Category: Equitable Interest

Establishing the existence or absence of business/commercial goodwill value in a divorce.

Sometimes a business is a marital asset.

When the value of a business that is a marital asset is divided in divorce, the question of the “goodwill value” of the business will usually arise.

Goodwill is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as “a business’s reputation, patronage, and other intangible assets that are considered when appraising the business, esp. for purchase; the ability to earn income in excess of the income that would be expected from the business viewed as a mere collection of assets.” (Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019))

The Utah appellate case of Marroquin v. Marroquin defined institutional or enterprise goodwill as “based on the intangible, but generally marketable, existence in a business of established relations with employees, customers and suppliers, and may include factors such as a business location, its name recognition and its business reputation” (¶15, 440 P.3d 757 (Utah App. 2019)). In contrast, “Personal goodwill is based on an individual’s “reputation for competency” and is not subject to distribution upon divorce.” (Id.) This is why, in Marroquin v. Marroquin, where the court determined the only goodwill associated with the husband’s business was that of personal goodwill, the value of such goodwill was not subject to distribution upon divorce of the parties. Consequently, requiring the husband to pay the spouse part of the value ascribed to the personal goodwill would have been inequitable.

In the Utah appellate case of Stonehocker v. Stonehocker (2008 UT App 11, 176 P.3d 476 (Utah Ct. App. 2008)), the value of the husband’s business would be determined independent of any goodwill component where the business was the product of the husband’s reputation, goodwill, and sole efforts, and there could be no good will in a business that was dependent for its existence upon the husband who conducted the enterprise and would vanish were the husband to die, retire or quit work (Id. at ¶ 44).

Most small businesses do not have business or commercial goodwill, but that does not stop many spouses from claiming that business/commercial goodwill exists, that it exists in prodigious quantities, and that the spouse making the claims is entitled to a big ‘ole cash award equal to half of the alleged business/commercial goodwill.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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Why Don’t All Divorced Wives Get Half of Their Husbands’ Property?

Because divorce is not about a spouse (man or woman) getting “half of everything”.

Depending upon whether a state is a “community property” state or an “equitable distribution” state, here is how property is divided between spouses in a divorce:

A community-property state is state in which spouses hold property that is acquired during marriage (other than property acquired by one spouse by inheritance, devise, or gift) as community property. Otherwise stated, all property that is acquired during the marriage by either spouse (other than property acquired by one spouse by inheritance, devise, or gift) or by both spouses together is jointly and equally owned and will be presumed to be divided in divorce equally between the divorcing spouses. Nine states are community property states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.

An equitable distribution state seeks to divide property in divorce in a fair, but not necessarily equal, manner. An equitable property state court can divide property between the spouses regardless of who holds title to the property. The courts consider many factors in awarding property, including (but not limited to) a spouse’s monetary contributions, nonmonetary assistance to a spouse’s career or earning potential, the efforts of each spouse during the marriage, the length of the marriage, whether the property was acquired before or after marriage, and whether the property acquired by one spouse by inheritance, devise, or gift. The court may take into account the relative earning capacity of the spouses and the fault of either spouse (See Black’s Law Dictionary, 11th ed.). Equitable distribution is applied in the non-community property states.

So, does a spouse “get half of everything” in divorce? Possibly, but not always, and now you know why.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

Why don’t all divorced wives get half of their husbands’ property? – Husbands and wives – Quora

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2023 UT App 62 – Cox v. Cox – Adequacy of Court Findings

2023 UT App 62 – Cox v. Cox








No. 20210455-CA

Filed June 8, 2023

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Lynn W. Davis

The Honorable Robert C. Lunnen

No. 124402230

Brett D. Cragun, Attorney for Appellant

Jarrod H. Jennings, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and JOHN D. LUTHY concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1 James and Blanche Cox were married for over 20 years, during which time they had 10 children and acquired a large number of marital assets. In September 2012, Blanche filed for divorce.[1] After 4 years of pretrial litigation and then 14 days of trial, the district court issued a 35-page divorce ruling that settled various issues relating to child custody, child support, alimony, and the division of the marital estate.

¶2        James now appeals, arguing that many of the court’s rulings were not supported by adequate findings. We agree with James with respect to each challenged ruling. We accordingly vacate those rulings and remand for further proceedings.


¶3        James and Blanche Cox were married in 1990. During their marriage, they had 10 children and acquired a large number of assets. In September 2012, Blanche filed for divorce. After 4 years of litigation, the case went to trial, and that trial occurred over the course of 14 days between December 2016 and May 2017. In January 2017 (while the trial was proceeding), the court issued a bifurcated divorce decree granting Blanche’s request for a divorce and reserving other issues for further hearings and determinations.

  1. The Ruling

¶4        In October 2017, the court issued a 35-page Ruling and Memorandum Decision (the Ruling) that entered findings of fact and legal determinations regarding many issues related to child custody, child support, alimony, and the valuation and division of the marital estate. This appeal implicates the court’s findings and determinations regarding essentially three groups of issues: the parties’ marital properties, alimony and child support, and marital debts.[2]

Marital Properties

¶5        The court found that James and Blanche “enjoyed the benefit or acquired” five properties during their marriage: (1) the Hildale Home, (2) the Henderson Home, (3) the Eagle Mountain Home, (4) the Rockville Property, and (5) the Cedar Highlands Lots. The court then entered findings and made rulings regarding how to divide the parties’ marital interest in each property.

¶6        The Hildale Home: The court found that James built this home (located, as our reference would suggest, in Hildale, Utah) before his marriage to Blanche. The court found that James, Blanche, and their children lived in this property until 2010, after which they moved to a different residence. The court heard testimony that title to the Hildale Home was held by the United Effort Plan Trust (the Trust). But the court then concluded that no evidence had been presented of the value of James’s interest in the Trust and that “establishing the value of a beneficial interest in property of the [Trust]” would be “practically and legally impossible.” The court acknowledged that Blanche had submitted an appraisal of the Hildale Home at trial (which, according to the record on appeal, estimated its value as being around $200,000), but the court concluded that the appraisal was deficient because it failed to account for costs and fees associated with the Trust ownership. From all this—and without any further explanation— the court then ruled that Blanche was “entitled to an award of $100,000” based on the home’s value.[3]

¶7        The Henderson Home: The court found that this home was purchased by James in 2004 for $420,000. It found that after the parties fell behind on mortgage payments, at which point they still owed around $288,000, the house was “lost in a short sale in 2013 for $225,000.” The court made a finding that the fair market value of the home at the time, according to Zillow, was $323,861.

¶8        But the court also heard competing testimony from the parties about whether the loss of the home could have been avoided. From Blanche, the court heard testimony that the home “could have been rented out” but that James refused to sign papers that would have modified the loan and, theoretically, allowed the parties to avoid losing it. From James, however, the court heard testimony that maintaining or leasing the home wasn’t actually possible for several different reasons.

¶9        From this, the court found that “[t]he parties would likely have had at least $100,000 in equity to split if they had kept” the Henderson Home and “rented it as suggested by [Blanche] numerous times.” The court then ruled that James “should be responsible to, and give [Blanche] credit for, $50,000 in equity representing her share of the lost asset dissipated by him.”

¶10 The Eagle Mountain Home: The court found that James and Blanche bought this home in 2009 and made a $120,000 down payment on it, $80,000 of which was borrowed from James’s mother. The court found that they moved into the home sometime in 2010 and began using it as their primary residence. James testified that he had at one point intended to sell the Eagle Mountain Home in an effort “to cover all the debts” on the parties’ credit cards but that Blanche refused to cooperate with him on the sale. Evidence presented at trial suggested that the home was sold in 2015 by a bankruptcy trustee for $520,000, with the parties still owing $292,000 at that time. Without citing any specific piece of evidence, the court found that if the Eagle Mountain Home had “not been lost to a forced sale, [Blanche] would have been able to receive at least another $25,000 today because of the current market value of $606,000,” and the court then ruled that she was “entitled to that sum.”

¶11      The Rockville Property: The court described this as a “7.5 acre parcel of farm property” located near Rockville, Utah. In its ruling on how to divide the marital interest in this property, the court referred to evidence it had received indicating that the parties were “forced to sell” the property for $270,000 after falling behind on the mortgage payments, as well as evidence showing that the parties still owed around $190,000 on the property when it was sold.

¶12      But the court then referred to several sources of evidence it had received that suggested that this property had a higher value and could have been sold for more. For example, it referred to evidence that a realtor had listed what the court thought was a similar 11.4 acre parcel for $1,195,000 (though the court then acknowledged that it was “debatable” whether this comparison provided an accurate valuation for the Rockville Property). The court also noted testimony that a realtor had valued the property at “approximately $900,000” due to “28 [shares of] water rights [that were] attached to it.” And the court referred to an “analysis from Zillow” that suggested the property’s value was $1,195,000.

¶13      From all this, the court then found that the forced sale of the property for $270,000 was a loss that “cost the parties at least $450,000 each,” and the court awarded Blanche “damages of $450,000 offset by monies she did receive in the amount of $42,000.”

¶14 The Cedar Highlands Lots: The Cedar Highlands Lots were “two lots down by Cedar City,” one of which was around 2 acres and the other around 2.5 acres. The court found that the lots were purchased for $40,000 each sometime in 2003 but that they were later “lost” through a forced sale because of the parties’ ongoing failure to pay various taxes and fees.

¶15 At trial, there was conflicting evidence and argument about the amount of the loss suffered by the parties because of the sale of these lots. James testified that the parties lost $60,000, while Blanche claimed that they lost somewhere between $153,000 and $280,000 (with her estimate being largely based on the lots’ appreciation in value since the time that the parties had purchased them—and, thus, the parties’ loss of potential equity by virtue of the forced sale). The court ultimately found that the parties’ inability to “pay the property taxes and Homeowners Association fees . . . resulted in [an] $80,000 loss to the parties.” The court did not explain how it had arrived at the $80,000 amount, nor did it explain how this loss was to be distributed between the parties.

Alimony and Child Support

¶16 Blanche’s Income: Under an initial subheading of the Ruling that was entitled “The Parties[’] Income,” the court found that Blanche is “an experienced bookkeeper with QuickBooks who has elected to be employed by About Faceology,” but that she was currently a “self employed Uber/Lift driver and has been so since 2015.” Under a subsequent subheading entitled “Income of the Parties,” however, the court then determined that “[f]or child support purposes [Blanche’s] income cannot be imputed at more than [the] minimum wage of $1,257 per month.” Elsewhere in the Ruling, and without explanation for the discrepancy, the court found that Blanche’s imputed minimum wage income was actually $1,260 per month (rather than $1,257). The court included no explanation for its conclusion that Blanche’s income could not be imputed at more than the minimum wage.

¶17 Child Support: At the time of the Ruling, the parties had five minor children. The court initially ordered James to pay $3,781 per month in child support. Elsewhere in the Ruling, however, and again without explanation, the court stated that it was ordering James to pay $3,336 per month in child support.

¶18      Alimony: Turning to alimony, the court noted that under the controlling statute, it should consider a number of factors. One of the factors it considered was Blanche’s “financial condition and needs.” With respect to this factor, the court opined that Blanche’s “needs have been overstated in her financial declarations,” but the court made no ruling about Blanche’s financial condition and what her needs actually were. With respect to Blanche’s earning capacity, the court again noted that Blanche “claim[ed] she earns just a little better than minimum [wage] even though she is an experienced and sophisticated bookkeeper with many years of experience having run, managed, overseen and monitored millions of dollars in income and expenses that ran through the parties[’] businesses.” But the court made no further findings about her particular earning capacity as it related to a potential alimony award. The court also noted that there were “minor children in the home,” five of whom were “younger than eighteen years of age or have not yet graduated from high school with their expected class.” But the court made no findings about how (or how much) these children impacted Blanche’s earning capacity. Finally, with respect to James’s ability to pay alimony, the court found that James was a “voluntarily under employed” electrician, and it then opined that “[t]here is no question that [Blanche] claims that her needs exceed hers and [James’s] monthly incomes.” Considering these factors together, the court then ordered James to pay $8,286 per month in alimony.

