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Category: Marital Property

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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Does an ex-spouse have claims to properties purchased during the marriage but name is not on deed, deed states married man and no mention of the property or distribution in the divorce?

I can answer this question in the context of the law of Utah, which is the jurisdiction where I am licensed to practice divorce and family law. To learn the answer to the question for another state, you would need to consult the law of that jurisdiction and/or consult with an attorney who is licensed in that state.

If your question is, “Do I have a claim to property my spouse purchased during the marriage but did not disclose the existence of during the divorce proceedings (meaning that I discovered its existence only after the decree of divorce was entered by the court)?”, then the answer is (in Utah):

Yes, you may have a claim. Now that means you have an argument for an award of some or all of (or a money judgment for some or all of the value of) that undisclosed property to you. You do not have an automatic right to any such award, but you may have a strong argument for it. If you want to pursue your claim, you should almost always pursue as soon as you possibly can. Delays in asserting and prosecuting a claim can weaken your claim.

Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 26.1 provides, in pertinent part:

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

Note: separate property usually remains separate property in a divorce. Separate property has three (which is basically two) different forms in a marriage: 1) property one owned (and “property” in this sense includes money you owned) before marriage (premarital property) and 2) property purchased with separate property funds. Separate property also includes money or property you obtained during the marriage if you obtained it by gift from someone other than your spouse and it also includes money or property you inherited during the marriage. So if, while married, you inherited a house from your parent, that house would be your separate property. Now one can convert (the legal term is “transmute”) separate property into marital property (by transferring title from yourself to you and your spouse jointly, or by spending money you inherited by adding a room to the marital home, or by spending your inheritance on a fancy cruise for you and our spouse—you get the idea), but if the separate property is not transmuted, it usually (usually) remains your separate property, although Utah law permits a court to award separate property to the other spouse, if circumstances warrant it.

Elman v. Elman (245 P.3d 176, 2002 UT App 83 (Utah Court of Appeals 2002):

¶ 18 Generally, trial courts are . . . required to award premarital property, and appreciation on that property, to the spouse who brought the property into the marriage. See Dunn v. Dunn, 802 P.2d 1314, 1320 (Utah Ct.App.1990); see also Mortensen v. Mortensen, 760 P.2d 304, 308 (Utah 1988).

¶ 19 However, separate property is not “totally beyond [a] court’s reach in an equitable property division.” Burt v. Burt, 799 P.2d 1166, 1169 (Utah Ct.App.1990). The court may award the separate property of one spouse to the other spouse in “‘extraordinary situations where equity so demands.’” Id. (quoting Mortensen, 760 P.2d at 308); see also Rappleye v. Rappleye, 855 P.2d 260, 263 (Utah Ct.App.1993) (“‘Exceptions to this general rule include whether … the distribution achieves a fair, just, and equitable result.’” (quoting Dunn v. Dunn, 802 P.2d 1314 at 1320)).

And there are these authorities too:

“The general rule is that equity requires that each party retain the separate property he or she brought into the marriage, including any appreciation of the separate property.” Dunn v. Dunn, 802 P.2d 1314, 1320 (Utah Ct.App.1990). Such separate property can, however, become part of the marital estate if (1) the other spouse has by his or her efforts or expense contributed to the enhancement, maintenance, or protection of that property, thereby acquiring an equitable interest in it, or (2) the property has been consumed or its identity lost through commingling or exchanges or where the acquiring spouse has made a gift of an interest therein to the other spouse. (Mortensen v. Mortensen, 760 P.2d 304, 308 (Utah 1988) (citation omitted)).

Premarital property, gifts, and inheritances may be viewed as separate property, and in appropriate circumstances, equity will require that each party retain separate property brought to marriage; however, the rule is not invariable. Burke v. Burke, 733 P.2d 133 (Utah 1987).

A material misrepresentation or concealment of assets or financial condition as a result of which alimony or property awarded is less or more than otherwise would have been provided for is a proper ground for which the court may grant relief to the party who was offended by such misrepresentation or concealment, absent other equities such as laches or negligence…. However, before relief can be granted, it must be determined that the alleged misrepresentation or concealment constitutes conduct, such as fraud, as would basically afford the complaining party relief from the judgment. (Clissold v. Clissold, 30 Utah 2d 430, 519 P.2d 241, 242 (1974) (citations omitted), overruled in part on other grounds by, St. Pierre v. Edmonds, 645 P.2d 615, 619 n. 2 (Utah 1982); accord Boyce v. Boyce, 609 P.2d 928, 931 (Utah 1980) (noting that “[c]learly, a court should modify a prior decree when the interests of equity and fair dealing with the court and the opposing party so require”); Reid v. Reid, 245 Va. 409, 429 S.E.2d 208, 211 (1993) (ruling that “[o]nce the amount of spousal support is determined, the statutes and case law specifically limit the divorce court’s authority to retroactively modify that amount, absent fraud on the court ”) (emphasis added).

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

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Holt v. Holt – 2024 UT App 6 – reasonable time rule

Holt v. Holt – 2024 UT App 6

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

RHONDA S. HOLT, Appellee,

v.

CHRISTOPHER JOHN HOLT, Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20220090-CA

Filed January 11, 2024

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Andrew H. Stone

No. 044902588

Ben W. Lieberman, Attorney for Appellant

Matthew A. Steward and Katherine E. Pepin,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and

DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

ORME, Judge:

¶1       Christopher and Rhonda Holt’s divorce was finalized in 2004 after the entry of a stipulated settlement agreement and the district court’s entry of a divorce decree. Per the divorce decree, Rhonda[1] was awarded a commercial property in which she operated a salon and Christopher was awarded an equity interest in the property redeemable “when the property is sold.” From the time the court entered the divorce decree, Rhonda operated the salon and did not sell the property or satisfy Christopher’s outstanding interest.

¶2        Years later, Christopher petitioned the district court asking that it require Rhonda to sell the property and satisfy his equity interest, first on the rationale of modifying the divorce decree and later on the rationale of enforcing it. He contended that because “Utah law implies a reasonable time under the circumstances,” the court should compel Rhonda to sell the property. The district court ultimately determined that Rhonda had no obligation to sell the property and declined to impose any deadline by which she had to do so. But under Utah law, a reasonable time for performance will be implied if a contract fails to include a specific time for performance. And on the facts of this case, we conclude that a reasonable time for Rhonda’s performance extends to the time when she ceases to operate a salon on the property.

BACKGROUND

¶3        Christopher and Rhonda were married in 1988. In 2004, Rhonda filed a complaint for divorce, and soon after, the district court granted Rhonda’s motion for default judgment. The court then entered a divorce decree based on the parties’ Stipulation and Settlement Agreement (the stipulation). The record reflects that when the stipulation was entered, each party was represented by counsel. Christopher’s counsel withdrew after the stipulation was filed, just prior to entry of the decree.

The Stipulation and the Decree

¶4        The stipulation included an integration clause indicating that it was the parties’ final agreement. Specifically, it was “a complete settlement of all rights either party may have in the other’s property” and any “valid” modification or waiver of the stipulation’s terms must be “in writing and signed by both parties before a notary public.” The stipulation provided that neither party would receive alimony. Pursuant to the stipulation, the district court entered findings of fact and conclusions of law and a divorce decree that mirrored the provisions of the stipulation.

¶5        At the heart of this matter is section 9(B) of the decree. First, it awarded Rhonda the salon property and ordered Christopher to “execute a quit claim deed” in her favor. Second, it reserved for Christopher “an equitable lien for one-half of the net equity in the property when the property is sold.” Third, it defined net equity as “the gross selling price less realtor commissions and normal closing costs.” And fourth, it reiterated that Christopher “shall only be entitled to his equity when the property is sold.” The preceding section—section 9(A)—awarded Rhonda the parties’ home “free and clear from any claim by” Christopher and instructed that Christopher was to “execute a quit-claim deed in favor of” Rhonda within ten days following entry of the decree. It is noteworthy that section 9(B), in contrast to section 9(A), did not include a specific timeframe related to Rhonda’s satisfaction of Christopher’s equity interest in the property.

The Petition to Modify the Decree

¶6        In October 2018, over fourteen years after the decree was entered, Christopher filed a petition to modify the decree, claiming “a material and unforeseeable substantial change of circumstances.” Specifically, the petition indicated that “the parties did not anticipate that fourteen years would pass” during which Christopher’s equity interest in the property would go unpaid. Christopher sought an order compelling Rhonda to either sell or refinance the property and to satisfy Christopher’s outstanding interest.

¶7        In response, Rhonda moved to dismiss the petition on the ground that Christopher had failed to support his assertion of a material and unforeseeable change in circumstances warranting the requested modification of the decree. Rhonda acknowledged that Christopher would be entitled to have his equity interest in the property cashed out, but she argued that under the plain language of the decree, he was entitled to payment only when the property was sold, which had not yet occurred. Rhonda noted that the parties’ circumstances had not materially changed since the court entered the decree in 2004—she had not sold or refinanced the property and she continued to operate her salon on the property. Quoting Land v. Land, 605 P.2d 1248 (Utah 1980), Rhonda argued that “when a decree is based upon a property settlement agreement, forged by the parties and sanctioned by the court, equity must take such agreement into consideration.” Id. at 1250–51. She noted our Supreme Court’s position that “[e]quity is not available to reinstate rights and privileges voluntarily contracted away simply because one has come to regret the bargain made.” Id. at 1251. Rhonda asserted that the decree does not impose a deadline by which she had to sell the property and “clearly withholds distribution” of Christopher’s interest in the property until it is sold. Thus, she maintained that Christopher “failed to demonstrate that there has been a substantial change in circumstances that was not [contemplated] by the parties at the time the decree was entered.”

¶8        In his opposition to the motion to dismiss, Christopher claimed that he was not represented by counsel during the divorce action and thus was not involved in drafting the decree.[2] He also claimed that he relied on representations Rhonda made both before and after entry of the decree that she would refinance or sell the property “in the very near future to pay him out.” Christopher asserted that prior to the divorce, the parties had received an $84,000 loan from his parents to purchase the property and that when his parents passed away some years later, $84,000 was taken out of his inheritance to pay the obligation. Christopher argued that under the plain language of the decree and under Rhonda’s suggested interpretation of section 9(B), he “could die and not receive any benefit from the agreement” and he could potentially lose his interest in the property if Rhonda were to pass away or transfer the property to someone else, thereby avoiding the satisfaction of Christopher’s equity interest.

¶9        Rhonda responded that the petition before the court was one to modify the decree based on a theory of material change of circumstances—not one to enforce the decree. She argued that this was really a situation of unilateral mistake on his part, and she reiterated her position that hindsight and dissatisfaction with a prior stipulation are not adequate grounds for relieving parties of their contractual obligations. Rhonda again acknowledged her obligation to pay Christopher his share of the equity when the property is sold, but she pointed out that the decree did not specify a sale deadline. She also noted that it would have been very easy to incorporate such a date into the stipulation and the decree if that had been the parties’ intention. To support this position, Rhonda pointed out that section 9(A) of the decree imposed a ten-day deadline for Christopher’s delivery of a quitclaim deed to the parties’ home, while section 9(B), which dealt with the sale of the salon property, included no provision concerning the time for performance.

¶10      Christopher requested that the court hold an evidentiary hearing concerning Rhonda’s motion to dismiss. But the district court denied this request and also denied Rhonda’s motion to dismiss. Eventually, a trial date was set. And at the ensuing bench trial,[3] at which both Christopher and Rhonda testified, the district

court granted Rhonda’s motion for a directed verdict and dismissed the petition on the ground that Christopher had failed to provide sufficient evidence to support the petition.[4]

The Motion to Enforce the Decree

¶11      In July 2021, Christopher filed a motion to enforce the decree in a renewed effort to compel Rhonda’s sale of the salon property. Christopher argued that under the principles articulated in New York Avenue LLC v. Harrison, 2016 UT App 240, 391 P.3d 268, cert. denied, 393 P.3d 283 (Utah 2017), the decree’s lack of an “expressly-stated time[] for performance” signified that the court should impose a “reasonable time under the circumstances” by which Rhonda had to sell the property and that such a time had already passed. See id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified).

¶12      In response, Rhonda argued that the motion to enforce was simply Christopher’s attempt to get a “third bite at the apple.” Similar to her response to the petition to modify, Rhonda argued that Christopher failed to present sufficient credible evidence to support his contention that the parties’ intent was anything other than to afford Christopher his interest in the property when Rhonda sold it. She contended that because the salon on the property was her “sole source of income,” the parties deliberately omitted any specific performance deadline, providing instead— and explicitly emphasizing—that Christopher would be entitled to payment for his interest when, and only when, the property was sold. Rhonda asserted that it would therefore be inappropriate for the court to impose a reasonable time by which she had to sell the property when the decree’s plain language was straightforward and explicitly did not include one.

¶13 In October 2021, Commissioner Russell Minas heard argument on the motion. The commissioner concluded that “[b]ecause there [was] no deadline provided by the parties, Utah law implies a reasonable time under the circumstances,” see id., which he determined to be “until [Rhonda] ceases to use the Property to operate a business.” The commissioner thereafter issued his recommendation in the matter. See Utah R. Civ. P. 108(a) (“A recommendation of a court commissioner is the order of the court until modified by the court.”).

¶14 Christopher subsequently filed an objection to the recommendation pursuant to rule 108 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. See id. (“A party may file a written objection to the recommendation within 14 days after the recommendation is made in open court[.]”). Christopher acknowledged that the commissioner correctly determined that the reasonable-time rule articulated in New York Avenue applied to this case. But he challenged the commissioner’s application of the rule. He argued that the “reasonable time under the circumstances is determined by looking to the intention of the parties at the time of the formation of the contract” and that in so doing, it is clear the reasonable-time threshold had already passed because neither the stipulation nor the decree intended for Rhonda “to retain the Property and all equity so long as she operated a business.” Rhonda yielded to the commissioner’s interpretation of a reasonable time, arguing that the commissioner correctly defined a reasonable time under all the circumstances.

¶15 The district court heard argument on Christopher’s objection.[5] The court overruled Christopher’s objection from the bench and modified the commissioner’s recommendation. The court concluded that a reasonable time for performance should not be implied here because, per the language of the decree, Rhonda’s deadline to sell the property was whenever she chose to sell it and that “it would be inappropriate for the Court to impose a date by which the Property must be sold.”

¶16      Christopher appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶17 Christopher primarily argues that the district court erred in concluding that the reasonable-time rule was inapplicable here. “We interpret a divorce decree according to established rules of contract interpretation.” Mitchell v. Mitchell, 2011 UT App 41, ¶ 5, 248 P.3d 65 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 255 P.3d 684 (Utah 2011). Accordingly, we review the district court’s interpretation of the decree for correctness. See Mintz v. Mintz, 2023 UT App 17, ¶ 14, 525 P.3d 534, cert. denied, 531 P.3d 730 (Utah 2023).

¶18 Christopher also argues that the court “exceeded the scope” of his objection when it addressed “matters not before the court.” The scope of a court’s review of a commissioner’s recommendation turns on the correct interpretation of the applicable rule of civil procedure. Cf. Zions Bancorporation, NA v. Schwab, 2023 UT App 105, ¶ 12, 537 P.3d 273 (holding that the district court’s “statutory interpretation” is reviewed “for correctness”) (quotation simplified); Bermes v. Summit County, 2023 UT App 94, ¶ 28, 536 P.3d 111 (stating that a district court’s “interpretation of a set of statues or ordinances” is reviewed “for correctness”) (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 2023 WL 9058850 (Utah 2023).

ANALYSIS

I. Reasonable Time Under the Circumstances

¶19      Christopher first challenges the district court’s conclusion that “it would be inappropriate for the Court to impose a date by which the property must be sold.” He asserts that the court’s conclusion is incorrect, that the reasonable-time rule is applicable here, that a reasonable time has long since elapsed, and that Rhonda should be compelled to sell the property and satisfy his equity interest. We determine that the district court’s conclusion was incorrect and conclude that the reasonable-time rule is applicable in this matter. We then determine what constitutes a reasonable time for Rhonda’s performance under the circumstances.

¶20 A stipulated divorce decree represents an enforceable contract between divorcing spouses, and so “we interpret the parties’ decree according to established rules of contract interpretation.” Thayer v. Thayer, 2016 UT App 146, ¶ 17, 378 P.3d 1232 (quotation simplified). Of course, “the cardinal rule in contract interpretation is to give effect to the intentions of the parties as they are expressed in the plain language of the contract itself,” and “we construe a contract to give effect to the object and purpose of the parties in making the agreement.” New York Avenue LLC v. Harrison, 2016 UT App 240, ¶ 21, 391 P.3d 268 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 393 P.3d 283 (Utah 2017). Key to the issue before us, our principles of contract interpretation further provide “that if a contract fails to specify a time of performance the law implies that it shall be done within a reasonable time under the circumstances,” id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified), which analysis entails a question of fact, see iDrive Logistics LLC v. IntegraCore LLC, 2018 UT App 40, ¶ 55, 424 P.3d 970, cert. denied, 425 P.3d 803 (Utah 2018).

¶21 The parties agree on the basic meaning of the terms contained in section 9(B) of the decree. They accept that under section 9(B), Rhonda was awarded ownership of the property, Christopher was required to “execute a quit claim deed” in Rhonda’s favor while reserving for himself “an equitable lien for one-half of the net equity of the property when the property is sold,” and that Christopher would “only be entitled to his equity when the property is sold.” Further, both parties acknowledge that section 9(B) does not include a date by which the property was required to be sold. Based on this understanding, Christopher argues that the district court’s conclusion was incorrect, that the reasonable-time rule does apply, and that Rhonda should be compelled to sell the property immediately, a reasonable time having long since come and gone, or else his interest “could remain trapped forever.”

¶22 Christopher asserts that under our decision in New York Avenue, the district court should be required to apply the reasonable-time rule based on the reality that section 9(B) did not include a specified time of performance. In that case, a seller contracted with a buyer for the sale of certain real estate. 2016 UT App 240¶ 3. Due to unforeseen complications, the transaction was not settled on the date intended by the contract. Id. ¶¶ 5–6. The buyer, still desiring to be bound by the terms of the contract, elected to begin making monthly settlement extension payments to the seller, as provided for in the contract, thus advancing the contract’s intended settlement date to the last day of the month associated with the buyer’s settlement extension payment. Id. ¶ 6. While the contract provided terms to extend the settlement date, it failed to specify a final date regarding the ultimate settlement of the contract or to define the maximum number of settlement extensions available to the parties. Id. ¶ 5. After numerous settlement extensions, the seller sought to terminate the contract. Id. ¶¶ 8–9. Following a summary judgment hearing, the district court determined that the contract entitled the buyer to extend the settlement deadline indefinitely, “so long as valid tender of the extension payment was made.” Id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified).

¶23 On appeal, we held, in relevant part, that because the contract did “not limit the number of extension payments,” it did “not provide a date by which [seller] must perform its core obligation to complete the purchase of the Property.” Id. ¶ 34. Accordingly, we noted “that if a contract fails to specify a time of performance the law implies that it shall be done within a reasonable time under the circumstances.” Id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified). And we concluded that the district court erred in granting summary judgment that countenanced an indefinite extension of the time for performance. Id. ¶¶ 29, 32.

¶24 Similar to the seller in New York Avenue, Christopher is concerned that if we conclude that the reasonable-time rule does not apply to section 9(B) of the decree, there exists a possibility that Rhonda could opt to never sell the property and thereby retain all of the equity indefinitely. In reviewing the conclusions of the court, we must evaluate the plain language of section 9(B) of the decree to determine if the district court correctly held that the reasonable-time rule did not apply.

¶25 Based on the plain language of section 9(B), it is obvious that nowhere in its four sentences is there any provision regarding a specific date by which Rhonda must sell the property. Rhonda argues on appeal that it would be improper for the court to impose a reasonable time for performance because, unlike the contract at issue in New York Avenue, section 9(B) did not intend to “create an obligation” for the sale of the property. She further contends that sale of the property is a condition precedent, and thus, she is not required to sell the property but that if she does, Christopher would then be entitled to receive his share of the equity. We are not persuaded by Rhonda’s argument. The intent of the decree was to “resolve all issues between” the parties. Therefore, while section 9(B) was not intended to be a sales agreement, it was also not intended to allow Rhonda to indefinitely prevent the satisfaction of Christopher’s interest. See Brady v. Park, 2019 UT 16, ¶ 53, 445 P.3d 395 (“When we interpret a contract we first look at the plain language of the contract to determine the parties’ meaning and intent.”) (quotation simplified). Accordingly, we agree with Christopher that a reasonable time for performance should be implied. Thus, we conclude that the district court incorrectly determined that the reasonable-time rule was inapplicable here. We next determine what the reasonable time should be, and here we part ways with Christopher and endorse the view adopted by the commissioner.

¶26      Due to the nature of these proceedings and Christopher’s decision not to request transcripts of the prior hearings, we are unable to consider the parties’ presentations before the commissioner or the district court, including not only the arguments they made but also any evidence they introduced or evidentiary proffers they made. Even so, Christopher contends that “[a] reasonable time is defined by the parties’ intentions at the time the contract is formed, not when the dispute arises,” and that because the parties did not intend for his interest to remain unsatisfied this long, a reasonable time has long since elapsed. Conversely, Rhonda contends that “[t]he language of the Decree demonstrates that the Parties intended for [her] to be able to operate her business from the Property to support herself indefinitely.”

