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Category: Modification of Decree of Divorce

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

2024 UT App 51 – Bailey v. Bailey

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

Opinion No. 20220534-CA Filed April 11, 2024

Second District Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable Michael D. DiReda No. 094701582

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

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which

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

HARRIS, Judge:

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

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

BACKGROUND
The Petition to Modify

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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McFarland v. McFarland – 2024 UT App 31 – attorney’s fees awards

McFarland v. McFarland – 2024 UT App 31

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

BRUCE RAY MCFARLAND, Appellee, v. NICOLE S. MCFARLAND, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20221044-CA, Filed March 14, 2024

Second District Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable David J. Williams No. 084701533

Angilee K. Dakic, Attorney for Appellant, Jacob K. Cowdin, Attorney for Appellee

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

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1 This domestic dispute between Bruce Ray McFarland (Bruce) and Nicole S. McFarland (Nicole) comes before us for a second time. This time, we are asked to assess the propriety of two aspects of the district court’s most recent set of orders: the court’s decision to modify the parties’ divorce decree and award the house in which the parties lived while they were married (the Home) to Bruce instead of to Nicole, and the court’s decision to require Nicole to pay Bruce’s attorney fees incurred in litigating the petition to modify. We see no reversible error in the court’s award of the Home to Bruce, and we therefore affirm on that issue. But we agree with Nicole that the court erred in awarding attorney fees to Bruce, and we therefore reverse that fee award.

BACKGROUND

¶2        In our previous opinion, we set forth many of the relevant facts underlying the parties’ dispute. See McFarland v. McFarland, 2021 UT App 58, ¶¶ 2–18, 493 P.3d 1146. In the interest of brevity, we recite in this opinion only those facts necessary to our decision.

¶3        Bruce and Nicole’s divorce decree (the Decree) was entered in 2009 following a negotiated settlement. As relevant here, the Decree required Bruce to pay Nicole $1,700 per month in alimony, and it awarded the Home to Nicole “subject to” her “assumption” of the mortgage, tax, and insurance obligations associated with the Home as well as “a judicial lien in the sum of $12,034.24 payable to” Bruce. According to the Decree, Nicole was to pay Bruce the lien amount on the occurrence of the first of these events: (1) when Nicole remarries or cohabits; (2) when the Home is sold or rented; (3) when Nicole “moves from” the Home or no longer uses it as her primary residence; or (4) when the parties’ youngest child graduates from high school. Several of those events have long since occurred; indeed, the district court later found that Nicole “abandoned” the Home in 2010. At no point did Nicole ever make any of the mortgage, tax, or insurance payments on the Home, nor did she ever pay Bruce the lien amount.

¶4        Instead, after a brief period in which he did not live in the Home, Bruce moved back into the Home in 2009 and has lived there at all times since. And after entry of the Decree, Bruce— rather than Nicole—has made all mortgage, tax, and insurance payments on the Home, and he has also maintained and made improvements to the Home. But other than one single payment in January 2009, Bruce paid no alimony to Nicole. Thus, soon after the Decree was entered, both parties began to ignore many of the Decree’s important provisions. But for the next seven years, neither party seemed bothered by the other’s noncompliance, and neither sought to modify or enforce the terms of the Decree.

¶5        In 2017—apparently motivated by a desire to refinance the Home—Bruce filed a petition to modify (Bruce’s Petition), asking the court to modify the Decree to (among other things) award him the Home. Nicole responded not only by resisting Bruce’s Petition, but also by filing two motions asking the court to hold Bruce in contempt for (among other things) failing to pay alimony and for “willfully occup[ying Nicole’s] property,” namely, the Home. Concerning the Home, Nicole asked that the court “immediately restore[]” her “to the use and possession of” the Home. Later, in 2019, the court found Bruce in contempt for failing to pay alimony, and it ordered Bruce to pay Nicole over $150,000 in unpaid alimony. But the court declined to find Bruce in contempt for occupying the Home. The court made no ruling on Bruce’s Petition, however, because that matter had apparently not yet been certified for trial. But the court allowed Bruce to continue living in the Home “on a temporary basis” until the matter was finally resolved.

¶6        Both parties appealed several aspects of the court’s 2019 rulings and, in this case’s first trip to this court, we affirmed the court’s alimony award to Nicole and remanded “the case for further proceedings” regarding (among other things) Bruce’s Petition. Id. ¶¶ 46–47.

¶7        Following remand, the district court held a hearing to consider matters regarding the Home. Bruce asserted that any claim Nicole might make regarding possession of the Home was barred by several equitable doctrines, including waiver and laches. In particular, Bruce claimed that Nicole had waived any claim to the Home by moving out in 2010 and taking no action in the intervening years to challenge Bruce’s possession of it, and that Nicole’s claim was barred by laches because her “delay in bringing her claim” was “unreasonable” and “prejudicial to Bruce.” Nicole resisted all of these arguments and, in addition, claimed that Bruce’s Petition was barred by res judicata.

¶8        At the conclusion of the hearing, the court made an oral ruling granting Bruce’s Petition and denying Nicole’s motion regarding the Home. The court later issued a written ruling setting forth its findings and conclusions. In that ruling, the court found that Nicole’s abandonment of the Home in 2010 constituted “a material and substantial change in circumstances.” The court also rejected Nicole’s claim that Bruce’s Petition was barred by res judicata. And the court determined that modification of the Decree to award Bruce the Home was appropriate; the court found merit in several of Bruce’s equitable arguments. Specifically, the court determined that Nicole had waived any claim to the Home by moving out and failing to make any payments related to the Home since the Decree was entered. And the court concluded that laches also barred Nicole’s claim to the Home because she had delayed bringing any such claim and her delay had prejudiced Bruce because Bruce had made payments and improvements on the Home in the intervening years. The court noted that Bruce had also delayed in bringing his petition, but it found that Nicole had not been prejudiced by Bruce’s delay.

¶9        Bruce asked the court to award him attorney fees incurred in litigating his petition. As the district court interpreted it, this request was grounded not in the attorney fees statute found in the family law code, see Utah Code § 30-3-3, but, instead, in Utah’s bad-faith attorney fees statute, see id. § 78B-5-825. The court granted Bruce’s request, but it made no specific finding that Nicole’s claims and defenses regarding the Home had been “without merit.” It did make an express finding that “Nicole’s effort to pursue an award of [the Home] roughly eight (8) years after abandoning [it] was an act of bad faith” that Nicole undertook with a “retaliatory” motive in reaction to the filing of Bruce’s Petition. And the court noted that, during the intervening years, Nicole “had not satisfied the conditions in the Decree that allowed her to take possession of” the Home. Based on these findings, the court concluded that “law and equity call for an award of attorney fees in Bruce’s favor as it relates to the issue of” the Home. The court later quantified that attorney fee award, ordering that Nicole pay Bruce $7,390.67 for attorney fees he incurred litigating issues related to the Home.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10      Nicole appeals two aspects of the court’s rulings. First, she challenges the court’s order modifying the Decree to award the Home to Bruce. “In this context, we review the district court’s underlying findings of fact, if any, for clear error,” and we review “its ultimate determination regarding the petition to modify[] for an abuse of discretion.” Myers v. Myers, 2023 UT App 20, ¶ 19, 526 P.3d 1253. Whether the court chose and applied the correct legal standard is a question of law “that we review for correctness.” Peeples v. Peeples, 2019 UT App 207, ¶ 11, 456 P.3d 1159.

¶11      As discussed below, our analysis on this point focuses on the court’s application of the doctrine of laches and, in particular, on its determination that Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s delay in asserting a right to possession of the Home. “The application of laches to a particular set of facts and circumstances presents a mixed question of law and fact.” Peterson v. Pierce, 2019 UT App 48, ¶ 9, 440 P.3d 833 (quotation simplified). While “[l]aw-like mixed questions are reviewed de novo,” mixed questions that are more “fact-like” are “reviewed deferentially.” Sawyer v. Department of Workforce Services, 2015 UT 33, ¶ 11, 345 P.3d 1253. For the reasons discussed more fully later, see infra ¶¶ 18–21, we conclude that a district court’s prejudice determination made in the laches context is more fact-like than law-like and, therefore, calls for a more deferential standard of review.

