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Category: Expert Witnesses

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

2024 UT App 51 – Bailey v. Bailey

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

Opinion No. 20220534-CA Filed April 11, 2024

Second District Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable Michael D. DiReda No. 094701582

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

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which

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

HARRIS, Judge:

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

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

BACKGROUND
The Petition to Modify

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You Can’t Tell What The Judge Is Thinking By Braxton Mounteer, Legal Assistant

I recently accompanied my boss to the trial of a divorce case. If I had had to place a bet on what the judge was thinking at given moment or what the rulings would have been during the trial or at the end, I would have left the courtroom much poorer. One of the things that struck me most about trial was my inability to determine the importance a judge gives to the evidence and to witness testimony. I could not consistently predict which way the judge was leaning at any given moment. But it’s not solely a matter of my inexperience with the legal system. My boss (who has considerable trial experience) told me he encounters the same thing.

We believe this is intentional on the judge’s part, that judges deliberately wear a poker face (some better than others). If a judge expressively reacted to a piece of evidence or to testimony, it might give a false (or true) indication that the judge is favoring one party over the other.

An actual trial is not like the movies and television shows would have you believe (at least at a divorce trial isn’t). There was no audible gasp from one side or the other when a piece of evidence was entered. The lawyers don’t (at least not typically) swagger around the court room cracking wise or orating so as to bring the room to tears. It really was just the evidence and argument from one party versus evidence and argument of the other.

Now a judge being inscrutable is not to say the judge sits stone-faced and silent until the trial ended. The judge can and usually will make clear and candid statements occasionally during the trial. Sometimes the judge will ask a witness questions of his or her own, but sparingly (judges are discouraged from doing too much of their own questioning). And the judge obviously must rule on objections raised during the questioning of witnesses too. During recesses, the judges and attorneys and sometimes even the parties and witnesses may chat about sports or local news to unwind a bit from the tension that builds up over the course of the trial. Some judges will essentially let the lawyers go until the time runs out. Other judges may inform the parties and their lawyers whether the direction they are taking the case in isn’t all that useful to the court in reaching its ultimate decision.

The notion of “reasonable minds can differ” stands out in stark relief at a trial. Sometimes what the lawyer tries to persuade the court to do and what the court decided are the same, but other times what the court did with the evidence can really surprise you. Keep that in mind when you’re convinced that the judge could not possibly rule any way but the way you favor. The better you understand all the possible arguments, the more accurately, reasonably, and persuasively you can make yours.

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Why Get it Straight From the Horse’s Mouth When You Can Get a Truncated Version, Second-Hand?

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

But they never record their interviews with the children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blanket Prohibitions on Child Testimony in Custody and Parent-Time Disputes Are Irrational and Irresponsible.

Thomas Sowell said (in a discussion of politics and governance), “There are no solutions. There are only tradeoffs, and whatever you do to deal with one of man’s flaws it creates another problem, but you try to get the best solution you can get.”

So often in human experience the response to an problem comes down to compromise. We must be careful not to overstate the principle, of course. We need to be moral. We need to be honest and fair. Compromise comes up not in compromising our values for the sake of expediency, but when reasonable minds can differ. When people are too rigid in their positions, quite often everyone loses. Nothing gets done. One of the things that annoys me about the lack of understanding this principle in family law is when attorneys, courts, or advocates with certain agendas take rigid positions that depends upon ignoring the reasonable arguments of the other side for their rigid positions to have supposed unassailable merit.

Take my efforts to allow child testimony in child custody and parent time dispute cases.

There are those who believe that involving the children in the litigation process by asking them questions and seeking their input through testimony about what they’ve experienced, how they feel about it, and what they may desire by way of custody and parent time schedules can do nothing but harm the children. Those against child testimony in any form offer several arguments:

  • Testifying causes children to feel as though their loyalties are hopelessly split between the two parents they love. Children may feel as though they must break the heart of one parent in pleasing the other parent.
  • It causes children to fear reprisals and retaliation by parents who may be angered or upset by children’s testimony.
  • It exposes children to matters they are unprepared and unqualified to deal with, to issues better left to adults to resolve.
  • Children are generally incompetent and/or incredible witnesses.

There are some fair points there. But when people focus on these points to the exclusion of all other fair and reasonable points to the contrary, they don’t do their cause any favors. Ignoring rational counterarguments or rejecting them out of hand rouses skepticism as to just how strong and how broadly applicable the argument really is. An argument that denies any defects is usually proof that defects exist. Acknowledging the flaws and weaknesses in one’s position helps to reveal the extent of its strengths and applicability.

Granted:

  • Some (not all) children cannot testify without it doing them serious psychological and or emotional damage.
  • Compelling some (not all) children to testify might expose them to heinous reprisals from a wicked parent (although muzzling a child to “protect” him/her from a retaliatory parent only rewards—and thus encourages—bad behavior on the part of parents). Otherwise stated, sometimes the harm the child might suffer for his/her testimony outweigh the benefits of the child’s testimony to the court.
  • Not all children are competent and/or credible witnesses due to their age leaving them too young to understand the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsity. They could be mentally disabled or mentally ill to the point that they cannot perceive reality accurately. Or they could simply be too immature to know what’s good for them.

But we must also acknowledge that:

  • some children have no cause to fear retaliation from either parent, and so they don’t fear either parent.

–          some children are not only willing to share their experiences, observations, feelings, opinions, and desires—if called upon to do so, but want to do so. They wish to have a voice in the child custody and parent time analysis and decisions. Children who are sufficiently intelligent and mature to make intelligent and mature contributions to the evidence should be heard. The court needs to consider that evidence in making the child custody and parent-time awards.

  • competent, credible child witnesses are often the best, sometimes the only, witnesses to certain facts that bear crucially upon the child custody and parent-time award decisions.
  • children are, after all, the greatest stakeholders in such decisions. They have the most to gain or lose by the quality of the decision.

Thus, to ignore (or even refuse) such evidence from a willing, competent, credible child witness is, in my opinion, malfeasance on the part of a judge deciding child custody and parent-time matters.

It is easy to “prevent” what harm child testimony may cause some children by prohibiting all child testimony, but at what cost? Such extreme measures deprive some children (and the courts deciding their custody and parent-time fates) of the benefits their testimony could yield. Blanket prohibitions on child testimony in all cases are no better than mandating children testify in all cases. The matter of whether a child testifies ought to be decided on a case by case basis, and competent, credible child witnesses should testify if called to testify, unless there is clear and convincing evidence that the testimony’s probative value is substantially outweighed by a clearly and particularly articulable danger (not a mere, generalized claim of risk—every venture necessarily includes some risk) of irreparable harm to the child, were the child to testify.

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

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Lamb v. Lamb, 2024 UT App 16 – divorce, custody, business, home equity

2024 UT App 16

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

JOSEPH EARL LAMB,

Appellee,

v.

SONYA ELIZABETH LAMB,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210787-CA

Filed February 8, 2024

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Robert P. Faust

No. 174904728

Mary Deiss Brown, Attorney for Appellant

Gregory G. Skordas, Gabriela Mena, and Allison R.

Librett, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES RYAN M. HARRIS and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1 Joseph Earl and Sonya Elizabeth Lamb’s divorce was decided at a bench trial.[1] As relevant here, Joseph was awarded custody of their children, ownership of a family business, and half the equity of the marital home. Sonya now challenges the court’s custody determination and the award of the business. She also challenges the manner in which the court determined the equity in the marital home. We affirm the district court’s rulings in all aspects.

BACKGROUND[2]

¶2        Joseph and Sonya married in 2007 and separated in July 2017. We address separately each of the district court’s determinations with which Sonya takes issue.

The Custody of the Children

¶3        Joseph and Sonya have three children, all of whom were minors when they divorced in August 2021. In November 2017, at a hearing for temporary orders, Sonya’s counsel told the court that Sonya had been the children’s primary caregiver “until recently.” Sonya also admitted that she was arrested in July 2017 and was facing charges for possession and use of drugs, but she asserted that she had “taken responsibility,” had “stopped using drugs,” was “sober and more than capable of caring for the children and continuing on as their primary caregiver,” and had “been attending Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon meetings.” Sonya asserted that Joseph had a “serious drug addiction problem.” Joseph claimed that Sonya had vacated the marital home shortly before her arrest, and he revealed that he obtained a protective order against her. The court acknowledged the allegations both sides made against the other but noted that Joseph currently had the children in his care and was living in the marital home. The court then determined that Joseph should maintain “custody of the children on a temporary basis.”

¶4        Apparently, the children remained in the temporary custody of Joseph until the parties’ divorce trial, where the court received the testimony of a “reunification therapist” (Family Therapist), who had been hired by the parties after the custody evaluator had been “unable to perform an evaluation due to the children spending less than minimum time” with Sonya.

¶5        Based on the testimony of Family Therapist, which we recount when relevant in our analysis below, the court found that “unification” between Sonya and the two older children was “lacking” because of acrimonious relationships. The court noted that Family Therapist had testified that progress in reunification therapy would “influence what possible custody” Sonya might have in the future relative to the older children. The court determined that it was “in the best interest of the children that reunification therapy” continue to allow Sonya the opportunity “to reunify her relationship with the children.”

¶6        Accordingly, the court found that it was in the children’s best interest that Joseph be “awarded sole physical custody and final decision making authority,” with both parties being awarded joint legal custody. With regard to the youngest child, the court awarded supervised parent-time to Sonya one night a week. The court awarded Sonya no parent-time with the older two children. The court noted that supervised parent-time for Sonya would “be flexible” and might “increase after the current reunification issues” and Sonya’s “medical issues” were addressed. The court also stated that Sonya’s “non-use of cannabis” needed to be verified because marijuana use was “a contributing factor” that brought on her mental health episodes.

The Business

¶7        During their union, the parties were financially supported, at least in part, by a business that distributed supplies to gas stations. During the divorce proceedings, Joseph maintained that he was in the process of purchasing the business from his father but that he did not have the money to pay for it. Joseph explained that he drew a salary for his work with the business. In contrast, Sonya maintained that she and Joseph agreed to buy the business in 2010 and that they completed paying off the business in 2016. Sonya claimed that she and Joseph signed a document “to take over the business” but that she did “not have the document.” Sonya did produce a different document that explicitly stated the business was being sold only to Joseph.

¶8        The district court awarded the business to Joseph, along with all its debts and obligations. In addition, the court, apparently recognizing that the business was possibly still owned by Joseph’s father, ordered that any money Joseph borrowed against the marital home to purchase the business would “not be used to reduce the total equity in the home” so as to reduce Sonya’s share of the home’s value. In making this award to Joseph, the court was clear that it was basing its decision “on the testimony” provided by Joseph.

The Marital Home

¶9        Based on a Zillow estimate[3] provided by Sonya, the court determined the value of the marital home to be $998,659, but the equity in the home was reduced by mortgages and liens on the property. Joseph testified that three mortgages, totaling $402,000, were on the property.[4] And the home was additionally encumbered by eleven liens. Two of these liens, totaling $2,414, were attributed to Sonya and Joseph. The remaining nine, totaling $256,521, were tax liens and civil judgments incurred by the previous owner of the home.[5]

¶10      The court received evidence that when Joseph and Sonya purchased the home in November 2009, it was subject to some existing debt. Joseph testified as follows:

Counsel: “Was there anything particular about that purchase [of the home]?”

Joseph: “We didn’t have the credit or the means to get into a home at the time, so my brother is a real estate agent and he’s good friends with [the previous owner] and said, ‘Hey, this house is available. If you like it, I can probably get you into it.’ And so we took him up on that and (inaudible) that we had to take on (inaudible).”

Counsel: “So there were other debts on that house when you purchased it?”

Joseph: “Yes        I didn’t know about all of them at the time, but yes.”

Counsel: “What are those debts?”

Joseph: “There’s a lot of tax liens from [the previous owner] throughout the years. There’s a couple of (inaudible) from Sonya and I, medical bills that weren’t paid. . . .”

Counsel: “And have you paid off the tax liens? The liens on the house?”

Joseph: “No.”

Thus, in a somewhat unusual arrangement, the parties appear to have purchased the home subject to certain liabilities, even if they did not know the precise extent of those liabilities. Presumably, these liabilities would have been offset by a reduction in the purchase price, making the home more affordable.

¶11      Adding the mortgages and liens together for an amount of $660,935, the court determined that equity in the home was $337,724. The court ordered Joseph to pay Sonya $168,862 as her share of that equity.

¶12      Sonya appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶13 Sonya identifies multiple ways in which she believes the district court erred. But “[f]or the sake of brevity,” we “consolidate these grounds” and “set out in the opinion only so much . . . as we deem necessary to a decision of the questions involved herein.” Patterick v. Carbon Water Conservancy Dist., 145 P.2d 503, 505 (Utah 1944), overruled on other grounds by Timpanogos Plan. & Water Mgmt. Agency v. Central Utah Water Conservancy Dist., 690 P.2d 562 (Utah 1984).

¶14      Sonya first contends that the district court abused its discretion in making custody and parent-time decisions because it lacked sufficient information to make those decisions. “We review custody determinations deferentially, and so long as the district court’s discretion is exercised within the confines of the legal standards we have set, and the facts and reasons for the decision are set forth fully in appropriate findings and conclusions, we will not disturb the resulting award.” Kingston v. Kingston, 2022 UT 43, ¶ 20, 532 P.3d 958 (cleaned up).

¶15      Sonya next contends that the district court’s findings were “entirely inadequate to explain” its reasoning for awarding ownership of the business to Joseph. “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.” Brown v. Babbitt, 2015 UT App 161, ¶ 5, 353 P.3d 1262 (cleaned up).

¶16      Lastly, Sonya argues that the district court’s “procedures and decisions regarding the division of equity in the marital home were illogical and manifestly unjust.” “Determining and assigning values to marital property is a matter for the trial court, and an appellate court will not disturb those determinations absent a showing of clear abuse of discretion.” Mintz v. Mintz, 2023 UT App 17, ¶ 12, 525 P.3d 534 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 531 P.3d 730 (Utah 2023).

ANALYSIS

  1. A Note on Briefing

¶17      Sonya’s briefing is plagued by significant deficiencies and does not comply with the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure for appropriate briefing. First, excluding the cases cited for the standards of review, Sonya cites only a single case in her opening brief, and she does so in a perfunctory fashion—making only a shallow attempt to explain its relevance to the issues. Sonya continues this trend in her reply brief, where she cites no cases at all. In this regard, she falls far short of appellate expectations. “A party may not simply point toward a pile of sand and expect the court to build a castle. In both district and appellate courts, the development of an argument is a party’s responsibility, not a judicial duty.” Salt Lake City v. Kidd, 2019 UT 4, ¶ 35, 435 P.3d 248; see also Utah R. App. P. 24(a)(8) (“The argument must explain, with reasoned analysis supported by citations to legal authority and the record, why the party should prevail on appeal.”); id. R. 24(b)(3).

¶18      Second, in her statement of the case, Sonya fails to include a single citation to the record. This is in contravention of our clearly stated rule. See Utah R. App. P. 24(a)(6) (“The statement of the case must include, with citations to the record: (A) the facts of the case, to the extent necessary to understand the issues presented for review; (B) the procedural history of the case, to the extent necessary to understand the issues presented for review; and (C) the disposition in the court or agency whose judgment or order is under review.” (emphasis added)). We note that Sonya somewhat more adequately cites the record in the argument section of her brief, but that is not what the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure require, and by ignoring the rules to suit her briefing preferences, she does little to bolster judicial efficiency.[6]

¶19      We point out these deficiencies not to ridicule, disparage, or shame counsel, but to provide warning that future briefing of this nature will likely be deemed inadequate and that any arguments on the merits may not be substantively considered by this court. This court receives hundreds of briefs each year. They vary in quality and in their adherence to the rules. We recognize that members of the bar have a lot on their plates and occasionally miss a typo or overlook a citation. But wholesale disregard of briefing rules is quite beyond the pale and can have unwelcome consequences for attorneys (and their clients) who choose this risky path. See Ostler v. Department of Public Safety, 2022 UT App 6, ¶ 27, 505 P.3d 1119 (“We . . . retain discretion to not address an argument that is inadequately briefed.” (cleaned up)); accord State v. Schwenke, 2007 UT App 354U, para. 2; State v. Garner, 2002 UT App 234, ¶¶ 8–13, 52 P.3d 467. And we hasten to point out that the risk of ignoring briefing requirements should come as no surprise to any attorney in Utah owing to our multiple references to the issue over the years. See Trees v. Lewis, 738 P.2d 612, 612–13 (Utah 1987) (stating that the merits of a dispute need not be reached if an appellant “has not supported the facts set forth in [a] brief with citations to the record” as required by rule 24(a)(6) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure); State v. Price, 827 P.2d 247, 249 (Utah Ct. App. 1992) (“We have routinely refused to consider arguments which do not include a statement of the facts properly supported by citations to the record.”); Koulis v. Standard Oil Co. of Cal., 746 P.2d 1182, 1184 (Utah Ct. App. 1987) (“If a party fails to make a concise statement of the facts and citation of the pages in the record where those facts are supported, the court will assume the correctness of the judgment below.”). That we have exercised our discretion to address the merits of the issues on appeal here should not be taken as an imprimatur sanctioning inadequate briefing but as a conduit to raise awareness of the risk of ignoring the rules.

¶20 We take this occasion to recall the advice offered by our supreme court several decades ago:

If the questions involved in a case are of sufficient importance to justify asking this court to decide them, they are worthy of the careful consideration of counsel presenting them. It is the duty of attorneys practicing in this court to present to the court the authorities supporting their views and to assist the court in reaching a correct conclusion.

State v. Thomas, 1999 UT 2, ¶ 13, 974 P.2d 269 (cleaned up). With that, we remind counsel of their responsibility to assist the judiciary in advancing jurisprudence through diligent advocacy, adherence to our rules, and competent representation.

  1. Custody and Parent-Time
  2. Disclosure

¶21      Sonya argues that the district court erred in admitting Family Therapist’s testimony when Joseph had not timely disclosed him as an expert witness pursuant to rule 26 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, which requires disclosure “within 14 days after the close of fact discovery.” Utah R. Civ. P. 26(4)(C)(i). Sonya’s briefing on this point leaves much to be desired. She entirely ignores what happened at trial, instead substituting her own retrospective take on what she believes should have happened without attempting to explain why her timeliness argument should now be considered. Providing some persuasive caselaw—which may or may not exist—would have gone far to support her argument. But like the rest of her briefing, this part is inadequate.

¶22      A review of the record shows that Sonya did not object to Family Therapist’s testimony on the grounds of untimely disclosure. Instead, Sonya argued that Family Therapist had “far exceeded any kind of mandate,” that he had not signed confidentiality waivers, and that allowing his testimony created patient privacy and ethical violations. In her objection at trial, rule 26 was mentioned only in passing and not in a way that would suggest she was objecting on timeliness grounds. It certainly would not have been clear to opposing counsel that a rule 26 timeliness issue was being raised such that he would have known to argue a harmlessness or good-cause defense for the failure to disclose, which would have been an easy argument to make given that both Joseph and Sonya had jointly retained Family Therapist and Sonya knew about Family Therapist several years before trial. And it would not have been clear to the district court that it was being asked to rule on a timeliness-based objection. For these reasons, Sonya did not preserve any such objection for appellate review. See State v. Centeno, 2023 UT 22, ¶ 57, 537 P.3d 232 (“It is well established that we will not address the merits of an unpreserved issue absent a showing that an exception to the preservation rule applies.”).