¶27 In consideration of what constitutes a reasonable time under the circumstances, we must discern the parties’ intentions from the language of their contract—the stipulated decree—and the relevant circumstances, but in the absence of whatever evidence might have been adduced or proffered at the hearings as we have not been favored with the transcripts. We are mindful that neither party was awarded alimony in this case, meaning Rhonda’s livelihood depended on her continued ability to operate her salon business. And it is significant that not only was no time for Rhonda‘s performance specified, but it was emphasized that Christopher shall be entitled to his equity only “when the property is sold.” The conclusion is inescapable, as determined by the commissioner, that the intention of the parties, as reflected in the language they employed, was that Rhonda’s obligation to sell the property and cash out Christopher would be triggered when she ceased to operate the salon business. That occurrence would equate to the reasonable time for her performance under the unique circumstances of this case.

II. Scope of District Court Review

¶28      Christopher next challenges the district court’s expansive consideration of the commissioner’s recommendation, arguing that the court “exceeded the scope” of his objection by addressing “matters not before the court.” We disagree with Christopher’s position. A plain reading of rule 108(f) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure requires the district court to make “independent findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the evidence.” And our jurisprudence makes clear that a district court has plenary responsibility for “what is essentially its own order.” Somer v. Somer, 2020 UT App 93, ¶ 12, 467 P.3d 924 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, we conclude that the court did not exceed the scope of its authority in reviewing the commissioner’s recommendation without being confined to the contours of the objection made by Christopher.

¶29      “We interpret court rules, like statutes and administrative rules, according to their plain language.” Day v. Barnes, 2018 UT App 143, ¶ 12, 427 P.3d 1272 (quotation simplified). Rule 108 provides a procedure by which a party may object to a commissioner’s recommendation and request that the district court review the recommendation. Within this framework, subsection (a) first indicates that a commissioner’s recommendation “is the order of the court until modified by the court” and that “[a] party may file a written objection to the recommendation.” Utah R. Civ. P. 108(a) (emphasis added). Next, subsection (b) explains that any objection “must identify succinctly and with particularity the findings of fact, the conclusions of law, or the part of the recommendation to which the objection is made and state the relief sought,” and it also provides that the accompanying memorandum of support “must explain succinctly and with particularity why the findings, conclusions, or recommendation are incorrect.” Id. R. 108(b). Lastly, subsection (f) directs that “[t]he judge will make independent findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the evidence, whether by proffer, testimony or exhibit, presented to the judge, or, if there was no hearing before the judge, based on the evidence presented to the commissioner.” Id. R. 108(f) (emphasis added). Thus, the plain language of the rule “does not provide for an appeal-like review of a commissioner’s decision, but instead requires independent findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the evidence.” Day, 2018 UT App 143, ¶ 16 (quotation simplified).

¶30 In the case at hand, after the commissioner made his recommendation, Christopher filed an objection wherein he explained that while the commissioner “correctly found” that the reasonable-time rule applied to section 9(B) of the decree, he erred because the recommendation was not based on evidence that, at the time the decree was entered, the parties intended that Rhonda would “retain the Property and all equity so long as she operated a business.” After a hearing on Christopher’s objection, the court modified the recommended order based on its independent determination that it would be “inappropriate” to apply the reasonable-time rule and “to impose a date by which the Property must be sold.” Christopher now argues that the court’s decision to modify the recommendation concerning the reasonable-time rule “exceeded the scope” of his objection because, as the objecting party, he “was entitled to define the scope of his objection, and he did so narrowly.”

¶31 We reject this argument. As just explained, when faced with an objection to a commissioner’s recommendation, the responsible district court judge is expected to make “independent findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the evidence.” Utah R. Civ. P. 108(f) (emphasis added). We have previously explained that because a commissioner’s recommendation is “the order of the district court until modified by that court,” “it would make little sense that the district court would be limited in reviewing what is essentially its own order.” Day, 2018 UT App 143, ¶ 18 (quotation simplified). Therefore, while rule 108 provides that the objecting party must proceed with “particularity” concerning the basis of the objection, Utah R. Civ. P. 108(b), that same particularity does not circumscribe the authority of the reviewing court and does not limit the reviewing court’s ability to make its own findings and conclusions, see id. R. 108(f). Thus, notwithstanding Christopher’s “narrowly” defined objection, the court’s modification of the commissioner’s recommendation did not exceed the appropriate scope of review in a procedural sense, even though we conclude that the court’s substantive conclusion was incorrect.

CONCLUSION

¶32 The district court erred because the reasonable-time rule should have been applied in this case, and the reasonable time to be imputed is essentially the time as determined by the commissioner, namely when Rhonda ceases operating her salon on the property. We remand so the court can adjust its order accordingly. At the same time, we conclude that the court did not exceed the scope of its review authority under rule 108.

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, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] Christopher, then represented by new counsel, may have been confused about this because the decree was entered on the basis of his default. But the record in this case demonstrates that Christopher was represented by counsel right up until the time the decree was entered on the basis of his stipulated default.

[3] With no transcript of the bench trial submitted by Christopher, we rely on the minutes of the proceedings found in the record. Cf. In re A. Dean Harding Marital & Family Trust, 2023 UT App 81, ¶ 85, 536 P.3d 38 (stating that “when an appellant fails to provide an adequate record on appeal, we presume the regularity of the proceedings below”) (quotation simplified).

[4] In May 2021, Christopher appealed, requesting that this court review the dismissal of the petition to modify and “all subsidiary rulings and orders leading to final judgment,” but he moved to voluntarily dismiss this appeal shortly thereafter, which motion this court granted.

[5] As with the bench trial, Christopher did not request a transcript of this hearing and we therefore rely on the minutes of the proceedings found in the appellate record to understand what occurred during the hearing. See supra note 3. While it perhaps is not always necessary to include a transcript of hearings in the appellate record, we have previously determined that a transcript “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 re A. Dean Harding Marital & Family Trust, 2023 UT App 81, ¶ 86, 536 P.3d 38“In such cases, a transcript of the hearing is necessary for us to effectively review the challenged issue” because without it “we do not know what evidence or argument the court relied on in rendering any decision.” Id. While we do have a spartan description of the hearing included in the court’s minutes, which is not without utility, we discourage parties from relying wholly on the court’s minutes when a transcript is readily available.

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Dirty Tricks to Watch Out for in Divorce

I often encounter sneaky spouses who after separation and/or after a divorce action has been filed, start sending text messages and emails to the other spouse making false claims like:

  • “Where did you take my _____” or
  • “Why did you take my _____” or
  • “Bring back my _____ that you took/stole” or
  • “Why did you give away or sell or destroy my _____.”

The items of property mentioned are either safely in the lying spouse’s possession or don’t exist at all. So why make such false claims?

To obtain ill-gotten judgments for money against the innocent spouse for “taking, hiding, destroying, selling, or giving these items away. When spouses who engage in such shenanigans succeed, it’s usually because the innocent spouse takes a “I won’t legitimize your bogus claims with a response.” But that’s exactly the trap into which the lying spouse wants you to fall. Because when you don’t respond, your spouse can then claim “See, my spouse doesn’t deny it!” ‘Think this doesn’t happen? ‘Think it doesn’t work? Think again. Don’t let this happen to you. If your spouse start making such false claims to or against you, respond immediately and unequivocally AND IN WRITING (e-mail is best for this, but text message is OK too—make sure you keep the written record that shows the date and time you sent it to your spouse):

  • “I did not take your _____. It’s in the garage right where you left it.”
  • “There is nothing to bring back because I did not take your _____. It’s in the garage right where you left it.”
  • “I did not give away or sell or destroy your _____ because you don’t own any such thing and never have.”
  • “I did not give away or sell or destroy your _____ because you gave that away to the thrift store two years ago. ”

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

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

Clark v. Clark – 2023 UT App 111

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

SUSAN JEANNE CLARK,

Appellee,

v.

RICHARD LEE CLARK,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210713-CA

Filed September 28, 2023

Fourth District Court, Heber Department

The Honorable Jennifer A. Brown

No. 184500153

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

Julie J. Nelson, Attorney for Appellee

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

MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and RYAN D. TENNEY

concurred.

OLIVER, Judge:

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

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

ANALYSIS

I. Pretrial Disclosures

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Dissipation

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

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

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

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

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

III. Marital Property

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

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

A.        Mooring Drive

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

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

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

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

B.        The Harley-Davidson

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

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

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

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

C.        $30,000 Offset

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

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

. . . erred”).

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

CONCLUSION

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Going Through a Divorce. She Moved Out. I Continued Mortgage Alone for a Year. I Move Out, She Moves in and Never Pays for 9 Months. I Pay to Get It Out. Does She Owe Me?

This is a great question. Thank you for asking it. It’s a question that arises frequently in divorce situations. And you’re likely not going to like the answer.

It could go either way.

There can be many other factors that the court might need to consider to ensure that its decision is a truly equitable one, but generally speaking:

  • It is certainly possible that the court would find fault with your wife for residing alone in the marital home without paying at least half of the mortgage payments during that period and order her to reimburse you for the 9 months you paid the mortgage when she refused to do so. Indeed, odds are that the court would take this position.
  • But it is possible for the court to rule that your wife owes you nothing, especially if she is unemployed due to being a full-time homemaker/mother or employed but earns substantially less than you do. In other words, the court can take a “who is in the best position financially to absorb this cost?” approach.

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

https://www.quora.com/Going-through-a-divorce-she-moved-out-I-continued-mortgage-alone-for-a-year-I-move-out-she-moves-in-and-never-pays-for-9-months-I-pay-to-get-it-out-Does-she-owe-me

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I Bought a House, Then Got Married. Me and My Partner Then Divorced. Can She Take the House? This Is in NY.

I am not licensed to practice law in the state of New York, but I will answer your question according to the law of the jurisdiction where I do practice law (Utah) because that may give you an idea of how the issue is treated in Utah. You will need to consult with a knowledgeable New York family law attorney to know the correct answer to your question as it applies under New York law.

The decision in the Utah case of Lindsey v. Lindsey (392 P.3d 968, 833 Utah Adv. Rep. 16, 2017 UT App 38) is a perfect explanation of the circumstances under which a spouse’s separate property can be awarded to the other spouse in a divorce case, so I will cite excerpts from that decision below (I did not include the footnotes from the decision):

ANALYSIS

¶31 When distributing “marital property in a divorce proceeding, the overriding consideration is that the ultimate division be equitable-that property be fairly divided between the parties.” Granger v. Granger, 2016 UT App 117, ¶ 15, 374 P.3d 1043 (brackets, citation, and internal quotation marks omitted). To that end, a trial court must first “identify the property in dispute and determine whether it is marital or separate.” Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 121 (brackets, citation, and internal quotation marks omitted). Marital property ordinarily includes “all property acquired during marriage,” “whenever obtained and from whatever source derived.” Dunn v. Dunn, 802 P.2d 1314, 1317-18 (Utah Ct. App. 1990) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Separate property ordinarily includes premarital property, gifts, and inheritances, including any appreciation that may accrue during the marriage. See Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 143; Mortensen v. Mortensen, 760 P.2d 304, 308 (Utah 1988).

¶32 The presumption is that marital property will be divided equally while separate property will not be divided at all. See Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 121; Dunn, 802 P.2d at 1323. Married persons have a right to separately own and enjoy property, and that right does not dissipate upon divorce. See Mortensen, 760 P.2d at 308. Thus, equity generally requires that “each party retain the separate property he or she brought into the marriage, including any appreciation” thereof. Dunn, 802 P.2d at 1320, 1323; accord Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 143; Mortensen, 760 P.2d at 308.

¶33 But separate property “is not totally beyond a court’s reach.” Elman v. Elman, 2002 UT App 83, ¶ 19, 45 P.3d 176 (brackets, citation, and internal quotation marks omitted). Before carving property out of the marital estate, a trial court must consider whether circumstances warrant an equitable override of the separate-property retention rule. See Henshaw v. Henshaw, 2012 UT App 56, ¶ 15, 271 P.3d 837. Three circumstances have been identified under Utah law as supporting an award of separate property at the time of divorce. These exceptions are when separate property has been commingled [the Lindsey v. Lindsey case did not treat the commingling exception, so I will provide some information on that in a footnote to this answer[1]]; when the other spouse has augmented, maintained, or protected the separate property [the contribution exception]; and in extraordinary situations when equity so demands. See Mortensen, 760 P.2d at 308; Dunn, 802 P.2d at 1320. The latter two exceptions are at issue here.

*****

¶35 Under the contribution exception, a spouse’s separate property may be subject to equitable distribution when “the other spouse has by his or her efforts or expense contributed to the enhancement, maintenance, or protection of that property, thereby acquiring an equitable interest in it.” Mortensen, 760 P.2d at 308. This exception may be satisfied when one spouse brings assets into the marriage and the other spouse’s prudent investment of those assets substantially increases their value, see Dubois v. Dubois, 504 P.2d 1380, 1381 (Utah 1973), or when marital funds are expended or marital debt is incurred for the benefit of one spouse’s separate property, see Schaumberg v. Schaumberg, 875 P.2d 598, 602-03 (Utah Ct. App. 1994). In addition, this court has contemplated that the exception might apply when one spouse works for a business owned by the other spouse but is not “paid a wage or salary,” see Rappleye v. Rappleye, 855 P.2d 260, 262-63 (Utah Ct. App. 1993), or when a spouse elects to forgo salary or related compensation that would have benefited the marriage so that those funds may be reinvested in his or her separate business, see Keyes v. Keyes, 2015 UT App 114, ¶ 30, 351 P.3d 90. Under such circumstances, one spouse’s effort or investment may render the other spouse’s underlying asset, its appreciated value, or some portion thereof subject to equitable distribution. See, e.g., Schaumberg, 875 P.2d at 602-03.

¶36 While spouses often contribute to one another’s financial success in a variety of ways, Utah law draws a line between contributions that qualify as “enhancement, maintenance or protection” of a spouse’s separate property and those that do not. See Jensen v. Jensen, 2009 UT App 1, ¶¶ 11, 16, 203 P.3d 1020 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Under Utah law, perhaps the most common type of spousal assistance-taking on some measure of household or family responsibilities to allow the other spouse to spend time enhancing the value of his or her separate property-has been rejected as a standalone basis for awarding separate property under the contribution theory. See id. ¶ 16.

¶37 As this court concluded in Jensen, one spouse’s efforts to “maintain[] the household,” provide childcare, and run a part-time business that “contributed to [the] family finances” were insufficient to justify awarding even “part” of the appreciated value of the other spouse’s interest in the corporation of which he was president. Id. ¶¶ 4, 10-11, 15-16 (internal quotation marks omitted). Although the wife’s efforts may have enabled her husband to devote his attention to his employment, she had not sufficiently contributed to the increase in value of the corporation’s equity: “Wife did not assist in running the business nor contribute in any way to its increase in equity. Moreover, it [was] unclear whether the increase in equity was due to anything other than inflation.” Id. ¶ 16. Likewise, in Kunzler v. Kunzler, the contribution exception was not triggered by one spouse’s assumption of household responsibilities, which allowed the other spouse “to focus his time and energy on preserving and increasing the value” of his separate property. 2008 UT App 263, ¶¶ 19 & n.5, 32, 37, 190 P.3d 497.

¶38 The division of labor among married parties may take any number of forms, and the give-and-take often inherent in marital relationships is generally not a sufficient basis for judicially rewriting title to property. The presumption that parties retain their separate property at divorce would be rendered largely irrelevant if rebutted by any spousal effort that freed the other spouse to work on his or her separate property. Thus, for purposes of this exception, direct involvement with or financial expenditures toward a spouse’s separate property appear to be key.

*****

  1. The Extraordinary Circumstances Exception

¶46 Under Utah law, a spouse’s separate property may be awarded to the other spouse “in extraordinary situations where equity so demands.” Elman v. Elman, 2002 UT App 83, ¶ 19, 45 P.3d 176 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The bar for establishing an extraordinary situation is high, traditionally requiring that “invasion of a spouse’s separate property” is “the only way to achieve equity.” Kunzler v. Kunzler, 2008 UT App 263, ¶ 35, 190 P.3d 497. A quintessential extraordinary situation arises when a spouse owns separate property but lacks income to provide alimony; in that circumstance, “an equitable distribution of the [separate property] would be well within the trial court’s discretion.” See id. ¶ 37; see also Burt v. Burt, 799 P.2d 1166, 1169 (Utah Ct. App. 1990) (“The court may award an interest in the inherited property to the non-heir spouse in lieu of alimony.”). An extraordinary situation has also arisen under “very unique” circumstances in which, absent the exception, a husband would have shared in profits his wife created as to their marital property, but she would not have shared in profits he created-and which she enabled him to create-with respect to his separate property. Elman, 2002 UT App 83, ¶ 24 & n.5.

¶47 Depending on the facts of a specific case, a court might take into account the rate of return earned on separate property during the marriage when determining whether an extraordinary situation exists or in calculating the amount of any such award. See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 20, 26, 29-30 (affirming an award of “a small share of the appreciation on [the husband’s] partnership interests,” which was “only above a reasonable rate of appreciation”). But an award of separate property may also be independent of any rate of return earned on the property during the marriage. See Henshaw v. Henshaw, 2012 UT App 56, ¶ 20 n.7, 271 P.3d 837 (rejecting the argument that, because the spouse’s separate property declined in value during the marriage, the other spouse could not receive an equitable interest under the “extraordinary situations” exception (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)). If a court were to award separate property due to a spouse’s inability to pay alimony, for example, that award could well be made irrespective of the rate of return earned on the property during the marriage.

[1] On the commingling exception:

See Dahl v. Dahl, 459 P.3d 276 (Utah 2015), 2015 UT 79

¶143 “Generally, premarital property, gifts, and inheritances [are considered] separate property, and the spouse bringing such … property into the marriage may retain it” in the event of a divorce. Keiter v. Keiter, 2010 UT App. 169, ¶ 22, 235 P.3d 782 (internal alterations omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). But premarital property may lose its separate character where the parties have inextricably commingled it with the marital estate, or where one spouse has contributed all or part of the property to the marital estate with the intent that it become joint property. Dunn, 802 P.2d at 1320. Courts look to a party’s actions as a manifestation of a spouse’s intent to contribute separate property to the marital estate. Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App. 233, ¶ 28, 217 P.3d 733.

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

(15) Eric Johnson’s answer to I bought a house, then got married. Me and my partner then divorced. Can she take the house? This is in NY. – Quora

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

2023 UT App 62 – Cox v. Cox

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

BLANCHE COX,

Appellee,

v.

JAMES A. COX,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210455-CA

Filed June 8, 2023

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Lynn W. Davis

The Honorable Robert C. Lunnen

No. 124402230

Brett D. Cragun, Attorney for Appellant

Jarrod H. Jennings, Attorney for Appellee

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

TENNEY, Judge:

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

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

BACKGROUND

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

  1. The Ruling

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

Marital Properties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alimony and Child Support

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

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

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

Marital Debts

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

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

  1. Motions for Clarification

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The Supplemental Decree

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

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

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

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

¶31      James timely appealed.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

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

ANALYSIS

¶33 A district court’s “[f]indings of fact are adequate . . . only when they are sufficiently detailed to disclose the steps by which the district court reached its ultimate conclusion on each issue.” Oldroyd v. Oldroyd, 2017 UT App 45, ¶ 5, 397 P.3d 645. When assessing a challenge to the adequacy of a district court’s findings, we look to whether the court “adequately disclosed the analytic steps” it took in reaching its conclusions. Keiter v. Keiter, 2010 UT App 169, ¶ 21, 235 P.3d 782. In this sense, the court’s findings of fact must show that its “judgment or decree follows logically from, and is supported by, the evidence.” Id. ¶ 17 (quotation simplified). “This obligation facilitates meaningful appellate review and ensures the parties are informed of the trial court’s reasoning.” Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 5, 406 P.3d 258; see also Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 22, 379 P.3d 882 (explaining that findings “are adequate when they contain sufficient detail to permit appellate review to ensure that the district court’s discretionary determination was rationally based”). While “unstated findings can be implied if it is reasonable to assume that the trial court actually considered the controverted evidence and necessarily made a finding to resolve the controversy, but simply failed to record the factual determination it made,” Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 22 (quotation simplified), we “will not imply any missing finding where there is a matrix of possible factual findings and we cannot ascertain the trial court’s actual findings,” Hall v. Hall, 858 P.2d 1018, 1025–26 (Utah Ct. App. 1993) (quotation simplified).

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

  1. Marital Properties

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

  1. The Hildale Home

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

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

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

  1. The Henderson Home

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

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

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

  1. The Eagle Mountain Home

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

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

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

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

  1. The Rockville Property

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

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

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

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

  1. The Cedar Highlands Lots

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

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

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

  1. Child Support and Alimony

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

  1. Blanche’s Income

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Blanche’s Financial Condition and Needs

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

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

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

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

III. Marital Debts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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How Do I Find Out if My Spouse Is Hiding Cryptocurrency in Our Divorce Action?