¶12 Second, Nicole challenges the court’s award of attorney fees to Bruce under the bad faith statute. “We review a trial court’s grant of attorney fees under the bad faith statute as a mixed question of law and fact.” Outsource Receivables Mgmt., Inc. v. Bishop, 2015 UT App 41, ¶ 11, 344 P.3d 1167 (quotation simplified).

“A finding of bad faith is a question of fact and is reviewed by this court under the ‘clearly erroneous’ standard,” but a “‘without merit’ determination is a question of law” that we review “for correctness.” Id. (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

I

¶13      We first address Nicole’s challenge to the district court’s grant of Bruce’s Petition and its accompanying order modifying the Decree to award the Home to Bruce. The court based its ruling on several distinct legal doctrines, including waiver and laches. Nicole challenges the application of these doctrines, asserting that none of them apply to the facts at hand. For the reasons discussed, we conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion when it concluded that Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s delay in asserting her claim to the Home, and that therefore the doctrine of laches operates to bar Nicole’s claim. Because we affirm the court’s laches determination, we need not reach the question of whether the court erred in its application of waiver or any other legal or equitable doctrine.

¶14 “Laches” is an equitable doctrine “founded upon considerations of time and injury.” Insight Assets, Inc. v. Farias, 2013 UT 47, ¶ 17, 321 P.3d 1021 (quotation simplified). The thing that the doctrine is concerned about “is not mere delay, but delay that works a disadvantage to another.” Id. (quotation simplified). “In Utah, laches traditionally has two elements.” Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Horne, 2012 UT 66, ¶ 29, 289 P.3d 502. First, the party claiming laches must demonstrate that the other party “unreasonably delayed in bringing” a claim. See Veysey v. Nelson, 2017 UT App 77, ¶ 8, 397 P.3d 846 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 400 P.3d 1046 (Utah 2017). Second, the party claiming laches must demonstrate that it “was prejudiced by that delay.” Id. (quotation simplified); see also Laches, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019) (defining “laches” as “[t]he equitable doctrine by which a court denies relief to a claimant who has unreasonably delayed in asserting the claim, when that delay has prejudiced the party against whom relief is sought”).

¶15      Nicole concedes that the first element of the laches test— unreasonable delay—is met here, given her eight-year delay in objecting to Bruce’s possession of the Home. Because of this concession, we need concern ourselves only with the second element of the laches test: whether Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s unreasonable delay.

¶16      On that point, the district court made a specific finding that Bruce would suffer “clear prejudice” if Nicole were allowed to claim possession of the Home. The court observed that Bruce had raised the parties’ children in the Home, had made “improvements” to the Home, and had taken care of “all financial obligations related to” the Home since 2009. In light of these undisputed facts, the court determined that Bruce would be prejudiced if Nicole were allowed to assert, after all these years, a right to exclusively use and possess the Home.

¶17 Nicole challenges the court’s prejudice determination, asserting that her delay in asserting her rights to the Home was actually “a benefit to Bruce” because it gave him a place to live and because he was able to take “significant amounts of equity out of” the Home “on multiple occasions.” But before we can address Nicole’s challenge to the court’s prejudice determination, we must first determine the appropriate standard of review.

¶18      As previously mentioned, see supra ¶ 11, a district court’s “application of laches to a particular set of facts and circumstances presents a mixed question of law and fact.” Peterson v. Pierce, 2019 UT App 48, ¶ 9, 440 P.3d 833 (quotation simplified). “Mixed questions fall somewhere in the twilight between deferential review of findings of fact and searching reconsideration of conclusions of law.” In re adoption of Baby B., 2012 UT 35, ¶ 42, 308 P.3d 382. The level of deference afforded to district courts in such situations thus depends on whether the determination at issue is more law-like or fact-like. See Sawyer v. Department of Workforce Services, 2015 UT 33, ¶ 11, 345 P.3d 1253. We must therefore assess whether a determination regarding prejudice, in the laches context, is more fact-like than law-like. As far as we are aware, no Utah court has yet rendered a specific ruling on this question.

¶19      When considering whether a question “should be deemed law-like or fact-like, we evaluate the marginal costs and benefits of conducting either a searching de novo review or a deferential review of a lower tribunal’s resolution of the mixed question.” Id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified). To that end, our supreme court has instructed us to consider three relevant factors:

(1) the degree of variety and complexity in the facts to which the legal rule is to be applied; (2) the degree to which a trial court’s application of the legal rule relies on facts observed by the trial judge, such as a witness’s appearance and demeanor, relevant to the application of the law that cannot be adequately reflected in the record available to appellate courts; and (3) other policy reasons that weigh for or against granting discretion to trial courts.

Id. (quotation simplified).

¶20      The first two factors compare “the relative competencies” of “a fact-finding tribunal” and that of “an appellate court.” Id. ¶ 13. District courts and other fact-finding tribunals “are in a superior position to weigh facts that depend upon credibility determinations, the direct observation of witness testimony, and other evidence not fully captured in a written appellate record.” Id. On the other hand, appellate courts are in a better position to fashion “broad rules that can create a greater degree of consistency and predictability to future cases involving a particular mixed question.” Id. An inquiry that is highly “fact-intensive” is not one that “lend[s] itself to consistent resolution by a uniform body of appellate precedent.” Carbon County v. Workforce Appeals Board, 2013 UT 41, ¶ 7, 308 P.3d 477 (quotation simplified). Thus, a district court is “entitled to deference” where its determinations are “fact-intensive” because an appellate court “would be in an inferior position to review the correctness” of such a decision. Id. (quotation simplified).

¶21 Assessing whether a litigant’s unreasonable delay in bringing a claim has caused another party to sustain prejudice is a case-specific, fact-bound inquiry that will depend on the particular circumstances at hand, as well as—at least in many cases, including this one—on the district court’s perception of the progression of the litigation. Indeed, for this very reason, Utah appellate courts have concluded, in a number of analogous contexts, that appellate review of a district court’s prejudice determination should be deferential. See State v. De La Rosa, 2019 UT App 110, ¶ 9, 445 P.3d 955 (reviewing deferentially a district court’s “substantial adverse effect” determination, made in the context of assessing whether a new trial was warranted, “due to [the district court’s] advantaged position to judge the impact of legal errors on the total proceedings” (quotation simplified)); see also State v. Maestas, 2012 UT 46, ¶ 325, 299 P.3d 892 (stating that district courts “have discretion in granting or denying a motion for a mistrial . . . because of the[ir] advantaged position . . . to determine the impact of events occurring in the courtroom on the total proceedings” (quotation simplified)); Butler v. Mediaport Ent. Inc., 2022 UT App 37, ¶¶ 32, 48, 508 P.3d 619 (stating that “we review a district court’s harmlessness determination,” made in the discovery and disclosure context, deferentially “for abuse of discretion” because “a district court will almost always have a better vantage point than we do to make such a call”). We also observe that laches is an equitable doctrine, see Insight Assets, 2013 UT 47, ¶ 17, and “equitable inquiries are designed to be flexible, taking into account all relevant factors in light of the particular circumstances,” Jones v. Layton/Okland, 2009 UT 39, ¶ 17, 214 P.3d 859. “Because of the fact-intensive nature of equitable doctrines,” we generally grant district courts “broader discretion in applying the law to the facts.” Volonte v. Domo, Inc., 2023 UT App 25, ¶ 28, 528 P.3d 327 (quotation simplified). For all of these reasons, we conclude that a district court’s determination that a litigant has (or has not) sustained prejudice as a result of another party’s unreasonable delay in bringing a claim is entitled to deference from appellate courts and is a determination that should be reviewed for abuse of discretion.

¶22 We discern no abuse of discretion in the district court’s determination that Bruce sustained prejudice as a result of Nicole’s eight-year delay in asserting her right to the Home. The court’s ruling was well-reasoned and supported by evidence in the record. As noted, the court relied on the fact that Bruce had lived in the Home the entire time, raised the parties’ children there, and—perhaps most importantly—had taken care of all financial obligations related to the Home, including all maintenance and improvements.

