incarceration for five days or both.

(2) A fine imposed under this section is subject to the limitations of Subsection 76-3-301(2).

And you can ask for the court to award you the fees and court costs you incurred in having to prepare and prosecute the motion to enforce the domestic relations order and for sanctions as well.

Should I call the police?

Whether to call the police depends on the circumstances, but generally, I discourage calls to the police simply because a parent refuses to obey a court order to meet to exchange custody of the children. If there is real concern (real concern) that a parent has absconded with or kidnapped a child, a call to the police is more than warranted, but calling the police in the hope that they will coerce or intimidate a parent into complying with the custody exchange orders usually doesn’t work and often makes you (if you call the police) look spiteful. And it upsets the police (they feel they have much better things to do than respond to calls of noncompliance with child custody exchange orders). Better to report the noncompliance to the police by calling them, reporting the noncompliance with a brief description of what happened, and asking the police department to make a record and give you the incident number for the report. That way, when you move to hold the contemptuous parent in contempt, you have proof that you were complying at your end and did complain to the police about it.

But I thought that noncompliance with child custody and parent-time orders is a crime.

In Utah, it is a crime (see Utah Code Section 76-5-303 (Custodial Interference)), but with extraordinarily rare exception, law enforcement officers simply refuse to enforce it. I’ve never witnessed anyone being arrested or even cited for it. Better to report the noncompliance to the police by calling them, reporting the noncompliance with a brief description of what happened, and asking the police department to make a record and give you the incident number for the report. That way, when you move to hold the contemptuous parent in contempt, you have proof that you were complying at your end and did complain to the police about it. That way you have documented the noncompliance and your reasonable efforts to enforce it to the extent that the police are willing to do anything connected with enforcement (which is, admittedly very little).

What if this is a chronic problem (the other parent repeatedly doesn’t show up for exchanges)?

If the other parent is shamelessly flouting the custody and parent-time exchange orders, and if you have a long enough history you can prove (and you can prove the no-shows are intentional), that could, if it’s egregious enough, constitute a basis for a modification of the child parent-time and/or child custody awards themselves. If you can prove that the chronic noncompliance constitutes “a substantial and material change in the circumstances upon which custody was awarded” and “that a modification is in the best interests of the child,” to remedy the problems being caused by these substantial and material change in the circumstances (See Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 22, 989 P.2d 491), you might prevail on such a petition.

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

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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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What happens if the respondent does not show up in family court?

Like winning the lottery, it does happen, but not very often. Parties rarely fail to appear for proceedings in family court. But if and when they do, the court can respond in different ways.

Now, if a party does not appear due to circumstances beyond his/her control, the court will almost certainly be lenient with that party.

If, however, a party simply forgets to appear, doesn’t care to appear, or deliberately chooses not to appear, then depending upon what kind of proceeding the party failed to attend, the court could re-schedule the proceeding or, in some cases, enter default judgment against the party who failed to appear (default judgment means, in this situation, that judgment was entered against the party who failed to appear by default–because the party did not appear).

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

https://www.quora.com/What-happens-if-the-respondent-does-not-show-up-in-family-court/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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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.

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

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Some hard truths about divorce litigation in Utah.

To those of you who ask, “How did I lose that argument in my divorce case? The judge couldn’t say why he/she believed my witness(es) over my spouse’s witness(es)!”:

A district court “may make findings, credibility determinations, or other assessments without detailing its justification for finding particular evidence more credible or persuasive than other evidence supporting a different outcome.” Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 6, 406 P.3d 258 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 412 P.3d 1257 (Utah 2018).

To those of you who ask, “How could the court dismiss the opinions of my expert witness?”:

“Courts are not bound to accept the testimony of an expert and are free to judge the expert testimony as to its credibility and its persuasive influence in light of all of the other evidence in the case.” Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 4, 334 P.3d 994 (quotation simplified).

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

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Lawyers and Deadlines. By Braxton Mounteer

You have just received an email from your lawyer about a deadline that your lawyer needs your help to meet. What should you do? You are already extremely busy with your life and its responsibilities. You don’t need or have time for “homework” on top of everything else. You are paying your lawyer a substantial amount of money, why isn’t he or she handling all of this for you? The answer is simple: your lawyer cannot do what only you can do. 

Litigation is deadline driven. The rules of court set deadlines for when certain  exhibits, arguments, requests, claims, and responses must be served on the opposing party and/or filed with the court. Miss the deadline and you risk having those exhibits, arguments, requests, claims, and responses rejected. You could have critical evidence that could help win the day but if you miss the submission deadline, it won’t matter.

You could be subject to certain penalties under the law including contempt of court, awarding of all undisclosed assets to the other party, and being required to provide support beyond your means.

Ignoring deadlines won’t make them go away. Nor will it extend them. Procrastinate until the 11th hour, and you’re all but assured that your and your attorney’s work product will be rushed, incomplete, inferior, and weak.

Sometimes you can request an extension of time, but extensions are not guaranteed. Did you miss this deadline because of forces out of your control or did you just forget? You had better be ready to prove you have a good reason for an extension.

Meeting deadlines is of crucial importance. Your case’s success depends on it.

Deadlines are not “suggestions” and the work due by the deadlines is not busywork you can ignore without risking serious damage to your case or outright doing your case serious damage.

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Are some cases out there where the counsel has lied to his or her client?

Lawyers’ reputation for lying is, unfortunately, well-founded. There is a Bosnian proverb, “He who will lie for you will lie to you.” Lawyers who lie for their clients (and there are plenty of them) have surely lied to their clients too.

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

https://www.quora.com/Are-some-cases-out-there-where-the-counsel-has-lied-to-his-or-her-client

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Last Week, My Ex Came Into Family Court Smelling of Pot but Still the Judge Favors Her Over Me. What Can I Do?

Does your jurisdiction permit people to make use of marijuana recreationally? Or to make use of it with a doctor’s prescription or a “medical marijuana card”? If so, then smelling of marijuana may not be enough to cause a court concern.

Otherwise, did you bring your ex smelling of marijuana to the court’s attention? You certainly could have. If you have another court hearing or other appearance coming up, and if your ex shows up smelling of marijuana again, you can certainly speak up and express your concern that your ex may be making illegal use of marijuana and/or abusing marijuana.

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

https://www.quora.com/The-father-of-my-child-has-visitation-rights-ordered-by-court-yet-he-will-be-in-a-different-state-during-his-visitation-time-but-wants-his-aunt-to-take-over-do-I-have-to-allow-his-aunt-visitation-while-he-s-on

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From Pro Publica: Barricaded Siblings Turn to TikTok While Defying Court Order to Return to Father They Say Abused Them

There is far more to this story than the headline reveals.

From Pro Publica: Barricaded Siblings Turn to TikTok While Defying Court Order to Return to Father They Say Abused Them

https://www.propublica.org/article/parental-alienation-utah-livestream-siblings#:~:text=Two%20siblings%20in%20Utah%20have,had%20sexually%20abused%20the%20children

Is there any question whether the court would benefit from hearing testimony from these kids? Even if, arguendo, the court were to discover these kids are liars?

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

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Child refuses to exercise shared custody with the stricter parent

Teenager Child (16) refuses to see me after spending a month with my ex. I have 50% custody. What can I do about it? I’m a stricter parent unlike my ex who lets him play computer games all day and night.

Each jurisdiction may have different laws and rules governing a situation like yours, but I will answer your question as it applies to the state of Utah in my experience as a divorce and family lawyer.

Many people believe that at a certain age a minor child has the “right” in Utah to choose with which parent he/she will reside. Not true. Unless a court orders that a minor child has such a right, no such legal right independently exists.

But then there’s life in the real world, which shows us just how far a court’s power to enforce a child custody award order reaches. As a practical matter, if a child is big and strong and strong-willed enough to refuse to comply with the child custody order, there is little a court can do or will do to compel a child to comply.

Thus, trying to enforce a child custody and parent-time award by enlisting the help of the court is usually fruitless.

It’s maddening when a child is too young and immature to understand that living with the irresponsible, excessively permissive, and/or absentee parent is doing that child more harm than good. Unfortunately, unless the child does something or some things bad enough to land him/her in juvenile detention, a court can’t really force the child to live anywhere.

As I stated in answer to a question similar to yours: some courts try to get creative and impose sanctions on a noncompliant child by essentially ordering them “grounded”, but again, if the child chooses not to comply, there is little the court can do or feels is wise to do to the child. I’ve seen a court try to get a child to comply by ordering her barred from participating in her beloved dance classes and driver education courses (so that she can’t get her driver license unless she lives with the court ordered custodial parent) as long as the child refused to live with the court-ordered custodial parent. In that case, however, the child outlasted the court, i.e., she kept living with the noncustodial parent and stopped attending dance and driver’s ed. classes. Then the court found itself in the awkward position of preventing the child from getting exercise and driving to and from her job and other worthwhile, even necessary activities, so the court relented (both in the best interest of the child and to save face). This is a lesson that most courts learn when they try to use the coercive powers of the court against children to enforce child custody orders.

Besides, even if you could force a child to live with you or spend time with you as court-ordered, a child who is forced to do much of anything is only going to resent it and resent you for making him/her do it.

The only viable option you have is to be the most effective parent you can. That doesn’t mean abandoning good parental practices, but it may mean adjusting your approach from a “good” and “reasonable” one to an approach that entails necessary parental care and supervision that fosters love and affection, an approach that still holds children accountable, without estranging them.

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

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/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Are financial interrogatories relevant in my contempt case? 

Are financial interrogatories relevant in my contempt case against my sister for violating my visitation order? 

While I’m sure something seeming like an argument could be made for their relevance, it’s hard to imagine such an argument or to imagine that such an argument would hold any water. 

A fact is relevant if it: (a) has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and (b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action. 

Unless your sister can show that your income, financial obligations, and business and/or personal expenses are somehow more or less likely to prove the allegations that you violated a visitation order, inquiries into your facts pertaining to your finances are clearly not relevant.  

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

https://www.quora.com/Are-financial-interrogatories-relevant-in-my-contempt-case-against-my-sister-for-violating-my-visitation-order/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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What to do when child won’t comply with the custody award?

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?

This situation (and this question) comes up a lot. I will answer the question as it applies in my experience to the jurisdiction where I practice divorce and family law (Utah).

SHORT ANSWER: The general rule of thumb is that if the child is a teenager and has the guts and the will to defy the court’s custody orders, then that child is going to live with the parent with whom he or she wants to live because the court is essentially powerless to force the child to comply with the child custody order, i.e., the court finds it more trouble than it is worth to enforce a child custody order against a defiant teen.