Many people going through a divorce wonder whether they should be worried about whether their spouses are hiding assets and wealth in the form of cryptocurrency. In Utah, earned income of each spouse earned during the marriage is marital property. If you or your spouse starting mining cryptocurrency during the marriage, those assets are marital assets. If you or your spouse purchased cryptocurrency or if existing cryptocurrency acquired during the marriage increased in value, those too are marital assets.

Is cryptocurrency an easier way to hide assets than the ways that existed before the invention of cryptocurrency? Not really. Hiding an asset really comes down to concealing its acquisition and existence or getting your or at least the court to believe that the asset no longer exists. People have been hiding assets in divorce forever. Siphoning off small amounts of money over time that can be explained away and then depositing the funds in secret bank accounts or hiding them in a coffee can. Cooking the books at work (if one is self-employed) to report less income than one really earns, working side jobs and never informing one’s spouse or the government of the income, etc. Whether one gets away with hiding assets depends upon how well one hides those assets. Cryptocurrency itself is essentially no easier to hide than cash, it’s just a new kind of asset. Just because it’s digital doesn’t make its existence easier to deny or hide. But if your spouse is hiding cryptocurrency and isn’t doing a very good job of it, here are some ways you may discover it:

  1. Review bank and other financial institution statements.

While it is possible to acquire cryptocurrency by means other than buying it with cash, purchasing with cash is the most common way. So if your spouse was foolish enough to purchase cryptocurrency with a credit or debit card or online, those means of purchasing may leave a trace in your spouse’s bank, credit card, or other financial account statements by identifying the transaction, the seller, and/or what was purchased.

  1. Check your spouse’s computers, phone, and other digital information storage devices.

Cryptocurrency is stored digitally, and that requires a digital storage device. Computers, smartphones, and tablets have hard drives, which are digital information storage devices. And don’t forget thumb drives (USB storage) and the cloud. Cryptocurrency is identified by a “key” (also known as a “private key”), and a key is string of characters used to spend and exchange different cryptocurrencies. Multiple keys are stored in a digital “wallet”. Buying, selling, and trading cryptocurrency is conducted on cryptocurrency exchanges. These exchanges are accessed through apps. Your spouse may also receive e-mail messages from his/her cryptocurrency wallet provider or from people and entities your spouse deals when buying and exchanging cryptocurrency. So you may want to explore your spouse’s computers, smartphones, tablets, and storage devices/services to hunt for wallets and keys and for cryptocurrency exchange apps. Caution: there are state and federal privacy and wiretapping laws, so whether you can snoop around without an attorney’s help or a court order is a question you want to ask and have answered before you start your search.

  1. Unaccounted for online purchases, online sales and other online transactions.

While most cryptocurrency these days is purchased with real money first, that’s not the only way to obtain it. And one way to hide cryptocurrency is to hide the means by which it was obtained. One way to do that is by accepting cryptocurrency in exchange for selling something. That way, your spouse receives cryptocurrency without having left any record of purchasing it. And the account that receives the cryptocurrency need not be a bank account, which makes it easier to hide both the account and to move the cryptocurrency around without it showing on any of your spouse’s bank statements.

  1. Loan and credit applications and tax returns.

Your spouse may feel OK lying to you about his/her cryptocurrency holdings, but may not feel so comfortable lying to the government. So check your spouse’s personal and business tax returns to see if your spouse reports cryptocurrency there. And your spouse may have wanted to appear more flush by identifying his/her cryptocurrency holdings to potential creditors on loan and credit applications.

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

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Mower v. Mower – 2023 UT App 10 – Death of Spouse Before Court Rules

2023 UT App 10

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

LIDIA V. MOWER,

Appellant,

v.

THOMAS W. MOWER, Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20210101-CA

Filed January 20, 2023

Fourth District Court, American Fork Department

The Honorable Roger W. Griffin No. 124100133

Cassie J. Medura and Jarrod H. Jennings, Attorneys for Appellant

Douglas B. Thayer and Mark R. Nelson, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

ORME, Judge:

¶1 Thomas E. Mower and Lidia V. Mower stipulated to a bifurcated divorce in which the district court dissolved their marriage but reserved for trial all other issues, which were the subject of contentious litigation. Thomas died after the trial concluded but shortly before the court issued its ruling that would have resolved all but one issue. As a result of Thomas’s death, the court held that it no longer had jurisdiction over the divorce action and closed the case, indicating that Lidia could pursue any surviving claims in probate court against Thomas’s estate.[1]

¶2 On appeal, Lidia argues that the court erroneously concluded that the unresolved claims in the divorce action abated on Thomas’s death. Thomas’s son, Thomas W. Mower (Thomas Jr.), in his capacity as special administrator of the Estate of Thomas E. Mower, by special appearance represents his late father’s interests on appeal. See generally Utah R. App. P. 38(a), (c). We hold that under the facts of this case, Thomas’s death did not deprive the court of jurisdiction to resolve most of the unresolved claims. Accordingly, we reverse and remand.

BACKGROUND

¶3 Thomas and Lidia married in 2001. Lidia initiated divorce proceedings in 2012. The ensuing litigation was very contentious and involved complex issues including grounds for divorce, a request for a retroactive increase in alimony,[2] custody of and parent-time with their child born during the marriage, child support, the potential equitable division of a large estate that was arguably “worth upwards of $150,000,000,”[3] and attorney fees.

¶4 In May 2013, on the parties’ stipulation, the district court entered a bifurcated decree of divorce, dissolving the parties’ marriage but reserving all other issues for trial. The court ruled that it would “value the estate as of the date this divorce decree enters rather than at the day of trial” and that “[a]ll other issues of dispute will remain open for further resolution by the Court.” Following entry of the bifurcated divorce decree, both parties remarried.

¶5 Four and a half years later, the bench trial in this case, which “included voluminous exhibits and witness testimony,” was held over the course of sixteen days between November 2017 and December 2018. Although the matter came under advisement awaiting a final ruling in January 2020, the district court “held status conferences to work through issues as they arose,” with the most recent one being held in July 2020.

¶6 Thomas passed away on August 2, 2020. The following day, the district court issued a ruling stating it would close the divorce action in twenty days unless it received a valid objection and a supporting memorandum. Lidia objected, filing a Motion for Entry of Final Property Division and a Rule 25 Motion to Substitute Party. Regarding the latter motion, Lidia requested that “the personal representative or other appropriate party” be substituted in the divorce action “to allow the Court to issue a final ruling regarding property settlement and all outstanding financial issues in this case.” See generally Utah R. Civ. P. 25(a)(1) (“If a party dies and the claim is not thereby extinguished, the court may order substitution of the proper parties.”). Thomas’s counsel opposed Lidia’s objection and motions.[4]

¶7 In February 2021, following argument on the issues, the court overruled Lidia’s objection and denied her motions. The court first stated that shortly before Thomas’s death, it had completed “its findings of fact and was prepared to issue a ruling reserving only a single outstanding issue that [it] intended to invite the parties to address via supplemental briefing.” Despite this, following a lengthy discussion of Porenta v. Porenta, 2017 UT 78, 416 P.3d 487, the court held that its prior orders regarding child support, parent-time, and custody abated upon Thomas’s death and that Lidia, as the surviving party in a bifurcated divorce, was required “to pursue unresolved equitable claims to marital property before a probate court.” A few months later, the court issued a Final Order, stating, “Due to the untimely death of [Thomas], this court no longer has jurisdiction over this matter and this matter is closed.” ¶8 Lidia appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶9 Lidia argues that the court erred in closing the divorce action on the ground that Thomas’s death caused it to lose jurisdiction.[5] “We review a court’s determination of jurisdiction for correctness, granting no deference to the lower court.” In re S.W., 2017 UT 37, ¶ 7, 424 P.3d 7.

ANALYSIS

¶10 In concluding that Thomas’s death caused it to lose jurisdiction over the divorce action, the district court relied heavily on our Supreme Court’s opinion in Porenta v. Porenta, 2017 UT 78, 416 P.3d 487. In that case, during the pendency of a divorce action, the husband executed a quitclaim deed transferring his interest in the marital home to his mother in an effort to prevent the home from being distributed as part of the marital estate. Id. ¶¶ 2–3. The husband thereafter died, causing the district court to dismiss the divorce case for lack of jurisdiction. Id. ¶ 5. The wife then sued the mother, seeking to set aside the quitclaim deed under the Utah Fraudulent Transfer Act (the UFTA). Id. ¶ 6. The district court in that case ultimately ruled that the husband’s transfer of his interest in the home to his mother was fraudulent under the UFTA. Id. ¶ 8.

¶11 The mother appealed, arguing that the wife’s claim was barred because the UFTA requires an ongoing debtor-creditor relationship at the time a claim under the act is filed, which relationship the husband’s death had extinguished. Id. ¶ 9. Specifically, the mother argued that the wife’s claim against the husband “for the whole of the marital estate, including the right to preserve the joint tenancy” in the marital home, id. ¶ 14 (quotation simplified), became unenforceable when the husband died because one “cannot bring a claim against a dead person” and because “court orders that award a spouse with property abate upon the death of a spouse,” id. ¶ 16. See generally id. ¶ 12 (“The existence of a claim, or right to payment, is at the heart of the debtor-creditor relationship.”); id. ¶ 19 (“A claim for equitable distribution arises when one party in a marriage threatens divorce.”).

¶12 Quoting its prior decision in In re Harper’s Estate, 265 P.2d 1005 (Utah 1954), our Supreme Court reaffirmed that

when the death of one of the parties occurs after the entry of a divorce decree and before the decree is final the decree becomes ineffective to dissolve the marriage, death having terminated that personal relationship. However, the occurrence of death does not abate the action itself and to the extent that property rights are determined by the decree it remains effective and becomes final.

Porenta, 2017 UT 78, ¶ 20 (quotation simplified). See id. ¶ 28 (reaffirming the precedent set forth in In re Harper’s Estate). In other words, the Court held that “[t]he death of a spouse during a divorce proceeding abates the action concerning the dissolution of marriage, but it does not abate the action itself when certain property rights have been determined by the court.”[6] See id. ¶ 26 (quotation simplified). Conversely, “all interlocutory orders that are effective only during litigation,” such as orders restraining the parties from selling property or dissipating the marital estate, “abate upon the dismissal of a divorce case.” Id. ¶ 27. The court noted that this was in line with “the general rule followed in virtually all jurisdictions . . . that, after one of the spouses dies during a divorce proceeding, and during the time an appeal is pending or during the time when an appeal may be taken, a divorce or dissolution action abates with respect to marital status of the parties but does not abate with respect to property interests affected by the decree.” Id. ¶ 20 (quotation simplified).

¶13 Finally, the Court held that “[c]laims that survive the death of a party are typically chargeable against that party’s estate” and cited rule 25(a)(1) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure as a means through which to pursue such claims. Id. ¶ 30. See Utah R. Civ. P. 25(a)(1) (“If a party dies and the claim is not thereby extinguished, the court may order substitution of the proper parties.”). Because the Court presumed that the wife’s “claim for the whole of the marital estate, including the right to preserve the joint tenancy” in the marital home was not extinguished and was still valid,[7] it held that “a debtor-creditor relationship existed between Husband’s estate and Wife at the time Wife filed her UFTA claim.” Id. ¶ 36 (quotation simplified).

¶14 In sum, as relevant to the issue presented in the current appeal, Porenta provides three major takeaways. First, if a spouse dies prior to entry of a final divorce decree, the marriage no longer requires dissolution because death already “terminated that personal relationship.” Id. ¶ 20 (quotation simplified). See 27A C.J.S. Divorce § 194 (2022) (“A cause of action for divorce is purely personal, ends on the death of either spouse, and does not survive for the benefit of a third party.”); 24 Am. Jur. 2d Divorce and Separation § 118 (2022) (“[A] divorce suit abates when one party dies while the suit is pending and before a decree on the merits, because the death terminates the marriage, thus rendering the divorce suit moot as it relates to the parties’ marital status.”). Second, court orders entered prior to the final divorce decree determining the property rights of the parties do not abate on the spouse’s death. See Porenta, 2017 UT 78, ¶ 20. However, any “interlocutory orders that are effective only during litigation abate upon the dismissal of a divorce case.” Id. ¶ 27. See id. ¶ 27 n.13 (“This is not unique to the area of divorce law. Interlocutory orders that expressly expire at the end of litigation do just that, regardless of the type of case or how the litigation finally ends.”). And third, certain unresolved claims or rights arising from a divorce action may still be pursued following the spouse’s death. See id. ¶ 36. See also 24 Am. Jur. 2d Divorce and Separation § 118

(“[G]iven the circumstances presented, a portion of the dissolution action may survive an abatement of the rest of the action.”).

¶15 Regarding the third point, because the issue had not been adequately briefed, the Porenta Court specifically declined to address “[w]hether a claim for equitable distribution or some other property claim survives the death of a spouse during a divorce proceeding,” Porenta, 2017 UT 78, ¶ 17, which the Court characterized as “an issue of first impression in Utah,” id. ¶ 28. Put differently, although the Court held that a district court’s orders determining the parties’ property rights do not abate upon a spouse’s death, it declined to determine whether the same was true for unresolved claims for equitable distribution or other property claims. In any event, the case before us is on a different footing, which likewise does not necessitate that we address that specific issue.

¶16 Unlike in Porenta, Thomas died after the district court entered a bifurcated divorce decree dissolving the parties’ marriage but leaving all unresolved issues for a trial that ultimately would not be held for several more years. See generally Utah R. Civ. P. 42(b) (“The court in furtherance of convenience or to avoid prejudice may order a separate trial of any claim, cross claim, counterclaim, or third party claim, or of any separate issue or of any number of claims, cross claims, counterclaims, third party claims, or issues.”). Accordingly, because Thomas and Lidia’s marriage had already been dissolved at the time of Thomas’s death, we need not address the effect the death of a spouse has on the underlying claim for equitable distribution of the marital estate in the situation where the parties are still legally married at the time of the death.

¶17 Rather, the issue before us is more straightforward. As previously discussed, the reason a divorce action generally abates upon the death of a party is because the death already “terminated that personal relationship,” Porenta, 2017 UT 78, ¶ 20 (quotation simplified), thereby “rendering the divorce suit moot as it relates to the parties’ marital status,”[8] 24 Am. Jur. 2d Divorce and Separation § 118. But here, the parties stipulated to a bifurcated divorce, and their marriage had been dissolved several years prior to Thomas’s death. Indeed, both Thomas and Lidia had remarried. For that reason, unlike in Porenta, Thomas’s death had no legal effect on the parties’ already dissolved marriage and therefore the ground on which the divorce action discussed in Porenta abated—i.e., mootness—is not present here.

¶18 Utah courts regularly use bifurcation under rule 42(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure “to allow divorcing spouses to more expeditiously obtain a divorce before embarking upon the sometimes more complex and time-consuming tasks of determining property division and deciding matters of support.” Parker v. Parker, 2000 UT App 30, ¶ 8, 996 P.2d 565. It is uncontested that a district court’s jurisdiction “to enter equitable orders relating to the property belonging to the marital estate” is unaffected by the bifurcation. Porenta, 2017 UT 78, ¶ 19 (quotation simplified). See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). Indeed, the Utah Constitution directs, “The district court shall have original jurisdiction in all matters except as limited by this constitution or by statute[.]” Utah Const. art. VIII, § 5. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-5-102(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022) (“Except as otherwise provided by the Utah Constitution or by statute, the district court has original jurisdiction in all matters civil and criminal.”). Furthermore, divorce courts are generally “well

¶19 Here, because the parties’ marriage was already dissolved prior to Thomas’s death, mootness—a jurisdictional bar, see State v. Legg, 2016 UT App 168, ¶ 25, 380 P.3d 360—does not apply to most of the claims at issue.[9] Because no other constitutional or statutory bar to the district court’s jurisdiction exists in the case before us, the district court erred in determining that it lacked jurisdiction over all of the claims that remained at issue and in dismissing the divorce action on that ground. See Estate of Burford v. Burford, 935 P.2d 943, 955 (Colo. 1997) (stating that when one party to a divorce proceeding died following dissolution of the parties’ marriage in a bifurcated divorce, “the dissolution action did not abate, and the district court properly maintained jurisdiction over the marital estate to conduct hearings to resolve financial matters raised in the dissolution proceedings”); Fernandez v. Fernandez, 648 So. 2d 712, 714 (Fla. 1995) (agreeing “that the trial court maintained jurisdiction to enter the final judgment determining the parties’ property rights subsequent to the wife’s death” where the court had dissolved the marriage prior to her death); Barnett v. Barnett, 768 So. 2d 441, 442 (Fla. 2000) (per curiam) (“[T]he death of a party after entry of a written, signed judgment of dissolution but prior to the rendition of a decision on a timely motion for rehearing concerning matters collateral to the adjudication of dissolution did not affect the dissolution decree or divest the court of jurisdiction to decide the remaining issues between the parties.”); 27A C.J.S. Divorce § 194 (“Once a decree in divorce is granted and, thereafter, one of the parties dies, the court can continue with the equitable distribution of marital property.”).

¶20 In cases such as this, in which “a party dies and the claim is not thereby extinguished, the court may order substitution of the proper parties.” Utah R. Civ. P. 25(a)(1). See Porenta, 2017 UT 78, ¶ 30 (stating that “[c]laims that survive the death of a party are typically chargeable against that party’s estate” and citing rule 25(a)(1) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure as a means through which this may be achieved). But whether to substitute a party remains within the district court’s discretion. See Bradburn v. Alarm Prot. Tech., LLC, 2019 UT 33, ¶ 8, 449 P.3d 20 (“A district court’s substitution ruling is a discretionary one[.]”). Additionally, as Thomas Jr. points out, the district court “has inherent discretionary authority to abstain from exercising jurisdiction where another court has concurrent jurisdiction.” See Kish v. Wright, 562 P.2d 625, 628 (Utah 1977) (“[A]s part of the inherent power that our district courts have, as courts of general jurisdiction, they undoubtedly could refuse to exercise jurisdiction if convinced that it would place an unreasonable burden upon some or all of the parties, or upon the court, to try the case here.”); id. (“[T]he trial court does have concurrent jurisdiction and the power of discretion as to whether or not it will invoke that jurisdiction in a particular case.”). These are all considerations that we leave to the district court’s discretion on remand.[10]

CONCLUSION

¶21 The district court was not required to dismiss the divorce action for lack of jurisdiction following Thomas’s death. We therefore reverse and remand to the district court with instructions to reconsider Lidia’s Motion for Entry of Final Property Distribution and Rule 25 Motion to Substitute Party.

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

[1] Because the individuals share the same last name, we follow our usual practice of referring to them by their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] Lidia sought a retroactive increase of alimony for 51 months, which represented the span between entry of a temporary order awarding her alimony and her remarriage.

[3] This included the determination of what portion of the large estate constituted marital property and what portion constituted Thomas’s separate property.

[4] Thomas’s counsel continued to represent Thomas’s interests immediately after his death pursuant to Stoddard v. Smith, 2001 UT 47, 27 P.3d 546. See id. ¶ 11 (“An attorney has an ethical obligation to take the necessary steps to protect a deceased client’s interests immediately following the client’s death[.]”).

[5] Thomas Jr. asserts that the district court did not actually rule that it lost jurisdiction over the divorce action. Instead, he suggests that the court simply exercised its “inherent equitable discretion in deciding to leave [Lidia] to pursue those claims in probate court.” But although the court’s initial ruling did not invoke the specific term “jurisdiction,” it nonetheless concluded, with our emphasis, that “Utah precedent requires a surviving party in a bifurcated divorce to pursue unresolved equitable claims to marital property before a probate court.” And in its Final Order, the court clarified, “Due to the untimely death of [Thomas], this court no longer has jurisdiction over this matter and this matter is closed.” Accordingly, the court did, in fact, conclude that it lacked jurisdiction and closed the divorce action on that ground.

Lidia also argues that the district court abused its discretion when it denied her motion to substitute Thomas’s personal representative in the divorce proceeding under rule 25 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. But because the basis of the court’s denial of that motion was its lack of jurisdiction, which ruling we ultimately reverse, we remand to the district court with instructions to reconsider the rule 25 motion on the merits. See generally State v. De La Rosa, 2019 UT App 110, ¶ 4, 445 P.3d 955 (“Trial courts do not have discretion to misapply the law.”) (quotation simplified).

[6] Our Supreme Court also abandoned, as “clearly dictum,” a statement in one of its prior decisions that purported to overrule In re Harper’s EstateSee Porenta v. Porenta, 2017 UT 78, ¶ 22, 416 P.3d 487. Namely, the Court abandoned the statement that “the death of one or both parties to a divorce action during the pendency of the action causes the action itself to abate and the married couple’s status, including their property rights, reverts to what it had been before the action was filed.” Id. (quotation simplified). In other words, the Court rejected “the proposition that the parties’ property interests in the marital estate are frozen in time during the pendency of divorce litigation” and that “[i]f a party dies before the divorce becomes final, . . . property rights in the marital estate . . . are transported back in time to what they held before the divorce case was filed,” id. ¶ 23, which includes the reversal of any transfers of property that might have occurred during the pendency of the divorce action, id. ¶ 23 n.8.