¶23      We acknowledge Nicole’s point that Bruce enjoyed certain advantages as a result of living in the Home. As Nicole points out, Bruce would have had to pay for housing whether he lived in the Home or elsewhere, and Bruce was apparently able to take advantage of the equity in the Home. These facts could have led the district court to make a different determination with regard to whether Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s delay. But the presence of conflicting evidence does not compel reversal here. Given the applicable standard of review, the relevant question is not whether we would have made the same determination had we been sitting as the assigned trial-level arbiters in this case; rather, the relevant question is whether we discern an abuse of discretion in the decision the assigned judge made. See Stichting Mayflower Mountain Fonds v. United Park City Mines Co., 2017 UT 42, ¶ 49, 424 P.3d 72 (stating that “[t]he question presented is not whether we would have granted” the motion in question, but instead “whether we find an abuse of discretion in the district judge’s decision to deny the motion”). Where the court’s decision is supported by evidence in the record and free from legal error, we will not disturb it. And that is the case here.

¶24      Nicole resists this conclusion on three additional grounds. First, she points out that Bruce also delayed in asserting a right to the Home, and she complains that the district court applied the principles of laches in an uneven manner. But on this point, the district court made a specific determination that, although Bruce delayed the invocation of his claim to the Home, Nicole did not sustain any prejudice as a result of Bruce’s delay. The court noted that, during the time between her “abandonment” of the Home and the filing of Bruce’s Petition, Nicole “did not have to satisfy any financial obligations related to” the Home, “including those required by the Decree.” The court’s determination was therefore supported by evidence in the record and, while a different judge might have reached a different conclusion on these facts, we cannot say that the court’s ruling was an abuse of its discretion.

¶25      Second, Nicole asserts that Bruce should not be able to take advantage of equitable doctrines such as laches because, in her view, Bruce had “unclean hands” due to his failure to pay alimony and child support, as required by the terms of the Decree, during the years he lived in the Home. See Goggin v. Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶ 60, 299 P.3d 1079 (“The doctrine of unclean hands expresses the principle that a party who comes into equity for relief must show that his conduct has been fair, equitable, and honest as to the particular controversy in issue.” (quotation simplified)). But while Nicole (successfully, as it turned out) asked the district court to award her back alimony and child support, she never asked the district court to apply the doctrine of unclean hands, and her arguments in this regard are therefore unpreserved for appellate review. See State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 18, 416 P.3d 443 (“A failure to preserve an issue in the trial court generally precludes a party from arguing that issue in an appellate court, absent a valid exception.”).

¶26      Nicole does not explicitly ask us to utilize any of the exceptions to our preservation requirement, but she does assert that the district court erred by failing to “sua sponte” apply the unclean hands doctrine. Certainly, a court may invoke that doctrine without being asked to do so. See 30A C.J.S. Equity § 116 (2023) (“A defense of unclean hands need not be pleaded. The doctrine may be applied by the court sua sponte.”). But the fact that a court may invoke the doctrine in a sua sponte manner does not relieve a party of its otherwise-applicable obligation to preserve issues for appellate review. Indeed, construed liberally, Nicole’s argument—that the district court erred by failing to sua sponte invoke the unclean hands doctrine—is an assertion that the court plainly erred by not concluding that Bruce’s unclean hands barred him from accessing equitable doctrines like laches. But this assertion fails because plain error review no longer exists in civil cases like this one. Kelly v. Timber Lakes Prop. Owners Ass’n, 2022 UT App 23, ¶ 44, 507 P.3d 357. Because plain error review is unavailable, and because Nicole does not ask us to employ any other exception to our preservation requirement, the fact that her “unclean hands” argument is unpreserved requires us to reject her argument without reaching its merits.

¶27      Finally, Nicole asserts that Bruce’s Petition was barred by the doctrine of res judicata. Essentially, she asserts that, because the parties already litigated the issue of entitlement to the Home, and because the Decree awarded the Home to her, Bruce is barred from relitigating that issue now. Nicole correctly asserts that res judicata is not categorically inapplicable in divorce cases. See Throckmorton v. Throckmorton, 767 P.2d 121, 123 (Utah Ct. App. 1988) (“The doctrine of res judicata applies in divorce actions.”). But “Fi]n the family law context, our legislature has given district courts the authority to revisit many of the provisions contained in a typical divorce decree, including provisions pertaining to child custody, child support, alimony, property distribution, and debts.” See Robertson v. Stevens, 2020 UT App 29, ¶ 7, 461 P.3d 323 (emphasis added); see also Utah Code § 30-3-5(5). In this context, a party may seek post-judgment modification of the property distribution provisions of a divorce decree, but in order to succeed in that endeavor the party “must demonstrate that a substantial change in circumstances has occurred since the entry of the decree.” See Toone v. Toone, 952 P.2d 112, 114 (Utah Ct. App. 1998) (quotation simplified); see also Throckmorton, 767 P.2d at 123 (“[T]he application of res judicata is unique in divorce actions because of the equitable doctrine which allows courts to reopen alimony, support, or property distributions if the moving party can demonstrate a substantial change of circumstances since the matter was previously considered by the court.”).

¶28 Thus, modification of the Decree’s property distribution provisions is appropriate—even post-judgment and even taking into account principles of res judicata—so long as Bruce can demonstrate that, since entry of the Decree, there has been a substantial change of circumstances that would justify the court taking a second look at the terms of the distribution. And on that point, Nicole raises no challenge; indeed, in her reply brief on appeal she makes clear that she “is not arguing lack of changed circumstance,” and she affirmatively acknowledges that, in this case, “there have been changed circumstances.” Thus, the court had the authority to revisit the property distribution provisions of the Decree, and we reject Nicole’s argument to the contrary.

¶29    For these reasons, we perceive no abuse of discretion in the district court’s determination that Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s unreasonable delay in asserting her right to possess the Home. Because Nicole does not contest the other element of laches—unreasonable delay—both elements are met. We therefore affirm the district court’s determination that the equitable doctrine of laches barred Nicole’s claim to the Home, and on that basis we affirm the court’s grant of Bruce’s Petition and its accompanying order awarding the Home to Bruce.

II

¶30      Next, we address Nicole’s challenge to the court’s award of attorney fees to Bruce, incurred in connection with litigating issues related to the Home. On this point, we find merit in Nicole’s arguments, and we therefore reverse the court’s fee award.

¶31 Bruce’s fee request was grounded in Utah’s bad-faith attorney-fees statute, which empowers courts to “award reasonable attorney fees to a prevailing party if the court determines that the action or defense to the action was without merit and not brought or asserted in good faith.” See Utah Code § 78B-5-825(1). Before awarding fees under this section, a district court—in addition to determining that the requesting party is the “prevailing party”—must make specific findings that the opposing party’s claim is (1) “without merit” and (2) “not brought or asserted in good faith.” Rocky Ford Irrigation Co. v. Kents Lake Reservoir Co., 2020 UT 47, ¶ 76, 469 P.3d 1003 (quotation simplified). These two findings “must be made independently” from one another. Still Standing Stable, LLC v. Allen, 2005 UT 46, ¶ 12, 122 P.3d 556. Nicole asserts that the court failed to make a specific finding that her claims and defenses regarding the Home were without merit, and she maintains that the fee award was therefore improper. We agree with Nicole.

¶32      While the court made a specific finding that Nicole’s claims and defenses regarding the Home were asserted in “bad faith” and on a “retaliatory” basis, it made no specific finding that Nicole’s claims were without merit. Bruce acknowledges the lack of an express finding on this point, but he asserts that we can infer such a finding from (a) the fact that the court rejected Nicole’s claims on their merits (i.e., that she lost) and (b) the court’s specific bad-faith finding. We see the matter differently.