  1. Hearsay

¶23 Sonya additionally argues that Family Therapist’s testimony, insofar as he testified as a fact witness, “was inadmissible hearsay and based entirely on his conversations with the parties and their children as their reunification therapist.” Sonya’s hearsay argument is difficult to follow and poorly briefed. Instead of analysis in support of her hearsay argument, she provides scant and unsupported assertions.

¶24      Sonya objected below to Family Therapist’s testimony on the grounds that it was hearsay. But the court ruled that it was not hearsay, concluding that Family Therapist’s testimony was not offered “for the truth of the matter asserted.” Rather, the court ruled that the “focus of [the] questioning” was, first, to allow the court “to find out how [the children were] doing, if they’re capable of going forward” and, second, to identify the present “obstacles” to “structuring visitation with [Sonya].” On appeal, Sonya makes no attempt to engage with the court’s reasoning, instead limiting her analysis to a blanket assertion that “it [was] evident” Family Therapist was “allowed to testify as an expert, offering hearsay, opinions and recommendations in [a] manner that simply is not permitted by the Rules of Civil Procedure.” Such superficial and undeveloped argument is simply not persuasive, most especially because it does not address the alleged error in the court’s reasoning. It is well settled that appellants who fail to “address the district court’s reasoning” also fail to carry their “burden of persuasion on appeal.” See Federated Cap. Corp. v. Shaw, 2018 UT App 120, ¶ 20, 428 P.3d 12; see also Spencer v. Spencer, 2023 UT App 1, ¶ 27, 524 P.3d 165; Bad Ass Coffee Co. of Haw. v. Royal Aloha Int’l LLC, 2020 UT App 122, ¶ 48, 473 P.3d 624.

  1. Custody Factors

¶25 Sonya next argues that the court did not address the custody factors outlined in section 30-3-10 of the Utah Code, making its custody findings insufficient. More specifically, Sonya argues that the court’s factual findings were deficient due to the court’s reliance on the testimony of Family Therapist in making those findings.

¶26 Section 30-3-10 states that in “determining any form of custody and parent-time . . . , the court shall consider the best interest of the child and may consider . . . other factors the court finds relevant,” including factors for each parent articulated in the code. Utah Code § 30-3-10(2) (emphasis added). These factors a court may consider are “not on equal footing.” Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. Instead, “it is within the trial court’s discretion to determine, based on the facts before it and within the confines set by the appellate courts, where a particular factor falls within the spectrum of relative importance and to accord each factor its appropriate weight.” Id. (emphasis added). “And where significant evidence concerning a particular factor is presented to the district court, findings that omit all discussion of that evidence must be deemed inadequate.” Twitchell v. Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 21, 509 P.3d 806. Thus, to “ensure that the trial court’s custody determination, discretionary as it is, is rationally based, it is essential that the court set forth in its findings of fact not only that it finds one parent to be the better person to care for the child, but also the basic facts which show why that ultimate conclusion is justified.” Id. ¶ 24 (cleaned up).

¶27      Here, the factors about which the court received significant evidence concerned Sonya’s ability to function as a parent, which the court received as testimony from Family Therapist. As we have explained above, Sonya’s challenges to the admissibility of Family Therapist’s testimony fail, and we accordingly conclude that the district court acted well within its discretion in relying on his testimony.

¶28      Regarding Sonya’s ability to parent the two older children, Family Therapist testified that they were “very angry” with Sonya and “announced that they would never see or talk to her again.” Their anger was due to their religious sensibilities and Sonya’s announcement that she was pregnant by a man other than their father during the pendency of the divorce.

¶29      With regard to Sonya’s parenting, Family Therapist stated that the youngest child was very frightened after “his last visit with [Sonya] when she was struggling psychiatrically.” Moreover, Family Therapist also testified the youngest child was beginning to see himself as Sonya’s “partner,” resulting in the child “becoming parentified.”[7]

¶30 Family Therapist further indicated that while he was unaware of Sonya’s “current condition or functioning,” Sonya had been “hospitalized and diagnosed with some issues.” He asserted that “safety” needed to be addressed, meaning that Sonya required a psychiatric evaluation to demonstrate that her “situation” was “under control.” He also indicated that Sonya needed to work on “being forthright with medications.” Sonya, by her own admission, had “suffered an isolated manic episode” related to bipolar disorder and “called the police for assistance” because she was suffering from “visual and auditory hallucinations.”

¶31    Sonya’s briefing on this point misses the mark because it entirely relies on the assumption that Family Therapist’s testimony was inadmissible, an assumption we conclude is without foundation. See supra ¶¶ 21–24. She does not explain why, in light of Family Therapist’s admissible testimony, the court’s consideration of the statutory custody factors was insufficient. Sonya’s briefing makes no attempt to explain why the court is not allowed to rely on the evidence it receives when making custody decisions.

¶32 Moreover, Sonya does not identify any “significant evidence,” see Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 21, as to the other factors in section 30-3-10 that the court received but left unaddressed. Instead, her briefing advances an argument that is entirely conclusory and unsupported by record citation or legal authority:

Although § 30-3-10 gives broad discretion to the court as to the relevance and appropriate weight to give each factor, the district court in this case simply did not have any information that would allow it to make findings as to most of the statutory factors. For instance, the district court did not know who the primary caretaker of the children during the marriage was. The district court did not know anything about the marriage. The district court would not permit any testimony relevant to Joseph’s moral character or his history of drug abuse and sexual proclivities. The Court would not allow any testimony as to Joseph’s inability and unwillingness to co-parent with Sonya. At the end of the day, the Court simply sidestepped its responsibility as an independent factfinder and deferred to [Family Therapist].

This might be a good argument if Sonya had supported it with citations to the record and to legal authority. As this argument stands before us, we are unable to verify what it asserts. But we suspect that Sonya might be indulging in hyperbole here. Indeed, Sonya’s assertion that “the district court did not know anything about the marriage” is patently false. Our review of the record indicates that the court, in fact, knew quite a bit about the marriage, such as its financial situation, issues related to the children, and the problems that led to its demise, to name just a few topics within its familiarity. And with regard to Joseph’s alleged use of illegal drugs, we found only one instance (subsequently echoed by Sonya’s attorney) in the record where Sonya asserted before the district court that Joseph had a “cocaine habit.” But the district court was free to “disregard such testimony if it [found] the evidence self-serving and not credible,” since the factfinder “is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses.” See Clark v. Clark, 2023 UT App 111, ¶ 37, 537 P.3d 633 (cleaned up). An isolated allegation made in passing certainly does not amount to “significant evidence,” see Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 21, especially given the district court’s role as the factfinder to judge the credibility of witnesses, see Ouk v. Ouk, 2015 UT App 104, ¶ 14, 348 P.3d 751. And as to the other statutory custody factors that Sonya asserts the court left unaddressed, she has not pointed us to any significant evidence that the court received with respect to those factors.

¶33      Thus, unlike the situation in Twitchell, where we concluded “that the district court exceeded its discretion by failing to include in its findings any discussion of the evidence relating to the abuse allegations against [the mother], her alleged neglect of [the child,] and her moral character, as well as the effect that evidence had on its best-interest analysis,” see 2022 UT 49, ¶¶ 22–23, 25, here there simply wasn’t significant evidence presented regarding section 30-3-10’s other custody factors. This lack of evidence—insofar as there was a lack—was not the court’s fault; it was Sonya’s fault for not presenting it. After all, a court cannot be faulted for failing to consider evidence that was not presented to it. In contrast, given the substantial evidence the court did receive about the serious mental health issues Sonya faced, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in its consideration of the statutory factors when determining that awarding physical custody to Joseph was in the best interest of the children.

¶34 In sum, Sonya has failed to show that the district court abused its discretion in accepting and relying on the testimony of Family Therapist in making custody determinations or that the district court did not properly address the statutory factors in determining custody of the children.

III. Ownership of the Business

¶35      Both parties agree that the district court concluded that the business was not a joint marital asset. The district court awarded the business to Joseph “[b]ased on [Joseph’s] testimony.” Along with awarding the business to Joseph, the court stated that Joseph was “responsible for payment of the purchase price of the business.”

¶36      Sonya’s briefing on this point is challenging because it consists largely of recounting financial matters pertaining to the marriage but unrelated to the ownership of the business. She then asserts, with no discernible effort to explain why, that the “findings/conclusions were entirely inadequate to explain the Court’s reasoning for giving ownership” of the business to Joseph. Her argument is difficult to follow, but its essence, insofar as we can tell, appears to be that the court erred in believing Joseph’s testimony over hers.

¶37 We disagree with Sonya that the court erred in crediting Joseph’s testimony regarding the ownership of the business over Sonya’s. Again, the court stated in its factual findings that its award of the business to Joseph was “[b]ased on [his] testimony.” In making this credibility determination, the court acted well within its discretion. “[W]here there exists evidence sufficient to support a court’s rulings regarding a divorcing couple’s finances, that ruling will be upheld on appeal, even if evidence was presented that might have cut the other way.” Clarke v. Clarke, 2023 UT App 160, ¶ 27. This is because “the fact-finder is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony. Even where testimony is uncontroverted, a trial court is free to disregard such testimony if it finds the evidence self-serving and not credible.” Ouk v. Ouk, 2015 UT App 104, ¶ 14, 348 P.3d 751 (cleaned up); see also Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 20 n.5, 217 P.3d 733 (“[I]t is the trial court’s singularly important mission to consider and weigh all the conflicting evidence and find the facts.”).

¶38      Here, the district court was in the best position to judge the credibility of the parties. It clearly found Joseph’s testimony regarding the ownership of the business to be more credible. Sonya has provided no reasoned argument—apart from her assertion that she disagrees with it—as to why the district court’s conclusion that the business was not marital property was erroneous. Accordingly, Sonya has failed to meet her “burden on appeal to show that no reasonable person would take the view adopted” by the district court, and we therefore conclude that the district court did not err in awarding the business, along with its liabilities, to Joseph. See Ouk, 2015 UT App 104, ¶ 14.[8]

  1. Equity in the Marital Home

¶39      Sonya’s final claim is that the district court abused its discretion in dividing equity in the marital home. “In divorce actions, a district court is permitted considerable discretion in adjusting the financial and property interests of the parties, and its actions are entitled to a presumption of validity.” Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 18, 452 P.3d 1134 (cleaned up). Thus, in such proceedings,

we will reverse only if (1) there was a misunderstanding or misapplication of the law resulting in substantial and prejudicial error; (2) the factual findings upon which the award was based are clearly erroneous; or (3) the party challenging the award shows that such a serious inequity has resulted as to manifest a clear abuse of discretion. Because we can properly find abuse only if no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the trial court, appellants have a heavy burden to show that an alleged error falls into any of these three categories.

Id. (cleaned up).

¶40      Sonya’s claim focuses on three aspects of the court’s valuation of the home: (1) the mortgage amount, (2) the use of the Zillow estimate, and (3) the amount of the liens on the home. We address each in turn.

¶41      The Mortgage Amount. Sonya complains that the district court, based on Joseph’s testimony, should have used $298,000 as the amount owing on the mortgages rather than $402,000, an adjustment that would have benefitted her by increasing the equity she would have received. “Generally, the marital estate is valued at the time of the divorce decree or trial. However, in the exercise of its equitable powers, a trial court has broad discretion to use a different date, such as the date of separation, when circumstances warrant. If the trial court uses a date other than the date of the divorce decree, it must support its decision with sufficiently detailed findings of fact explaining its deviation from the general rule.” Rothwell v. Rothwell, 2023 UT App 50, ¶ 39, 531 P.3d 225 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 537 P.3d 1011 (Utah 2023). In response to Sonya’s motion for amended findings, the court explained, “[Joseph’s] statement of the mortgage balance of $298,000 was referring to the total amount of all three (3) mortgages. The Court also took that into evidence taking into account that it was [Joseph’s] best estimate according to what his monthly mortgage payments are and how much was deducted from the principal each month.” We understand this to mean that the court took into consideration that it was through Joseph’s extraordinary post-separation payment efforts that the mortgage amount had been reduced. Moreover, Sonya concedes in her reply brief that it was within the district court’s discretion to use the earlier mortgage total. Accordingly, we see no abuse of discretion in the court’s use of the date of the separation to determine the amount of the mortgages.

¶42      The Zillow Estimate. Sonya next complains that the home should have been valued at about $260,000 more than was indicated by the Zillow estimate the court used. The glaring problem with this aspect of Sonya’s complaint is that it was her counsel’s idea to use the Zillow estimate. In open court, her counsel looked up the estimate and announced it to the court. And the court proceeded to base its calculations on the very data Sonya’s counsel supplied. We simply will not countenance Sonya’s assertion that the district court erred in proceeding to use the estimate that Sonya herself, through counsel, provided. Sonya invited any error in this regard. See Somer v. Somer, 2020 UT App 93, ¶ 14, 467 P.3d 924 (“Where a party makes an affirmative representation encouraging the court to proceed without further consideration of an issue, an appellate court does not consider the party’s objection to that action on appeal.” (cleaned up)). In her briefing on appeal, Sonya points to nothing in the record that would have allowed the court to value the home using anything other than the Zillow estimate. Sonya does not challenge that the court acted on the only information it had and that Sonya herself provided. Accordingly, “given the absence of any expert financial testimony, . . . the paucity of assistance the parties offered the court,” and the representations made by Sonya’s counsel regarding the marital home’s value, we conclude that “the court in this instance made findings within its discretion and supported by the evidence it was given.” Clarke v. Clarke, 2023 UT App 160, ¶ 55.

¶43      The Liens. Sonya argues that the district court abused its discretion in counting third-party liens against the equity in the home. Given the evidence the court received, we see no error on the part of the court in this regard. Indeed, there was evidence to support the court’s determination that the third-party liens should be included in the calculation of the home’s equity. Joseph testified that when he and Sonya purchased the home, they did so knowing that they were assuming responsibility for some of the previous owner’s debts. This is an admittedly odd arrangement, but Joseph testified that they were willing to accept it because they were not in a financial position to purchase the home otherwise. Sonya offered no testimony or other evidence to contradict Joseph’s assertion, and she still points to nothing presented at trial that contradicted this evidence. Accordingly, we conclude that the factual findings that included the liability associated with the third-party liens were not clearly erroneous and that the court did not abuse its discretion in calculating the home’s equity.

CONCLUSION

¶44      Sonya has not demonstrated that the district court abused its discretion in its custody determination, in awarding the business to Joseph, or in its division of equity in the marital home. Affirmed.

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


[1] Because the parties share a surname, we refer to them by their given names.

[2] As addressed below, neither party’s briefs included sufficient citations to the record. This shortcoming has necessitated us combing the record to establish some semblance of a background, something we are not obligated to do. See State v. Wright, 2019 UT App 66, ¶ 47 n.6, 442 P.3d 1185 (explaining the parties’ duty to cite the record in appellate briefs), cert. denied, 456 P.3d 391 (Utah 2019). Accordingly, our recitation of the facts is necessarily minimal as we limit it to what is essential to resolve the issues on appeal.

[3] Neither party produced an appraisal of the home or an appraisal witness at trial, leading the court to ask the parties, “Does anybody have any valuation [of the home] at all?” Sonya’s counsel answered, “Well, we could do it [with] Zillow.” At this point, while in court, Sonya’s counsel looked up the value and reported, “According to Zillow as of today, the estimated value is $998,659.” No objection was lodged at trial to the court receiving this information. “Zillow is a commercial website that provides, among other things, an estimated market value for many residential properties.” Chaudry v. Chaudry, No. 1794, 2021 WL 2910977, at *9 n.7 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. July 12, 2021).

[4] This number reflected the amount owing at the time of separation. At the bench trial, Joseph testified that the amount was currently about $298,000.

[5] Joseph’s counsel provided a LexisNexis report as evidence of the liens on the home. This report was admitted as evidence with no objection.

[6] Nor did Joseph’s counsel provide a single citation to the record in his brief. This shortcoming is most unhelpful. While an appellee is not required to file a brief, see, e.g.AL-IN Partners, LLC v. LifeVantage Corp., 2021 UT 42, ¶ 19, 496 P.3d 76, we observe that if a brief is filed, it would behoove counsel to provide record citations. After all, and at the risk of stating the obvious, record citations are required because in their absence it’s difficult, and at times impossible, to figure out what the parties are referencing.

[7] “Parentification is often referred to as growing up too fast. Typically, it occurs when a child takes on parental responsibility for their siblings or even their parents, taking care of a sibling or parent physically, mentally, or emotionally. This can damage a child’s mental well-being and lead to long-term mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.” Amber Felton, What Is Parentification, Web MD, https://www.webmd.com/parenting /what-is-parentification [https://perma.cc/N6TT-Y7QN].

[8] Sonya also argues that the district court violated her constitutional due process rights by its “ongoing interference” with her counsel’s presentation of her case. Quite frankly, apart from a litany of complaints about the court requiring counsel to keep her questioning relevant, the contours of her argument on appeal are difficult to discern, and she fails to cite a single case in support of the argument. Accordingly, we decline to consider her due process argument because it is inadequately briefed. See Utah R. App. P. 24(a)(8) (“The argument must explain, with reasoned analysis supported by citations to legal authority and the record, why the party should prevail on appeal.”); see also Orlando Millenia, LC v. United Title Services of Utah, Inc., 2015 UT 55, ¶ 30 n.3, 355 P.3d 965 (“The briefing on this claim . . . is inadequate. [The appellant’s] briefing on this issue fails to cite any authority and makes no attempt to connect the law to the facts of this case.”).

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House Bill 131 (HB0131 (utah.gov)), entitled “Clergy Child Abuse Reporting Requirements”

Today’s blog post reviews House Bill 131 (HB0131 (utah.gov)), entitled “Clergy Child Abuse Reporting Requirements”. It proposes changes to Utah Code § 80-2-602, the law governing when members of the clergy are and are not required to report child abuse.

Currently, Utah Code § 80-2-602(1) provides, in pertinent part regarding clergy and child abuse reporting:

“[I]f a person . . . has reason to believe that a child is, or has been, the subject of abuse or neglect, or observes a child being subjected to conditions or circumstances that would reasonably result in abuse or neglect, the person shall immediately report the suspected abuse or neglect to the division or to the nearest peace officer or law enforcement agency.” (§ 80-2-602(1)

So far, so good.

(3) Subject to Subsection (4), the reporting requirement described in Subsection (1) does not apply to:

(a) a member of the clergy, with regard to any confession made to the member of the clergy while functioning in the ministerial capacity of the member of the clergy and without the consent of the individual making the confession, if:

(i) the perpetrator made the confession directly to the member of the clergy; and

(ii) the member of the clergy is, under canon law or church doctrine or practice, bound to maintain the confidentiality of the confession[.]

*****

(4)

(a) When a member of the clergy receives information about abuse or neglect from any source other than confession of the perpetrator, the member of the clergy is required to report the information even if the member of the clergy also received information about the abuse or neglect from the confession of the perpetrator.

(b) Exemption of the reporting requirement for an individual described in Subsection (3) does not exempt the individual from any other efforts required by law to prevent further abuse or neglect by the perpetrator.

H.B. 129 would, if passed into law, include this new provision (please note that the numbers out to the side are the line numbers in H.B. 131):

58          (4) (a) Notwithstanding the exemption in Subsection (3)(a), a member of the clergy

59     may report suspected child abuse or neglect.

I have two major concerns about such a provision.

1. Confession, as they say, is good for the soul. It is. Why? Knowing that confession to clergy—and knowing that confession is and shall remain strictly confidential (private)—is often the only thing that summons a sinner’s courage to confront and admit his/her sins. The freedom to confess (to clergy) without fear of arrest or incarceration helps some who are tormented by their sins confront them. Through confession, clergy serve to help the sinner (whose sins are also often crimes) take the first step toward repentance. Take that absolute confidentiality away, and the value of confession is destroyed. Many who would have otherwise confessed will—knowing confession is no longer strictly confidential—not confess and thus not work their way to being publicly accountable. No one benefits from that.