LONGER ANSWER:

Technically, the child has no choice in the matter, once the court has issued its child custody ruling and resulting orders. In other words, just because somebody doesn’t want to follow court orders doesn’t mean that he or she is free to disregard them or to act as a law unto himself or herself. This proves to be true of court orders pertaining to adults. Child custody orders, and the children affected by them, however, are in reality a different matter.

In the law we have two terms that help to describe the situation: de jure and de factoDe jure means that which is which applies as a matter of law. For example, as a matter of law, your child is ordered to spend most of his/her time in the custody of mother, with the father spending time the child on alternating weekends and a few odd holidays. De facto means that which is or that which applies as a matter of fact (in reality, and not as the court may artificially require). So while as a matter of law your child is required to live with mother, if in reality (as a matter of “fact”—this is where the “facto” in “de facto” comes from) the child refuses to live with mother and stays at the father’s house, that is the de facto child custody situation.

When A) the de jure and de facto situations conflict in a child custody situation, and B) the child is old enough, strong enough, and willful enough to continue to the court’s custody orders, the court often (not always, but usually) feels that they are practicably powerless to force children to live with a parent with whom they do not wish to live.

Normally, when an adult will not comply with the court’s order, One of the tools a court can use to enforce compliance is its contempt powers. Those powers include finding and jailing the noncompliant person. But with children, that power is, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. Children usually have no money with which to pay a fine, and Utah does not allow courts to jail minors for mere contempt of court.

Some courts try to get creative and impose sanctions on a noncompliant child by essentially ordering them “grounded”, but again, if the child chooses not to comply, there is little the court can do or feels is wise to do to the child. I’ve seen a court try to get a child to comply by ordering her barred from participating in her beloved dance classes and driver education courses (so that she can’t get her driver license unless she lives with the court ordered custodial parent) as long as the child refused to live with the court-ordered custodial parent. In that case, however, the child outlasted the court, i.e., she kept living with the noncustodial parent and stopped attending dance and driver’s ed. classes. Then the court found itself in the awkward position of preventing the child from getting exercise and driving to and from her job and other worthwhile, even necessary activities, so the court relented (both in the best interest of the child and to save face). This is a lesson that most courts learn when they try to use the coercive powers of the court against children to enforce child custody orders.

Courts don’t want to dedicate their own resources and law enforcement resources to 1) literally dragging a child out of one parent’s home and literally stuffing the child into some other home; and 2) doing so repeatedly when the child refuses to stay put. It’s a waste of law enforcement resources and the fear is the child will eventually run away (and act out in other self-destructive and dangerous ways), if not allowed to live with the parent of his/her choosing.

And courts don’t want to punish a parent for the misconduct of a child. Some courts have tried to punish noncustodial parent by holding them responsible for their children’s noncompliance with the court orders, but that doesn’t work when the noncustodial parent truly isn’t at fault. Courts realize that a noncustodial parent cannot simply, for example, 1) push the child out the door, lock it behind the child, and wish the child well in subzero degree weather; or 2) manhandle the child into the custodial parent’s car, then be charged with child abuse. And punishing the noncustodial parent often only serves to lead the child to be more determined to defy court orders.

As you can imagine, a child’s “power” to choose where he/she lives usually does not arise until the child is old enough and strong enough and willful enough to exercise some degree of autonomy over which parent with whom he/she lives. That doesn’t usually happen until children reach approximately the age of 12 or 14, although some children may start younger. Children under that age are typically unable or too afraid to exert their own preferences and wills.

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

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/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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T.W. v. S.A. – 2021 UT App 132 – child custody

2021 UT App 132 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

T.W.,
Appellant,
v.
S.A.,
Appellee. 

Opinion 

No. 20200397-CA 

Filed November 26, 2021 

Third District Court, West Jordan Department 

The Honorable Dianna Gibson 

No. 134401457 

David Pedrazas, Attorney for Appellant
Laja K. M. Thompson, Attorney for Appellee 

JUDGE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN and SENIOR JUDGE KATE APPLEBY concurred. [22]  

HAGEN, Judge: 

¶1 T. W. (Father) appeals the district court’s custody order awarding S. A. (Mother) primary physical custody of their son (Child). In so doing, the court rejected the custody evaluator’s recommendation that Father be awarded primary physical custody. The court also scheduled parent-time in accordance with the minimum parent-time schedule in Utah Code section 30-3-35, as opposed to the optional increased parent-time schedule in section 30-3-35.1. Father argues each of these rulings was made in error. Because the court sufficiently supported the parent-time schedule it ordered as well as its rejection of the custody evaluator’s recommendation, we affirm. 

BACKGROUND [23]  

¶2 Father and Mother ended their relationship before Child’s birth. The following year, Father petitioned for custody. Father later moved to Grantsville, Utah to live with his now-wife and her children, along with Father’s other child from a prior relationship. Grantsville is approximately fifty miles from Sandy, Utah where Mother resides. 

¶3 Shortly after his move, Father requested a custody evaluation. The court-appointed custody evaluator initially recommended Mother be awarded primary physical custody, but at a trial on that issue, the parties stipulated to joint legal and physical custody, with each parent enjoying alternating weeks of equal parent-time. The stipulated terms were then set forth by the court in its parentage decree. At the time, the logistics of complying with an alternating week schedule were relatively easy because Child was not yet attending school. 

¶4 Around the time Child was to begin kindergarten, a dispute arose over whether Child would attend school near Mother’s home in Sandy or near Father’s home in Grantsville. Father moved for a temporary restraining order that would specify where Child would attend school. After a telephonic hearing, the court commissioner recommended that, for the time being, Child would attend school in Sandy pending an evidentiary hearing. 

¶5 Child had been attending school for several months when the evidentiary hearing was held in December. After conferring with counsel off the record, the court expressed “some concerns about the workability of [Child] residing in Grantsville and going to school in Sandy or residing in Sandy and going to . . . school in Grantsville.” The court reasoned that the alternating week schedule was unworkable, and the parties agreed that now that Child was in school “continuing the commute [was] not in [his] best interest.” The court ultimately found that “the commute from Sandy to Grantsville is approximately 50 miles and can take approximately 50 minutes, and sometimes more, in the morning” and, “[f]or various reasons, including road/weather conditions, [Child had] been late to or missed school.” Because the long commute was unworkable, the court recognized that the issue before it was “a much larger issue than just determining where [Child] goes to school”—it would require “a change in the parent-time arrangement” as well. To resolve both the parent-time arrangement and where Child would attend school in the future, the court set the matter for trial. 

¶6 Before trial, the custody evaluator submitted an updated report. The evaluator recommended that Father and Mother be awarded joint legal custody but that Child’s primary physical residence be with Father. The evaluator made this recommendation based on two considerations. First, he opined that Father was “in a more stable physical situation” than Mother because he owned his house and was “not likely to move,” whereas Mother “rent[ed] an apartment and ha[d] a history that raise[d] concern about her ability to maintain a consistent residence.” Second, he noted that Child had developed “positive and reciprocal relationship[s] with his [half-sibling and step-]siblings,” who resided with Father, and Child would “attend school with them as well as receive guidance and support from them academically, socially and emotionally.” 

¶7 During trial, Father introduced a letter from Child’s therapist explaining that Child had been diagnosed with an adjustment disorder caused by “a stressor in [his] life.” That letter further stated that Child was experiencing “significant impairment in social, occupational or other areas of functioning.” 

¶8 Mother testified about Child’s emotional and social challenges as well. She explained that Child’s school counselor had been helping him to make and keep friends and to learn “what’s acceptable social behavior” and “how to control [his] emotions in school.” Mother testified that although Child was “struggling with focus and attention in school” as well as “emotional outbursts,” he had “improved.” She recounted that Child “struggled with making friends in the beginning,” but was “finally making more” and by that time had friends at the school. Because Child “knows the school now” and “knows the people,” Mother did not “feel that [it would be] right” to “rip [him] away from [the progress he had made] and have him start all over in a new school.” Given that Child was “in therapy for adjustment disorder,” she believed that “[h]aving him switch schools would just exacerbate that [condition]. He again would have to adjust to a huge change in his life.” 

¶9 Mother also testified about her work schedule. She described how she had started her own business so her schedule would be “flexible” for Child, that she “make[s her] own schedule,” and that the reason she did this was “to be available to [Child] and his school needs and his extracurricular needs . . . so that [she could] revolve [her] work around [her] son.” Mother testified that she and Child have a regular daily routine with a set schedule for school, homework, extracurricular activities, playtime, and sleep when Child is residing at her home in Sandy. Mother asserted that requiring Child to commute to school from Grantsville “probably has at least something to do with [Child’s] activity in school,” that “he hates [the commute],” and that he is sometimes late to school because of “the weather” or “accidents on the freeways.” 

¶10 After considering the original evaluation, the updated evaluation, and the other evidence presented at trial, the court issued its custody order. It found that because of Child’s “current emotional and behavioral issues which [had] been diagnosed as an Adjustment Disorder with disturbance of conduct,” his “psychological and emotional” needs were the deciding factor and those needs would benefit from residing primarily with one parent. In support, the court found that Child “struggles in social settings” and has “behavioral issues,” “emotional outbursts,” and “difficulty making friends.” Moreover, “the commute is hard on [Child]” as he was “tired in school,” had “been late on several occasions,” and had even “missed school” because of the long commute. 

¶11 Having decided that it was in Child’s best interest to reside primarily with one parent, the court ruled that it was in Child’s best interest for Mother to be the primary custodial parent because Mother’s testimony was “credible and persuasive” regarding the negative impact a change in school would have on Child. The court found changing schools would require Child to “start all over—start at a new school, make new friends and re-adjust,” negatively affecting the progress he had made establishing friends. Moreover, Mother had the ability to provide the “maximum amount of parent-time with the maximum amount of flexibility,” and Mother had “established routines in the morning, evening, and with regard to homework and playtime.” 

¶12 In keeping with its custody determination, the court also ruled that, “solely” because of “the 100-mile round-trip commute,” the parent-time schedule of “every other week for five days in a row, was not in [Child’s] best interest,” and that the parent-time schedule would be altered in accordance with Utah Code section 30-3-35—Utah’s minimum parent-time schedule. The court ruled that “on alternating weekends, [Father] shall have parent-time from the time [Child’s] school is regularly dismissed on Friday until Sunday at 7 p.m.” Additionally, Father was awarded a mid-week overnight during which Father “pick[s] up [Child] after school, and [Mother] pick[s] up [Child] the next morning.” The court explained, “The new parent-time schedule is in the best interest of [Child]” because “it allows [him] to maximize his time with [Father] while eliminating the constant, back-to-back days of commuting.” 