[7] The court employed this presumption because the mother had not carried her burden of persuasion regarding whether property claims raised in a divorce proceeding survive the death of a spouse. See Porenta, 2017 UT 78, ¶¶ 32, 36; infra ¶ 15.

[8] The mootness doctrine “is a constitutional principle limiting our exercise of judicial power under article VIII of the Utah Constitution” and “not a simple matter of judicial convenience.” Transportation All. Bank v. International Confections Co., 2017 UT 55, ¶ 14, 423 P.3d 1171 (quotation simplified). “A case is deemed moot when the requested judicial relief cannot affect the rights of the litigants,” State v. Lane, 2009 UT 35, ¶ 18, 212 P.3d 529 (quotation simplified), thereby rendering a decision “purely advisory,” Transportation All. Bank, 2017 UT 55, ¶ 15 (quotation simplified). established as courts of equity that retain jurisdiction over the parties and subject matter for the purposes equity may demand.” Potts v. Potts, 2018 UT App 169, ¶ 13, 436 P.3d 263 (quotation simplified).

[9] Not all claims raised in the current divorce action concerned property rights. For example, it is undisputed that the claims related to custody, child support, and parent-time abated upon Thomas’s death. On remand, the district court should dismiss any remaining non-property claims that were rendered moot by Thomas’s death.

[10] We note that, sequentially, it may be more prudent for the district court to equitably distribute Lidia and Thomas’s marital estate—which potentially represents only a portion of Thomas’s vast estate that is the subject of the probate proceeding—rather than punting these issues to the probate court, especially where the district court had already prepared a ruling resolving all but one of the issues raised in the years-long divorce action that it superintended.

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Mintz v. Mintz – 2023 UT App 17

Mintz v. Mintz – 2023 UT App 17

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

RAYNA ELIZABETH MINTZ,

Appellant and Cross-appellee,

v.

GLEN RYAN MINTZ,

Appellee and Cross-appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200507-CA

Filed February 9, 2023

Third District Court, Silver Summit Department

The Honorable Kent R. Holmberg

No. 174500034

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal, Attorneys for Appellant and Cross-appellee

Thomas J. Burns and Aaron R. Harris, Attorneys for Appellee and Cross-appellant

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME and JUSTICE DIANA HAGEN concurred.[1]

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        After a lengthy marriage, Rayna and Glen Mintz[2] divorced and have since been involved in ongoing litigation regarding the distribution of marital property. Rayna and Glen now raise various issues for review, including questions about alimony, property distribution, and dissipation awards. In response to these appeals, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand to the district for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND[3]

¶2        Through more than twenty years of marriage, Rayna and Glen enjoyed a relatively luxurious lifestyle. During the marriage, in addition to meeting their regular expenses, Rayna and Glen invested money essentially as savings. Before 2014, they made deposits into investment accounts “when money was left over after normal marital spending,” and after 2014, they made direct deposits into investment accounts as part of Glen’s employment. Historically, they spent money freely, traveled frequently, and treated themselves to a variety of entertainment—often with other people. For Rayna’s part, she often invited friends to join her on different jaunts across the globe or visits to the theater. For Glen’s part, as is relevant to this appeal, he invested both time and substantial money into an extramarital affair.

¶3        Rayna and Glen financed this lifestyle through substantial income generated by Glen’s employment as an investment advisor managing the assets and investments of various clients. As a salaried employee for his employer (Employer), Glen “did not sell . . . a client list to [Employer]”; instead, he expanded the clients he serviced by creating relationships with other employees and assisting other employees in managing their clients’ assets. As part of Glen’s compensation, Employer offered cash awards distributed as forgivable loans. For each loan, Employer provided the cash to Glen up front and then forgave Glen’s payback obligation each year, leaving Glen with a decreased payback obligation but an increased tax obligation. The cash awards were deposited directly into Glen and Rayna’s investment accounts.

¶4        When Rayna discovered Glen’s infidelity, the couple sought a divorce. Ultimately, the district court made several determinations relevant to this appeal. First, although Rayna would be awarded alimony, a monthly amount for investment would be excluded from the calculation because she presented insufficient evidence to show that the parties’ investments were “standard practice during the marriage” or that they “helped form the couple’s standard of living.”

¶5        Second, although an amount for entertainment was included as a historical expense in alimony calculations, the court “divided by four” the amount Rayna had proposed because the entertainment amount was calculated based on a time “when two minor children also lived in the home.”

¶6        Third, although the list of clients Glen serviced could be considered an asset, Glen did not own a “book of business,” and accordingly, whatever value his client list contained could not be divided between the parties.

¶7        Fourth, although Glen had admitted to dissipating $75,000 on his extramarital affair and although the court determined that Rayna should be entitled to “half” that amount, in an appendix to the district court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law, designating the specific property distributions, the court provided no amount in the space for money awarded to Rayna because of Glen’s dissipation.

¶8        And fifth, although Rayna would receive what Glen argued was an investable property distribution, the court declined to include investment income in its alimony calculation because (1) the likelihood of a specific return was uncertain, (2) Rayna’s investment income should be left unencumbered as was Glen’s, and (3) the parties had traditionally reinvested investment income instead of living off it.

¶9        Following entry of the divorce decree, Rayna filed a motion to enforce, asserting that various investment accounts at issue in the divorce “were not divided immediately after trial and that they subsequently appreciated in value.” Accordingly, Rayna sought an order requiring Glen to transfer holdings “equivalent to her proportionate share of appreciation since trial.” However, before the hearing on that motion, Rayna filed a notice of appeal. At the hearing, the court determined that the enforcement order Rayna requested would require the court to not just enforce the order but to “read language into [the decree] and interpret [the decree] in a way that modifie[d] or amend[ed]” it. Because a notice of appeal had been filed in the case, the court determined it had been “divested of jurisdiction” to amend the decree and therefore could not provide the relief Rayna requested.

¶10      On these issues, Rayna and Glen both appeal.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶11      First, Rayna contends that the court abused its discretion through its award of alimony. Specifically, Rayna contends that (1) the court “misapplied Utah law” when it declined to award alimony consistent with historical investment and (2) the court entered unsupported findings of fact in reducing her entertainment expenses. “We review a district court’s alimony determination for an abuse of discretion and will not disturb its ruling on alimony as long as the court exercises its discretion within the bounds and under the standards we have set and has supported its decision with adequate findings and conclusions.” Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 16, 452 P.3d 1134 (cleaned up). However, misapplication of the law is a de facto abuse of discretion, and an alimony award based on a misapprehension of the law will not be upheld. See Bjarnson v. Bjarnson, 2020 UT App 141, ¶ 5, 476 P.3d 145. Moreover, an alimony award based on clearly erroneous findings of fact will be overturned, see Leppert v. Leppert, 2009 UT App 10, ¶ 8, 200 P.3d 223, as will be an incorrect determination that evidence is insufficient to support an award, see Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 14, 217 P.3d 733. “[U]nder our clearly erroneous standard, we will disturb a court’s factual findings only where the court’s conclusions do not logically follow from, or are not supported by, the evidence.” Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 32.

¶12      Second, Rayna contends that the district court erred when it determined that the list of clients Glen managed as an investment advisor (the book of business) was not a divisible marital asset. “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.” Talley v. Talley, 739 P.2d 83, 84 (Utah Ct. App. 1987).

¶13 Third, Rayna contends that the district court failed to award or reimburse her half of the amount that Glen dissipated. “Where the trial court’s conclusions of law do not properly follow from the findings of fact, those conclusions can be overturned on appeal.” Cowley v. Porter, 2005 UT App 518, ¶ 46, 127 P.3d 1224.

¶14 Fourth, Rayna contends that the court erred in determining, based on the divorce decree’s language, that it lacked jurisdiction to grant Rayna appreciation on investment account awards. We review for correctness the district court’s interpretation of a divorce decree, Mitchell v. Mitchell, 2011 UT App 41, ¶ 5, 248 P.3d 65, and the district court’s “determination on jurisdictional issues,” National Advert. Co. v. Murray City Corp., 2006 UT App 75, ¶ 11, 131 P.3d 872 (cleaned up).

¶15      Fifth, on cross-appeal, Glen contends that the district court abused its discretion when it did not “determine an amount of income that Rayna [would] be able to earn from her awarded investment account assets and . . . apply that income to her ability to pay for her marital standard of living.” As indicated above, we review the district court’s alimony determination for abuse of discretion. See Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 16.

ANALYSIS
I. Alimony

A.        Investment

¶16 Rayna contends that the district court erred in excluding from the alimony award an amount reflective of historical investment. Specifically, Rayna argues that the court misunderstood the phrases “standard practice” and “marital standard of living” as these phrases have been employed in Utah caselaw concerning the appropriateness of alimony awards that include amounts for investment or savings. Rayna argues that the parties made deposits into investment accounts as a standard practice that contributed to their marital standard of living, and she asserts that she should have received a higher alimony award to be able to continue this practice and maintain her standard of living. On appeal, we conclude that the district court erred in its application of the law on this point.

¶17      In Bakanowski v. Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, 80 P.3d 153, we indicated that “while the recipient spouse’s need to fund post-divorce savings, investment, or retirement accounts may not ordinarily be factored into an alimony determination, we cannot say that the ability to fund such post-divorce accounts may never be taken into account as part of” that analysis. Id. ¶ 16. Rather, “[t]he critical question is whether funds for post-divorce savings, investment, and retirement accounts are necessary because contributing to such accounts was standard practice during the marriage and helped to form the couple’s marital standard of living.” Id. (emphasis added); see also Knowles v. Knowles, 2022 UT App 47, ¶ 57 n.8, 509 P.3d 265; Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 58 n.8, 496 P.3d 242. Thus, the court should, as a legal matter, ensure it employs the correct legal definitions of standard practice and marital standard of living, apply the facts of a given case to those definitions, and then determine whether the facts as found meet the criteria for a savings-based alimony award.

¶18      First, the district court erred in concluding that Rayna and Glen’s undisputed course of conduct did not demonstrate a standard practice. See Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 16; Kemp v. Kemp, 2001 UT App 157U, paras. 3–4, 2001 WL 522413. When the Bakanowski court provided the test for appropriate consideration of savings, investment, and retirement accounts in alimony calculations, it cited Kemp v. Kemp, in which the court reasoned that because “the parties had made regular savings deposits,” including savings in the alimony award could help “maintain the recipient spouse’s marital standard of living.” See 2001 UT App 157Uparas. 3–4 (emphasis added).

¶19 An event must certainly be recurring but need not be uniformly systematic to be considered “regular.” See id. at para. 3. Indeed, “something can be done ‘regularly’ if done whenever the opportunity arises, though the actual time sequence may be sporadic.” Youth Tennis Found. v. Tax Comm’n, 554 P.2d 220, 223 (Utah 1976); see also Allen Distrib., Inc. v. Industrial Comm’n, 604 P.2d 938, 940 (Utah 1979) (reciting the then-enacted workers’ compensation laws that provided that “regularly” could include employment “continuous throughout the year or for only a portion of the year” (cleaned up)); Holt v. Industrial Comm’n, 87 P.2d 686, 689 (Utah 1939) (defining “regularly employed” to include “all employees who are employed and engaged in the usual or regular business of the employer, regardless of whether they were regularly or only casually or occasionally employed” (cleaned up)). Thus, even though an activity may “occur[] at intermittent times,” it can still be a regular activity. See Youth Tennis, 554 P.2d at 223 (cleaned up); see also B.L. Key, Inc. v. Utah State Tax Comm’n, 934 P.2d 1164, 1166 (Utah Ct. App. 1997). And although “regular” could also be understood to require methodic uniformity, see Valentine v. Farmers Ins. Exch., 2006 UT App 301, ¶ 11, 141 P.3d 618 (noting that “‘regular use’ connotes use that is consistent with a recurring pattern or uniform course of conduct or dealing” and that it “embodies use that is marked by a pattern of usage or some frequency of usage”); Youth Tennis, 554 P.2d at 223 (noting that “one of the meanings of the term ‘regular’ is: ‘Steady or uniform in course, practice or occurrence’” (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 1450 (Rev. 4th Ed. 1968))), there exists no requirement that savings or investment deposits be made with uniform frequency.

¶20      Accordingly, even if savings deposits and investments do not occur on an exact timetable, such marital expenditures can be considered a standard practice, see Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 16, in those infrequent and unusual circumstances where a party can produce sufficiently persuasive evidence that savings deposits and investments were a recurring marital action “whenever the opportunity ar[ose], though the actual time sequence may be sporadic.” See Youth Tennis, 554 P.2d at 223; see also Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 16.

¶21 The district court found that Rayna did not present “sufficient evidence” to show that contributing to savings and investment accounts was the standard practice during the marriage. But on appeal, neither party appears to dispute that the district court was presented with evidence that before 2014 the parties invested substantial amounts of income at least yearly and that after 2014 a substantial portion of Glen’s income was deposited directly into investment accounts at least yearly. Accordingly, for nearly a decade immediately preceding the divorce, the parties set aside substantial money for investments at least annually. This undisputed evidence established that the parties followed a regular pattern, i.e., a “standard practice,” see Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 16, of investing a portion of their annual income. In other words, given these undisputed facts, we conclude the district court applied too narrow a definition of standard practice in rejecting this evidence as insufficient.

¶22 Second, to justify an alimony award that includes an amount for investment, the parties’ acts of investing must also contribute to the “marital standard of living.” Id. “Standard of living is defined as a minimum of necessities, comforts, or luxuries that is essential to maintaining a person in customary or proper status or circumstances.” Howell v. Howell, 806 P.2d 1209, 1211 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (cleaned up) (emphasis added). In other words, in the alimony context, the marital standard of living is all that the parties enjoyed during the marriage—including luxuries and customary allocations—by virtue of their financial position. See id.see also Rule v. Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 15, 402 P.3d 153.

¶23 In Knowles v. Knowles, 2022 UT App 47, 509 P.3d 265, the trial court refused to include tithing expenditures as part of the alimony calculation because it was “not a necessary living expense.” Id. ¶ 57 (cleaned up). On appeal, we reversed that decision, explaining that it “ignored the requirement that [trial courts] assess the expense based on how the parties chose to spend and allocate their money while married.” Id. (emphasis added). “By failing to assess whether the parties’ expenditures were consistent with the marital standard of living, the court abused its discretion.” Id.

¶24 The marital standard of living analysis is not merely a question about what the parties spent their money on or whether they spent it at all. Rather, in terms of alimony, the marital standard of living analysis is about whether the parties’ proposed points of calculation are consistent with the parties’ manner of living and financial decisions (i.e., the historical allocation of their resources). Something may contribute to the marital standard of living even though it may not result in a direct benefit or detriment to the marital estate’s net worth.

¶25      Like the trial court in Knowles, the district court here did not fully consider how the parties chose to “allocate” their income. See id. The parties’ choice to devote a substantial portion of income to investment and savings—much like the parties in Knowles chose to devote a substantial portion of their income to tithing, see id.—contributed to the parties’ marital standard of living. The court should consider this evidence in determining the amount of investment and savings expenditures to include in its alimony calculations. See id.see also, e.g.Lombardi v. Lombardi, 145 A.3d 709, 716 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2016) (“An appropriate rate of savings can, and in the appropriate case should, be considered as a living expense when considering an award of maintenance.” (cleaned up)); Bryant v. Bryant, 534 S.E.2d 230, 232 (N.C. Ct. App. 2000) (“The trial court may also consider established patterns of contributing to savings as part of the parties’ standard of living.” (cleaned up)); In re Marriage of Stenzel, 908 N.W.2d 524, 536 (Iowa Ct. App. 2018) (“[R]etirement savings in a reasonable sum may be a part of the needs analysis in fixing spousal support.”).

¶26 Below, the district court declared that “Rayna ha[d] not convinced the court that [the couple’s] savings [practices] somehow helped form the couple’s standard of living.” The court continued, “There was no evidence that the deposits into the investment accounts were used to fund future purchases or otherwise contributed to the marital standard of living.” In making this ruling, the district court apparently relied on Kemp, where the court found that “during their marriage, the parties had made regular savings deposits to fund future major purchases, rather than making those purchases on credit.” 2001 UT App 157U, para. 3. Including saved money in the “marital standard of living,” however, does not require a party to spend it, as the parties did in Kemp. Our precedent does not exclude prudent saving from the definition of the marital standard of living. Indeed, it would be a perverse state of the law if we, as a rule, always included in an alimony calculation all sums parties spent, even imprudently, but excluded sums wisely saved.

¶27      The parties presented evidence (and on appeal the parties continue to agree) that the investments were meant to facilitate future financial growth; that during the economic recession in 2008, the parties dipped into their investments to maintain their standard of living; and that they later used investments to pay tax obligations incurred because of Glen’s compensation structure. The very fact that such a substantial amount of Glen’s income went straight to investment that then served to pay off a tax obligation represents the type of allocation that constituted part of the marital standard of living. An understanding of the marital standard of living that is restricted to direct and immediate expenses is simply too limited. Instead, the use of marital funds to cover the parties’ investments and savings—provided it was standard practice during the marriage—is a proper consideration in determining the marital standard of living. See Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 16.

¶28 In sum, the district court erred in concluding that insufficient evidence supported Rayna’s request to include amounts for investment in alimony calculations. The undisputed evidence established that it was both a standard practice to invest marital assets annually and that this pattern of investment contributed to the marital standard of living. We remand the case to the district court to recalculate alimony based on the amount that the couple’s historical investment contributed to the marital standard of living. See Bjarnson v. Bjarnson, 2020 UT App 141, ¶ 5, 476 P.3d 145 (“We will reverse if the court has not exercised its discretion within the bounds and under the standards we have set.” (cleaned up)).

B.         Entertainment

¶29 Rayna also contends that the district court “entered a factual finding that was unsupported by the evidence regarding [her] entertainment expenses.” This is so, she argues, because testimony at trial established that the amount she originally requested for entertainment as part of her living expenses was “carved out . . . for her alone” and because the evidence, including the exhibit used to calculate her living expenses, did not otherwise suggest that the amount should have been reduced as it was by the district court. We agree that the district court’s reduction of Rayna’s entertainment expenses was based on clearly erroneous findings of fact because “the court’s conclusions do not logically follow from” and are not supported by “the evidence.” See Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 32, 452 P.3d 1134.

¶30      In determining the amount for entertainment expenses to include in its alimony calculation, the district court stated that the amount “presents expenses calculated for . . . years . . . when two minor children also lived in the home. Therefore, this amount should have been divided by four.” The district court reduced the amount it considered in its alimony calculation related to entertainment accordingly. However, this does not follow from the evidence presented at trial.

¶31      As an initial matter, when asked about the entertainment line item, Rayna testified that she loved “to go to concerts,” that she went “to New York City to the ballet [and] to the theater,” and that she generally hosted a friend on those trips. And testimony from Rayna’s expert on the matter explained that the amount was for “entertainment that she would normally spend on a monthly basis” and, specifically, that the amount was “what she actually spent if . . . carved out [for] her alone.” (Emphasis added.)

¶32      Glen attempts to provide support for the district court’s apparently contrary finding by suggesting that several line items on Rayna’s living-expense exhibit included a note that the amount was for “Rayna Only,” and that based on this notation, the district court “acted within its appropriate discretion” when it determined the amount requested for entertainment should be reduced because that line item did not include that note. However, in our review of the exhibit referred to by Glen, of the thirty-nine line items listed, only three specify that the amount was for “Rayna Only.” Yet some of the unmarked items reflect amounts the parties agree were spent on Rayna alone. Therefore, the absence of the “Rayna Only” notation does not necessarily reflect that those items were not for “Rayna Only.” And further, a line item for “Money Spent on Kids” specifically notes that it includes “Entertainment” expenses for those children. If Rayna’s entertainment expenses included money spent on the children, there would be no need to include a separate line item for entertainment under “Money Spent on Kids.” Moreover, we note that the district court’s determination that the amount should be “divided by four” because “two minor children also lived in the home” does not quite add up. Rayna and two children add up to three, and whether the court also included Glen or the friends Rayna often hosted is unclear from the court’s findings of fact. Either way, the justification does not appear to support the reduction.

¶33      Accordingly, the district court’s reduction of the alimony amount requested for entertainment contradicts not only the direct testimony at trial but also the very exhibit on which the court expressly based its findings. Because the court’s conclusions do not logically follow from and are not supported by the evidence, we determine that this portion of the award is based on clearly erroneous findings of fact, and we therefore remand to the district court for clarification and correction of the matter. See Leppert v. Leppert, 2009 UT App 10, ¶ 8, 200 P.3d 223; Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 32.

II. Book of Business

¶34      Rayna next opposes the district court’s determination that the book of business “was not a divisible marital asset.” However, to prevail on such a contention, Rayna would need to show that the court clearly abused its discretion, see Talley v. Talley, 739 P.2d 83, 84 (Utah Ct. App. 1987), something she has not done here.

¶35      In dealing with Rayna’s argument that Glen owned a book of business that should be a divisible marital asset, the district court first explained that the alleged book of business, comprising “a client list and the assets under management from these clients,” constituted an “asset” as a legal matter —a determination neither party appears to challenge on appeal. But the court did not stop there, determining next that this “asset” was owned not by Glen but by Employer.