Some well-meaning clergy might believe that taking (or even eliciting) a confession and then reporting the sinner to law enforcement is “for the sinner’s own good,” but that kind of betrayal of trust would then lead to distrusting clergy and then to avoiding and rejecting the very spiritual care we so desperately need both individually and as a society.

2. I’ve been a lawyer for a long time now (27 years, to be exact, as of the date I write this post), and while I don’t claim to know everything, I have experienced “mays” becoming “shalls”; judges and juries go from “I acknowledge that you didn’t have to report” to “I can’t believe you didn’t report!” or “Just because you weren’t required to report does not mean in this instance that you shouldn’t have; have you no decency!” I can easily foresee situations in which a clergy member keeps a confession confidential (as is his/her religious and moral duty) and then be publicly humiliated for it, sued civilly for it, and yes, even somehow convicted criminally for it (where there’s a will, there’s a way). It’s hard enough to be a clergy member as it is. It’s hard enough to encourage and inspire people to repent and better themselves. Eliminate the strictly confidential status of the confession and the essential nature of confession itself is eliminated. When it comes to reporting abuse “clergy may” turns into “clergy shall”. That would be disastrous. If clergy must rat out the sinners in their congregations, then those whom clergy could help the most will avoid and reject the clergy (see above).

To those who will say, “Have you no concern for the abuse victims?,” the answer is clear (hard to accept, perhaps, but no less clear): there is a greater interest than that of the individual victims at stake here. Confidential confession to clergy helps clergy to persuade sinners to recognize and do what is right. We are all sinners to some degree. Diluting the confidentiality of the confession will cause potential penitents to remain in the shadows.

Priest-penitent privilege: Removing it doesn’t help children | Opinion – Deseret News

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

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

2023 UT App 137  – Lobendahn v. Lobendahn

 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

MARCUS JAMES LOBENDAHN,

Appellant and Cross-appellee,

v.

LEEYEN MOEVAI LOBENDAHN,

Appellee and Cross-appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210278-CA

Filed November 16, 2023

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Thomas Low

No. 164400262

Luke A. Shaw and Jill L. Coil,

Attorneys for Appellant

Julie J. Nelson, Daniel Ybarra, and Alexandra

Mareschal, Attorneys for Appellee

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

concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

 

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B.        The circumstances surrounding Son’s baptism

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

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

C.        The circumstances surrounding having Son tested for autism

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

D.        The circumstances surrounding obtaining the children’s passports

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

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

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

F.         The district court’s custody factor findings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Mother’s Attorney Fees Request

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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


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

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

P.3d 733:

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

Id. ¶ 20 n.5.

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

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In re K.A.S. – 2023 UT App 138 THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.S., A PERSON OVER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. K.S., Appellant. Opinion No. 20210291-CA Filed November 16, 2023 Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable Mark W. May No. 1108274 Monica Maio, Marina Pena, Sam Pappas, and Hilary Forbush, Attorneys for Appellant Sean D. Reyes and Jeffrey S. Gray, Attorneys for Appellee JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1        K.S., a minor, spent several weeks babysitting the infant child of some family members while they were at work. When the infant’s parents returned home one day, the infant was in pronounced distress. The infant was taken to the hospital, but she died a few days later.

¶2        K.S. was charged in juvenile court with having committed child abuse homicide. At the close of trial, the juvenile court found that K.S. had committed the crime and adjudicated K.S. delinquent as a result. K.S. now appeals that adjudication, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support it. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶3        A.M., a four-month-old infant, died on May 10, 2019. Several medical experts later testified that the cause of death was a brain injury and that the fatal injury was likely inflicted in a non-accidental manner. The question at the heart of this case is who inflicted the fatal injury.

¶4        A.M.’s parents (Mother and Father) both worked and needed someone to watch their two children (A.M. and a two-year-old son) during the day. After an arrangement with a previous babysitter fell through, Mother and Father learned that K.S., the 16-year-old son of Mother’s cousin, was available to babysit. Although K.S. had no prior child-care experience, he began watching the children in April 2019. Because of K.S.’s lack of experience, Father had to teach him the basics of childcare, including how to prepare a bottle, how to change a diaper, and how to calm A.M. down and “hold her correctly.” K.S. frequently stayed overnight to save on gas, sleeping on a couch in the front room.

¶5        On May 2, Mother and Father took A.M. to the emergency room because A.M. had been sick for a few days. On examination, the ER doctor found “nothing worrisome,” and tests indicated that her heart rate, oxygen saturation, and temperature were all “reassuring.” The ER doctor concluded that A.M. “might have a bug” and sent her home. By May 6, A.M. seemed to be “feeling a little better.”

¶6        K.S. slept over at the house on the night of May 6 to 7, and A.M. was “real fussy” that night. According to her parents’ subsequent accounts, though, A.M. was “crying normal[ly]” and even “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” by the next morning. Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m.[1] Father later testified that he left for work between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. (though, as will be discussed below, testimony from an officer suggested that Father didn’t actually leave until 10:55 that morning).

¶7        At some point between 11:36 and 11:56 a.m., K.S. sent Mother a video that showed A.M. experiencing troubling symptoms—specifically, A.M. had a limp arm and labored breathing. K.S. texted, “Is this normal?” After viewing the video, Mother asked her sister (Aunt) to stop by on her lunch break to check on A.M.

¶8        Aunt arrived at about 1:20 that afternoon. A.M. seemed “lethargic” to her, and it seemed like “moving her was upsetting her more, almost like it was causing her pain.” Aunt thought that A.M. might have an ear infection, so she gave her some ibuprofen. After returning to work, Aunt told Mother her concern about the ear infection and encouraged Mother to take A.M. to the hospital after Mother’s shift ended. During her own lunch break an hour later, Mother returned home and checked on A.M., who was “fussy and whiney”; when Mother picked A.M. up, she also observed her legs “dangling down.” Mother was concerned enough to schedule an appointment with a pediatrician, but she made lunch and returned to work without taking further action.

¶9        There was no additional contact between K.S. and the parents until around 7:45 that evening, when K.S. called Mother and reported that A.M still didn’t seem to be feeling better. Mother said she was on her way. After picking Father up from his work, Mother arrived home to find A.M. “pale as a light.” Father performed CPR while Mother called 911. Mother told the 911 dispatcher that A.M. had been “fine throughout the day and stuff.”

¶10 A.M. was first taken to the Intermountain Healthcare hospital, then life-flighted to Primary Children’s Medical Center (Primary Children’s). Doctors at Primary Children’s concluded that A.M. had suffered a severe brain injury.

¶11      Police detained Mother and Father for questioning before allowing them to see A.M. While awaiting the arrival of a detective, Father engaged police officers in light-hearted banter, telling them “a story about getting drunk and . . . dancing on the table,” as well as a story about a woman beating up a man in their apartment complex. Mother and Father eventually met with a detective who questioned them about the events of the day. This detective later testified that, during these interviews, Father told him that he had left for work around 10:55 that morning.

¶12      The following day, K.S. sent Father two text messages. The first said: “im so sorry. . . . if it weren’t for my laziness and wanting to relax [A.M.] wouldn’t be like this and if i had never tossed her up in the air to try and cheer her up.” The second said: “im truly sorry plz tell [Mother] im so so so sorry and i would never intentionally hurt your kids out of anger or frustration.”

¶13      A.M. died two days later. Later that week, Dr. Christensen, the medical examiner, performed an autopsy and determined that the “primary cause” of death was “blunt injuries” to A.M.’s head. Dr. Christensen classified the death as a homicide.

¶14 The State subsequently charged K.S. with child abuse homicide in juvenile court. Over the course of eight days of trial, the court heard testimony from, among others, both parents, several medical experts, and the responding officer.

¶15      Mother and Father testified about the events on May 7 and A.M.’s health in the relevant period. Mother testified that A.M. was “pretty fine” and “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” before she left for work that morning. Father testified that, after a few days of being fussy, A.M. “was feeling a little better” and that there was “nothing out of the ordinary” that morning. Father testified that he remembered leaving home between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. so that he could catch the bus.

¶16 The court also heard testimony from three medical experts—Dr. Thorn, Dr. Hatch, and Dr. Christensen—about the nature of A.M.’s injuries and the timing of those injuries.

¶17 Dr. Thorn. Dr. Thorn was an ER doctor who had “extensive training and expertise specialization in the management of head injury,” and he was the doctor who treated A.M. on May 7 at the Intermountain Healthcare hospital. Dr. Thorn testified that A.M.’s symptoms likely resulted from “non-accidental trauma,” which “is a nice way of saying a child . . . was physically abused.” Dr. Thorn also testified that A.M.’s injuries would have required the application of “[e]xtremely violent” force, though he opined that it might have been “possible” that a person might not have “recognize[d] the severity” of the injury that he or she had inflicted.

¶18      On a CAT scan, Dr. Thorn observed two layers of blood in A.M.’s brain, which suggested to him that A.M. had sustained “at least two” discrete injuries. He estimated that the earlier of the two injuries occurred “within days” to “maybe a week” before May 7. Dr. Thorn speculated that the symptoms that prompted A.M.’s visit to the hospital on May 2 had come from the first brain injury, but he acknowledged that “[w]e’ll never know.” With respect to the injuries that led to A.M.’s death, Dr. Thorn testified that the “most severe injury leading eventually to the death” happened anywhere from “sometime within hours” to “almost right before” the video that was taken on May 7. He further testified that there was “some event soon before arrival [at the ER] that had caused” A.M.’s “respiratory depression.” Dr. Thorn felt unable to narrow the timeframe any further, and he expressed doubt that any doctor “would be able to comment as to a more definitive timeframe.” Dr. Thorn also testified that A.M. “was very, very sick at the time that that video was taken.”[2]

¶19 Dr. Hatch. Dr. Hatch was a recent medical school graduate who was completing a post-residency fellowship in child abuse pediatrics at the University of Utah, and he was part of the team that treated A.M. at Primary Children’s. Dr. Hatch testified that it would have required a significant amount of force to cause A.M.’s symptoms, such as “shaking by itself” or shaking combined “with some form of impact, or impact by itself.” He added that “we don’t observe these kinds of injuries from falls” or even from “significant” car accidents. In Dr. Hatch’s view, A.M.’s symptoms “suggest[ed]” that A.M. had “experienced significant force to her head.” He also opined that anyone who was present when the injuries were inflicted “would know that the force was excessive and that an injury was likely” to follow.

¶20 Dr. Hatch thought there were two potentially plausible explanations for the two layers of blood in A.M.’s brain: he thought it was possible that the blood represented two different injuries that were separated by time, and he also thought it was possible that the blood represented a single injury where some of the blood had changed colors when it mingled with cerebral spinal fluid. Thus, in Dr. Hatch’s opinion, A.M. was definitely injured on May 7, and it was possible that she had suffered an earlier brain injury as well.

¶21      As to the question of timing of the May 7 injury, Dr. Hatch testified that “the head injury immediately preceded the development of any symptoms that [A.M.] had. So in this situation where she became unconscious, the injury would immediately precede that.” Continuing, Dr. Hatch testified that the “medical literature would support that in almost all cases with this severe of an injury,” the resulting symptoms would appear “immediately afterward.”

¶22 Dr. Christensen. Dr. Christensen is the chief medical examiner for the Utah Department of Health and, as noted, performed A.M.’s autopsy. Dr. Christensen testified that A.M. had suffered a “traumatic” “axonal injury” to her brain and that the injury was “not consistent with having occurred accidentally.” In his view, the force involved would have been “noticeably violent.”

¶23      Like Dr. Thorn, Dr. Christensen saw signs of both an earlier and a later injury. Dr. Christensen agreed that “some of [A.M.’s] prior symptoms”—including the nausea that led to her May 2 visit to the hospital—could have been “related to a prior head injury.” On questioning from the State, however, Dr. Christensen seemed to agree that the later injury was “the ultimately fatal” one.

¶24      Dr. Christensen testified that in “some cases,” fatal injuries can be inflicted as many as three to ten days before the child actually dies. But Dr. Christensen explained that doctors look to “other aspects of the case as well” when estimating the time at which the injuries were inflicted, such as “what was the child’s behavior at various points along the way.” He said that in this case, he thought the fatal injury “occurred around the time” that A.M. arrived at the hospital. He also testified that with “traumatic axonal injury, you would expect [A.M.] to be symptomatic essentially immediately. I mean very, very quickly. It’s not going to be the kind of thing where she is going to be normal for a few hours . . . . It’s a global insult to the brain that is going to manifest as . . . abnormal behavior very soon after infliction.”

¶25      After the conclusion of the trial, the court entered a single-sentence ruling determining that the State had met its burden of proving that K.S. committed child abuse homicide. K.S. timely appealed.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶26      K.S. argues there was insufficient evidence to support his adjudication for child abuse homicide. In cases tried without a jury (which include juvenile court proceedings), factual determinations “must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and the reviewing court must give due regard to the trial court’s opportunity to judge the credibility of the witnesses.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(4); cf. In re Z.D., 2006 UT 54, ¶ 29, 147 P.3d 401 (holding that an “appellate court must launch any review of factual findings from rule 52(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure and its ‘clearly erroneous’ test”). “The content of Rule 52(a)’s clearly erroneous standard, imported from the federal rule, requires that if the findings (or the trial court’s verdict in a criminal case) are against the clear weight of the evidence, or if the appellate court otherwise reaches a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made, the findings (or verdict) will be set aside.” State v. Walker, 743 P.2d 191, 193 (Utah 1987) (quotation simplified).

¶27 The parties agree that we should apply the above-cited standard of review to this case. We pause here to note, however, that the parties have disputed whether we should apply an additional layer of deferential gloss in this case as well.

¶28 It’s well-settled that when an appellate court reviews a jury’s verdict, the court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the verdict. See, e.g.State v. Green, 2023 UT 10, n.2, 532 P.3d 930; State v. Bonds, 2023 UT 1, n.3, 524 P.3d 581; State v. Winfield, 2006 UT 4, ¶ 2, 128 P.3d 1171. But there’s a divergence in Utah’s caselaw about whether an appellate court does the same when reviewing a verdict from a bench trial. On this, some Utah cases say no. See, e.g.In re Z.D., 2006 UT 54, ¶ 35 (“An appellate court must indulge findings of fact made by a jury that support the verdict. No such indulgence is required of findings made by a judge.”); Alta Indus. Ltd. v. Hurst, 846 P.2d 1282, 1284 n.2 (Utah 1993) (holding that “an appellate court does not, as a matter of course, resolve all conflicts in the evidence in favor of the appellee” when findings were made by a judge); Walker, 743 P.2d at 193 (noting that “it is not accurate to say that the appellate court takes that view of the evidence that is most favorable to the appellee” when reviewing findings of the court (quotation simplified)). But other Utah cases—including some from our court that reviewed adjudications from juvenile court delinquency proceedings—say yes. See, e.g.State v. Layman, 1999 UT 79, ¶¶ 12–13, 985 P.2d 911 (holding that when “reviewing a conviction, an appellate court should consider the facts in a light most favorable to the verdict,” and then applying that standard to a ruling from “the trial judge, who was the finder of fact” in the bench trial at issue); In re J.R.H., 2020 UT App 155, ¶ 9, 478 P.3d 56 (applying the “light most favorable” standard to a juvenile court adjudication (quotation simplified)); In re V.T., 2000 UT App 189, ¶ 8, 5 P.3d 1234 (relying on Layman for the proposition that “[w]hen reviewing a juvenile court’s decision for sufficiency of the evidence, we must consider all the facts, and all reasonable inferences which may be drawn therefrom, in a light most favorable to the juvenile court’s determination”); see also In re C.C.R., 2011 UT App 228, ¶ 10, 257 P.3d 1106; In re M.B., 2008 UT App 433, ¶ 5, 198 P.3d 1007.

¶29      We need not resolve this conflict here. Again, the parties at least agree that K.S. can only prevail on his sufficiency challenge if he establishes that the verdict was against the clear weight of the evidence, or, instead, if we reach a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. And the parties further agree that we give “due regard” to the juvenile court’s opportunity to “judge the credibility of witnesses.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(4). For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the juvenile court’s adjudication under these agreed-upon standards alone. We accordingly leave for another day (and, more likely, another court) the question of how to resolve the tension in the cases about whether the additional deferential gloss that applies to jury verdicts should apply to juvenile court decisions as well.

ANALYSIS

¶30      K.S. argues there was “insufficient evidence that [he], as opposed to someone else, caused the injuries that resulted in A.M.’s death.” We disagree.

¶31      The State’s case against K.S. relied on the interplay between three propositions: (i) A.M. died from an injury to her brain that was caused by violent force; (ii) A.M.’s symptoms would have manifested very quickly after the injury was inflicted; and (iii) K.S. was alone with A.M. immediately prior to the symptoms’ initial appearance. There was competent testimony to support each of these propositions.

¶32 Injury. All three medical experts agreed that A.M. died from a brain injury that was caused by violent force. Dr. Thorn testified that A.M.’s injury would have been caused by “[e]xtremely violent” force or a “violent, blunt act,” such as the “shaking back and forth of a child’s brain.” In his view, this was “not an accidentally dropped child.” Dr. Hatch similarly testified that a significant amount of force would have been required, either “shaking by itself,” or shaking combined “with some form of impact,” or “impact by itself.” He added that doctors “don’t observe these kinds of injuries from falls” or even from “significant” car accidents. Dr. Hatch believed anyone “who witnessed an incident like this occur would know that the force was excessive and that an injury was likely” to follow. Finally, Dr. Christensen testified that the injury was “not consistent with having occurred accidentally” and that the force involved would have been “noticeably violent.”

¶33 Timing of symptoms. There was also testimony from medical experts that A.M.’s symptoms would have manifested very quickly after the force that caused the fatal injury. Dr. Hatch testified that “the head injury immediately preceded the development of any symptoms that [A.M.] had” and that the “medical literature would support that in almost all cases with this severe of an injury,” the resulting symptoms would appear “immediately afterward.” Dr. Christensen similarly testified that with “traumatic axonal injury, you would expect [A.M.] to be symptomatic essentially immediately.” He added: “It’s not going to be the kind of thing where she is going to be normal for a few hours . . . . It’s a global insult to the brain that is going to manifest as . . . abnormal behavior very soon after infliction.”[3]

¶34 K.S. was alone with A.M. Finally, there was testimony establishing that K.S. was alone with A.M. immediately before the symptoms’ initial appearance. Mother and Father both testified that A.M. was in good health that morning. Father stated that after a few days of being fussy, A.M. was “feeling a little better” and that there was “nothing out of the ordinary.” Mother also testified that A.M. was “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” that morning.

¶35      Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m., and at trial, Father testified that he left for work between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. (though there was some suggestion that he may have left at 10:55 a.m.). At some point between 11:36 and 11:56 that morning, K.S. sent Mother a video showing A.M. with limp limbs and having difficulty breathing.

¶36      The collective import of these propositions is clear. Since K.S. was alone with A.M. for at least a half hour (if not several hours) before A.M.’s symptoms appeared, and since two medical experts testified that A.M.’s symptoms would have appeared very quickly (if not immediately) after the infliction of the injury, it stands to reason that K.S. caused the fatal injury. This would provide a basis to sustain the adjudication.[4]

¶37 K.S. nevertheless argues that there was insufficient evidence to support the adjudication because of various problems with the above evidence and with other aspects of the State’s case. While we certainly agree that there was conflicting evidence on certain points, the problems that K.S. identifies are not so conclusive that we can overturn the adjudication as a result.