Marital Debts

¶19 Finally, the court made certain findings concerning the “business debt” that was “incurred” by the parties during the marriage. While the divorce proceedings were pending, James filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. In the Ruling, the court found that, after the bankruptcy proceedings had begun, James incurred $30,000 in debt while purchasing stock in his business and business-related property from the bankruptcy trustee. Since the court determined that Blanche was “entitled to 50% of [the] value” of the business, the court then concluded that she was entitled to an award of $15,000 as a result of this debt.

¶20      The court also noted that Blanche had “received financial compensation from the sale of assets and the conversion of assets into cash.” But the court opined that it was “difficult, if not impossible, to decipher whether each expenditure was personal, business related, or partially business-related.” From this, and without further explanation, the court awarded Blanche “judgment against [James] in the amount of $50,000.”

  1. Motions for Clarification

¶21      James and Blanche were both dissatisfied with the Ruling, and in January 2018, they each filed a motion requesting clarification. Each motion raised a host of issues regarding alleged errors.

¶22      Of note here, in her motion, Blanche asked for clarification “as to whether or not” she was entitled to $25,000 for the Eagle Mountain Home or, instead, “another amount.” She argued that an award of $25,000 “seem[ed] incorrect mathematically” because if the fair market value of the Eagle Mountain Home was $606,000, and the home sold for $520,000, the “resulting equity would have been $86,000, which if divided equally would result in [Blanche] receiving judgment for $43,000,” as opposed to $25,000. Blanche also requested clarification as to the court’s determination “that the loss to the parties” concerning the Cedar Highlands Lots was $80,000. She argued that, based on the evidence presented at trial, the loss was $280,000. Blanche also requested clarification regarding the court’s determination of marital debts, specifically, whether the $15,000 was “to be added to the $50,000 for a total of $65,000” or whether “there [was] another number the court considered.” Finally, Blanche requested clarification of the court’s order regarding child support, given that in one portion of its Ruling the court ordered James to pay child support in the amount of $3,781 per month, and in another portion it altered that amount to $3,336 per month.

¶23 In his motion, James likewise requested clarification of various aspects of the Ruling. Among other things, he asked the court to “enter supplemental, amended, and or additional findings” regarding its ruling that Blanche was “entitled to $100,000” concerning the Hildale Home, explaining that he was “unaware of any evidence upon which the [court] could have relied in finding the $100,000 in equity the [court] awarded” Blanche. James also asked for clarification on the court’s findings concerning the Henderson Home, Eagle Mountain Home, and Rockville Property, asserting that the court had not “identified the facts upon which it relied” in making its calculations. Regarding the Henderson Home, James alleged that the court’s finding that “the parties would likely have had at least $100,000 in equity if the home had been rented” for the years 2013 through 2017 “fail[ed] to account for the costs of managing a rental property from a long distance, the likelihood of vacancies, the cost of utilities, maintenance, repairs, property taxes” and other related fees. Regarding the Eagle Mountain Home, James argued that the Ruling did not “accurately account for the additional $25,000” that Blanche received from the bankruptcy trustee “in addition to the $102,486.28 she received” from the sale. Regarding the Rockville Property, James requested clarification as to what facts the court relied upon to conclude that “the parties owned 28 shares of water,” given that the evidence “actually showed,” in his view, that they owned only 19 shares of water. Additionally, James requested clarification as to the court’s comparison of the Rockville Property to a parcel of “11.4 acre[s] of land with Virgin River frontage that was listed for $1,195,000.” Finally, with respect to the marital debts, James asked the court to “enter supplemental, amended and or additional findings” that would “identify the facts upon which [the court] relied in awarding [Blanche] $15,000 representing [the business’s] hypothetical equity or value.”

¶24 In the meantime, the Office of Recovery Services (ORS) intervened in the case based on its obligation to provide child support enforcement services. ORS filed a memo in response to Blanche’s motion for clarification in which it likewise requested clarification of the child support amount. After recounting its view of the evidence, ORS recommended that if Blanche’s income was imputed at minimum wage, and if James’s income was imputed at $18,500 per month, James should be ordered to pay $3,236 per month for the five minor children.

¶25      In August 2018, the court issued a ruling on James’s and Blanche’s motions. With respect to the child support amount, the court now ordered that James’s monthly obligation be $3,236 per month, thus apparently adopting ORS’s recommendation. With respect to the properties, the court now ruled—without explanation—that Blanche was entitled to $25,000 in relation to the Eagle Mountain Home and $40,000 for the Cedar Highland Lots. And with respect to the marital debts, the court found— again without explanation—that “[t]he $15,000 amount awarded is to be added to the $50,000 amount awarded for a total of $65,000” to be awarded to Blanche.

¶26 The court ordered Blanche’s counsel to prepare the final findings of fact and conclusions of law. In a November 2018 filing, however, Blanche alleged that she was unable to do so without “additional findings” regarding, among others, the marital debts. In May 2019, the court heard additional oral arguments. After the parties filed additional objections and motions, the case was reassigned from Judge Lynn Davis—who had heard the trial testimony and had issued both the Ruling and the rulings on the motions for clarification—to Judge Robert Lunnen. Judge Lunnen then heard oral arguments on the parties’ objections and outstanding motions.

  1. The Supplemental Decree

¶27      In April 2021, the court (through Judge Lunnen) issued a “Supplemental Decree of Divorce” (the Supplemental Decree).[4]

¶28 The Supplemental Decree reiterated and incorporated many of the findings and determinations from the Ruling. As in the Ruling, for example, the court awarded Blanche $100,000 for the Hildale Home, $50,000 for the Henderson Home, and the (clarified) amount of $40,000 for the Cedar Highlands Lots. But without explanation, the court altered the order regarding the Eagle Mountain Home, awarding Blanche $43,000 as opposed to the $25,000 that was previously ordered. Also without explanation, the court altered the order regarding the Rockville Property, first concluding that Blanche’s offset should be $38,000, not $42,000, and now awarding Blanche $412,000 from this property as opposed to the $408,000 that had previously been awarded.

¶29      The court also determined that Blanche’s income should be imputed at minimum wage for a total of $1,260 per month. Based on its findings about the parties’ incomes, it then ordered James to pay $3,236 per month in child support, and it again ordered him to pay $8,286 per month in alimony.

¶30 Finally, the court awarded Blanche $65,000 relating to the marital debts. The court explained that $15,000 of that amount “represent[ed] her interest” in various purchases made by James from the bankruptcy trustee and that the remaining $50,000 represented “her interest in other assets, business and otherwise.”

¶31      James timely appealed.


¶32 James argues that the district court issued “inadequate” fact findings to explain its rulings regarding the marital properties, child support and alimony, and marital debts. “We review the legal adequacy of findings of fact for correctness as a question of law.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 4, 427 P.3d 1221 (quotation simplified); see also Brown v. Babbitt, 2015 UT App 161, ¶ 5, 353 P.3d 1262 (“We review the legal sufficiency of factual findings—that is, whether the trial court’s factual findings are sufficient to support its legal conclusions—under a correction-of-error standard, according no particular deference to the trial court.” (quotation simplified)).[5]


¶33 A district court’s “[f]indings of fact are adequate . . . only when they are sufficiently detailed to disclose the steps by which the district court reached its ultimate conclusion on each issue.” Oldroyd v. Oldroyd, 2017 UT App 45, ¶ 5, 397 P.3d 645. When assessing a challenge to the adequacy of a district court’s findings, we look to whether the court “adequately disclosed the analytic steps” it took in reaching its conclusions. Keiter v. Keiter, 2010 UT App 169, ¶ 21, 235 P.3d 782. In this sense, the court’s findings of fact must show that its “judgment or decree follows logically from, and is supported by, the evidence.” Id. ¶ 17 (quotation simplified). “This obligation facilitates meaningful appellate review and ensures the parties are informed of the trial court’s reasoning.” Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 5, 406 P.3d 258; see also Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 22, 379 P.3d 882 (explaining that findings “are adequate when they contain sufficient detail to permit appellate review to ensure that the district court’s discretionary determination was rationally based”). While “unstated findings can be implied if it is reasonable to assume that the trial court actually considered the controverted evidence and necessarily made a finding to resolve the controversy, but simply failed to record the factual determination it made,” Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 22 (quotation simplified), 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) (quotation simplified).

¶34 James argues that a number of the court’s findings were inadequate. His arguments address three groups of findings— namely, findings regarding (I) marital properties, (II) child support and alimony, and (III) marital debts. We address each group in turn.[6]

  1. Marital Properties

¶35 James first challenges the adequacy of the findings that supported the rulings about how to value and distribute the parties’ marital properties. We recognize at the outset that district courts “have considerable discretion in determining property distribution in divorce cases.” Marroquin v. Marroquin, 2019 UT App 38, ¶ 11, 440 P.3d 757 (quotation simplified). But while a district court “does not have to accept [a party’s] proposed valuation” of an item in the marital estate, the court “does have to make findings sufficient to allow us to review and determine whether an equitable property award has been made.” Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶ 53, 379 P.3d 890. In ruling on such a claim, we will uphold a district court’s “valuation of marital assets” if “the value is within the range of values established by all the testimony, and as long as the court’s findings are sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.” Wadsworth v. Wadsworth, 2022 UT App 28, ¶ 64, 507 P.3d 385 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1259 (Utah 2022).

  1. The Hildale Home

¶36 James first argues that the court’s findings regarding the Hildale Home were inadequate. In James’s view, the court “simply concluded that $100,000 was an appropriate amount of an award without providing factual findings” supporting “the appropriateness” of that award. We agree.

¶37 The court’s discussion of the Hildale Home spans roughly two pages of the Ruling. Much of the discussion concerns the ownership of the home. The court found that the home’s title is held by the Trust, that James’s interest in the home is that “of a beneficiary” to the Trust, and that Blanche, by contrast, is “not a legal beneficiary” of the Trust. But the court then found that “[n]o evidence was presented to the court of the value [of] [James’s] beneficial interest” in the Trust and that “establishing the value of a beneficial interest in property of the [Trust] is practically and legally impossible[,]” in part, because “the Trust is not receptive to, nor responsive to, legal inquiries.” The court also recognized that Blanche submitted an appraisal of the home, but it then concluded that the appraisal was not an adequate mechanism for establishing the home’s value because the appraisal failed to account for “title to the home being in the [Trust], the costs of getting the [Hildale Home] conveyed from the [Trust], or the thousands of dollars owed to the [court] appointed Trustee of the [Trust] which the Trustee is owed for administering the [Trust’s] assets.” After discounting its ability to rely on either James’s interest in the Trust or Blanche’s appraisal, the court ruled that the property was “a marital asset” to some “narrow extent.” Without further explanation, it then ruled that while it couldn’t grant title to Blanche, she was “entitled to an award of $100,000.”

¶38      We recognize the difficulties that the court faced with this trial in general—as should be clear by now, this was a very complicated divorce with a lot of things to decide and divide. And as evidenced by the preceding paragraph, the nature of parties’ apparent interest in the Hildale Home made the question of how to divide that interest particularly complicated. But even so, we see nothing in the Ruling that “adequately disclosed the analytic steps” the court took, Keiter, 2010 UT App 169, ¶ 21, when deciding that Blanche was entitled to $100,000. The court clearly explained what it thought it couldn’t rely on, but it didn’t explain what it thought it could rely on or how it arrived at this particular amount. Without such an explanation, James has no meaningful way to challenge that $100,000 award, nor do we have any meaningful way to assess whether it was legally warranted in light of the “matrix of possible factual findings” on this issue that are apparent from the record. Hall, 858 P.2d at 1025 (quotation simplified). We accordingly vacate this determination.

  1. The Henderson Home

¶39 James next argues that the court “did not provide any analysis” as to how it determined there was $100,000 in equity in the Henderson Home and that, as a result, the $50,000 award to Blanche was based on inadequate findings. We agree.