¶13 After the court filed its custody order, Father filed a motion for new trial as well as a motion to amend the court’s findings. The court denied both motions. Father now appeals. 

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW 

¶14 Father challenges the district court’s custody order on two grounds. First, he alleges the court failed to articulate sufficient reasons for rejecting the custody evaluator’s recommendation to award him primary physical custody and that the court based its custody determination on an erroneous fact. Second, he alleges the court failed to make sufficient findings about why it did not award increased parent-time pursuant to Utah Code section 303-35.1. 

¶15 On appeal, we review the district court’s custody and parent-time determination for abuse of discretion. LeFevre v. Mackelprang, 2019 UT App 42, ¶ 17, 440 P.3d 874. This discretion is broad; indeed, as long as the court exercises it “within the confines of the legal standards we have set, and the facts and reasons for the decision are set forth fully in appropriate findings and conclusions, we will not disturb the resulting award.” Davis v. Davis, 749 P.2d 647, 648 (Utah 1988) (cleaned up). We review the court’s “underlying factual findings for clear error.” LeFevre, 2019 UT App 42, ¶ 17. “A finding is clearly erroneous only if the finding is without adequate evidentiary support or induced by an erroneous view of the law.” Id. (cleaned up). 

ANALYSIS 

  1. The Rejection of the Evaluator’s Recommendation

¶16 Father first challenges the district court’s decision to award primary physical custody to Mother. When determining custody, the court considers many statutorily defined factors, including “the parent’s demonstrated understanding of, responsiveness to, and ability to meet the developmental needs of the child, including the child’s . . . physical needs; . . . emotional needs; . . . [and] any other factor the court finds relevant.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2) (LexisNexis 2019).24 But the factors the court considers are “not on equal footing.” See Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. “Generally, it is within the trial court’s discretion to determine, based on the facts before it and within the confines set by the appellate courts, where a particular factor falls within the spectrum of relative importance and to accord each factor its appropriate weight.” Id. 

¶17 Although the district court has broad discretion to make custody determinations, it “must set forth written findings of fact and conclusions of law which specify the reasons for its custody decision.” Tucker v. Tucker, 910 P.2d 1209, 1215 (Utah 1996). The findings “must be sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.” K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 27, 414 P.3d 933 (cleaned up). The district court’s conclusions must demonstrate how the decree “follows logically from, and is supported by, the evidence,” Andrus v. Andrus, 2007 UT App 291, ¶ 17, 169 P.3d 754 (cleaned up), “link[ing] the evidence presented at trial to the child’s best interest and the ability of each parent to meet the child’s needs” whenever “custody is contested,” K.P.S., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 27. 

¶18 Father contends that the court failed to “articulate sufficient reasons as to why it rejected [the custody evaluator’s] recommendation[]” that Child should primarily reside with Father. “[A] district court is not bound to accept a custody evaluator’s recommendation,” but if it rejects such a “recommendation, the court is expected to articulate some reason for” doing so. R.B. v. L.B., 2014 UT App 270, ¶ 18, 339 P.3d 137. 

¶19 Here, the court sufficiently supported its rejection of the custody evaluator’s recommendation. The custody evaluator recommended that the court award primary physical custody of Child to Father for two reasons: (1) Father was in “a more stable physical situation” and “not likely to move,” and (2) Child had a “positive and reciprocal relationship with his siblings and [would] be able to attend school with them as well as receive guidance and support from them academically, socially and emotionally.” The court found the evaluation “very helpful” but did “not agree with the ultimate recommendation.” 

¶20 The court based its rejection of the custody evaluator’s recommendation on several factors. First, the court disagreed that Mother’s rental apartment was less stable than Father’s living situation because both Mother and Father had relocated multiple times in the last few years and both testified that they intended to stay in their current homes. Second, although the court agreed that keeping the siblings together “would be beneficial” to Child, the court did not “give this factor quite the weight” that the custody evaluator did, because Child had never “lived exclusively with his siblings” and their relationship was not the same as a relationship “between siblings who have been reared together prior to the separation between the parents.” 

¶21 The court also detailed how physical custody with Mother would better serve Child’s “psychological and emotional needs.” It found that Mother had “established routines” with Child “in the morning, evening, and with regard to homework and playtime.” She “lived a one[-]child-centered life” and indeed had “built her life around her son”; whereas, Father’s attention was divided among several children. Mother also enjoyed “flexible” self-employment that allowed her to personally provide care for Child, whereas Father’s work schedule was “less flexible” and would require surrogate care. 

¶22 The court further determined that it was not in Child’s best interest to change schools, which would be required if Father were awarded primary physical custody. The court emphasized the need for “consistency” and “routine” for Child, as he was exhibiting signs of being “under stress,” “struggle[d] in social settings,” and had “behavioral issues,” “emotional outbursts,” and “difficulty making friends.” In light of these factors, the court determined that “making too many changes all at once” would not be in Child’s best interest. Most notably, the court found Mother’s “testimony credible and persuasive regarding the impact a change of school would have on [Child], given his current condition and the Adjustment Disorder diagnosis.” Because Child had made significant progress “adjusting” to his current school and establishing friendships, the court found that requiring Child to “start all over—start at a new school, make new friends and re-adjust”—would “impact the progress” he had made and would not be in his best interest. Consequently, granting Father primary physical custody, which in turn would require Child to transfer to a school in Grantsville, was not in Child’s best interest. 

¶23 Father contends that the court erred because it rejected the custody evaluator’s “recommendation solely based on [an] ‘Adjustment Disorder with disturbance of conduct’ diagnosis” even though “at no[] time was there any testimony as to how [the diagnosis] affected the Child, and/or how it related to the Child’s relationship with each parent.” But the court did not rest its decision solely on the fact that Child had been diagnosed with adjustment disorder. Instead, it considered evidence that the disorder was caused by stress, that it manifested as behavioral and social impairments, and that introducing a change such as transferring schools would exacerbate these problems. Specifically, Father introduced a letter from Child’s therapist explaining that Child had been diagnosed with adjustment disorder caused by “a stressor in [his] life” and that he experienced “significant impairment in social, occupational or other areas of functioning.” Mother also gave extensive testimony regarding Child’s struggles with “focus,” “emotional outbursts,” and “making friends,” and she detailed the improvements he had made in those areas. She further testified that, in light of Child’s adjustment disorder diagnosis, “having him switch schools would just exacerbate that” condition and undo the progress he had made because it would require him to “start all over.” 

¶24 In sum, the evidence presented at trial sufficiently supports the court’s ruling that Child’s best interests, i.e., his “psychological, physical, and emotional” needs, were best met by Mother being awarded primary physical custody, “outweigh[ing] the factors favoring” a custody award in favor of Father. And the court’s careful evaluation of that evidence certainly “articulate[s] some reason” for rejecting the custody evaluator’s recommendation. See R.B. v. L.B., 2014 UT App 270, ¶ 18, 339 P.3d 137. Thus, the court acted within its discretion in rejecting the custody evaluator’s recommendation and awarding Mother primary physical custody. 

  1. The Parent-Time Schedule under Utah Code Section 30-3-35

¶25 Father also contends that the district court erred because it did not adopt the optional increased parent time schedule set forth under Utah Code section 30-3-35.1 without making sufficient findings. We disagree. 

¶26 “[D]istrict courts are generally afforded broad discretion to establish parent-time.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 16, 427 P.3d 1221 (cleaned up). When parents do not agree to a parent-time schedule, Utah Code section 30-3-35 prescribes a “default minimum amount” of “parent-time for the noncustodial parent,” unless “‘the court determines that Section 30-3-35.1 should apply’ or a parent can establish ‘that more or less parent-time should be awarded.’” Id. ¶¶ 5–6 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 303-34(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2017)); see also Utah Code Ann. § 30-335(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021)). Under that default minimum parent-time schedule, the noncustodial parent is entitled to time with the child on “one weekday evening and on alternating weekends, which include Friday and Saturday overnights.” Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 6. Thus, the noncustodial parent, at minimum, enjoys “two overnights in a typical two-week period.” LeFevre v. Mackelprang, 2019 UT App 42, ¶ 20, 440 P.3d 874. 

¶27 The court “may consider” an “optional parent-time schedule” set forth in Utah Code section 30-3-35.1(1)–(2), (6), which increases parent-time from two overnights to five overnights in every two-week period “by extending weekend overnights by one night, and affording one weeknight overnight each week.” See Id. ¶ 21; see also Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35.1(6) (LexisNexis 2019). The court may adopt the optional parent-time schedule when either (a) “the parties agree” or (b) “the noncustodial parent can demonstrate the presence of at least four factual circumstances.” LeFevre, 2019 UT App 42, ¶ 22 (cleaned up); see also Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35.1(2). 

¶28 But even if either of these two prerequisites is satisfied, the district court is not obligated to adopt the increased parent-time schedule.25 Under Utah Code section 30-3-35.1, the court “is authorized, but not required, to consider the optional increased parent-time schedule as described in the statute.” Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 13. The statute “provides legislatively established standards for the district court to apply in evaluating whether increased parent-time is warranted, and it eliminates the need for a district court to independently fashion an increased parent-time schedule by providing a detailed schedule for the court to modify or adopt.” Id. ¶ 16. But by providing “the district court with some guidance and tools for adopting increased parent-time schedules,” the legislature did not eliminate “the court’s discretion to apply those tools in the best interest of the child.” Id. To the contrary, the statutory language plainly indicates that the adoption of the increased schedule is permissive rather than mandatory. See id. 

29 Nonetheless, Father argues that once the court “considered” section 30-3-35.1, it was obligated to make findings articulating why it rejected the increased parent-time schedule suggested by the statute. In setting the parent-time schedule, the court largely adopted the minimum schedule set forth in section 30-3-35, except that it increased the weekday evening parent-time to a mid-week overnight. As a result, the only difference between the increased parent-time schedule under section 30-3-35.1 and the schedule actually ordered is an additional weekly Sunday overnight. Father contends that “the trial court should have addressed how it was in the best interest for [Child] to be returned home on Sunday as opposed to Monday morning for school.” 

¶30 But Father misunderstands the statutory scheme. When parents cannot agree to a parent-time schedule, section 30-3-35 provides a presumptive minimum, but the district court still retains discretion to award more time than the statute provides. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-34(1)–(2) (“[T]he court may . . . establish a parent-time schedule” but “the parent-time schedule as provided in Section[] 30-3-35 . . . shall be considered the minimum parent-time to which the noncustodial parent and the child shall be entitled.”). If the court orders more parent-time than the presumptive minimum, it may “independently fashion an increased parent-time schedule” under section 30-3-35, or it may adopt the “detailed schedule” set forth in section 30-3-35.1. See Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 16. In any event, in awarding parent-time, the court is simply required to “enter the reasons underlying [its] order.” See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-34(3). The statute does not require the court to articulate specific reasons for rejecting all other alternatives, such as an additional Sunday overnight that would necessitate another long commute to school every other Monday. 