¶38      Much of K.S.’s argument is focused on ambiguities in the record about the critical question of timing. K.S. points out that while Dr. Christensen opined that the symptoms likely manifested soon after the injury, Dr. Christensen also acknowledged that “those things”—apparently meaning medical conclusions about the time at which an injury occurred—“are not precise.” K.S. also relies heavily on Dr. Thorn’s testimony that the injury could have occurred anywhere from “almost right before” the symptoms appeared to “hours” earlier. And K.S. further points to Dr. Thorn’s testimony that he didn’t think “you could find anyone else that would be able to comment as to a more definitive timeframe.”

¶39 But when Dr. Thorn opined that he didn’t think that “anyone else” could provide “a more definitive timeframe,” Dr. Thorn was mistaken. As discussed, the State called two medical experts—Dr. Christensen and Dr. Hatch—who each testified under oath that they thought that A.M.’s symptoms would have appeared very quickly (if not immediately) after the fatal injury was inflicted. And to the extent that there was any conflict between the experts’ conclusions on this, the juvenile court was in a better position than we are to determine which version to believe. See, e.g.In re M.M., 2023 UT App 95, ¶ 35 n.9, 536 P.3d 102, petition for cert. filed, October 25, 2023 (No. 20230944) (recognizing that it “is the role of the juvenile court, not this court, to assess the weight and credibility of expert witnesses and to choose among their testimonies” (quotation simplified)); Knowlton v. Knowlton, 2023 UT App 16, ¶ 59 n.13, 525 P.3d 898 (noting that a trial court “is in the superior position to assess the weight of evidence,” including questions about which expert’s testimony to accept), cert. denied, 531 P.3d 730 (Utah 2023); Woodward v. Lafranca, 2016 UT App 141, ¶ 13, 381 P.3d 1125 (noting that a “fact-finder is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony, even if that testimony comes from an expert witness” (quotation simplified)).

¶40      K.S. also points to testimony showing that Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m., as well as testimony that Father told a detective that he didn’t leave until 10:55 that morning. Since K.S. maintains that the window in which the injury could have been inflicted was several hours long, K.S. posits that Mother or Father could have inflicted the injury before they left for work. But again, on the question of timing, Dr. Christensen and Dr. Hatch both spoke of symptoms appearing very quickly after the fatal injury was inflicted. This testimony, alone, undermines this theory, and the juvenile court was entitled to credit it.

¶41 And there are other problems with this theory too. After all, K.S.’s suggestion that Mother or Father caused the injury that morning or overnight is at odds with their sworn testimonies. Again, both of them testified under oath that A.M. was healthy when they left the house. And it also seems possible (if not probable) that K.S. would have noticed something if Mother or Father had used violent force against A.M. that morning—after all, he’d spent the night there and was at the house all morning. But K.S. never claimed to have heard or witnessed either parent injuring A.M. earlier that day. Thus, to have accepted this theory, the court would have had to discredit the injury-to-symptoms chronology testimony of two medical experts, disbelieve the testimonies of Mother and Father, and then infer that Mother or Father had used violent force against A.M. without K.S. noticing or deciding to comment on it.

¶42 K.S. also points to evidence suggesting that A.M. had sustained a prior brain injury sometime before May 7, and he then argues that this prior injury might have been responsible for A.M.’s death. But while Dr. Christensen and Dr. Thorn both believed that A.M. had suffered multiple injuries, Dr. Hatch thought it was possible that there weren’t two injuries at all. Regardless, even assuming that the earlier injury did occur, K.S. could have inflicted that injury too given that he’d been babysitting for weeks. And more to the point, Dr. Christensen testified that the earlier injury wasn’t the cause of death. Dr. Christensen explained that both the earlier injury and the later injury had caused “subdural hemorrhage[s]” but that a subdural hemorrhage “didn’t ultimately lead directly to the child’s death.” Instead, Dr. Christensen testified that “diffuse axonal injury” in the brainstem created “respiratory compromise” that led to “brain swelling and ultimately death.” And when the prosecutor asked Dr. Christensen whether the “fatal” or “ultimately fatal” injury occurred close in time to A.M. arriving at the hospital, Dr. Christensen agreed with the State’s timeline. He reiterated that after the infliction of the “traumatic axonal injury,” which he had previously identified as the ultimate cause of death, symptoms would appear “essentially immediately.”[5]

¶43                Finally, K.S. points to various problems with the version of

events offered by Mother and Father, including Mother’s decision not to take the baby to the hospital that afternoon, Father’s seemingly odd storytelling while waiting for detectives that night, and certain discrepancies between the parents’ initial statements to officers and their testimonies at trial. We’ve reviewed the record and acknowledge the potential problems identified by K.S. But these problems all go to the perceived credibility (or lack thereof) of Mother and Father, particularly as it relates to their sworn testimonies that they did not injure their child. Our supreme court, however, has directly cautioned the appellate courts to avoid second-guessing lower courts about credibility issues like these. As the court explained in In re Z.D.:

Appellate courts are removed temporally and geographically from trial courts. They do not see juries impaneled or oaths administered to witnesses. They do not view first-hand witnesses’ “tells” of posture, inflection, or mood that strengthen or erode credibility. It is the lot of appellate judges to take their sustenance from the printed page; to peer into the facts as deeply as the flat plane of paper will permit. By the time the trial transcript reaches the hands of the appellate judge, the universal adjective describing its condition is “cold.”

2006 UT 54, ¶ 24, 147 P.3d 401. It’s of course possible that the court could have chosen to disbelieve the testimonies of Mother and Father. But given its adjudication, it’s clear that the court did accept their accounts (or, at least, those portions that suggested that it was K.S., not Mother or Father, who inflicted the fatal injury on A.M.). Without something more, it’s not our place to second-guess that determination.

¶44      In short, this evidentiary picture could certainly have been clearer, and we do see this as something of a close case. But the fact that it’s a close case is the reason we shouldn’t overturn this adjudication. In In re Z.D., our supreme court stressed that an “appellate court must be capable of discriminating between discomfort over a trial court’s findings of fact—which it must tolerate—and those that require the court’s intercession. It must forebear disturbing the ‘close call.’” Id. ¶ 33. And again, under even the standard of review that both parties agree on, K.S. must convince us that the verdict was against “the clear weight of the evidence,” or, instead, we must be left with “a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” State v. Walker, 743 P.2d 191, 193 (Utah 1987) (emphases added, quotations otherwise simplified).

¶45      On this record, the juvenile court could have sided with K.S. based on certain evidence about the timing of the injuries and who was around A.M. during a potentially relevant window. But the State’s narrower view of the timing window was backed by two medical experts, and its view of who was where and when was backed by sworn testimony as well. And under the State’s evidence, K.S. was the only person who could have caused the fatal injury.

¶46      Unlike members of this court, the juvenile court observed the relevant testimony firsthand. As a result, it was in a better position than we are to evaluate the credibility of that testimony and make determinations about the key facts. While K.S. has highlighted some problems with the State’s case, we don’t see those problems as being so pronounced that the court’s decision was against the clear weight of the evidence, nor are we left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. We accordingly see no basis for overturning this adjudication.

CONCLUSION

¶47 There was sufficient evidence to support the juvenile court’s adjudication that K.S. committed child abuse homicide. The adjudication is therefore affirmed.

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

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

In re A.S.G.-R. – 2023 UT App 126

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.R.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH AND E.G.,

Appellees.

Opinion No. 20220645-CA

Filed October 19, 2023

Fourth District Juvenile Court, Provo Department

The Honorable D. Scott Davis

No. 1196726

Alexandra Mareschal and Julie J. Nelson,

Attorneys for Appellant

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

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

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

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

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

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

BACKGROUND[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

ANALYSIS

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

A

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

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

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

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

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

1

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

¶64 Affirmed.

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

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Why Do Utah Courts Not Allow Child Testimony?

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

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

Are the Arizona courts administered by fools and sadists?

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

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

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

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

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

Special masters, parent coordinators, and the infantilization of parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

2023 UT App 81

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

IN THE MATTER OF THE A. DEAN HARDING

MARITAL AND FAMILY TRUST.

ROBERT G. HARDING,

Appellee,

v.

RICKIE TAYLOR AND ESTATE OF MARGENE HARDING,

Appellants,

ESTATE OF MARGENE HARDING,

Appellant,

v.

ROBERT G. HARDING AND JILL H. KENDALL,

Appellees.

Opinion

No. 20200808-CA

Filed August 3, 2023

Fourth District Court, American Fork Department

The Honorable Darold McDade

The Honorable Roger W. Griffin

The Honorable Robert C. Lunnen

No. 153100007

Jared W. Moss,

Attorney for Appellee Robert G. Harding

Russell S. Walker,

Attorney for Appellant Rickie Taylor

D. David Lambert and Leslie W. Slaugh,

Attorneys for Appellant Estate of Margene Harding

Steven H. Bergman,

Attorney for Appellee Jill Kendall

In re Harding Trust

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

HARRIS, Judge:

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

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

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

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

BACKGROUND

The Trust and Dean’s Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Settlement Agreement and the Note

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

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

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

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

A Decade of Taylor’s Trust Administration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margene’s Death and the Ensuing Distributions

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

The Lawsuit and the Two Competing Petitions

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

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

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

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

Pretrial Motions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trial

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

Post-Trial Developments

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

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

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

The Court’s Initial Written Ruling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joint and Several Liability of the Estate

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

Attorney Fees

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

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

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

The Form of the Judgment

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANALYSIS

I. Taylor’s Appeal

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

A. Taylor’s Motion to Amend

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

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

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

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

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

B. The Summary Judgment Ruling

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

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

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

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

3

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

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

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

C. Taylor’s Expert Witnesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

D. The Court’s Damages Award

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. The Estate’s Appeal

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

A. Vicarious Liability

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

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. Interest Rate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C. The Form of the Judgment

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

1

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

3

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

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

D. Attorney Fees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are there experts who can evaluate parental alienation for a custody case?

There are “expert” witnesses for virtually any and every issue in legal actions. 

Can judges be bamboozled by pseudo-scientific expert witnesses? Without question. 

Do some judges who know that the so-called expert witness’s testimony is pseudo-scientific bunk (or at least know that the opinion has dubious scientific grounding) yet justify the ruling the judge wants to make by citing to those pseudo-scientific opinions? Without question. 

So your question really should be, “Are there competent expert witnesses who can objectively prove my spouse/the other parent is alienating our child(ren) from me?” The answer to that question is, in my opinion, “no.” 

Other questions you should ask (and their answers, in my opinion): 

  • “Are there competent expert witnesses who can make a persuasive case for the argument that my spouse/the other parent is alienating our child(ren) from me?” The answer to that question is “yes.” 
  • “Are there incompetent expert witnesses who can make a persuasive case for the argument that my spouse/the other parent is alienating our child(ren) from me?” The answer to that question is “yes.” 
  • “Are judges generally receptive to the concept (much less the actual occurrence) of parental alienation, and are they generally willing to hold a parental alienator accountable?” The answer to that question is “Some judges will acknowledge that parental alienation exists, but even then the amount and quality of evidence needed to persuade a judge that parental alienation occurred or is occurring is very high, in many cases unobtainably high.” 
  • “Will proving the occurrence of parental alienation help me obtain court orders to protect my children from further alienation and psychological/emotional abuse?” The answer to that question is “maybe.” Some judges take a bizarre approach to proof of parental alienation, i.e., it is clear that [parent] has alienated the child(ren) from [other parent], but if I were to take the children away from the alienator or impose sanctions/restriction/monitoring/supervision on the alienator, then the alienated kids (who side with the alienator because they have been exploited and manipulated and abused) would suffer (i.e., suffer in the process of treating and reversing the alienation brainwashing and being restored to reality), so I am going to leave things be “for the sake of the children.” 

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

https://www.quora.com/Are-there-experts-who-can-evaluate-parental-alienation-for-a-custody-case/answer/Eric-Johnson-311 

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Wadsworth v. Wadsworth – 2022 UT App 5 – marital estate

2022 UT App 5 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

  1. CANDI WADSWORTH,
    Appellant,
    v.
    GUY L. WADSWORTH,
    Appellee. 

Opinion
No. 20190106-CA
No. 20200430-CA
Filed January 13, 2022 

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department 

The Honorable Su Chon 

No. 104904966 

Michael D. Zimmerman, Troy L. Booher, and Julie J.
Nelson, Attorneys for Appellant 

Clark W. Sessions, T. Mickell Jimenez, Marcy G.
Glenn, and Kristina R. Van Bockern, Attorneys
for Appellee 

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

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge: 

¶1 This appeal arises from the divorce and division of the marital estate belonging to H. Candi Wadsworth and Guy L. Wadsworth. Candi1 challenges various aspects of the district court’s marital property valuation, its decision to defer the payment of her share of the marital estate, its award of alimony, and various other findings and orders. Guy cross-appeals, raising challenges relating to terms of the deferred payment and the alimony award. In a separate appeal, Candi also challenges the district court’s decision not to grant her a security interest in her portion of the marital estate, which she will not receive in full until December 31, 2024. Because that issue is intertwined with various issues raised in the first appeal, we address both appeals in this consolidated opinion. 

¶2 We remand for the district court to add certain notes receivable to the value of the marital estate, to adjust its alimony award to account for Candi’s tax burden, to clarify its decision on whether security is required for the alimony award, and to grant Candi a security interest in her portion of the marital estate. We otherwise affirm the district court’s decision. 

BACKGROUND 

¶3 Candi and Guy married in 1979. Guy started Wadsworth Brothers Construction (WBC) in 1991, and over the years, it grew into a multimillion-dollar company. The parties also have interests in numerous other business entities, including two restaurants, a hotel, and various real estate holdings. 

¶4 In 2009, Candi filed for divorce, suspecting that Guy was involved in an extramarital affair. Guy denied the infidelity, and the couple reconciled. However, a year later, Guy confessed to an affair, and Candi again filed for divorce. 

Pre-Divorce Proceedings and Temporary Orders 

¶5 During the period between these two divorce filings, Guy purchased two restaurants, a plane, a cabin, and a yacht. He did not discuss any of these purchases with Candi, and she learned about them from other people. The yacht cost $2,502,800, but by the time of trial, the yacht was under water—Guy still owed $1,175,399, but the yacht was worth only $790,500. 

¶6 Without consulting Candi, Guy also assigned fractional shares of various marital entities to the Wadsworth Children’s 2007 Irrevocable Trust (the Trust) in 2009. Although the parties had created the Trust two years before, they had originally funded it with only $10. By the time of trial in 2017, the fractional shares held by the Trust were worth approximately $4 million. 

¶7 While the divorce was pending, Guy maintained control of the marital estate, apart from $1 million and two interest-generating accounts that he transferred to Candi early in the proceedings. In February 2012, the district court adopted the parties’ stipulation regarding temporary orders (the Stipulation) stating that, on a temporary basis, Guy “shall pay all of the children’s expenses as he has in the past as well as all of [Candi’s] expenses as he has in the past.” Because Guy was paying these expenses, he was not ordered to pay temporary child support or alimony at that time. The Stipulation also addressed the use of marital assets during the pendency of the divorce proceedings: 

  1. Based upon the parties’ stipulation, [Guy] shall maintain, in the regular course of business, the management and control of [WBC], as he has in the past.
  2. Based upon the parties’ stipulation, neither party shall sell, gift, transfer, dissipate, encumber, secrete or dispose of marital assets other than in the course of their normal living expenditures, ordinary and necessary business expenses and to pay divorce attorneys and expert fees and costs. [Guy] shall have the right to conduct the business hereinabove identified as he has in the past, which may include incurring debt, paying expenses and acquiring assets.

¶8 During the divorce proceedings, Candi asked the court to hold Guy in contempt based on alleged violations of the Stipulation. She asserted that he made numerous financial transactions that violated the Stipulation, including selling his home, buying a new home, selling a hotel, creating a new business entity and loaning it money, investing money in a property development company (FDFM), purchasing a jet to “flip,” and making an “undisclosed sale” of $697,448.72. The court accepted Guy’s and his estate planning attorney’s testimonies that “Guy had a history of setting up different corporate entities for liability protection purposes” and that he “did not create any entity or transfer any asset with the intention of hiding it from Candi.” The court found that “the transactions Candi complains of were consistent with Guy’s historical practice of transferring assets from one entity to another or from one form into another” and that those actions fell within the Stipulation’s condition permitting Guy “to conduct the business hereinabove identified as he has in the past, which may include incurring debt, paying expenses and acquiring assets.” The court also found that “[t]here is no indication that these transactions were out of the ordinary or done with the intent to hide assets.” 

¶9 In September 2014, Guy sought to modify the Stipulation, explaining that the parties’ last child had reached majority, that he had paid off the mortgage on Candi’s house, and that he had purchased Candi a new vehicle, thereby eliminating many of her expenses. Guy asked the court to modify its order to require him to pay Candi $20,000 per month rather than all her expenses without limit. Following a hearing in January 2015, the court ordered that Guy pay Candi $20,000 per month in temporary alimony. It also ordered that Candi “keep an accounting of how the money is spent if she desires more funds.” During the first month following the order, Candi exceeded the $20,000 budget and “she had to repay Guy for amounts she had previously spent as well as cancel planned travel with the children.” In April 2015, the court issued a written order in which it clarified that Guy should “reimburse” Candi “as to any payments beyond the $20,000” unless he could show it was “an inappropriate or excessive expense.” Candi never requested additional funds from Guy after the court issued the written April 2015 order. She claims this was because she elected to curtail her spending rather than ask Guy for extra money; she maintains that she did not believe he would comply with her requests and she did not want to incur more attorney fees to collect the money. During this period, Guy was spending approximately $60,000 per month. 

¶10 Guy represented that Candi continued to have access to the parties’ boats and planes, a cabin, free dining at the restaurants, and a country club and other exclusive resorts for which Guy continued to pay the membership fees. However, to use the planes and boats, Guy expected Candi to pay for the cost of the pilot, captain, and other expenses out of her $20,000 monthly funds. Candi did not do so because she understood the cost to be between $5,000 and $10,000 per trip. Candi also alleged that Guy refused a number of requests she made to use the parties’ shared assets. 

Procedural History of the Divorce 

¶11 The parties spent more than six years conducting discovery and other pretrial litigation before the matter finally came before the district court for an eight-day bench trial in February 2017. The court held a second four-day trial in May 2017 concerning Candi’s attempt to revoke the Trust. See infra ¶ 25. 

¶12 The court issued a Memorandum Decision, Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law in September 2017 (the 2017 Findings). Subsequently, Candi filed a Motion to Clarify, and both parties also filed Motions to Amend. The court issued an order addressing those motions in May 2018 (the May 2018 Order). In response to that order, both parties filed additional Motions to Amend, which the district court ruled on in a Memorandum Decision and Order in October 2018 (the October 2018 Order). The court then directed Guy to prepare supplemental findings of fact to incorporate the various rulings encapsulated in the May 2018 Order and the October 2018 Order. 

¶13 Following the October 2018 Order, Guy filed an Ex Parte Motion for Expedited Entry of Decree of Divorce. Guy pointed out that new federal tax law would change how alimony was taxed for any divorce decrees entered on or after January 1, 2019. Instead of alimony being taxable to the payee spouse and deductible to the payor spouse, alimony would become taxable to the payor and deductible to the payee. Since the trial had occurred and the 2017 Findings had been entered over a year before, “predicated on the application of the existing divorce laws,” Guy asserted that it would be inequitable to enter the divorce decree after December 31, 2018. Although the court indicated that it believed “both parties are to blame” for the delays in finalizing the decree, it ultimately did enter Supplemental Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law (the 2018 Supplemental Findings), as well as the Decree of Divorce, on December 31, 2018. 