¶33      First, a determination that a party lost on the merits is not equivalent to a determination that the party’s claims were without merit for purposes of the bad-faith statute. “Without merit” in this context means something worse than just having a losing claim. Indeed, our supreme court has stated that the term “without merit,” as used in the bad-faith statute, “implies bordering on frivolity,” with the term “frivolous” meaning “of little weight or importance having no basis in law or fact.” Cady v. Johnson, 671 P.2d 149, 151 (Utah 1983) (quotation simplified); see also Migliore v. Livingston Fin. LLC, 2015 UT 9, ¶ 31, 347 P.3d 394 (“To determine whether a claim is without merit, we look to whether it was frivolous or of little weight or importance having no basis in law or fact.” (quotation simplified)). And on at least one occasion, our supreme court has concluded that a losing claim was not “without merit,” because the claim—even though it was not the prevailing claim—involved a question of “first impression” and “had a basis in law and fact.” See In re Olympus Constr. LC, 2009 UT 29, ¶ 31, 215 P.3d 129. We therefore may not infer, merely from the district court’s rejection of Nicole’s claims on their merits, that the court considered those claims to be so meritless as to be “bordering on frivolity.” See Cady, 671 P.2d at 151.

¶34 Nor may we draw that inference from the court’s “bad faith” finding. As noted already, the two separate findings— without merit and bad faith—“must be made independently” from one another. Still Standing Stable, 2005 UT 46, ¶ 12. And this makes sense, because the two elements of the statutory test are aimed at two different things. The first element (“without merit”) is concerned with the objective quality of the claim itself, see Migliore, 2015 UT 9, ¶ 31, while the second element (“bad faith”) is concerned with the party’s subjective motivation for bringing it, see Blum v. Dahl, 2012 UT App 198, ¶ 9, 283 P.3d 963 (“A finding of bad faith turns on a factual determination of a party’s subjective intent.” (quotation simplified)). Both elements must be met before a court may award attorney fees under the bad-faith statute. And the presence of one element does not necessarily imply the presence of the other.

¶35 For instance, a party may have a completely frivolous claim that lacks any basis in law or fact, but that party may not be aware of the claim’s lack of merit at the time it was filed. In that situation, the first element of the test is met but, depending on the circumstances, the second might not be. Conversely, a party may have a solid (albeit losing) claim that has a basis in both law and fact, but the party might be bringing that claim for abusive or improper reasons. In that situation, the second element might be met but the first one wouldn’t be. In the case at hand, our review of the record indicates that this might be the situation: Nicole had in her corner a provision in the Decree awarding her the Home, and Bruce had not taken any action to seek modification of that provision in eight years. Given these facts, it is certainly not obvious to us that Nicole’s claims and defenses regarding the Home were “bordering on frivolity,” see Cady, 671 P.2d at 151, even if we take at face value the court’s finding that Nicole brought the claims in a bad-faith effort to retaliate against Bruce.

¶36 Accordingly, we conclude that the absence of any specific finding that Nicole’s claims were without merit renders the district court’s attorney fees award improper.[1]

CONCLUSION

¶37 We discern no abuse of discretion in the district court’s determination that laches barred Nicole’s claims and defenses regarding the Home, and on that basis we affirm the district court’s grant of Bruce’s Petition and its accompanying order awarding the Home to Bruce. But due to the absence of any finding that Nicole’s claims and defenses were without merit, we reverse the court’s award of attorney fees to Bruce pursuant to the bad-faith statute, and we vacate the part of the court’s judgment that required Nicole to pay $7,390.67 in fees to Bruce.

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


[1] Again invoking the bad-faith statute, Bruce asks us to award him attorney fees he incurred on appeal. We must reject this request because we have reversed the award of attorney fees in the district court. Moreover, we do not consider Nicole’s appellate arguments to have been brought in bad faith.

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

2023 UT App 137  – Lobendahn v. Lobendahn

 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

MARCUS JAMES LOBENDAHN,

Appellant and Cross-appellee,

v.

LEEYEN MOEVAI LOBENDAHN,

Appellee and Cross-appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210278-CA

Filed November 16, 2023

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Thomas Low

No. 164400262

Luke A. Shaw and Jill L. Coil,

Attorneys for Appellant

Julie J. Nelson, Daniel Ybarra, and Alexandra

Mareschal, Attorneys for Appellee

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

concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

 

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B.        The circumstances surrounding Son’s baptism

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

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

C.        The circumstances surrounding having Son tested for autism

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

D.        The circumstances surrounding obtaining the children’s passports

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

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

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

F.         The district court’s custody factor findings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Mother’s Attorney Fees Request

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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


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

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

P.3d 733:

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

Id. ¶ 20 n.5.

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

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Nelson v. Nelson – 2023 UT App 38 – Claim Preclusion and Child Support

2023 UT App 38

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STASHIA NELSON,

Appellee,

v.

ISAAC SCOTT NELSON,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210345-CA

Filed April 13, 2023

First District Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Brian G. Cannell

No. 154100713

Sara Pfrommer, Ronald D. Wilkinson, and Nathan S. Shill, Attorneys for Appellant

Jacob A. Watterson and James C. Jenkins, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        This case raises issues regarding the claim preclusion

branch of the doctrine of res judicata in the context of divorce proceedings. Two years after Stashia and Isaac Nelson divorced, their circumstances had changed enough that Isaac[1] asked the district court to modify their divorce decree to give him shared physical custody of their children and to lower his monthly child support obligation. Isaac was behind in his support payments, and in response to his petition, Stashia asserted that Isaac’s “claims [were] barred, in whole or in part, because of [his] unclean hands in not being current in his child support obligation.”

¶2        The parties engaged in mediation and were able to agree on a new custody and parent-time arrangement and on a reduced monthly child support obligation for Isaac going forward. They presented their agreement to the court, and it entered a modified divorce decree that incorporated the terms of the agreement.

¶3        Stashia then initiated a separate proceeding to collect the child support that Isaac had failed to pay under the original decree. Isaac argued that all child-related financial matters, including his child support arrears, had been resolved in the proceeding to modify the divorce decree and that Stashia was therefore barred under the claim preclusion branch of the doctrine of res judicata from collecting the unpaid support. The court disagreed and ordered Isaac to pay past-due support. In response, Isaac filed a certificate of readiness for trial on an issue that he had not raised previously, namely, whether the reduction in his monthly support obligation should be backdated to when he filed his petition to modify the divorce decree. The district court ruled that there were no issues to certify for trial and entered judgment against Isaac for unpaid support in the amount of $2,835.40 plus interest. Isaac appeals.

¶4        We see no error in the conclusion that claim preclusion does not bar Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support. We also see no error in the district court’s ruling that there were no issues to certify for trial. We therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND

The Parties’ Marriage and Divorce

¶5        Isaac and Stashia married in 2007 and together had two children. Stashia later initiated divorce proceedings, during which the parties reached an agreement that was incorporated into a divorce decree in March 2016.

¶6        The divorce decree provided for the parties’ joint legal custody of the children, while giving Stashia sole physical custody and Isaac parent-time. The decree also ordered Isaac to pay $768 per month in child support, based on Stashia having sole physical custody of the children and on her lack of employment at the time.

Isaac’s Petition to Modify the Divorce Decree

¶7        In June 2018, Isaac petitioned to modify the divorce decree, based on “substantial and material changes in the circumstances of the parties.” In support of modifying the decree’s custody order, Isaac alleged that he had a more “stable residence” and “flexible work schedule” than when the parties divorced; that he was also more able to “provide additional familial support” because he had recently remarried; and that Stashia, on the other hand, had violated several of the custody and parent-time provisions in the divorce decree. Based on these allegations, Isaac requested “increased parent time” and “joint physical custody.”

¶8        In support of modifying the decree’s child support order, Isaac alleged that Stashia had become employed full time and that her increased income, along with the parties’ joint physical custody of the children, if the court awarded it, merited a reduction in his child support obligation.

¶9        In her answer to Isaac’s petition, Stashia alleged, among other things, that Isaac was “not current in his child support obligation.” She then asserted, as one of several affirmative defenses, that Isaac’s “claims [were] barred, in whole or in part, because of [his] unclean hands in not being current in his child support obligation.”