¶40      The court found that the home was purchased by James in 2004 for $420,000. It explained that by August 2012, James and Blanche were “months behind in their [mortgage] payment” and that they owed $288,000 when the home was “lost in a short sale in 2013 for $225,000.” The court made a finding that the fair market value of the home at the time—according to Zillow—was $323,861.[7] The court found that James and Blanche “would likely have had at least $100,000 in equity to split if they had” managed to keep the home, but because James “ignored” Blanche’s suggestions to rent the home out, which in theory would have prevented them from losing it, it then ruled that James “should be responsible to, and give [Blanche] credit for, $50,000 in equity representing her share of the lost asset dissipated by him.” It appears the court thus based the $50,000 award on its finding that “the parties could likely have rented and made money as shown or just maintained [the Henderson Home] and sold it for profit presently.”

¶41      James’s initial argument here is that it’s unclear how the court arrived at the $100,000 in equity that it then divided. In response, Blanche suggests that this amount could have been derived from the court’s apparent acceptance of the home’s fair market value as being $323,861 (a value derived from Zillow— which, again, neither party has challenged on appeal as being improper), an amount that is approximately (though, we note, not precisely) $100,000 more than the parties received in the short sale. We have some concern that Blanche is asking us to do too much inferential work on our own, and we could vacate on this basis alone. But in any event, the court’s division of the apparent equity also seems to have been based on a dissipation (or, perhaps, a waste) determination stemming from James’s conduct. Assuming this was so, the court’s findings about James’s conduct, whether the home could actually have been rented out, what the parties could have received in rent, and whether this unspoken amount would actually have prevented them from losing the home were all either missing or decidedly cursory. We’ve previously held, however, held that when a court rules that a party “should be held accountable for the dissipation of marital assets,” the court must support the ruling with “sufficiently detailed findings of fact that explain the trial court’s basis” for that ruling, and we’ve also laid out a number of factors that “may be relevant to” and could support such a ruling. Rayner v. Rayner, 2013 UT App 269, ¶¶ 19–21, 316 P.3d 455 (quotation simplified). While that list is not mandatory or exhaustive, we still have an inadequate findings-based foundation here from which we could review what seems to have been an implicit dissipation determination. When coupled with the lack of explanatory findings about the basis for the equity determination, we conclude that the findings about this home are, as a whole, legally inadequate to support meaningful appellate review of this ruling. We accordingly vacate them.

  1. The Eagle Mountain Home

¶42      James argues that the court’s findings regarding the Eagle Mountain Home were legally inadequate. We agree.

¶43 In the Ruling, the court (through Judge Davis) initially awarded Blanche $25,000 for this home. But the court failed to explain the analytic steps it took to arrive at that amount. The court did enter a few findings about this home—namely, that the parties made a $120,000 down payment when they purchased the home in 2009 ($80,000 of which was borrowed from James’s mother), that they were forced to sell it in 2015 in conjunction with James’s bankruptcy, and that, as a result of that sale, Blanche received “one half” of its equity. But the court made no findings about the sale price or how much equity the parties had in the home at the time of the sale. And then, without any explanation, the court opined that “[h]ad it not been lost to a forced sale,” Blanche “would have been able to receive at least another $25,000 today” because of the home’s “current market value.” The court provided no basis for the $25,000 amount, and we see no reasonable basis in its findings for inferring one.

¶44      Of note, the court (through Judge Lunnen) then changed the awarded amount in the Supplemental Decree, now awarding Blanche $43,000 for it. But the court didn’t explain why it increased this award from the award that had previously been entered in the Ruling. And while Blanche suggests on appeal that the court had now accepted a new valuation of the home that she offered in her motion for clarification, the court never said that it was doing so, nor did it provide any other explanation for why it increased this award at all, let alone by this particular amount.

¶45      In light of this procedural history, it’s unclear to us what analytic steps led the court to first award Blanche $25,000 for this home and what caused the court to later change that award to $43,000. As a result, the findings with respect to this home are legally inadequate and are therefore vacated.

  1. The Rockville Property

¶46      James argues that the court’s findings about the Rockville Property are legally inadequate because it’s “not clear” how the court “reached its valuation of the Rockville Property” or how it divided that value as part of its division of the marital estate. We agree.

¶47 In the Ruling, the court explained that the Rockville Property was a “7.5 acre parcel of farm property” owned by James and Blanche near Rockville, Utah. As for its value and how to determine that value, the court pointed to three options: (1) it noted that a realtor had listed a similar 11.4 acre parcel for $1,195,000, though the court opined that this valuation was “debatable”; (2) the court noted that Blanche “discussed” its value with a realtor who “indicated back then” (which, though unsaid by the court, seems from context to have been in 2013) that the “lot was worth approximately $900,000, due to the 28 water rights attached to it”; and (3) the court pointed to a “[c]urrent market value analysis from Zillow” that “estimate[d]” the property’s value at $1,195,000. The court then found that the parties were “forced to sell” the property in December 2013 for $270,000 due to financial troubles. And the court apparently faulted James for this, determining that at the time of the forced sale, the parties “only owed approximately $190,000” on the property, that it could have been refinanced, and that it was James’s fault that they did not do so. From this, the court found that the forced sale “cost the parties at least $450,000 each,” and it accordingly awarded Blanche “damages of $450,000 offset by monies she did receive in the amount of $42,000.”

¶48 From an adequacy-of-the-findings perspective, the initial problem here is that the court never stated whether it was accepting $1,195,000 or $900,000 as the property’s value. Given that the property’s value would be the numerator for any division of it as a marital asset, this omission is, of course, significant. And while Blanche invites us to engage in some loose math that would account for both possibilities and arrive at the same endpoint, the difference between the two initial valuations might matter if James wished to mount a sufficiency of the evidence challenge. Moreover, to the extent that the court’s determination about how to divide the property’s value turned on an implicit dissipation determination, we again note that the court failed to support such a determination with adequate findings. And finally, while the court offset the award to Blanche by “monies she did receive in the amount of $42,000,” an amount that it later changed to $38,000 in the Supplemental Decree, the court didn’t explain the basis for either amount in either ruling.[8]

¶49 Given the unanswered questions about how the court valued both this property and the offset, we have no basis for conducting a meaningful review of this award. We accordingly vacate it.

  1. The Cedar Highlands Lots

¶50 James’s final property-related challenge is to the findings regarding the Cedar Highlands Lots. In James’s view, the court improperly failed to “indicate . . . how the $80,000 was calculated.” We again agree.

¶51      In the Ruling, the court found that James and a business partner had purchased the two lots for $40,000 each, that Blanche had “controlled the book-keeping for the marital businesses,” and that the lots “were lost when the parties were unable or could not pay the property taxes and Home Owners Association fees,” thus “result[ing] in [an] $80,000 loss to the parties.” In a subsequent ruling, the court determined that this loss should now result in an award of $40,000 to Blanche, and that award was later confirmed in the Supplemental Decree.

¶52 From the court’s findings, it’s unclear why the court determined that there was an $80,000 loss. The court seems to have assumed that the lots were completely lost with no return in value, but the court never said so. And more importantly, even assuming that this was the implicit finding, the court never explained why it concluded that Blanche should receive an award of $40,000 as the result of this particular loss to the marital estate of $80,000. Without such an explanation, we have no meaningful basis for reviewing the ruling. As a result, we vacate it.

  1. Child Support and Alimony

¶53 James challenges the adequacy of the findings relating to child support and alimony. James’s challenges here fall into two groups: first, he challenges the adequacy of the findings relating to Blanche’s income (which, as explained below, matter to both child support and alimony); and second, with respect to the alimony determination, he challenges the adequacy of the court’s findings relating to Blanche’s financial condition and needs.

  1. Blanche’s Income

¶54      James argues that the court’s findings regarding Blanche’s income were inadequate because they failed to “provide any reasoning for disregarding [Blanche’s] earning capacity.” We agree.

¶55      A party’s income matters to a determination of both child support and alimony. First, with respect to child support, a “noncustodial parent’s child support obligation is calculated using each parent’s adjusted gross income.” Twitchell v. Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 34, 509 P.3d 806 (quotation simplified); see also Utah Code §§ 78B-12-202, -301 (establishing guidelines for child support awards). Importantly, the court “is required to enter detailed and specific findings on all material issues which must be considered when making a child support award.” Breinholt v. Breinholt, 905 P.2d 877, 881 (Utah Ct. App. 1995) (quotation simplified). But “so long as the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached are apparent, a trial court may make findings, credibility determinations, or other assessments without detailing its justification for finding particular evidence more credible or persuasive than other evidence supporting a different outcome.” Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 6 (quotation simplified). Second, with respect to alimony, a court must examine, among other factors, “the recipient’s earning capacity or ability to produce income.” Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 16, 496 P.3d 242 (quotation simplified). And a court must in “all cases . . . support its alimony determinations with adequate findings . . . on all material issues,” and “failure to do so constitutes reversible error, unless pertinent facts in the record are clear, uncontroverted, and capable of supporting only a finding in favor of the judgment.” Id. ¶ 17 (quotation simplified).

¶56      Of note, when “there is insufficient evidence of one of the statutory alimony factors, courts may impute figures.” Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 98, 452 P.3d 1134 (quotation simplified). For example, a “court may impute income to a former spouse for purposes of calculating alimony after finding that the former spouse is voluntarily unemployed or voluntarily underemployed.” Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 15. And it “is not unusual for courts to impute income to a spouse who has not worked during the marriage (or who has not worked for a number of years preceding the divorce) but who is nevertheless capable of producing income.” Petrzelka v. Goodwin, 2020 UT App 34, ¶ 26, 461 P.3d 1134 (emphasis in original). But when a court imputes income, the “imputation cannot be premised upon mere conjecture; instead, it demands a careful and precise assessment requiring detailed findings.” Christensen v. Christensen, 2017 UT App 120, ¶ 22, 400 P.3d 1219 (quotation simplified); see also Reller v. Argenziano, 2015 UT App 241, ¶ 33, 360 P.3d 768 (“Before imputing income to a parent, the trial court must enter findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.” (quotation simplified)).

¶57      Income can likewise be imputed as part of a child support determination. See Utah Code § 78B-12-203(8). But, as with an alimony award, a court must support such an imputation with adequate findings. See id. § 78B-12-203(8)(a) (explaining that in contested cases, “[i]ncome may not be imputed to a parent unless,” after an evidentiary hearing on the matter, the court “enters findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis or the imputation”); id. § 78B-12-203(8)(b) (detailing the evidentiary bases upon which a court may impute income for child support purposes); see also Rayner, 2013 UT App 269, ¶ 10 (“Imputation cannot be premised upon mere conjecture; instead, it demands a careful and precise assessment requiring detailed findings.” (quotation simplified)).

¶58 Here, the court determined that although Blanche was currently working as a “self employed Uber/Lift driver,” her “income cannot be imputed at more than minimum wage of $1,257 per month.” In a different portion of the Ruling, however, the court found that Blanche’s “gross income” should actually be imputed at “$1,260 per month.”

¶59 On appeal, James doesn’t focus on this three-dollar discrepancy. Rather, James argues that the court erred by failing to explain why Blanche’s income should be imputed at minimum wage at all. As James points out, the court elsewhere found that Blanche is “an experienced bookkeeper with QuickBooks who has elected to be employed by About Faceology,” and it further found that she was “an experienced and sophisticated bookkeeper with many years of experience having run, managed, overseen and monitored millions of dollars in income and expenses that ran through the parties[’] businesses.”

¶60      Having reviewed the Ruling, we see no explanation for the court’s determination that, although Blanche is an experienced bookkeeper with the skill set to manage millions of dollars in income for a company, her income should still be imputed at minimum wage. In an attempt to justify this on appeal, Blanche points to a passing statement from the alimony portion of the ruling in which the court noted that the parties “have ten children, five of which are younger than eighteen years of age or have not yet graduated from high school with their expected class.” But as James points out in response, the parties had even more minor children at home during the years in which Blanche was working as a bookkeeper with responsibilities for “millions of dollars in income.” And while it’s possible that the court believed that something had now changed that would prevent Blanche from still doing this work (such as her new status as a post-divorce single parent), the court never said this or entered any findings to support such a determination, it never explained why it was implicitly determining that Blanche could work as an Uber/Lyft driver but not as a bookkeeper, and it entered no findings to explain why her current employment as an Uber/Lyft driver would result in an income imputation of minimum wage.