¶14 The parties then filed a third set of cross-motions to amend the findings and conclusions, and the court held a hearing on those motions in early 2019. The court entered a Memorandum Decision and Order in May 2019, which it subsequently amended in June 2019 (the 2019 Order). The court directed Candi to prepare corrected Supplemental Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and a Supplemental Decree of Divorce. The court entered the Amended Supplemental Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law (the 2019 Supplemental Findings) and the Amended Decree of Divorce on October 30, 2019. 

Expert Valuation of Marital Property 

¶15 Both parties hired experts to value the various business entities. Three aspects of that valuation and the district court’s findings are relevant on appeal: notes receivable, WBC’s backlog, and WBC’s equipment. 

Notes Receivable 

¶16 The balance sheets for three of the entities owned by Guy included in their accounting of liabilities loans that they owed to Guy—Immobiliare II, Ltd. owed Guy $252,861; Five Diamond Hospitality, Inc. owed Guy $706,605; and FDFM owed Guy $100,000. These liabilities were considered in the court’s final calculation of these entities’ value. However, the notes receivable on these loans—which belonged to Guy—were not counted as marital assets. 

¶17 The court made no mention of the notes receivable in its 2017 Findings. Candi raised this matter in her Motion to Clarify. Candi asked the court to add the value of the notes receivable to the value of the estate. In response, Guy did not assert that the notes had been included but nevertheless resisted their inclusion as part of the marital estate, arguing that Candi had not made the “request at trial and did not enter evidence of where the funds remain and in which entities or whether the funds are being used for business purposes.” The court found that “[t]he parties agree that the Court did not consider the three notes receivable” but observed that “[n]either party points to the record regarding this issue.” The court did not adjust its valuation of the estate based on the notes. 

¶18 Subsequently, Candi filed her second motion to amend, in which she again raised the matter of the notes receivable, among other things. In the October 2018 Order, the court found that Candi “does not show that those notes were not considered in the company valuations” and that it had “already addressed her argument” in the previous order. Guy was then asked to prepare supplemental findings based on the court’s order, and that version of the findings stated that “all Notes Receivable were included in the valuation of the various marital entities by the parties’ experts.” 

WBC’s Backlog 

¶19 As of June 30, 2016, WBC had a backlog of work— construction contracts that had been signed but for which the work had yet to be completed—amounting to an estimated value of approximately $75 million. Guy testified that WBC’s profit margin on such projects was typically between 5% and 7%. Candi’s expert estimated the projected net profit on the backlog to be $3,441,733. Guy’s expert estimated that the projects would realize a gross profit of $4,676,347, but he also opined that the backlog ultimately had “no value” because “the backlog in its current state” was not sufficient to sustain the company and could therefore be expected to start “absorb[ing] cash flow.” Guy also testified that WBC had struggled to make a profit since the recession and had to lay off workers and use capital to continue operating. He testified that WBC had failed to get some large contracts it was hoping for and that its backlog was less than in past years. Another witness, who advises large companies on marketing and selling their businesses, testified that “marketability” and “valuation methodologies” are “all centered around current backlog.” He explained that “in a construction company, they’re only as good as the backlog in front of them.” 

¶20 The court found that “the value of the projected backlog profit is $4 million.” However, the court adopted Guy’s expert’s valuation of WBC, which had assigned the backlog no independent value. The parties addressed the inconsistency in their motions to amend. Candi asked the court to adjust the overall valuation of WBC upward by $4 million to reflect its finding that the backlog profit was worth $4 million. Guy asked the court to change its finding that the backlog was worth $4 million to conform to its adoption of his expert’s valuation of the company, which assigned the backlog no value. In its May 2018 Order, the court found that Guy’s expert had “testified the backlog had no value to a potential buyer, and the Court adopted his valuation of WBC.” It also found that the other witness had testified that “any potential purchaser would not purchase the company based on a backlog.” Finally, it found that “Candi did not provide counter-testimony to” the “statements of no value in the backlog.” Accordingly, it concluded that “[t]he evidence supports that the backlog has no value in the valuation of the company” and amended its decision to state that “the backlog has no value.” These amended findings were incorporated into the 2018 Supplemental Findings. 

WBC’s Equipment 

¶21 Both parties hired experts to assess the value of WBC’s equipment. Guy’s expert had worked in the construction industry for twenty-five years and had been an appraiser for Ritchie Brothers Auctioneers for four years. To value the equipment, the expert used “internal standards that [Ritchie Brothers] has developed over time and experience” based on “historical auctions, personal experiences of appraisers, and knowledge of the world’s economic conditions.” Guy’s expert testified that Ritchie Brothers’ “business is derived primarily from stable operators exchanging equipment and updating equipment inventories in the normal course of business,” rather than wholesalers trying to resell and make additional profit, and that “80 percent of [their] sales . . . represent fair market value.” Guy’s expert and his team “personally inspected nearly all the pieces of equipment at issue”; “[t]hey turned on the machines, checked the miles and hours and verified the [vehicle identification numbers].” They appraised 569 items and estimated that “the entire package of equipment . . . would sell at unreserved public auction in the range of $13,890,300.” 

¶22 Candi’s expert is a member of the American Society of Appraisers and is an Accredited Senior Appraiser. He conducts appraisals based on the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP). He testified that “he evaluated the equipment at the fair market value of a ‘going concern’ business” and that he believed using “auction values” was more appropriate for a business that was trying to liquidate its inventory. Candi’s expert received a list of approximately 400 pieces of equipment with the make, model, description, and serial number. He “did not closely inspect each piece of equipment,” “did not start any of the equipment, did not look at the mileage or hours logged, and did not consider the condition of each piece.” He “took photos of the equipment and researched the values by contacting manufacturers, contractors, and dealers; consulting other sales [online]; and considering his prior appraisals and experience.” Ultimately, Candi’s expert valued the equipment at $22,499,255. 

¶23 The court found that the method used by Guy’s expert was “more accurate” and that his team was “more thorough in assessing the individual pieces of equipment.” The court rejected Candi’s assertion that selling equipment at “an auction house has the same connotation as a fire sale,” relying on the expert’s testimony that end users regularly buy heavy construction equipment at auction. It therefore adopted Guy’s expert’s $13,890,300 valuation of the equipment. 

Dissipation 

¶24 Candi argued to the district court that Guy had dissipated marital assets in anticipation of divorce, including spending money on his girlfriend; purchasing the yacht, a jet, and a wine collection; paying attorney fees for the Trust; and transferring money out of the estate into the Trust. Except as to $814,000 Guy spent on his girlfriend, for which it compensated Candi out of the marital estate, the court found that “Guy did not dissipate marital assets.” Although the court found that the legal fees spent on the Trust were not dissipation, it nevertheless allocated half of that value to Candi as part of the marital estate. As to the purchase of the yacht, jet, and wine, the court reasoned that Guy did not dissipate assets by purchasing these items because the items were still in the marital estate, and Candi was awarded half their value. The court also found that “[i]t was Guy’s historical practice to buy planes and boats” and that “[s]ome depreciation of” such assets “is to be expected.” The court rejected Candi’s argument that purchasing a depreciating asset should, as a rule, be considered dissipation. However, the court assigned the negative value on the yacht entirely to Guy, reasoning that he “unilaterally purchased this boat” and limited Candi’s access. 

¶25 The parties engaged in extensive litigation regarding the Trust, even going through a separate trial to address the validity of the transfers and to consider Candi’s attempt to revoke the Trust. However, the court ultimately determined that “the Trust was validly created,” that the parties intended for it to be irrevocable, that the creation and funding of the Trust was “in line with the parties’ history of gifting assets to the children as part of their wealth management and estate planning strategy,” that “there is no evidence that Guy was motivated by a desire to divest Candi of marital assets,” and that the transfers were completed before Candi filed for divorce so that the Trust property was not part of the marital estate or subject to division. Accordingly, the court rejected Candi’s argument that Guy’s transfer of assets into the Trust constituted dissipation. 

¶26 Candi also took issue with Guy’s investment in FDFM, an entity “created to develop land in [North] Dakota when the oil rush was booming.” Although Guy’s interest in FDFM by the time of trial was worth only $734,000, he had invested $1,129,000 into it. Candi asserted that the higher value should be used because Guy did not disclose the investment to her. The district court rejected this argument, explaining that Guy “never consulted with Candi on any business decisions that he made” throughout the marriage, so making business decisions without disclosing them to her was “well within the scope of his historical practices.” 

¶27 Candi also complained that Guy had used marital funds to pay his attorney fees and that his spending on fees had not been credited to the marital estate. In examining the funds each party had already received, the court recognized that Candi had received $1,277,500 in marital funds to pay her attorney and expert fees and costs. The court also estimated, based on Guy’s testimony, that Guy had spent approximately $800,000 in attorney and expert fees and costs. The court equalized these amounts in calculating the value of the marital estate. 

Division of the Estate and Equalization Payment 

¶28 The district court found that the total value of the marital estate was $43,886,329.85 and that each party should receive half of that value ($21,943,164.93). The court awarded Candi various liquid assets, real property, vehicles, retirement plans, investments, and other property totaling just over $4.7 million. It awarded the remainder of the marital property, including all interest in the parties’ various businesses, to Guy and ordered Guy to pay Candi $17,238,018.02 to compensate her for the value of her portion of the estate. The court explained that “because of the overlapping entities and the numerous assets placed in various entities, it would be more appropriate to award Candi a sum of money constituting her share of the marital estate.” The court found that “shared ownership of the companies” was not an option because “Candi does not have the business acumen necessary to know how to run these companies” and that it would be “a bad idea” for the parties to continue their relationship by operating the companies together, “especially given Candi’s distrust of Guy.” It also found that “[a] forced sale of marital business assets is not in the best interest of either party” because both parties benefit from “Guy’s continued work for WBC and other businesses.” 

¶29 Although Candi had argued to the district court that she should be given ownership of the two restaurants to help offset the portion of the estate owed to her, the court rejected that request because it found that “her limited business experience would not help her in increasing the value of the business.” In its May 2018 Order, the court further explained its refusal to award the restaurants to Candi by observing that the restaurants had only just begun to be profitable due to Guy’s careful management and that the restaurants were partially owned by a third party. 

¶30 In the initial 2017 Findings, the court did not outline a method for Candi to receive her share of the marital estate. Candi proposed several options, including appointing a special master to oversee the distribution, transferring some of the assets to her directly, sharing ownership of the companies, or forcing a sale of some of the assets. The court rejected each of these proposals. Instead, in the 2018 Supplemental Findings, the court ordered Guy to pay the amount owed to Candi “in such equal monthly installments as he shall determine.” Any remaining amount was to be paid in a balloon payment five years from the date of the entry of the Decree of Divorce, which made the final payment to Candi due December 31, 2023. The court also ordered that Guy pay 10% annual interest on the amount owed to Candi. Although Guy contested the high interest rate, the court justified it because the court had given him “substantial leeway in setting the payment schedule over the next five years.” Because Guy would have “exclusive and full access to the marital assets,” the court reasoned that the high interest rate would give him a necessary incentive to make the payments more quickly. 

¶31 In subsequent motions, the parties continued to dispute the court’s equalization order. Thus, in its 2019 Supplemental Findings, the court again modified the payment schedule. Guy was to pay Candi (1) $30,000 per month, to be applied first toward interest; (2) $500,000 per year, to be applied first toward interest; and (3) a balloon payment of the outstanding principal and interest by December 31, 2024.2 The court also modified the interest rate to 5% per year. The court explained that the 10% interest rate “was appropriate” when the court had “deferred to Guy to come up with an appropriate payment plan” but that it was excessive once the court “determined the payment plan.” Instead, the court set the interest rate at 5% and explained that rate was intended “to provide Guy with an incentive to pay the Equalizing Balance quickly.” 

¶32 After the court issued its ruling, Candi filed a motion asking the court to secure her unpaid share of the marital estate. She explained that security was necessary to “protect her from dissipation, economic uncertainties, or Guy’s death.” She also asked for an injunction ordering Guy “not to alienate, waste, dissipate, or diminish his share, ownership interest, or the value of the entities” without “Candi’s express, prior, written permission.” Candi proposed several methods for securing her interest, including attaching a UCC-1 lien to the assets of WBC or other marital entities or imposing other “conditions and covenants” on Guy and WBC. But she also explained that “there are a lot of different ways” to give her an effective security interest, including placing a lien on the restaurants, WBC’s equipment, or Guy’s interest in the businesses. 

¶33 The court refused to grant Candi any security, reasoning that it could not award a lien against the businesses because “[t]he businesses were not parties to this suit,” that the equalization payments were not subject to the Uniform Commercial Code because the division of the marital estate is not a commercial transaction, and that Guy was unable to obtain adequate life insurance to secure her interest due to his age and health. The court did not provide any further rationale for its determination that no security was warranted or explain why other options for securing Candi’s unpaid interest in the marital estate, such as a lien on Guy’s personal interest in the businesses, could not be employed. 

Alimony 

¶34 In its 2017 Findings, the district court found that Candi testified “she had more than $20,000 in reasonable monthly expenses.” However, the court found that Candi “could not testify as to specific details” and “did not prepare a financial declaration.” Nevertheless, the court examined standard financial declaration items, Guy’s financial declaration, a standard of living analysis of the parties’ pre-separation spending prepared by one of Candi’s experts, and Guy’s record of the expenses he paid on Candi’s behalf while the divorce was pending to reach a determination regarding Candi’s monthly need. The court included numerous categories of expenses in its needs calculation and determined Candi’s reasonable monthly expenses to be $27,693.90. However, the court did not include taxes in its assessment of Candi’s needs, because Candi “failed to provide evidence of her tax liability at trial.” The court imputed minimum wage income to Candi at $1,257 per month. The court subtracted the imputed income from Candi’s reasonable monthly expenses to determine that her monthly need is $26,436.90. 

¶35 The court found that Guy had a net income of $141,143 per month and reasonable monthly expenses of $50,138. Accordingly, it found that Guy easily had the ability to pay alimony in the amount of $26,436.90 per month to Candi. It ordered Guy to pay that amount of alimony for a length of time equal to the length of the marriage, effective as of the date of the 2017 Findings. Alimony was to terminate upon “the death of either party” or “remarriage or cohabitation by” Candi. The court also indicated that “Guy should provide a life insurance policy for Candi to cover alimony for a period of time sufficient to cover his obligation should he unexpectedly pass away.” 

¶36 While the parties’ various motions were pending following the entry of the 2017 Findings, Guy represented that he was unable to get life insurance due to a health condition and asked the court to remove that requirement. The court denied Guy’s request and found in the May 2018 Order, 

Although there was information regarding Guy’s health, there was no information whether or not he could or could not obtain a life insurance policy. The Court wants to ensure that Candi will receive the money awarded should he pass unexpectedly. The parties may also work toward a mutually agreeable solution that will protect Candi and her ability to receive said money. 

However, the 2018 Supplemental Findings, drafted by Guy, stated simply that “there was no information as to whether or not Guy could or could not obtain a life insurance policy for such purpose nor the cost thereof.” Candi urged the court to be more specific by making its life insurance order mandatory and requiring Guy to provide an alternative means of security if he could not get life insurance. However, the court declined to do so, stating that “[t]he Court’s ruling in the [May 2018 Order] is sufficient.” 

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW 

¶37 On appeal, Candi argues (1) that the operative dates of the Decree of Divorce should be adjusted or, alternatively, that the balloon payment should be due on December 31, 2023; (2) that she received unequal access to the marital estate while the divorce was pending and should be compensated for the inequality; (3) that the court erred in its valuation of the marital estate, namely, by failing to take into account the value of the notes receivable, undervaluing WBC’s backlog and equipment, and not crediting the estate for Guy’s alleged dissipation of assets; (4) that the court erred in setting the terms of the marital estate division and refusing to grant her a security; (5) that the court should have included her tax burden in its calculation of her need for alimony purposes and required Guy to secure his alimony obligation with life insurance or by some other means; and (6) that the court exceeded its discretion by not holding Guy in contempt for violating the Stipulation. 

¶38 For his part, Guy argues, on cross-appeal, (1) that the court set too high an interest rate on the balloon payment, (2) that the court should have required Candi to share in transaction costs that may be incurred if and when Guy liquidates assets to make the balloon payment, and (3) that the court should not have awarded any alimony to Candi at all. 

¶39 The court’s valuation of the marital property, the manner in which it distributed that property, and its alimony determination are all subject to the same standard of review. “In divorce actions, a district court is permitted considerable discretion in adjusting the financial and property interests of the parties, and its actions are entitled to a presumption of validity.” Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 18, 452 P.3d 1134 (quotation simplified). “We can properly find abuse [of the district court’s discretion] only if no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the [district] court.” Goggin v. Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶ 26, 299 P.3d 1079 (quotation simplified). 

Accordingly, we will reverse only if (1) there was a misunderstanding or misapplication of the law resulting in substantial and prejudicial error; (2) the factual findings upon which the award was based are clearly erroneous; or (3) the party challenging the award shows that such a serious inequity has resulted as to manifest a clear abuse of discretion. 

Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 18 (quotation simplified). 

¶40 The court’s decision whether to hold Guy in contempt is also entitled to deference. “The decision to hold a party in contempt of court rests within the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be disturbed on appeal unless the trial court’s action is so unreasonable as to be classified as capricious and arbitrary, or a clear abuse of discretion.” Barton v. Barton, 2001 UT App 199, ¶ 9, 29 P.3d 13 (quotation simplified). 

ANALYSIS 

  1. Operative Dates

¶41 Candi first argues that the court should make the entire divorce decree effective on October 30, 2019, rather than December 31, 2018, since that was the date the court entered the final Amended Decree of Divorce. Alternatively, she asserts that the balloon payment should be due on December 31, 2023, consistent with the terms of the initial Decree of Divorce. However, Candi has not presented us with any substantive arguments in support of this contention. Her argument is essentially that it was unfair to put the Decree of Divorce into effect before the tax laws changed and yet delay the equalization payments until after the Amended Decree of Divorce was entered because both results “favored Guy.” But the fact that a ruling favors one party or the other does not, by itself, make that ruling an abuse of the court’s discretion. In fact, we cannot see any meaningful link between these two rulings—one concerns the effective date of the entire Decree, whereas one concerns the commencement of the payment plan. 

¶42 Moreover, the district court had good reason for both decisions. As Guy pointed out in his Ex Parte Motion for Expedited Entry of Decree of Divorce, “[t]he trial of this matter, and the evidence submitted at trial and considered by the Court, were all predicated on the application of the existing divorce laws.” Thus, entering the Decree of Divorce after the first of the year would have, no doubt, spurred even more objections and additional hearings regarding alimony. Entering the Decree before the law changed was consistent with the parties’ expectations throughout the divorce proceedings. 

¶43 With respect to the equalization payments, the court’s 2019 Supplemental Findings were drastically different from its 2018 Supplemental Findings. The 2018 Supplemental Findings left the equalization payment schedule in Guy’s hands, whereas the 2019 Supplemental Findings required him to pay a specified monthly amount. Leaving the effective date for those payments on December 31, 2023, as outlined in the 2018 Supplemental Findings, would have required Guy to come up with the entire first year’s payments all at once, as he was not required to make monthly or yearly payments under the 2018 Supplemental Findings. The court found it appropriate for the equalization payments to commence at the same time it issued its 2019 Supplemental Findings because it could not “determine who has delayed the payment plan” and it “believe[d] that both parties share the responsibility for the delay in this matter.” Candi has not demonstrated that this was an abuse of the district court’s discretion. 