¶10 During discovery, the parties exchanged financial declarations outlining their incomes, assets, and expenses, but neither party produced documents or information regarding Isaac’s past child support payments or alleged arrears.

¶11      In October 2018, the parties participated in mediation and stipulated to a temporary modification of the divorce decree. The stipulation, the terms of which were incorporated into an order, contained temporary parent-time provisions and an agreement to participate in a custody evaluation. It did not mention or modify child support, and it concluded by saying: “All issues not specifically addressed herein that have been raised or could have been raised by the parties are, hereby, reserved.”

¶12      After the agreed-upon custody evaluation was completed, the parties again participated in mediation, in May 2019. Later the same day, the district court commissioner held a settlement conference at which the parties orally presented stipulated terms to be incorporated into an amended divorce decree.

¶13      As to custody, the parties’ attorneys told the commissioner that the parties had agreed to “a joint legal, joint physical custody arrangement,” and the attorneys then explained the details of that arrangement. As to child support, they said that the parties had agreed that “[c]hild support would be 600 per month effective June 1st, 2019.” The attorneys then said that the parties had agreed that “all prior orders that are not specifically modified here . . . would remain in full force and effect.”

¶14 Toward the end of the settlement conference, the commissioner asked Isaac and Stashia if they were “willing to accept those terms as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in [the] matter.” Each responded, “Yes.”

¶15 In October 2019, the court issued an amended divorce decree incorporating the terms the parties had orally agreed to during the settlement conference. The amended decree sets forth the parties’ custody arrangement; contains provisions regarding parent-time; restates the parties’ parenting plan; provides that Isaac’s “child support obligation shall be modified to $600.00 per month effective June 1, 2019”; contains provisions regarding claiming the minor children for tax purposes; and states the parties’ responsibilities regarding medical and childcare expenses. It then provides: “This order shall be a consolidated order on custody, parent-time, and child related financial matters.”

Stashia’s Motion for an Order to Show Cause

¶16 In February 2020, Stashia filed a motion for an order to show cause,[2] alleging that Isaac owed child support arrears that had accrued between September 2016 and February 2020.

¶17 Isaac opposed Stashia’s request for unpaid child support. He noted that in response to his petition to modify the original divorce decree, Stashia “had raised the issue that [Isaac] had child support arrearage.” He pointed to the parties’ statements during the May 2019 settlement conference that they were willing to accept the terms outlined at that conference “as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in [the] matter.” (Emphasis omitted.) And he pointed to the language of the amended decree that says that the amended decree is “a consolidated order on custody, parent-time, and child related financial matters.” The district court commissioner “reviewed the pleadings on file and . . . considered the evidence and arguments presented” and disagreed with Isaac, finding that “[Stashia] did not waive [Isaac’s] child support arrears at the [May 2019] mediation between the parties or by stipulating to the Amended Decree of Divorce.”

¶18      Isaac objected to the commissioner’s recommendation. He argued that, based on “the principles of the ‘claim preclusion’ prong of the doctrine of res judicata,” the modification proceedings and amended divorce decree had “a preclusive effect” on a claim for child support arrears that accrued before entry of the amended decree. The district court overruled Isaac’s objection and entered judgment against Isaac for child support arrears “in an amount to be determined . . . based on the accountings submitted by the Parties.” After the parties submitted their accountings, the court found that Isaac’s child support arrears totaled $2,835.40.[3]

Isaac’s Certificate of Readiness for Trial

¶19      Isaac then filed, in March 2021, a certificate of readiness for trial, in which he asserted: “This case is ready for trial on the reserved issue of [whether] the June 1, 2019 child support adjustment should be backdated to the date of the filing of the Petition to Modify (June 2018).” Isaac had not previously asked the court to backdate the modified child support order to June 2018.

¶20      The district court ruled that “[t]here [were] no issues to certify for trial” and entered judgment against Isaac in the amount of $2,835.40 plus interest. Isaac now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶21      Isaac asks us to reverse the district court’s judgment against him for unpaid child support. He contends that Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support is barred by the claim preclusion branch of res judicata.[4] Ultimately, “[w]hether a claim is barred by res judicata is a question of law that we review for correctness.” Gillmor v. Family Link, LLC, 2012 UT 38, ¶ 9, 284 P.3d 622.

¶22      Part of our claim preclusion analysis in this case, however, requires a determination of the intended scope of ambiguous language in the stipulated amended divorce decree. Where the language of a written stipulation is ambiguous, “the trial court ordinarily considers extrinsic evidence in an effort to resolve the ambiguit[y] and will make findings of fact to resolve any disputed evidence.” Christensen v. Christensen, 2018 UT App 53, ¶ 6, 420 P.3d 106 (footnote omitted). When a court looks outside the four corners of a written stipulation to determine its intended scope, that determination presents a question of fact, “which we review for clear error.” Fuller v. Bohne, 2017 UT App 28, ¶ 9, 392 P.3d 898, cert. denied, 398 P.3d 51 (Utah 2017).

¶23      Isaac also asks us to reverse the district court’s ruling, in response to his filing of a certificate of readiness for trial, that “[t]here [were] no issues to certify for trial.” The legal effect of a certificate of readiness for trial is a question of law, and “[w]e review questions of law for correctness, giving no deference to the ruling of the court below,” see Madsen v. Washington Mutual Bank FSB, 2008 UT 69, ¶ 19, 199 P.3d 898.

ANALYSIS

I. Stashia’s Claim for Unpaid Child Support
Is Not Barred by Res Judicata.

¶24 Isaac contends that the district court erred in allowing Stashia to bring a claim for unpaid child support. As we have noted, the substance of his argument is that Stashia’s claim for unpaid support is barred by the claim preclusion branch of res judicata. See supra note 3. This court has previously observed that, indeed, “[t]he principles of res judicata apply fully in the context of divorce proceedings.” Krambule v. Krambule, 1999 UT App 357, ¶ 13, 994 P.2d 210 (citing Jacobsen v. Jacobsen, 703 P.2d 303, 305 (Utah 1985)), cert. denied, 4 P.3d 1289 (Utah 2000). But this observation merits explanation.

¶25 Both res judicata and the law of the case doctrine can operate to give an earlier decision on a particular claim or issue preclusive effect when the same claim or issue is raised again. See Utah State Bar v. Rasmussen (In re Discipline of Rasmussen), 2013 UT 14, ¶¶ 17–18, 299 P.3d 1050. A key difference between the two doctrines, however, is that generally “[r]es judicata applies as between multiple cases while the law of the case doctrine applies to successive proceedings within one case.” State v. Waterfield, 2014 UT App 67, ¶ 39 n.12, 322 P.3d 1194, cert. denied, 333 P.3d 365 (Utah 2014).

¶26 This distinction could suggest that in a single divorce case—over which a district court has continuing jurisdiction to enter orders modifying the original decree, see Utah Code § 30-3-5(5)—only the law of the case doctrine would ever apply. To the contrary, however, we have held that res judicata applies as between “[original] divorce actions and subsequent modification proceedings.” Smith v. Smith, 793 P.2d 407, 410 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). Accordingly, in Krambule v. Krambule, 1999 UT App 357, 994 P.2d 210, cert. denied, 4 P.3d 1289 (Utah 2000), we concluded that a petition to modify a divorce decree to require an ex-husband to pay support for a child conceived through artificial insemination without the ex-husband’s knowledge was “barred under the principles of res judicata” since that claim “could and should have been asserted in the original divorce action.” Id. ¶ 16. And in Throckmorton v. Throckmorton, 767 P.2d 121 (Utah Ct. App. 1988), we upheld on res judicata grounds the denial of a petition to modify a divorce decree to give an ex-wife an interest in her ex-husband’s retirement benefits, which had not been included in the original decree. See id. at 123.