¶61      To be clear: as with the other issues in this appeal, we express no opinion about the proper resolution of any of these questions. But without an explanation from the district court, James has no basis for properly challenging the decision about Blanche’s income, nor do we have an adequate basis for reviewing it. Given the importance of Blanche’s income to both child support and alimony, we accordingly vacate those rulings.

  1. Blanche’s Financial Condition and Needs

¶62 As part of its alimony determination, the court was also required to consider Blanche’s “financial condition and needs.” Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 16 (quotation simplified). James argues that the court failed to enter adequate findings to support this assessment. We agree.

¶63 In the Ruling, the court noted that Blanche had claimed that she had “monthly needs of $18,565,” but it then concluded that these needs were “overstated.” And while Blanche had also suggested that she needed the alimony award to account for “over $200,000 in credit card and business debts,” the court suggested that this debt was either accounted for by other portions of its ruling or had “been discharged in the bankruptcy case.”

¶64 But even so, while the court then concluded that James “simply does not make sufficient money to satisfy all of [Blanche’s] claims” about what “she reasonably needs to support herself,” the court did not make any determination about what Blanche’s needs actually are. As James correctly points out, the absence of such an explanation prevents us from conducting a meaningful review of how this factor should weigh into the court’s alimony award, a problem that is compounded by the failure discussed above to adequately explain its determination about Blanche’s income.

¶65 We accordingly vacate the alimony award to allow the court to enter more detailed findings and, “if necessary, recalculat[e] . . . appropriate alimony.” Fitzgerald v. Fitzgerald, 2005 UT App 67U, para. 6 (quotation simplified); see also Eberhard v. Eberhard, 2019 UT App 114, ¶¶ 39–40, 449 P.3d 202 (faulting a district court for not “spelling out” “how much more [the petitioner] actually needs each month to pay down her debt and elevate herself to the marital standard of living,” thus leaving the appellate court “unable to discern whether the alimony award, in fact, exceeds her needs”).

III. Marital Debts

¶66 Finally, James challenges the adequacy of the court’s findings with respect to the parties’ marital debts. We agree that these findings are inadequate.

¶67      “In issuing a divorce decree, a trial court must include an order specifying which party is responsible for the payment of joint debts, obligations, or liabilities of the parties contracted or incurred during marriage.” Fox v. Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 32, 515 P.3d 481 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022); see also Utah Code § 30-3-5(3)(c)(i). Utah law “requires only a fair and equitable, not an equal, division of the marital debts.” Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 32 (quotation simplified). A district court is in the “best position to weigh the evidence, determine credibility and arrive at factual conclusions”; as a result, a district court’s division of marital debts is “entitled to a presumption of validity.” Mullins v. Mullins, 2016 UT App 77, ¶ 20, 370 P.3d 1283 (quotation simplified). But, again, the district court must enter findings of fact that are “sufficiently detailed to disclose the steps by which [it] reached its ultimate conclusion on each issue.” Oldroyd, 2017 UT App 45, ¶ 5.

¶68 Here, the court found that the “parties incurred business debt while married.” James challenges the adequacy of the findings with respect to two of those debts.

¶69      First, the court found that as a result of James’s bankruptcy, James took on $30,000 in debt to finance the purchase of his business’s stock and other business-related property. In the court’s view, Blanche was “entitled to 50% of [the] value” of the business, which meant, in its view, that she was also entitled to $15,000. But the court never explained why it concluded that Blanche was entitled to this amount. While it’s possible, as Blanche now suggests, that the court thought that James had drawn the $30,000 from marital assets—and, thus, that $15,000 of it belonged to Blanche—the court didn’t say this, and its reference to this as “$30,000” in “debt” that James had incurred is somewhat at odds with this inference. In the absence of any explanation, we vacate this ruling.

¶70      Second, at the close of the “Marital Debts” section of its ruling, the court found that Blanche had “received financial compensation from the sale of assets and the conversion of assets into cash.” But it then opined that it was “difficult, if not impossible, to decipher whether each expenditure was personal, business related, or partially business-related.” Without any further explanation, the court then held that Blanche

was “awarded judgment against [James] in the amount of $50,000.”

¶71                   It’s entirely unclear to us what the basis for this $50,000

award was. So far as we can tell, the court seems to have concluded that Blanche had already received some prior distributions from marital assets and that she should now receive $50,000 more. But there’s no explanation for how the court arrived at this particular amount, what the amount was linked to, or why it would be listed alongside an analysis of “Marital Debts.” Without any such explanation, we vacate this award.


¶72 We agree with James’s assertion that the challenged findings were not legally adequate and that these inadequacies impaired both his ability to challenge the court’s various rulings and our ability to review them. We accordingly vacate the above rulings and remand the case with instructions for the court to enter more detailed findings and then alter any of its rulings as may be necessary.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277


[1] Because the parties share the same last name, we’ll follow our normal practice and refer to them by their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] In this Background, we’ll recount the main findings regarding each ruling at issue on appeal, but in some instances, additional relevant findings will be discussed in the Analysis below.

[3] With respect to some (though not all) of the dollar amounts included in the rulings at issue, the court added “.00” signifiers. For readability, those have been omitted throughout this opinion.

[4] As noted above, the court had previously entered a bifurcated divorce decree while the trial on the parties’ assets and the like was still ongoing.

[5] As evidenced by the passages quoted above, there’s something of a disconnect in how we’ve referred to this kind of argument in past cases. In some cases, we’ve described it as an argument about the “legal adequacy” of the district court’s findings, see, e.g.Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 20, 427 P.3d 1221, but in others, we’ve described it as an argument about the “legal sufficiency” of the findings, see, e.g.Brown v. Babbitt, 2015 UT App 161, ¶ 5, 353 P.3d 1262. For consistency’s sake, it might be better if bench and bar alike settled on a single usage. And on reflection, we suggest that such an argument should be described in adequacy terms.

The reason for this is to reduce the potential for confusing this kind of argument with the similar sounding but substantively distinct “sufficiency of the evidence” argument. At the risk of over-simplification: a sufficiency of the evidence argument asserts that there was insufficient evidentiary support for a particular factual finding. As detailed more fully below, however, the argument at issue here—a challenge to the adequacy of the findings—asserts that the court’s findings did not adequately explain the basis for the court’s rulings, thereby impairing our ability to review those rulings (for sufficiency of the evidence or anything else).

[6]Two notes are warranted at the outset—one about our usage patterns regarding the rulings at issue, and one about a threshold argument made by Blanche.

First, as discussed above, there are two decisions that largely drive the various arguments in this case: the Ruling and the Supplemental Decree. The Ruling was issued by Judge Davis, who heard the trial evidence, while the Supplemental Decree was issued by Judge Lunnen, who was assigned to the case after the Ruling was issued. At one of the hearings in the intervening period, Judge Lunnen responded to a party’s argument by stating that “[t]he findings, they’re set in stone. So all this is . . . a result of the findings.” As noted, however, Judge Lunnen did alter a few of the Ruling’s legal determinations in the Supplemental Decree. In consequence of how this all played out, the Supplemental Decree recites many of the findings that were issued in the Ruling, though not with the same level of detail. It instead essentially incorporates the bulk of the Ruling by implicit reference. For this reason, the parties’ arguments on appeal have largely focused on whether the findings from the Ruling were adequate, and we’ll follow suit. To avoid redundancy, we won’t repeatedly mention whether we think the findings from the Supplemental Decree were likewise inadequate (even if they were reiterated in the Supplemental Decree); instead, we’ll discuss the Supplemental Decree only in those instances where it differs in some meaningful way from the Ruling (usually because of an altered legal determination).

Second, in her opening brief, Blanche argues that James did “not comply with Utah’s marshaling requirement” in his briefing on appeal. But the marshaling requirement applies when a party “seeks to prevail in challenging the sufficiency of the evidence to support a factual finding or a verdict on appeal.” State v. Nielsen, 2014 UT 10, ¶ 40, 326 P.3d 645; see also State v. Wall, 2020 UT App 36, ¶ 53, 460 P.3d 1058; Wilson v. Sanders, 2019 UT App 126, ¶ 17, 447 P.3d 1240. As noted, however, James is not arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support any particular finding. Rather, James is arguing that the findings were inadequate to explain the court’s various rulings. As we’ve explained, an argument about the adequacy of the findings presents a legal question. Because of this, “marshaling is not required.” Jensen v. Jensen, 2009 UT App 1, ¶ 8 n.3, 203 P.3d 1020; see also Woodward v. Fazzio, 823 P.2d 474, 477–78 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (“There is, in effect, no need for an appellant to marshal the evidence when the findings are so inadequate that they cannot be meaningfully challenged as factual determinations. . . . Rather, appellant can simply argue the legal insufficiency of the court’s findings as framed.”).


[7] While a topic at oral argument, neither party raised on appeal the issue of whether the district court could appropriately rely on Zillow for its valuation of the property, as opposed to evidence submitted at trial. For this reason, we do not address the issue here.

[8] It seems possible (if not probable) that this offset was intended to reflect a determination that the parties received $80,000 in equity when they sold the property for $270,000 while still owing $190,000 on it. But if this was the determination, (1) the court didn’t say so, and (2) it also didn’t explain the basis for initially deviating upward by $2,000 to arrive at $42,000, nor did it explain the basis for subsequently deviating downward by $2,000 to arrive at $38,000.

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Oldroyd v. Oldroyd – 2022 UT App 145 – Premarital Property

2022 UT App 145







No. 20210073-CA

Filed December 22, 2022

Second District Court, Morgan Department

The Honorable Noel S. Hyde No. 134500028

Brent D. Wride, Attorney for Appellant

Brian E. Arnold and Lauren Schultz, Attorneys for Appellee



¶1 Prior to their marriage, Robben Ann Oldroyd (Ann) and Farrell Lynn Oldroyd (Farrell) built a home on property owned by Ann. Ann paid for the materials and contractors used in the construction of the home, and Farrell contributed his skills and labor to build the specialty log home. When the parties divorced many years later, a dispute arose regarding their relative interests in the home. This is the third time questions relating to their dispute have come before this court. In the current appeal, we are asked to consider whether the district court erred in awarding Farrell a share of Ann’s premarital equity in the home based on its application of the contribution and extraordinary situation exceptions to the separate-property presumption. We conclude that the contribution exception does not apply to premarital contributions and that the extraordinary situation exception does not apply because Farrell had other means of protecting his alleged interest in the home. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s ruling and remand with instructions for the court to award the disputed equity to Ann.


¶2      This is the third time this matter has come before this court. See Oldroyd v. Oldroyd (Oldroyd I), 2017 UT App 45, 397 P.3d 645; Oldroyd v. Oldroyd (Oldroyd II), 2019 UT App 155, 474 P.3d 467. Each appeal has concerned the parties’ home. Ann purchased the land on which the home was built before the parties were married. Oldroyd I, 2017 UT App 45, ¶ 2. While Ann and Farrell were dating, Ann arranged to have the home built. Id. Ann paid for the costs of materials and construction, but Farrell contributed “supervision, labor, work, expertise, and conceptual direction” for the construction. Id. ¶¶ 2, 4 (quotation simplified). Subsequently, the parties married and lived together in the home, but the land and home remained in Ann’s name alone. Id. ¶ 2.

¶3 While both parties agree that Ann should receive a credit for what she spent on the land on which the home was built, the parties disagree about how the remaining equity in the home should be distributed. Farrell argues that all remaining equity should be shared equally between the parties. Ann, on the other hand, maintains that she should receive a credit for both the amount she spent on the land and the amount she spent on construction costs before the parties divide the remaining equity.[1]

¶4 In its original findings of fact and conclusions of law in the parties’ divorce, the district court found that Farrell’s nonmonetary contributions were “roughly equal” to Ann’s financial contributions and that he had therefore acquired “a separate premarital interest in the improvements on the property.” Id. ¶ 4

(quotation simplified). However, we overturned that determination on appeal because the court “did not explain what legal theory gave rise to that equitable interest.” Id. ¶ 8.