  1. Access to Marital Estate

¶44 Candi next asserts that the district court should have compensated her for “inequities [that] resulted from Guy’s use of the marital estate” while the divorce was pending. Candi raises three arguments concerning the allegedly unequal access to the marital estate: (1) that Guy was ordered to pay her only $20,000 per month in temporary alimony while he continued to spend around $60,000 per month, (2) that she did not have equal access to the parties’ tangible assets and funds while the divorce was pending, and (3) that Guy spent more on attorney fees out of the marital estate than the $800,000 found by the district court. 

  1. Monthly Spending

¶45 First, Candi contends that it was unfair for the district court to grant her only $20,000 in temporary alimony while Guy had an income of more than $141,000 per month and was spending over $60,000 per month. 

¶46 “Prior to the entry of a divorce decree, all property acquired by parties to a marriage is marital property, owned equally by each party.” Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 126, 459 P.3d 276; accord Brown v. Brown, 2020 UT App 146, ¶ 23, 476 P.3d 554. “For this reason, it is improper to allow one spouse access to marital funds to pay for reasonable and ordinary living expenses while the divorce is pending, while denying the other spouse the same access.” Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 126. 

¶47 But this principle does not require that the parties account for every dollar spent out of the marital funds and reimburse one another for any disparity. Rather, it requires that each party have equal access to use marital funds and assets “to pay for reasonable and ordinary living expenses while the divorce is pending.” Id. For this reason, Dahl and Brown are distinguishable from the case at hand. In Dahl, the district court had ordered the wife to repay $162,000 she had received from the husband to pay for her living expenses while the divorce was pending without requiring the husband to repay the marital funds he spent during that time. Id. ¶ 125. The supreme court held that this was an abuse of discretion because it “had the effect of allowing one spouse to use marital funds to pay for living expenses during the pendency of the divorce, while denying such use to the other spouse.” Id. ¶ 129. In Brown, the district court ordered the husband to pay for the wife’s “expenses insofar as they exceeded the income she earned plus amounts [he] advanced while the divorce was pending.” Brown, 2020 UT App 146, ¶ 24. This court found that order to be appropriate because it gave the wife “the benefit of the marital estate to help cover [her] living expenses . . . up until the divorce decree was entered.” Id. ¶¶ 27– 28. 

¶48 Here, the district court ordered Guy to “reimburse” Candi for reasonable monthly expenses “beyond $20,000” unless they were “inappropriate or excessive.” And although Candi indicated that she voluntarily curtailed her spending to avoid fighting for reimbursement, she did not present any evidence that she incurred expenses in excess of the $20,000 Guy provided each month. Since the court ordered Guy to pay for reasonable expenses beyond $20,000, it established a mechanism for Candi to have continued access to the marital estate to pay for her living expenses. The fact that Candi found it too burdensome to request additional funds and was skeptical about Guy honoring her request does not mean she lacked meaningful access to the marital estate.3 And the fact that Guy spent more each month than Candi does not, by itself, indicate that Candi lacked equal access to marital funds while the divorce was pending. Access is not the same as use. And we are aware of no principle requiring that district courts equalize the parties’ use of marital assets during the pendency of a divorce as opposed to reimbursing a party for expenses they incurred as a result of unequal access. 

  1. Tangible Assets

¶49 Our analysis of Candi’s challenge to the unequal use of the parties’ tangible assets is similar to our analysis of her unequal use of funds: she has not demonstrated that she had unequal access to the assets, as opposed to unequal use. It was certainly easier for Guy to use the assets, since they were in his control. And it is undisputed that Guy told Candi she would have to pay the expensive costs associated with using the planes and boats. However, Candi never attempted to use the yacht or plane due to her concerns regarding the expense. Had she done so, she could have requested that Guy reimburse her for these costs in accordance with the court’s temporary alimony award. Since Guy was using the marital assets to pay for the costs of the yacht and plane in addition to meeting his monthly needs, such a request would not have been “inappropriate or excessive.” It is unfortunate that Candi was deterred from taking advantage of this option by the conditions Guy placed on the use of these assets. However, since she did not actually incur the expenses or seek reimbursement for extra expenses from Guy, Candi does not persuade us that the district court should have ordered an increase in her alimony or awarded her more of the marital estate under Dahl or Brown to make up for the disparity in access to the tangible assets. C. Attorney Fees  

¶50 Candi next contends that the district court improperly assessed the attorney fees Guy paid out of the marital estate at only $800,000. This number was taken from Guy’s testimony at trial that he had paid between $700,000 and $800,000 in attorney fees at that point. Candi argues that this estimate was made before Guy paid for the twelve days of trial and post-trial litigation and that “[t]he court should have ordered Guy to disclose all his attorney fees and attributed the full amount to his side.”  

¶51 However, although the Decree of Divorce did not go into effect until the end of 2018, the court valued the parties’ marital estate based on the information before it at trial in 2017. Because this was the “snapshot in time,” see Marroquin v. Marroquin, 2019 UT App 38, ¶ 24, 440 P.3d 757, on which the valuation of the marital estate was based, spending that occurred after that date could not have reduced the overall value of the estate. This means that any funds Guy expended on attorney fees following trial were necessarily post-division expenses. Even assuming that Guy spent more than $800,000 on attorney fees in total— which he likely did, given that the $800,000 accounted only for what he had incurred as of trial—that does not necessarily mean that he paid for those fees out of the marital estate as it existed at the time of trial. He was obligated to pay Candi her share of the estate’s value calculated based on the value proven at trial, regardless of any later spending.  

III. Valuation of the Marital Estate ¶52 Candi argues that the district court made several errors in assessing the overall value of the marital estate. Specifically, she asserts that it failed to account for the value of the notes receivable and that it used the wrong method to assess the value of WBC’s backlog and equipment. She also asserts that Guy dissipated assets and that the estate should have been credited for the dissipation. 

  1. Notes Receivable

¶53 The account ledgers for three of the parties’ entities included line items for loans owed to Guy, totaling $1,059,466. The district court deducted these amounts from the value of those entities in calculating the overall value of the marital estate. However, the notes receivable, owed to Guy, were not counted as an asset of the marital estate. When Candi brought the matter to the court’s attention, it found that “[t]he parties agree that the Court did not consider the three notes receivable” but rejected Candi’s argument on the ground that “[n]either party points to the record regarding this issue.” However, when the 2018 Supplemental Findings, drafted by Guy, addressed the matter, the court’s finding evolved to “all Notes Receivable were included in the valuation of the various marital entities by the parties’ experts.” 

¶54 Candi asserts that the court’s findings are clearly erroneous and that the court therefore erred in refusing to include the notes receivable in the valuation of the marital estate. We agree with Candi that the trial evidence memorializing the accounts payable to Guy constituted record evidence of Guy’s notes receivable with respect to those entities. Thus, the court erred in finding that Candi had not “point[ed] to the record regarding this issue.” Moreover, its finding in the 2018 Supplemental Findings that “all Notes Receivable were included in the valuation of the various marital entities by the parties’ experts” is not supported by the evidence.4 We are aware of nothing in the record indicating that any experts added the notes receivable to the valuation of the marital estate. 

¶55 It was unreasonable for the court to include the accounts payable in its calculation of the other entities’ liabilities without also crediting the notes receivable to Guy as an asset. The only evidence before the court concerning the notes receivable is that contained in the owing entities’ ledgers—that Guy was entitled to receive the funds. Thus, it is necessary for the district court to adjust the value of the marital estate to include the $1,059,466 owing to Guy from the other entities. 

  1. Backlog

¶56 Candi next asserts that the district court erred in assessing the value of WBC’s backlog. She asserts that because WBC is a “viable business,” the court should have recognized that it “has future work lined up and future work yet to come.” Specifically, Candi takes issue with two of the court’s findings relating to the backlog: (1) that “Candi did not provide counter-testimony to” Guy’s witnesses’ “statements of no value in the backlog” and (2) that one of Guy’s witness had “testified that any potential purchaser would not purchase the company based on a backlog.” 

¶57 Candi points to the testimony of her own expert that the backlog would generate a net profit of $3,441,733. She further argues that Guy’s expert’s assertion that the profit would be 

eaten up with administrative costs and capital expenditures relies on a misguided “assumption that WBC would obtain no new work.”5 She points out that such an assumption was faulty, as “WBC had only one negative year in the . . . five-and-a-half years” prior to trial. 

¶58 But Guy’s expert’s opinion that the backlog lacked value did not rely on the assumption that WBC would never get new work, as Candi asserts. Rather, it was based on his assessment that the backlog was not large enough to keep up with administrative expenses the company would need to incur, such as equipment costs, salaries, insurance, etc. Guy’s expert explained that in assessing the value of the backlog, he examined “the general and administrative expenses in the current environment that both a buyer and seller would look at when they’re examining whether or not this backlog has any value.” Based on this examination, he concluded that “the backlog in its current state would start to absorb cash flow from a negative performance during the next eleven months”—in other words, although WBC could expect to earn a gross profit from the backlog, it would have to dip into that profit to make up for its negative cash flow and would therefore not earn a net profit. This concept was further addressed by Guy in his testimony, where he explained that although WBC had a backlog, at the time of the evaluation it did not have as many contracts as it needed, had to lay off workers, and had to rely on capital to continue operating. 

¶59 While Candi’s expert testified that the backlog would generate a net profit of $3,441,733, he did not address the details about anticipated administrative costs or the state of the industry that Guy and his expert addressed in their testimonies, and this seems to be the absent “counter-testimony” to which the court was referring in its finding. Indeed, the court was clearly aware of and considered Candi’s expert’s testimony and valuation, as it included that information in its findings. But it nevertheless concluded that “Candi presented no other evidence or expert testimony in that industry regarding the backlog.” Thus, the court’s finding was not in error. And in any event, it was the court’s prerogative to credit the testimony of Guy’s expert over the testimony of Candi’s expert. See Henshaw v. Henshaw, 2012 UT App 56, ¶ 11, 271 P.3d 837 (“It is within the province of the trial court, as the finder of fact, to resolve issues of credibility.”); see also Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 4, 334 P.3d 994 (“Courts are not bound to accept the testimony of an expert and are free to judge the expert testimony as to its credibility and its persuasive influence in light of all of the other evidence in the case.” (quotation simplified)). 

¶60 As to the court’s finding regarding Guy’s witness’s testimony about a potential buyer, while that finding could have been more precise—the witness actually testified that a buyer cares only about a “sustainable backlog” and that a buyer would rely on “the backlog in front” of the company rather than its historic backlog—the imprecision ultimately does not convince us that the court relied on an erroneous assumption. The witness did not testify specifically regarding WBC’s backlog, and his actual statement ultimately supports the district court’s finding regarding the value of the backlog. If the court applied the principle stated by the witness—that only the backlog in front of WBC was relevant—to the testimony it relied on that the backlog would not generate a net profit, the testimony was not inconsistent with the court’s finding that the backlog lacked value. 

¶61 Ultimately, it was within the court’s discretion to accord each party’s expert testimony the weight it deemed proper. And the testimonial evidence presented by Guy and his expert and witness supports the court’s conclusion that the backlog lacked value. Even assuming that WBC was a viable company that would continue to generate contracts, the evidence supported a determination that its current contracts were not sufficient for the company to expect to generate a net profit. 

  1. Equipment

¶62 Next, Candi challenges the district court’s valuation of WBC’s equipment. Her argument rests primarily on her assertion that the court erroneously used “liquidation value” to calculate the value of the equipment rather than valuing WBC as a “going concern.”6  

¶63 First, we agree with Guy that Utah law does not support Candi’s contention that the court was required to evaluate WBC as a going concern. In fact, our case law is clear that courts have broad discretion in determining the proper method for calculating the value of marital property. See DeAvila v. DeAvila, 2017 UT App 146, ¶ 12, 402 P.3d 184 (“District courts generally have considerable discretion concerning property distribution and valuation in a divorce proceeding and their determinations enjoy a presumption of validity.” (quotation simplified)); cf. Griffith v. Griffith, 1999 UT 78, ¶ 19, 985 P.2d 255 (“[T]rial courts have broad discretion in selecting an appropriate method of assessing a spouse’s income and will not be overturned absent an abuse of discretion.”). Moreover, courts may even reject all valuation methods presented by experts and elect to simply split the difference between multiple appraisals. See Newmeyer v. Newmeyer, 745 P.2d 1276, 1278–79 (Utah 1987) (upholding a court’s decision to fix the value of a marital home by splitting the difference between the values presented by two experts); Andrus v. Andrus, 2007 UT App 291, ¶¶ 12–13, 169 P.3d 754 (upholding a district court’s decision to average the value of stock on nine different relevant dates to reach the fair value of stock in the marital estate); Barber v. Barber, No. 961783-CA, 1998 WL 1758305, at *1 & n.1 (Utah Ct. App. Oct. 8, 1998) (holding that the district court acted within its discretion when it valuated a business by averaging four appraisals provided by expert witnesses). 

¶64 Generally, we will uphold a district court’s valuation of marital assets as long as 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.” Morgan v. Morgan, 795 P.2d 684, 691–92 (Utah Ct. App. 1990) (quotation simplified); see also Weston v. Weston, 773 P.2d 408, 410 (Utah Ct. App. 1989) (upholding a court’s election not to apply a marketability discount to the value of stock in a closely held corporation, despite several experts recommending that such a discount be applied, because the value the court found was “within the range of values established by all the testimony”).7  

¶65 Thus, even assuming that Guy’s expert’s valuation was “liquidation value,” it would have been within the court’s discretion to use that valuation, which was “within the range of values established by all the testimony,” so long as the court adequately supported its decision with factual findings explaining its decision. See Morgan, 795 P.2d at 691–92. Here, not only did the court support its determination with detailed factual findings, but those factual findings make clear that it considered the auction value to represent the fair market value of the equipment, not the liquidation value. 

¶66 In accepting Guy’s expert’s valuation over that of Candi’s expert, the court explained that Guy’s expert was more thorough because he examined each individual piece of equipment and took into account its condition, mileage, and hours. Additionally, the court found it relevant that 80% of Ritchie Brothers’ “sales are directly to end users” and credited the expert’s testimony that their appraisal was based on fair market value, specifically rejecting Candi’s assertion that auction value was equivalent to the value in a “fire sale.” The court also pointed out that even Candi’s expert had used some sales data from auction houses to assess values. Based on this evidence, the court found that “[t]here is no indication that [Guy’s expert’s] evaluation does not reflect the actual marketplace price the parties could expect to receive upon sale” and adopted the $13,890,300 value provided by Guy’s expert. We will not disturb the court’s well-supported decision on this issue.8  

  1. Dissipation

¶67 Candi next contends that “Guy dissipated assets at a time he understood that divorce was likely” and that the district court should have included the value of additional allegedly dissipated assets—over and above the money Guy spent on his girlfriend, which the court considered dissipation and accounted for as such—in its valuation of the marital estate. 

¶68 “Where one party has dissipated an asset, hidden its value or otherwise acted obstructively, the trial court may, in the exercise of its equitable powers, value a marital asset at some time other than the time the decree is entered . . . .” Goggin v. Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶ 49, 299 P.3d 1079 (quotation simplified). In other words, “when a court finds that a spouse has dissipated marital assets, the court should calculate the value of the marital property as though the assets remained” and give “the other spouse . . . a credit for his or her share of the assets that were dissipated.” Id. 

¶69 A number of factors may be relevant to this inquiry, including 

(1) how the money was spent, including whether funds were used to pay legitimate marital expenses or individual expenses; (2) the parties’ historical practices; (3) the magnitude of any depletion; (4) the timing of the challenged actions in relation to the separation and divorce; and (5) any obstructive efforts that hinder the valuation of the assets. 

Marroquin v. Marroquin, 2019 UT App 38, ¶ 33, 440 P.3d 757 (quotation simplified). Candi’s dissipation argument concerns three transactions: (1) Guy’s purchase of the yacht, (2) Guy’s investment in FDFM, and (3) Guy’s transfer of assets into the Trust. 

  1. Yacht

¶70 Candi first argues that the district court erred in concluding that the purchase of the yacht was not dissipation. Candi asserts that although the yacht itself remained in the estate, its rapid depreciation meant that it was “cash going out the door for no benefit.” She also argues that because Guy used the yacht and she did not, any benefit from the use of the yacht was individual to Guy rather than to the marital estate. 

¶71 Candi acknowledges that Utah law has not held that the purchase of a depreciating asset constitutes dissipation. But she nevertheless urges us to adopt such a rule, relying on case law from Illinois. However, even if we were inclined to find these cases persuasive, most of them appear to be distinguishable from the case at hand. For example, in In re Marriage of Thomas, 608 N.E.2d 585 (Ill. App. Ct. 1993), the court held that the devaluation of the parties’ business constituted dissipation not simply because it had decreased in value but because the husband had directly undermined the business through “inattention” and “his failure to solicit additional clients or through his outright stealing of clients for his new business.” Id. at 587. In In re Marriage of Schneeweis, 2016 IL App (2d) 140147, 55 N.E.3d 1280, the court upheld a finding of dissipation where the husband had begun making “secretive, risky and progressively more destructive” financial decisions that were “inconsistent with the parties’ prior practices.” Id. ¶ 28 (internal quotation marks omitted). And in In re Marriage of Block, 441 N.E.2d 1283 (Ill. App. Ct. 1982), where the husband had purchased a racing boat that was financially under water, the court held that it could be considered “a debt in dissipation” but clarified that “there would be no net effect on the marital estate” if “the value of the boat is approximately the same as the amount of indebtedness.” Id. at 1288–89.9  

¶72 Here, the court found that the purchase of the yacht was consistent with “Guy’s historical practice” of buying “planes and boats” and that there was no evidence “that Guy caused excessive diminution in value.” Additionally, the court assigned to Guy all responsibility for the outstanding debt on the yacht, so any “debt in dissipation” caused by the yacht’s purchase was resolved, see id. at 1288. While the yacht was used primarily by Guy, he did make it available to Candi, and he never transferred it out of the marital estate. We agree with Guy that the depreciated value of the yacht, alone, does not mandate a finding of dissipation, particularly where its purchase was consistent with purchases made during the marriage and there is no indication that Guy’s actions contributed to the depreciation.10  

  1. North Dakota Investment

¶73 Candi next claims that the district court should have valued FDFM based on the $1,129,000 Guy invested in it rather than its $734,000 value at the time of trial. She asserts that “had Guy not unilaterally made that poor investment, more money would have remained in the estate.” According to Candi, because Guy did not consult her regarding the investment, he “acted obstructively” and should therefore be held accountable for the diminished value of the asset. See Goggin v. Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶ 49, 299 P.3d 1079 (quotation simplified). 

¶76 While we agree with Candi that the court could have compensated her for the marital assets put into the Trust had it found dissipation, we do not agree that the court exceeded its discretion in finding that the transfers did not constitute dissipation. The court found that the transfers did not amount to dissipation because Candi had participated in creating the Trust, even though it had not initially been funded; transferring assets to their children was consistent with the parties’ practices during the marriage, beginning as early as 1993; and Candi had deferred to Guy to “run the parties’ finances and estate” throughout the marriage. The court found “no evidence that Guy attempted to withhold information or cut Candi out from the estate planning process.” And while the timing of the transfers could provide circumstantial evidence of dissipation, the parties’ historical practices and the lack of additional evidence suggesting obstructive intent on Guy’s part support the court’s determination that the transfers were not dissipation. 

