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Category: Discovery

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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Is There Anything I Can Do for Winning Custody After the Gal Report Is Favoring My Ex? Is Paying More to My Attorneys Worth It or No?

After you ask, “Is there anything I can do for winning custody after the GAL report is favoring my ex? Is paying more to my attorneys worth it or no?,” then you need to ask these questions:

Is the GAL’s report favoring my ex accurate? Otherwise stated, “Am I unfit to be awarded custody (whether that be sole custody or joint custody or equal custody?” If you are unfit to be awarded the custody you want or any kind of custody, you may have different and bigger obstacles than the GAL’s report standing in your way.

If the GAL’s report favoring you ex is inaccurate and/or biased, are the inaccuracies and biases significant and relevant?

If so, can you prove it? Otherwise stated, do you have admissible evidence that conclusively establishes the the GAL’s report is inaccurate and/or biased? If you have evidence of some minor or irrelevant inaccuracies, that likely won’t be enough to persuade the court to disregard the report and recommendations of the GAL. If, however, you can show the GAL is incompetent, did shoddy work, and/or indulged personal biases irrespective of the facts, that might (might) be enough to get the report thrown out or at least to get the court to give the report less credence.

So, in response to the question of whether it is worth it to pay your attorneys more money in an effort to discredit the GAL’s reports and recommendations, if you conclude (honestly) that 1) you are fit to be awarded the custody award you seek AND you can prove it; 2) the GAL’s report and recommendations are significantly inaccurate and/or biased AND you can prove it; 3) you have the money and a good attorney necessary to make a winning presentation to the court; AND 4) you conclude it’s worth risking the money and effort to make the attempt, then the answer is yes.

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

https://www.quora.com/Is-there-anything-I-can-do-for-winning-custody-after-the-GAL-report-is-favoring-my-ex-Is-paying-more-to-my-attorneys-worth-it-or-no/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Is It Possible to Discredit a Biased Custody Evaluation Full of Unsubstantiated and False Claims?

Yes, it is possible, but not always possible, and when it is possible it is often very difficult to accomplish.

Difficult not because custody evaluators are particularly competent (they typically are not, in my experience) but because the family law system appears to love custody evaluations.

And why does the system love custody evaluations?

  • One main reason: it takes the job of reviewing and analyzing the child custody evidence off the judge’s plate.
  • Another reason: some courts honestly find custody evaluations truly informative. In fairness, a custody evaluator who gathers relevant facts, analyzes them clearly and understandably, and makes cogent recommendations based upon the evidence and analysis with minimal reliance on subjective opinion provides a valuable service to parents and court alike. Rarely, however, are a custody evaluation performed and the recommendations made competently.
  • Another reason: regardless of whether the judge was being sensitive and thorough in analyzing the child custody issues, it makes the judge look that way.
  • Another reason: if the judge wants to rule a certain way and the custody evaluation supports what the judge wants to do, the judge can praise and cite to the custody evaluation (if the judge wants to rule a certain way and the custody evaluation is contrary to what the judge wants to do, the judge can simply (even blithely) dismiss the evaluator and evaluation—in classic 20/20 hindsight fashion—as “insufficient” or “incomplete” or “lacking detail” or “poorly reasoned” or “failing to address [fill in the blank here]” or “subjective”, etc. You may wonder whether it is fair to say such things of a custody evaluator and the evaluator’s report. It usually is, but even if it’s not (i.e., the evaluator did a commendable job), that won’t stop a judge who’s bent on ruling the way the judge wants to rule).

How do you refute an incompetent/inaccurate custody evaluation and recommendations? I could give you checklist, but that wouldn’t apply in all situations. The harsh reality: to refute and overcome a bad custody evaluation (“bad” meaning defective, not “performed competently, but adverse to me”) you will need to be prepared to spend a lot of money on 1) an excellent, skilled, fearless attorney; and 2) a rebuttal expert of your own who is more qualified and experienced and more articulate than the custody evaluator you are seeking to discredit. The attorney and rebuttal expert you need don’t come cheap.

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

https://www.quora.com/Is-it-possible-to-discredit-a-biased-custody-evaluation-full-of-unsubstantiated-and-false-claims/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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

2024 UT App 51 – Bailey v. Bailey

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

Opinion No. 20220534-CA Filed April 11, 2024

Second District Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable Michael D. DiReda No. 094701582

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

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which

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

HARRIS, Judge:

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

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

BACKGROUND
The Petition to Modify

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

(4)   If a party fails to disclose or to supplement timely a disclosure or response to discovery, that party may not use the undisclosed witness, document, or material at any hearing or trial unless the failure is harmless or the party shows good cause for the failure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Was Just Laid Off, Through No Fault of My Own, and Don’t Know How Soon I’ll Find Work Again or How Much I Might Actually Earn Once I Do. How Do I Get the Court to Reduce or Terminate My Alimony Obligation?

A reduction in the alimony award obligation is extremely difficult to obtain. It’s designed to be difficult to modify downward, so that only those who 1) are truly unable to pay, and/or 2) can prove there is no longer a need to pay, receive relief.
And as you can imagine, even if you believe you have a strong case for alimony reduction or termination, your ex will likely resist your efforts by every means available to him/her.
To get a reduction, you need to prove that your income has decreased on a non-temporary basis due to no fault of your own and/or that the alimony recipient’s need to be paid alimony has decreased or no longer exists.
Losing your job is usually not enough to obtain a reduction or elimination of alimony. If you can also show that your job cannot be replaced or cannot be replaced at the same level of income that your lost job paid, you may have some hope of obtaining an order reducing or eliminating your alimony obligation. Otherwise, mere loss of a job will not be enough. It’s expected and anticipated that people who lose their jobs will find a new job making essentially the same amount of money in most situations.
Has your ex-spouse’s income increased to the point that he/she can support herself at the lifestyle to which he/she was accustomed during the marriage? Or has he/she voluntarily reduced his/her lifestyle expenses? If so, and if you can prove it, you may be able to persuade the court to terminate or reduce your alimony obligation on the basis that the need for alimony has decreased or even ceased to exist.
Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277
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Why Get it Straight From the Horse’s Mouth When You Can Get a Truncated Version, Second-Hand?

When a custody evaluator and/or private guardian ad litem is/are appointed in a divorce case in which custody and parent-time of the children is disputed, they usually interview the children who are the subject of the custody and parent-time dispute and then make observations and recommendations regarding what the custody and parent-time awards should be based in part on those interviews.

But they never record their interviews with the children.

Instead, every custody evaluator (except one) that I know and every PGAL that I know wants us to believe (as opposed to knowing, based upon an objectively verifiable recording) that 1) they did in fact speak with the children; 2) what the custody evaluators and PGALs report second-hand and in summary fashion accurately reflects what was (and was not) asked of the children and what the children said (and did not say) in response; and 3) that the custody evaluator’s and PGAL’s assessment of the children’s credibility (assuming–not knowing–that the child were interviewed in the first place and that what the children allegedly said is in fact what the children said) is correct.

Such a policy is incongruous with the way any other witness account is presented to a court.

Courts claim they need to know the child’s “intent [whatever that means in the context of a child custody dispute] and desires.”

Yet the court goes out of its way to ensure that what we get from custody evaluators and/or PGALs not just second-hand accounts of the child’s purported statements, but summary second-hand accounts of the child’s purported statements.

Then, on the basis of the purported, second-hand summary accounts, the non-witness PGAL “makes a recommendation regarding the best interest of the minor” by ostensibly “disclos[ing] the factors that form the basis of the recommendation” when the purported factors have–not necessarily, but by design, no less–no objectively verifiable basis in the child’s testimony (because there is no testimony). Such a “take my un-recorded, unverifiable, second-hand word for it” process elevates faith over fact, and needlessly.

Yet by way of the court interviewing the child directly and on the record (or by having the child deposed in a fitting, appropriate setting, of course), the court could easily obtain objectively verifiable knowledge of not only the child’s “intent and desires” stated in the child’s own words but in the same way also obtain knowledge of the child’s relevant experiences, observations, feelings, opinions, and anything else the court may want to learn that bears on the child custody and parent-time award decisions.

Everyone who tries to justify the policy against child testimony does so by claiming that there is no equal or superior alternative. Such claims are without merit.

I would be cruel and unreasonable if I did not concede that a child should not be questioned on and for the record if it were proved (as reflected in particularized findings, not generalized views or preferences) that that particular child likely will (not merely could) be harmed by testifying to the extent that the value of the testimony does not outweigh the harm. In such a situation barring that child from testifying would be warranted.

But when avoiding the subject altogether is worse for the child than confronting it, question the child on the record–for the child’s sake. For the sake of the truth- and fact-finding processes. It is cruel and unreasonable to silence the child that way.

Many children are not only willing to testify to the facts bearing upon the child custody and parent-time awards, they want to testify to them. Even when it may be unpleasant to address the topics. Regardless of how eager children may be to testify, they have the greatest stake in the child custody and parent-time awards. They deserve to be heard from, and in their own words. Who would (who could, credibly) gainsay that?

And the notion that a judge or commissioner interviewing a child, or a child being questioned in a deposition (and the child could be deposed by the PGAL, if there were sufficient facts to support a conclusion that the child is in danger of suffering verifiable serious, irreparable harm were the child questioned by the parents’ respective attorneys) would inherently cause a child unjustifiable harm is self-evidently false.

First, I have personal experience with children testifying for the record in child custody and parent-time proceedings without incident. I (and others who have the same experience actually deposing a child) know that it is not inherently harmful to every child who is old enough to testify competently.

Second, children regularly testify in proceedings substantively indistinguishable from divorce/parentage child custody and parent-time proceedings (e.g., contested child abuse, neglect, or dependency cases, contested petitions for termination of parental rights cases, contested adoption and guardianship cases). This is proof that child testimony–though it may be frightening or saddening for some children–is not universally catastrophic for all (even most) children who are old enough to testify competently.

Thus, the assertion that judges, domestic relations commissioners, and lawyers cannot competently question a child in a divorce-based child-custody and parent-time dispute unless they are “specially trained as PGALs (especially when the ‘special training’ can be obtained in a matter of a few days’ time)” is invalid on its face. If one need not be “specially trained” to question a child in contested child abuse, neglect, or dependency cases, contested petitions for termination of parental rights cases, contested adoption and guardianship cases, one need not be “specially trained” as a PGAL to question a child competently and with due sensitivity.

My biggest worry (among many) about the way custody evaluations and PGAL appointments work in Utah is when custody evaluators and PGALs–who can by recording child interviews easily provide the parents and the court with an objective way of verifying whether the children were interviewed, how well or poorly they were interviewed, what they were asked (and not asked) and what they said (or did not say) in response–refuse to do so.

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

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I Am Going through a Custody Battle and the Other Parent Is Making False Statements About Me in Court. What Can I Do to Protect Myself and My Child?

If you want just my direct answer to this question, skip to the last paragraph, but I submit that you’ll have a much better understanding of the answer if you read all of this first.

This is and has been a major, serious problem in family law for as long as I can remember. It’s not getting better. It victimizes far too many innocent people who naively trust the legal system to value truth and justice above all.

Guilt by accusation. Accuse your spouse of being an abusive parent, and immediately the accused finds himself or herself in a position of guilty until proven innocent.

Judges (and that includes the domestic relations commissioner) are, with due respect to them, quite often (so often; more often than you’d expect or hope, frankly) suckers for substituting and accepting the seriousness of the allegations over the substance of the evidence. Why?

Many people innately know, but struggle to articulate it, either because it’s subconscious or too shameful to admit: the cowardly, lazy allure of “better safe than sorry” and “abundance of caution”. “Treat all allegations of spousal or child abuse as true,” so the “reasoning” goes, “and that way we prevent abuse, whether real or imagined.” Why go to all the trouble of investigating, factfinding, and truth seeking when abusers might lie and get away with it? No, better to treat pretty much every abuse claim as true. And if innocent parents (mostly men, but a fair and growing number of women too) are the victims of such a policy (ruined reputations, loss of standing in the community, loss of friends, loss of employment, being persecuted), it’s a price worth paying (especially when the judges and commissioners themselves don’t pay that price themselves) “if it saves just one life.” It’s obvious nonsense (no judge who treats people this way would ever want to be treated that way), but that is culture of the modern legal system. I wish I could deny it, but I’d be lying, if I did.

“It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished.

But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, ‘whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,’ and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.”

― John Adams

When it comes to accusations of abuse (or even danger of being abusive), it’s terrifyingly far too often the opposite of the “Better that a hundred guilty men go free than to convict one innocent man.”

So, if you are being falsely accused, don’t rely on “I can’t prove a negative,” “accuser has the burden of proof,” or “innocent until proven guilty.” If you can prove you’re innocent, do it. Do everything in your power to prove your innocence. Spend the money and the time and the effort to fight for and to prove your innocence. Strive to hold the courts to being competent and impartial because when it comes to allegations of spousal or child abuse, many courts will not exercise the courage to dismiss such claims for a lack of proof.

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

(65) Eric Johnson’s answer to I am going through a custody battle and the other parent is making false statements about me in court. What can I do to protect myself and my child? – Quora

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If I’m asked to take a urine test in the courthouse, will someone watch me?

Probably. The schemes and technology for providing fake urine samples have advanced so much and are available so easily to everyone that most urine collection that courts order is observed during the collection process to ensure that it “naturally” comes out of the body of the person who is subject to the urinalysis.

And it’s not just at the courthouse where urine samples are observed coming out of the body. That can be ordered to happen at a drug testing facility or hospital, at home, anywhere, really.

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

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Doing What’s Best for Children by Refusing to Hear From Them on the Subject (And Other Nonsense).

Recently an attorney posed a question on a forum for fellow Utah family law attorneys. The question involved how to find out what the children’s experiences have been with one of their parents (this parent was dealing with some personal demons) and what kind of contact they should have with that parent.

I responded on the forum that if this isn’t a scenario in which both the commissioner and the judge should be interviewing the children themselves, so that those who hold the fates of these children in their hands have the best possible idea what is going through these children’s minds at this time, what they have experienced, how they feel, what they desire, and whether those desires are in line with their best interests, then there is never an appropriate time for the court to interview children.

Who could gainsay that?

Many tried (and failed).

One attorney who responded to my suggestion commented that this would be the worst time for a judge or commissioner to interview the children but did not explain why. This attorney claimed that a private guardian ad litem (PGAL) should be appointed for, and to interview the children, instead. I asked for an explanation, and further commented by asking what ostensibly makes judges and commissioners so innately bad at interviewing children, and what makes PGALs innately so good at it? I don’t know where the myth of the angelic, “child whisperer” PGAL and the demonic, “couldn’t interview a child effectively if his/her life depended on it” judge dichotomy came from, but it’s nonsense.

Another attorney (like many who comment on this subject) commented that children should never be interviewed or even “exposed to the legal system unless absolutely necessary” without identifying a scenario in which it would be “absolutely necessary”. This attorney claimed that because minor children’s brains are developing that being interviewed by a judge or commissioner  “is incredibly damaging to the child.” In response to that comment I asked, “Where’s the evidence?”

The response I got was similar to what everyone says to me in response to that same question:

  • “every single child development book ever created, academic case studies, nonprofits that specialize in it, etc.” advises against judges or lawyers interviewing children.

o   This is false (which should come as no surprise when any speaks in those kinds of absolute terms), but it’s widely believed (or asserted as believed) in the family law profession.

  • “Commissioners and judges are not specifically educated in this area of law as those who practice it day are.”

o   But that argument erroneously presumes

  • that unless a judge, commissioner, or lawyer is “specifically educated” in how to talk to children about what they have experienced, how they feel, what they desire, and whether those desires are in line with their best interests, that judge, commissioner, or lawyer will inexorably make a mess of interviewing the child; and
  • that those who are (or are “certified” as) “specifically educated” in how to talk to children are incapable of being incompetent child interviewers.
  • When I responded with, “Well, if it’s so obvious and the research so voluminous and overwhelming, please cite it,” I got this in response: “You can do the research yourself.”

The legal system needs to stop believing that which is untested in the name of “protecting children.” It was widely accepted as fact in America that tomatoes were poisonous to humans. It was not until Robert Gibbon Johnson (no relation to me) ate a tomato on the courthouse steps of Salem, New Jersey in 1820 that he proved otherwise. Dispelling that myth has been a culinary and economical boon to the entire world.

I recently deposed a 14-year-old child in a parent time dispute case. She was not only willing to testify but was grateful for the opportunity to have her voice heard and her viewpoint considered. She was a particularly compelling and credible witness. The evidence she provided could not have come from any other source. After her deposition the case was resolved in a week.

The notion that any child testifying in any child custody or parent-time dispute case does terrible damage to any and every child is simply not true. I know this because I have deposed children to the benefit of child and truth seeking alike.

Blanket prohibitions on child testimony (on the grounds that they are nothing but harmful to all children) are not only false, they are also contrary to fundamental concepts of fact finding and subserving the best interest of the child.

I know that eliciting child testimony is not harmful to all children because I have real world data to the contrary. And not just someone else’s claims, but my own experience.

It has, unfortunately, become an article of faith in Utah family law practice that child testimony does more harm than good. That has not been my experience. I am one of the few attorneys in Utah who has that experience. It is therefore hard for me to give unverified claims the same weight as my own experience. I would be lying if I asserted that child testimony inexorably and/or irreparably harms most (let alone all) children. Blanket prohibitions on child testimony are antithetical to fundamental principles of our legal system, i.e., diligent investigation, careful, impartial analysis, real respect for children’s rights and best interests, and honest judgment.