¶36 The court explained its reasoning in over five pages of detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Throughout those pages, the district court explained, among other things, that although Glen had extensive experience in his field and a portion of his compensation required him to meet lofty expectations concerning the funds he managed, “[w]hen Glen began work for [Employer], he did not sell a book of business or a client list to [Employer]”; “[n]owhere within [the relevant employment documents] did [Employer] indicate that it was purchasing any client list from Glen or that Glen was selling anything at all to [Employer]”; and “Rayna ha[d] not presented any evidence that Glen sold any client list, client information, or other asset to [Employer] as a condition of his hiring.” Further, Glen “worked as an employee of [Employer]”; “ha[d] been paid a salary . . . as a W-2 employee”; and “expand[ed] the client list” by, in part, “creat[ing] relationships with other . . . employees who advise individuals that they service to place assets under Glen’s management.” The court then noted that often “Glen manages assets owned by numerous individuals and entities with whom he has no personal relationship.”

¶37 The court then described various agreements concerning Glen’s compensation and employment and highlighted portions of those agreements. One read,

All information concerning [c]lients of [Employer], former clients of [Employer], and prospective clients of [Employer] must be treated as confidential and must not be disclosed to anyone outside of [Employer.] . . . [I]n the event Employee’s employment is terminated for any reason whatsoever[,] Employee may not take any records or information referring or relating to [c]lients of [Employer], former clients of [Employer] and prospective clients of [Employer], whether originals or copies, in hard copy or computerized form.

Another read,

Employee may not directly or indirectly use, maintain, take or disclose any Confidential Information, except . . . in the course of carrying out Employee’s duties for [Employer] during Employee’s employment[.] . . . “Confidential Information” . . . includes . . . client relationships and prospective client relationships, client lists and contact information, client information (including but not limited to clients’ past and present financial conditions, investment practices, preferences, activities, objectives, and plans and other client data Employee obtained while in [Employer’s] employ)[.] . . . Employee further expressly agrees that, in the event his or her employment terminates, Employee’s use of Confidential Information, including but not limited to any information referring or relating to clients of [Employer], former clients of [Employer] and prospective clients of [Employer], must immediately cease and that Employee must immediately return, destroy or delete, any Confidential Information whether in hard copy or computerized form, including in any electronic device owned by Employee.

The court then reasoned, “[i]f the clients were clients, relationships, or contracts that Glen owned, he would not be subject to any restrictions with respect to the manner in which he stored, maintained, or utilized any of the client information, either during or after his employment with [Employer]. Similarly, if the client information was owned by Glen, he would not be subject to any restrictions.” Significantly, the court noted that “individuals and entities that own the assets under management have no contractual obligation to continue to use Glen to manage their assets; they are free to select a different . . . adviser [of Employer] at any time.” These individuals had “not contracted with Glen” but instead had “contracted with” Employer. And finally, the court reasoned that “[t]he terms Glen was offered by [Employer] were not negotiated. He did not negotiate higher pay or different terms but simply accepted employment on the terms offered by [Employer]. If Glen owned the book of business[,] he would have been in a position of greater leverage and been able to negotiate with [Employer].” In short, the district court determined that because Glen’s interactions with the book of business did not demonstrate ownership, “Glen [did] not own the book of business.”

¶38 Rayna attacks this determination primarily based on the alleged existence of alternative evidence. First, she asserts that evidence that Glen had some control over the book of business and its fruits and that the book of business included the information of some clients he had obtained before joining Employer demonstrated that Glen owned the book of business. But regardless of whether such evidence was before the district court, it would not contradict the findings the court did make— findings on which it relied to determine that, on the whole, Glen did not own the book of business. And although Rayna contends that “the evidence showed that [Employer] hopes to buy Glen’s book of business when he retires or transitions out of the industry and would facilitate the transfer of all of his clients to another advisor within [Employer],” this argument fails to acknowledge that the district court specifically considered this evidence in its findings of fact and ultimately found that the evidence did not deserve “any weight” because of a “lack of any testimony or other evidence by anyone who actually knew anything about” such a buy-out program. Indeed, “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.” See Hinds v. Hinds-Holm, 2022 UT App 13, ¶ 28 n.4, 505 P.3d 1136 (cleaned up). And here Rayna has not demonstrated that such a flaw exists.

¶39      Because none of Rayna’s arguments on appeal show that the court clearly abused its discretion in its thorough and record-supported explanation of why Glen did not own the book of business, her contention on appeal is unavailing and we affirm the district court’s determination.

III. Dissipation

¶40 Rayna also contends that the district court erred when it included in the final distribution only half of the amount it determined Glen dissipated and failed to award Rayna any of it. Indeed, the district court found that “the amount of dissipation attributable to [Glen’s affair] is $75,000” and that “[t]hese funds were marital funds, for which Glen was entitled to half and Rayna to half.” But in the next line, the court, in seeming contradiction, stated, “Through dissipation, Glen spent half of $37,500 which Rayna was entitled to and therefore should be added to Glen’s [distribution] column.”

¶41 On appeal, the parties agree that Rayna is owed $37,500 due to Glen’s dissipation of $75,000. But the parties do not agree about the meaning of the court’s order or its associated appendix distributing the marital property. Having viewed both the court’s order, as recited above, and the appendix that purports to effectuate that order, we remand this issue to the district court for clarification.

¶42 Because the parties agree that the full amount of dissipation is $75,000 and that Rayna is thus entitled to $37,500, the only matter for us on appeal is to ensure that the order of the district court reflects that agreement. And it does not appear to do so. The court’s appendix lists three columns: one for the value of a given property item, one for Rayna’s portion of the property, and one for Glen’s portion of the property. In Rayna’s and Glen’s respective columns, a number was entered without parentheses to indicate a positive sum owed to the party, and a number was entered inside parentheses to indicate a sum to be subtracted from the ultimate distribution. For the line-item entry for dissipation, instead of $75,000, the value was listed as only $37,500. More important for our present purposes, Rayna’s column for that line item is empty whereas Glen’s contains $37,500 without parentheses, indicating a positive sum. As we read this entry, it appears that the incorrect dissipation amount was entered into the value, and instead of Rayna being awarded half of that $75,000, the amount of $37,500 was given to Glen. This was error.

¶43      On remand, the district court should correct this error and the associated appendix to indicate without ambiguity that the full amount of dissipation is $75,000 and that Rayna will be awarded $37,500 as her share of that total.[4]

IV. Property Distribution Appreciation

¶44 Rayna lastly contends that the district court “abused its discretion when it refused to award [her] a proportional share of the appreciation that accrued on the marital investment accounts” as she requested in her motion to enforce. She asserts that the court mischaracterized her motion to enforce as a motion to amend and that it accordingly erred in determining that it lacked jurisdiction to provide the relief she requested. On appeal, Rayna appears to maintain that her motion below was nothing more than a motion to enforce the decree; that the court had jurisdiction to enforce its decree; and that in determining that the order she requested would require an amendment (as opposed to mere enforcement), the court inherently “determined the decree did not already offer Rayna a proportional amount of the appreciation.” We agree with the district court that the relief Rayna sought would have required an amendment to the decree and that the court did not have jurisdiction to amend that decree once the notice of appeal had been filed.

¶45      We note that a “trial court is [generally] divested of jurisdiction upon the filing of an appeal.” Ortiz v. Crowther, 2017 UT App 133, ¶ 2, 402 P.3d 34 (per curiam). But a court may still enforce its decree even if an appeal has already been sought.[5] See Cheves v. Williams, 1999 UT 86, ¶ 48, 993 P.2d 191. Accordingly, because “Rayna filed a motion to enforce the decree,” she asserts that the court should have reached the merits of the issue she presented to it. But “[t]he substance of a motion, not its caption, is controlling.” DeBry v. Fidelity Nat’l Title Ins. Co., 828 P.2d 520, 523 (Utah Ct. App. 1992). And here, although Rayna titled her motion as one “to enforce,” the requested relief does not match that title. Cf. CBS Enters. LLC v. Sorenson, 2018 UT App 2, ¶¶ 11–12, 414 P.3d 925.

¶46      The decree instructed Glen “to ‘transfer’ equities valued at the exact amounts set forth.” (Emphasis added.) But in her motion, Rayna requested not only those exact amounts but also “post-trial appreciation over and above the exact figures set forth.” On appeal, Rayna concedes that “the decree said nothing about who should receive the appreciation that accrued” post-trial. Accordingly, we agree with the district court that to award the relief that Rayna sought would require the district court to “read language into” the decree “in a way that modifie[d] or amend[ed]” it. See Mitchell v. Mitchell, 2011 UT App 41, ¶ 5, 248 P.3d 65 (“We interpret a divorce decree according to established rules of contract interpretation.” (cleaned up)); see also Brady v. Park, 2019 UT 16, ¶ 53, 445 P.3d 395 (“If the language within the four corners of the contract is unambiguous, the parties’ intentions are determined from the plain meaning of the contractual language . . . .” (cleaned up)).

¶47      Because Rayna filed her notice of appeal before the district court ruled on her request for post-trial appreciation of the investment distribution, the district court had been divested of jurisdiction to alter the divorce decree in the way Rayna requested. See Ortiz, 2017 UT App 133, ¶ 2. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s determination.

V. Investment Income

¶48      On cross-appeal, Glen contends that the district court abused its discretion when it did not include in its alimony calculation an amount reflecting Rayna’s ability to earn income from awarded investment accounts and apply that amount toward Rayna’s unmet needs.[6] Initially, Glen asserts that the district court “fail[ed] to consider Rayna’s ability to earn” income from these sources, but in the remainder of his argument, he proceeds to explain why the court’s actual consideration of her ability to earn income from investment accounts is based on unsupported findings or is otherwise unjustified.

¶49 For its part, the district court acknowledged Glen’s argument that Rayna would receive an investable property distribution that could provide “at least” a six percent return. While Utah “caselaw directs district courts to consider all sources of income when determining alimony, it does not dictate that all sources of income be counted as income received”—instead district courts have “broad discretion to treat sources of income as the court sees fit under the circumstances.” Eberhard v. Eberhard, 2019 UT App 114, ¶ 21, 449 P.3d 202. The court then provided three justifications for its determination that “it would be inequitable to include interest, dividend or other unearned income potentially generated from investment assets received in the marital property award.”

¶50      First, the court explained that the “ability to obtain a 6% return is not sufficiently certain for the court to rely on.” It noted the inconsistency of historical returns, Rayna’s discretion to use her distribution for purposes other than investment, and the difficulty of projecting future investment income. Second, the court explained that “[i]t would be inequitable for Glen to be able to keep his share of the investments and retain their income stream to reinvest as he continues to generate professional income, while Rayna would retain only the investments after being compelled to expend her investment income to pay her living expenses.” The court felt that such an order would “wrongly deprive[] Rayna of the full benefit and value of” her distribution and that she should be able to “grow” any investments she would make without the obligation to use that money for providing for her own standard of living. Third, the district court explained that “[i]t was the parties’ regular practice not to spend or live off investment income, but rather to entirely reinvest that income.” Accordingly, the court refrained from applying any amount of potential investment income toward Rayna’s projected earning capacity.

¶51      In determining whether a spouse should receive alimony, the general rule is that a court should first take care of property distribution. See Batty v. Batty, 2006 UT App 506, ¶ 5, 153 P.3d 827 (“[An alimony] evaluation properly takes into account the result of the property division, particularly any income-generating property [the receiving spouse] is awarded, but alimony is not meant to offset an uneven property award. Rather, as a matter of routine, an equitable property division must be accomplished prior to undertaking the alimony determination.”). Then, depending on how the property distribution works out— especially considering income-generating property—the court considers whether alimony will be necessary for a spouse to meet demonstrated needs. See Burt v. Burt, 799 P.2d 1166, 1170 (Utah Ct. App. 1990) (“Alimony is appropriate to enable the receiving spouse to maintain as nearly as possible the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage and to prevent the spouse from becoming a public charge.” (cleaned up)); see also Batty, 2006 UT App 506, ¶ 4 (“In determining alimony, the trial court must consider three important factors: (1) the financial condition and needs of the spouse claiming support, (2) the ability of that spouse to provide sufficient income for him or herself, and (3) the ability of the responding spouse to provide the support. Although a trial court is given considerable discretion in determining an alimony award, failure to consider these factors constitutes an abuse of discretion.” (cleaned up)). And as we held in Eberhard v. Eberhard, 2019 UT App 114, 449 P.3d 202, while the district court must consider all potential sources of income, it is not required to count those sources of income. Id. ¶ 21. This is nothing more than an expression of the rule that a district court has “broad discretion to treat sources of income as the court sees fit under the circumstances.” Id.

¶52      Here, contrary to Glen’s assertion, the district court did, in fact, consider Rayna’s ability to earn income from her distributed investment assets in reaching its determination that she would still require additional alimony to support herself to the level of the marital standard of living. See Dobson v. Dobson, 2012 UT App 373, ¶ 21, 294 P.3d 591 (stating that for the purposes of determining alimony, “the needs of the spouses are assessed in light of the standard of living they had during marriage” (cleaned up)). Given that the district court considered Rayna’s ability to earn income in reaching its determination that she was entitled to alimony, the question before us is whether the circumstances allowed the district court to refrain from counting any future investment income Rayna may receive in its calculation. None of Glen’s arguments attacking the court’s determination persuade us that the court exceeded its discretion here.

¶53 First, Glen argues that the court’s determination that the “ability to obtain a 6% return is not sufficiently certain for the court to rely on” contradicts its other findings. Specifically, he cites a finding that states “Glen’s income has consistently increased” and “[o]ther than general economic uncertainty, there was no evidence at trial that this trend would not continue.” He then claims that this statement contradicts the court’s determination that Rayna would not obtain a return on her investments.

¶54 However, the two findings are not comparable at their roots. Regarding Rayna’s potential income, the court was specifically discussing income resulting from a return on investments; but regarding Glen’s income, the court was noting an increase in his income as a whole, including that income derived from gainful employment and not exclusively income derived from any returns on Glen’s ongoing investments. A projection that Glen’s income as a whole, salary and all, will continue to increase is not incompatible with a determination that a return on investment income is insufficiently certain to rely on.

¶55 As part of this argument, Glen also characterizes an unrelated finding from the court’s ruling as a determination that Rayna’s relevant accounts were “not easily liquidated” and asserts that the court’s statement that Rayna may choose to liquidate a portion of these investments contradicts that finding. But this description of the court’s finding is simply inaccurate— the court noted that the “accounts [were] not liquid,” and it made no statement about whether there would be difficulty in liquidating them. And even if the accounts were difficult to liquidate, it would, again, not be incongruous with the court’s other findings, specifically that Rayna could choose to liquidate, any difficulty notwithstanding.

¶56 Further, Glen asserts that the court unjustifiably determined that both parties should “grow” their investments but that growth on Rayna’s accounts was uncertain. Again, these findings are not incongruous—the district court could reasonably find that a return was uncertain, that requiring Rayna to use any return to provide for her needs would prevent her from increasing the amount invested, and that Rayna deserved the opportunity to have her investment returns be reinvested for potential future growth.

¶57      Second, Glen asserts that the court gave Rayna freedom to reinvest her investment returns while it restricted Glen to using his investment returns to pay for both the taxes owed on his forgiven loans and Rayna’s alimony award. As to the alimony award, we note that Glen has not directed us to anywhere in the record where the district court explained that he must pay for Rayna’s alimony using investment income, and as such, Glen is free to provide for Rayna’s alimony using whatever resources he desires, whether it be his salary, proceeds from a mortgage or other loan, or, indeed, his investment income.

¶58      Third, Glen asserts that the court’s finding that “Lilt was the parties’ regular practice not to spend or live off investment income, but rather to entirely reinvest that income” contradicts its acknowledgment that Glen incurred a tax obligation from the forgiven loans. However, we note that although Glen maintains on appeal that he used the forgivable-loan investment returns to pay tax obligations, Glen has not pointed to the court ever making a finding to that effect, and thus the findings are not inconsistent. Further, although such evidence was before the court, the court also stated that “Glen did not include his own investment income in his Financial Declaration as income available to pay alimony or to otherwise meet his own need.” That fact, the court stated, “demonstrate[d] that neither party considered investment income as income to be spent or expended, but rather as a vehicle to increase savings and net worth.” While a pattern of using investment returns to pay tax obligations may not be completely compatible with a pattern of using returns to “increase savings and net worth,” we do not view this apparent inconsistency as enough to persuade us that the court abused its discretion.

¶59      In sum, Glen has not demonstrated that the court abused its discretion in refusing to count Rayna’s potential investment returns as income toward her ability to meet her living expenses. Accordingly, we affirm the district court on this point.

CONCLUSION

¶60      First, we remand to the district court to apply the correct standard to the evidence regarding investments and savings and to adjust the alimony award based on calculations that account for Rayna’s historical spending on future investments; we also remand to the district court to adjust the alimony award based on calculations that account for Rayna’s historical spending on entertainment. Second, we affirm the district court’s determination that Glen did not own the book of business. Third, we remand to the district court to ensure that Rayna is awarded the $37,500 owed to her due to Glen’s dissipation. Fourth, we affirm the district court’s determination that the relief Rayna requested in her motion to enforce would have required it to amend the decree and that it lacked jurisdiction to do so. And fifth, we affirm the district court’s decision not to include potential investment income in calculating Rayna’s actual income. On remand, we instruct the district court to engage in further proceedings as necessary to effectuate the holdings provided in this opinion.

 

[1] Justice Diana Hagen began her work on this case as a judge of the Utah Court of Appeals. She became a member of the Utah Supreme Court thereafter and completed her work on the case sitting by special assignment as authorized by law. See generally Utah R. Jud. Admin. 3‑108(4).

[2] Due to the parties’ shared surname, we employ their given names.

[3] The parties are appealing an order from a bench trial. “We view the evidence in a light most favorable to the trial court’s findings, and therefore recite the facts consistent with that standard. However, we present conflicting evidence to the extent necessary to clarify the issues raised on appeal.” Kidd v. Kidd, 2014 UT App 26, n.1, 321 P.3d 200 (cleaned up).

[4] The district court’s view, which we endorse, is that Glen spent $75,000 in marital funds on his affair—not a proper marital purpose. Half of that amount was essentially his, but the half belonging to Rayna should properly be restored to her by Glen.

[5] Notwithstanding this general rule, the lower court may, in addition to dealing with motions to enforce the decree address clerical errors and other mistakes “arising from oversight or omission” that the appellate court asks it to address even after an appeal has been filed. See Utah R. Civ. P. 60(a); see also Cheves v. Williams, 1999 UT 86, ¶ 45, 993 P.2d 191 (“We have also recognized exceptions to [the general] rule, in the interest of preventing unnecessary delay, where any action by the trial court is not likely to modify a party’s rights with respect to the issues raised on appeal, or where the action by the trial court is authorized by rule or statute.” (cleaned up)).

[6] Although the district court did not impute income to Rayna based on investment earnings, it did impute to her some income based on an undisputed amount of earning capacity.

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If a Mom Is Abusing Her Children, and the Dad Doesn’t Want Sole Custody Because Child Support Is Cheaper, What Can the Court Do?

Thank you for your question, and forgive me for approaching this question in a way that may not answer your question as directly as it could be; I hope you will find my answer enlightening just the same.

If my purely selfish desires regarding particular controversies that I’d like to handle as a lawyer wouldn’t affect real people’s lives, then I’d love, as a divorce and family law attorney, to represent one of the parents in a case where 1) neither parent wants sole custody of the children and 2) each parent wants to foist custody of the children on the other.

Why?

Because it would shine a light on the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the belief that it is somehow wrong to award joint equal physical custody of children to two equally fit and loving parents who both desire to be as involved in their children’s lives as possible.[1]

How?

Because the court would find itself in the unusual position of dealing with parents fighting to get as little time with the children as possible and thus find itself having to formulate and make arguments for both parents exercising custody of their children as much as possible (instead of trying to justify an unequal custody award where equal custody could clearly work or at least merit a try).

The cognitive dissonance would be glorious—absolutely glorious—to behold. The infirmity of the “arguments” for denying two fit, loving parents equal custody would be laid bare for all to see.

Not every parent is fit to exercise joint or sole physical custody of his/her child, but parents who are 1) fit and loving; 2) desirous of ensuring their children are reared as much as possible by both of their parents; and 3) live in close enough proximity to each other to make joint equal physical custody not merely feasible but beneficial to the minor children: A) should have their parental rights upheld to the fullest extent possible by awarding joint equal physical custody because B) the “best parent” for the children is both parents.

The idea that we presumptively divide marital assets equally in divorce because that is presumptively fair is the same reason we should presumptively award joint equal physical child custody. If the presumption of dividing marital assets equally is rebutted by showing, for example, that a spouse materially dissipated marital assets or wrongfully diminished their value, then clearly an equal division of the assets would not be fair. Likewise, if the presumption of awarding equal custody is rebutted by showing that it would be deleterious to the children in some material way, then an equal custody award would not be fair to the children.

Yet the laws of most states in the U.S.A. do not adopt a presumption of joint equal physical custody (but I should note that currently the legislative trend is toward adopting presumption of equal custody), and even among those states that do, many judges in those states disfavor equal physical custody awards.