¶27 In other words, we treat an original divorce proceeding and each subsequent proceeding to modify the divorce decree as separate “cases” for res judicata purposes. At the same time, we treat a divorce proceeding leading to a decree or an amended decree and any subsequent proceeding to enforce that decree or amended decree as successive proceedings within the same case. Thus, in this second context, we apply the law of the case doctrine. See Robinson v. Robinson, 2016 UT App 32, ¶¶ 26–29, 368 P.3d 147 (holding, in a proceeding to enforce a stipulated divorce decree, that law of the case barred a husband from relitigating a factual issue decided previously), cert. denied, 379 P.3d 1185 (Utah 2016).[5]

¶28      This appeal is somewhat unusual in that the “first case” for

purposes of res judicata is the modification proceeding and the “second case” is the order to show cause proceeding to enforce the child support order from the original decree. But because the order to show cause proceeding is based on the original decree, it is a separate “case” from the modification proceeding that resulted in the amended decree. We therefore apply the principles of res judicata as we analyze the potential preclusive effect of the amended decree in the order to show cause proceeding.[6]

¶29      “The doctrine of res judicata embraces two distinct branches: claim preclusion and issue preclusion.” Macris & Assocs., Inc. v. Neways, Inc., 2000 UT 93, ¶ 19, 16 P.3d 1214. “[C]laim preclusion corresponds to causes of action[;] issue preclusion corresponds to the facts and issues underlying causes of action.” Oman v. Davis School Dist., 2008 UT 70, ¶ 31, 194 P.3d 956.

¶30      “Claim preclusion . . . is premised on the principle that a controversy should be adjudicated only once.” Pioneer Home Owners Ass’n v. TaxHawk Inc., 2019 UT App 213, ¶ 41, 457 P.3d 393 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 466 P.3d 1073 (Utah 2020). It “bars a party from prosecuting in a subsequent action a claim that has been fully litigated previously.” Hansen v. Bank of N.Y. Mellon, 2013 UT App 132, ¶ 5, 303 P.3d 1025 (cleaned up). “Whether a claim is precluded from relitigation depends on a three-part test.” Mack v. Utah State Dep’t of Com., 2009 UT 47, ¶ 29, 221 P.3d 194.

First, both cases must involve the same parties or their privies. Second, the claim that is alleged to be barred must have been presented in the first suit or be one that could and should have been raised in the first action. Third, the first suit must have resulted in a final judgment on the merits.

Id. (cleaned up).

¶31 Here, it is undisputed that Stashia and Isaac were the parties to both the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree—the “first case”—and the proceeding on Stashia’s subsequent claim for unpaid child support under the original decree—the “second case.” It is also undisputed that Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree resulted in a final judgment on the merits, in the form of the amended divorce decree. Thus, we focus our analysis on the second requirement of the claim preclusion test: whether Stashia presented or was required to present her claim for unpaid child support during the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the decree.

A. Stashia did not present a claim for unpaid child support in the modification proceedings.

¶32 The second requirement of the claim preclusion test is satisfied if the claim at issue was presented in a prior action. See Mack, 2009 UT 47, ¶ 29. Isaac argues that Stashia’s answer to his petition to modify the divorce decree presented a claim for unpaid child support. Specifically, he points to Stashia’s allegation that Isaac was “not current in his child support obligation” and to her assertion, as an affirmative defense, that Isaac’s “unclean hands in not being current in his child support obligation” should bar modification of his support obligation.[7]

¶33      However, while Stashia alleged that Isaac was in arrears in

his child support payments, neither that allegation nor the affirmative defense based on that allegation presented a “claim.” “An original claim, counterclaim, cross-claim or third-party claim must contain a short and plain: (1) statement of the claim showing that the party is entitled to relief; and (2) demand for judgment for specified relief.” Utah R. Civ. P. 8(a). Stashia’s answer to Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree did not allege how much Isaac owed in unpaid child support or make a demand for relief. We cannot, therefore, say that Stashia’s affirmative defense presented a claim for res judicata purposes. See Airfreight Express Ltd. v. Evergreen Air Center, Inc., 158 P.3d 232, 237 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2007) (holding that “affirmative defenses are not claims” for purposes of “[t]he doctrine of claim preclusion”); cf. Norman A. Koglin Assocs. v. Valenz Oro, Inc., 680 N.E.2d 283, 288 (Ill. 1997) (“A counterclaim differs from an . . . affirmative defense. A counterclaim is used when seeking affirmative relief, while an . . . affirmative defense seeks to defeat a plaintiff’s claim.”).

¶34      This is consistent with our analysis in Berkshires, LLC v. Sykes, 2005 UT App 536, 127 P.3d 1243. In that case, the plaintiffs were poised to purchase and develop multiple parcels of land when the defendants recorded a document purporting to grant an easement that would significantly hinder the anticipated development. Id. ¶ 4. The plaintiffs sued “for slander of title and interference with economic relations, claiming that [the defendants] had intentionally fabricated the [e]asement [d]ocument.” Id. ¶ 6. Late in the litigation, the defendants moved for partial summary judgment, asserting that as a matter of law under the undisputed evidence “Hope Lane, a road running [across the parcels at issue], was a public road.” Id. ¶ 9. The trial court denied the motion on the ground that the defendants had not presented a claim for Hope Lane to be declared a public road because their “original answer merely stated that ‘[a]s a separate and affirmative defense, [the] [d]efendants . . . allege that Hope Lane is a public road,’ without making any further affirmative claim for relief.” Id. (first alteration and omission in original).

¶35 On appeal, the defendants argued that the trial court improperly refused to treat their Hope Lane affirmative defense as a counterclaim. See id. ¶¶ 16–17. We said that among the factors a court could consider when deciding whether to treat an affirmative defense as a counterclaim was “whether the defense as argued or articulated in the pleadings sufficiently states a claim for relief and a demand for judgment as required by rule 8(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.” Id. ¶ 18. In concluding that the trial court had not abused its discretion by refusing to treat the Hope Lane affirmative defense as a counterclaim, we explained:

At the heart of the matter here is whether Plaintiffs should have recognized that Defendants’ statement “Hope Lane is a public road” was in reality a counterclaim, though labeled an affirmative defense. Here, the statement on its face is not readily identifiable as a counterclaim; it requests no relief and does not demand judgment. . . . Defendants did not properly plead a counterclaim . . . .

Id. ¶ 19. In sum, although it was in a different context, we have previously concluded that an affirmative defense that requests no relief and does not demand judgment does not present a claim. Our reaching the same conclusion here in the res judicata context “is not much of a jurisprudential leap.” Atkinson v. Stateline Hotel Casino & Resort, 2001 UT App 63, ¶ 19 n.6, 21 P.3d 667.

B. The district court’s finding that the amended divorce decree did not preclude Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support was not clearly erroneous.

¶36      Even if a party does not present a claim in her pleadings or otherwise during litigation, she might still agree to settle that unpled claim with the intent to foreclose its future litigation. If such an agreement becomes the basis of a stipulated decree, the second requirement of claim preclusion is met, and claim preclusion may apply to the settled but unpled claim. See Keith v. Aldridge, 900 F.2d 736, 741 (4th Cir. 1990) (holding, in the context of a “consent judgment,” that “[i]f the parties intended to foreclose through agreement litigation of a claim, assertion of that claim in a later suit, whether or not formally presented in the earlier action, is precluded”); 18A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 4443 (3d ed. April 2022 update) (“[Following a consent judgment,] [i]f it is clear that the parties agreed to settle claims that were not reflected in the original pleadings, preclusion may extend to claims that were not even formally presented.”).[8]

¶37      Isaac relies on this principle. He contends that the amended

divorce decree, which was the product of a settlement agreement and stipulation, “expressly and unambiguously resolved” any claim for child support arrears that predated the amended decree. In support, he points to the provision of the amended decree that states: “This order shall be a consolidated order on custody, parent-time, and child related financial matters.” (Emphasis added.) Isaac interprets the phrase “child related financial matters” to mean that the amended decree was an order resolving all child related financial matters, including his child support arrears. But this is not the only plausible reading of this provision.