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

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Should You Ask for a Psychological Evaluation in Your Divorce Case? By Braxton Mounteer

The point of a psychological evaluation isn’t to establish if someone merely suffers from any mental or emotional disorder or disorders, but to help determine whether such disorders, if they exist, render your spouse a danger to himself/herself or to your children, and/or whether your spouse is a pathological liar. In other words, if your spouse suffers from a mental or emotional disorder or disorders, are the disorders relevant to any issues to be decided in the divorce action?

If you’re contemplating a psychological evaluation, ask yourself why.
Is it because your spouse is genuinely unstable or deluded and not credible, or are you trying to embarrass, humiliate, or defame your spouse?

And FYI, if your attorney recommended a psychological evaluation, don’t let that be your own basis for seeking one. If your attorney cannot honestly explain to you the justification for a psychological evaluation, your attorney is likely just trying to get you to spend money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Clarke v. Clarke – 2023 UT App 160

2023 UT App 160

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

EDWIN M. CLARKE,

Appellee,

v.

ANGOZI R.S. CLARKE,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20220067-CA

Filed December 29, 2023

Third District Court, Silver Summit Department

The Honorable Teresa Welch

No. 174500147

Cassie Medura and Jarrod H. Jennings,

Attorneys for Appellant

Julie J. Nelson and Rebecca Ross,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and JOHN D. LUTHY concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        After about twenty years of marriage, Edwin (Ed) and Angozi (Anne) Clarke separated in 2016, and their divorce case proceeded to a four-day bench trial in late 2020 and early 2021. Anne appeals from some of the trial court’s findings and conclusions regarding the financial aspects of the case, chiefly the court’s determination as to how much alimony Ed was ordered to pay. And she appeals the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial. We reject Anne’s arguments and affirm the court’s rulings.

 

BACKGROUND

¶2        Ed and Anne[1] married in September 1996. Ed commenced this divorce action in 2017. During their marriage, the parties had three children together, none of whom are minors now and only one of whom was a minor at the time of trial. The bulk of the pretrial litigation in this case concerned the parties’ children, but none of the trial court’s eventual rulings regarding custody are at issue in this appeal; rather, the matters at issue here are exclusively financial.

¶3        Ed is an airline pilot by trade, and in the years leading up to trial he worked for Delta Air Lines (Delta); in 2016, he was promoted to captain. Anne was also employed during the marriage; the trial court found that, since 2006, she had been “self-employed as an Independent Clothing Salesperson” affiliated with a clothing company. Prior to trial, the parties exchanged several financial disclosures, including information about their respective incomes and claimed monthly expenses. As trial approached, the court entered a pretrial order commanding that the parties exchange “[u]pdated [f]inancial [s]tatements . . . 21 days prior to the scheduled trial date.”

¶4        Trial was eventually scheduled for a three-day setting in November 2020. In keeping with the pretrial scheduling order, the parties exchanged updated financial information in the weeks prior to the scheduled trial date. Anne submitted an updated financial declaration in September 2020, therein asserting that her gross employment income was $1,674 per month (not including alimony and child support payments Ed was making pursuant to a temporary order), that her total net income (including alimony and child support, but after taxes) was $3,894 per month, and that her expenses were $8,093 per month. Regarding expenses, the form she used contained two columns for each line item, one for the “current amount” and one for “marital expenses.” Anne filled out only the “current amount” column; she left the “marital expenses” column blank.

¶5      In his final pretrial disclosures, Ed submitted an updated financial declaration indicating that his net income was $14,849 per month. Regarding expenses, Ed filled out both columns, indicating that his “current” expenses were $16,399 and that his monthly “marital expenses” had been $17,007. Ed also produced documentation supporting his assertions regarding income and expenses, including his tax returns from 2015 through 2019, as well as a paystub dated September 30, 2020 that included 2020 year-to-date income information. While Anne raised one pretrial concern with Ed’s financial disclosures, she did not litigate that concern to completion,[2] and she lodged no other objection prior to or during trial to the scope of Ed’s financial disclosures.

¶6        Trial began on November 10, 2020. The most prominent issues at trial were financial ones, chiefly Anne’s request for alimony, and much of the trial was devoted to evidence of the parties’ respective incomes and expenses. The disputes were especially pointed regarding Ed’s income and Anne’s expenses. Neither side called any financial experts to the stand; the only witnesses to offer evidence regarding the parties’ finances were the parties themselves.

¶7        Ed was on the witness stand for the better part of three days, and he offered testimony about his income. He explained that, in 2016, he was promoted to captain and thereby earned a substantial raise, and that during the years 2016 through 2018 he earned relatively consistent annual amounts, from approximately $271,000 to $292,000. In 2019, however, he earned a significantly higher salary, making approximately $349,000. He testified that, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing change in worldwide travel conditions in 2020, this 2019 pay increase was anomalous and not representative of his earning capacity at the time of trial. He explained that his 2019 income was higher than usual because, during that year, “Delta experienced a pilot shortage” that enabled him “to work significant overtime” during this “high demand time.” And he explained that the pandemic had significantly impacted Delta’s business in several ways. In 2020, there were “far too many pilots for the flight schedules being flown,” and therefore he was not able to work even pre-2019 hours, let alone the increased 2019 hours. In addition, he explained that before the pandemic, he had, as a captain, received a profit-sharing payment from Delta; that payment from 2019 had been significant, totaling over $51,000. But he testified that, given the state of Delta’s business in 2020, he was unlikely to receive any profit-sharing payment for that year, or for the foreseeable short-term future. He testified that, given these circumstances, the income that he received during September 2020—as reflected on his paystub from that month—was most indicative of his earning capacity moving forward. In his proposed post-trial findings, Ed indicated that his net monthly income was $13,358.32, based on then-current tax codes. And he testified that his marital expenses were consistent with what he had listed on his most recent financial declaration.

¶8        Anne offered very little testimony regarding her income and expenses. She did, however, testify briefly about certain business expenses that she believed should be deducted from her income for alimony purposes. She offered no testimony regarding her total net income or how it should be computed, but she indicated in written filings (including her post-trial proposed findings) that her net income from employment (not including alimony and child support) was $920 per month.

¶9        Both parties also testified that they should receive credit, or “offsets,” for previous expenditures made using their personal funds for items or matters for which they believed both parties should be equally responsible. For instance, Ed asked for reimbursement of payments he made for maintenance of the marital home and for certain child-related expenses. Anne asked for repayment of other child-related expenses and for costs incurred in moving out of the marital home around the time of separation, and she sought some sort of credit for various other instances where she alleged Ed had used her personal funds.

¶10      As the three scheduled November 2020 trial days drew to a close, it became apparent that the parties were going to need additional time to present their evidence. After some discussion, the court agreed to schedule a fourth trial day, but the parties and the court did not have mutual availability until February 2021. Thus, the court scheduled a fourth trial day for February 11, and it scheduled closing arguments to take place on March 9.

¶11      A few weeks after the closing arguments, the court issued a lengthy ruling containing its findings of fact and conclusions of law.[3] In that ruling, the court indicated that it found Ed’s testimony about his income to be credible, and on that basis determined that the years 2019 and 2020 were both anomalous with regard to Ed’s income, and that neither year was “indicative of his normal or foreseeable income.” Instead, the court determined that the most accurate measure of Ed’s earning capacity, as of the time of trial, was an average of his 2016, 2017, and 2018 earnings. The court also believed that Ed was unlikely to receive profit-sharing income from Delta “for the foreseeable future.” Thus, the court did not include profit sharing as part of Ed’s gross income calculation. Using Ed’s 2016, 2017, and 2018 tax returns and averaging the income figures found there, the court determined that Ed’s gross monthly earning capacity, for child support and alimony purposes, was $20,452.25. And the court calculated Ed’s net income “by applying current tax rates to” the gross income figure it had come up with. Using this methodology, the court calculated Ed’s net monthly earning capacity as $13,358.32. And it calculated Ed’s reasonable monthly expenses, in light of the marital standard of living, to be $10,249.46.

¶12 The court calculated Anne’s gross earning capacity by averaging her earnings from 2015 through 2019 and then concluding, on that basis, that her earning capacity was $3,158.50 per month. The court declined Anne’s invitation to subtract business expenses from that figure, noting that, under applicable law, “[o]nly those expenses necessary to allow the business to operate at a reasonable level may be deducted from gross receipts,” and concluding that Anne had “failed to explain which, if any, business expenses claimed on her tax returns are necessary to allow [her clothing enterprise] to operate at a reasonable level.”

¶13      The court then noted that “[n]o testimony was offered at trial regarding” how to calculate Anne’s net income. The court found it “difficult to ascertain the amount of tax [Anne] actually [paid] based upon her income” given that Anne had “been receiving alimony during the pendency of the case” and had been “responsible for the tax consequences of her alimony income,” but due to changes in the tax code subsequent alimony payments would “be received tax-free.” Given these difficulties, the court looked to Anne’s 2017 tax return for guidance, and it determined that Anne had paid $390.35 in taxes on a monthly basis that year; it then applied that same tax-paid figure to Anne’s future income. Using this methodology, the court determined that Anne’s net monthly earning capacity was $2,768.25.[4]

¶14 In determining Anne’s reasonable monthly expenses, the court primarily relied on Anne’s most recent financial declaration. The court found Anne’s latest declaration to be more credible than earlier versions, explaining that Anne had testified that one of the earlier declarations was “inaccurate,” and opining that another one was “uncredible” because it claimed monthly expenses that were “more than the gross earnings of both Parties combined for the last full year of the marriage.” For the most part, the court found the expenses claimed in Anne’s most recent declaration “to be reasonable in light of the marital standard of living.” However, the court found that a few of the listed expenses were “post-separation debt for which [Anne was] solely responsible,” and it therefore deducted those expenses from the calculation. But without being asked to do so, the court added to Anne’s list a line item for health care expenses. With these adjustments, and based largely on Anne’s own requests, the court calculated Anne’s reasonable monthly expenses as $6,218.

¶15 Using these findings and conclusions, the court then computed Anne’s alimony award. In particular, it concluded that Anne had a monthly shortfall of $3,449.75 (the difference between Anne’s expenses and her earning capacity). And it concluded that Ed had capacity to pay $2,937.11 (the difference between Ed’s expenses and his earning capacity). The court split the difference between these figures, in an effort to “equalize the poverty,” as it were, and therefore ordered Ed to pay alimony to Anne in the amount of $3,193.43 per month. Separately, however, the court ruled that, in the event Ed did “receive profit sharing amounts” from Delta “during the years that [he] is paying alimony” to Anne, he would be required to make an additional payment to Anne of half of any such amount, after taxes.

¶16 The court also made a separate finding regarding the amount that the parties had been spending on a monthly basis during the marriage, an amount the court referred to as “the parties’ marital standard of living.” Using the expenses listed on Ed’s financial declaration as a starting point (after all, he was the only one who had filled out the “marital expenses” column on the form) and then making certain adjustments, the court concluded that the parties “marital standard of living” was $15,745.73 per month. But this figure did not play any role in the court’s mathematical calculation of Anne’s alimony award; as noted, the court calculated that amount by computing Anne’s shortfall and Ed’s ability to pay, and then by “equalizing the poverty.”

¶17      The court also made rulings dividing the parties’ property, assets, and debts, and most of those rulings are not at issue in this appeal. As relevant here, however, the court awarded Ed offsets for certain expenditures that “were used for family or child-related expenses, for which [Anne] should be equally responsible.” Anne also requested offsets, but the court declined to award them for several reasons, most notably because the court found that Anne “failed to provide credible and sufficient proof” supporting her requests. The court also concluded that Anne’s requests for offsets had not been timely asserted because they were “first mentioned in her Trial Brief (filed five days before trial)” and therefore Ed had been deprived of any opportunity to “conduct discovery on these requested offsets.”

¶18      Later, the court entered a decree of divorce incorporating its findings and conclusions. A few weeks after that, Anne filed a motion asking for a new trial or, in the alternative, for amendments to the decree. The main grievance asserted in this motion was Anne’s allegation that Ed had withheld relevant financial information indicating that his income was higher than he testified at trial. Shortly before filing this motion, Anne had obtained a copy of Ed’s 2020 W-2 form which, in her view, indicated that Ed had earned approximately $25,000 per month in gross income during October, November, and December 2020. Anne argued in her motion that Ed was in possession of this information during trial—certainly by the fourth day of trial, which was held in February 2021—but he did not inform her or the court of these developments. Anne also claimed that there existed “new evidence” showing that Ed was back to working at least some overtime hours during 2021 and that Delta was recovering from the pandemic faster than Ed had testified.

¶19      After full briefing, the court denied Anne’s motion, stating that Anne “did not prove the existence of newly discovered evidence that existed at the time of the trial (as opposed to facts or evidence that occurred subsequent to trial),” and noting that a “petition to modify is the appropriate mechanism for any pertinent changes that occur after trial.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶20      Anne now appeals, taking issue with certain aspects of the court’s post-trial findings and conclusions, as well as with the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial.

¶21      As noted, all of Anne’s challenges to the court’s findings and conclusions involve financial rulings. “In divorce actions, a [trial] court is permitted considerable discretion in adjusting the financial and property interests of the parties, and its actions are entitled to a presumption of validity.” Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 18, 452 P.3d 1134 (quotation simplified); see also Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 11, 496 P.3d 242 (“We review all aspects of the trial court’s alimony determination for an abuse of discretion . . . .” (quotation simplified)). “We will reverse only if (1) there was a misunderstanding or misapplication of the law resulting in substantial and prejudicial error; (2) the factual findings upon which the award was based are clearly erroneous; or (3) the party challenging the award shows that such a serious inequity has resulted as to manifest a clear abuse of discretion.” Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 18 (quotation simplified). “Appellants have a heavy burden to show that an alleged error falls into any of these three categories” because “we can properly find abuse only if no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the trial court.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶22      Anne also challenges the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial. “There are two aspects to a court’s decision-making process in ruling on a motion for new trial, and there are differences in the manner in which we review each aspect.” Peterson v. Hyundai Motor Co., 2021 UT App 128, ¶ 30, 502 P.3d 320 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 509 P.3d 768 (Utah 2022). “First, a trial court must determine that there exists a problem . . . that may require a retrial.” Id. ¶ 31. Some of the grounds for retrial listed in rule 59(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure “cannot be found to exist without some sort of factual determination on the part of the trial court,” and we review any such determination for abuse of discretion. Id. But other grounds, such as “the existence of legal errors,” “require no factual determination on the part of the trial court,” and rulings on these grounds are reviewed for correctness. Id. “Second, after determining that an error or impropriety of some kind exists, a trial court must determine whether the identified errors or improprieties are significant enough to warrant a retrial.” Id. ¶ 32. And this determination is usually reviewed for abuse of discretion. Id.

ANALYSIS

¶23      In this appeal, Anne challenges two aspects of the court’s rulings regarding the parties’ finances. Chiefly, Anne takes issue with the court’s alimony award; in her view, the award was, for several reasons, not big enough. She also asks us to review the court’s decisions regarding the parties’ claimed offsets. For the reasons explained below, we reject Anne’s challenges.

I. Alimony

¶24 Anne assails the court’s alimony award on several grounds. First, she takes issue with the court’s rulings regarding Ed’s gross monthly earning capacity. Second, with regard to her own earning capacity, she challenges the denial of her request that the court take into account certain claimed business expenses.[5] Third, she asserts that the court erred in computing the parties’ net (after-tax) incomes. And finally, she assails the overall alimony computation, arguing that the court did not properly take the parties’ pre-separation standard of living into account in assessing her reasonable monthly expenses. We discuss each argument, in turn, and find none of them persuasive.

A. Ed’s Gross Earning Capacity

¶25 Anne’s challenge to the court’s rulings regarding Ed’s gross earning capacity has two parts. First, Anne asks us to review the court’s original findings and conclusions. And second, Anne takes issue with the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial.

1

¶26      After considering the evidence presented during the four-day trial, the court made findings regarding Ed’s earning capacity. In particular, it determined that Ed’s current earning capacity, viewed from the perspective of a trial that occurred in late 2020 and early 2021, was best estimated by looking at his income in 2016, 2017, and 2018. In the court’s view, Ed’s 2019 income was anomalous, because he had worked significantly more that year than in previous years, and he was unlikely to work that much in the near future. And the court determined not to use Ed’s 2020 income either, given the uncertainty in the airline industry that year due to the pandemic. The court decided that the best indicator of Ed’s current earning capacity was an average of the three years prior to these two anomalous years. And the court determined not to include Delta profit-sharing payments in the income calculation, on the basis that—at the time of trial— airlines were struggling due to the pandemic and therefore Ed was unlikely to receive any profit-sharing payments “in the foreseeable future.” Using these parameters, the court calculated Ed’s “gross monthly income” as $20,452.25.

¶27 There was ample evidence presented during the trial to support these findings and conclusions. The parties presented tax returns and paystubs setting forth Ed’s salary and other income, and Ed offered extensive testimony in this regard that the court expressly found credible.[6] The court also heard evidence regarding conditions in the airline industry in 2019 and 2020, and about the COVID-19 pandemic. The trial record therefore contains evidence sufficient to support the court’s findings regarding which years to use in the income calculation, and regarding the specific amounts computed. And where there exists evidence sufficient to support a court’s rulings regarding a divorcing couple’s finances, that ruling will be upheld on appeal, even if evidence was presented that might have cut the other way. See Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 20 n.5, 217 P.3d 733 (“The pill that is hard for many appellants to swallow is that if there is evidence supporting a finding, absent a legal problem—a ‘fatal flaw’—with that evidence, the finding will stand, even though there is ample record evidence that would have supported contrary findings. After all, it is the trial court’s singularly important mission to consider and weigh all the conflicting evidence and find the facts.”).