For all the good sense equal physical custody makes, it is surprisingly (scandalously) difficult to obtain an equal physical custody award.

———-

[1] To quote the Core Principles of the National Parents Organization (sharedparenting.org):

Shared parenting protects children’s best interests and the loving bonds children share with both parents after separation or divorce;

Equality between genders has been extended to every corner of American society, with one huge exception: Family Courts and the related agencies; and

The Supreme Court of the United States has found that “the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children… is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.”

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

https://www.quora.com/If-a-mom-is-abusing-her-children-and-the-dad-doesn-t-want-sole-custody-because-child-support-is-cheaper-what-can-the-court-do/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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

2022 UT App 145

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

ROBBEN ANN OLDROYD,

Appellant,

v.

FARRELL LYNN OLDROYD, Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20210073-CA

Filed December 22, 2022

Second District Court, Morgan Department

The Honorable Noel S. Hyde No. 134500028

Brent D. Wride, Attorney for Appellant

Brian E. Arnold and Lauren Schultz, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

I. Contribution Exception

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

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

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

II. Extraordinary Situation Exception

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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How do you get pet custody after a breakup?

I cannot speak on what the law is in every jurisdiction, but according to Utah (Utah is where I practice divorce and family law), the answers are: 

If by “breakup” you mean the breakup of a marriage by divorce: 

Pets are property, and so they are treated like property, although because they are living creatures they are not treated as a coffee table or money in a bank account would be, obviously. 

And usually pets are not an asset but are more of a liability. In other words, while I can sell a used coffee table and while I can spend my half of the money I was awarded out of the joint marital bank account, owning and caring for a pet costs money. If one spouse is willing to take on the liability associated with caring for a pet and the other spouse is not, then who gets the dog or cat or iguana won’t be in dispute. 

But if both spouses love the dog and both of them want to keep the dog for himself/herself, then who is awarded this particular piece of property can lead to a vicious and expensive fight. We can’t split the dog in half, as we could with money in the bank. But we could award one spouse the dog and then compensate the other spouse with an award of other marital property equal to the value of the dog. That often happens. 

But what about the intangible factors of pet ownership? While I can go out and buy a replacement coffee table if my spouse gets in divorce the one we bought together, it’s not as easy simply to buy a replacement dog. People become emotionally attached to pets and certain kinds of pets (especially dogs, I hear), and that emotional bond is often unique to that animal. Just as losing a child is not “cured” simply by adopting a “new” one, the relationship one formed with a pet is sometimes impossible to replace like one would replace a lightbulb. 

Still, there is only so much a court can do when faced with who gets Fido. What options are there? 

If the court decides that one spouse must be awarded the sole ownership and control of the pet, then the court will usually award the pet to one spouse and award the other spouse marital property of equal value. 

If the court decides that the parties to the divorce will “share custody” of the pet as if it were a child who spends time in the custody of both parents, the court can do that too. The court could order that Fido spends a week with ex-wife, then a week with ex-husband (or impose some other schedule). 

If by “breakup” you mean the breakup of a cohabitant (unmarried) relationship: 

If two people cohabit (that means “live together and have a sexual relationship without being married”), and if during that relationship: 

  • the couple both contribute money toward the purchase of a dog (or cat, or iguana, etc.) so that it’s a joint purchase and they are co-owners, and then the couple breaks up and they can’t agree who gets to keep the dog, then they could go to court to have the matter resolved. The judge could either order the dog sold and the proceeds of sale divided equally between the owners or award the dog to one of the parties and order that party pay the other half the value of the dog. 

OR 

  • one member of the couple buys a dog to which the other member of the couple becomes attached, and then the couple breaks up, the other member of the couple has no ownership rights in the pet. 

Had the couple been married when the pet was purchased—even if it was not a joint purchase—then because the couple was married when the property (i.e., the pet) was acquired, the pet is marital property. But when a couple is not married, if one member of the couple purchases something in his/her individual/separate capacity, then that person is the only owner. It’s not “joint” property. 

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

https://www.quora.com/How-do-you-get-pet-custody-after-a-breakup/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

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Taylor v. Taylor – 2022 UT 35 – Divorce Arbitration

IN THE

SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF UTAH

DAVID JENKINS TAYLOR,

Appellant,

v.

JILL MARIE TAYLOR,

Appellee.

No. 20191090

Heard: April 13, 2022

Filed August 18, 2022

On Certification from the Court of Appeals

Third District, Summit County

The Honorable Teresa Welch

No. 174500181

Attorneys:

Julie J. Nelson, Millcreek, Erin B. Hull, Salt Lake City, for appellant

Martin N. Olsen, Beau J. Olsen, Midvale, for appellee

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE authored the opinion of the Court,

in which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, JUSTICE PETERSEN, JUSTICE HAGEN,

and JUDGE HARRIS joined.

Due to their retirement, JUSTICE HIMONAS and JUSTICE LEE did not

participate herein; JUSTICE DIANA HAGEN and COURT OF APPEALS

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS sat.*

[*] JUSTICE DIANA HAGEN became a member of the Court on May 18, 2022 but sat as a visiting judge prior to her confirmation.

 

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

¶1 After litigating their divorce for a year, David Taylor asked his soon-to-be ex-wife, Jill Taylor, to arbitrate. David apparently hoped for an expeditious resolution that would allow him to receive favorable tax treatment of the alimony he was about to pay. After the arbitrator issued his decision, David moved the district court to invalidate the award under section 78B-11-107 of the Utah Uniform Arbitration Act, arguing that the arbitration agreement he proposed was invalid because it was contrary to public policy to arbitrate divorce actions. David alternatively asked the court to vacate the award, arguing that the arbitrator had manifestly disregarded the law. The district court denied David‘s motion.

¶2 The Utah Uniform Arbitration Act does not permit a party who participates in arbitration without objection to then contest an arbitration award by arguing that it is based on an infirm agreement to arbitrate. But even if David was able to contest the award, the arbitration agreement he sought was not invalid. Unless and until the Legislature provides additional guidance, the intersection of the Utah Uniform Arbitration Act and Utah family code permits parties to arbitrate the aspects of a divorce that the Taylors agreed to arbitrate. As for David‘s assertion that the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the law, even if we assume that is still a viable challenge to an arbitration award, David has not shown that the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the law. We affirm the district court.

BACKGROUND

¶3 In August 2017, Jill Taylor filed for divorce from her husband, David Taylor. Jill and David stipulated to joint legal and physical custody of their two children but were unable to agree on, among other things, alimony, child support, and the appropriate division of their assets.

¶4 David wanted to resolve the parties‘ remaining issues by the end of 2018 so that he could avoid changes to the tax treatment of alimony that were slated to take effect the following year. To expedite a resolution, David asked Jill to attend arbitration in lieu of trial. Jill obliged, and the parties signed an arbitration agreement. The agreement provided that the Utah Uniform Arbitration Act (UUAA) would apply. See UTAH CODE §§ 78B-11-101 to -131. The agreement also named a retired district court judge as the arbitrator.

¶5 The parties engaged in an arbitration process that saw the arbitrator meet with each party separately and repeatedly. The arbitrator reviewed various expert reports as well as documents that detailed the parties’ employment history, earnings, and job prospects.

¶6 To determine Jill‘s income, the arbitrator reviewed evidence regarding Jill‘s past employment in finance and pharmaceutical sales. He also reviewed a report David‘s vocational expert prepared that detailed wage estimates for various jobs available to Jill based on Jill‘s qualifications and prior work experience. The arbitrator also spoke with Jill, who explained that she was currently working as an aide in the Park City School District and that she intended to seek employment as an elementary school teacher once she had completed her degree in elementary education.

¶7 After considering the parties‘ positions and submissions, the arbitrator issued an award. Among other things, the arbitrator‘s award calculated alimony, set the amount of child support, and divided the parties‘ assets.

¶8 As part of that decision, the arbitrator estimated Jill‘s future income. The arbitrator concluded that “[Jill] should be allowed to work in the field of her choice—education, and she should be given time to complete her degree.” He calculated Jill‘s income for 2019 – 2021 based on her salary as an aide and her ability to find work during the summer, and for 2022 according to her ability to secure a full-time teaching position once she had completed her degree. As to alimony, the arbitrator awarded Jill spousal support based on the parties‘ current financial situations and spending needs, including Jill‘s tuition costs.

¶9 A few months after the arbitrator issued the award, David moved the district court to correct three mathematical miscalculations. The district court made two of those corrections and entered the corrected award.

¶10 Less than two months later, David changed counsel and moved the district court to invalidate the entire arbitration award pursuant to section 78B-11-107 of the UUAA.[1] David argued that “[a]n arbitration agreement is not valid or binding in the divorce context” for three “well-defined” policy reasons.

¶11 David first claimed that arbitration interfered with a court’s “inherent” and “nondelegable” authority to decide divorce issues. As David saw it, “[b]ecause parties cannot divest a court of jurisdiction by stipulati[on]” or delegation to a third party, it was necessarily true that they could not divest a court of jurisdiction by arbitration.

¶12 David next asserted that the UUAA permits modification of an arbitration award “only in . . . very limited circumstances,” and such a “bar against modif[ication] . . . is flatly against the policy of ensuring that district courts retain ongoing jurisdiction to modify divorce-related rulings.”

¶13 David additionally contended that the UUAA’s limited appeal procedures impermissibly restrict the parties’ statutory right to appeal the arbitrator‘s child support determination.

¶14 Alternatively, David asked the district court to vacate the arbitration award because the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the law—and thus exceeded his authority—when he calculated Jill’s imputed income.[2] David claimed that Utah law requires the arbitrator to consider a list of factors when calculating the parties’ incomes. See UTAH CODE § 78B-12-203(8)(b)(i)–(x). And David asserted that the arbitrator had substituted his “personal view” in place of those factors when he opined that Jill’s income should be based on her desire “to work in the field of her choice.”

¶15 David also argued that the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the law when he included Jill’s tuition costs in the alimony budget. David contended that those costs were “not a part of the parties’ standard of living during the marriage, nor [were they] a ‘need,’” and were thus “the epitome of an unnecessary expense, given that [Jill was] intending to pay to attend school so that she may earn less than she already earns.”

¶16 Jill moved the district court to confirm the arbitration award and enter a decree of divorce.

¶17 A court commissioner heard the parties’ motions. The commissioner denied David’s motion and granted Jill‘s. The commissioner concluded that contrary to David‘s position, public policy supports the arbitration of divorce cases. She reasoned that arbitration does not interfere with a court‘s continued jurisdiction because ―[o]nce the arbitration award is reduced to a Decree of Divorce, the [c]ourt maintains jurisdiction to modify the decree based upon a material and substantial change in circumstances.” The commissioner also concluded that ―waiving the right to appeal is not contrary to law” because parties routinely waive their right to appeal ―when the parties stipulate and a Decree of Divorce is entered.”

¶18 As to David’s claim that the arbitrator had manifestly disregarded the law, the commissioner determined that the arbitrator’s calculation regarding Jill‘s income was ―rational and evidence based.” She explained that Utah law does not require a court to calculate income according to ―the highest level.” Rather, ―[t]he imputation need[ed] to be reasonable and equitable,” and ―[i]t [was] not unreasonable to allow [Jill] to select a job that gives her a decent living rather than maximizing what a vocational evaluator opines.” The commissioner also upheld the arbitrator’s alimony award. The commissioner explained that ―the standard of living during the marriage was such that [Jill] did not need to work full time.” Therefore, ―[t]he fact that tuition was provided so [Jill] could increase her earning potential, and that alimony was actually limited to the same time period as child support, was reasonable and equitable.”

¶19 David asked the district court to overrule the commissioner’s decision and made basically the same arguments he had included in his motion to invalidate or vacate the arbitration award.

¶20 The district court denied David’s request to overrule the commissioner and confirmed the arbitration award. The court held that ―Utah law does not preclude divorces from being arbitrated” for four reasons. The court first determined that ―the plain language of the [UUAA] does not preclude divorce actions from being arbitrated,” and ―had the Utah legislature intended for divorce actions to be precluded from being arbitrated, it would have indicated so.” The court next opined that the same public policies that favor arbitration in the civil context—―just, speedy, and inexpensive outcomes”—also ―support parties being able to resolve their divorce cases in Utah via arbitration.” The court stated that ―[i]n fact, [David] invoked and relied on these policy considerations by proactively requesting to arbitrate this matter . . . as opposed to setting it for trial.” The court further reasoned that ―the plain language of the [UUAA] indicates that district court judges retain jurisdiction and the authority to vacate or amend arbitrations that run afoul of Utah law.” Therefore, the court said, ―[i]t follows that for divorce cases that have been arbitrated, a district court . . . cannot change or amend arbitration awards if [it] merely disagree[s] with the arbitrator’s findings and conclusions” but it can ―vacate or amend arbitration awards that contain provisions that run contrary to established Utah law.” The court finally concluded that even if ―any substantive appellate rights are waived” by participation in arbitration, that waiver ―is not contrary to Utah law, as Utah law indicates that there are various procedures wherein parties may agree to pursue expedited outcomes of their matters in exchange for giving up certain appellate rights.”

¶21 The district court also concluded that the arbitrator had not manifestly disregarded the law. The court determined that ―[the arbitrator]’s method of imputing [Jill]‘s income complied with Utah law.” The district court reasoned that Utah law required the arbitrator to calculate Jill‘s income by considering the relevant statutory factors, which, according to the court, ―do[] not define ’employment potential and probable earnings‘ as being the equivalent of the highest or maximum amount of salary that a party could attempt to obtain” and ―recognize[] that a parties‘ ’employment potential and probable earnings‘ encompass[] more considerations than just salary calculations for any given job.” And the court held that the arbitrator had ―effectively considered and applied the pertinent statutory factors” and ―was not unreasonable” in permitting Jill to work in the field of her choice, which would allow for ―more stable and ongoing” employment than if the arbitrator ―require[d] [Jill] to work a job in a field that she had not been working in for many years.”

¶22 Additionally, the district court opined that “[the arbitrator]‘s alimony determinations” also “complied with Utah law.” The court reasoned that the arbitrator acted in accordance with the statute when he based the alimony award on expenses, such as Jill‘s tuition costs, that “existed at the time of the arbitration.” The district court also noted that the arbitrator had ―limited [David]‘s alimony obligation—i.e., . . . [he] did not order an alimony award for the length of the marriage, nor did [he] order that the alimony award . . . remain the same regardless of [Jill]‘s efforts to obtain employment as a teacher.”

¶23 ―In sum,” the district court concluded, ―[the arbitrator]‘s findings and decisions regarding [Jill]‘s imputed income and the alimony award were informed, reasonable, equitable, and complied with Utah law.” David appeals.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶24 ―In reviewing the order of the district court confirming, vacating, or modifying an arbitration award, we grant no deference to the court‘s conclusions of law, reviewing them for correctness.” Softsolutions, Inc. v. Brigham Young Univ., 2000 UT 46, ¶ 12, 1 P.3d 1095; see also Westgate Resorts, Ltd. v. Adel, 2016 UT 24, ¶ 9, 378 P.3d 93 (―When we hear an appeal from a district court‘s review of an arbitration award, . . . we review the district court‘s interpretation of the UUAA . . . for correctness, without deference to its legal conclusions.”).

ANALYSIS

  1. THE DISTRICT COURT CORRECTLY DENIED DAVID‘S
    MOTION TO INVALIDATE THE ARBITRATION AWARD
  2. Utah Law Does Not Permit David to Contest the Validity
    of the Arbitration Agreement After He Participated in
    Arbitration Without Objection

¶25 David asks us to reverse the district court, set aside the arbitration agreement and award, and “order the district court to conduct a regular divorce trial.”

¶26 Section 78B-11-107 of the UUAA, the provision on which David hangs his appeal, states in pertinent part: ―An agreement contained in a record to submit to arbitration any existing or subsequent controversy arising between the parties to the agreement is valid, enforceable, and irrevocable except upon a ground that exists at law or in equity for the revocation of a contract.” UTAH CODE § 78B-11-107(1).

¶27 David reads section 78B-11-107 to mean that a matter is not eligible for arbitration if there is “a ground that exists at law or in equity for the revocation of a contract.” David argues that if a matter is not eligible for arbitration, the parties‘ arbitration agreement—and any arbitration award flowing from that agreement—is invalid.

¶28 ―When interpreting a statute, our primary objective is to ascertain the intent of the legislature,” ―[t]he best evidence” of which ―is the plain language of the statute itself.” McKitrick v. Gibson, 2021 UT 48, ¶ 19, 496 P.3d 147 (alteration in original) (citations omitted). ―[W]e 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.” State v. Bess, 2019 UT 70, ¶ 25, 473 P.3d 157 (alterations in original) (citation omitted).

¶29 By its plain language, section 78B-11-107 speaks to the “valid[ity], enforceab[ility], and irrevocab[ility]” of an arbitration agreement. See UTAH CODE § 78B-11-107(1). Section 78B-11-107 establishes the standard by which a court may judge—or the parties may contest—the existence of a “valid, enforceable, and irrevocable” arbitration agreement. But while section 78B-11-107 instructs us on how to assess the validity of an arbitration agreement, it does not speak to what to do with an arbitration award.

¶30 Other sections of the UUAA, however, do tell us what to do when a party challenges an arbitration award. Cf. Jenkins v. Percival, 962 P.2d 796, 799–800 (Utah 1998) (explaining that “[s]eparate parts of an act should not be construed in isolation from the rest of the act,” and “constru[ing]” two sections of the UUAA “in tandem so as to give full effect to the intended scope of the Act” (citation omitted)). UUAA section 78B-11-123, for instance, explains that a court must confirm an arbitration award “unless the award is modified or corrected . . . or is vacated” pursuant to the grounds set forth in section 78B-11-124. One of those grounds permits a court to vacate an arbitration award “if[] . . . there was no agreement to arbitrate, unless the person [contesting the award] participated in the arbitration proceeding without raising an objection [as to lack or insufficiency of notice] not later than the beginning of the arbitration hearing.” UTAH CODE § 78B-11-124(1)(e) (emphasis added).

¶31 David does not argue, in the words of section 78B-11­124(1)(e), that “there was no agreement to arbitrate.” He instead argues that the arbitration agreement, though existing, is invalid. Stated differently, David contends that section 78B-11-124(1)(e) does not govern his challenge because he had an agreement to arbitrate, just not a valid one. This argument elevates form over function. An argument that there is no arbitration agreement differs in degree, but not kind, from an argument that there is no valid arbitration agreement. Therefore, when a party seeks to set aside an arbitration award by contesting the validity of the arbitration agreement, that claim must be analyzed under the strictures of section 78B-11­124(1)(e).

¶32 Importantly, then, if a party participates in arbitration without proper objection, she is unable to challenge the resulting arbitration award for want of a valid arbitration agreement.[3] Section 78B-11-107 is simply not a mechanism that allows a party to see what result she gets in arbitration before deciding to contest the validity of the arbitration agreement.

¶33 David did not object to arbitration. He asked for it. And without proper objection, see id. § 78B-11-124(1)(e), David cannot rely on section 78B-11-107 to invalidate the arbitration award.[4]

  1. Divorce Cases Are Arbitrable

¶34 David lost the chance to contest the arbitration agreement and award when he participated in arbitration without objection, and so we affirm the district court‘s denial of David‘s motion to invalidate. But we recognize that even if we were to reach the merits of David‘s argument, it would still fail.

¶35 David argues that the UUAA and Utah divorce law conflict such that divorce cases are not eligible for arbitration. He claims that family code and case law impose a ―nondelegable duty” on district courts to make and modify final decisions regarding alimony, property division, child support, and custody. David contends that this is incompatible with the UUAA, which, according to David, ―does not allow a court to supplant its own judgment for that of the arbitrator” and ―does not allow ongoing jurisdiction for modification.” And he asks us to resolve this conflict by concluding that the ―more particular” divorce law prevails over ―the general Arbitration Act.” See, e.g.Lyon v. Burton, 2000 UT 19, ¶ 17, 5 P.3d 616 (―[A] statute dealing specifically with a particular issue prevails over a more general statute that arguably also deals with the same issue.”).

¶36 Jill claims there is no conflict between divorce law and the UUAA. As she reads it, ―[t]he plain language of the [UUAA] shows that there is nothing in the statute to indicate that divorce cases should be precluded from arbitration.” Jill also argues, among other things, that the UUAA does not divest a district court of its authority to ensure that arbitration awards are equitable and based in law and that family code expressly preserves a court‘s continuing jurisdiction to modify a divorce decree.