¶5 On remand, the district court again determined that Farrell had a premarital interest in the home but this time premised its ruling on a theory of unjust enrichment. Oldroyd II, 2019 UT App 155, ¶ 4. However, we once again reversed the court’s ruling, this time on the basis that Farrell had never asserted an unjust enrichment claim. Id. ¶¶ 7–9.

¶6 In Oldroyd II, we further explained that Farrell’s pleadings did not raise a claim that he had acquired a premarital interest in the home. Rather, Farrell asserted that because he had “exerted hours and money into the home, including trade work,” he “should be awarded a sum certain from [Ann’s] equity in the home for all the work he has completed on the home, and for value of his trade work that he has performed for investment on the marital home.” Id. ¶ 7 (quotation simplified). In other words, Farrell raised not an equitable claim “for a premarital interest in property,” but “a claim for an equitable award of a portion of [Ann’s] premarital asset.” Id. However, because the district court had not considered equitable bases on which Farrell might be entitled to a share of Ann’s premarital interest, we left open the possibility that the court might determine that such an award was appropriate. Id. ¶ 11 & n.3.

¶7 On remand, the district court, for the third time, awarded Farrell a share of equity in the home. This time, the court recognized that the property was Ann’s premarital asset but concluded that Farrell was entitled to a portion of Ann’s premarital equity based on the contribution exception and the extraordinary situation exception. Ann again appeals.


¶8 Ann asserts that the district court erred in awarding Farrell a share of her equity in the home because Farrell’s contributions occurred prior to the marriage and the extraordinary situation exception is not applicable. “We generally defer to a trial court’s categorization and equitable distribution of separate property,” Lindsey v. Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 26, 392 P.3d 968 (quotation simplified), so long as the court’s judgment “fall[s] within the spectrum of appropriate resolutions,” id. ¶ 29.


¶9 Historically, we have recognized three equitable exceptions that may justify an award of one spouse’s premarital property to the other spouse: (1) the commingling exception, (2) the contribution exception, and (3) the extraordinary situation exception. See Lindsey v. Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 33, 392 P.3d 968. Only the contribution exception and the extraordinary situation exception are at issue in this case.

¶10 As a threshold matter, we note that it is somewhat unclear from the district court’s discussion whether it was relying on the contribution exception, the extraordinary situation exception, or both exceptions in awarding the disputed funds. The parties’ arguments on appeal primarily concern the applicability of the extraordinary situation exception, and they appear to be operating under the assumption that the court’s decision rested on that exception. However, given that the court’s application of the extraordinary situation exception was based on its determination that Farrell’s premarital contributions made it equitable to award him a share of Ann’s premarital property, we think it appropriate to address both exceptions in our analysis.

I. Contribution Exception

¶11 “Under the contribution exception, a spouse’s separate property may be subject to equitable distribution [upon divorce] when the other spouse has by his or her efforts or expense contributed to the enhancement, maintenance, or protection of that property, thereby acquiring an equitable interest in it.” Lindsey v. Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 35, 392 P.3d 968 (quotation simplified). Common examples include a spouse working for the other spouse’s premarital business without taking a salary, see, e.g., Rappleye v. Rappleye, 855 P.2d 260, 263 (Utah Ct. App. 1993), or a couple using marital funds to make improvements to or pay a mortgage on a premarital property, see, e.g.Schaumberg v. Schaumberg, 875 P.2d 598, 601 (Utah Ct. App. 1994). However, as we noted in Oldroyd II, “[p]revious cases addressing equitable division of premarital assets have involved contributions made to those assets during the course of the marriage,” and “Utah courts have not had the opportunity to assess the extent to which one spouse’s premarital contributions to another spouse’s premarital assets may be considered in the context of a divorce court’s equitable division of property.”[2] 2019 UT App 155, ¶ 11 n.3, 474 P.3d 467.

¶12 Having now been presented with the opportunity to consider the applicability of the contribution exception to premarital contributions, we are convinced that it does not apply in this context. Unlike a married person, an unmarried person has no reasonable expectation of any benefit from or entitlement to separate property owned or acquired by their significant other. Here, Farrell chose to assist Ann in building her home without seeking compensation.[3] At that time, even though he may have expected to eventually marry Ann and live in the home with her, he had no guarantee that would happen. “As a general rule, . . . premarital property is viewed as separate property, and equity usually requires that each party retain the separate property he or she brought into the marriage.” Walters v. Walters, 812 P.2d 64, 67 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (quotation simplified), superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in Whyte v. Blair, 885 P.2d 791 (Utah 1994). Only “where unique circumstances exist” may a trial court “reallocate premarital property as part of a property division incident to divorce.” Id. “Generally, trial courts are . . . required to award premarital property, and appreciation on that property, to the spouse who brought the property into the marriage.” Elman v. Elman, 2002 UT App 83, ¶ 18, 45 P.3d 176.

¶13 Farrell had several options for protecting his interests, which he chose not to take advantage of. First, he could have entered into a contract with Ann requiring her to pay him for his services. Second, he could have negotiated a prenuptial agreement acknowledging his premarital contributions and granting him an interest in the home in case of divorce. Third— though likely an undesirable option given his relationship to Ann—Farrell could have filed a lawsuit bringing a quasi-contract claim, such as unjust enrichment, to obtain compensation for his services. However, the contribution exception is simply not one of the options available where the contributions occurred prior to the parties’ marriage.

II. Extraordinary Situation Exception

¶14 Just as Farrell’s premarital contributions to Ann’s premarital asset cannot support an award to him of Ann’s separate property under the contribution exception, they also cannot support an award under the extraordinary situation exception.

¶15 “The bar for establishing an extraordinary situation is high, traditionally requiring that invasion of a spouse’s separate property is the only way to achieve equity.” Lindsey v. Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 46, 392 P.3d 968 (quotation simplified). “A quintessential extraordinary situation arises when a spouse owns separate property but lacks income to provide alimony.” Id. In that circumstance, “an equitable distribution of the [separate property] would be well within the trial court’s discretion.” Kunzler v. Kunzler, 2008 UT App 263, ¶ 37, 190 P.3d 497 (Billings, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part); see also Burt v. Burt, 799 P.2d 1166, 1169 (Utah Ct. App. 1990) (“The court may award an interest in the inherited property to the non-heir spouse in lieu of alimony.”). The doctrine has also been applied in situations where a person did not contribute directly to their spouse’s premarital asset but their contributions to the marital estate allowed their spouse to enhance their own separate assets rather than the marital estate. See Henshaw v. Henshaw, 2012 UT App 56, ¶ 20 & n.7, 271 P.3d 837 (affirming an award of premarital ranch property to a wife, despite the fact that the value of the ranch had depreciated during the marriage, because the wife had borne “the financial burdens of the family in order to allow [the husband] to work almost exclusively on the ranch”); Elman v. Elman, 2002 UT App 83, ¶ 24, 45 P.3d 176 (affirming an award of stock in a premarital business to a wife whose income-earning activities allowed her husband to quit his job and devote time to managing and growing his premarital assets rather than contributing to marital assets). Taking on “domestic burdens” to make possible a spouse’s full-time participation in a premarital business may also be an extraordinary situation where the bulk of the business’s value is developed during the marriage. Savage v. Savage, 658 P.2d 1201, 1204 (Utah 1983).

¶16 But none of those examples reflect the situation we have here. Farrell seeks a portion of Ann’s premarital asset as payment for the work he did on the home prior to the couple’s marriage, not because Ann lacks the resources to pay alimony or enhanced her own separate asset during the marriage in lieu of contributing to the marital estate. And as we discussed above, Farrell had several options to protect his financial interests and to be compensated for his contributions to the home before marrying Ann. The fact that he chose not to employ any of these options does not give rise to the type of inequity that can be addressed only through the extraordinary situation exception. As a general matter, “equitable relief should not be used to assist one in extricating himself from circumstances which he has created.” Utah Coal & Lumber Rest., Inc. v. Outdoor Endeavors Unlimited, 2001 UT 100, ¶ 12, 40 P.3d 581 (quotation simplified). Thus, the district court exceeded its discretion in awarding Farrell a portion of Ann’s premarital asset based on the extraordinary situation exception.


¶17 Because we conclude that the contribution exception does not apply to premarital contributions to premarital property, that exception cannot be used to award Farrell a portion of Ann’s premarital interest in the home. Moreover, because Farrell had several options for seeking reimbursement for his premarital efforts, which he declined to exercise, awarding him an interest in the home at this stage of the proceedings is not justified under the extraordinary situation exception. Accordingly, we reverse the court’s award of the disputed portion of the home’s equity and remand with instructions to award the disputed equity to Ann.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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When do courts value the marital estate?

When do courts value the marital estate? At time of separation, or at the time the court enters the Decree of Divorce? 

This is a question that often causes divorcing people’s heart to sink. I’ll tell you why, but first, let’s answer the question of whether courts value the marital estate in a divorce action: at time of separation, or at the time the court enters the Decree of Divorce? 

The first answer to this question is: the court can value the marital estate at any time, if it can articulate a good reason for doing so.  

“Generally, the marital estate is valued at the time of the divorce decree or trial.” Jacobsen v. Jacobsen, ¶ 39, 257 Pacific.3d 478 (cleaned up). However, as with alimony, the court has broad discretion to use a different date so long as its decision it supported by “sufficiently detailed findings of fact explaining its deviation from the general rule.” Id.; see also Rayner, 2013 UT App 269, ¶ 19, 316 P.3d 455 (“A trial court has broad discretion to deviate from [the] general rule when circumstances warrant.” (cleaned up)). “As a general rule, the marital estate is valued at the time of the divorce decree,” Rappleye v. Rappleye, 855 P.2d 260, 262 (Utah Ct.App.1993); see also Berger v. Berger, 713 P.2d 695, 697 (Utah 1985), and that “any deviation from the general rule must be supported by sufficiently detailed findings of fact that explain the trial court’s basis for such deviation,” Rappleye, 855 P.2d at 262. 

Utah case law suggests a number of factors that may be relevant to determining whether a party should be held accountable for the dissipation of marital assets: how the money was spent, including whether funds were used to pay legitimate marital expenses or individual expenses, Parker, 2000 UT App 30, ¶¶ 13, 15, 996 P.2d 565; Thomas, 1999 UT App 239, ¶ 20, 987 P.2d 603; Shepherd v. Shepherd, 876 P.2d 429, 433 (Utah Ct.App.1994); Andersen v. Andersen, 757 P.2d 476, 480 (Utah Ct.App.1988); the parties’ historical practices, Thomas, 1999 UT App 239, ¶ 20, 987 P.2d 603; the magnitude of any depletion, Shepherd, 876 P.2d at 433; the timing of the challenged actions in relation to the separation and divorce, id.; and any obstructive efforts that hinder the valuation of the assets, Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶¶ 49, 53, 299 P.3d 1079; Andrus v. Andrus, 2007 UT App 291, ¶ 13, 169 P.3d 754. After an “initial showing of apparent dissipation” by one party, the burden shifts to the other party “to show that the funds were not dissipated, but were used for some legitimate marital purpose.” Parker, 2000 UT App 30, ¶¶ 13, 15, 996 P.2d 565. 

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277 

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What are the significant changes to family law in the past two centuries?

What are the most important changes to the family law in the 19th century and 20th century up to today, and why?

In my opinion (and in no particular order): 

  1. No-fault divorce
  2. Abolition of the doctrine of coverture (femme couvert) 
  3. Tender Years doctrine (and the abrogation of the Tender Years doctrine) 
  4. Statutory child support 
  5. Same sex marriage 

We need to get one misconception out of the way immediately, and that is that wives were treated as the husband’s property in the past. They were not. 

This does not mean that women were treated differently than men and husbands under the law, but women were not treated as their husbands’ property and unmarried women could own property and enter into contracts. See Husband and Wife Are One–Him: Bennis v. Michigan as the Resurrection of Coverture (4 MIJGL 129, Amy D. Ronner Michigan Journal of Gender & Law) 

At common law, an adult single woman could own, manage and transfer property. She could sue and be sued. She could likewise earn money and enjoy it as her own. Once that same woman married, however, her status changed radically; coverture subsumed her legal identity into her husband’s. 