¶28 Anne resists this conclusion by asserting that the court specifically erred in excluding any profit-sharing payments from the income calculation. She points out—correctly—that Utah law defines “gross income” as including “prospective income from any source.” See Utah Code § 78B-12-203(1). But the court found— based on prevailing economic conditions existing at the time of trial—that Ed was unlikely to “receive profit sharing payments for the foreseeable future,” and on that basis chose not to include those amounts in its calculation of Ed’s income. As noted, there was evidence to support this determination, and it therefore survives Anne’s appellate challenge.

¶29 Moreover, we have held that, while trial courts must “consider all sources of income when determining alimony,” Utah law “does not dictate that all sources of income be counted as income received by a spouse for that purpose.” Eberhard v. Eberhard, 2019 UT App 114, ¶ 21, 449 P.3d 202. Instead, our case law “preserv[es] a [trial] court’s broad discretion to treat sources of income as the court sees fit under the circumstances.” Id. Here, the trial court certainly considered the profit-sharing component of Ed’s historical income. And after consideration, it determined not to include profit sharing in Ed’s income calculation due to unfavorable economic conditions in existence at the time of trial, but it did order—separately—that, if economic conditions improved and Ed ended up receiving profit-sharing payments from Delta “during the years that [he] is paying alimony” to Anne, Ed would be “required to pay [Anne] half” of any such payments. As Ed points out, this order has the potential to be much better for Anne, in terms of dollars received over time,

than the order she is now asserting the court should have entered. But more to the point, it was well within the court’s discretion to craft this sort of creative solution to the parties’ alimony conundrum.

¶30      In short, the trial court’s findings regarding Ed’s gross monthly earning capacity were amply supported by evidence presented during the trial, and the court’s final computations and orders were not an abuse of its discretion.

2

¶31 Next, Anne takes issue with the court’s decision to deny her motion for a new trial. In that motion, Anne asked the court to order that a new trial be held in light of information— that she claimed was new—regarding Ed’s income. In particular, Anne asserted that Ed had, during trial, withheld relevant financial information indicating that his income in late 2020 and early 2021 was higher than he testified at trial. Anne also claimed that there existed “new evidence” that Ed was back to working at least some overtime hours during 2021 and that Delta was recovering from the pandemic faster than Ed had testified. The court denied Anne’s motion, and declined her invitation to order a new trial. We perceive no error in this determination.

¶32      Under applicable rules, a new trial “may be granted to any party on any issue” for any one of several enumerated reasons. See Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a). Those reasons include “irregularity in the proceedings of the court, . . . or any order of the court, or abuse of discretion by which a party was prevented from having a fair trial,” id. R. 59(a)(1); “newly discovered material evidence that could not, with reasonable diligence, have been discovered and produced at the trial,” id. R. 59(a)(4); “insufficiency of the evidence to justify the verdict or other decision,” id. R. 59(a)(6); and “the verdict or decision [being] contrary to law or based on an error in law,” id. R. 59(a)(7). Anne asked for a new trial under each of these subsections, and we discuss them in turn.

¶33      Rule 59(a)(1): Anne first argues that she is entitled to a new trial because of an irregularity in the proceedings. She points to Ed’s 2020 W-2 form, which she obtained in September 2021 (several months after the conclusion of the trial), and she asserts that Ed’s testimony at trial was inconsistent with that document. She characterizes Ed’s testimony as materially inaccurate, and she accuses him of being less than candid with the court.[7] Based on these assertions, she concludes that there was an irregularity in the trial proceedings sufficient to justify a new trial.

¶34 In this vein, Anne asserts that Ed had an ongoing obligation, which continued even during trial, to supplement his pretrial disclosures with up-to-date financial information. She acknowledges that Ed provided then-current financial information in his final pretrial disclosures, which the court ordered the parties to exchange some three weeks prior to trial; this information included Ed’s September 2020 paystub, including year-to-date income information. But she asserts that, despite Ed’s compliance with the court’s pretrial disclosure order, Ed violated his ongoing supplementation obligation, an event she asserts contributed to creating an “irregularity” in the trial proceedings. She points out that, even though the trial was originally scheduled to conclude over three days in November 2020, the court eventually scheduled a fourth trial day to take place in February 2021. She acknowledges that, ordinarily, a party discharges its pretrial disclosure obligations by complying with the court’s pretrial disclosure order, but she asserts that, under the unique circumstances of this case—in which trial was extended for another three months, into another calendar year—Ed became obligated to update his financial disclosures without further order of the court and without any request on her part.

¶35 We are unpersuaded. When it scheduled the fourth trial date, the court did not amend its pretrial disclosure order, or otherwise command the parties to update their financial disclosures, one more time, prior to that trial date. We also note that Anne herself did not attempt to supplement her disclosures during trial (for instance, she did not provide her own year-end 2020 financial information to Ed prior to the fourth trial date in February), nor did she complain to the trial court, during trial, about Ed’s failure to do so.

¶36 And Anne cites no statute or case law in support of the specific position she advocates. The only rules to which she directs our attention are the ones containing parties’ general disclosure and supplementation obligations. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(d)(5), 26.1. We acknowledge Anne’s point, and certainly agree with her that, during litigation, parties have ongoing supplementation obligations regarding their discovery disclosures. But we are aware of no specific rule compelling parties to continue to provide updated financial information after the final pretrial disclosure deadline; indeed, as we understand it, trial courts often set such deadlines so that trials can proceed in an orderly fashion and facilitate assessment of the litigants’ situation as of the date of the final financial disclosures.

¶37      Moreover, in the family law context, there exists a specific remedy for situations in which a party’s income changes materially after a trial has been held and findings about the parties’ financial situation have been made: a party may file a petition to modify the existing order. See id. R. 106; Utah Code §§ 30-3-5(11)(a), 78B-12-210(8). Indeed, in this case, the trial court

denied Anne’s motion for a new trial, at least in part, because it concluded that a “petition to modify is the appropriate mechanism” for addressing “any pertinent changes” in Ed’s income that have occurred “subsequent to trial.” We agree with the trial court that, ordinarily, the petition to modify remedy is the method that should be used to address post-trial changes in divorcing parties’ financial status. That remedy remains open to Anne here, despite the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial.

¶38      For all of these reasons, we perceive no abuse of discretion, under the circumstances presented here, in the trial court’s conclusion that Ed’s failure to provide ongoing paystubs and W-2 forms he received after the court’s final pretrial disclosure deadline did not constitute the sort of “irregularity in the proceedings” that would justify a new trial.

¶39      Rule 59(a)(4): Next, Anne argues that a new trial is necessary because of newly discovered evidence. See Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a)(4). Again, she points to Ed’s 2020 and 2021 W-2 forms, as well as new evidence about Delta’s 2021 resurgence, and asserts that this evidence constitutes “newly discovered material evidence” that would justify a new trial. We remain unpersuaded.

¶40      As an initial matter, “a motion for a new trial or amended judgment cannot be based on facts occurring subsequent to trial.” In re C.L., 2007 UT 51, ¶ 14, 166 P.3d 608 (quotation simplified). “Otherwise, there would be no end to litigation.” Id. (quotation simplified). Some of the “newly discovered evidence” obviously fits into this category: Ed’s 2021 W-2 was not available until well into 2022, and evidence of Delta’s 2021 resurgence was not available during any of the trial dates in this case.

¶41      Ed’s 2020 W-2 form, on the other hand, may well have been available, at least to Ed, prior to the fourth and final trial date in this case, which took place on February 11, 2021. But in order to demonstrate that the evidence in question is the kind of evidence that fits within rule 59(a)(4), Anne must show that the evidence “could not, by due diligence, have been discovered and produced

at trial.” Id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified); see also Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a)(4) (stating that, to be “newly discovered material evidence,” the evidence in question “could not, with reasonable diligence, have been discovered and produced at the trial”). In our view, Anne has not carried her burden of demonstrating that Ed’s 2020 W-2 form could not have been discovered and discussed during the February 11 trial date. Ed testified during the proceedings on February 11, and Anne’s attorney had the opportunity to ask Ed questions that day. Yet Ed was not asked any questions about his income during late 2020 or early 2021, and in particular he was not asked if his income had changed appreciably in the months since September 2020, the last month for which documentary information had been presented during the November 2020 trial dates. We are hard-pressed to conclude that information about Ed’s income during the last three months of 2020 and the first two months of 2021 “could not, with reasonable diligence, have been discovered and produced” at the February 11 trial date, when Anne had the chance to ask Ed about those issues and did not.

¶42      For these reasons, we discern no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s determination that no new trial was warranted under rule 59(a)(4).

¶43      Rule 59(a)(6): Next, Anne suggests that the trial court should have granted a new trial on the basis that there was insufficient evidence to justify its conclusions. See Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a)(6). We need not discuss this issue further, however, given our conclusions—set forth above—that sufficient evidence existed to support the trial court’s original findings and conclusions regarding Ed’s gross earning capacity.

¶44      Rule 59(a)(7): Finally, Anne asserts that the trial court should have granted a new trial because its initial findings regarding Ed’s income were “contrary to law or based on an error in law.” See id. R. 59(a)(7). But in this regard, Anne does not make any additional arguments that we have not already addressed; as noted, we perceive no legal error in the court’s findings and conclusions regarding Ed’s gross earning capacity, and no legal

error in the way the court conducted the trial, including specifically its pretrial disclosure order.

¶45 Accordingly, we see no infirmity in the court’s rulings regarding Ed’s gross earning capacity. Its initial findings and conclusions were supported by sufficient evidence, and the court did not err in denying Anne’s motion for a new trial and advising Anne to address the issues raised there, if at all, in the context of a petition to modify the decree.

B. Anne’s Business Expenses

¶46 Anne’s next challenge to the court’s alimony award involves one aspect of its ruling regarding her own earning capacity. As noted, the court determined that Anne’s gross earning capacity was $3,158.50 per month; it derived that figure by averaging her earnings from 2015 through 2019. The court declined Anne’s invitation to subtract business expenses from that figure, concluding that Anne had “failed to explain which, if any, business expenses claimed on her tax returns are necessary to allow [her clothing enterprise] to operate at a reasonable level.” Anne takes issue with the court’s refusal to subtract her claimed business expenses from her monthly gross income computation.

¶47 Under applicable statutory guidance, when a court is assessing a self-employed person’s gross income, the court shall “subtract[] necessary expenses required for self-employment or business operation from gross receipts.” Utah Code § 78B-12­203(4)(a). However, “[o]nly those expenses necessary to allow the business to operate at a reasonable level may be deducted from gross receipts.” Id. “The person claiming business expenses” bears the burden of proving that the claimed “expenses are necessary to allow the business to operate at a reasonable level.” See Ouk v. Ouk, 2015 UT App 104, ¶ 4, 348 P.3d 751 (quotation simplified). Thus, Anne bore the burden of demonstrating, at trial, that her claimed business expenses were necessary to allow her business to operate at a reasonable level. The trial court concluded that Anne failed to carry that burden.

¶48 At trial, Anne pointed to the “Schedule Cs” on her 2017, 2018, and 2019 tax returns as evidence of her business expenses. There, she claimed expenses for “Office expense,” “Supplies,” “Travel,” and “Utilities,” among other more minor items. The trial court explained its reasoning for rejecting Anne’s claim on these items. With regard to “Office expense,” the court noted that Anne “did not explain what actual and necessary business expense this would entail,” and that Anne had “admitted that she does not have an office outside her home.” With regard to “Utilities,” the court noted that Anne had acknowledged that this expense was simply “personal expenses that she is permitted to write off for tax purposes,” and that Anne was unable, during her trial testimony, to “be certain what her claimed ‘Utilities’ expenses entailed.” And with regard to “Supplies,” the court concluded that the figure Anne listed on her tax returns was confusing, because it was unclear, even after Anne’s trial testimony, whether this figure properly accounted for revenue Anne received from selling some of these supplies “at the end of each season.” Given these evidentiary deficiencies, the court found that Anne “failed to meet her burden to demonstrate that the claimed business expenses are only those necessary to allow her business to operate at a reasonable level.”

¶49 We perceive no infirmity in this determination. Anne offered very little testimony about her business expenses, and she supported that testimony only with her tax returns. In its ruling, the court identified several legitimate concerns about the persuasiveness of the evidence Anne presented, and it determined that Anne had not carried her burden of proof. Trial courts have discretion to credit, or not credit, evidence presented to them. See id. ¶ 14 (stating that “the fact-finder is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony” (quotation simplified)). Thus, under the circumstances of this case, the court did not abuse its discretion by finding that Anne had failed to carry her burden to prove the necessity of her business expenses.

C. Net Income Calculations

¶50      Anne’s next challenge to the alimony award involves the court’s net income calculations. She argues that, in assessing the impact of taxes on gross income, the court “miscalculated” her net income and “treated [her] differently than” it treated Ed.

¶51 Anne provided no testimony or documentary evidence regarding net income. That is, she offered the court no assistance in computing net income from the court’s gross income figures. And neither party hired an accountant or offered testimony from any other financial professional. Given these evidentiary realities, the court noted that it was “difficult to ascertain the amount of tax” Anne “actually pays,” especially given certain then-recent changes in the tax code regarding alimony. In the absence of better evidence, the court simply looked to Anne’s tax returns, which showed that, in 2017, Anne had paid $390.35 per month in combined federal and state taxes. The court then subtracted that number from its monthly gross income finding ($3,158.50), and found that Anne’s monthly net income, for alimony purposes, was $2,768.25. On appeal, Anne does not lodge any specific objection to this methodology at a conceptual level.

¶52      Instead, she complains that the court did not compute her net income in the same way as it computed Ed’s. In this, Anne is correct: the court did compute Ed’s net income in a different way. For Ed, the court simply took his gross income figure and applied a tax rate to it. As noted above, the court found that Ed’s monthly gross earning capacity was $20,452.25. The court simply applied “current tax rates” to that figure, without accounting for any potential tax deductions. Using this methodology, the court computed Ed’s monthly net income as $13,358.32.

¶53 Anne complains that using two different methodologies resulted in potential inequity: by using Anne’s actual “tax paid” figure from years past, the court accounted for any tax deductions she had taken, but by simply applying a tax rate to Ed’s gross income figure, the court did not similarly account for any tax deductions Ed might take in the future and effectively assumed that he wouldn’t take any. We take Anne’s point that, as a general matter and where possible, courts should compute divorcing parties’ net incomes for alimony purposes using the same methodology. But courts in appropriate cases may find it necessary to employ differing methodologies for computing spouses’ respective net incomes, and we cannot say that the court abused its discretion by doing so here.

¶54      In this case, there are differences between Anne’s and Ed’s situations. For starters, Anne did not offer any testimony or evidence regarding how the court should go about calculating her net income, so the court used the information it was given. More specifically, Anne did not provide the court any assistance in navigating the changes to the tax code regarding alimony. And with regard to Ed, the court would have found it difficult to use the “tax paid” figure from past tax returns, given that this figure may have included taxes paid on profit-sharing income, which the court had determined not to include in Ed’s future monthly gross income estimate. And as Ed points out, some of the key tax deductions he would have taken in past years (such as for children) would not be available to him in the future.

¶55 In our view, given the absence of any expert financial testimony, and given the paucity of assistance the parties offered the court in making these calculations, the court in this instance made findings within its discretion and supported by the evidence it was given. While we generally advise trial courts to use mirror-image methodologies to compute parties’ respective net incomes in family law cases, we cannot say that Anne has carried her appellate burden of demonstrating that the court abused its discretion by making the calculations it made.

D. Overall Alimony Computation

¶56 The final challenge Anne raises to the court’s alimony award is a more general one: she questions the formula the court used to arrive at its computation, and specifically challenges the manner in which the court assessed her reasonable monthly expenses. She notes that the court went to the trouble of making a finding regarding the parties’ overall marital standard of living ($15,745.73 per month), but she observes—correctly—that it is “unclear what role the marital standard of living then plays in the [c]ourt’s alimony determination.” And she points out that the court “did not use [this figure] as any sort of ‘baseline.’” It is not entirely clear exactly what Anne believes the court should have done with its $15,745.73 figure, but she complains that the court did not take it—and the marital standard of living—appropriately into account in assessing her expenses, and she laments that the court “based its alimony award wholly on [Anne’s] actual expenses at the time of trial.”

¶57 We see at least two problems with Anne’s argument, one general and one case-specific. At a general level, Anne misunderstands the formula that is to be used to compute alimony awards. As we recently observed, courts should not calculate alimony by simply dividing the couple’s pre-separation expenses in half. See Fox v. Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶¶ 18-19, 515 P.3d 481, cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022). Indeed, we noted that “[t]here is usually no need for a trial court to make a separate specific finding regarding the overall ‘marital standard of living’ as measured by the total amount of money spent each month by the couple while they were married.” Id. ¶ 19. Such a finding is typically unnecessary; it is not one of the input variables that a court needs to assess before computing an alimony award.

¶58 In this case, the court did go to the trouble of making a finding about the parties’ monthly expenses prior to separation ($15,745.73). But as Anne points out, the court did not use that figure in its ultimate alimony calculation. In this case (as, we suspect, in most cases), such a finding was not necessary and only served to complicate matters. The court did not need to make this finding at all, and its failure to use the $15,745.73 figure in its alimony calculation was not error.