¶31 In keeping with the statutory requirements, the court entered sufficient findings to support its parent-time award under section 30-3-35. The court ordered that “[Father] shall have parent-time pursuant to the guidelines established in Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35” and articulated its reasons for customizing that schedule to allow Father an additional mid-week overnight. The court explained that it was 

interested in maximizing [Father’s] time (along with his family) with [Child]. Section 30-3-35 permits a mid-week visit. It is in [Child’s] best interest to have a mid-week visit at [Father’s] home. [Child] will benefit from doing homework with [Father], [his stepmother,] and his siblings. And, because it is only one day a week, the impact of the commute will be minimized. The parties can determine which day works best for them and [Child]. 

The court concluded that “[t]he new parent-time schedule is in the best interest of [Child]—it allows [him] to maximize his time with [Father] while eliminating the constant, back-to-back days of commuting.” These findings adequately support the ordered parent-time schedule. 

CONCLUSION 

¶32 Custody and parent-time determinations “may frequently and of necessity require a choice between good and better.” Hogge v. Hogge, 649 P.2d 51, 55 (Utah 1982). The broad discretion we accord the district court “stems from the reality that in some cases the court must choose one custodian from two excellent parents.” Tucker v. Tucker, 910 P.2d 1209, 1214 (Utah 1996). That is precisely the situation the district court faced here. And “where analysis reveals that the best interests of the child would be served equally well with either parent,” we cannot say the “court has abused its discretion in awarding custody to one parent over another.” See id. at 1216. Because the district court sufficiently supported its rejection of the custody evaluator’s recommendation for primary custody and articulated the reasons for the parent-time schedule it adopted, we defer to the court’s sound judgment. Affirmed. 

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MacFarland v. MacFarland – 2021 UT App 58

021 UT App 58 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

BRUCE RAY MCFARLAND, Appellant and Cross-appellee, 
v. 
NICOLE S. MCFARLAND, Appellee and Cross-appellant. 

Opinion 

No. 20190541-CA 
Filed June 4, 2021 

Second District Court, Farmington Department 

The Honorable David J. Williams 

No. 084701533 

Jacob K. Cowdin and A. Douglas Anderson, Attorneys for Appellant and Cross-appellee 

Angilee K. Dakic and Ryan C. Gregerson Attorneys for Appellee and Cross-appellant 

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

HARRIS, Judge: 

¶1 Bruce Ray McFarland (Bruce) and Nicole S. McFarland (Nicole)1 divorced in 2009 pursuant to a stipulated divorce decree, but soon thereafter began to ignore many of the decree’s important provisions. However, neither party brought any matter to the attention of the district court for some eight years, until Bruce filed a petition to modify in 2017, and Nicole followed up with a request that the court hold Bruce in contempt. Both parties now appeal the court’s ruling on those requests and, for the reasons discussed herein, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings. 

BACKGROUND 
The Divorce Decree 

¶2 In 2008, after almost sixteen years of marriage, Bruce and Nicole separated, and Bruce filed a petition for divorce. Soon thereafter, the parties negotiated a resolution to the divorce proceedings, and filed papers memorializing their agreement. In February 2009, the court entered a decree of divorce (the Decree) that incorporated the parties’ stipulated agreement. With regard to alimony and the house in which they lived while they were married (the Home), the parties’ agreement was straightforward: Bruce was ordered to pay $1,700 per month in alimony to Nicole, beginning in November 2008 and continuing until Nicole “remarries, cohabits, dies, for a term equal to their marriage, or further order of the Court,” and Nicole was awarded the Home, including the obligation to make the mortgage payments. 

¶3 But the parties’ agreement regarding custody and child support was unusual. Bruce was to have overnight custody of the parties’ four children every week from Sunday evening until Friday morning, with the parties each enjoying weekend overnight custody on an alternating basis. During the modification proceedings at issue here, Nicole acknowledged that the arrangement entitled her to fewer than 30% of the overnights; indeed, the district court found that this arrangement resulted in Bruce having “24 overnights per month with the children,” leaving Nicole with just six, and neither party takes issue with that finding. But despite the fact that Bruce was awarded more than 70% of the overnights, see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.1(2)(a) (LexisNexis 2009) (defining “joint physical custody” as any arrangement in which “the child stays with each parent overnight for more than 30% of the year”), the parties labeled their arrangement “joint . . . physical custody,” perhaps because the arrangement contemplated that Nicole would pick the children up from school every day and care for them until eight o’clock p.m., at which point Bruce was to retrieve the children so that they could “stay with him overnight.” 

¶4 With regard to child support, the parties agreed to calculate the amount using the sole custody worksheet, even though they labeled their arrangement as joint custody, and agreed that Bruce—and not Nicole, notwithstanding the fact that Bruce had the lion’s share of the overnights—would be considered the “Obligor Parent” on the worksheet. Using these parameters, the parties agreed that Bruce would pay Nicole monthly child support equating to one-half of what the worksheet said Bruce would owe if he were the Obligor Parent, an amount the parties computed to be $739.73 per month at the time the Decree was entered, when all four children were still minors.2  

Post-Divorce Events and Conduct 

¶5 Soon after the court entered the Decree, both parties began to ignore many of its provisions. For instance, Nicole made no mortgage payments on the Home. And Bruce made only one alimony payment (in January 2009) and three child support payments (in December 2008, and January and February 2009), but after that made no payments of either kind. 

¶6 In addition, with Nicole’s permission, Bruce moved back into the Home in April 2009. After that point, although Bruce made no payments denominated as alimony or child support, he did resume paying the mortgage on the Home, a payment that happened to be $1,728 per month, only slightly more than Bruce’s alimony obligation. When Bruce first moved back in, he and Nicole lived separately for a time, but beginning in September 2009, and lasting until April 2010, Bruce and Nicole resumed cohabiting as a couple, which included sharing familial expenses and reinitiating sexual relations. It is not a matter of dispute in this case that, during that seven-month period, the parties were cohabiting, as that term is used in relevant statutes and case law. See Myers v. Myers, 2011 UT 65, ¶ 17, 266 P.3d 806 (identifying the “hallmarks of cohabitation, including participation in a relatively permanent sexual relationship akin to that generally existing between husband and wife and the sharing of the financial obligations surrounding the maintenance of the household” (quotation simplified)); see generally Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(10) (LexisNexis 2017) (stating that alimony “terminates upon establishment by the party paying alimony that the former spouse is cohabitating with another person”). 

¶7 In April 2010, Nicole enlisted in the military, and left Utah for basic training. Over the next seven years, Bruce resided in the Home with the children, and provided all necessary childcare and financial support, including making the monthly mortgage payments on the Home. Nicole served two tours of duty overseas with the military, and visited the children or took them on vacation periodically while on leave. But other than these short visits, Nicole exercised no custody or parent-time, and provided no significant financial support to the children. Eventually, in 2015, Nicole remarried. 

¶8 For the seven years following Nicole’s enlistment, both parties seemed content with their arrangement and, even though both were materially violating the terms of the Decree, neither filed so much as a single document with the court. In particular, neither party sought to modify the terms of the Decree, and neither party sought contempt sanctions against the other. 

The Post-Divorce Filings 

¶9 The parties’ tacit arrangement came to an end in 2017 when Bruce sought to refinance the Home. Because Nicole had been awarded the Home in the Decree, Bruce asked Nicole to deed him the Home to facilitate the refinance. Nicole refused to authorize the refinance unless Bruce paid her half the equity, asserting that she owned the Home and that any mortgage payments made by Bruce constituted “either rent or alimony payments” that he owed her. Then, in June 2017, Bruce filed a petition to modify, followed by a motion for temporary orders in February 2018, bringing three separate provisions of the Decree to the court’s attention. First, Bruce requested that alimony be terminated, dating back to 2009. Second, Bruce asked the court to modify the Decree to award him sole physical and legal custody of the two remaining minor children, and asked that he be awarded child support payments from Nicole going forward. And finally, Bruce asked the court to modify the Decree to award him the Home, alleging that he assumed the mortgage to avoid foreclosure because Nicole had “abandoned the property when she joined the military.” While the petition and motion for temporary orders were pending, Bruce completed a refinance of the Home, apparently finding a way to close the transaction without Nicole’s authorization. 

¶10 Nicole responded by filing two orders to show cause, asking the court to hold Bruce in contempt in three respects: 

(1) for failing to make alimony payments; (2) for failing to make child support payments; and (3) for occupying the Home and for refinancing it without her authorization. Nicole asked the court to enter judgment in her favor for alimony and child support arrears, as well as for “the amount that [Bruce] cashed out when he refinanced” the Home, and asked the court to order that she obtain immediate “use and possession” of the Home. 

¶11 After a hearing, a domestic relations commissioner certified a number of issues as ripe for an evidentiary hearing before the district court, including the following: (1) whether Bruce should be held in contempt for failing to pay alimony and, if so, the amount of arrears at issue; (2) whether Bruce should be held in contempt for failing to pay child support and, if so, the amount of arrears at issue; (3) whether Bruce should be held in contempt for refinancing the Home without Nicole’s consent; and (4) whether Bruce should be held in contempt for occupying and refusing to vacate the Home. All of the issues certified by the commissioner were framed as contempt or temporary order issues; the commissioner apparently did not envision that the hearing would be a final dispositive hearing on Bruce’s petition to modify. 

¶12 In anticipation of the evidentiary hearing before the district court, both parties filed papers outlining their positions. Citing section 30-3-5(10) of the then-applicable Utah Code, Bruce argued that he did not owe any alimony arrears because his obligation to pay alimony terminated in 2009 due to “the cohabitation relationship” that the two established when they moved back into the Home together. Citing Scott v. Scott, 2017 UT 66, ¶¶ 10, 26–27, 26 n.7, 423 P.3d 1275, Nicole argued in response that, under the applicable statute as interpreted by our supreme court, a party attempting to terminate alimony for cohabitation must file a motion or petition “during [the] alleged co-habitation.” 

¶13 Regarding child support, Bruce asserted that he should not be required to pay Nicole for any point after 2009, because the children had been almost entirely in his care since then. In particular, Bruce argued for the applicability of section 78B-12108 of the Utah Code, which provides that child support payments generally “follow the child,” and that changes in child support obligations can, under certain circumstances, occur “without the need to modify” the governing decree. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-108(1), (2) (LexisNexis 2017). Bruce’s arguments in the pretrial briefing were entirely defensive—that is, he asserted that he should not be required to make child support payments to Nicole after 2009, but at no point did he assert an entitlement to child support arrears from Nicole regarding any time period prior to the filing of his petition to modify. 