¶38 The amended decree addresses several child-related financial matters explicitly: the modified child support award, income tax deductions related to the children, health insurance and medical expenses for the children, and childcare expenses. It never mentions child support arrears. Thus, the phrase “child related financial matters” can plausibly be read as encompassing only the child-related financial matters explicitly addressed in the amended decree. Because this provision of the amended decree supports two plausible readings, it is ambiguous. See Moon v. Moon, 1999 UT App 12, ¶ 19, 973 P.2d 431 (“Language in a written document is ambiguous if the words may be understood to support two or more plausible meanings.” (cleaned up)), cert. denied, 982 P.2d 89 (Utah 1999).

¶39 “Ordinarily, we interpret a divorce decree as we would any other written instrument, construing it in accordance with its plain meaning and according no deference to the district court’s interpretation.” Christensen v. Christensen, 2018 UT App 53, ¶ 6,

420 P.3d 106. “But where, as here, the agreement is ambiguous, the trial court ordinarily considers extrinsic evidence in an effort to resolve the ambiguit[y] and will make findings of fact to resolve any disputed evidence . . . .” Id. (footnote omitted).

¶40      The district court here considered extrinsic evidence to determine whether Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support was encompassed within the amended decree, and it made a factual finding that the claim for unpaid child support was not encompassed within the decree. Among the evidence considered were the oral representations the parties made during their May 2019 settlement conference and a declaration provided by Isaac, both of which Isaac directed the court to when he opposed Stashia’s motion for an order to show cause. The district court considered this evidence and found that Stashia did not waive her claim for unpaid child support.

¶41      When, as here, a court looks outside the four corners of a stipulated judgment to determine its intended scope, that determination is a determination of fact, which we review for clear error. See Noel v. James, 2022 UT App 33, ¶ 11, 507 P.3d 832 (“The scope of a stipulation presents a question of fact, which we review for clear error.” (cleaned up)); Fuller v. Bohne, 2017 UT App 28, ¶ 9, 392 P.3d 898 (same), cert. denied, 398 P.3d 51 (Utah 2017). And “[f]indings of fact are clearly erroneous only if no reasonable factfinder could review the evidence presented and arrive at the disputed finding.” Blackhawk Townhouses Owners Ass’n Inc. v. J.S., 2018 UT App 56, ¶ 23, 420 P.3d 128.

¶42      We see no clear error in the district court’s finding that the parties’ amended decree was not intended to be preclusive of Stashia’s claim for child support arrears. Isaac’s child support arrears were not mentioned at all during the May 2019 settlement conference. A reasonable factfinder might therefore believe it a stretch to assume that when Stashia and Isaac told the commissioner they were “willing to accept [the] terms [that had been outlined in the settlement conference] as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in [the] matter,” they would have thought that those issues included Isaac’s alleged child support arrears.

¶43 Moreover, after the parties said that the modified child support obligation would become effective June 1, 2019, they told the commissioner that “all prior orders that are not specifically modified [as outlined in the settlement conference] . . . would remain in full force and effect.” A reasonable view of this evidence is that when the parties accepted the terms of the stipulation “as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in this matter,” these were the terms that they intended to accept: that the child support order prior to June 1, 2019, as well as any outstanding obligations under it, “would remain in full force and effect.”

C. Stashia was not required to present her claim for unpaid child support in the modification proceeding.

¶44      Even if a claim was not presented or settled in an initial action, the second requirement of the claim preclusion test can be met by showing that the subsequently raised claim “could and should have been raised in the first action.” Mack v. Utah State Dep’t of Com., 2009 UT 47, ¶ 29, 221 P.3d 194 (cleaned up). A subsequent claim could and should have been brought in an earlier action “if [both claims] arise from the same operative facts, or in other words from the same transaction.” Id. ¶ 30. To determine if two claims arise from the same transaction, a court may consider “whether the facts [of each] are related in time, space, origin, or motivation, whether they form a convenient trial unit, and whether their treatment as a unit conforms to the parties’ expectations.” Gillmor v. Family Link, LLC, 2012 UT 38, ¶ 14, 284 P.3d 622 (cleaned up). But “no single factor is determinative.” Id. (cleaned up). “Therefore, every consideration need not be addressed or considered in every case.” Id.

¶45      Here, Isaac’s claims for modification of the divorce decree were not related in origin to Stashia’s later claim for unpaid child support. Isaac’s claims to modify the divorce decree originated from alleged changes to his work and home life since the entry of the original decree (including his recent remarriage), alleged violations by Stashia of the divorce decree’s custody and parent-time provisions, and Stashia’s recent full-time employment. In contrast, Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support originated from Isaac’s alleged failure to abide by the divorce decree’s child support order. These differing origins suggest that the parties’ respective claims do not arise from the same transaction. See In re Marriage of Potts, 542 N.E.2d 179, 181–82 (Ill. App. Ct. 1989) (observing that “[t]here [was] no significant evidentiary overlap” between a father’s claim for unpaid child support and the mother’s claim for modification of the support obligation and, thus, holding that res judicata did not bar the father’s separate action for unpaid support); Zickefoose v. Muntean, 399 N.W.2d 178, 180–81 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987) (concluding that a stipulation to amend a divorce decree to reduce the father’s child support obligation was “a totally different and distinct action” from the mother’s later “motion to compel payment of child support arrearages” and, thus, that res judicata did not bar the mother’s later action for arrearages).

¶46 Additionally, neither Isaac nor Stashia conducted discovery related to Isaac’s alleged child support arrears during the modification proceeding, which suggests that it was not their expectation that Isaac’s claims for modification of the original decree and Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support under the original decree would be treated as a single trial unit.

¶47      Moreover, Utah Code section 78B-12-210(9)(a) provides for the filing of a petition to modify a child support order based on a substantial change of circumstances, while our rules require a motion—previously a motion “for an order to show cause,” see Utah R. Civ. P. 7(q) (2020), and now “a motion to enforce order,” see Utah R. Civ. P. 7B—to recover unpaid child support. By providing different procedures for modifying a child support order and enforcing a child support order, our code and rules also implicitly recognize that these two types of actions generally do not arise from the same transaction. Cf. In re P.D.D., 256 S.W.3d 834, 842, 844 (Tex. App. 2008) (reasoning in part that because the Texas Family Code “does not require their joinder,” actions for “delinquent child support” and actions for “modification of . . . future child support obligations” are “separate and definable questions” and the one is not barred by the other under a “transactional approach” to res judicata).

¶48      The differing origins of Isaac’s and Stashia’s respective claims, the apparent expectations of the parties, and the procedural scheme set forth in our code and rules demonstrate that Isaac’s claim for modification of the original child support order and Stashia’s claim for enforcement of the original order did not arise from the same transaction. Thus, Stashia was not required to present her claim for unpaid child support during the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree.

¶49      Because Stashia neither presented nor settled her claim for unpaid child support during the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree, and because she was not required to present her claim for unpaid child support during that proceeding, the doctrine of claim preclusion does not apply to bar Stashia’s claim.[9]

II. The District Court Did Not Err by Concluding that There
Were No Issues to Certify for Trial.

¶50      Isaac also argues that “[t]he district court erred when it

refused to allow [him] to counter Stashia’s Order to Show Cause with his request to retroactively apply the child support modification.” His request to retroactively apply the child support modification took the form of a certificate of readiness for trial filed nearly a year and a half after the modification proceeding to which it related had concluded. Because the modification proceeding had concluded, and because Isaac filed no rule 59 or 60(b) motion to alter or relieve him from the resulting judgment—i.e., the amended divorce decree, with its June 1, 2019 effective date for the modified support order—Isaac’s certificate of readiness for trial landed in a legal vacuum and had no legal effect.[10] With no pending proceeding to which retroactive application of the modified support order applied, the district court was correct to conclude that “[t]here [were] no issues to certify for trial.”

CONCLUSION

¶51      Stashia did not present an affirmative claim for child support arrears during the modification proceeding. The district court did not clearly err in finding that Stashia’s claim for those arrears was not encompassed within the modified divorce decree. And Stashia’s claim for those arrears did not arise out of the same transaction as the claims Isaac made in his petition to modify the decree. Accordingly, Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support is not barred by res judicata. Additionally, the district court’s ruling in response to Isaac’s certificate of readiness for trial—that there were no issues to certify for trial—was not in error.