¶37 We begin our analysis ―by looking at the plain language of the statute[s] because it is ‗the best evidence of legislative intent.‘” Rosser v. Rosser, 2021 UT 71, ¶ 42, 502 P.3d 294 (citation omitted). ―Our first undertaking in this regard is to assess the language and structure of the statute[s].” State v. Rushton, 2017 UT 21, ¶ 11, 395 P.3d 92. In so doing, “[w]e presume that the legislature used each word advisedly, and that the expression of one [term] should be interpreted as the exclusion of another . . . .” Bountiful City v. Baize, 2021 UT 9, ¶ 42, 487 P.3d 71 (second alteration in original) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

¶38 The UUAA governs the arbitration process in Utah. See UTAH CODE § 78B-11-101 to -131. It “applies to any agreement to arbitrate made on or after May 6, 2002.”[5] UTAH CODE § 78B-11-104(1) (emphasis added). The UUAA further states that “[a]n agreement . . . to submit to arbitration any existing or subsequent controversy arising between the parties to the agreement is valid, enforceable, and irrevocable except upon a ground that exists at law or in equity for the revocation of a contract.” Id. § 78B-11-107(1) (emphasis added). More simply put, the UUAA applies to “any agreement to arbitrate” “any existing or subsequent controversy arising between the parties to the agreement.” Id. §§ 78B-11-104(1), 107(1) (emphases added); see also Miller v. USAA Cas. Ins. Co., 2002 UT 6, ¶ 33, 44 P.3d 663 (“Under the [UUAA], parties can agree to arbitrate any controversy.”). The UUAA does not expressly exempt any action or issue, including those related to divorce, from its provisions. Thus, by the UUAA‘s plain language, the Taylors‘ agreement to arbitrate certain aspects of their divorce—alimony, property division, and child support—falls into the category of “any agreement to arbitrate.”

¶39 Neither Utah‘s family code nor case law, moreover, squarely addresses the arbitrability of divorce issues. Utah Code section 30-3-10.9—the only section of our family code in which the word “arbitration” appears—states that divorcing parents must include in their parenting plan “[a] process for resolving disputes,” such as “counseling,” “mediation or arbitration by a specified individual or agency,” or “court action.” UTAH CODE § 30-3-10.9(3)(a)–(c). That section also states that “the district court has the right of review from the dispute resolution process.” Id. § 30-3-10.9(4)(f). But while the code seemingly allows divorcing parties to submit “future disputes” over the provisions of a parenting plan to non-binding arbitration, it does not explicitly forbid—or permit—parties from agreeing to arbitrate their divorces.

¶40 David argues that plain language, by itself, does not answer the question. And he credibly points to sections of Utah family law that seem to conflict with the provisions of the UUAA dealing with vacatur and modification. He argues that these conflicts require us to conclude that it is contrary to public policy for divorcing parties to submit their alimony, property division, child support, and custody-related disputes to arbitration.

¶41 We take David‘s point. A plain language look at the UUAA and our family code spotlights two statutory schemes that do not speak to each other. The Legislature could have spelled out, either in the UUAA or our family code, if, when, and what portions of a divorce may be submitted to arbitration. It did not. But that does not end our inquiry.

¶42 ―If,” after looking at plain language, ―there is doubt or uncertainty as to the meaning or application of the provisions” at issue, Osuala v. Aetna Life & Cas., 608 P.2d 242, 243 (Utah 1980), ―we attempt to construe [the provisions] in harmony, and such that ‗effect is given to every provision,‘” I.M.L. v. State, 2002 UT 110, ¶ 26, 61 P.3d 1038 (citations omitted); see also Field v. Boyer Co., 952 P.2d 1078, 1081 (Utah 1998) (―[I]t is the Court‘s duty to harmonize and reconcile statutory provisions, since the Court cannot presume that the legislature intended to create a conflict.” (citation omitted)). We accomplish this task by ―analyz[ing] the [statutes] in [their] entirety, in the light of [their] objective, and . . . in accordance with the legislative intent and purpose.” Osuala, 608 P.2d at 243 (footnote omitted). In other words, we try to read the statutes together in a way that best keeps faith with what the Legislature wanted those statutes to accomplish.

  1. The UUAA Provisions Limiting Judicial Review Did Not Prevent the Taylors from Submitting Their Divorce Issues to Arbitration

¶43 The first area of potential conflict David highlights is the ability of the district court to disregard an arbitration award before it is entered. David contends that our divorce law demands that a district court retain final authority to reject an agreement between the parties or input by a third party ―based on equity.”[6] David claims that the UUAA, in contravention of divorce law, confines a district court‘s authority to disturb an arbitration award to the ―limited circumstances” laid out in section 78B-11-124. In other words, David argues that in the divorce context, an agreement between the parties or input by third parties can only constitute a recommendation to the district court, whereas under the UUAA, they are binding and difficult to set aside.

¶44 As an initial matter, we note the strong state policies underlying both the UUAA and Utah divorce law. As to arbitration, our law has long ―favor[ed] arbitration as a speedy and inexpensive method of adjudicating disputes” and ―easing court congestion.” Robinson & Wells, P.C. v. Warren, 669 P.2d 844, 846 (Utah 1983); accord Giannopulos v. Pappas, 15 P.2d 353, 356 (Utah 1932). We have held that ―judicial review of arbitration awards should not be pervasive in scope or susceptible to repetitive adjudications,” but rather ―strictly limited to the statutory grounds and procedures for review.” Robinson & Wells, 669 P.2d at 846; see also Buzas Baseball, Inc. v. Salt Lake Trappers, Inc., 925 P.2d 941, 947 (Utah 1996) (―A trial court faced with a motion to vacate or modify an arbitration award is limited to determining whether any of the very limited grounds for modification or vacatur exist.”); Duke v. Graham, 2007 UT 31, ¶ 8, 158 P.3d 540 (―A district court‘s review of an arbitration award should be narrowly confined to those grounds established by statute.”). ―As a general rule,” therefore, ―an arbitration award will not be disturbed on account of irregularities or informalities in the proceeding or because the court does not agree with the award as long as the proceeding was fair and honest and the substantial rights of the parties were respected.” DeVore v. IHC Hosps., Inc., 884 P.2d 1246, 1251 (Utah 1994).

¶45 Utah family law is likewise driven by strong public policy. Foremost among these is the bedrock understanding that equity should prevail when a marriage dissolves. See UTAH CODE § 30-3-5(1) (2018), amended by and renumbered as UTAH CODE § 30-3-5(2) (2022) (―When a decree of divorce is rendered, the court may include in the decree of divorce equitable orders.” (emphasis added)); see also Iverson v. Iverson, 526 P.2d 1126, 1127 (Utah 1974) (―[A]ll aspects of proceedings in divorce matters are equitable . . . .”); Lord v. Shaw, 665 P.2d 1288, 1291 (Utah 1983) (―A divorce action is highly equitable in nature . . . .”). When making divorce-related decisions, therefore, a district court is generally given ―broad discretionary powers” to craft an equitable result. Despain v. Despain, 610 P.2d 1303, 1305–06 (Utah 1980); see also UTAH CODE § 30-3-5(8)(e) (2018), amended by and renumbered as UTAH CODE § 30-3-5(10)(d) (2022) (requiring a court to ―consider all relevant facts and equitable principles” in determining alimony).

¶46 David correctly points out that we have held that an agreement between the parties serves only as a recommendation to the district court. See, e.g.Callister v. Callister, 261 P.2d 944, 946, 948– 49 (Utah 1953) (―[A]n agreement or stipulation between parties to a divorce suit . . . is not binding upon the court in entering a divorce decree, but serves only as a recommendation. . . . [T]he law was intended to give courts power to disregard the stipulations or agreements of the parties in the first instance and enter judgment . . . as appears reasonable . . . .”). And he contends that ―[b]ecause parties cannot divest a court of jurisdiction by stipulating to an agreement, it follows that they cannot divest a court of jurisdiction by delegating that task to . . . an arbitrator.”

¶47 Those cases stand for the proposition that parties cannot insulate stipulations they make regarding property division and alimony from judicial review. And we stand by that law. But we conclude that, in the absence of an express statutory prohibition, when divorcing parties make an informed and voluntary decision to submit their alimony and property-related disputes to a neutral third-party arbitrator under the UUAA, the strong policies allowing parties to choose to arbitrate their disputes overtake those policies favoring more robust judicial review.[7]

¶48 Arbitrations concerning alimony and division of marital property do not differ substantially from the types of cases that are routinely arbitrated. See, e.g.HITORQ, LLC v. TCC Veterinary Servs., Inc., 2021 UT 69, 502 P.3d 281 (compelling arbitration of a claim for dissolution of a veterinary clinic); Harold Selman, Inc. v. Box Elder Cnty., 2011 UT 18, 251 P.3d 804 (concluding that the Ombudsman‘s Office has statutory authority to arbitrate an ownership dispute between private property owners and Box Elder County); Shipp v. Peterson, 2021 UT App 25, 486 P.3d 70 (reinstating an arbitration award granting life insurance proceeds to listed beneficiary). In both camps of cases, adult parties—often aided by counsel—agree to have a neutral third party decide what is equitable. The policies favoring equitable decision-making that animate our family law do not disappear, but that work is outsourced to a neutral third party. And safeguards remain in place to revisit the outcome of the arbitration if the process is, among other things, tainted by fraud, corruption, or misconduct, or if the arbitrator exceeds her authority. See UTAH CODE § 78B-11-124(1).

¶49 Put another way, while we continue to recognize our state‘s policy in favor of ensuring that an arbitration award addressing alimony or marital property is equitable, we do not find that policy to be so strong as to require us to treat divorcing spouses— particularly those represented by counsel—differently from other parties who want to arbitrate their disputes. Therefore, until the Legislature amends one or the other of those statutory schemes to provide otherwise, we see no reason to revoke the trust we place in arbitrators to decide a property dispute between two parties, dealing at arm‘s length and capable of contracting, just because those parties are (or were) married. We thus conclude that nothing in the Utah family code prevents parties from agreeing to arbitrate their alimony and property disputes under the UUAA. Nor does any provision of the family code conflict with allowing the parties to agree to limit judicial review of the resulting award to those grounds given in section 78B-11-124 of the UUAA. See UTAH CODE § 78B-11-124(1).

¶50 Other courts have reached similar conclusions. The Supreme Court of New Jersey, for example, has concluded that “parties may bind themselves in separation agreements to arbitrate disputes over alimony.” Faherty v. Faherty, 477 A.2d 1257, 1262 (N.J. 1984). The court explained, “It is fair and reasonable that parties who have agreed to be bound by arbitration in a formal, written separation agreement should be so bound. Rather than frowning on arbitration of alimony disputes, public policy supports it.” Id. In line with this reasoning, the Faherty court held that “[a]s is the case with other arbitration awards,” an award addressing alimony is subject to the limited judicial review provided in its arbitration act. Id.

¶51 The Idaho Court of Appeals has, for many of the same reasons, decided that when divorcing parties submit their property-related disputes to arbitration, “judicial review of the award . . . is distinctly limited” to the statutory grounds provided in its arbitration act. Hughes v. Hughes, 851 P.2d 1007, 1009 (Idaho Ct. App. 1993). The Hughes court saw no difference between arbitration agreements between spouses and arbitration agreements between other parties who “have decided to substitute the final and binding judgment of an impartial entity conversant with the business world for the judgment of the courts.” Id. (citation omitted). And it held these agreements to the same standard: “Having chosen to submit the property division question to an arbitrator for resolution, the parties limited their recourse for judicial review.” Id. at 1009–10; see also Kelm v. Kelm, 623 N.E.2d 39, 41–42 (Ohio 1993) (pointing out its past “recogni[tion]” of “the validity and enforceability of agreements to arbitrate in many areas of the law,” as well as “the benefits of arbitration,” and “see[ing] no reason why” agreements to arbitrate domestic relations matters, including agreements to arbitrate alimony, “should not be included”); Miller v. Miller, 620 A.2d 1161, 1163–64 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1993) (determining that “parties should be able to settle their domestic disputes out of court,” and that “parties who have agreed to arbitrate should be bound by that decision”); Kovacs v. Kovacs, 633 A.2d 425, 432 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1993) (holding that arbitration awards regarding “alimony and property issues, if otherwise valid,” may ―be adopted without further consideration”); Bandas v. Bandas, 430 S.E.2d 706, 708 (Va. Ct. App. 1993) (noting that ―[n]owhere in the Uniform Arbitration Act, as adopted by Virginia, are courts required to review an arbitration agreement in a domestic relations context with more scrutiny than other disputes” and thus restricting judicial review of arbitration agreements in domestic relations cases to ―the standard set forth” in its Uniform Arbitration Act).

¶52 While we wait for further legislative clarity, we join these jurisdictions in concluding that divorcing parties may agree to subject their alimony and marital property disputes to the benefits and limitations of the UUAA.

¶53 The outcome changes in the child support and custody context. By statute, these issues are determined by the best interest of the child. See UTAH CODE § 30-3-5(5)(a) (2018), amended by and renumbered as UTAH CODE § 30-3-5(7)(a) (2022); id. § 78B-12-210(3). We have stated that parties may not agree to divest a district court of its responsibility to ensure that decisions concerning child support and custody are in the best interests of the child.

¶54 In In re E.H., for example, ―[w]e granted certiorari to consider the custody of a young boy, E.H.,” in light of a stipulation between E.H.‘s biological mother and adoptive parents ―assigning a psychologist the task of making recommendations concerning E.H.‘s best interests.” 2006 UT 36, ¶¶ 1, 3, 137 P.3d 809. We considered, specifically, ―whether the stipulation . . . was an impermissible delegation of authority to a third party.” Id. ¶ 3.

¶55 We explained that while ―the law favors the settlement of disputes,” id. ¶ 20, ―there are certain agreements that so compromise the core responsibilities of the court that they cannot be honored,” id. ¶ 21. And we concluded,

The stipulation between the mother and the adoptive parents did not unconstitutionally strip the district court of core functions because the district court did not surrender to [the psychologist] its authority to enter a custody order. Rather, the court merely agreed to follow a process for the determination of the best interests of E.H. and to uphold this process so long as it adequately served that end.

Id. We thus ―ultimately upheld the stipulation because the parties‘ arrangement ‗adequately served [the] end‘ of determining E.H.‘s best interest and the district court had ‘satisf[ied] itself that [the psychologist]‘s recommendations were properly arrived at.‘” R.B. v. L.B., 2014 UT App 270, ¶ 14, 339 P.3d 137 (alterations in original) (quoting In re E.H., 2006 UT 36, ¶¶ 21, 28). ―[We] further held that even when the parties in a custody dispute agree to be bound by an evaluator‘s findings, the district court retains ‗the ultimate authority to preside over the proceedings, to satisfy itself that [the evaluator‘s] recommendations were properly arrived at, and to enter a final order.‘” Id. (second alteration in original) (quoting In re E.H., 2006 UT 36, ¶ 28).

¶56 Following In re E.H.‘s lead, the court of appeals has concluded ―that parties cannot stipulate away the district court‘s statutory responsibility to conduct a best-interest analysis.” Id. ¶ 16. The court of appeals observed that ―Utah law has recognized that in the context of a child‘s well-being, interests in finality rank below the child‘s welfare,” and that ―[t]he same logic applies to judgments predicated on stipulated agreements.” Id. ¶ 17; see also Cox v. Hefley, 2019 UT App 60, ¶ 26, 441 P.3d 769 (reaffirming R.B.).

¶57 There is another reason why, absent express legislative authorization, arbitration awards dealing with child custody and support must be seen as non-binding recommendations to the district court. ―Arbitration agreements are creatures of contract.” Createrra, Inc. v. Sundial, LC, 2013 UT App 141, ¶ 8, 304 P.3d 104. As such, arbitration agreements ―bind only those who bargain for them.” Bybee v. Abdulla, 2008 UT 35, ¶ 8, 189 P.3d 40. And Utah law does not permit a parent to bargain away their child‘s right to have a district court decide the child‘s best interests.

¶58 Under Utah law, for example, ―a parent cannot release his or her minor child‘s prospective claims for negligence.” Rutherford v. Talisker Canyons Fin. Co., 2019 UT 27, ¶ 15, 445 P.3d 474 (reaffirming our decision in Hawkins ex rel. Hawkins v. Peart, 2001 UT 94, 37 P.3d 1062, superseded by statute, UTAH CODE § 78B-4-201 to -203, as stated in Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 2013 UT 22, 301 P.3d 984). Taking cues from ―Utah law provid[ing] various checks on parental authority to ensure a child‘s interests are protected,” and from the absence of any law ―granting parents in Utah a general[,] unilateral right to compromise or release a child‘s existing causes of action without court approval or appointment,” we reasoned that preinjury releases for negligence signed by a parent on behalf of a minor child violate ―public policies favoring protection of minors with respect to contractual obligations.” Hawkins, 2001 UT 94, ¶¶ 11, 12.

¶59 The Superior Court of Pennsylvania has voiced similar concerns about divorcing parents contracting away a child‘s right to have a court review decisions affecting the child‘s best interest. In line with these concerns, that court concluded that a trial court must be able to ensure that an arbitrator‘s custody determinations are in the best interest of the child. Miller v. Miller, 620 A.2d 1161 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1993). The superior court opined,

Parties to a divorce action may bargain between themselves and structure their agreement as best serves their interests. They have no power, however, to bargain away the rights of their children. Their right to bargain for themselves is their own business. They cannot in that process set a standard that will leave their children short. Their bargain may be eminently fair, give all that the children might require and be enforceable because it is fair. When it gives less than required or less than can be given to provide for the best interest of the children, it falls under the jurisdiction of the court‘s wide and necessary powers to provide for that best interest. It is at best advisory to the court and swings on the tides of the necessity that the children be provided. To which the inter se rights of the parties must yield as the occasion requires.

Id. at 1165–66 (quoting Knorr v. Knorr, 588 A.2d 503, 505 (Pa. 1991) (addressing agreements between parents concerning child support)); see also Kovacs, 633 A.2d at 431 (concluding that “the chancellor‘s responsibility to ensure the best interests of the children supersedes that of the parents” and requiring a chancellor to determine that an arbitrator‘s decision is in the best interests of the child before entering it).

¶60 The Supreme Court of New Jersey has also recognized that “[t]he right of parents to the care and custody of their children is not absolute.” Fawzy v. Fawzy, 973 A.2d 347, 358 (N.J. 2009) (alteration in original) (citation omitted). “Indeed,” the court noted, “the state has an obligation, under the parens patriae doctrine, to intervene where it is necessary to prevent harm to a child.” Id. at 358–59 (footnote omitted). Relying on this doctrine, the court concluded that while “the right to arbitrate child custody and parenting time serves an important family value,” the review of an arbitration award is subject to judicial review beyond “the confines of [New Jersey‘s] Arbitration Act” when “there is a claim of adverse impact or harm to the child.” Id. at 360–61. Notably, New Jersey‘s harm standard poses “a significantly higher burden than a best-interests analysis,” requiring a party to allege a level of harm akin to “grant[ing] custody to a parent with serious substance abuse issues or a debilitating mental illness.” Id at 361.

¶61 We note that some states have expressed these concerns and come out differently. The Supreme Court of South Carolina, for instance, has concluded that ―arbitration of children‘s issues is not permitted.” Singh v. Singh, 863 S.E.2d 330, 334 (S.C. 2021). The Singh court explained that ―[l]ongstanding tradition of this state places the responsibility of protecting a child‘s fundamental rights on the court system,” and that ―[p]arents may not attempt to circumvent children‘s rights to the protection of the State by agreeing to binding arbitration with no right of judicial review.”8 Id.see also Kelm, 749 N.E.2d at 301–03 (allowing arbitration of child support issues, but not of custody issues because it ―advances neither the children‘s best interests nor the basic goals underlying arbitration”).

¶62 Harmonizing the statutory schemes and recognizing the strong policies underlying the protection of children and the UUAA leads us to a decision like that reached in Pennsylvania and New Jersey—agreements to arbitrate child support and custody are not contrary to public policy. But any award that flows from these agreements must be in the best interests of the child. A district court retains the authority to ensure that an arbitration award addressing child support or custody satisfies the best-interests standard and may hear a challenge to the arbitration award on that basis.9

  1. A Court Retains Continuing Jurisdiction to Modify an Arbitration Award in a Divorce Case Pursuant to Utah Code Section 30-3-5

¶63 David also argues that the UUAA and Utah divorce law conflict in another area—modification. David contends that under the UUAA, a district court can modify an arbitration award ―only under limited circumstances involving minor procedural, mathematical, or factual errors, and can only do so within ninety

8 The Singh decision was also based on the court‘s reading of its Alternative Dispute Resolution Rules, which, the court concluded, ―implicitly limit[ed] binding arbitration to issues of property and alimony.” 863 S.E.2d at 333.

9 Had David argued that the arbitrator‘s decision on child support was not in the best interests of the children, our conclusion might have triggered a remand. But at no point—either before the district court or on appeal—has David argued that the arbitration award was contrary to the children‘s best interests.

 

days.” ―But in the divorce context, district courts must retain jurisdiction forever to enter modified decrees ‘as is reasonable and necessary‘ or ‘based on a substantial change in circumstances,‘ or when the ‘best interests‘ of the child so require.” (Citations omitted.) (Internal quotation marks omitted.)