The Hearing and Subsequent Ruling 

¶14 At the ensuing evidentiary hearing, the court heard live testimony from Bruce, Nicole, Bruce’s father, and the parties’ adult daughter. At the conclusion of the evidence, the court took the matter under advisement, and asked the parties to submit written closing arguments in the form of post-trial briefs. 

¶15 In her closing brief, Nicole attempted to rebut Bruce’s cohabitation claim with two arguments. First, Nicole asserted that the governing statute, as interpreted in Scott, required Bruce to have requested termination of alimony during the period of cohabitation. Second, Nicole argued that, even if Bruce’s request was timely, no cohabitation occurred because Bruce, the payor spouse, did not qualify as “another person” within the meaning of the governing statute. See Utah Code Ann§ 30-3-5(10) (LexisNexis 2017) (stating that alimony terminates if “the former spouse is cohabitating with another person”). For his part, while he attempted to rebut all of Nicole’s claims, Bruce again made no affirmative claim to child support arrears running in his direction. 

¶16 A few weeks later, the court issued a written ruling. With regard to alimony, the court found Bruce in contempt for failing to make payments. First, the court concluded that the mortgage payments Bruce made were just that—mortgage payments on a house Bruce lived in—and could not be considered alimony, and it found that Bruce had not paid any alimony since 2009. Second, the court determined that, even if all of the hallmarks of cohabitation were present between September 2009 and April 2010, cohabitation had not occurred because “‘cohabitation’ does not include meeting the elements of cohabitation with the ex-spouse.” Accordingly, the court concluded that Bruce’s alimony obligation had not terminated in 2009 when the parties moved back in together, and that Bruce was in contempt for not paying alimony between 2009 and Nicole’s remarriage in 2015. Based on those findings, the court computed the alimony arrearage amount to be “$150,744.50 plus post-judgment interest,” and ordered Bruce to pay that amount. 

¶17 With regard to child support, the court found that Bruce was not in contempt. The court accepted Bruce’s argument that, pursuant to section 78B-12-108 of the Utah Code, the child support obligation was to follow the children, and concluded that, pursuant to subsection (2) of that statute, which the court found applicable, Bruce was relieved of his child support obligation dating back to 2009, even though he did not file a petition to modify until 2017. In addition, the court offered its view that, even if section 78B-12-108 were inapplicable, “it would not be equitable to require” Bruce to pay child support to Nicole for time periods in which he cared for the children. On those bases, the court determined that Bruce had no obligation to pay child support to Nicole after 2009. But the court did “not find that [Nicole] was required to pay child support payments to [Bruce] after leaving for military service,” noting that, in its view, Bruce had not made any such affirmative claim, and instead had raised only defensive claims regarding any obligations he might have to Nicole. 

¶18 With regard to the Home, the court declined to find Bruce in contempt for not vacating the Home, refusing to quitclaim it to Nicole, or refinancing it. However, the court made no ruling on altering the Decree’s provision that originally awarded the Home to Nicole, stating simply that Bruce “shall be allowed, on a temporary basis, to remain” in the Home “until the matter is brought forth and certified” by the commissioner as ripe for an evidentiary hearing. 

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW 

¶19  Both parties appeal the district court’s ruling, raising two main issues for our review. First, Bruce challenges the court’s determination that his alimony obligation was not terminated by cohabitation. In advancing this argument, Bruce relies entirely on Utah’s alimony statute, and asserts that the court’s interpretation of that statute was incorrect. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(10) (LexisNexis 2017) (stating that a payor spouse’s obligation “terminates upon establishment by the party paying alimony that the former spouse is cohabitating with another person”).3 “The proper interpretation and application of a statute is a question of law which we review for correctness . . . .” Veysey v. Veysey, 2014 UT App 264, ¶ 7, 339 P.3d 131 (quotation simplified). 

¶20 Next, both parties challenge the court’s child support rulings. Nicole takes issue with the court’s determination that Bruce did not owe her child support payments, pursuant to the terms of the Decree, after 2009. And Bruce asserts that the court erred by declining to order Nicole to pay child support arrears to him. Because the parties’ arguments center on interpretation and application of section 78B-12-108 of the Utah Code (Section 108), we review the district court’s decision for correctness. See Veysey, 2014 UT App 264, ¶ 7.4 

ANALYSIS 
I. Alimony 

¶21 We first address Bruce’s claim that his alimony obligation terminated by operation of statute when the parties cohabited in 2009 and 2010. Because Bruce’s position is directly foreclosed by our supreme court’s decision in Scott v. Scott, 2017 UT 66, 423 P.3d 1275, we reject his challenge to the district court’s ruling. 

¶22 At all relevant times during the events precipitating this appeal, Utah’s alimony statute provided that alimony obligations “to a former spouse terminate[] upon establishment by the party paying alimony that the former spouse is cohabitating with another person.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(10) (LexisNexis 2017) (emphasis added).5 In Scott, our supreme court was asked to interpret the same version of this statute. See 2017 UT 66, ¶ 3. After noting the statute’s use of present tense language—“is cohabitating”—the court interpreted the statute as requiring “the paying spouse to establish that the former spouse is cohabiting at the time the paying spouse files the motion to terminate alimony.” See id. ¶¶ 23, 33. While the Scott opinion was not published until 2017, the statutory language the court was interpreting in that case had been in effect at all times relevant to this case. See supra note 5. That is, Scott did not introduce a new rule that was effective only prospectively; rather, it provided an interpretation of statutory text that had already been in effect for several years. See DIRECTV, Inc. v. Imburgia, 577 U.S. 47, 56 (2015) (“[J]udicial construction of a statute ordinarily applies retroactively.”); see also Rivers v. Roadway Express, Inc., 511 U.S. 298, 311–12 (1994) (stating that “the principle that statutes operate only prospectively, while judicial decisions operate retrospectively, is familiar to every law student” (quotation simplified)). 

¶23 Under the circumstances presented in this case, any cohabitation between Bruce and Nicole ceased sometime in early 2010. But Bruce did not file his petition to modify until 2017. It is therefore undisputed that the cohabitation to which Bruce points had long since ceased by the time he filed his petition to modify. Thus, under the statute then in effect (as interpreted by Scott), that petition was filed some seven years too late. Accordingly, Bruce cannot now complain that his alimony obligation should be terminated, by operation of statute, due to the parties’ long-since-concluded cohabitation. Bruce has therefore not carried his burden of demonstrating error in the district court’s ruling that Bruce’s alimony obligation lasted until Nicole’s 2015 remarriage,6 or in the court’s rulings holding Bruce in contempt for failing to pay alimony from 2009 through 2015 and ordering him to pay past-due alimony.7 

  1. Child Support

¶24 Next, we address the parties’ respective challenges to the district court’s child support rulings. As noted, Nicole takes issue with the court’s ruling that Bruce’s child support obligations to her, as set forth in the Decree, ended in 2009, and that therefore Bruce could not be held in contempt for not meeting those obligations. Building on that same ruling, Bruce takes issue with the court’s reluctance to go a step further and order Nicole to pay him child support arrearages dating to 2009. We begin our analysis by discussing some of the broad overarching principles governing modification of child support orders, including a discussion of Section 108 in particular. We then address the parties’ respective challenges, in turn, beginning with Nicole’s. 

A 

¶25 In general, decrees in domestic relations cases are binding final judgments that may be modified “only under certain conditions.” Kielkowski v. Kielkowski, 2015 UT App 59, ¶ 21, 346 P.3d 690; see also Robertson v. Stevens, 2020 UT App 29, ¶¶ 6–7, 461 P.3d 323 (explaining that once “judgment is entered” in a divorce case, “the court’s power to modify the judgment is limited” (quotation simplified)). While there are several tools that can generally be used to modify final judgments, see, e.g., Utah R. Civ. P. 60(b), one tool that is specific to family law cases is the petition to modify, see id. R. 106(a) (stating that, in most cases, “proceedings to modify a divorce decree . . . shall be commenced by filing a petition to modify”); see also Ross v. Ross, 2019 UT App 104, ¶ 11, 447 P.3d 104 (“[R]ule 106 establishes a general rule . . . that any changes to divorce decrees must be brought about by the filing of a petition to modify.”). Parties in family law cases may use this tool, in accordance with applicable statutes and rules, to seek modification of various provisions of decrees, including child support provisions. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-210(9)(a) (LexisNexis 2017) (“A parent . . . may at any time petition the court to adjust the amount of a child support order if there has been a substantial change in circumstances.”); see also id. § 30-3-5(3) (“The court has continuing jurisdiction to make subsequent changes or new orders for the custody of a child and the child’s support, maintenance, health, and dental care, and for distribution of the property and obligations for debts as is reasonable and necessary.”); id. § 30-3-5(8)(i)(i) (“The court has continuing jurisdiction to make substantive changes and new orders regarding alimony based on a substantial material change in circumstances . . . .”). 

¶26 But in general, modifications to a decree’s provisions regarding child support payments may date back only to “the month following service” of the petition to modify “on the parent whose support is affected.” See id. § 78B-12-112(4); see also McPherson v. McPherson, 2011 UT App 382, ¶ 17, 265 P.3d 839 (stating that “the statute does limit the time period during which retroactive modification is available”). That is, as concerns child support provisions, parties are generally barred from obtaining modifications that date back further than the first day of the month after the month in which the petition to modify was served on the opposing party. 

¶27 One potential exception to this general rule appears in Section 108, a statutory provision entitled “Support Follows the Child.” See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-108 (LexisNexis 2017). That section, in relevant part, reads as follows: 

 Obligations ordered for child support and medical expenses are for the use and benefit of the child and shall follow the child. 

 Except in cases of joint physical custody and split custody as defined in Section 78B-12-102, when physical custody changes from that assumed in the original order, the parent without physical custody of a child shall be required to pay the amount of support determined in accordance with [calculation guidelines found in other code sections] without the need to modify the order for . . . the parent who has physical custody of the child. 

Id. (emphasis added). Thus, Section 108 contains an overarching mandate that child support payments “shall follow the child,” and provides that, under certain limited circumstances, child support obligations can change “without the need to modify” the child support provisions in the governing decree. Id.see also Hansen v. Hansen, 2012 UT 9, ¶ 13, 270 P.3d 531 (stating that, under certain circumstances, Section 108 “allows redirection of child support [payments] without modification of the support order”). In this way, Section 108 constitutes an exception to the general rule that modifications to child support provisions may date back only to the month following service of the petition to modify on the opposing party: where Section 108 applies, it may allow modification of child support awards even further back in time. 