  1. Division of the Estate and Equalization Payments

¶77 The parties raise various challenges to the district court’s division of the estate and its order regarding the equalization payments. First, Candi asserts that the court erred by not awarding her a greater share of the marital estate directly. Second, she argues that the court erred by refusing to grant her security to help ensure that she actually receives her unpaid share of the estate. Third, both parties challenge the 5% interest rate set by the district court. Finally, Guy argues that the court should have ordered Candi to share in any transaction costs that may be incurred should he be required to liquidate assets to make the equalization payment. 

  1. Estate Division

¶78 Candi argues that the district court abused its discretion by—at least temporarily—awarding Guy the bulk of the estate and giving him five years to pay Candi her share. She argues that instead, the court should have done one or more of the following: (1) ordered Guy to pay Candi her share immediately; 

awarded her a greater share of cash and retirement accounts; 

awarded her the restaurants; (4) ordered Guy to liquidate investments, yachts, planes or spare equipment to pay Candi more cash up front; or (5) ordered larger annual payments in implementing the equalization payment schedule. 

¶79 “When the district court assigns a value to an item of marital property, the court must equitably distribute it with a view toward allowing each party to go forward with his or her separate life.” Marroquin v. Marroquin, 2019 UT App 38, ¶ 27, 440 P.3d 757 (quotation simplified). In situations where the marital estate consists primarily of a single large asset, such as a business or stock, a common acceptable approach for the court to take is to award the asset to one party and make a cash award to the other party. See Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶ 56, 379 P.3d 890; Argyle v. Argyle, 688 P.2d 468, 471 (Utah 1984). This avoids the necessity for the parties “to be in a close economic relationship which has every potential for further contention, friction, and litigation.” Argyle, 688 P.2d at 471 (quotation simplified). 

¶80 In fashioning this type of marital property division, “a court has the ability to make equitable provisions for deferred compensation”—the keyword being “equitable.” Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶ 60. One way to assess the equitability of the provisions is to examine whether the award affords one party “significantly more latitude to go forward with his [or her] separate life” than the other. Id. ¶ 61 (quotation simplified). It is also relevant whether the party required to pay the deferred compensation will be able to use the property to their unfair advantage at the expense of the person to whom the compensation is owed. Id. ¶¶ 59–60. 

¶81 We agree with Guy that the specific division scheme selected by the district court—Guy receiving, on a temporary basis, a larger share of the estate, but with the obligation to make equalization payments to Candi—is not inequitable, so long as adequate security for the unpaid equalization payments is included. See infra Part IV.B. While the court may have been within its discretion to employ one or more of the other methods recommended by Candi, its numerous factual findings support its ultimate determination, and the deferred payment provisions, coupled with security, are sufficiently equitable to fall within its discretion.11  

¶82 Candi asserts that the court’s distribution of marital assets and its use of the equalization payment plan impermissibly gives Guy disproportionate access to the estate. She compares the facts of this case to those in Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, 379 P.3d 890, in which this court determined that a deferred payment plan that gave the husband discretion to dictate the amount of monthly installments over ten years at a 2.13% interest rate was not equitable. See id. ¶¶ 59–60. Candi argues that just like in Taft, “the overall dynamics of the court’s award more readily allow [Guy], with his immediate ability to use and enjoy the property awarded to him[,] . . . significantly more latitude to go forward with his separate life than [Candi] is afforded.” See id. ¶ 61 (quotation simplified). 

¶83 But Taft is distinguishable from the case at hand. First, the husband in Taft was permitted to decide the amount of the monthly payments to his ex-wife over the course of ten years between the time of the divorce decree and the time the balloon payment was due. See id. ¶ 59. His discretion was so absolute that the court observed he “could conceivably make . . . equal monthly payments of $1 for nine years and eleven months before making the final balloon payment . . . , thereby forcing [his wife] to wait ten years before realizing any real benefit from her property award.” Id. Here, on the other hand, the district court set the terms of the payment plan, ultimately requiring Guy to pay Candi $30,000 per month plus an additional $500,000 per year. Although the court certainly could have ordered Guy to pay more, we are not convinced that the amount ordered was so inequitable as to fall outside the bounds of the court’s discretion. Unlike the wife in Taft, Candi will not have to wait until the balloon payment is due to realize any benefit from her property award. Rather, she will receive $860,000 each year in addition to the $4.7 million she has already received. While this leaves Guy in control of a substantial portion of Candi’s property, she is at least able to benefit from her property award in the meantime. 

¶84 Second, the interest applied to the property distribution in Taft was only 2.13%, an amount this court observed “provides very little incentive for [the husband] to substantially pay it prior to the expiration of the ten-year period, much less for him to pay [the wife] sizeable monthly installments.” Id. ¶ 60. In fact, the low interest rate “would almost certainly allow [the husband] to invest [the wife’s] money elsewhere and reap the benefit of any additional increment of interest—a benefit that in fairness should accrue to [the wife].” Id. In this case, on the other hand, the district court applied a 5% interest rate, which it acknowledged was higher than the statutory postjudgment interest rate, to incentivize Guy to pay Candi sooner. See supra ¶ 31; see also infra Part IV.C. By setting interest at a rate calculated to discourage any delays in paying Candi, the court avoided the type of inequitable deferred payment plan at issue in Taft. 

¶85 We acknowledge that granting Guy a five-year period in which to continue using the bulk of Candi’s property award to grow his business does afford him a benefit that may, to some degree, come at Candi’s expense. But we are convinced that it is not inequitable in light of the entire landscape of the marital estate and property division. First, the size of the parties’ estate and the fact that the bulk of it is wrapped up in WBC means that gathering the liquid funds to pay Candi’s property award is not something that can be accomplished overnight, at least not without substantially decreasing the overall value of the marital estate. Thus, it was reasonable for the court to allow Guy some period of time to gather the funds necessary to pay Candi. Second, this time period may allow Guy to keep his larger businesses intact and find other ways to pay Candi. Keeping the businesses intact will ultimately benefit both parties, as it will allow Guy to maintain his income and continue paying alimony to Candi. Finally, we take Guy’s point that he may incur substantial transaction costs if he ultimately does need to liquidate assets to pay Candi. See infra Part IV.D. Thus, it seems to us that the hypothetical benefit Guy may incur by using Candi’s share of the property to increase the value of the estate will be offset by the hypothetical detriment he could incur if he has to liquidate the assets. Since the court did not order Candi to share in any of these transaction costs, the court’s decision to give Guy the use of Candi’s portion of the property during the five-year forbearance period does not strike us as inequitable, at least so long as adequate security is afforded to Candi.12  

  1. Security

¶86 And this brings us to Candi’s next argument: that the district court abused its discretion by imposing this specific deferred-payment arrangement without requiring Guy to provide adequate security. Candi asserts that the court’s arrangement put her in the position—involuntarily—of an unsecured creditor and posits that no lender would agree to make a $15 million loan without some sort of security interest. Without any type of security, Candi argues, she stands to lose her ability to collect her share of the marital estate in the event Guy passes away before the balloon payment is due or he moves his assets into irrevocable trusts. We agree with Candi and emphasize that the district court’s chosen arrangement passes discretionary muster only if it comes accompanied by an adequate security mechanism. 

¶87 The court’s only justification for declining to grant Candi any type of security was its determination that it could not award a lien against the businesses, that the Uniform Commercial Code did not apply, and that life insurance was not an option due to Guy’s health. But the court did not explain why these limitations prevented it from granting Candi any type of security. Candi’s request was broad: she asserted that “there needs to be some kind of order or security or lien or whatever form it takes . . . that will ensure that those former marital assets are there at the time that . . . the balloon payment needs to be made.” “So all we’re asking for is some kind of order to ensure that there’s going to be payment down the road.” 

¶88 Guy maintains that no security is necessary because he has shown himself to be reliable in making payments and does not have a history of hiding assets. But we agree with Candi that, regardless of Guy’s history, character, or intentions, she should not be required to rely solely on Guy’s continued health and goodwill to ensure her ability to collect what she is owed. Whether Candi’s mistrust of Guy is warranted or not, it was unreasonable for the court not to grant her any type of security in her half of the marital estate. 

¶89 Moreover, Candi has even greater cause for concern in light of Guy’s age and poor health. In fact, Guy expressed concern that he might pass away before the divorce decree was finalized and relied on that possibility to argue that the divorce action should be bifurcated. Should Guy pass away before the balloon payment is due, Candi would no longer have even the benefit of Guy’s goodwill. Instead, she would have to further litigate with his heirs (including her own children) to fight for her share of the marital estate. It is hard to reconcile why the district court considered this to be an adequate legal remedy. Candi should not have to take her chances as an unsecured creditor should Guy pass away before she can receive her share of the marital estate. No reasonable creditor would agree to a forbearance on such terms, and it was therefore inequitable to impose such terms on Candi. 

¶90 Accordingly, we remand this case for the court to fashion an equitable security interest that will adequately protect Candi’s ability to collect her remaining share of the marital estate at the end of the five-year forbearance period. 

  1. Interest Rate

¶91 Both Guy and Candi take issue with the 5% interest rate the district court imposed on the equalization payments. Guy asserts that the interest rate should have been set at the statutory postjudgment interest rate, which was 4.58% at the time the court entered the 2019 Supplemental Findings. Candi argues that the court should have imposed the 10% interest rate originally set in its 2018 Supplemental Findings. We reject both parties’ arguments and affirm the district court’s imposition of the 5% interest rate. 

¶92 Guy asserts that the court was bound by the postjudgment interest rate established by section 15-1-4 of the Utah Code, which provides that “final civil . . . judgments of the district court . . . shall bear interest at the federal postjudgment interest rate as of January 1 of each year, plus 2%.” Utah Code Ann. § 15-1-4(3)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). Section 15-1-4 does apply to orders in a divorce case “in relation to the children, property and parties.” See Marchant v. Marchant, 743 P.2d 199, 207 (Utah Ct. App. 1987) (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(1) (1984) (current version at id. (LexisNexis Supp. 2021) (stating that the district court “may include in the decree of divorce equitable orders relating to the children, property, debts or obligations, and parties”))). However, section 15-1-4 provides the “minimum interest allowable.” Id. (emphasis added). The statute “does not preclude a District Court, under [section 30-3-5] from imposing an interest rate of more than [the statutory postjudgment rate] where, under the circumstances, that award is reasonable and equitable.” Stroud v. Stroud, 738 P.2d 649, 650 (Utah Ct. App. 1987) (quoting Pope v. Pope, 589 P.2d 752, 754 (Utah 1978)). And, in fact, setting equalization payments at the postjudgment interest rate, rather than a higher rate, may be an abuse of discretion if doing so is inequitable under the circumstances. See Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶¶ 56, 60, 379 P.3d 890 (finding a 2.13% interest rate, which was the rate provided by Utah Code section 15-1-4 at the time, to be insufficient where the husband was granted discretion to determine the amount of payments over the course of ten years because it incentivized the husband to invest the wife’s money elsewhere rather than paying her sooner). Thus, we find no merit to Guy’s contention that the court was bound to apply the default postjudgment interest rate to the equalization payments. 

¶93 Candi argues that an interest rate higher than the 5% ordered by the court is necessary to “compensate Candi for her unwilling forbearance to Guy and incentivize Guy to pay quicker.” She argues that 10% is an appropriate interest rate because it is consistent with the Utah Code’s default interest rate for a “forbearance of any money, goods, or services.” Utah Code Ann. § 15-1-1(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). However, Candi has not provided us with any authority suggesting that the court was required to impose this specific interest rate. 

¶94 The court’s decision to impose the 5% interest rate was reasoned and supported by sufficient factual findings. The court explained that it had considered the 10% interest rate to be “appropriate” when the court had “deferred to Guy to come up with an appropriate payment plan.” The court opined that had Guy been permitted to set the payment schedule, as the husband in Taft was, the 10% interest rate would have been needed to avoid giving Guy “an incentive to invest the money and reap the return instead of paying off” Candi. The court explained that once it set the payment plan, rather than leaving it to Guy’s discretion, it did not believe the 10% interest would be valid under Taft. Nevertheless, it also explained that the interest rate was not a postjudgment rate because the deferred payment was more akin to a forbearance, and it still wanted to give Guy “an incentive to pay the Equalizing Balance quickly.” 

¶95 Our case law is clear that as with other aspects of property division, equitability is the standard for evaluating the appropriateness of an interest rate set by the district court for deferred payments in a divorce. See Olsen v. Olsen, 2007 UT App 296, ¶ 25, 169 P.3d 765 (“The overriding consideration is that the ultimate division be equitable . . . .” (quotation simplified)). We are not convinced that the 5% interest rate fell outside the reasonable range of equitable interest rates the court could have selected. Moreover, the court clearly explained its reasoning. Thus, we will not disturb the 5% interest rate the court set. 

  1. Transaction Costs

¶96 Finally, Guy asserts that the district court should have required Candi to share in any transaction costs that he may incur in the event he needs to liquidate assets to pay off Candi’s share of the marital estate. He points out that taxes and other transaction costs associated with liquidating the businesses or any other large assets could be significant and that if the court does not require Candi to pay her portion of those transaction costs, it could substantially eat into his portion of the marital estate. 

¶97 We do not disagree with Guy that if he is forced to liquidate assets, doing so may result in significant taxes and transaction costs to him. But it is by no means certain that such costs will be incurred. We do not generally expect courts to “speculate about hypothetical future [tax] consequences.” See Alexander v. Alexander, 737 P.2d 221, 224 (Utah 1987) (refusing to reduce the value of a “stock-price-tied profit-sharing plan to account for tax liability” because the imposition of taxes was not certain); see also Sellers v. Sellers, 2010 UT App 393, ¶ 7, 246 P.3d 173 (holding that the district court was not required to consider potential tax obligations associated with a retirement account because the tax consequences were “speculative” and assumed “massive withdrawals” from the account); Howell v. Howell, 806 P.2d 1209, 1213–14 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (holding that the district court “did not err in refusing to adjust property distribution because of . . . theoretical [tax] consequences” of selling a second home). The valuation of marital property “is necessarily a snapshot in time,” Marroquin v. Marroquin, 2019 UT App 38, ¶ 24, 440 P.3d 757, and such a moment does not consider “the myriad situations in which the value of [the parties’] property might be positively or negatively affected in the future,” Sellers, 2010 UT App 393, ¶ 7. 

¶98 Moreover, excessive transaction costs were the very thing the equalization payments were intended to prevent. The court acknowledged that forcing the parties to immediately liquidate assets would significantly cut into the pie that would be available to divide between both parties. That is why the court awarded the bulk of the estate to Guy and gave him five years to pay Candi her portion. The court gave him unfettered discretion to determine how to gather the funds necessary to pay Candi. In doing so, it gave Guy free rein over the bulk of Candi’s share of the estate, which he may use to continue building his businesses and wealth over the next five years. The benefit he may derive from using Candi’s share of the estate may very well amount to much more than the interest Candi will receive at the 5% rate, which is all she will have access to until the balloon payment is due, yet she will not share in that benefit any more than she will share in any transaction costs Guy may incur.13 See supra ¶ 85. The entire principal of Candi’s portion will remain in Guy’s control until he makes the balloon payment at the end of 2024. 

Furthermore, because the assets are in Guy’s control, Candi will have no role in deciding how to liquidate the assets or which transaction costs to incur.14  

¶99 Given the speculative nature of the potential taxes and transaction costs, as well as the full discretion Guy was given to determine whether and how to liquidate assets, it was not an abuse of discretion for the court not to order that Candi share in those costs. 

  1. Alimony

¶100 The next set of challenges the parties raise concerns the district court’s award of alimony to Candi. Guy asserts that the court exceeded its discretion in awarding any alimony whatsoever. Candi, on the other hand, asserts that the court should have increased the alimony award to account for her tax burden. She also argues that the court should have required Guy to either obtain life insurance or provide some other security to ensure that she would receive her alimony payments if he were to pass away. 

  1. Alimony Award

¶101 Guy argues that the district court should not have awarded alimony to Candi because (1) she did not provide the court with sufficient evidence from which it could calculate her monthly needs and (2) Candi’s property settlement was sufficient to allow her to support herself. In support of both arguments, Guy primarily relies on our supreme court’s holding in Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, 459 P.3d 276. But Dahl neither automatically requires a court to deny a request for alimony in the absence of documentation nor prevents the court from awarding alimony to a spouse who receives a large property settlement. 

¶102 With respect to documentation of need, the Dahl court held only that the district court “acted within its discretion in denying” the wife’s alimony request when she failed to provide evidence supporting her claimed need, not that the district court was required to deny her request. Id. ¶ 117. In fact, the court explicitly acknowledged that “the district court could have . . . imputed a figure to determine [the wife’s] financial need based either on [the husband’s] records of the parties’ predivorce expenses or a reasonable estimate of [the wife’s] needs.” Id. ¶ 116 (emphasis added). Furthermore, we have previously considered and rejected the “assertion that failure to file financial documentation automatically precludes an award of alimony.” Munoz-Madrid v. Carlos-Moran, 2018 UT App 95, ¶¶ 8–9, 427 P.3d 420. “[A]lthough [Candi’s] expenses may have been difficult to discern because she failed to provide supporting documentation . . . , there was not a complete lack of evidence to support their existence.” See id. ¶ 10. Indeed, the court explained that it relied on the list of items in the standard financial declaration, Guy’s financial declaration, evidence concerning the parties’ spending during the marriage, and evidence of Candi’s expenses during the pendency of the divorce to calculate Candi’s reasonable monthly needs. 

¶103 Dahl also does not stand for the proposition that alimony should never be awarded to those who receive a large property settlement. Rather, Dahl merely states that receiving “a sufficiently large property award to support a comfortable standard of living” prevented “any serious inequity” from arising due to the court’s decision not to impute the wife’s need in the face of her lack of evidence. See 2015 UT 79, ¶ 116 (quotation simplified). We acknowledge that if the payee spouse has income-producing property, the income from that property “may properly be considered as eliminating or reducing the need for alimony by that spouse.” Mortensen v. Mortensen, 760 P.2d 304, 308 (Utah 1988); see also Batty v. Batty, 2006 UT App 506, ¶ 5, 153 P.3d 827 (holding that the evaluation of a payee spouse’s ability to meet his or her own needs “properly takes into account the result of the property division, particularly any income-generating property [the payee spouse] is awarded”); Burt v. Burt, 799 P.2d 1166, 1170 n.3 (Utah Ct. App. 1990) (explaining that courts should distribute property before fashioning an alimony award, so they can take into account income generated from property interests). Nevertheless, the court in this case did not abuse its discretion by awarding alimony despite Candi’s large property settlement. 

¶104 Although Candi was entitled to receive a large settlement eventually, Guy continued to control the bulk of the parties’ marital estate and would do so for the next five years. The court noted this in its determination regarding alimony, observing that “alimony was needed” because “Guy was unable to pay Candi the full value of the marital estate at this time.” The court refused to take into account income Candi may derive from her portion of the marital assets in the future because that analysis was “too speculative for the Court to consider.”15 However, it observed that “at such time as . . . Candi . . . receives income or other assets from her share of the marital estate, or from other sources, the Court will evaluate the amount, if any, by which those amounts may reduce her unmet financial needs and thereby reduce or eliminate Guy’s alimony obligation.” Thus, the court did not abuse its discretion in awarding Candi alimony, and any income she derives from the property settlement may be considered when she actually has control of that property. 

  1. Taxes

¶105 On the other hand, Candi argues that the district court should have included her tax liability on alimony in its calculation of her needs. In calculating both a payor spouse’s ability to pay and a payee spouse’s needs, courts are generally expected to consider the person’s tax liability. See McPherson v. McPherson, 2011 UT App 382, ¶ 14, 265 P.3d 839; Andrus v. Andrus, 2007 UT App 291, ¶¶ 17–18, 169 P.3d 754. In particular, it is plain error for a court to consider the tax consequences for one party in assessing their income and expenses but not for the other party. Vanderzon v. Vanderzon, 2017 UT App 150, ¶¶ 45, 58, 402 P.3d 219. 