¶64 As David points out, the UUAA indicates that a court may modify or correct an arbitration award for only those reasons it sets forth. See UTAH CODE § 78B-11-125. Family code, on the other hand, provides that a district court retains continuing jurisdiction to modify any divorce-related orders. Specifically, Utah Code section 30-3-5 states that a court ―has continuing jurisdiction to make subsequent changes or new orders for the custody of a child and the child‘s support, maintenance, health, and dental care, and for distribution of the property and obligations for debts as is reasonable and necessary.” Id. § 30-3-5(3) (2018), amended by and renumbered as UTAH CODE § 30-3-5(5) (2022); see also id. § 78B-12-210(9)(a) (2008), amended by UTAH CODE § 78B-12-210 (2022). Under that same section, a court also ―has continuing jurisdiction to make substantive changes and new orders regarding alimony based on a substantial material change in circumstances not foreseeable at the time of the divorce.” Id. § 30-3-5(8)(i)(i) (2018), amended by and renumbered as UTAH CODE § 30-3-5(11)(a) (2022) (stating that a court has continuing jurisdiction to make such changes and new orders ―based on a substantial material change in circumstances not expressly stated in the divorce decree or in the findings that the court entered at the time of the divorce decree”). Under our family code, therefore, a divorce court ―retains continuing jurisdiction over the parties, and power to make equitable redistribution or other modification of the original [divorce] decree as equity might dictate.” Despain, 610 P.2d at 1305; see also Potts v. Potts, 2018 UT App 169, ¶ 13, 436 P.3d 264 (―[D]ivorce courts are well established as courts of equity that retain jurisdiction over the parties and subject matters for the purposes equity may demand.” (citation omitted)).

¶65 We considered the trial court‘s powers to modify a divorce decree in Barraclough v. Barraclough, 111 P.2d 792 (Utah 1941) (per curiam). There, a divorcing couple ―entered into a written stipulation” setting alimony. Id. at 792 (internal quotation marks omitted). The trial court granted the divorce and based the alimony award on the parties‘ stipulation. Id. at 792–93. Five months later, one of the parties ―petitioned the lower court to modify the decree as to alimony.” Id. at 793 (internal quotation marks omitted). The trial court denied the petition, ―determin[ing] that the ‘stipulation‘ . . . constituted ‘a lump sum, complete and final settlement of all alimony . . ., and that such settlement ha[d] become a final judgment as to alimony.” Id.

¶66 We reversed the trial court. We explained,

In a divorce action the trial court should make such provision for alimony as the present circumstances of the parties warrant, and any stipulation of the parties in respect thereto serves only as a recommendation to the court. If the court adopts the suggestion of the parties it does not thereby lose the right to make such modification or change thereafter as may be requested by either party based on some change in circumstances warranting such modification.

Id.see also Jones v. Jones, 139 P.2d 222, 224 (Utah 1943) (concluding that the ability of a divorce court to modify an alimony award based upon the parties‘ stipulation ―can no longer be considered an open question in this State” under Barraclough).

¶67 The court of appeals has relied, in part, on our holding in Barraclough to conclude that even a ―non-modification provision [does] not divest the court of its continuing jurisdiction” to modify a divorce decree. Sill v. Sill, 2007 UT App 173, ¶ 9, 164 P.3d 415. In Sill v. Sill, ―the parties reached a stipulation and property settlement agreement,” under which the parties agreed to monthly alimony and ―the division of real and personal properties.” Id. ¶ 3. ―The trial court approved the Agreement and incorporated its provisions into the parties‘ . . . divorce decree.” Id. ¶ 4. Later, one of the parties sought to modify the decree by ―reduc[ing] the amount of alimony he agreed to pay.” Id. ¶ 5. The trial court dismissed the petition, concluding that ―both parties had waived the right to modify any terms of the Agreement.” Id. ¶¶ 5–6.

¶68 To examine the effect of the parties‘ non-modification provision, the court of appeals first turned to Utah Code section 30­3-5 and noted ―the significance of the legislature‘s inclusion of the adjective ‗continuing‘ to refer to the court‘s jurisdiction.” Id. ¶ 10. The court next turned to supreme court case law, noting that we had repeatedly held that ―parties cannot by contract divest a court of its statutorily granted subject matter jurisdiction to make alimony modifications, even if the parties intend the alimony provisions to be nonmodifiable.” Id. ¶¶ 12–14, 17. ―[C]onsidering section 30-3-5[]‘s continuing jurisdiction language and Utah case law,” the court of appeals determined that the trial court had erred when it dismissed the petition to modify. Id. ¶ 17; see also Cox, 2019 UT App 60, ¶ 30 (concluding under Sill, that a ―third party neutral‘s decisions regarding parent-time” are subject to modification).

¶69 Harmonizing the statutory schemes, we conclude that even when parties agree to arbitrate their divorce-related dispute, they are entitled to seek modification of the resulting award ―as is reasonable and necessary,” UTAH CODE § 30-3-5(3) (2018), or ―based on a substantial material change in circumstances,” id. § 30-3-5(8)(i)(i) (2018).[8]

¶70 To summarize, divorcing parties may agree to submit their alimony, property, child support, and custody-related disputes to arbitration. Judicial review of a resulting arbitration award, moreover, is limited to only those grounds provided in the UUAA, except when the arbitration award covers child support and custody. In those cases, a district court has the independent responsibility to ensure that the award is in the best interests of the child. Once an award is entered in the form of a decree of divorce, the entire decree is subject to modification as Utah Code section 30-3-5 provides.

¶71 We emphasize that the conclusions we reach today follow from our best efforts to harmonize two statutory schemes that do not talk directly to each other. And we recognize that our Legislature is best equipped to break the silence between the statutes. We note in this regard that the Uniform Law Commission has approved a Uniform Family Law Arbitration Act (UFLAA), which has been adopted in a handful of states. See Family Law Arbitration Act, UNIF. L. COMM‘N, https://www.uniformlaws.org/committees/community-home?CommunityKey=ddf1c9b6-65c0-4d55-bfd7-15c2d1e6d4ed (last visited May 13, 2022); see also MONT. CODE ANN. § 40-16-101 to -128; N.D. CENT. CODE § 32.29.4.-01 to -26; HAW. REV. STAT. § 658j-1 to -27; ARIZ. R. FAM. LAW P. 67.2.

¶72 Under the UFLAA, parties may agree to submit any ―family law dispute” to arbitration, UNIF. FAM. L. ARBITRATION ACT § 5, with a few exceptions, id. § 3(b) (clarifying that the UFLAA ―does not authorize an arbitrator” to grant a divorce, terminate parental rights, grant an adoption or guardianship, or determine the status of a child in need of protection). As to the grounds on which a court can modify or vacate an arbitration award prior to confirmation, the UFLAA tracks the UUAA, compare id. §§ 17, 18(a), 19(a)(1)–(7), with UTAH CODE §§ 78B-11-121(1), -124(1)(a)–(f), -125(1), with one important distinction—a court can modify or vacate an award ―determin[ing] a child-related dispute” when the award ―is contrary to the best interests of the child,” UNIF. FAM. L. ARBITRATION ACT § 19(b), (c). A court can also modify an award ―based on a fact occurring after confirmation” in accordance with the arbitration agreement or state law. Id. § 22.

¶73 Other states have enacted their own statutes authorizing family law arbitration. See MICH. COMP. LAWS § 600.5071; N.C. GEN. STAT. § 50-41(a); N.M. STAT. ANN. § 40-4-7.2(A). In states with statutes allowing arbitration of a child-related dispute, an award on the topic is generally subject to modification or vacatur when the award is adverse to the best interests of the child. See GA. CODE. ANN. § 19-9-1.1; TEX. FAM. CODE ANN. § 153.0071(b); MICH. COMP. LAWS § 600.5080(2); N.C. GEN. STAT. § 50-54(a)(6); N.M. STAT. ANN. § 40-4-7.2(T); see also COLO. REV. STAT. § 14-10-128.5 (authorizing ―[a]ny party . . . to move the court” to conduct a ―de novo hearing” to modify an arbitration award ―concerning the parties‘ minor or dependent children”); but see FLA. STAT. § 44.104(14) (prohibiting parties from arbitrating ―any dispute involving child custody, visitation, or child support”). These statutes also generally allow for modification of a confirmed arbitration award in accordance with state rules or statutes. See, e.g., MICH. COMP. LAWS § 600.5080(3); N.C. GEN. STAT. § 50-56.

  1. THE ARBITRATOR DID NOT MANIFESTLY
    DISREGARD THE LAW

¶74 David next argues that ―[a]t a minimum, the award should be vacated because the arbitrator exceeded his authority by manifestly disregarding Utah law.” David claims that the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the law when he imputed Jill‘s income and included Jill‘s tuition costs in the alimony award.

¶75 Our case law has recognized that a court may vacate an arbitration award ―if [the arbitrator‘s] decision demonstrates a manifest disregard of the law.” Westgate Resorts, Ltd. v. Adel, 2016 UT 24, ¶ 10, 378 P.3d 93. But we have since called Westgate’s conclusion into question. See Ahhmigo, LLC v. Synergy Co. of Utah, 2022 UT 4, 506 P.3d 536.

¶76 In Ahhmigo, we explained that the manifest disregard standard had its genesis in United States Supreme Court dicta. Id. ¶ 26 (discussing Wilko v. Swan, 346 U.S. 427, 436–37 (1953)). In later cases, SCOTUS declined to comment on the standard‘s survival, see Hall St. Assocs. v. Mattel, Inc., 552 U.S. 576, 585–87 (2008); Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662, 672 n.3 (2010), ―creat[ing] a split among jurisdictions as to whether the manifest disregard standard remains a viable ground for vacatur” under the Federal Arbitration Act, Ahhmigo, 2022 UT 4, ¶ 28 (citing cases).

¶77 Ahhmigo also addressed the standard‘s precarious position in our case law. Id. ¶¶ 31–36. We observed that ―we have never applied the standard to vacate an arbitration award.” Id. ¶ 37. We also explained that ―we have been less than clear when we have talked about the link between the manifest disregard standard and the UUAA,” id. ¶ 38—that is, ―we [could not] say whether the manifest disregard standard operates as only a gloss on section 78B-11­124(1)(d) of the UUAA, or whether it is a standalone ground on which a court may vacate an arbitration award,” id. ¶ 40. Looking to ―each of the grounds for vacatur” under the UUAA, we ―wonder[ed] if perhaps manifest disregard of the law is better thought of as a way of sussing out whether the arbitrator exceeded her authority in a manner that deprived the parties of the benefit of their bargain.” Id. ¶¶ 41, 43. ―At the very least,” we ―view[ed] with suspicion a standard that permits a party to ask a district court to vacate an award based upon what is, in essence, an argument that the arbitrator misapplied the law dressed up as an argument that the arbitrator disregarded the law.” Id. ¶ 45.

¶78 Ahhmigo notwithstanding, neither party has asked us to abandon the manifest disregard standard. And so we proceed to apply the standard under our case law as it currently sits.

¶79 ―‗[M]anifest disregard‘ is an extremely deferential standard.” Westgate Resorts, 2016 UT 24, ¶ 11. To meet this standard, a party must prove three elements:

First, the [arbitrator]‘s decision must actually be in error. Second, the error ―must have been obvious and capable of being readily and instantly perceived by the average person qualified to serve as an arbitrator.” Third, the [arbitrator] must have ―appreciate[d] the existence of a clearly governing legal principle but decide[d] to ignore or pay no attention to it.”

Id. (third and fourth alterations in original) (citation omitted).

¶80 David first argues that the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the law when he calculated Jill‘s imputed income. David claims that the arbitrator failed to ―consider the significant money that [Jill] will be able to earn from investing her property division.” And he contends that the arbitrator based Jill‘s income ―not on the statutory factors, but on his own judgment that [Jill] should be allowed to work in the field of her choice . . . and given time to complete her degree.”

¶81 Utah Code specifies that imputation of income for alimony or child support purposes must ―be based upon employment potential and probable earnings.” UTAH CODE § 78B-12-203(8)(b). ―In evaluating a spouse‘s ’employment potential and probable earnings,‘ courts are instructed to consider, among other factors, available employment opportunities, the spouse‘s health and relevant work history, and ‘prevailing earnings and job availability for persons of similar backgrounds in the community.‘” Bond v. Bond, 2018 UT App 38, ¶ 7, 420 P.3d 53 (citing UTAH CODE § 78B-12-203(8)(b)(i)–(x)).

¶82 David cannot successfully demonstrate that the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the law when he calculated Jill‘s income because he does not show that the arbitrator‘s decision was ―actually . . . in error,” let alone that any error in the arbitrator‘s decision was ―obvious and capable of being readily and instantly perceived by the average person qualified to serve as an arbitrator.” Westgate, 2016 UT 24, ¶ 11 (citation omitted).

¶83 We first note, as the district court did, that Utah law does not require the arbitrator to impute Jill‘s income according to her highest historical salary or possible property investments. It requires, instead, that the arbitrator consider an array of factors and impute Jill‘s income based on her ―employment potential and probable earnings.” See UTAH CODE § 78B-11-203(8)(b). And contrary to David‘s assertion, the arbitrator did not ignore this framework. As the district court found, the arbitrator ―effectively considered and applied the pertinent statutory factors.” Specifically, the arbitrator considered Jill‘s employment history in the financial and pharmaceutical sales sectors and a report submitted by David‘s vocational expert listing various jobs available to Jill based on her skillset and prior work experience. The arbitrator also spoke with Jill, who explained that while she was currently working as an aide, she was in the process of completing a degree in elementary education and intended to secure a full-time teaching position once her degree was complete. Considering all of these factors, the arbitrator imputed Jill‘s income. The arbitrator thus did not manifestly disregard the law.

¶84 David also argues that the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the law when he ―provid[ed] a line-item in [Jill‘s] alimony budget for her to obtain the education necessary to work in [the teaching] profession.” He contends that Utah Code instructs courts to calculate alimony according to a spouse‘s “needs” and “the standard of living existing at the time of separation.” According to David, Jill‘s tuition costs were “neither part of the parties‘ standard of living during the marriage nor a ‘need.‘”

¶85 When determining alimony, a district court must consider a series of factors, including “the financial condition and needs of the recipient spouse.” UTAH CODE § 30-3-5(8)(a)(i)–(vii) (2018), amended as and renumbered by UTAH CODE § 30-3-5(10)(a)(i)–(vii) (2022). In accordance with those factors, “[a]s a general rule, the court should look to the standard of living, existing at the time of separation.” Id. § 30-3-5(8)(e) (2018), amended as and renumbered by UTAH CODE § 30-3­5(10)(e) (2022). “However, the court shall consider all relevant facts and equitable principles and may, in the court‘s discretion, base alimony on the standard of living that existed at the time of trial.” Id.

¶86 We again find no “obvious” error in the arbitrator‘s decision. The arbitrator determined that Jill‘s tuition costs constituted a component of Jill‘s “financial condition” and spending “needs,” and factored those costs into the standard of living that existed at the time of arbitration. This is expressly sanctioned by Utah law. See id. § 30-3-5(8)(a)(ii), (e).

¶87 Ultimately, while David may disagree with the arbitrator, that does not equate to manifest disregard. After all, manifest disagreement and manifest disregard are different. See Pac. Dev., L.C. v. Orton2001 UT 36, ¶ 15, 23 P.3d 1035 (refusing to vacate an arbitration award for manifest disregard of the law because “[the appellant]‘s manifest disregard argument simply amount[ed] to a ‘manifest disagreement‘ with the arbitrator‘s findings and final award” (citation omitted)).

CONCLUSION

¶88 David asked his then-wife, Jill, to submit to arbitration the parties‘ disputes regarding alimony, property division, and child support. Jill agreed. David now asks us to invalidate the award under section 78B-11-107 of the UUAA. He argues that the plain language and policies of our state‘s arbitration and divorce laws conflict such that the parties‘ arbitration agreement is unenforceable.

¶89 But having participated in arbitration without objection, David lost the chance to rely on section 78B-11-107 to contest the arbitration award in his divorce case. We also reject David‘s argument that Utah law prevents parties from submitting at least some aspects of their divorce action to arbitration. Judicial review of arbitration awards dealing with divorce-related issues, however, varies depending on the issue and its underlying policies. Parties may arbitrate questions concerning alimony and property division and agree to the limited judicial review the UUAA contemplates. The strong policies underlying statutory provisions ensuring the protection of children, on the other hand, dictate that a court maintain the ability to consider whether an arbitration award addressing child support or custody is in the best interests of the child.

¶90 Concerning modification, a court retains continuing jurisdiction to modify orders relating to property distribution or children ―as is reasonable and necessary,” UTAH CODE § 30-3-5(3) (2018), amended by and renumbered as UTAH CODE § 30-3-5(5) (2022), and orders relating to alimony ―based on a substantial material change in circumstances,” id. § 30-3-5(8)(i)(i) (2018), amended by and renumbered as UTAH CODE § 30-3-5(11)(a) (2022).

¶91 David alternatively asks us to invalidate the arbitration award for manifest disregard of the law. Even assuming that standard remains viable, it has not been met. We affirm the district court.

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

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How do you change the name on a deed after a divorce?

In Utah (where I practice divorce and family law), there is more than one way to transfer title to the marital home (assuming the parties own a home), but the most common and conventional way is the same way title to real property is transferred between any two parties: by deed. If a couple jointly owns their home and it gets awarded to one spouse alone in the divorce, then the spouse who was not awarded the house prepares (or has prepared for him/her) a deed that transfers his/her interest in the real property to the spouse who was awarded the house in the divorce action. 

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

https://www.quora.com/How-do-you-change-the-name-on-a-deed-after-a-divorce/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

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When are my ex’s things deemed abandoned?

I was awarded the house in the divorce. My ex’s things are still here and he/she won’t pick them up. When are they deemed abandoned? 

Utah Code § 67-4a-201 provides, in pertinent part that property is presumed abandoned if the property is unclaimed by the apparent owner “the earlier of three years after the owner first has a right to demand the property or the obligation to pay or distribute the property arises.” 

Utah Code § 67-4a-208 (Indication of apparent owner interest in property) provides, in pertinent part: 

(1) The period after which property is presumed abandoned is measured from the later of: 

(a) the date the property is presumed abandoned under this part; or 

(b) the latest indication of interest by the apparent owner in the property. 

(2) Under this chapter, an indication of an apparent owner’s interest in property includes: 

(a) a record communicated by the apparent owner to the holder or agent of the holder concerning the property or the account in which the property is held; 

(b) an oral communication by the apparent owner to the holder or agent of the holder concerning the property or the account in which the property is held, if the holder or the holder’s agent contemporaneously makes and preserves a record of the fact of the apparent owner’s communication; 

(c) presentment of a check or other instrument of payment of a dividend, interest payment, or other distribution, or evidence of receipt of a distribution made by electronic or similar means, with respect to an account, underlying security, or interest in a business association; 

(d) activity directed by an apparent owner in the account in which the property is held, including accessing the account or information concerning the account, or a direction by the apparent owner to increase, decrease, or otherwise change the amount or type of property held in the account; 

(e) a deposit into or withdrawal from an account at a banking organization or financial organization, including an automatic deposit or withdrawal previously authorized by the apparent owner other than an automatic reinvestment of dividends or interest; 

(f) any other action by the apparent owner which reasonably demonstrates to the holder that the apparent owner knows that the account exists; and 

(g) subject to Subsection (5), payment of a premium on an insurance policy. 

(3) An action by an agent or other representative of an apparent owner, other than the holder acting as the apparent owner’s agent, is presumed to be an action on behalf of the apparent owner. 

(4) A communication with an apparent owner by a person other than the holder or the holder’s representative is not an indication of interest in the property by the apparent owner unless a record of the communication evidences the apparent owner’s knowledge of a right to the property. 

(5) If the insured dies or the insured or beneficiary of an insurance policy otherwise becomes entitled to the proceeds before depletion of the cash surrender value of the policy by operation of an automatic premium loan provision or other nonforfeiture provision contained in the policy, the operation does not prevent the policy from maturing or terminating. 

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Why is it so easy to get married, and so hard to get divorced?

Why is it so easy to get married, and so hard to get divorced? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? 

This is a perceptive question. 

It would not not be that hard to get divorced if you were to give up everything in the divorce. If you told your spouse, “I want a divorce so bad I’ll make this as easy for, and as advantageous to, you as possible by waiving any and all rights to the marital assets, spousal support, the kids, everything,” you could get divorced relatively quickly and without having to incur any attorney’s fees. Heck, your spouse might gleefully pay an attorney to draw the “my spouse is giving away the farm” divorce action and settlement agreement. Of course, while getting the divorce that way would be fast, easy, and cheap, you’d pay a dear personal price—in both the short and the long run—in almost every other aspect.  

When you think about it, there are many endeavors that are easy to enter but prove to be very difficult to finish or exit (or at least to finish or exit comfortably): 

  • college (easy to enroll, get loans), hard to finish, hard to pay off student loans, especially if you drop out and still have to pay the loans off 
  • business (easier to get into than to stay in, and brutal to experience a business failure) 

And marriage is another. The longer one is married, the harder a divorce usually is due to so much having been invested in a marriage of long duration. It’s easier for two single, childless people to marry than for two married people to divorce who acquired property/assets and incurred debt and who may have begotten minor children (to say nothing of the disruption divorce inflicts on the physical and emotional reliance upon each other that spouses develop over time). With this in mind, it’s hard to conceive a way by which we could reasonably and responsibly make easier than marrying the dividing the property/assets, apportioning responsibility for marital debts and obligations, and determining the custody of minor children in divorce.  

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

https://lifeover60.quora.com/Why-is-it-so-easy-to-get-married-and-so-hard-to-get-divorced-Shouldn-t-it-be-the-other-way-around?__nsrc__=4  

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