¶59      To be sure, trial courts may not ignore the marital standard of living when making an alimony award. The pre-separation standard of living must be taken into account, because the primary purpose of alimony is “to get the parties as close as possible to the same standard of living that existed during the marriage.” See Rule v. Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 14, 402 P.3d 153 (quotation simplified). But the way a court should take that standard into account is by assessing a party’s claimed line-item expenses in light of that standard, and not by making an overall-expenses finding and chopping it in half. See Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶¶ 19–21, 24; see also Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 20, 496 P.3d 242 (examining each of the claimed line-item expenses “with the marital standard of living in mind”). To give effect to the marital standard of living, courts should—as a general rule— assess parties’ expenses as of the time of separation and not as of the time of trial. See Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 16 (cautioning “against determining alimony based upon actual expenses at the time of trial because . . . a party’s current, actual expenses may be necessarily lower than needed to maintain an appropriate standard of living for various reasons, including, possibly, lack of income” (quotation simplified)). But “in appropriate situations with regard to certain line items, a court may apply equitable principles, in its discretion, to base alimony on the standard of living that existed at the time of trial.” See Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 18 (quotation simplified). To assist with this process, the financial declaration form often used in family law cases—and used in this case—includes two columns for each expense item, one for “current amount” and one for “marital expenses.”

¶60      And this leads us to the case-specific problem with Anne’s argument: Anne provided the court with only time-of-trial expenses, and the court gave Anne credit for more or less everything she asked for on her financial declaration.

¶61      The trial court, after making its superfluous “marital standard of living” finding, then proceeded to use the correct formula to compute Anne’s alimony award. See Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 20. As relevant here, it correctly assessed “the needs of the parties, in light of their marital standard of living.” See id. (quotation simplified). In assessing Anne’s expenses, the court simply gave Anne everything she asked for—to the dollar—in her most recent financial declaration, with only a few exceptions. The court found that a few of the listed expenses were “post-separation debt for which [Anne] is solely responsible,” and it therefore deducted those expenses from the calculation.7F8 And without being asked to do so, the court added to Anne’s list a line item for health care expenses. With regard to all the rest of Anne’s claimed expenses, the court found that these expenses were “reasonable in light of the marital standard of living.” With these adjustments, and based largely on Anne’s own requests, the court calculated Anne’s reasonable monthly expenses as $6,218.

¶62 We perceive no error in the court’s analysis of Anne’s reasonable expenses. It is significant that Anne did not provide the court, in her financial declaration or in her trial testimony, with any evidence regarding the “marital expenses” amount for her claimed line items. If a party offers into evidence only time-of-trial expense amounts, and does not provide the court with any evidence of pre-separation expenses (to the extent they are different), that party has no right to complain when the court awards the time-of-trial amounts. Any complaint on Anne’s part that the court failed to appropriately take the marital standard of living into account in assessing these expenses rings hollow when Anne herself apparently didn’t take the marital standard of living into account in making her claims, and where the court—more or less—credited Anne with all of the expenses she was claiming.

¶63      We therefore reject all of Anne’s challenges to the court’s alimony award. The court employed the proper formula, and all of its determinations were supported by sufficient evidence and were within the court’s discretion.

8. On appeal, Anne does not take issue with the court’s deduction of these post-separation debts from her expenses.

II. Offsets

¶64      The only non-alimony argument Anne raises concerns the court’s rulings regarding the parties’ claimed offsets. During trial, both parties claimed that they should each receive credits, or “offsets,” for purchases made using their personal funds that they believed both parties should be equally responsible for. Ed sought reimbursement of payments he made for maintenance of the marital home and for certain child-related expenses. For her part, Anne sought repayment of other child-related expenses and of costs incurred in moving out of the marital home, and she sought equalization for various other instances where she alleged Ed had used her personal funds. In its post-trial ruling, the court granted Ed’s requests for offsets, but declined to grant Anne’s requests. The court determined that Anne’s requests were “not credible and not proven” because Anne “failed to provide credible and sufficient proof” supporting her claims. The court also concluded that Anne’s requests for offsets had not been timely asserted because they were “first mentioned in her Trial Brief (filed five days before trial)” and therefore Ed had been deprived of any opportunity to “conduct discovery on these requested offsets.”

¶65      Anne contends that the court should not have denied her requests and granted Ed’s, and again complains that the court treated her differently than it treated Ed. She directs much of her appellate ire at the court’s secondary reason for its ruling—that Anne’s requests were not timely made—and asserts that Ed’s requests suffered from the same infirmity. While the court did note that Anne did not timely disclose her offset requests, we do not perceive that as the primary basis for the court’s denial of her requests. Rather, the court’s main concern was that Anne had not carried her burden of proving her requested offsets. By contrast, the court determined that Ed had proven his requested offsets, and that he had done so through a spreadsheet exhibit and “credible” testimony.

¶66 On appeal, Anne does little to engage with the court’s conclusion that her claims—unlike Ed’s—were “not credible and not proven.” Rather, Anne lists the offset awards and denials that she disagrees with, and she offers her view that the rulings were in error. She makes conclusory statements about who paid certain expenses, without proper record citations for those propositions. And for several of the offsets awarded to Ed, Anne claims that there was insufficient evidence, but she does not explain how or why Ed’s spreadsheet exhibit, coupled with his testimony that the court found credible, does not constitute sufficient evidence.

¶67      “An appellant bears the burden of persuasion on appeal, and this burden includes engaging with and responding to the grounds for the decision the appellant is challenging on appeal.” In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶ 39, 523 P.3d 168 (quotation simplified). In this case, Anne has not carried her appellate burden of demonstrating that the court erred in its offset determinations.

CONCLUSION

¶68 The trial court’s post-trial findings and conclusions regarding alimony and offsets were all supported by sufficient evidence and were not an abuse of its discretion. And the court did not err in denying Anne’s motion for a new trial. For all of these reasons, we reject Anne’s appellate challenges.

¶69 Affirmed

 

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

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Evidence and Honesty By Braxton Mounteer

You have just decided to file for divorce. Or perhaps you have been served with divorce papers. At some point early on in the process you will likely think to yourself, “I have so many text messages that clearly prove my spouse is terrible,” or “I have videos of my spouse behaving badly.” You could be right. But do you know what kind of evidence is relevant and that the court finds persuasive? And have you considered the implications of what your “evidence” actually says about you? For every gotcha text message or video you have, does your spouse have similar dirt on you?

You may think to yourself, “I’ll just delete the messages that cast me in a bad light,” or “I’ll edit the videos a certain way to make myself look better” and engage in other cherry picking. This rarely works. Indeed, it often backfires. Manipulating the facts is a form of lying. And it’s not that hard to spot or expose.

Understand what kinds of evidence the court needs and what is useless to a court. The court’s jobs are clearcut: 1) end the marriage 2) divide the marital assets, 3) divide responsibility for marital debts, 4) deal with custody of the children (if any), parent-time, and child support, and 4) determine whether to award alimony, and if so, how much and for how long based upon the recipient’s need and the payor’s ability to pay. That’s it. It is not the purpose of the divorce court to settle scores between you and your spouse or to declare who’s worse than the other. While spousal or child abuse can be relevant in a divorce case, stories about shouting matches and squabbles are nothing new or compelling in a divorce case.

Take a businesslike approach to your divorce case. You have to work out your feelings in a divorce case, just not in court. Don’t dwell on your feelings too much when dealing with the court; it’s a waste of your time and energy.

What should you do, then? You need to face the truth and deal with the truth. Submit the relevant evidence and concede your flaws and faults along with it. Your credibility is more important than trying to put up a false front. Your credibility is easier to show and maintain when you’re honest. Courts are more sympathetic with honest people than with liars.

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

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Utah Divorce and Your Financial Declaration: Why it Matters, and How to Prepare It the Right Way

In every Utah divorce case, the parties must prepare what is known as a financial declaration. The parties to a divorce action are required by the rules of court to provide each other with their financial declarations.

With rare exception, divorce litigants struggle with preparing a complete, accurate, truthful financial declaration. We prepared this video (and an accompanying blog post) to help you 1) overcome procrastination, 2) understand the purpose of each part of your financial declaration, and 3) persuade you, we hope, not to give in to the temptation to lie on your financial declaration or try to hide anything from disclosure on your financial declaration.

  1. What is your financial declaration?

Concisely stated, your financial declaration is a document that provides information about income, assets, debts, and personal expenses.

The information in the financial declaration is used to analyze and determine questions of child support, alimony, division of marital property, and assigning responsibility for marital debts and obligations. as well as for determining an attorney’s fee or “for any other reason” (Utah Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 26.1(e)).

The specifics of what needs to be included in your financial declaration are outlined in URCP Rule 26.1. The acronym URCP means “Utah Rules of Civil Procedure,” and URCP 26.1 requires that you provide specific supporting documents with your financial declaration:

  • Your previous two years’ personal and business tax returns, including all the documents submitted with your tax returns and all documents used to prepare those tax returns
  • Pay stubs for the last 12 months before the petition for divorce was filed with the court.
  • Documents that verify the value of all real estate that the parties have an interest in (for example, your most recent appraisal, tax valuation, and refinance documents)
  • Bank statements for all financial accounts for the 3 months before the divorce was filed (this includes checking, savings, money market funds, certificates of deposit, brokerage, investment, retirement, regardless of whether the account has been closed including those held jointly, in your name, or as a trustee or guardian, or on someone’s behalf).

We also suggest that you provide documentation of your personal expenses going as far back as you can. If you don’t have this documentation, start compiling it.

  1. Is there a way to be exempt from preparing and producing a financial declaration?

No. We will not discuss this topic again. You must prepare a financial declaration, and you must prepare it within the time limits you are given to prepare it. You must give your spouse a copy of it. There is no way around it. If you refuse to provide a financial declaration, the court can and almost surely will sanction you severely. Here is what Rule 26.1 provides on that subject:

(f) Sanctions. Failure to fully disclose all assets and income in the Financial Declaration and attachments may subject the non-disclosing party to sanctions under Rule 37 including an award of non-disclosed assets to the other party, attorney’s fees or other sanctions deemed appropriate by the court.

(g) Failure to comply. Failure of a party to comply with this rule does not preclude any other party from obtaining a default judgment, proceeding with the case, or seeking other relief from the court.

  1. Do I have to give the court a copy of my financial declaration? Why?

You may be required to file a copy of your financial declaration with the court if 1) a hearing is scheduled on the subject of child support, spousal support, division of property, allocation of responsibility for debts, attorney fees awards and court costs, or 2) the court has ordered you to file it.

  1. Do I have to give my spouse a copy of my financial declaration? Why?

Yes, you do need to give your spouse a copy of your financial declaration. It is required by court rules. Rule 26.1(c), to be exact.

But the better question is why wouldn’t you give your spouse a copy of your financial declaration? Exchanging financial declarations with your spouse is a way of keeping both parties honest about income, assets, debts and obligations, and personal expenses.

There is an element of wounded pride and embarrassment associated with close examination of the details of a person’s finances. Being honest and pushing your pride aside is hard but is still better than misrepresenting or hiding your financial state.

  1. What will happen if I do not prepare and provide my spouse (and the court, when necessary or when ordered to do so) a financial declaration?

See paragraph 2 above.

And your attorney will likely withdraw as your counsel.

    1. You could be sanctioned for contempt of court. This can lead to fines, penalties, or even jail time.
    2. You could lose your rights and entitlements you would otherwise deserve when it comes to division of marital property, responsibility for marital debts and obligations, and the spousal support and child support awards.

6. Isn’t a financial declaration just busy work?

I hope that by now you can see that a financial declaration is plainly not busy work.

A clear, accurate, and complete financial declaration is one of the best ways to establish your honesty, character, and credibility overall.

A clear, accurate, and complete financial declaration is necessary to help you understand the reality of your financial situation now and what it will likely be post-divorce.

We get it. Taking a hard, honest look at your financials is scary and discouraging. But burying your head in the sand does you no good. Face up to it and get it done.

  1. I do not see the point of a financial declaration (you are lying; of course you see the point of a financial declaration).
  2. “Hey,” you may think, “I have a smart and original idea: I will lie on my financial declaration.” This is neither original nor smart.
    1. You are not the first and will not be the last person to believe that they can lie to your attorney, to the court and to your spouse and to your spouse’s attorney. People have been lying to the courts from the beginning. Sometimes it works. The odds, however, are against you.
    2. The moral thing to do is to tell the truth.
    3. If doing the right thing is not reason enough to be honest and forthright, then remember you are not as good a liar as you think, and you will be caught in your lies.
    4. Do you really believe that you are smarter than the opposing counsel, your attorney, and the court individually or combined? You can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
    5. Lying can get you some big benefits if you get away with it. However, if you are caught lying, you will lose. The court can hold you in contempt, and even strike your pleadings outright and award default judgment to your spouse. If your main worry is your money, then you should disclose it. Getting caught in a lie or worse, lying under oath is usually more costly than being honest and forthcoming.
    6. Courts have seen liars lying on financial declarations forever. There is nothing new under the sun.
    7. Unless your lawyer is a crook, if you insist on lying on your financial declaration, your lawyer will be required to drop you as a client.

OK, so you’re now convinced there is no escaping the preparation of your complete and accurate financial declaration. How do I prepare my best financial declaration? Great question. Let’s start answering it by first addressing the wrong way to prepare a financial declaration.

  1. The wrong way to prepare your financial declaration
    • Guessing or estimating without 1) making it clear on your financial declaration form that you were making an estimate, and 2) making the most accurate guess/estimate you can and explaining the bases for your estimate.

Your spouse isn’t likely to cut you some slack if you guess or estimate incorrectly. No, instead your spouse will accuse you of lying. Don’t make wild guesses. Don’t make estimates without making it clear that your estimate is an estimate, not an unquestionable fact.

Sloppy guessing and estimating makes you look dishonest and/or ignorant. Courts don’t listen to liars and fools or take them seriously.

  1. Falsely claiming that you “don’t remember” and that you cannot find documents.

This is lying, and it doesn’t fool anyone. Anyone may honestly forget or misremember a few details. Sometimes documents get lost. It’s only human. But conveniently claiming “I don’t recall” and “I can’t find it” in response to crucial questions? Come on. You cannot even lie persuasively to yourself like that.

Claiming you can’t find documents doesn’t mean your spouse or your spouse’s lawyer can’t find them through other means.

  1. The right way to prepare your financial declaration.
    • The right way to fill out a financial declaration is to be as honest and thorough as possible to provide as complete and accurate a financial declaration as possible. Yes, it may hurt or embarrass you to be so honest about your financial situation, but it hurts worse to lie and be sloppy.
    • Do the necessary work. You can’t skip steps and take shortcuts and turn out a complete and accurate financial declaration. If you think you are an exception, you’re lying to yourself.
    • Don’t procrastinate. You cannot prepare a good financial declaration by waiting until the last minute. Procrastination does more damage to your ability to prepare a good financial declaration than any other bad habit. Procrastination needlessly and inexcusably makes it sadly and much harder to prepare your financial declaration.
    • Conquer procrastination. Conquer it by:
      • 1) committing to complete 3 pages per day, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. There are about 14 pages in a financial declaration form. Your attorney can prepare the first 2 pages for you. That leaves 11-12 pages you need to fill out yourself. If you complete 3 pages per day (and leave yourself an extra day or two to compensate for interruptions or snags you encounter along the way), you’ll have it done—and done well—in 5 days.

2) compiling your supporting documents. Start now. Make sure you contact your banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions, HR and/or payroll department, retirement benefits administrator, and credit card companies to get the documents you need to attach to your financial declaration:

  • Tax returns for the last two years
  • Pay stubs or other proof of income for the 12 months before the petition was filed
  • Loan applications for the 12 months before the petition was filed
  • Real estate documents. Deed, most recent appraisal, tax valuation, and refinance documents (if any).
  • Financial statements for the 3 months before the petition was filed. This includes, but is not limited to:
    • checking
    • savings
    • credit cards
    • money transfer apps
    • money market funds
    • certificates of deposit
    • brokerage
    • investment
    • retirement

It can take several days for the documents to be emailed or mailed to you, so contact the sources and request them now. Don’t be afraid to follow up if you haven’t received them by the time the sources estimate or promise you’ll have them.

  1. Garbage in, garbage out. If you wait until the last minute to prepare your financial declaration, odds are your financial declaration will be mediocre, and a mediocre financial declaration is dangerous. Frankly, if you prepare a half-baked financial declaration, you deserve the natural consequences of poor preparation.

iii. Work in and for your best interest.

  1. Do the work. Do it consistently. Do it on time. There is no other way to do it right.
  2. You cannot foist the preparation of a solid financial declaration on your attorney and his assistants. Really, you can’t. Don’t try. It won’t work. It cannot work.
  3. Your attorney and his assistants cannot do it for you. It is impossible. There is information and there are supporting documents only you can provide.
  4. Your attorney and his assistants do not know more about your financial situation than you do.

iii. Your attorney is there to help you get your financial declaration in ship shape, but you have to do the work and supply information and documents that only you can provide before your attorney can be of any help to you.

  1. There is no loophole. There is no magic wand. You will have to do the work and do it consistently in order to put your best foot forward. Time wasted or squandered cannot be recovered.
  2. Explaining each part of the financial declaration and what the court and the opposing party use it for:
  3. Paragraph 1. Statement of whether you are filing a copy of your financial declaration with the court. This paragraph is fairly self-explanatory. Unless there is a hearing on the subject of alimony, child support, or attorney’s fees awards scheduled, or unless the court has ordered you to file your financial declaration with the court, you don’t file your financial declaration with the court.
  4. Paragraph 2. The documents supporting your financial declaration. Your tax returns, pay stubs, loan applications, real estate documents, and financial statements verify the information you provide in the other paragraphs in your financial declaration.
  5. Paragraph 3. Employment. You identify whether you are employed, and if you are, who your employer or employers are, how you are compensated, how often you are paid, and how much you are paid.
  6. Paragraph 4. Gross Monthly Income. You identify all sources of your pre-tax income, whether earned or unearned, and how much you receive on a monthly basis from each income source. If you don’t receive income on a monthly basis, then you identify what the average annualized monthly amount is.
  7. Paragraph 5. Monthly tax deductions. You identify what taxes are deducted from your gross monthly income and how much is deducted.
  8. Paragraph 6. After Tax Income. This paragraph is fairly self-explanatory. In this paragraph you state what your net income is after you deduct the taxes withheld from your gross monthly income.
  9. Paragraph 7. Monthly Expenses. This paragraph is fairly self-explanatory. Here you identify what your monthly personal expenses are. If you have separated and your expenses have changed since separation, then you identify the differences between your “Current” monthly personal expenses and what your previous “Marital” monthly personal expenses are.