¶28 But this exception comes with distinct statutory limits. Indeed, our supreme court has noted that Section 108 “contains two provisions: (1) a general statement that support shall follow the child and (2) a specific provision providing guidelines for redirection of child support to a new physical custodian.” Hansen, 2012 UT 9, ¶ 7. And the court has already foreclosed any argument that subsection (1)’s general statement—that child support “shall follow the child”—operates by itself “to redirect support payments any time anyone provides any shelter or sustenance to a child.” See id. ¶ 10. Instead, the specific requirements of subsection (2) operate to “modif[y] the general statement in subsection (1),” and those specific requirements serve as the prerequisites for entitlement to a retroactive change in child support that dates back further than the date of a duly served petition to modify. See id. ¶ 11. 

¶29 Under the provisions of subsection (2), a litigant can obtain a change in a child support provision even “without the need to modify the order” itself, but only if two conditions are met: (a) there must be a change in “physical custody . . . from that assumed in the original order,” and (b) the case must not be one involving “joint physical custody.” See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-108(2). 

B 

¶30 Bruce asserts that Section 108 applies here, and allows him to obtain retroactive modification, dating all the way back to 2009, of the Decree’s child support provisions, even though he did not seek modification of either the custody provisions or the child support provisions until 2017. The district court agreed with Bruce’s interpretation of Section 108, and determined that Bruce was not in contempt for failure to pay Nicole child support between 2009 and 2017 because he had been caring for the children during that time and because child support should “follow the children.” (Citing Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-108.) 

¶31 Nicole challenges the court’s interpretation of Section 108. We agree with Nicole because, for two independent reasons, Section 108 is inapplicable here. First, this is not a case in which physical custody ever legally changed “from that assumed in the original order.” See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-108(2) (LexisNexis 2017). And second, even assuming that some sort of de facto change of parent-time occurred in 2010 when Nicole joined the military, that change did not constitute a change in physical custody under the operative definition of that term. See id. §§ 30-3-10.1(3)(a), 78B-12-102(15) (each defining “joint physical custody” for its respective chapter). 

1 

¶32 In order for Section 108’s exception to apply, the situation must involve a change in “physical custody . . . from that assumed in the original order.” See id. § 78B-12-108(2). The term “physical custody,” as used in this statute, is a “legal term of art” that “involve[s] much more than actual possession and care of a child.” See Hansen, 2012 UT 9, ¶¶ 12, 15, 19. “A physical custodian also has a legal responsibility to provide supervision and control.” Id. ¶ 15 (emphasis added). 

¶33 Given this definition, a change in “physical custody” cannot occur without some sort of “formal legal process[].” Id. ¶¶ 19, 24. In most cases, this occurs by court order following the filing of a petition to modify. See id. ¶¶ 21, 25. In other “rare circumstances,” this can occur “by statute without the need for a hearing or court order.” Id. ¶ 25. But in any event, 

child support should be redirected only to those persons or entities who acquire the rights and responsibilities of the child’s new “physical custodian” under the law. Usually that will happen only after adjudication and a formal order, but in all cases it requires fulfillment of the statutory procedures and standards for a change in physical custody. The actual provision of sustenance and support is insufficient. 

Id. 

¶34 In this case, no one disputes that Bruce assumed all responsibility for “sustenance and support” of the children after April 2010. See id. But in this context, provision of additional sustenance and support to the children beyond that anticipated in the Decree is not enough to effectuate an actual, legal change in physical custody. See id. Bruce took no steps—at least not until 2017—to follow the “formal legal processes” typically used to effectuate an actual change of physical custody. See id. ¶ 24. And Bruce makes no argument that this case presents any “rare circumstances” in which custody can change by operation of statute, even in the absence of a petition to modify. See id. 

¶35 Thus, no change in “physical custody”—in an actual legal sense, as required by the “term of art” definition of the statutory phrase, see id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified)—occurred in April 2010, or at any time prior to the filing of Bruce’s petition to modify. Because physical custody did not change, Section 108’s narrow exception to the usual retroactivity rules governing modification of child support orders does not apply here, and therefore it does not enable Bruce to seek changes to the Decree’s child support obligations dating any further back than 2017. 

2 

¶36 Moreover, even if we were to assume, for purposes of argument, that a change in “physical custody” could theoretically be effectuated merely by a parent’s provision of additional sustenance and support beyond that required by the governing child support order, no such change occurred on the facts of this case. We have previously stated that “[c]ustody and parent-time are conceptually distinct.” See Ross v. Ross, 2019 UT App 104, ¶ 14 n.3, 447 P.3d 104. By statutory definition, there are two kinds of physical custody—sole physical custody and joint physical custody—with the dividing line based on the number of overnight visits enjoyed by each parent. See Utah Code Ann. §§ 30-3-10.1(3)(a), 78B-12-102(15) (both stating that “joint physical custody means the child stays with each parent overnight for more than 30% of the year, and both parents contribute to the expenses of the child in addition to paying child support” (quotation simplified)). Because either parent, in any given case, could be awarded sole physical custody— defined as having at least 70% of the overnights—there are three possible physical custody arrangements: (a) Parent 1 has sole custody; (b) Parent 2 has sole custody; and (c) the parents share joint custody. When a change occurs that causes one parent to obtain enough additional overnights to move from one category to another (e.g., from 25% of overnights to 35%, or from 65% to 75%), there has been a change in physical custodySee Ross, 2019 UT App 104, ¶¶ 16–17, 17 n.5. But when a change occurs in which one parent obtains a few additional overnights but not enough to move from one category to another, the change constitutes only a change in parent-time, and not a change in physical custody, as that term is statutorily definedSee id. ¶ 16 (noting that, in relocation cases, a parent need not file a petition to modify if scheduling changes necessitated by the proposed relocation would not change the statutory custody designation, and would change only parent-time). 

¶37 In this case, the parties started out with an arrangement, under the Decree, in which Bruce had twenty-four overnights each month and Nicole had only six. Although the parties described that arrangement, in the Decree, as a joint custody arrangement, the label the parties assigned to the arrangement is inconsequentialSee Stephens v. Stephens, 2018 UT App 196, ¶ 29, 437 P.3d 445 (stating that the “designation of ‘joint physical custody’ or ‘sole physical custody’” used in a decree “is not as important as whether the custody arrangement [actually] exceeds the statutory threshold for joint physical custody” (quotation simplified)). And here, despite the parties’ label, their arrangement was actually a sole custody arrangementSee Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-102(15). As noted, the district court made a specific (and unchallenged) finding on this point, and correctly concluded that, because the Decree awarded Nicole only “approximately 20% of the overnights,” it described a sole custody arrangement. 

¶38 Thus, the more recent arrangement, following Nicole’s departure into the military, did not result in a change of custody. After Nicole left, Bruce went from about 80% of the overnights to nearly 100% of the overnights. Thus, Bruce had sole physical custody of the children under the original arrangement, and he maintained sole physical custody of the children after Nicole left. See id. In this situation, while Nicole’s departure did result in practical (if not official) changes to the parties’ division of parent-time, it did not effectuate any change in physical custody, under the statutory definition of that term. 

¶39 Section 108 applies only in instances where “physical custody changes.” See id. § 78B-12-108(2). For both of the reasons just discussed, no change in physical custody occurred here, and therefore Section 108 cannot provide Bruce an escape from the usual rule that modifications to a domestic decree’s child support provisions cannot date back any further than the month following service of the petition to modify. See id. § 78B-12112(4). We therefore sustain Nicole’s challenge to the district court’s interpretation of the relevant statutes. 

3 

¶40 The district court’s ruling also included an alternative basis for declining Nicole’s request that Bruce pay child support arrearages. Specifically, the court stated as follows: 

Finally, and regardless [of] whether [Section 108] applies here, it would not be equitable to require [Bruce] to pay child support arrearages to [Nicole] in this case. Even if that statute does not apply directly, subsection (1) is instructive of the legislature’s intent that child support “is for the use and benefit of the children.” . . . It would not be equitable to acknowledge that [Bruce] was the sole provider after moving back into the [Home] and especially after [Nicole] entered the military, acknowledge that [Nicole] provided very little, if any, support to the children since that time, but nonetheless require [Bruce] to pay the alleged child support arrearages requested by [Nicole]. 

¶41 We do not necessarily disagree with the court’s sentiment (although we note that, in a big-picture sense at least, there are equities on the other side of the equation too: we can see wisdom in a bright-line rule requiring parties to file petitions to modify child support provisions, and in limiting parties’ ability to obtain changes to decrees that date back any further than the month following service of the relevant petition to modify). Looking just at the facts of this case, there does seem to be something intuitively inequitable about requiring Bruce to pay child support arrearages to Nicole. And we acknowledge that district courts are often given wide discretion to apply equitable principles in family law cases. See Harmon v. Harmon, 491 P.2d 231, 232 (Utah 1971) (“In order to carry out the important responsibility of safeguarding the interests and welfare of children, it has always been deemed that the courts have broad equitable powers.”). 

¶42 But our legislature has enacted a number of statutes that govern certain aspects of family law cases, and we are aware of no principle of law that allows courts to override statutes, in particular cases, simply out of generalized equitable concerns. See Martin v. Kristensen, 2021 UT 17, ¶ 53 (stating that courts have “no equitable power to override” statutory mandates due to generalized concerns of “public policy and equity”). At a minimum, the district court has not adequately explained how its equitable concerns, in this situation, allow it to supersede statutory mandates or interpretations of those statutes by our supreme court. For instance, the district court’s reliance on subsection (1) of Section 108 as being “instructive of the legislature’s intent” that child support obligations shall “follow the child[ren]” appears misplaced, given our supreme court’s explanation, in Hansen v. Hansen, that “[s]ubsection (1)’s general directive cannot possibly be interpreted unqualifiedly . . . to redirect support payments any time anyone provides any shelter or sustenance to a child,” and that subsection (1) is “modifie[d]” by the “specific limitation[s]” found in subsection (2). See 2012 UT 9, ¶¶ 10–11, 270 P.3d 531. And as we have noted, supra ¶¶ 30–39, the prerequisites of subsection (2) are not satisfied here. Apart from the language in subsection (1), the court does not otherwise explain how generalized equitable considerations, no matter how weighty, can justify modification of a child support order back beyond the month following service of the petition to modify, given our legislature’s clear directive that such orders may be modified “only from the date of service of the pleading on the obligee.” See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12112(4). 