Blackstone described coverture status as follows: 

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme covert, foemina viro co-operta; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of an [sic] union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage. The coverture doctrine prevented a man from granting anything to his wife or from entering into a contract with her. Such actions would be futile because they would “suppose her separate existence . . . and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself.” 

The coverture merger was not mere metaphysics, but imposed real disabilities on the married woman. For example, a wife relinquished the control of her real property to her “baron” and although he could not alienate the rents and profits, he was not obligated to account for them to her. Moreover, her husband enjoyed complete control of his wife’s interests, which meant that he could alienate them and unilaterally pocket the proceeds. All chattels that a woman owned at the time of marriage and those she acquired thereafter belonged to her husband. The suspension of a wife’s legal identity also meant that she could not sue or be sued at law unless her husband had joined in the action or “ha[d] abjured the realm, or is banished.” 

Coverture prohibited husband and wife from testifying for or against each other in trials “principally because of the union of person.” That is, such testimony would be irrebuttably presumptively self-serving or self-incriminating. In criminal law, a husband and wife could not comprise a conspiracy because one person could not conspire with himself. They also could not steal from one another because the property belonged essentially to only one–him. In other situations the wife was utterly divested of free will and viewed as “inferior to him, and acting by his compulsion.” For example, because certain criminal acts on her part, short of treason or murder, were viewed as if done under his “command,” coverture bestowed upon the married woman a specie of immunity. 

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277  

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What is a CMA?

This blog post was written by a real estate agent for us.

CMA stands for Comparative Market Analysis and is a report meant to reflect the market value of a property, usually a residential home. The basic concept is that you have a Subject Property (SP), and then look for comparable properties (comps) that have already sold and therefore have purchase price amounts that can be broken down by feature in order to determine what the SP might sell for as well. A CMA is not quite as in depth as an appraisal but is usually pretty close to appraisal value.  

So, how does it work?  

Let’s say I want to find the value of a SP in Salt Lake County. The primary elements I want to evaluate is location, features, market at the time of sale, and condition.  

Location can’t be changed, so it’s an obvious feature to consider. The exact same home in Magna and Cottonwood heights will have different values because of the location. When an appraiser evaluates a home, they have guidelines on the proximity of the comps to the SP. For a CMA, a realtor will try to find 3-5 comps as close to the SP’s location as possible. I start with half a mile, then move outward until I can find sufficient properties to have a good sample.

Features are things like how many bedrooms and bathrooms, what size the garage is, what size lot, how many square feet and what level of the home those square feet are on. Basement square footage is less valuable than main level square footage. The most important square footage is what’s above ground. Common features, such as what I’ve already listed, are relatively easy to work with. Unique features like pools, theater rooms, gardening sheds, and exotic landscaping are challenging to value because it’s hard to find properties that have the same feature and the feature themselves don’t necessarily add value. For instance, one buyer might think a pool is amazing as they imagine backyard barbeques and parties. Another buyer might see it as a safety hazard that’s expensive to maintain. Agents and appraisers are therefore cautious in evaluating the value of unique features, which is often frustrating to the homeowner. They may have spent $20,000 on a theater room that the appraiser gives $7,000 value to.

Market at the time of sale is one of the most important considerations because the market is always changing. Appraisers are limited to comps that have sold within ninety days unless they absolutely can’t find any. Interest rates, pandemics, how many similar homes were sold, and time of year are examples of the details that can have major effects on the price a home sells for. As soon as another home sells within the range of the CMA, all the data shifts which is why a CMA can be different from one week to the next in certain areas. The more recent a sale, the better a comp it is.

Condition is the fourth element that is considered. An appraiser will do most of their work from home because it’s data-dependent. However, the appraiser will typically go to the home and inspect the condition and take pictures. Updates mostly affect the value of a home for about five years, meaning if you put in the trendy countertop and top of the line appliances, that only “counts” for five years, then it’s generally considered out of date. Condition also applies to the level of repair in the home. Unkempt interiors or exteriors of the homes may require value adjustments depending on the condition of the SP in relation to the comps and some limitations can affect the type of loan that can be made on the property (FHA and VA). It can be a difficult to evaluate condition when all we have to go off of are pictures of the comps, but we do our best to give a fair analysis.

After we have investigated all these aspects, we line things up and start adding and subtracting from the comps so that the features line up with those of the SP. For instance, if our SP has three bedrooms and a comp has five bedrooms, we will minus $10,000 ($5,000/bedroom) from the sold price of the comp so that it’s priced as though it has the same number of bedrooms as the SP. We do the same with all the standard features—square footage, acreage, garage space, bathrooms, how much square footage per level of the house. If the SP has one more bathroom than the comp, we’ll add the price of that bathroom onto the comp property to balance it in that direction. We then have the option to add a certain dollar amount to any of the properties to reflect upgrades or features that weren’t the ones automatically considered—like that pesky pool or the fact that one of the comp properties had an entire kitchen remodel six months before it sold. What we get from this is an adjusted sales price of each comp based on the idea of that home now reflecting the same features as our SP. Those prices are averaged out to create an adjusted value of our SP.

The biggest problem with CMAs is that they can be manipulated. If I pull up six comps and eliminate the three lowest values, I might not get a fair determination of value. If I’m valuing a split-level home but compare it to ramblers, I again won’t get a fair value. Using a realtor you trust becomes an important consideration, as does having an open mind about your home’s value. Sellers are inclined to believe their home is worth more than the data would support because they love it and have emotional ties. Find a good realtor and ask good questions; those two things will set you up for your greatest potential success in determining the market value of your home.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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Fischer v. Fischer – 2021 UT App 145 – marital vs. separate property




No. 20200557-CA 

Filed December 30, 2021 

Seventh District Court, Moab Department 

The Honorable Don Torgerson 

No. 184700047 

Steve S. Christensen and Clinton R. Brimhall, Attorneys for Appellant 

  1. Andrew Fitzgerald, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES JILL M. POHLMAN and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred. 

ORME, Judge: 

¶1 Gary Lee Fischer challenges the district court’s division of the marital estate in the parties’ divorce decree, which awarded Melissa Kay Fischer the marital home, a vehicle, and profits from a business that Gary operated.1 Gary also challenges the court’s denial of his post-trial motion for a new trial regarding the division of a savings account Melissa first disclosed at trial. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. 


¶2 Following a nearly 29-year marriage, Gary and Melissa separated on April 8, 2018. Gary filed for divorce approximately two months later. The case proceeded to trial in June 2019. The main issues at trial involved the division of various bank accounts, personal property, vehicles, the marital home, and an insurance business Gary had started during the marriage with Melissa’s help. 

¶3 At trial, the parties testified regarding their assets. During cross-examination of Melissa, Gary learned for the first time that Melissa had an American Express bank account with a balance of $50,000. Melissa testified that she set up the account in “early” 2019, long after the parties had separated. She explained that the account was started with money from her share of various accounts she co-owned with Gary and that she was able to get the balance to $50,000 because she “worked so hard to save” money after they separated. Gary did not then inquire further regarding this account. 

¶4 After hearing all the relevant testimony, the court made an oral ruling from the bench, determining that Gary’s business was established using marital funds. It ruled, however, that because the business “is the equivalent of a professional degree, what you would expect to see with a solo practitioner, attorney or accountant, or a doctor in solo practice,” it had “to value this asset minus any goodwill component.”3 The court then explained that 

the balance of the [business] bank account as of today is $5,000. [Melissa] is entitled to one-half of that amount. Additionally, it is apparent from the tax returns that the business has made a profit in excess of its expenses and [Gary’s] salary. Net profit has been $2,144 per month consistently through 2017, and [Gary] testified that it’s been constant since then. Accordingly, that profit is a profit of this asset, and so 14 months worth of that profit, [Melissa’s] share is $15,008. 

So the asset is marital in the sense that it was established during the marriage and it was an asset to be considered in dividing, but the Court finds that there’s no future equity share that is divisible, and so other than those monetary amounts, the Court awards the interest in the LLC to [Gary] 100 percent, and I certainly understand that it’s frustrating. We help our spouses be successful, and they take our great ideas and they incorporate them into their business, and we give input to their endeavors, but in the end, I’m bound by the existing law, which says that this isn’t a marketable asset unless he’s running it, and . . . so that’s the basis for that finding. 

¶5 Regarding the tangible marital assets, the court found that there was $292,285 equity in the home, resulting in a share of $146,142.50 for each party. The court nevertheless awarded the home to Melissa, explaining that Gary’s share of the equity would be “used to offset the other property awards in this case.” The court also allocated a vehicle worth $25,000 to Melissa. The court awarded Gary four vehicles and a trailer. The first three vehicles were valued at $29,600, $17,833, $51,450. The fourth vehicle, which still had money owing on it, had $4,000 in equity. The trailer was valued at $8,000. The court additionally distributed to Gary jewelry, art, and other personal property having a combined value of $57,590. The court valued all these assets “as of the date of divorce.” 

¶6 With respect to the parties’ joint bank accounts, the court decided that it would be more appropriate to divide these accounts as they stood at the time of the parties’ separation rather than at the time of divorce. The court stated that it did this 

because it was the clearest picture of what the parties’ asset actually was. Since then, they’ve each gone on to either save money [or spend money]. She saved money. It appears he spent money. So that seemed to be the fairest division of the cash accounts . . . given how long the separation has been, over a year. 

¶7 The court also ordered that Melissa’s retirement accounts, valued as of the date of divorce, be split equally between the parties. The court determined that the American Express account was not divisible in the divorce because it was Melissa’s separate property. The court then concluded that “if my math is correct, that should leave a wash on all of the property.” 

¶8 In response to this ruling, Gary filed a post-trial motion, in which he argued that the court’s division of marital assets was “not equal.” He asserted that the court awarded a total of $396,793 in marital assets to Melissa, which included (1) the home at $292,285, (2) half the business account at $2,500, (3) half the profits from the business from the time of separation to the time of divorce at $15,008, (4) a vehicle at $25,000, (5) half the balance in two bank accounts existing at the time of separation at $12,000, and (7) the American Express account at $50,000.4 Gary then argued that the court awarded him only $197,981 in marital assets consisting, of (1) half the business account at $2,500, (2) half the profits from the business from the time of separation to the time of divorce at $15,008, (3) the four vehicles valued at a total of $102,883, (4) the trailer at $8,000, (5) the personal property items at $57,590, and (6) half of the two bank accounts at $12,000. Gary asserted that, as a result, Melissa received $198,812 more than he did—$148,812 once the $50,000 American Express Account is subtracted from Gary’s calculation. See supra note 4. In essence, Gary’s position was that the court’s math was in fact quite wrong when it mused that, “if my math is correct, that should leave a wash on all of the property.” 

¶9 The court subsequently issued a written order memorializing its findings and rulings at trial. In that order, regarding the award of the marital home to Melissa, the court conceded that 

[a]lthough the Court endeavored to equally divide the assets in the case, with [Gary] receiving the majority of high-value personal property to offset his share of equity in the home, the final division of property does not equally divide the value in the marital home. Nevertheless, the Court believes the division is equitable, based on all circumstances in the case. 

[Gary] would like the home sold, with the cash divided equally. But the costs of sale would likely deplete most of the difference in the equity division. Neither party would benefit from those lost funds and [Melissa] would be left without a home. Additionally, although the Court awards [the business to Gary], it is apparent that [Melissa] significantly contributed to making [the business] a success. Her contribution to the business is not quantifiable. But the overall division of property and assets in this case is equitable, when the business is considered. 

The court also determined that the American Express account would be awarded to Melissa as her separate property because it had been initially funded with her share of sums from marital accounts, then enhanced with post-separation deposits. The court also reiterated that it valued “the cash accounts as of the date of separation” because “[a]fter separation, [Gary] spent significant money and incurred substantial debt” and “[g]iven the length of separation, the value at the time of separation provides for the most equitable division of the cash accounts.” The court then reaffirmed its oral ruling regarding the remainder of its award. 

¶10 Gary subsequently filed another motion, this time requesting a new trial under rule 59(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure on the American Express account issue. He asserted that Melissa had “disclosed at trial and not before that she had a $50,000 American Express savings account” and that he “was genuinely surprised by this trial disclosure.” He claimed that he “should have had the opportunity to investigate this account and trace its origin to determine whether [Melissa’s] representations about it were accurate.” 