You don’t simply state your personal expenses in paragraph 7. You need to be able to verify and justify them too. To do that, you need to provide receipts documenting these expenses as real.

Providing receipts establishes your credibility. They demonstrate that you are transparent and honest about your financial situation. Providing receipts establishes accuracy. They ensure that you do not overstate or understate your financial obligations and they prevent the court from dismissing your personal expense claims as false or inflated. Providing receipts provide context and explanations for specific expenditures.

  1. Paragraph 8. Business Interests. A business could be a marital asset that has value to be divided in divorce. Or it could be separate property. This is why you provide the information about your business interests, who owns the business interests, and the value of business assets.
  2. Paragraph 9. Financial Assets. This is where you identify where your money is kept, as well as information on other financial assets such as stocks and bonds, insurance policies, and retirement accounts.
  3. Paragraph 10. Real Estate. This is where you identify your interests in real estate, such as the marital home, vacation property, rental properties, or other interests in real estate.
  4. Paragraph 11. Personal Property. In this paragraph you identify the personal property that you own, whether you acquired it before marriage or during the marriage. Must you list every shirt and sock you own, every knife, fork, and spoon? No. A fair rule of thumb for what to list in paragraph 11 is that anything valued around $500 or more goes on the list. You can identify things worth less if you want or if you feel it is important, of course.
  5. Paragraph 12. Debts Owed. In this paragraph you identify both your separate and marital debts and obligations. The type of debt, the account number (if applicable), who the debtors are, the balance owed on the debt, and what the minimum monthly payment is (if applicable).
  6. Supporting documents for your financial declaration must be in PDF format.

The court will not accept documents in any form other than PDF, so all supporting documents must be in PDF form. Here are ways to scan and save documents as PDFs:

  1. Scanner with built-in PDF-creation functionality. Most scanners come with built-in PDF-creation functionality, so you can scan a document and automatically save it in PDF format.
  2. All-in-one multifunction machines: All-in-one machines often have scanning capabilities that allow you to scan documents to PDF files.
  3. Smartphone Apps: There are several smartphone apps that enable you to convert a photograph of a document into PDF format. This is, however, the worst option of all the others. Scanning from a smartphone is time consuming, results in the lowest quality images, and makes it hard to scan multi-page documents. Use your own scanner or have someone else scan your documents into PDF format. You and your lawyer will be glad you did.

Once you gather your supporting documents together, save complete and legible copies of them in PDF format and then email them to your attorney to serve or file them with your financial declaration.

Thank you for watching. Thank you for reading. You’re better for having done so. Because you are now better educated and better prepared to complete your financial declaration fully, accurately, and on time. We hope that watching this video and reading the associated blog post has not only impressed upon you the importance of your financial declaration but has demystified what your financial declaration is and the purposes it serves. We hope you are better prepared and more confident going forward.

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

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In re A.S.G.-R. – 2023 UT App 126 – permanent custody and guardianship

In re A.S.G.-R. – 2023 UT App 126

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF A.S.G.-R.,

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.R.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH AND E.G.,

Appellees.

Opinion No. 20220645-CA

Filed October 19, 2023

Fourth District Juvenile Court, Provo Department

The Honorable D. Scott Davis

No. 1196726

Alexandra Mareschal and Julie J. Nelson,

Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M.

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

Neil D. Skousen, Attorney for Appellee E.G.

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        G.R. (Mother) became convinced that E.G. (Father) was sexually abusing their daughter, A.S.G.-R. (Child). Over a nearly two-year period, Mother made or sparked some thirty reports of sexual abuse to Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). After investigation, however, DCFS was unable to discover any credible evidence supporting Mother’s allegations, and therefore did not substantiate any of them. And given the number and repeated nature of the reports, DCFS became concerned that Child was being harmed by the allegations and ensuing investigations, some of which had included invasive physical examinations of Child.

¶2        Eventually, the State filed a petition for protective supervision and obtained an order removing Child from Mother’s custody and placing her with Father. After affording Mother fifteen months of reunification services, including a psychological evaluation and therapy, the juvenile court determined that the services had not resulted in sufficient change to the situation and that Child would be placed at substantial risk if she were returned to Mother, and therefore terminated reunification services. And after a four-day permanency hearing, the court entered a permanent custody and guardianship order in favor of Father.

¶3        Mother now appeals, arguing that the court erred in its decisions to not extend reunification services and to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. We discern no reversible error in those decisions, and therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶4        Child was born in January 2017. Mother and Father separated shortly before Child’s birth, and about two years later they finalized their divorce. In the decree of divorce, Mother and Father were awarded joint legal custody of Child, but Mother was awarded primary physical custody with Father having statutory parent-time.

¶5        Child welfare officials first became involved with this family in November 2018, when DCFS made a supported finding of domestic violence with Father as the perpetrator and Child as the victim. At some point during this same time frame, Mother obtained a protective order against Father, based on allegations that he committed domestic violence against her also.

¶6        Beginning in May 2019, Mother began to make accusations that Father was sexually abusing Child. Over the course of the next two years, Mother made at least eight direct reports to DCFS of alleged sexual abuse. In addition, Mother reported her allegations to various medical and mental health professionals, some of whom also made reports to DCFS based on Mother’s representations. In total, between May 2019 and February 2021, some thirty separate reports were made to DCFS that Father was sexually abusing Child. DCFS investigated these reports and could not substantiate any of them. In connection with some of these reports, Mother took Child to the hospital. During two of these visits, Child—approximately three years old at the time— was subjected to invasive physical examinations, including one “code-R” rape examination.[2] The examinations yielded no evidence of abuse, and in January 2020 DCFS representatives spoke with Mother about the potential harm that could result to Child from repeated unfounded allegations and needless forensic medical examinations. In addition, in April 2020 the “medical director of Utah’s [Center for] Safe and Healthy Families” program advised Mother that subjecting Child to “any further sexual assault examinations could result in an allegation of abuse for [Mother] due to the harm that unnecessary examinations can cause a child.”

¶7        During this time frame, and in an effort to expand Mother’s understanding of the relevant issues, DCFS opened a “voluntary services case” to provide Mother the opportunity to take advantage of certain services, and Mother agreed to work with DCFS to try to improve the situation.

¶8        During the pendency of the voluntary services case, however, Mother hired a private investigator to investigate the possibility of sexual abuse by Father, and she did not tell DCFS that she had done so. This investigator interviewed Child, using techniques the juvenile court later found to “violate[] nearly every guideline for child forensic interviewing,” including “ask[ing] leading questions, [making] promises to [Child] that could not be kept, and offer[ing Child] ice cream if she would tell the interviewer what ‘daddy’s secret’ is.”

¶9        Despite DCFS’s efforts to assist Mother, the voluntary services case did not have its desired effect. Mother proved unable or unwilling to follow the plan DCFS outlined, and she stopped communicating with the DCFS caseworker.[3] Eventually, DCFS closed the voluntary services case.

¶10 Sometime after that case was closed, Mother—in a continuing effort to present evidence that Father was sexually abusing Child—took a video recording of Child in an incident the juvenile court described as follows: Mother “videotaped [Child], naked on a bed, having her point to where [Father] touches her. On the video, [Mother] touches [Child’s] genitals and has her spread her legs and moves the camera angle close-up to [Child’s] genitals.” Mother provided a copy of this recording to DCFS, but caseworkers declined to view it “based on concerns that it may potentially contain child pornography.” Mother then provided the video recording to law enforcement.

¶11      In January 2021, Mother again brought Child to a hospital, alleging that Child “disclosed that [Father] had put his mouth on [Child’s] vagina just hours prior.” Another invasive physical examination was performed on Child, yet “no male DNA was found on [Child’s] genitals.” DCFS was informed about this incident, presumably from hospital personnel, and investigated it; the investigation included interviewing Child at the Children’s Justice Center. After completing its investigation, DCFS found “no corroborating evidence” and concluded that Child’s “disclosure was coached” and “not credible.”

¶12      The present case was initiated in March 2021 when Mother sought a protective order barring Father from having contact with Child, and the State responded by not only intervening in the protective order case but also by filing this action: a petition for protective supervision services in which the State asked the court to “discontinue” the protective order, conclude that Child was “abused, dependent, and/or neglected,” award DCFS protective supervision of Child, and allow DCFS to place Child in Father’s custody during the pendency of the case.

¶13      At a shelter hearing held about a week later, the juvenile court ordered Child removed from Mother’s custody and placed in the temporary custody of DCFS, which then placed Child, on a preliminary basis, with Father. Child has remained in Father’s care ever since.

¶14      Later, at a subsequent hearing, the court found, based on stipulation, that Child was dependent as to Father. With regard to Father, the court indicated that the primary permanency goal was “Reunification/REMAIN HOME,” and that the concurrent goal was “Remain Home with non-custodial parent.”

¶15      The court held an adjudication hearing as to Mother; at that hearing, Father and the guardian ad litem (the GAL) asserted that Mother’s conduct—making repeated false claims of sexual abuse, thereby subjecting Child to interviews, investigations, and physical examinations—constituted abuse, but the State argued only for a finding of neglect. After the hearing, the court found “no specific evidence” of harm to Child that could support a finding of abuse, but instead determined that Child “is neglected” as to Mother because Child “lacks proper care by reason of the fault or habits of [Mother].” For Mother, the court set a primary permanency goal of “RETURN HOME” and a concurrent permanency goal of “Permanent Custody and Guardianship with a Relative.” The court explained that it was setting “different permanency goals for each parent,” and that for Father, “the primary goal will be” for Child to “remain[] home with him,” with “the concurrent goal of reunification if she is removed from his care.” For Mother, the primary goal was “reunification, with the concurrent goal of guardianship with [a] relative.”

¶16 In connection with setting these permanency goals, the court adopted a Child and Family Plan (the Plan). Under the terms of the Plan, Mother was required to, among other things, “complete a psychological evaluation and follow through with all recommendations”; “participate in individual therapy”; participate in a “parenting class”; and “maintain stable and appropriate housing” for herself and Child. The Plan also required Mother to be “open and honest” in connection with the psychological evaluation, as well as with therapists and other mental health professionals. The Plan provided that its objectives would “be achieved when [Child] is living at [Mother’s] home” and when Mother “is providing a healthy, stable, and age-appropriate environment . . . that supports a strong co-parenting relationship with” Father. No party lodged any objection to the terms of the Plan or to the permanency goals the court set.[4]

¶17 Thereafter, Mother completed a parenting class as well as—after some delay that may or may not have been attributable to her—the required psychological evaluation. The psychologist who conducted the evaluation (Evaluator) diagnosed Mother with “unspecified personality disorder” characterized by “symptoms indicative of borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders as well as paranoid-like features.” In particular, Evaluator noted that Mother has “a belief that she can only be understood by a few people,” a “sense of entitlement,” a “lack of empathy,” and a “pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others” that leads her to sometimes “suspect[], without sufficient basis, that others are harming and deceiving her.” Evaluator offered his view that, “unless [Mother] overcomes her psychopathological features,” she “cannot act in [Child’s] best interest.” He noted that the “obvious recommendation” for Mother would be for her to “pursue an effective treatment program,” but he was doubtful that such a program would succeed in Mother’s case, because Mother “is convinced that she is not the problem” and because, “given her personality disorder features, . . . it would be hard for [Mother] to develop an effective psychotherapeutic alliance with her psychotherapist.”

¶18 Thereafter, DCFS sent Mother a list of recommended therapists, and Mother attended therapy sessions with at least three different mental health professionals. DCFS expressed concern that Mother “was seeking out multiple providers,” some of whom reported that Mother was attempting to “get a second opinion on the psychological evaluation,” and DCFS was worried that Mother was “continu[ing] to report” to these therapists “that [Child] was being sexually abused.” Because of this, DCFS harbored a “concern that there is no clear progress in therapy, due to minimal communication from providers, multiple providers involved and regular changes in therapy.” Mother maintains, however, that she “engaged in all recommended therapy,” an assertion no party apparently contests, although the record is far from clear about what the specific recommendations were and exactly how Mother complied with them.

¶19 After the psychological evaluation was completed, the parties appeared for a review hearing before the court. At that hearing, the results of the evaluation were discussed, and the court commented that, “if the case were closed today and things returned to how they were before the case, [Child] would be at risk of harm by” Mother. The court ordered that Child remain in DCFS custody and placed with Father, with whom the court stated it had “no safety concerns.”

¶20 As the twelve-month permanency hearing approached, Mother moved for an extension of reunification services for “at least 90 days.” Mother argued that she had complied with the Plan, in that she had completed the parenting class and the psychological evaluation and had engaged in therapy. In this motion, Mother also argued that the juvenile court could not enter an order of permanent custody and guardianship with Father, because the district court had already entered a custody order, in connection with the parties’ divorce case, and in Mother’s view the district court should be the court to enter and modify custody orders between the parents. Father opposed Mother’s motion for extended services, but the State did not register opposition. The court scheduled an evidentiary hearing to consider the matter. But due to problems with witness subpoenas, the evidentiary hearing needed to be postponed, which resulted in Mother’s motion for an extension of services being de facto granted: services were then extended for another ninety days, and the postponed evidentiary hearing was turned into a permanency hearing.

¶21      After these delays, the permanency hearing was held, over four nonconsecutive trial days, in April and June 2022. Child’s DCFS caseworker testified that she believed that Mother had been “coaching [Child] into telling people certain things.” And Child’s psychologist testified that she “did not observe significant behaviors or concerns, [or] emotions concerning expressions that would signal to [her] that [Child] has experienced sexual abuse.”

¶22      Evaluator testified at length during the trial, and discussed the specifics of his evaluation of Mother. He discussed his diagnosis that Mother had an “unspecified personality disorder.” He testified that the evaluation took longer than anticipated because Mother “did not involve herself in the evaluation in a forthright manner,” “withheld relevant information that was requested of her,” and “intentionally distorted information.” In his view, Mother did not think that she was the problem or that she had done anything wrong. Evaluator reiterated his view that unless Mother “overcomes her psychopathological features, [she] cannot act in [Child’s] best interest.”

¶23 During her own testimony, Mother continued to cling to her viewpoint that Father had been sexually abusing Child. She testified that “she does not agree with a doctor’s opinion that there was no evidence of sexual abuse.” When asked whether she “still believe[d]” that Father had sexually abused Child, she answered that she did not know, but that some “part of [her]” still believed that abuse took place, and that she still had “a suspicion” in that regard. She did not recognize any impropriety in her multiple reports of sexual abuse to DCFS and other authorities, testifying that she did not “think [she] was doing anything incorrectly” regarding the parenting of Child. And she did not agree that her behavior constituted neglect of Child.

¶24      In this same vein, Mother also called her ongoing therapist to testify at the trial. The therapist testified that he had spent some thirty hours of therapy with Mother and that she had been cooperative. The therapist opined, to the extent he was able to as a fact witness, that Evaluator’s diagnosis of an “unspecified personality disorder” was incorrect, that Mother had not neglected Child by reporting sexual abuse to the authorities, and that Father had indeed sexually abused Child.

¶25      At the conclusion of the trial, the juvenile court took the matter under advisement. A few weeks later, the court issued a written decision containing several different rulings. First, the court declined Mother’s invitation to further extend reunification services, and it terminated those services. Important to the court’s decision in this regard were its findings that—although Mother had taken certain steps, including completing parenting classes, engaging in therapy, and completing the psychological evaluation—Mother had not fully complied with the terms of the Plan, because even after all of these services, Mother “accepted virtually no responsibility for [Child] being in DCFS custody for more than one year,” “demonstrated virtually no insight regarding the harm she has caused” to Child, and offered “varied and conflicted” testimony “regarding whether she still believed” that Father had sexually abused Child, “despite there being no credible evidence that he has.” The court also determined that reunification between Mother and Child was not “probable or likely within the next 90 days” and that the extension of services was not in Child’s best interest.

¶26 Second, the court awarded “permanent custody and guardianship” of Child to Father. Important to the court’s decision in this regard were its findings that “return of [Child] to [Mother’s] care would create a substantial risk of detriment to [Child’s] physical or emotional well-being,” that there is “no credible evidence” that Father has ever sexually abused Child, and that Child “seems to be thriving and well-adjusted [and] well cared for” in Father’s care.

¶27 Finally, after denying Mother’s request for additional reunification services and granting permanent custody and guardianship in favor of Father, the court terminated its jurisdiction in the case.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶28 Mother now appeals, and she raises two issues for our consideration. First, she challenges the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. The juvenile court is “in the best position to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, the parent’s level of participation in reunification services, and whether services were appropriately tailored to remedy the problems that led to the child’s removal.” In re D.R., 2022 UT App 124, ¶ 9, 521 P.3d 545 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1264 (Utah 2023). Accordingly, “absent a demonstration that the determination was clearly in error, we will not disturb the determination” to terminate reunification services. See id. (quotation simplified).