¶43 We observe that there may well be specific doctrines of equity or discretion that could apply in this situation to temper Nicole’s requests. Nicole presented her request in the context of an order to show cause seeking contempt, a legal doctrine that has its own elements and requirements, see Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1172 (Utah 1988) (setting forth the required showing for a contempt finding), in which courts are afforded discretion in selecting an appropriate sanction once contempt is found, see Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-310(1) (LexisNexis 2018) (stating that, “[i]f the court finds the person is guilty of the contempt, the court may impose a fine” or other punishment (emphasis added)); id. § 78B-6-311(1) (stating that a court “may order” the contemnor to pay the aggrieved party “a sum of money sufficient to indemnify and satisfy the aggrieved party’s costs and expenses” (emphasis added)). Alternatively, various equitable doctrines may apply in situations like this, depending on the circumstances. See, e.g.Soter’s, Inc. v. Deseret Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass’n, 857 P.2d 935, 939–40 (Utah 1993) (discussing the doctrine of waiver and its elements); Veysey v. Veysey, 2014 UT App 264, ¶ 16, 339 P.3d 131 (discussing the doctrine of laches and its elements); Bahr v. Imus, 2009 UT App 155, ¶ 6, 211 P.3d 987 (discussing the doctrine of equitable estoppel and its elements). We express no opinion as to the applicability of any such doctrine to the facts of this case. But the district court did not ground its child support ruling—that Bruce should not be required to make child support payments—in its post-contempt sentencing discretion or in any specific equitable doctrine; instead, as we interpret its order, it concluded that, due to unspecified equitable considerations, Bruce should be relieved from any obligation to make payments in the first place. In our view, the court has not adequately explained how equitable considerations can override statutory commands in this case. 

¶44 Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s determination that Bruce was not “required to pay child support payments to [Nicole] after [Nicole left] for military service,” and we remand the matter for further proceedings on Nicole’s request that Bruce be held in contempt for failing to make child support payments. 

C 

¶45 Finally, given our conclusion regarding Nicole’s challenge to the district court’s child support ruling, we can readily dispose of Bruce’s challenge to that same ruling. As an initial matter, we agree with the district court’s conclusion that Bruce made no affirmative claim, before the district court, to any child support arrears dating back further than the service of his petition to modify. On that basis alone, the district court was justified in not awarding him any. But more substantively, for the reasons already explained, we find no merit in Bruce’s argument that Section 108 operates to allow him to look all the way back to 2009 for modification of the Decree’s child support provisions. 

CONCLUSION 

¶46 The district court correctly determined that Bruce’s alimony obligation was not terminated—at least not under the alimony statute—by the parties’ cohabitation in 2009 and 2010, because the statute required Bruce to file a petition seeking termination while the cohabitation was still occurring, and he did not do so. Accordingly, the district court did not err by holding Bruce in contempt for failing to pay alimony after 2009, and in ordering Bruce to pay past-due alimony through 2015, and we affirm those orders. 

¶47 However, the district court erred in its interpretation of Section 108, and erred in concluding that Section 108 operated to relieve Bruce of his obligation, under the Decree, to continue to pay Nicole child support after 2010. In this case, neither Section 108, nor generalized equitable concerns, operates to relieve Bruce of that obligation, and neither allows Bruce to obtain a modification of his child support obligations dating back any further than the month following service of his petition to modify. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s determination to the contrary, and remand the case for further proceedings, consistent with this opinion, on Nicole’s request for contempt relating to child support and on Bruce’s petition to modify. 

 

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

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Do judges sometimes feel overburdened by the responsibilities of their job?

Yes, and for good reason. First, let me be unusually but sincerely candid: many judges and many of the actions that judges take disappoint me. There are some excellent judges on the bench who are clearly skilled in the law and know how to apply it accurately, justly, and equitably. Would that all judges lived up to this standard. But not all judges do. I mention this so that the context of my answer to your question is clear.

Being a judge is, in my opinion, mostly a thankless job. Sure, there are some obvious perks to being a judge, including, but not limited to, a good salary, state and federal holidays off, most judges receive a generous pension when they retire, the prestige of being called “Your Honor,” but the burdens of being a judge are in some ways unimaginable. Can you conceive of sentencing someone to life in prison or death? Or even sentencing someone to 5 to 10 years in prison when you’re not certain of his or her guilt? Can you imagine what it must be like to spend your work week, week after week, hearing hundreds of stories of lying, cheating, robbing, destroying property, assaulting, raping and murdering? It all takes an inevitable toll on even the strongest of people. Those judges who do the best they can and do the job well day after day, year-over-year deserve not only our respect, but our sympathy, our thanks, and support.

All that stated, there are clearly some judges who are not cut out for the job and need to quit. Some need to quit because they are not competent as judges. Some need to quit because, while they might have been up to the demands of the job in the beginning, they aren’t anymore. Some need to quit before they become so jaded that they cannot give the job and the people who come before them the attention both the job–and the cases they hear and decide–deserve.

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

https://www.quora.com/Do-judges-sometimes-feel-overburdened-by-the-responsibilities-of-their-job/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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State v. Mason – 2021 UT App 41

State v. Mason – 2021 UT App 41

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, Appellee,

v.

VON DEL MASON JR., Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20190618-CA

Filed April 8, 2021

Fifth District Court, Cedar City Department

The Honorable Matthew L. Bell

No. 190500085

Emily Adams, Freyja Johnson, and Cherise Bacalski,
Attorneys for Appellant

Brent M. Johnson, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1 Von Del Mason Jr. appeals the district court’s order finding him in contempt. We affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2 Mason and his ex-wife, who were embroiled in contentious post-divorce proceedings, attended a hearing regarding the ex-wife’s relocation to Arizona. Before the judge ruled, he told the parties, “I don’t want any talking to each other. I’m not open for any debate. . . . I’ll give you my ruling and we can all leave, whatever your opinion is about it.” After the judge

made his ruling, which was adverse to Mason, he announced, “[W]e are adjourned.” Immediately thereafter Mason proclaimed to the judge, “You are a disingenuous, intellectual liar.” Following that statement, the court recording was turned off for approximately one minute. However, in a written order entered that same day, the judge recited that during that break “[s]everal times the court suggested that Mr. Mason should stop talking” and later “instructed Mr. Mason to stop talking, but he continued with similar accusations and disrespectful comments.” When the recording was turned back on, the following exchange took place:

Mr. Mason: That’s the truth, sir. And I have every right to tell you that.

The Court: Mr. Mason, you are in contempt.

Mr. Mason: Go figure.

The Court: I don’t appreciate—

Mr. Mason: I don’t appreciate you. You’re not— you’re dishonest.

. . . .

The Court: —you’re trying to make this personal.

Mr. Mason: No, you’ve made it personal, sir. You said this was your courtroom. This is not your courtroom, sir. You have a job. You were an antitrust lawyer.

The Court: I told you repeatedly to stop talking. You’re not listening. You are in contempt. I’m tired of it.

. . . .

Mr. Mason: You’re a disingenuous liar, sir.

The Court: You are in contempt.

Mr. Mason: Okay. Enjoy it.

¶3        Based on Mason’s behavior in its presence, the judge found Mason “guilty of contempt pursuant to Utah Code 78B-6­301(1) and (5)” for disrupting its proceedings and disobeying its order to stop talking and sentenced him to forty-eight hours in jail. The next day, however, the court “suspend[ed] the balance of the jail time” and ordered Mason released from jail. Mason now appeals his contempt conviction.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶4 As a threshold issue, we must determine whether Mason’s appeal is moot in light of the fact that he has already completed his sentence. If “the requested relief cannot affect the rights of the litigants, the matter is moot and we will not consider it.” Gardiner v. York, 2010 UT App 108, ¶ 30, 233 P.3d 500 (quotation simplified). And we consider the issue of mootness as a question of law. See State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 12, 417 P.3d 592 (explaining that mootness is reviewed “de novo”).

¶5        Mason raises several substantive challenges to the district court’s contempt order. First, he asserts that the court denied his right to counsel. Next, Mason asserts that he could not be held in contempt for statements he made after the court had adjourned and that the court exceeded its discretion in holding him in contempt because the court did not impose a clear order. Mason did not preserve these issues for our review, but he asks that we nevertheless review them for plain error and exceptional circumstances.

¶6        Normally, “[w]hen a party fails to raise and argue an issue in the trial court, it has failed to preserve the issue, and an appellate court will not typically reach that issue absent a valid exception to preservation.” State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 15, 416 P.3d 443. Plain error and exceptional circumstances are such exceptions. However, here the State raised the issue of mootness and briefed Mason’s challenges to the court’s contempt order on their merits. And as discussed below, we agree with the State that the issues Mason raises fail on their merits. Where this is the case, we possess the discretion to reject claims on their merits, even when those claims have not been properly preserved. See State v. Kitches, 2021 UT App 24, ¶¶ 27–28. We elect to exercise that discretion here, and after first determining that Mason’s appeal is not moot, we address, and reject, Mason’s claims on their merits.

ANALYSIS

  1. Mason’s Appeal Is Not Moot

¶7        “A challenge to a conviction of criminal contempt is not moot if there is a possibility that collateral legal consequences may result from the conviction.” Gardiner v. York, 2010 UT App 108, ¶ 33, 233 P.3d 500. The State maintains that there is no possibility of collateral legal consequences, asserting that a criminal contempt conviction will not appear in Mason’s criminal record and is not the type of criminal conviction that can be used for impeachment purposes. However, even assuming, without deciding, that the State’s assertions are correct, the State does not respond to Mason’s argument that “because this criminal contempt conviction comes in the midst of a family law case where child custody is involved, a record of criminal contempt may affect future decisions on custody.” Cf. State v. C.H., 2008 UT App 404U, para. 2 (explaining that a criminal contempt conviction may have “ramifications on future investigations or adjudications by the Division of Child and Family Services” and could therefore affect a person’s right to parent their children). “The burden of persuading the court that an issue is moot lies with the party asserting mootness,” State v. Legg, 2016 UT App 168, ¶ 9, 380 P.3d 360 (quotation simplified), aff’d, 2018 UT 12, 417 P.3d 592, and we cannot say with certainty that Mason’s contempt conviction could have no possible impact on future child custody determinations or in future encounters with the legal system. Thus, we agree with Mason that this appeal is not moot.[1]

  1. Mason Was Not Entitled to the Appointment of Counsel in a Direct Contempt Summary Proceeding

¶8 Mason argues that the district court improperly denied his right to be represented by counsel during the proceeding in which it found him in contempt and imposed a sanction. Mason argues that he was entitled to the assistance of counsel in these criminal contempt proceedings and that the court’s failure to advise him of that right or to facilitate the appointment of counsel violated his constitutional rights and prevented him from adequately challenging the merits of the contempt finding. Although a defendant in most criminal proceedings—including many criminal contempt proceedings—generally has the right to counsel, see Turner v. Rogers, 564 U.S. 431, 441 (2011); United States v. Dixon, 509 U.S. 688, 696 (1993), the Supreme Court previously held, in Cooke v. United States, 267 U.S. 517 (1925), that such a right does not exist in summary criminal contempt proceedings involving conduct committed in the presence of the judge, see id. at 534 (“There is no need of evidence or assistance of counsel before punishment, because the court has seen the offense. Such summary vindication of the court’s dignity and authority is necessary.”).