¶106 In its findings, the court used Guy’s net income to assess his ability to pay alimony. However, because Candi did not present evidence of her tax burden on any alimony award, the court did not consider her tax burden in assessing her need. We acknowledge that the court’s ability to estimate Candi’s taxes was hampered by Candi’s failure to provide evidence of her anticipated tax liability. Nevertheless, it is certain that she will incur some tax burden, particularly in light of the fact that she will be taxed on any alimony payments she receives.16 And we agree with Candi that it was inequitable for the court to consider Guy’s tax burden when calculating his ability to pay without considering Candi’s tax burden in assessing her needs. Thus, we remand the court’s alimony award for the limited purpose of having the court make findings as to Candi’s projected tax burden and adjust the alimony award accordingly. 

  1. Life Insurance

¶107 Next, Candi asserts that the district court should require Guy to either obtain life insurance or provide a substitute for life insurance to secure his alimony payments. She points out that the court initially stated in its 2017 Findings that “Guy should provide a life insurance policy for Candi to cover alimony for a period of time sufficient to cover his obligation should he unexpectedly pass away.” Although the court initially rejected Guy’s argument that he should be required only to “use his best efforts to obtain life insurance,” the court ultimately adopted Guy’s proposed language in its 2018 Supplemental Findings stating that “there was no information as to whether or not Guy could or could not obtain a life insurance policy for such purpose nor the cost thereof.” Candi asked the court to reconsider that finding and make the life insurance requirement mandatory. However, the court rejected that request and stated that its finding in the May 2018 Order was “sufficient.” But while that finding indicated the court’s intent “to ensure that Candi will receive the money awarded should [Guy] pass unexpectedly,” it did not definitively decide the issue of whether Guy was required to obtain life insurance to secure his alimony obligation or if he was able to demonstrate an inability to comply with the court’s direction. We are left wondering whether the court did, or did not, order Guy to obtain life insurance and are unable to ascertain the answer to this question from the court’s rulings. Accordingly, we remand this issue to the district court to clarify its order.17  

  1. Contempt

¶108 Finally, Candi argues that the district court erred in declining to hold Guy in contempt for violating the Stipulation, which the parties reached early on in the proceedings, that they would not “sell, gift, transfer, dissipate, encumber, secrete or dispose of marital assets” but that Guy could continue to manage WBC and conduct business “as he has in the past, which may include incurring debt, paying expenses and acquiring assets.” “As a general rule, in order to prove contempt for failure to comply with a court order it must be shown that the person cited for contempt knew what was required, had the ability to comply, and intentionally failed or refused to do so.” Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1172 (Utah 1988). In a civil contempt proceeding, these elements must be proven “by clear and convincing evidence.” Id. 

¶109 Candi asserts that the Stipulation’s language allowed Guy to engage in business transactions only insofar as those transactions related to WBC. She argues that the “business hereinabove identified” language in the Stipulation is limited to “the management and control of” WBC and that the court therefore misread the Stipulation by not holding Guy in contempt for any transactions that were not directly related to WBC. But as Guy observes, the Stipulation also allowed the parties to engage in transactions “in the course of their normal living expenditures, ordinary and necessary business expenses and to pay divorce attorneys and expert fees and costs.” 

¶110 “We interpret language in judicial documents in the same way we interpret contract language,” that is, “we look to the language of the [document] to determine its meaning.” Cook Martin Poulson PC v. Smith, 2020 UT App 57, ¶ 24, 464 P.3d 541 (quotation simplified). We consider Guy’s reading of the Stipulation to be more consistent with the plain language of that document. The provision giving Guy “the right to conduct the business hereinabove identified as he has in the past, which may include incurring debt, paying expenses and acquiring assets,” properly refers to both the operation of WBC and normal living and business expenses. 

¶111 Moreover, because contempt requires that the party knew what was required and intentionally refused to comply, see Von Hake, 759 P.2d at 1172, “for a violation of an order to justify sanctions, the order must be sufficiently specific and definite as to leave no reasonable basis for doubt regarding its meaning,” Cook, 2020 UT App 57, ¶ 26 (quotation simplified). Even were we inclined to agree with Candi’s more limited interpretation, we could not say that the language is so clearly limited to WBC that there could be “no reasonable basis for doubt regarding its meaning.” See id. (quotation simplified). 

¶112 The Stipulation allowed Guy to continue conducting normal transactions as he had in the past, and the district court found that “the transactions Candi complains of were consistent with Guy’s historical practice of transferring assets from one entity to another or from one form into another” and that there was “no indication that [they] . . . were out of the ordinary.” Candi does not challenge this finding. Thus, we conclude that the court did not exceed its discretion in declining to find Guy in contempt. 

CONCLUSION 

¶113 We conclude that the district court erred in failing to credit the value of the notes receivable to the marital estate. We also conclude that it erred in refusing to grant Candi a security interest to protect her right to receive her unpaid share of the marital estate. However, we affirm the district court’s property valuation and distribution in all other respects. 

¶114 As to the alimony award, we conclude that the district court erred in failing to account for Candi’s tax obligation in its calculation of her need and remand for clarification of whether the court intended to order Guy to obtain security on Candi’s alimony award. We affirm the alimony award in all other respects. 

¶115 We also affirm the remaining orders and findings challenged on appeal, including the operative date of the Decree of Divorce, the equalization payment schedule, the court’s finding that Guy did not dissipate marital assets apart from the money he spent on his girlfriend, and its decision not to hold him in contempt. 

¶116 Consistent with our discussion in this opinion, we remand to the district court to adjust the marital property valuation, to make findings regarding Candi’s tax liability and adjust the alimony award, to clarify whether Guy is must obtain security on Candi’s alimony award, and to enter orders necessary to adequately secure Candi’s interest in her unpaid share of the marital estate. 

_________ 

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

http://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/view.html?court=appopin&opinion=Wadsworth v. Wadsworth20220113_20190106_5.pdf 
 
http://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/view.html?court=appopin&opinion=Wadsworth v. Wadsworth20220113_20200430_5.pdf

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What is the percentage of people who commit/are prosecuted for perjury?

What percentage of people lie while under oath in a courtroom, and how often does someone get prosecuted for perjury? 

Re: What percentage of people lie under oath in a courtroom: 

  • If anyone knows this, I don’t know who he/she/they is/are.  
  • If such statistics could accurately be obtained, I don’t know how they could be.  
  • As with so many things, what constitutes “a lie” is not as cut and dried as it may seem, even to intellectual people. 
  • If accurate statistics do exist, I’m sure most in the legal system don’t want anyone to know about them because I’d bet that if such statistics exist they are not flattering to the legal system.
    • I’m not sure how much we can blame the courts for “failing” to catch lies, however, given that no one is infallible and nobody is capable of detecting lies more than roughly 50% of the time* 

Re: How often someone who committed perjury is prosecuted for perjury: 

  • very rarely 

*Sender Demeanor: Individual Differences in Sender Believability Have a Powerful Impact on Deception Detection Judgments 

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

https://www.quora.com/What-percentage-of-people-lie-while-under-oath-in-a-courtroom-and-how-often-does-someone-get-prosecuted-for-perjury/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

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What are legitimate ways to contradict a witness in the court?

If you are asking whether there are “legitimate” ways to make truthful witness look inaccurate or dishonest (meaning there are ways to do it that won’t get you in trouble), there are tricks that may and often do work to bring about such a result. Damn you to hell if you employ any such tricks, but here are some that I am aware of (which I share with those of you who are about to be questioned by unscrupulous attorneys and/or judges who are trying to discredit you—forewarned is forearmed): 

When cross-examining the witness: 

  1. Overstate, understate, and otherwise outright misstate the witness’s testimony in your questioning (put words in the witness’s mouth), yet make it seem to the witness that you are simply trying to summarize or rephrase the testimony accurately. This way you mischaracterize the witness’s testimony yet you may dupe the witness into “agreeing” that your summary/rephrasing is accurate. 
  2. Ask questions that embarrass, humiliate, and upset the witness, so that the witness responds rudely and by arguing with and insulting you. Imply that the witness is bigoted and a hypocrite. Either way or both ways, you hope that the judge and jury will reject the witness’s testimony on that basis, not on the basis of whether the witness is honest. 
  3. Ask the witness bogus questions that sound as though they are plausibly based upon truth but that you know the witness will deny as false. Done “well”, this technique of eliciting repeated denials creates the false impression that the witness must be lying about something because the lawyer cross examining the witness couldn’t possibly be asking so many questions without the witness acknowledging at least some of them to be true.

 

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

 

https://www.quora.com/What-are-legitimate-ways-to-contradict-a-witness-in-the-court/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

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Am I held to what I said first as a witness, even if I immediately corrected my mistake once I realized it?

It is not merely a question of how quickly the witness corrects his or her answer.

Sometimes a lawyer will ask a witness for precise details simply not because those details crucial to resolving a particular issue but simply because the more details a witness recalls the more the judge or jury may believe the witness has a particularly good memory and can thus be trusted that much more.

If the case depends upon whether an event did or did not take place on a Monday (or a Thursday), and the witness knows that, then a witness can damage his/her credibility by giving contradictory responses to the question. Unfortunately, even if it’s an honest oversight or slip of the tongue, the higher the stakes, the less tolerance there is for errors.

Still, it is better to correct what you stated in error than to stick to a false story to—ironically—avoid looking like a liar. to borrow from Mark Twain, better to tell the truth and risk being branded a liar than to bear false witness knowingly and thus remove all doubt.

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

https://www.quora.com/Is-it-true-or-not-that-when-you-say-as-a-witness-in-court-for-example-it-was-Monday-and-after-1-second-Thusday-it-was-Thusday-that-was-not-an-incongruent-statement-because-it-has-passed-1-second-and-not-more-time/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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Why is it OK for a parent to be given custody without their kids’ consent?

Why is it okay for a parent to be given custody without their kids consent or at least their input? This is a great question. I can’t speak for all lawyers, and the laws and rules governing what the courts must and can consider when making child custody awards differs slightly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in the jurisdiction where I practice divorce and child custody law (Utah), there is a general policy that you can’t find written down anywhere but is nevertheless pervasive, and that is: courts will not talk to children in child custody cases if there is any way they can come up with a plausible excuse.

Do not misunderstand me. Courts can interview children on the subject of child custody and solicit the children’s experiences, observations, opinions, and preferences regarding the child custody award, although a child’s desires are “not the single controlling factor” governing the eventual child custody award (See Utah Code Section 30–3–10(5)(ii)). It’s just that most Utah courts, for reasons they’ve never credibly or logically explained to me, just don’t want to do it. Instead, they contract out the interviewing process to what are known as “custody evaluators” and/or “guardians ad litem”. You may ask, “So what’s the harm in that?”

In Utah, interviews between the children and custody evaluators and/or guardians ad litem are not on the record. Thus, we will never know what the children on what subjects the children were interviewed over or even if the children were interviewed at all. neither will we know what questions were asked, the manner in which they were asked, and the content and tone of the children’s responses, if any. Curiously, we don’t treat any other witness this way, but for some reason courts are more than happy to believe or say they believe that a custody evaluator and/or guardian ad litem would lie about a child interview or bungle a child interview.

when a judge interviews the child, not only do you have direct, unfiltered testimony in response to questions that the judge himself or herself deems most important to the child custody and parent time award analysis, that it takes less time, far less time than having a custody evaluator and/or guardian ad litem appointed to do the job. And it’s free of charge to have the judge interview the children, as opposed to costing thousands of dollars to pay for the services of a guardian ad litem, and even costing in excess of $10,000 to pay for the services of a custody evaluator. the value of what guardians ad litem and custody evaluators provide for the money just isn’t there when compared to no cost for a judge to interview the children directly and on the record. For some reason courts are more than happy to believe or say that they believe that it is just as good or better to have a child interview summarize and filtered through a custody evaluator or guardian ad litem then it would be to have the child speak directly to the judge, answering questions most pertinent and relevant in the judge’s opinion, and on the record. If you can explain how that makes any sense, please drop me a line.

Now clearly, some children would be too young to express a credible opinion or desire regarding child custody, are too young to know what they want, so young that they are easily manipulated, coachable, intimidated, or coerced. in those situations, it may make all the sense in the world to have a mental health professional observe the child to provide the court with some guidance as to

what custody and parent time arrangement serve the best interest of the child. but if a child is older than 10 years of age, there’s no harm in having the judge speak to that child to take the measure of the child, the child’s level of maturity and intelligence, and solicit information from that child’s experience to help guide the court in making the child custody and parent time awards. This is simply inarguable. And yet it remains virtually impossible to get a court to interview children directly and on the record. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask the court to interview the children on the record, just don’t be surprised if you get inexplicable resistance to such a sensible idea, both from the court and from opposing counsel.

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

https://www.quora.com/Why-is-it-okay-for-a-parent-to-be-given-custody-without-their-kids-consent/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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Recent thoughts about family law

Recent thoughts about family law

I’ve been prompted recently to express my thoughts and opinions about the judiciary generally in the family law context. Here are a few thoughts I feel are worth sharing:

– Too often litigants and attorneys are afraid to present certain arguments and evidence and proposals for fear that merely raising fair-game topics, much less trying to advance them within the bounds of the law and procedure, will anger and/or offend the court to their detriment.

– Judges and commissioners deciding family law cases must be far more about the law and the facts dictating their decisions and much less about subjectively picking winners and losers.

– Judges and commissioners deciding family law cases must be far more about the law and the facts dictating their decisions and much less about indulging personal biases and subjectively picking winners and losers.

– Judges and commissioners rely on/pass the buck to GALs and custody evaluators far, far too much instead of interviewing children themselves and/or permitting children to testify. Just because this can be said of every district court* (as opposed to juvenile court) in Utah does not make universal failure/refusal right.

*If there is a judge or commissioner in Utah who will/does interview children in child custody cases to avoid the obscene expense, delays, and lack of record suffered by imposing a GAL or custody evaluator on the parties and children, I do not know of any such judge or commissioner. I get told frequently by many judges and commissioners who refuse to interview children something along the lines of, “I am not afraid/unwilling to interview children, I just [insert pretextual/lame excuse here],” and there are many judges and commissioners who tell me that it is their personal policy not to interview children under virtually any and all circumstances.

There are judges and commissioners everywhere, not just Utah, who act a law unto themselves. Always? No. But any time is too often, and there are times when I’ve witnessed this more times than can be written off to mere honest mistakes. Whether a judge or commissioner knowingly acts this way, ignorantly acts this way, or both, it is inexcusable.

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Which Is Better: spending thousands on GAL/custody evaluator or $0 on a judge interview?

Which Is Better: spending thousands on GAL/custody evaluator or $0 on a judge interview?

How could it be better to spend thousands on a GAL or custody evaluator when the judge can interview children free of charge?

This post is the sixth in series of 15 posts on the subject of custody evaluations and the appointment of guardians ad litem (“GALs” for short) in Utah child custody cases when the judge could simply interview the children instead. You do not have to read all 16 posts to benefit from this series. Read as many or as few as you wish.

The purpose of this series is to make the case for the proposition that an interview by the judge is a faster, more accurate, more particular, more reliable, and less expensive form of evidence than what a GAL and/or custody evaluator provides.

How could it be better to spend thousands on a GAL or custody evaluator when the judge can interview children free of charge? In 24 years of law practice, I have never had a judge agree to interview children in lieu of having a private guardian ad litem appointed and/or having a custody evaluator appointed. I submit that it’s not because my arguments lack merit. Indeed, I have yet to encounter a valid, let alone a compelling, argument for why it is better to spend thousands, even tens of thousands, on guardians ad litem and or custody evaluators when the judge can interview children directly, free of charge (as opposed to obtaining so-called “evidence” via court-sponsored hearsay in the form of second, and often third hand information of interviews with the children that allegedly took place but were never made part of the court’s record). There are two main excuses one will hear for why judges should not interview children: 1) judges interviewing children is inherently traumatic for children and/or “puts them in the middle of their parents’ disputes” and thus unjustifiably traumatizes them too; and 2) judges are not qualified to interview children where guardians ad litem and or custody evaluators, and only guardians had lied them and/or custody evaluators, are qualified to do so. Neither justification holds water, as I have explained and will continue to explain in these videos. If anyone would like to hold a debate on this subject, it would be of benefit to everyone involved in child custody disputes, from the child to the parents to the parent’s respective lawyers to the judge.

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

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Is being a divorce lawyer miserable?

Is being a divorce lawyer miserable?

Miserable? Can be (and is) for some divorce attorneys, but for me it’s chronically discouraging.

Sure, the human pain and betrayal to which we are exposed is saddening, as is the toll divorce takes on innocent children.

It’s sad to see a nuclear family ripped apart and to witness the different, but inevitable short and long-term consequences for every member.

It’s annoying to see who should be mature adults wasting their precious time, resources, and emotional reserves on anger, conflict, and oneupsmanship.

What makes it discouraging for me, however, is the way courts still treat fathers generally, i.e., as second-class parents and sources of financial support but not as important to a child as a mother, not as crucial an emotional and psychological component of a minor child’s upbringing. While it is true that fathers are gradually being treated more fairly, it’s still discouraging how often courts presumptively write off the father as unequal to the mother, how they presume fathers don’t love and care for their children as much as the mothers, how often the courts will, in some cases, literally analyze what the physical custody and “parent-time” award will be by asking “what’s the minimum the kids really need with their father?”

I’m frankly amazed that courts in my jurisdiction (Utah) refuse to give joint physical custody so much as a losing chance when courts can easily test it during the pendency of the case before making a final determination. Instead, some courts retain the services of “custody evaluators” to predict what’s best for the kids without testing the hypothesis. Why? There is no good reason why.

Imagine you want to buy a new car. Imagine it’s going to be a major investment; you’ll be driving it a lot each year for many, many years. It needs to be the right fit for you and your family. The car you ultimately get won’t be perfect (nothing is), but you want your choice to be as good a fit for you and your family as possible. Like everyone else in your position.

Now imagine you’re told that of the cars you’re considering you are allowed to test drive only one of them. Indeed, while you’re contemplating which car you’ll ultimately buy you will be restricted to test driving only one of the possible choices.

There’s no compelling reason why you can’t test drive each of the three or four cars you’re considering, no reason why you shouldn’t (in fact there’s every sensible reason you should).

But the dealerships simply dictate that until you make up your mind, you won’t allow you test drive any car but one. When you ask the dealers why (if they give you any answer at all), it will be something along the lines of “these cars are not lab rats” or “test driving a car might harm the car, so it’s not worth the risk” or “test driving more than one car may confuse and upset you.”

When you ask the dealers, “How can I make the best choice of car, if you deny me and my family the most useful and meaningful way to choose (i.e., test driving)?,” the dealers will then tell you that either they will choose for you and that a “car choice evaluator” may be appointed to help the dealers (not you) decide what new car you will buy. It makes no sense, but the dealers will tell you, “We’ve told you how our customers’ cars are chosen, so the matter is settled.” That’s how child custody has been determined for as long as I’ve practiced law.

No matter how many times I ask courts to test competing custody proposals, to compare joint custody against sole custody, so that the court and the family (and that includes the children) can experience the different schedules and learn what is best, I have NEVER had such a request granted. Not once in 23 years of practice. Nor have I ever heard of a court doing such a thing in any other child custody case where I practice. That makes me miserable.

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

https://www.quora.com/Is-being-a-divorce-lawyer-miserable/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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