¶29      Second, Mother challenges the juvenile court’s decision to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father, her fellow parent. As part of this challenge, she takes issue with the court setting slightly different permanency goals for each parent, and with the court accomplishing two separate objectives—namely, choosing among those goals and awarding permanent custody to Father—all in connection with the same hearing. In the main, Mother’s challenges in this regard involve questions of statutory interpretation, which “are questions of law that we review for correctness.” In re S.Y.T., 2011 UT App 407, ¶ 9, 267 P.3d 930 (quotation simplified). But to the extent that Mother here challenges the court’s underlying factual findings, we adopt a more deferential standard of review. See In re L.M., 2013 UT App 191, ¶ 6, 308 P.3d 553 (“We review the juvenile court’s factual findings for clear error . . . .” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 320 P.3d 676 (Utah 2014).[5]

ANALYSIS

I

¶30      Mother first challenges the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. For the reasons discussed, we discern no clear error in the court’s decision.

¶31 When a juvenile court removes a child from a parent’s custody, it may afford the parent the opportunity to take advantage of certain services—e.g., mental health counseling or parenting classes—designed to address the problems that led to removal and aimed at facilitating reunification between parent and child. See Utah Code § 80-3-406. However, due to the need for swift permanence in child welfare cases, the duration of reunification services may not ordinarily “exceed 12 months” from the date of removal. See id. § 80-3-406(13)(a); see also id. § 80­3-409(6). A juvenile court may, however, extend reunification services by an additional “90 days”—for a total of fifteen months—if the court finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, “that (i) there has been substantial compliance with the child and family plan; (ii) reunification is probable within that 90-day period; and (iii) the extension is in the best interest of the minor.” Id. § 80-3­409(7)(a). And in exceptional cases, the court may extend services for a second ninety-day period—for a total of eighteen months— but only if the court can make those same three findings by clear and convincing evidenceId. § 80-3-409(7)(c).

¶32      In this case, Child was removed from Mother’s custody at a shelter hearing in March 2021. Thus, reunification services were to presumptively end in March 2022, unless the court made findings sufficient to support an extension. In early April 2022, the court commenced an evidentiary hearing for the purpose of determining whether reunification services should be terminated or extended but, due to problems with witness subpoenas, the evidentiary hearing needed to be postponed, which resulted in a de facto extension of reunification services for another three months, into June 2022. Finally, at the conclusion of the four-day hearing that same month, the court ordered that reunification services be terminated. In its order, the court—presumably out of an abundance of caution given the timing of the hearing—stated that it was “not able to find by a preponderance of the evidence, and certainly not by clear and convincing evidence, that [Mother] is in substantial compliance with [the Plan], that reunification . . . is probable or likely within the next 90 days, or that extension of services for [Mother] is in [Child’s] best interest.”

¶33 Mother challenges this decision, asserting that it goes against the clear weight of the evidence because, she asserts, she at least substantially complied with the Plan. We acknowledge that Mother did take certain actions that the Plan required, such as completing the psychological evaluation and participating in parenting classes and individual therapy, and we therefore agree with Mother’s assertion that she complied with many—if not necessarily all[6]—of the Plan’s individual requirements.

¶34      But even taking Mother’s assertion—that she completed all of the Plan’s individual subsidiary tasks—at face value, that does not necessarily compel the conclusion that Mother substantially complied with the Plan, because in this case Mother’s efforts did not bear fruit. That is, at the end of fifteen months of reunification services, Mother had not rectified the problem that led to the removal of Child from her custody. The Plan explicitly stated that its goals would be “achieved when [Child] is living at [Mother’s] home [and] where Mother is providing a healthy, stable, and age-appropriate environment . . . that supports a strong co-parenting relationship with [Father].” Child was removed from Mother’s custody because Child lacked “proper care by reason of the fault or habits of [Mother]” due to Mother’s continued unsupported reports to authorities that Father was sexually abusing Child. After fifteen months of services, the court—based at least in part on Mother’s own testimony at the evidentiary hearing— determined that the original problem still existed, and that Child could not therefore safely be returned to Mother’s custody. It is far from clear error for a juvenile court to determine that a parent who has completed many of a child and family plan’s individual requirements, but who has still not meaningfully addressed the underlying problem the plan was designed to solve, has not substantially complied with the plan.

¶35      Moreover, even if we were to assume, for the purposes of the discussion, that Mother’s actions constituted substantial compliance with the Plan, Mother must also grapple with the juvenile court’s findings that reunification was not probable within the next ninety days, and that another extension of reunification services was not in Child’s best interest. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(7)(a)(ii), (iii); see also In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶ 54, 523 P.3d 736 (“Although [the mother] subsequently complied with the child and family plan, the court nonetheless determined that [the child] could not safely be returned to her care because it found that the return posed a substantial risk of detriment to [the child’s] physical or emotional well-being.”), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023). While Mother spends many pages in her brief contesting the court’s “substantial compliance” finding, she does not directly engage with the court’s findings that, given her lack of progress on solving the underlying problem, she had not shown—by either evidentiary standard— that reunification was probable in the next ninety days or that reunification was in Child’s best interest. And based on our review of the record, we discern no clear error in these findings.

¶36      Accordingly, we discern no error, let alone reversible error, in the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services.

II

¶37 Next, Mother challenges the juvenile court’s decision to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. Her challenge in this regard is multi-faceted. First, she challenges the substance of the court’s decision, and asserts that the court—by considering its options limited to those set forth in section 80-3­409(4)(b) of the Utah Code—erred in its interpretation of the governing statute. And in connection with this argument, Mother asks us to overrule one of our recent opinions. Second, Mother challenges the procedure the court used in reaching its decision. For the reasons discussed, we reject Mother’s arguments.

A

¶38      Under our law, in any case in which reunification services are ordered, “the juvenile court shall, at the permanency hearing, determine . . . whether the minor may safely be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(2)(a). And “[i]f the juvenile court finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that return of the minor to the minor’s parent would create a substantial risk of detriment to the minor’s physical or emotional well-being, the minor may not be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent.” Id. § 80-3-409(2)(b).

¶39      In this case, as already discussed, the juvenile court ordered reunification services for Mother, and therefore needed to confront, at the permanency hearing, the question of whether Child faced “substantial risk of detriment to her physical and emotional well-being if returned to [Mother’s] care.” In its findings and conclusions entered following that hearing, the court specifically found, by “both a preponderance of the evidence” and by “clear and convincing evidence, that return of [Child] to [Mother’s] care would create a substantial risk of detriment to [Child’s] physical or emotional well-being.” Mother does not directly challenge that finding on appeal.[7]

¶40      In situations where a juvenile court makes a finding of risk and therefore determines that a child cannot be returned to the parent’s custody, our law then requires the court to do certain things: “(a) order termination of reunification services to the parent; (b) make a final determination regarding whether termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship is the most appropriate final plan for the minor . . . ; and (c) . . . establish a concurrent permanency plan that identifies the second most appropriate final plan for the minor, if appropriate.” Id. § 80-3-409(4). As discussed above, the court terminated reunification services, and did not err by so doing.

¶41      The court then considered the three options presented by the second part of the governing statute: termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship.[8] See id. § 80-3-409(4)(b). The court determined that permanent custody and guardianship with Father was the most appropriate of those three options.

¶42      Mother challenges the substance of this determination, and she makes two specific arguments. First, she asserts that the statutory subsection the court believed governed the situation— section 80-3-409(4) of the Utah Code—doesn’t actually govern, because in Mother’s view Child was “returned to” a parent (Father) after the permanency hearing. Second, and relatedly, Mother acknowledges that one of our recent decisions—In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, 523 P.3d 736, cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023)—interpreted the governing statute in a manner unfavorable to her, and she asks us to overrule that recent case. We find neither of Mother’s arguments persuasive.

1

¶43 Mother’s first argument challenges the juvenile court’s interpretation of statutory text. In particular, she notes that a threshold requirement of the governing statute is that the minor not be “returned to the minor’s parent or guardian at the permanency hearing.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4). Only if a child is not “returned to the minor’s parent” at the permanency hearing does a court need to choose from one of the three options set forth in subsection (4)(b): termination, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship. See id. If a child is “returned to the minor’s parent,” then a court presumably could select some other option not listed in subsection (4)(b). As Mother sees it, the statutory reference to “the minor’s parent” includes not only the parent from whom the child was removed and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made, but also the child’s other parent. And she asserts that, because Child was placed in the custody of Father—Child’s other parent—after the permanency hearing, the court erred by considering itself limited to the three options set out in subsection (4)(b).

¶44      Our “overarching goal” in interpreting a statute is “to implement the intent of the legislature.” See State v. Rushton, 2017 UT 21, ¶ 11, 395 P.3d 92. In attempting to ascertain that intent, we start with “the language and structure of the statute.” Id. “Often, statutory text may not be plain when read in isolation, but may become so in light of its linguistic, structural, and statutory context.” Id. (quotation simplified). “The reverse is equally true: words or phrases may appear unambiguous when read in isolation, but become ambiguous when read in context.” Id. For this reason, “we read the plain language of the statute as a whole, and interpret its provisions in harmony with other statutes in the same chapter and related chapters, avoiding any interpretation which renders parts or words in a statute inoperative or superfluous in order to give effect to every word in the statute.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶45 In our view, the phrase “the minor’s parent,” as used in section 80-3-409(4), refers only to the parent from whom the child was removed, who was offered reunification services, and to whom return of the child “would create a substantial risk of detriment” to the child. It does not refer to another parent with whom the child is currently placed, who has not been ordered to complete any reunification services, and with regard to whom the court has not made any “substantial risk” determination. Indeed, the thrust of this entire statutory section has to do with whether a child will be reunited with a parent from whom the child has been removed and who has received reunification services. See Utah Code § 80-3-409. As already noted, subsection (2) requires a court to make a threshold determination about whether the “minor may safely be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent,” something that may not occur if “return of the minor to the minor’s parent would create a substantial risk of detriment” to the minor. Id. § 80-3-409(2)(a), (b). The verb “returned” is meaningful here: one does not “return” to a situation in which one has never been in the first place. See Return,    Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/return            [https://perma.cc/Y4YF-3ENP]
(defining “return” as “to go back or come back again”). In the subsection (2) context, the phrase “the minor’s parent” clearly refers to the parent from whom the minor was removed, who received reunification services, and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made; indeed, the statute instructs juvenile courts that are making the subsection (2) threshold determination to consider, among other things, whether the parent in question has demonstrated “progress” and whether the parent has “cooperated and used the services provided.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(3)(a)(iv), (v). In our view, it would be nonsensical to apply this phrase to the minor’s other parent in a situation where the child was already in the custody of that parent at the time of the permanency hearing, where that parent did not receive reunification services, and where the court made no “substantial risk” determination concerning that parent at that hearing. Indeed, at oral argument before this court, Mother conceded that the phrase “the minor’s parent,” as used in subsection (2), must refer solely to the parent who received reunification services and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made.

¶46 That same phrase—“the minor’s parent”—used two subsections later means the same thing. As noted, we read statutes as a whole, including all of their subsections, and “interpret [their] provisions in harmony with other statutes in the same chapter and related chapters.” See Rushton, 2017 UT 21, ¶ 11 (quotation simplified). Under “the canon of consistent meaning,” there is a “presumption that the established meaning of a word in a given body of law carries over to other uses of the same term used elsewhere within that same law.” In re Childers-Gray, 2021 UT 13, ¶ 142, 487 P.3d 96 (Lee, J., dissenting). And the “canon of consistent meaning is at its strongest when it is applied to a term used in neighboring subparts of the same statutory provision.” Irving Place Assocs. v. 628 Park Ave, LLC, 2015 UT 91, ¶ 21, 362 P.3d 1241; see also Barneck v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2015 UT 50, ¶ 31, 353 P.3d 140 (determining that a term “cannot properly mean one thing as applied to two of the objects in a series . . . but something else as applied to the other object in the same series”). Thus, when assessing the meaning of the phrase “the minor’s parent” in subsection (4), it is highly relevant how that phrase is used in subsection (2). And we conclude that, interpreted in its proper context, the phrase—as used in subsection (4) as well as subsection (2)—refers only to the parent from whom the child was removed, who received reunification services, and with regard to whom the court is making the “substantial risk” determination, and not to another parent who does not fit those criteria.

¶47      Accordingly, we reject Mother’s argument that subsection 409(4) has no application to her situation. By the plain terms of that statutory section, the juvenile court—as soon as it determined that Child could not safely be returned to Mother—was obligated to apply that statutory subsection according to its text.

2

¶48      Under the text of that statutory subsection, a court that has made a “substantial risk” determination must terminate reunification services. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4)(a). At that point, the statute requires the court to “make a final determination regarding whether termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship is the most appropriate final plan for the minor.” Id. § 80-3-409(4)(b). The language of this statutory subsection therefore speaks of only three options, and requires the court in this situation to choose one of them. And we have recently interpreted this language according to its text, even as applied to disputes between parents. See In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, 523 P.3d 736, cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023).

¶49      Yet here, Mother nevertheless asserts that, at least in cases involving disputes between two parents, juvenile courts ought to be allowed to choose a different option: entry of a simple custody order that is controlled by the usual standards governing entry and modification of custody orders in divorce court. Mother asserts that awarding a parent the status of “guardian” makes no sense, given that a parent already has all the rights that a guardian has. And she asserts that entering orders of permanent guardianship as between parents has the effect—one she posits was unintended—of preventing one parent from being able to seek modification of the custody order.

¶50      To her credit, Mother recognizes that our recent holding in In re H.C. forecloses her argument for a fourth option. In that case, the parents of a child were divorced, with a parenting plan that gave primary custody to the mother. Id. ¶ 2. But later, the juvenile court determined that the child had been neglected by the mother, and the child was placed in the care of the father. Id. ¶¶ 4, 8. After the permanency hearing, the juvenile court determined that the child would be at substantial risk if returned to the mother’s custody, and the court placed the child with the father under an order of permanent custody and guardianship. Id. ¶¶ 28, 38. On appeal, we affirmed the juvenile court’s decision, and we interpreted subsection 409(4)(b) as limiting the juvenile court to the three options set forth therein. Id. ¶ 58. We held that subsection 409(4)(b) “leaves a juvenile court judge with no discretion” to do anything else, and we specifically stated that the statute “does not vest the juvenile court with the authority to defer to the district court” with regard to custody of the adjudicated child. Id. (quotation simplified).

¶51      In an effort to get around this roadblock, Mother asks us to overrule In re H.C. We do possess the authority to overrule our own precedent in appropriate cases. See State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 11, 417 P.3d 592 (stating that one panel of this court “retains the right to overrule another panel’s decision if the appropriate standard is met”). “But we do not do so lightly,” given our respect for the principle of stare decisis, which ordinarily requires us to defer to “the first decision by a court on a particular question.” See State v. Garcia-Lorenzo, 2022 UT App 101, ¶¶ 42, 44, 517 P.3d 424 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022).

¶52      “Before we may overrule one of our precedents, we must engage in the two-part exercise required by our supreme court in such situations.” Id. ¶ 45. “First, we must assess the correctness of the precedent, and specifically examine the persuasiveness of the authority and reasoning on which the precedent was originally based.” Id. (quotation simplified). “Second, we must assess the practical effect of the precedent, including considerations such as the age of the precedent, how well it has worked in practice, its consistency with other legal principles, and the extent to which people’s reliance on the precedent would create injustice or hardship if it were overturned.” Id. (quotation simplified). Both parts of the test must be satisfied before we may overrule a precedent. See id. In this case, we need not discuss the second part because, in our view, the first one is not satisfied.

¶53 With regard to the first part—the correctness of the precedent—Mother asserts that our decision in In re H.C. “upends the district court’s jurisdiction over custody matters and imposes an unnecessarily restrictive scheme on custody between two parents.” She points out that, when a child is placed with the other parent after a permanency hearing, “the child isn’t in ‘legal limbo’” and “all that is left to determine is what [the] custody [arrangement] between the parents will look like.” And she maintains that, if subsection 409(4)(b) is interpreted to require courts to order permanent custody and guardianship in favor of one of the parents, that result would serve to “override[] district court custody orders” and would create a “super sole custody” arrangement in which “the non-guardian parent can never modify the terms of the guardianship.” She asserts that this is an “absurd result” that “cannot be what the legislature intended.”

¶54 But in our view, the panel’s reasoning in In re H.C. was sound. There, the court analyzed the text of subsection 409(4)(b) and concluded that the language used by the legislature limited juvenile courts in this situation to the three options set forth in the text of the statute. See In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶¶ 58–59. Our analysis of that same text leads us to the same conclusion.

¶55      Moreover, Mother overlooks the fact that the panel in In re H.C. considered many of the same arguments that Mother is advancing here. In that case, the appellant asserted that “juvenile courts should not be deciding custody between two fit parents.” Id. ¶ 52 (quotation simplified). And the appellant complained that an order of permanent custody and guardianship in favor of the other parent may prevent her “from petitioning for custodial change in the future.” Id. ¶ 53. We rejected these arguments, in part, by noting that, given the court’s adjudication rulings, “this was not merely a custody proceeding ‘between two fit parents.’” Id. ¶ 54. And we acknowledged the remainder of these arguments in a footnote, editorializing that “it seems odd that, in a situation such as this with two parents vying for custody of a minor child, the statute authorizes the award of permanent guardianship to one parent over the other, where both enjoy parental rights in the minor child.” Id. ¶ 59 n.13. But we found these arguments nevertheless unpersuasive in light of the text of the “statutory regimen that we [were] called upon to interpret and apply.” Id.