¶9        Mason asserts that subsequent Supreme Court case law acknowledging that “[c]riminal contempt is a crime in the ordinary sense” and that “criminal penalties may not be imposed on someone who has not been afforded the protections that the Constitution requires of such criminal proceedings,” International Union, United Mine Workers of Am. v. Bagwell, 512 U.S. 821, 826 (1994) (quotation simplified); see also Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25, 37 (1972) (“[A]bsent a knowing and intelligent waiver, no person may be imprisoned for any offense, whether classified as petty, misdemeanor, or felony, unless he was represented by counsel at his trial.”), should be interpreted as repudiating the Court’s previous position that the appointment of counsel is not required in summary criminal contempt proceedings. However, the Supreme Court has continued to reaffirm the exception for summary criminal contempt. See Turner, 564 U.S. at 441 (citing Cooke with approval and stating that “an indigent defendant [has] the right to state-appointed counsel in . . . criminal contempt proceedings (other than summary proceedings)” (quotation simplified)); Dixon, 509 U.S. at 696 (explaining that “constitutional protections for criminal defendants,” including the right to the assistance of counsel, “apply in nonsummary criminal contempt prosecutions just as they do in other criminal prosecutions” (emphasis added)). Although these more recent holdings may not address the issue head-on, the Court’s continued reference to the exception without repudiating Cooke leaves us with no basis, under the federal constitution, for recognizing a constitutional right to the assistance of counsel in summary criminal contempt proceedings. Because Mason had no right to counsel, the court could not have erred by not informing him of such a right or by choosing not to appoint counsel to assist him in the summary proceeding.

III. We Reject Mason’s Challenges to the Court’s Contempt Finding

¶10 The court found Mason in contempt based on both subsections (1) and (5) of Utah Code section 78B-6-301. Mason raises challenges with respect to the court’s findings under both provisions.

  1. The Court Did Not Err by Holding Mason in Contempt After Stating That Proceedings Were Adjourned

¶11      In his challenge to the contempt order, Mason asserts on appeal that the court erred in holding him in contempt under Utah Code section 78B-6-301(1), because his comments occurred after the judge had stated that proceedings were adjourned. That subsection defines contempt as “disorderly, contemptuous, or insolent behavior toward the judge while holding the court, tending to interrupt the course of a trial or other judicial proceeding.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-301(1) (LexisNexis 2018) (emphasis added). Mason asserts that the plain language of subsection (1) limits the definition of contemptuous behavior to “behavior that occurs during a formal court proceeding, not after it has adjourned.” He maintains that because the judge had announced, “[W]e are adjourned,” before Mason’s statements, the judge was no longer “holding the court” and that Mason’s actions therefore could not have “interrupt[ed] the course of a trial or other judicial proceeding.” Id.

¶12 We disagree with Mason’s formalistic interpretation of what constitutes a judicial proceeding or “holding the court.” We acknowledge Mason’s assertion that disorderly or insolent behavior toward a judge outside of court cannot justify a finding of contempt under subsection (1) of the contempt statute. See Robinson v. City Court, 185 P.2d 256, 257–58 (Utah 1947) (overturning a contempt conviction based on behavior that occurred while the contemnor and the judge were near or in a courthouse elevator because “[t]he judge was not holding court, he had already adjourned the morning session, he was on his way out of the building, and no trial or other judicial proceedings were then in progress”). But we do not agree that the contempt statute should be so rigidly interpreted in a situation involving a litigant who engages in contemptuous behavior while in the courtroom and directly before the judge. See Commonwealth v. Williams, 2000 PA Super 165, ¶¶ 5, 21–24, 753 A.2d 856 (rejecting the defendant’s assertion that his action of “raising his middle finger and stating, ‘F—k You’” to the judge as he “was being led from the courtroom” could not have obstructed the administration of justice, explaining that his actions “belittl[ed] the entire process of the administration of justice” and that “had the Court not acted in response to the [defendant’s] actions it would have eroded the Court’s authority in the eyes of all those present”); Rhoad v. State, 641 S.E.2d 35, 37 (S.C. Ct. App. 2007) (explaining that a finding of direct contempt against a defendant who made an obscene gesture to his trial counsel on his way out of the courtroom was justified because “[r]egardless of whether [the defendant’s] hearing had concluded, [the defendant] failed to show proper decorum in the courtroom and exhibited a disrespect for the court”).

¶13 Here, although the adjournment of the hearing had been announced, the court proceedings had not actually concluded. See Williams, 2000 PA Super 165, ¶ 22 (“Court proceedings are concluded after the defendant leaves the courtroom, the trial judge goes to the next case or adjourns court and leaves the courtroom.” (emphasis added) (quotation simplified)). Mason’s conduct occurred in the courtroom while the judge was still on the bench,[2] and he made his comments, directed at the judge, immediately after the judge announced the adjournment of the hearing but before adjournment had been accomplished. Simply stating that court was adjourned was not equivalent to being out of court. Nor did the court’s interest in maintaining order evaporate simply because it had announced the adjournment of Mason’s hearing.[3] “It is essential to the proper administration of . . . justice that dignity, order, and decorum be the hallmarks of all court proceedings in our country. The flagrant disregard in the courtroom of elementary standards of proper conduct should not and cannot be tolerated.” Illinois v. Allen, 397 U.S. 337, 343 (1970). Because Mason’s conduct fell within subsection (1)’s definition of contempt, the court’s contempt finding was not error.

  1. Mason Cannot Demonstrate That the Court Abused Its Discretion in Finding That He Had Disobeyed a Court Order

¶14 Mason also maintains that the court abused its discretion by finding him in contempt under Utah Code section 78B-6­301(5). Under that subsection, a person can be held in contempt for “disobedience of any lawful judgment, order or process of the court.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-301(5) (LexisNexis 2018). “[T]o prove contempt for failure to comply with a court order it must be shown that the person cited for contempt knew what was required, had the ability to comply, and intentionally failed or refused to do so.” Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1172 (Utah 1988). Mason asserts that the judge did not clearly order him to stop talking and therefore could not properly hold him in contempt for talking.

¶15 In his written contempt order, the judge described his earlier verbal orders to Mason by stating that he had “instructed the parties . . . that there should be no talking despite what either side thought of the court’s decision” and that after Mason began making “disrespectful comments toward the court,” the judge “suggested that Mr. Mason should stop talking” and “instructed Mr. Mason to stop talking.” Mason points out that before issuing his ruling, the judge actually ordered the parties not to talk to each other rather than ordering them not to talk at all. Thus, he maintains that the order was unclear as to what he was required to do. See id.

¶16 But even accepting Mason’s argument regarding the judge’s initial order not to talk, the record shows that after Mason began making disrespectful comments, the judge “instructed” Mason not to talk anymore. Nevertheless, Mason “continued with similar accusations and disrespectful comments even after he was taken into custody by bailiffs.” It was this behavior that the judge identified as disobedience to “the court’s order to stop.” We agree with the State that Mason’s disregard of the judge’s instruction to stop talking after he had begun could constitute contempt, and we cannot say that the court abused its discretion by finding Mason in contempt on that basis. Moreover, because a district court has discretion to deal with contemptuous actions occurring in its presence, the judge did not have to let Mason “wear himself out” before imposing a sanction. In addition, even if there had been error in the court’s contempt finding under section 78B-6-301(5), it would have been harmless in light of the additional grounds for contempt it found under section 78B-6-301(1). See supra ¶¶ 11–13.

CONCLUSION

¶17 Although we determine that this appeal is not moot, we conclude that a person accused of direct contempt, committed in the presence of the court, is not entitled to the appointment of counsel in a summary contempt proceeding. Further, the district court did not abuse its discretion in holding Mason in contempt for his insolent behavior under the facts presented here. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s contempt order.

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

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In court cases, how does taking an oath make any difference?

In court cases, how does taking an oath make any difference?

From what I can tell, yes, it appears that taking an oath or affirming to tell the truth before being questioned as a witness in a legal proceeding (whether in court or whether the testimony is being given in relation to the court proceedings) does make a difference because lying under oath or affirmation is an element of the crime of perjury. No oath or affirmation, no perjury.

Lying without being under oath or affirmation can still be a crime or otherwise punished by law in other settings other than a court proceeding (for example, lying a law enforcement officer), so bear that in mind.

Clearly, the purpose of questioning a witness in a court proceeding is to gather factual and/or honest (truthful) information to help the court decide the case. Some information is factual, meaning it is not in dispute, it can be independently verified as true. Other information is “honest,” meaning that it may not be true but the witness believes what he or she is saying is true and is doing his/her best to testify as to what he/she remembers.

If one can be convicted of lying in court or in relation to court proceedings without having sworn an oath or affirmed to tell the truth I do not know of such a law (but that’s not to say such a law does not exist). Why one cannot be convicted of lying in court without having sworn an oath or affirmed to tell the truth I do not know.

I see no good reason why a law could simply be passed that any witness is guilty of perjury if the witness, when, after first being notified that the witness is questioned in the course of or in relation to the court proceedings, the witness makes a false statement of a material fact; and knowledge of the falsity made in a proceeding, or in relation to a matter, within the jurisdiction of the tribunal or officer before whom the proceeding was held or by whom the matter was considered.

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

https://www.quora.com/In-court-cases-how-does-taking-an-oath-make-any-difference/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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Can the courts force you to testify against someone?

Can the courts force you to testify against someone?

In a manner of speaking, yes. You do not have the the option of being a witness if you are ordered by the court to to testify.

The way you are ordered by the court to testify is by a subpoena.

If, in response to the subpoena, you attempt to refuse to come to court and/or testify, the court can hold you in contempt of court, which means it can take certain actions to make you suffer until you agree to testify.

That means that the court can fine you for refusing to testify in compliance with the subpoena.

It also means that if you refuse to come to court the judge can not only fine you, but it can issue a bench warrant to have the police go out and find and arrest you and put you in jail until you testify.

If you lie under oath as a means of avoiding testifying truthfully, that’s perjury, and if you are caught lying under oath you can be charged with a felony, which, if you were convicted, could or would result in fines and incarceration.

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

https://www.quora.com/Excluding-plea-agreements-can-the-courts-force-you-to-testify-against-someone/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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