¶11 The district court denied Gary’s motion in another written order. It stated that “with reasonable diligence, [Gary] could have discovered the account before trial but did not utilize the discovery process to his advantage.” It additionally stated that “[Gary] did not object at trial to the introduction of the information related to the account and [Melissa] testified that the account was created after separation.” 

¶12 Gary appeals. 


¶13 Gary raises three issues on appeal. First, he asserts that the district court erred in determining that the American Express account was Melissa’s separate property and in denying his motion for a new trial on that issue. This issue implicates two standards of review. First, “whether property is marital or separate is a question of law, which we review for correctness.” See Brown v. Brown, 2020 UT App 146, ¶ 13, 476 P.3d 554 (quotation simplified). Second, “we review the decision to grant or deny a motion for a new trial only for an abuse of discretion.” State v. Loose, 2000 UT 11, ¶ 8, 994 P.2d 1237. 

¶14 Next, Gary challenges the court’s award to Melissa of $15,008 of the business’s profits accrued during the fourteen months from the time of the couple’s separation until trial. We review the district court’s ruling on this issue for an abuse of discretion. See Jones v. Jones, 700 P.2d 1072, 1074 (Utah 1985).5  

¶15 Finally, Gary asserts that the court abused its discretion when it awarded Melissa a disproportionate share of the marital estate without providing findings that justify the unequal division.6 “In a divorce proceeding, the trial court may make such orders concerning property distribution and alimony as are equitable. The trial court has broad latitude in such matters, and orders distributing property and setting alimony will not be lightly disturbed.” Id. (internal citation omitted). 


  1. American Express Account

¶16 Gary asserts that the district court erred in determining the American Express account was Melissa’s separate property and in denying his motion for a new trial on that issue. Although the marital estate is generally valued “at the time of the divorce,” see Rappleye v. Rappleye, 855 P.2d 260, 262 (Utah Ct. App. 1993), a district court, in its discretion, may determine that property acquired post-separation, but before entry of a final divorce decree, is separate property so long as this decision is “supported by sufficiently detailed findings of fact that explain the trial court’s basis for such deviation,” see Donnelly v. Donnelly, 2013 UT App 84, ¶¶ 41, 45, 301 P.3d 6 (quotation simplified). See also Shepherd v. Shepherd, 876 P.2d 429, 432–33 (Utah Ct. App. 1994).7  

¶17 Here, the court’s decision to categorize the American Express account as Melissa’s separate property flowed logically from its ruling on the parties’ joint bank accounts. In that ruling, the court made specific findings supporting its decision to adjudicate the bank accounts as of the date of separation rather than at the time of divorce. It stated that it was doing so because it “seemed to be the fairest division” due to the fact that, “[a]fter separation, [Gary] spent significant money and incurred substantial debt,” while Melissa saved money. Moreover, the court relied on the length of the separation—some fourteen months—during which both parties lived independently of one another.8 Thus, given that the court decided to adjudicate the parties’ joint accounts as of the time of separation rather than at the time of divorce, the general rule that all assets obtained during the marriage are marital property did not apply, by extension of this same logic, to the American Express account. 

¶18 The district court therefore did not err when it determined that the American Express account was Melissa’s separate property.9 It follows, then, that the court likewise did not abuse its discretion in denying Gary’s motion for a new trial on this issue. See State v. Loose, 2000 UT 11, ¶ 8, 994 P.2d 1237. 

  1. Business Profits

¶19 Gary next contends that “the district court abused its discretion when it determined that Melissa should be awarded half of the ‘profits’ accrued by the business in the 14 months prior to trial.” “In Utah, marital property is ordinarily divided equally between the divorcing spouses and separate property, which may include premarital assets, inheritances, or similar assets, will be awarded to the acquiring spouse.” Olsen v. Olsen, 2007 UT App 296, ¶ 23, 169 P.3d 765. “The primary purpose of a property division . . . is to achieve a fair, just, and equitable result between the parties.” Riley v. Riley, 2006 UT App 214, ¶ 27, 138 P.3d 84 (quotation simplified). 

¶20 Gary essentially argues that there were no profits from the business because all the money earned was simply his income and any award to Melissa would therefore essentially be alimony, which the district court had already determined neither party needed. But Gary’s attempt to equate the profits with his salary, or with alimony, is unavailing because the court found that the net profits had “been $2,144 per month consistently through 2017, and [Gary] testified that it’s been constant since then.” The court also found, with our emphasis, that “[t]ax returns show that, since separation, the business has made a profit in addition to expenses and [Gary’s] salary.” And Gary has not shown on appeal how these findings underpinning the court’s ruling were erroneous. See State v. Thompson, 2020 UT App 148, ¶ 20, 476 P.3d 1017 (“To successfully challenge a district court’s factual findings on appeal, an appellant must establish a basis for overcoming the healthy dose of deference owed to factual findings, generally by identifying and dealing with supportive evidence through the process of marshaling.”) (quotation simplified). See also State v. Nielsen, 2014 UT 10, ¶ 40, 326 P.3d 645 (“[A] party who fails to identify and deal with supportive evidence will never persuade an appellate court to reverse[.]”). 

¶21 Therefore, because Gary has not meaningfully addressed the supportive evidence behind these findings, which findings adequately explain the court’s ruling, we hold that the court did not abuse its discretion in distributing the business profits as it did. 

III. Equitable Distribution of Assets 

¶22 Gary’s final argument is that the district court abused its discretion when it awarded nearly $150,000 more of the real and personal property comprising the marital estate to Melissa than it did to him. Specifically, Gary asserts that “the district court abused its discretion in two ways: it did not follow the guideline that marital assets are to be split equally and it did not provide adequate findings to support its departure from the equal division presumption.” We agree. 

¶23 In dividing the marital estate in a divorce proceeding, “[e]ach party is presumed to be entitled to . . . fifty percent of the marital property.” Burt v. Burt, 799 P.2d 1166, 1172 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). “But rather than simply enter such a decree, the court should then consider the existence of exceptional circumstances and, if any be shown, proceed to effect an equitable distribution in light of those circumstances[.]” Id. Thus, “once a court makes a finding that a specific item is marital property, the law presumes that it will be shared equally between the parties unless unusual circumstances, memorialized in adequate findings, require otherwise.” Hall v. Hall, 858 P.2d 1018, 1022 (Utah Ct. App. 1993) (emphasis added). See Bradford v. Bradford, 1999 UT App 373, ¶ 27, 993 P.2d 887 (“An unequal division of marital property . . . is only justified when the trial court memorializes in . . . detailed findings the exceptional circumstances supporting the distribution.”) (quotation simplified). 

¶24 On appeal, both parties expend significant effort in arguing how the court’s award of real and personal property was either equitable or inequitable. We need not endeavor to directly resolve this debate, however, because the court’s ruling lacked adequate findings to support the disparate distribution. Here, Melissa was awarded the entirety of the net value in the home, $292,285, and a car valued at $25,000. In total, Melissa was awarded $317,285. Gary, on the other hand, was awarded four vehicles with a total value of $102,883, the trailer at $8,000, and the other personal property items with a total value of $57,590. Gary was therefore awarded $168,473. This left a $148,812 discrepancy in favor of Melissa.10 

¶25 Although the district court “has broad latitude” in equitably distributing the marital estate, see Olsen v. Olsen, 2007 UT App 296, ¶ 8, 169 P.3d 765 (quotation simplified), it cannot unequally divide that estate unless it “memorializes in adequate findings” the “unusual circumstances” that justify doing so, Hall, 858 P.2d at 1022 (emphasis added) (quotation otherwise simplified). Here, the court unequally divided the marital estate but did not enter adequate findings detailing the unusual circumstances that justified such an award. The court’s justification for its disparate award is limited to three observations. 

¶26 First, the court opined, without pointing to any evidence, that the cost of selling the home would deplete any disparity that might exist between the parties and benefit neither. In the absence of evidence to this effect, this is purely speculative, and we are hard-pressed to see how the commissions and other fees in selling the home would be anywhere near large enough to overcome the substantial discrepancy in the value of the property awarded to each party. The court also rationalized the disparity by concluding that Melissa would otherwise be without a home, but presumably this would have been a momentary event given her assets, her employment, and her share of the sale proceeds. These are simply not the kind of exceptional circumstances that would justify such a disparity. Cf. Bradford, 1999 UT App 373, ¶ 27 (“In this case, the trial court’s only finding justifying the award of the [entire] home to Mr. Bradford was that ‘the house and property is in fact not partitionable as it contains a residence, road and river frontage. If an interest were to be conveyed the house would have to be refinanced or sold.’ This finding is insufficient, by itself, to support an award of the marital home entirely to Mr. Bradford.”) (footnote omitted). Indeed, district courts “often order a sale of marital property and equitably divide the proceeds between the parties” or “allow one spouse to ‘buy out’ the other spouse’s interest in marital property,” and the district court here “made no adequate finding explaining why either of these two remedies was not appropriate for the parties in this case.” See id. 

¶27 Second, the court stated that while “the final division of property does not equally divide the values in the marital home,” it was nonetheless “equitable, based on all circumstances in the case.” This is a conclusory statement and not a finding that justifies the unequal distribution of marital assets. General comments about the equitability of an award are simply not enough to overcome the presumption that marital property should be “shared equally.” Hall, 858 P.2d at 1022. 

¶28 Finally, the court noted that although it awarded the business to Gary, “it is apparent that [Melissa] significantly contributed to making [the business] a success. Her contribution to the business is not quantifiable. But the overall division of property and assets in this case is equitable, when the business is considered.” Once again, this is not a finding sufficient to explain such a large departure from the presumptively appropriate equal distribution of the marital estate. See Bradford, 1999 UT App 373, ¶ 27. The court found that the business had no marketable value, and thus it is unclear how it quantified Melissa’s contribution. Further, the court’s observations about Melissa’s contributions do not demonstrate “exceptional circumstances” that justify a nearly $150,000 difference in the property awards to each party. See Burt v. Burt, 799 P.2d 1166, 1172 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). 

¶29 Without adequate findings detailing why Melissa should be entitled to such an unequal split of the marital estate, we cannot affirm the court’s award. We therefore remand the case to the district court either (1) to make adequate findings specifically detailing (and quantifying) the exceptional circumstances that would justify the unequal distribution of the marital estate, or (2) if such findings are not appropriate on this record, then to equally distribute the marital estate.11  


¶30 The district court did not err in determining that the American Express account was Melissa’s separate property or exceed its discretion in awarding to her half of the profits the business accrued from the time of separation until trial. The court did err, however, in unequally dividing the marital estate without entering adequate findings justifying that unequal distribution. We therefore affirm in part and reverse in part, and we remand to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. 

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277 v. Fischer20211230_20200557_145.pdf 

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MacFarland v. MacFarland – 2021 UT App 58

021 UT App 58 


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


No. 20190541-CA 
Filed June 4, 2021 

Second District Court, Farmington Department 

The Honorable David J. Williams 

No. 084701533 

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

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


HARRIS, Judge: 

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

The Divorce Decree 

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

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

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

Post-Divorce Events and Conduct 

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

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

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

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

The Post-Divorce Filings 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hearing and Subsequent Ruling 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

I. Alimony 

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

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

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

  1. Child Support

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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Do courts make awards in divorce to “punish” adultery?

Do courts make awards in divorce to “punish” adultery? Great question.  

Adultery is considered a fault-based ground for divorce and a factor that can be considered when the trial court decides matters of alimony, property division, and child custody.  

I will answer this question according to what Utah statutory and case law provides.  

Utah Code § 30-3-5(9)(b) provides, “The court may consider the fault of the parties in determining whether to award alimony and the terms of the alimony.”  

Utah Code § 30-3-5(9)(c) states that “‘Fault’ includes engaging in sexual relations with an individual other than the party’s spouse, if such wrongful conduct during the marriage that substantially contributed to the breakup of the marriage relationship.  