¶56      We share the sentiment of the panel in In re H.C. that the text of the governing statute compels the interpretation described there. The text selected and enacted by our legislature limits juvenile courts to just three options in this situation. See id. ¶¶ 58– 59 & n.13 (stating that “permanent custody and guardianship is one of only three options available by the terms of the controlling statute when parental neglect has triggered the juvenile court’s jurisdiction and the case progresses to a permanency hearing at which parental neglect is found and reunification services are terminated”). If our legislature intended a different result, it can always amend the statute to provide for additional options—for instance, entry of a simple custody order awarding primary physical custody to the other parent, and allowing the district court to manage things from there—that a juvenile court might be able to apply in cases involving disputes between two parents. But for now, the text of the governing statute speaks of only three options, applicable in all cases, and we must apply the statute as written, Mother’s policy arguments notwithstanding.[9]

¶57 For all of these reasons, we decline Mother’s invitation to overrule In re H.C. That case—and the statutory text interpreted therein—compels the conclusion that the juvenile court, in this case, had only three options after concluding that it could not return Child to Mother’s custody: it had to either (a) terminate Mother’s parental rights, (b) work toward adoption, or (c) enter an order of permanent custody and guardianship with someone other than the parent at issue. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4)(b); see also In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶¶ 58–59. The juvenile court, by selecting permanent custody and guardianship in favor of Father, chose one of the available options.[10] In so doing, the court properly followed the governing statute, and did not misinterpret it. We therefore reject Mother’s second substantive argument.

B

¶58      Finally, Mother makes two challenges to the procedure the juvenile court employed in arriving at its conclusion to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. We reject both challenges.

¶59 First, Mother claims that the court acted inappropriately when it took the following two actions in the same ruling and after the same hearing: (a) it changed Child’s final permanency goal to permanent custody and guardianship and (b) it entered an order effectuating the permanent custody and guardianship. As Mother sees it, the court was required “to first change the permanency goals . . . and then hold a review hearing (possibly another evidentiary hearing) to determine whether the final permanency goal is established.” Mother notes that “nothing in section 409 permits a juvenile court to” accomplish both things in the same ruling and after the same hearing. But Mother cites no statute or appellate opinion forbidding the court from doing so and, in this situation, we see no reason why the court could not have proceeded as it did.

¶60 Had the court chosen “adoption” as the primary permanency goal following the permanency hearing, then perhaps Mother would have a point: as a practical matter, setting adoption as the goal entails a fair bit of extra work. To facilitate an adoption, the parent’s rights would need to be terminated, and to make that happen, the State (or another petitioner) would need to file a petition for termination of parental rights, which would need to be litigated. And the juvenile court would also need to concern itself, in the event the parent’s rights were terminated, with finding an appropriate adoptive placement for the child.

¶61 But where the court selects permanent custody and guardianship as the primary permanency goal, and the child is already placed with the person to whom custody and guardianship is to be given, there are not necessarily any additional steps that the court needs to take before making that goal a reality. Certainly, in this case Mother doesn’t identify any additional work that needed to be done in the interim. And as noted, Mother points to no statute or governing case forbidding the juvenile court, in cases like this one, from proceeding efficiently and entering the order of guardianship in the same order as it selects the primary permanency goal. Mother has therefore not carried her burden of demonstrating error.

¶62 Second, Mother takes issue with the juvenile court’s decision, earlier in the case, to set different permanency goals for each parent. As noted above, after adjudicating Child dependent as to Father, the court initially set the primary permanency goal, as to Father, as “Reunification/REMAIN HOME,” and the concurrent permanency goal as “Remain Home with non­custodial parent.” Later, after adjudicating Child neglected as to Mother, the court set a primary permanency goal, as to Mother, of “RETURN HOME” and a concurrent permanency goal of “Permanent Custody and Guardianship with a Relative.” The court explained that it was setting “different permanency goals for each parent,” and that for Father, “the primary goal will be” for Child to “remain[] home with him,” with “the concurrent goal of reunification if she is removed from his care.” For Mother, the primary permanency goal was “reunification, with the concurrent goal of guardianship with [a] relative.” Mother challenges this procedure as improper, asserting that this choice made “it additionally difficult for any parent to determine what the effect of abandoning one of the primary plans would be.” But Mother cites no statute or governing case forbidding the court from engaging in this procedure, and she overlooks the fact that she did not object to these goals when they were set. In addition, Mother does not articulate how the court’s decision to set slightly different permanency goals vis-à-vis each parent resulted in any harm to her at the end of the case. Accordingly, Mother has not carried her burden of demonstrating reversible error.[11]

CONCLUSION

¶63 We discern no clear error in the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. And we reject Mother’s challenges—both substantive and procedural—to the court’s award of permanent custody and guardianship to Father.

¶64 Affirmed.

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

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Why Do Utah Courts Not Allow Child Testimony?

I had lunch today with a former legal assistant of mine who is now a law student in Arizona. Over the summer he shadowed judges in Maricopa County during their family court rotations.

He told me that in Arizona the courts permit children over the age of 10 years to testify in child custody proceedings.

Are the Arizona courts administered by fools and sadists?

Or could it be that the Utah district courts’ near-universal aversion to any and all forms of on the record child testimony in child custody proceedings is a case of misplaced priorities?

Could it be that the way Utah courts use appointments of guardians ad litem and/or custody evaluators for the ostensible purpose of “speaking for” competent witness minor children

  • is a sophomoric euphemism for good old fashioned hearsay?
  • ironically results in silencing the most percipient witnesses (regarding issues in which they have the greatest stake)?

Could it be that GAL “reports” and “recommendations” that are based upon purported interviews with the minor child (when there is no objectively verifiable record of whether the interviews even took place, to say nothing of what was and was not asked and answered in the course of the alleged interview) are not fact or expert witness testimony (see State ex rel. A.D., ¶¶ 6 and 7, 6 P.3d 1137, 2000 UT App 216) and thus inherently not evidence?

Could it be that custody evaluator “expert testimony” and “recommendations” based upon purported interviews with the minor child (when there is no objectively verifiable record of whether the interviews even took place, to say nothing of what was and was not asked and answered in the course of the alleged interview) inherently can’t qualify as expert testimony (URE Rule 702 (Rules of Evidence))?

Special masters, parent coordinators, and the infantilization of parents

Special masters and parent coordinators (and co-parenting therapists, co-parent coaches/consultants, and their ilk) were invented for the purpose of unburdening courts from some of the conflict associated with domestic relations litigation. They fail to fulfill their purpose. They do not provide value for the money they charge. The parent(s) end up wasting money on a special master, parent coordinator, etc. while the disputes either persist or get worse (and sometimes it’s the involvement of the special master and parent coordinators who are to blame, either in full or in part). Besides, for most litigants a special master, parent coordinator, etc. is an expense they cannot (or should not) financially bear.

The idea that divorced parents need more than the laws currently on the books, the (lawful) orders in their divorce and child custody decrees, and the sensible use of law enforcement officers when warranted is to infantilize divorced and separated parents.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, anyone trying to sell you on a special master, parent coordinators, co-parenting therapist, co-parent coach, consultants, blah, blah, blah is either someone who offers such “services” and who is trying to sell them to you or a is a court trying to take the dispute out its lap and place it in someone else’s.

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

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Clark v. Clark – 2023 UT App 111 – divorce, exhibits, dissipation

Clark v. Clark – 2023 UT App 111

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

SUSAN JEANNE CLARK,

Appellee,

v.

RICHARD LEE CLARK,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210713-CA

Filed September 28, 2023

Fourth District Court, Heber Department

The Honorable Jennifer A. Brown

No. 184500153

Karra J. Porter and Kristen C. Kiburtz, Attorneys for Appellant

Julie J. Nelson, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE AMY J. OLIVER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES

MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and RYAN D. TENNEY

concurred.

OLIVER, Judge:

¶1        Richard Lee Clark appeals from the district court’s decision following a two-day divorce trial. Clark challenges several aspects of the court’s ruling, including a discovery sanction for his failure to timely disclose his trial exhibits under rule 26 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure; findings relating to his claim that his ex-wife, Susan Jeanne Clark, dissipated the marital estate; and the court’s division of the marital property. We affirm the district court’s ruling with the exception of one aspect of the district court’s marital property determination, which we vacate and remand for additional findings.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Richard and Susan[1] married in 2002, when Richard was in his sixties and Susan was in her fifties. Richard was retired from military service and from employment as an attorney with the Department of Justice. Susan owned a wallpaper business when she met Richard but quit working shortly after they married. For the next six years, Richard and Susan lived off Richard’s retirement income from both the Army and the Department of Justice.

¶3        In 2008, Richard came out of retirement to work for a government contractor in Afghanistan, where he lived for thirty-eight months. During that time, Richard’s retirement and employment income of $814,627 was deposited into a joint account that Susan controlled. Richard returned home to find “probably about $100,000 . . . had been saved” in the joint bank account—much less than he expected—yet he said nothing to Susan at that time.

¶4        Three years after his return, Richard moved into the basement of the marital home. The following year, in 2016, Susan transferred approximately $78,000 from their joint account into her personal account, prompting Richard to confront her about what he viewed as missing money from his time in Afghanistan. Two years later, in 2018, Susan filed for divorce. Shortly afterward, Richard purchased a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with financing, which he paid off in 2020.

¶5        At the time of their divorce, Richard and Susan owned two real properties—a condo in Norfolk, Virginia (Mooring Drive), and a home in Kamas, Utah (Ross Creek). Richard had purchased Mooring Drive before the marriage for approximately $205,000. In 2003, Richard added Susan to the title of Mooring Drive, which allowed her to vote at the condominium association’s meetings and to join the board. The following year, Richard and Susan used equity loans on Mooring Drive to finance the purchase and construction of Ross Creek. From 2009—when Susan moved to Utah and Richard was in Afghanistan—until June 2019, Richard rented Mooring Drive out to others and the revenues were deposited into his separate account that was designated to pay for the property’s expenses.

¶6        During their marriage, the parties took out an equity loan on Ross Creek that matured, along with one of the equity loans from Mooring Drive, in 2019. With the divorce still pending, Susan agreed to refinance Ross Creek’s mortgage to pay off the two equity loans that were due, but only if Richard would stipulate that Mooring Drive and Ross Creek were marital property and were subject to equitable division in their pending divorce. Richard agreed, and the parties stipulated that “the Ross Creek and Mooring Drive properties shall remain marital property and shall be subject to equitable division in the parties’ divorce notwithstanding that the Ross Creek home and Mooring Drive property will no longer be jointly titled.”

¶7        In April 2019, the Mooring Drive tenants’ lease expired. Richard decided he could only offer the tenants a month-to-month lease until his divorce was over. When the tenants declined to renew and moved out in June, Richard withdrew $30,000 from the joint bank account, claiming that he needed the funds to cover Mooring Drive’s expenses. After a hearing, the court entered temporary orders in December 2019, permitting Richard to access equity in Ross Creek to pay off debt on Mooring Drive but denying his “request for financial relief based on the loss of rental income because [Richard] ha[d] not made any attempt to secure new renters.”

¶8        Trial was originally scheduled for June 2020, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and courts were required to hold bench trials virtually, Richard declined to proceed with a virtual trial, and it was continued without a date. In February 2021, the court held a pretrial scheduling conference and rescheduled the trial for May 2021. The court’s pretrial order stated the parties must produce pretrial disclosures on or before April 26, 2021, pursuant to rule 26(a)(5)(B) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.

¶9        Richard missed the deadline. A week after it passed, he requested a continuance to hire trial counsel. Richard had been representing himself as a pro se litigant despite being eighty-four years old and not having practiced law since 1988. According to Richard, health issues arose that made him “no longer physically and mentally capable of representing” himself. The court granted the motion, rescheduling the trial for June. The new deadline for pretrial disclosures became May 24, but Richard did not submit his pretrial disclosures until June 10—eleven days before trial.

¶10      The two-day trial began with Susan’s objection to Richard’s untimely pretrial disclosures. Susan contended that Richard had “ample opportunity” to produce his pretrial disclosures given the multiple continuances of the trial. In response, Richard claimed his failure to meet the disclosure deadline was harmless because he had previously produced as discovery responses the 339 pages of financial documents—including check registers, paystubs from 2008 to 2009, and bank account information from 2011 to 2012— that he sought to admit as exhibits 2 through 8. Yet Richard did not file certificates of service for those responses, and neither party’s counsel could confirm whether Richard had previously sent the documents in exhibits 2 through 8 to Susan, leaving the district court with only Richard’s testimony to support the claim that he had previously disclosed the exhibits. The district court sustained Susan’s objection as to exhibits 2 through 8, excluding them from trial.

¶11      Both Susan and Richard testified at trial. Susan testified Richard had transferred $30,000 from their joint account to his personal account in June 2019 and contended she was entitled to half of that amount. Susan also testified about her exhibits that provided recent balances in her bank and retirement accounts.

¶12      On cross-examination, Susan admitted she had not looked for work and was unemployed despite the court’s urging in 2020 for her to seek employment. Richard then peppered Susan about numerous expenditures during his time in Afghanistan, to which Susan replied that it “was a number of years ago” and she “ha[d] no recollection at all” of the transactions. Susan did state, however, that when Richard left for Afghanistan, she recalled they “had very large credit card balances” that Richard instructed her “to start paying off” while he was away.

¶13 First testifying as Susan’s witness, Richard answered questions about some of the marital property. He testified about a recent appraisal of Mooring Drive that valued it at $390,000, his three life insurance policies that all list Susan as the beneficiary, and his purchase of the Harley-Davidson in May 2019. Susan then introduced a pleading Richard had filed with the court in November 2019 that stated, in relevant part, he had “owned three motorcycles, selling the last one when [he] moved to Norfolk,” but he has “never ridden a Harley-Davidson.” Richard replied that he had “misstated the fact,” both in that pleading and at a hearing the same month when he told the court he did not own a Harley-Davidson. Richard testified he should receive three-fourths of the equity in Mooring Drive because he purchased it before the marriage. Unable to provide a figure for what the property was worth when he married Susan, Richard claimed that “the[] prices have gone up and gone down a great deal” since their marriage, but his best guess was that Mooring Drive appreciated from $205,000 to $350,000 between 2000 and 2002. Richard continued to do some impromptu math on the stand to clarify how much equity he felt he was owed, asserting that since Mooring Drive was recently appraised at $390,000 and had been worth $350,000 in 2002—by his best guess—there is $40,000 of equity for them to divide, but then he admitted such valuation “is something I’m just not knowledgeable about.”

¶14      As his own witness, Richard testified about Susan’s alleged dissipation during his time in Afghanistan. Richard’s excluded exhibits went to the issue of dissipation, so without the financial documents from that period, Richard sought to prove Susan “dissipated money while [he] was in Afghanistan” through his testimony about his earnings and typical expenses during that time frame. Using the excluded exhibits to refresh his recollection, Richard estimated their monthly expenses before he left were approximately $10,000 to $11,000. Richard also challenged Susan’s testimony about credit card balances, claiming that “there weren’t any large credit card balances before [he] left.”

¶15      At the conclusion of trial, the district court asked both parties to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law in lieu of closing arguments. After issuing an oral ruling, the district court memorialized its decision in written findings of fact and conclusions of law. The court found that Richard’s “testimony was insufficient to establish his [dissipation] claim” and that Richard had “failed to meet his burden of demonstrating dissipation.” The court also found “problems with the credibility of both parties,” specifically finding that Susan’s “credibility was lacking with regards to the dissipation issue” and Richard’s “credibility was lacking with regards to his motorcycle purchase.” Susan was awarded Ross Creek’s equity, and Richard was awarded Mooring Drive’s. The court awarded Susan $2,500 per month in alimony and an offset of $43,474 (from Richard’s purchase of the Harley-Davidson and his $30,000 withdrawal from the joint account) “to achieve an equitable division of the estate.” The court found Richard “withdrew $30,000 from the joint account without [Susan’s] knowledge or consent and deposited it into his own personal account,” but it made no findings as to how Richard spent the $30,000.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶16      Richard raises three main issues for our review. First, Richard challenges the district court’s exclusion of his exhibits for his failure to comply with rule 26(a)(5) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. A district court “has broad discretion regarding the imposition of discovery sanctions,” and when we apply “the abuse of discretion standard to the district court’s imposition of a particular sanction, we give the district court a great deal of latitude.” Bodell Constr. Co. v. Robbins, 2009 UT 52, ¶ 35, 215 P.3d 933 (cleaned up).

¶17 Second, Richard contends the district court erred in its application of the burden of proof on Richard’s dissipation claim. A district court’s “allocation of the burden of proof is . . . a question of law that we review for correctness.” Salt Lake City Corp. v. Jordan River Restoration Network, 2018 UT 62, ¶ 20, 435 P.3d 179.

¶18      Finally, Richard challenges the district court’s division of the property, including the court’s finding that the marital estate included Mooring Drive and the Harley-Davidson, and its decision to deduct from the marital estate the $30,000 Richard withdrew from the parties’ joint account. A district court “has considerable discretion considering property division in a divorce proceeding, thus its actions enjoy a presumption of validity,” and “we will disturb the district court’s division only if there is a misunderstanding or misapplication of the law indicating an abuse of discretion.” Beckham v. Beckham, 2022 UT App 65, ¶ 6, 511 P.3d 1253 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

I. Pretrial Disclosures

¶19      Richard asserts the district court abused its discretion in excluding his exhibits 2 through 8 for failure to comply with rule 26(a)(5) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure because he “produced the documents that comprised the exhibits” during discovery and any “technical non-compliance with that rule” was “harmless.” We disagree.