Most recently, the Utah Supreme Court discussed this very question in the divorce case of Gardner v. Gardner (Volume 425 Pacific Reporter 3rd, page 1134, decided in 2019. In that decision the Supreme Court stated: 

[C]ourts should keep in mind that the ultimate purpose of any property division or alimony award is to “achieve a fair, just, and equitable result between the parties.” For this reason, courts should consider fault only in an attempt to balance the equities between the parties. In other words, where one party’s fault has harmed the other party, the court may attempt to re-balance the equities by adjusting the alimony award in favor of the party who was harmed by that fault.[footnote 56] 

Footnote 56 states: 

We note that some Utah courts have struggled to articulate an appropriate role of fault in alimony determinations in light of our case law suggesting that the purpose of alimony is not to punish. See Mark v. Mark, 2009 UT App 374, ¶ 17, 223 P.3d 476 (“[I]f a trial court uses its broad statutory discretion to consider fault in fashioning an alimony award and then, taking that fault into consideration, adjusts the alimony award upward or downward, it simply cannot be said that fault was not used to punish or reward either spouse by altering the award as a consequence of fault.”). But other Utah courts have concluded that fault may be considered without constituting punishment if it is used only to rectify the inequity caused by the fault. See Christiansen v. Christiansen, 2003 UT App 348, 2003 WL 22361312 at *2 (“Fault may correctly be considered by the trial court without penalizing the party found to be at fault.”); see also [Wilson v. Wilson, 5 Utah 2d 79, 296 P.2d 977, 979 (1956)], 296 P.2d at 980 (explaining that equitable factors often cause courts to impose permanent alimony on “erring” spouses); [Riley v. Riley, 138 P.3d 84 (Utah Ct. App. 2006)], 2006 UT App 214, ¶ 24, 138 P.3d 84 (affirming the district court’s consideration of a husband’s fault as an important “factor in fairness to [Wife]” (alteration in original)). As this latter line of cases suggests, fault may be considered as long as it is used as a basis to prevent or rectify an inequity to the not-at-fault spouse. So in reviewing an alimony determination involving fault, Utah appellate courts should focus on whether a fault-based modification of an alimony award helped “achieve a fair, just, and equitable result between the parties” rather than on whether it was punitive in nature. [Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 168, ––– P.3d ––––], 2015 UT 79, ¶ 25, ––– P.3d –––– (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). 

With this in mind, could a court (a court, not all courts) award more alimony, divide marital property unevenly, or restrict custody or parent-time due to one of the spouse’s adultery to punish adultery? Yes, of course, even if the court went to great pains (sincerely or not) to articulate the alimony decision as not being punitive in nature.  

Some judges (some, not all) allow their personal antipathy for an adulterous spouse their impartiality and justify disregarding the law in favor of doing what the judge “feels is right” instead. And yes, it can happen to you. 

Bottom line: If you are in adulterer, and a serial and/or un repentant adulterer at that, it should come as no surprise to you that your adultery will do you no favors when it comes to the way the court can and may treat you in a divorce action. Fair or not, that is the nature of the way many people (and judges are people) view and treat adulterers. Does this mean that if you are in adulterer you should expect to be treated unfairly by a court? I think your odds are about 50-50, in my professional opinion. Do those odds mean that you should lie about adultery, if you believe you can get away with it? No, and for two reasons: 1) it is wrong to lie; and 2) if you commit adultery, then compound the problem by lying about it and get caught, you only increase your odds of being mistreated by the court. And odds are that if you lie about adultery you will be caught. 

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Will my spouse be legally an owner of a company that I start just because of being my spouse?

Will my spouse be legally an owner of a company that I start just because of being my spouse?

It is possible. A nonowner spouse can be awarded a portion of the other spouse’s separate property, and separate property can include a business. The arguments go like this:

Jensen v. Jensen, 203 P.3d 1020, 1024 (Utah Ct.App. 2009):

¶ 12 A succinct summary of contribution cases is provided in Kunzler v. Kunzler, 2008 UT App 263, 190 P.3d 497, where this court addressed the wife’s argument that she was entitled to part of her husband’s separate business property because, although “she was not his partner in the business [at issue,] she was his partner in the business of marriage.”5 Id. ¶ 19 n. 5. In his partially dissenting opinion, Judge Davis discussed Dunn v. Dunn, 802 P.2d 1314 (Utah Ct.App.1990), and Elman v. Elman, 2002 UT App 83, 45 P.3d 176. See Kunzler, 2008 UT App 263, ¶ 19 n. 5, 190 P.3d 497. In both of those cases, the nonowner spouse was awarded a portion of the other spouse’s separate property. See Dunn, 802 P.2d at 1318; Elman, 2002 UT App 83, ¶ 24, 45 P.3d 176. As stated in Kunzler, “the wife [in Dunn] ‘performed bookkeeping and secretarial services without pay’ for the husband’s medical practice, and therefore the business ‘was founded and operated through the joint efforts and joint sacrifices of the parties.’ ” 2008 UT App 263, ¶ 19 n. 5, 190 P.3d 497 (quoting Dunn, 802 P.2d at 1318). Judge Davis also discussed Elman, where

the wife “not only managed the household, but also grew the parties’ marital properties. She secured the land for and was in charge of building the parties’ Park City home.” … The Elman court awarded the wife half of the increase in value of the properties during the marriage “given the unusual responsibilities she assumed.”

Id. (emphasis in original) (quoting Elman, 2002 UT App 83, ¶ 24, 45 P.3d 176).

¶ 13 As noted in the parties’ briefs, there are cases predating MortensenElman, and Dunn that appear to apply a more liberal standard in determining the appropriateness of awarding separate property to a nonowner spouse on the basis of contribution. In Lee v. Lee, 744 P.2d 1378 (Utah Ct.App.1987), this court reversed the trial court for failing to award the wife an equitable share of the husband’s corporation, acquired during the marriage, where “the wife assisted in the operation of the corporation by assuming clerical duties, including typing, answering the phones, and paying bills. Moreover, the wife also reared the parties’ two children and performed domestic duties, allowing the husband to participate full-time in the business.” Id. at 1380. In Savage v. Savage, 658 P.2d 1201 (Utah 1983), the Utah Supreme Court noted that the trial court’s property distribution—granting the wife forty percent of the value of the husband’s company—was within its allotted discretion, in part, “while it is true that the [wife] took no responsibility for the business, it was her assumption of the domestic burdens which made possible the [husband’s] full-time participation in the business.” Id. at 1204.

¶ 14 MortensenDunn, and Elman appear to require more active participation and contribution by the nonowner spouse in order to qualify under the contribution category of Mortensen. As noted in Mortensen, the results are different where there is “effort made by the nondonee or nonheir spouse to preserve or augment the asset,” as compared to situations where there is a “lack of such efforts.” 760 P.2d at 306.

Child v. Child, 194 P.3d 205 (Utah Ct.App. 2008):

“The general rule is that equity requires that each party retain the separate property he or she brought into the marriage, including any appreciation of the separate property.” Dunn v. Dunn, 802 P.2d 1314, 1320 (Utah Ct.App.1990). Such separate property can, however, become part of the marital estate if

(1) the other spouse has by his or her efforts or expense contributed to the enhancement, maintenance, or protection of that property, thereby acquiring an equitable interest in it, or (2) the property has been consumed or its identity lost through commingling or exchanges or where the acquiring spouse has made a gift of an interest therein to the other spouse.

(Mortensen v. Mortensen, 760 P.2d 304, 308 (Utah 1988) (citation omitted)).

Dunn v. Dunn, 802 P.2d 1314, 1317-1319 (Utah Ct.App 1990):

  1. The Professional Corporation

Marital property is ordinarily all property acquired during marriage and it encompasses all of the assets of every nature possessed by the parties, whenever obtained and from whatever source derived.” Gardner v. Gardner, 748 P.2d 1076, 1079 (Utah 1988) (quoting Englert v. Englert, 576 P.2d 1274, 1276 (Utah 1978)). In Sorensen v. Sorensen, 769 P.2d 820 (Utah Ct.App.1989), we affirmed the trial court’s conclusion that the accounts receivable, tangible assets, and goodwill of a professional practice were includable in the marital estate, to the extent they were accumulated during the marriage, in a situation where the husband began his dental practice six years before the marriage began. Id. at 832.

Mrs. Dunn’s position is more conservative than the prevailing view in Sorensen in that she does not assert an interest in her husband’s ongoing practice. Rather, Mrs. Dunn asserts an interest in the tangible assets of a corporation that was established during the marriage.

In Lee v. Lee, 744 P.2d 1378 (Utah Ct.App.1987), we considered a nine year marriage during which the husband established a corporation. The wife contributed some bookkeeping. More significant were her domestic contributions which freed her husband to participate full time in running the business. We held in Lee that the wife was entitled to her full equitable share of the corporation because of the parties’ joint efforts in establishing and maintaining the corporation. Id. at 1380–81.

Here, Mrs. Dunn argues, and we agree, that the trial court abused its discretion by characterizing Dr. Dunn’s professional corporation as a nonmarital asset. The corporation was founded and its assets accrued during the marriage and she performed bookkeeping and secretarial services without pay for the corporation. Thus, the corporation was founded and operated through the joint efforts and joint sacrifices of the parties. In addition, because Dr. Dunn chose to work sixty to seventy hours per week, he left Mrs. Dunn with the sole responsibility of running the household and managing the household accounts. Further, she was left without his companionship and domestic contributions during those hours. While she was not his partner in the business of orthopedic surgery, she was his partner in the “business” of marriage and her efforts were necessary contributions to the growth of his practice and the business. As such, she is entitled to her fair share in any marital assets derived from their joint efforts in that endeavor. Lee, 744 P.2d at 1380–81.

The lower court found that the “net tangible assets are not marital assets and are not subject to division in this action.” Other than this assertion, the court gave no reason for this finding and we can find no support for it in the record. We therefore reverse and remand for an equitable, which in this case means equal, distribution of the net tangible assets of the professional corporation.

  1. Royalty Rights

This court recently affirmed that the right to future income is a marital asset where that right is derived from efforts or products produced during the marriage, even in cases where that right cannot be easily valued. Moon v. Moon, 790 P.2d 52, 56–57 (Utah Ct.App.1990) (right to use sculpture molds is a marital asset); see also Sorensen, 769 P.2d at 827; Woodward v. Woodward, 656 P.2d 431, 432–33 (Utah 1982).

Dr. Dunn argues that the development of the surgical instruments for implanting artificial knees came as a result of twenty-six years of education and training, most of which predated this marriage. He implies that since all of the necessary knowledge, skill and expertise was not acquired during the marriage, Mrs. Dunn should not share in the resulting profits. We find this argument without basis in law or in equity.

Mrs. Dunn asserts, and we agree, that the lower court abused its discretion in finding she had no marital interest in Dr. Dunn’s royalty rights for his invention of surgical instruments used for implanting artificial knees. She argues that the instruments were invented during the marriage, that nothing in the royalty contract conditions the payment of royalties upon Dr. Dunn’s personal services, and that Dr. Dunn himself characterized the income as “installment payments from the sale of property” on the parties’ joint 1987 income tax return. This contract, executed December 1, 1985, entitles Dr. Dunn to fixed quarterly payments totaling $375,000 between 1986 and 1990; $243,750 of the royalties earned during the marriage remained to be paid at the time of trial.

The lower court found that the contract would be “worthless” without his future personal services. However, although Dr. Dunn did spend time demonstrating the instruments, it was not specifically required by the contract. This contract, unlike the one pertaining to the artificial hip devices, is a royalty agreement and not a personal services agreement.

The record indicates that the knee contract is not conditioned upon Dr. Dunn’s personal services and that the primary benefit to Zimmer for the contract is the right to distribute the artificial knee instruments. Because the lower court found that Dr. Dunn traveled twenty-eight days per year doing business that related “equally to the hip agreement and the knee agreement,” and because Dr. Dunn is entitled to be recompensed for his time, we remand this issue to the lower court to deduct an amount equal to fourteen days of personal service from the value of the knee contract and to treat the remainder as a marital asset and to value it as of the date of the divorce and distribute to Mrs. Dunn her equitable share, which, in this case, would be one half.


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