¶20      Rule 26 governs “disclosure and discovery” in civil matters and requires parties to provide “a copy of each exhibit, including charts, summaries, and demonstrative exhibits, unless solely for impeachment, separately identifying those which the party will offer and those which the party may offer . . . . at least 28 days before trial.” Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(5). A party who fails to timely disclose exhibits “may not use the undisclosed witness, document, or material at . . . trial unless the failure is harmless or the party shows good cause for the failure.” Id. R. 26(d)(4). A district court “has broad discretion in selecting and imposing sanctions for discovery violations under rule 26,” and “appellate courts may not interfere with such discretion unless there is either an erroneous conclusion of law or no evidentiary basis for the district court’s ruling.” Wallace v. Niels Fugal Sons Co., 2022 UT App 111, ¶ 26, 518 P.3d 184 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1267 (Utah 2023).

¶21      Richard does not dispute that he failed to timely disclose exhibits 2 through 8. Instead, Richard argues he produced the documents in those exhibits to Susan in earlier discovery responses, so his failure to timely file pretrial disclosures was harmless, and he further argues that it was Susan’s burden to prove she had not received them. In response, Susan asserts it was Richard’s burden, not hers, to prove that he produced the documents earlier in discovery, and the failure to file his pretrial disclosures pursuant to rule 26(a)(5) was not harmless. We agree with Susan on both fronts.

¶22 First, “the burden to demonstrate harmlessness or good cause is clearly on the party seeking relief from disclosure requirements.” Dierl v. Birkin, 2023 UT App 6, ¶ 32, 525 P.3d 127 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1107 (Utah 2023). Second, Richard failed to carry his burden of demonstrating harmlessness. Although Richard “assured [his counsel] that he [had] produced records related to this 2008-to-2012 timeframe,” he did not file the required certificates of service. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(f) (requiring a party to file “the certificate of service stating that the disclosure, request for discovery, or response has been served on the other parties and the date of service”). Thus, Richard failed to prove that the documents had previously been produced.

¶23 But even if he had proved prior production, excusing pretrial disclosures if the documents were produced earlier in discovery would “eviscerate[] the rule that explicitly requires parties to” serve a copy of the documents they intend to use “in their case-in-chief at trial.” Johansen v. Johansen, 2021 UT App 130, ¶¶ 19, 26, 504 P.3d 152 (rejecting argument to follow the spirit of rule 26 rather than “the plain language of rule 26” regarding pretrial disclosures); see also Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(5)(A)(iv) (requiring pretrial disclosure of “each exhibit” the party will or may offer at trial). And expecting a party to sort through hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of documents that were produced earlier by the other side during discovery and then expecting the party to predict which ones the opposing party might seek to admit at trial would be harmful and would violate the intent of rule 26.

¶24 Ultimately, “a court’s determination with respect to harmlessness . . . . is a discretionary call,” and our review of it “is necessarily deferential.” Johansen, 2021 UT App 130, ¶ 11 (cleaned up). Thus, the district court was well within its “broad discretion” to exclude Richard’s exhibits 2 through 8 under these circumstances. See Wallace, 2022 UT App 111, ¶ 26 (cleaned up).

II. Dissipation

¶25 Richard claims the district court erred in finding that he failed to meet the burden of proof on his dissipation claim. We disagree.

¶26      “The marital estate is generally valued at the time of the divorce decree or trial.” Goggin v. Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶ 49, 299 P.3d 1079 (cleaned up). “But where one party has dissipated an asset,” the “trial court may, in the exercise of its equitable powers,” “hold one party accountable to the other for the dissipation.” Id. (cleaned up). A court’s inquiry into a dissipation claim may consider “a number of factors,” such as “(1) how the money was spent, including whether funds were used to pay legitimate marital expenses or individual expenses; (2) the parties’ historical practices; (3) the magnitude of any depletion; (4) the timing of the challenged actions in relation to the separation and divorce; and (5) any obstructive efforts that hinder the valuation of the assets.” Wadsworth v. Wadsworth, 2022 UT App 28, ¶ 69, 507 P.3d 385 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1259 (Utah 2022).

¶27 The burden of proof for dissipation initially falls on the party alleging it. See Parker v. Parker, 2000 UT App 30, ¶ 15, 996 P.2d 565 (stating that a party seeking to assert dissipation must make an “initial showing of apparent dissipation”). The district court correctly concluded that Richard bore the “burden of demonstrating dissipation.” To meet the “initial showing of apparent dissipation,” the party alleging dissipation must first show evidence of dissipation. Id. ¶¶ 13, 15. Only after “present[ing] the trial court with evidence tending to show that [Susan] had dissipated marital assets” does the burden shift to Susan “to show that the funds were not dissipated, but were used for some legitimate marital purpose.” Id. ¶ 13.

¶28 Richard’s documentary evidence on this issue had been excluded by the court, so the only evidence he presented was his testimony in 2021 that his income while in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2012 exceeded the estimated historical marital expenses from before 2008, some thirteen years earlier. Richard asserts that his testimony alone should suffice for an initial showing of dissipation. In Parker v. Parker, 2000 UT App 30, ¶ 15, 996 P.2d 565, the husband “presented the trial court with evidence” that detailed how the wife had dissipated marital assets—exact beginning and ending balances for eight bank accounts, the marital expenses during the time in question, and specific checks the wife wrote to herself—thus shifting the burden to the wife. Id. ¶ 13. But Richard, like the wife in Parker, only “testified in conclusory and cryptic terms,” and thus “wholly failed to meet [his] burden.” Id. ¶ 14.

¶29      Therefore, the district court was well within its discretion to decide that Richard’s uncorroborated testimony about Susan’s spending that occurred many years before either party contemplated divorce[2] was insufficient evidence to meet his initial burden of proving dissipation. Accordingly, the district court did not err in its finding that Richard failed to meet his burden of proof on the dissipation claim.

III. Marital Property

¶30      Richard presents three challenges to the district court’s division of the marital property. First, Richard asserts he is entitled to his premarital contribution to Mooring Drive. Second, he alleges the Harley-Davidson he purchased during the pendency of the divorce is his separate property. Third, Richard claims the court should not have deducted from the marital estate the $30,000 that he withdrew from the joint account in June 2019.

We affirm the district court’s decision on Richard’s first two challenges and vacate the decision on the third, remanding the matter for additional findings.

A.        Mooring Drive

¶31      Although the district court awarded Richard the equity in Mooring Drive when it divided the marital estate, it did not also award Richard any premarital equity in the property for three reasons. First, it found that Richard “formally stipulated that Ross Creek and Mooring Drive were marital property subject to division in this divorce action.” Second, it found that “through a series of refinances, [Richard] transferred equity from Ross Creek to Mooring Drive, and paid expenses associated with both properties with marital funds.” Third, it found that Richard “formally conveyed the property to himself and [Susan] in 2003” when he added Susan’s name to the title. Because we affirm the district court’s decision not to award Richard any premarital equity on the basis of the parties’ stipulation, we do not address the other two reasons the district court relied upon.

¶32 Richard and Susan stipulated that “the Ross Creek and Mooring Drive properties shall remain marital property and shall be subject to equitable division in the parties’ divorce, notwithstanding that the Ross Creek home and Mooring Drive property will no longer be jointly titled.” Richard now claims that despite the language of the stipulation, he “never agreed that he should not be compensated for his premarital and separate contributions to Mooring Drive before the property became marital.” Furthermore, Richard argues, “nowhere in the stipulation did he agree that he was waiving his premarital equity in that property.”

¶33 Richard’s argument is flawed. “Parties to a divorce are bound by the terms of their stipulated agreement.” McQuarrie v. McQuarrie, 2021 UT 22, ¶ 18, 496 P.3d 44. And according to the “ordinary contract principles” that govern “contracts between spouses,” see Ashby v. Ashby, 2010 UT 7, ¶ 21, 227 P.3d 246 (cleaned up), “if the language within the four corners of the contract is unambiguous, the parties’ intentions are determined from the plain meaning of the contractual language,” Green River Canal Co. v. Thayn, 2003 UT 50, ¶ 17, 84 P.3d 1134 (cleaned up). See also Mind & Motion Utah Invs., LLC v. Celtic Bank Corp., 2016 UT 6, ¶ 24, 367 P.3d 994 (holding that “the best indication of the parties’ intent is the ordinary meaning of the contract’s terms”); Ocean 18 LLC v. Overage Refund Specialists LLC (In re Excess Proceeds from the Foreclosure of 1107 Snowberry St.), 2020 UT App 54, ¶ 22, 474 P.3d 481 (holding that where the “contract is facially unambiguous, the parties’ intentions are determined from the plain meaning of the contractual language . . . without resort to parol evidence” (cleaned up)).

¶34      Richard essentially argues that the district court erred when it refused to go beyond the stipulation’s language and infer his intention from what he omitted. But the district court was correct when it interpreted the parties’ intentions by what the plain language of the stipulation does say and not by what it does not. Therefore, the district court did not abuse its discretion when it abided by the parties’ stipulation and included Mooring Drive as marital property, “subject to equitable division.”

B.        The Harley-Davidson

¶35      “Prior to the entry of a divorce decree, all property acquired by parties to a marriage is marital property, owned equally by each party.” Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 126, 456 P.3d 276. Thus, the presumption is that property acquired during the pendency of a divorce is marital, not separate. Richard failed to rebut this presumption regarding the Harley-Davidson motorcycle he purchased because he failed to present evidence that he used separate funds.

¶36 Richard argued that he purchased the Harley-Davidson from separate, rather than marital, funds in his proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.[3] To be clear, Richard does not assert that the Harley-Davidson is separate property because he purchased it after the parties separated or after Susan filed for divorce. Instead, he argues the only funds available to him to purchase the motorcycle came from his “separate premarital retirement income.” Richard’s argument fails for two reasons. First, Richard did not present evidence to support his argument that the funds he used to purchase the motorcycle came from separate, not marital, funds. Instead, Richard essentially places his burden on the district court by asserting, on appeal, that “[t]here was no marital account identified by the district court from which [Richard] could have made that purchase.” But Richard, not the court, bears the burden of identifying where the funds came from that he used to purchase the motorcycle.

¶37      Second, the district court found credibility problems with Richard’s testimony about the Harley-Davidson, concluding that Richard’s “credibility was lacking with regards to his motorcycle purchase.”[4] A district court “is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony” or “disregard such testimony if it finds the evidence self-serving and not credible.” Ouk v. Ouk, 2015 UT App 104, ¶ 14, 348 P.3d 751 (cleaned up).

¶38      In sum, as “property acquired during [the] marriage,” the Harley-Davidson is presumptively “marital property subject to equitable distribution.” Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 26. Richard bore the burden of proof to rebut the presumption that the funds he used to purchase the Harley-Davidson were not marital, and he presented no credible evidence to the district court to support that position. Thus, the district court did not abuse its discretion by including the motorcycle in the marital estate.

C.        $30,000 Offset

¶39      Finally, Richard challenges the district court’s decision to include in the marital estate the $30,000 he withdrew from the joint account. The district court agreed with Susan that because Richard had made a unilateral withdrawal from the joint account during the pendency of the divorce, he should be held accountable for that withdrawal. Richard, on the other hand, claims he used the money for marital expenses, paying costs associated with Mooring Drive. Susan argues the money could also have been spent on personal items including travel and motorcycle payments and accessories. “How the money was spent, including whether [the] funds were used to pay legitimate marital expenses or individual expenses,” Wadsworth v. Wadsworth, 2022 UT App 28, ¶ 69, 507 P.3d 385 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1259 (Utah 2022), is a critical question that needs to be resolved.

¶40 Divorce cases often require district courts to make numerous findings of fact. And generally speaking, “for findings of fact to be adequate, they must show that the court’s judgment or decree follows logically from, and is supported by, the evidence” and such findings “should be sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.” Armed Forces Ins. Exch. v. Harrison, 2003 UT 14, ¶ 28, 70 P.3d 35 (cleaned up). Moreover, when it comes to the “unequal division of marital property,” a district court must “memorialize[] in . . . detailed findings the exceptional circumstances supporting the distribution.” Bradford v. Bradford, 1999 UT App 373, ¶ 27, 993 P.2d 887 (cleaned up). “Without adequate findings detailing why [one spouse] should be entitled to such an unequal split of the marital estate, we cannot affirm the court’s award.” Fischer v. Fischer, 2021 UT App 145, ¶ 29, 505 P.3d 56; see, e.g.Rothwell v. Rothwell, 2023 UT App 50, ¶ 57, 531 P.3d 225 (concluding that “we simply do not have enough information” to rule on whether the funds were marital or separate, “let alone to conclude that the district court

. . . erred”).

¶41      We face the same dilemma here. The district court made no findings as to how Richard spent the $30,000. The written ruling merely states, “In June 2019, [Richard] withdrew $30,000 from the joint account without [Susan’s] knowledge or consent and deposited it into his own personal account.” “We will not imply any missing finding where there is a matrix of possible factual findings and we cannot ascertain the trial court’s actual findings.” Hall v. Hall, 858 P.2d 1018, 1025–26 (Utah Ct. App. 1993). Without “adequate findings” on whether Richard used the funds for marital expenses or not, “we cannot affirm,” nor properly review, the court’s decision to offset the $30,000 against Richard in its division of the marital estate. See Fischer, 2021 UT App 145, ¶ 29. Therefore, we vacate this portion of the decision and remand the matter to the district court for it to enter findings on how the funds were spent.

CONCLUSION

¶42 The district court did not abuse its discretion when it excluded Richard’s exhibits for failure to comply with rule 26(a)(5) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. The district court also did not err in its conclusion that Richard failed to meet the burden of proof for his dissipation claim nor did it abuse its discretion in how it divided the marital estate with respect to Mooring Drive and the Harley-Davidson. We vacate the district court’s decision to offset the $30,000 against Richard when it divided the marital estate and remand the matter for the district court to enter additional findings and to alter its conclusion as may be necessary.


[1] Because the parties share the same surname, we refer to them by their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] Susan invites us to join some other states in drawing a bright-line rule concerning the timing of a dissipation claim and limit pre-separation dissipation claims to those occurring (1) in contemplation of divorce or separation or (2) when the marriage is in serious jeopardy or undergoing an irretrievable breakdown. Under our caselaw, the district court is empowered to consider the “timing of the challenged actions in relation to the separation and divorce” as one of several factors when determining “whether a party should be held accountable for the dissipation of marital assets.” Marroquin v. Marroquin, 2019 UT App 38, ¶ 33, 440 P.3d 757 (cleaned up). We see no need to alter this approach. Assessing timing as one factor among many provides the greatest flexibility to the district court to consider all the circumstances in a particular case, and we believe the district court is in the best position to evaluate the importance of such evidence on a case-by-case basis.

[3] Because the district court directed the parties to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law in lieu of closing arguments, Richard’s argument was preserved for our review.

[4] Indeed, in its oral ruling, the court stated that Richard “lied to the Court about the purchase of the motorcycle.”

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Completeness of Documentation By Braxton Mounteer

One of the hardest documents for a Utah divorce litigant to prepare is the financial declaration. I am amazed at the number of clients who don’t take this document and its preparation seriously.

If you file for divorce or your spouse files for divorce, your divorce case will require you to provide a lot of documentation for various purposes as your life (and the life of your spouse and children, if you have minor children) will come under the magnifying glass. To avoid being fried like an ant, you need to produce complete and completely accurate documentation in preparing your financial declaration.

How is this done? It is a little comical, but it really comes down to accounting as best as you possibly can for every penny that comes in and that goes out. Every meal out. Every oil change. Every gasoline fillup. Every utility bill. Every dollar earned from every source.
Why should you worry about every red cent? Because you will be nickeled and dimed by opposing counsel and even by the court. Opposing counsel quite often (more often than not, frankly) wants to misconstrue confuse your income, expenses, and debts for his/her client’s benefit. The court often assumes that you are lying and/or wants to side with your spouse or against you. They are looking for any reason to call your credibility into question. And if you carelessly prepare your financial declaration, fail to provide an accurate financial declaration, and fail to support your numbers with verifiable documentation, you give opposing counsel and/or the court weapons to use against you.

“Ah,” some of you say, “but I want my financial declaration to be inaccurate so that I appear a lot poorer than I really am!” That way, if I’m the one who might pay alimony, I will pay less. And if I’m the one who might receive alimony, I will get more. Truth be told, it’s possible to lie in your financial declaration and get away with it. Truth be told, it’s harder than most people think. Truth be told, most people who lie (or who don’t lie but instead provide a half-baked, crappy financial declaration) get burned by it. Better to take the hit for being honest than risk an even bigger hit for lying. And do bear in mind that being honest is not a matter of “no good deed goes unpunished”. When you are honest, thorough, complete, and accurate in your work, that builds your overall credibility in your case. The person who owns up to his/her sins and sincerely repents gets due credit more often than not. The court thinks, “He/she was scrupulously honest in his/her financial declaration (even when he/she might could have fudged and escaped detection), so he/she is probably honest about the other things he/she tells me.” That’s more valuable than you know.

Now, if being honest always “won,” nobody would lie. You may experience your spouse lying through his/her teeth and getting away with it. It can and does happen. Still, it doesn’t justify you doing wrong or taking the risk of you being the one who gets caught in a lie or who gets hurt by turning in an incomplete and inaccurate financial declaration.
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Important things divorce attorney clients need to know but would easily and freely be forgiven for not knowing without being told. No. 4:

Your attorney cannot do what only you can do. Your attorney cannot answer questions posed to you until you provide your attorney with the information and facts needed to answer the question. Your attorney cannot produce your documents requested in the discovery process without you first producing those documents to your attorney.

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

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