¶52 Affirmed.

 

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

 

[1] As is our practice, because the parties share the same last name, we use their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] The “motion to enforce order” procedure outlined in rule 7B of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure has now “replace[d] and supersede[d] the prior order to show cause procedure” in the context of “domestic relations actions, including divorce.” Utah R. Civ. P. 7B(a), (i), (j). A similar “motion to enforce order” procedure outlined in rule 7A now applies in the context of other civil proceedings. See id. R. 7A. In recommending rule 7B, the Utah Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on the Rules of Civil Procedure left untouched rule 101(k), which addresses motion practice before district court commissioners and still recites requirements for “[a]n application to the court for an order to show cause.” Id. R. 101(k). The committee may wish to revise rule 101(k) to conform rule 101(k)’s provisions to those of rule 7B.

 

[3] Our resolution of this appeal makes determining the portion of this amount that accrued before entry of the amended divorce decree unnecessary.

[4] Isaac does not always frame his argument in terms of “claim preclusion” or “res judicata.” In one section of his principal brief, he asserts that the claim for unpaid child support was “resolved” by the amended divorce decree. In another, he argues that “the issues to which the parties have stipulated [have] become ‘settled’ and ‘not reserved for future consideration.’” And at one point he does explicitly invoke “the ‘claim preclusion’ prong of the doctrine of res judicata.” Regardless of their phrasing, each of these arguments is, in substance, an argument for application of the doctrine of res judicata. See infra ¶¶ 26-28; Mel Trimble Real Estate v. Monte Vista Ranch, Inc., 758 P.2d 451, 453 (Utah Ct. App.) (explaining that res judicata “bars the relitigation . . . of a claim for relief previously resolved” (emphasis added)), cert. denied, 769 P.2d 819 (Utah 1988); Res judicata, Black’s Law Dictionary (abridged 6th ed. 1991) (defining res judicata as “a thing or matter settled by judgment” (emphasis added)).

Because Isaac never uses the terms “issue preclusion” or “collateral estoppel” and never cites a case applying that branch of res judicata, and because he did not do so in the district court, we address only the claim preclusion branch of res judicata. See generally 438 Main St. v. Easy Heat, Inc., 2004 UT 72, ¶ 51, 99 P.3d 801 (“Issues that are not raised at trial are usually deemed waived.”); State v. Sloan, 2003 UT App 170, ¶ 13, 72 P.3d 138 (declining to address an inadequately briefed issue).

[5] Application of res judicata in the divorce context might be seen as “distinguish[able]” from its application in other contexts in another way as well. See Smith v. Smith, 793 P.2d 407, 410 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). That is because in the divorce context the preclusive effect of res judicata can be avoided based on “the equitable doctrine that allows courts to reopen [prior] determinations if the moving party can demonstrate a substantial change of circumstances.” Id. In fact, some prior determinations in divorce cases may be reopened on a showing of a material change of circumstances that is less than substantial. See, e.g.Miller v. Miller, 2020 UT App 171, ¶ 18, 480 P.3d 341 (observing that “when modifying parent-time (as opposed to custody), the petitioner is required to make only some showing of a change in circumstances, which does not rise to the same level as the substantial and material showing required when a district court alters custody” (cleaned up)). Though this might be seen as a distinguishing feature of res judicata in the divorce setting, it is consistent with our statement that “[t]he principles of res judicata apply fully in the context of divorce proceedings,” Krambule v. Krambule, 1999 UT App 357, ¶ 13, 994 P.2d 210, cert. denied, 4 P.3d 1289 (Utah 2000), because a decision based on a changed set of material facts is not a decision on the same question as the one presented previously.

[6] We are not alone in this approach. See, e.g.In re Marriage of Potts, 542 N.E.2d 179, 180–82 (Ill. App. Ct. 1989) (applying res judicata principles to hold that, under the facts of the case, an amended divorce decree that modified a child support obligation did not bar a claim for child support arrears that accrued under the prior decree); Zickefoose v. Muntean, 399 N.W.2d 178, 180–81 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987) (same).

[7] “The doctrine of unclean hands expresses the principle that a party who comes into equity for relief must show that his conduct has been fair, equitable, and honest as to the particular controversy in issue.” Goggin v. Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶ 60, 299 P.3d 1079 (cleaned up).

[8] “In Utah, . . . the rules of claim preclusion are ‘virtually identical’ to the federal rules . . . .” Haik v. Salt Lake City Corp., 2017 UT 14, ¶ 9, 393 P.3d 285 (citation omitted).

[9] The district court expressed its ruling against Isaac’s claim preclusion argument by finding that Stashia “did not waive” her claim for unpaid child support. Our ruling is that Stashia neither waived nor forfeited her right to assert that claim. “Though principles of waiver and forfeiture are often used interchangeably, the two concepts are technically distinct.” Reller v. Argenziano, 2015 UT App 241, ¶ 30, 360 P.3d 768 (cleaned up). “Forfeiture is the failure to make the timely assertion of a right, whereas waiver is the intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right.” Id. (cleaned up). Stashia did not waive her known right to bring a claim for unpaid support since, as we have concluded, she did not intentionally relinquish it through settlement or otherwise. Nor did she forfeit that right by the issue of failing to timely assert it since, as we have concluded, she was not required to present her claim during the modification proceeding. See id. ¶ 31 (holding that failure to timely amend a complaint to assert a claim for retroactive child support amounted to a forfeiture). We leave for another day the question of whether or how a claim for unpaid child support may be settled without running afoul of the statutory limitation on the waiver of child support claims. See generally Utah Code § 78B-12-109(1) (“Waiver and estoppel [of child support] shall apply only to the custodial parent when there is no order already established by a tribunal if the custodial parent freely and voluntarily waives support specifically and in writing.”); Cahoon v. Evans, 2011 UT App 148, ¶ 3, 257 P.3d 454 (holding that Utah Code section 78B-12-109 “rules out waiver and estoppel in all instances where there is a child support order already in place”).

[10] Isaac makes no attempt to address this procedural reality. Instead, he uses the certificate of readiness for trial as a vehicle to argue that he stipulated to a June 1, 2019 effective date for the modified child support order only “[i]n exchange” for Stashia giving up the right to pursue her claim for child support arrears. But the district court found that the parties did not intend such an exchange, and we have affirmed that finding. See supra ¶¶ 36–43.

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Myers v. Myers 2023 UT App 20 – Alimony Modification

Myers v. Myers 2023 UT App 20

2023 UT App 20

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

AMY R. MYERS, Appellee, v. JACOB W. MYERS, Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20220002-CA

Filed March 2, 2023

Sixth District Court, Richfield Department

The Honorable Brody L. Keisel

No. 184600056

Benjamin L. Wilson, Attorney for Appellant

Douglas L. Neeley, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and JOHN D. LUTHY

concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        After more than two decades of marriage, Jacob and Amy Myers divorced in 2018, and mutually agreed to the terms of their divorce. In particular, they agreed that Jacob[1] would pay Amy $916 per month in child support and $2,300 per month in alimony. Less than two years later, Jacob filed a petition to modify the divorce decree, asserting that both his and Amy’s income had changed since the divorce. The district court, after holding a trial, denied Jacob’s petition to modify, and Jacob appeals that denial, asserting that the court erred in determining that Amy’s ability to earn had not changed and in failing to make findings regarding Amy’s reasonable expenses. We find merit in Jacob’s positions, and therefore reverse and remand.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Jacob and Amy Myers married in 1995, but divorced in 2018 after some twenty-three years of marriage. When they divorced, one of their children (born in 2001) was still a minor, but all their children are now adults. Throughout most of their marriage, Jacob worked in oil production as a rig manager. His position paid relatively well—at the time of the divorce, he was earning $8,233 per month—but required him to work a nontraditional schedule (two weeks on, two weeks off), and in addition the job was sometimes dangerous and often involved the operation of heavy machinery.

¶3        While Jacob worked in the oil fields, the couple decided that Amy would—at least until the children were grown—forgo steady employment outside the home in order to care for the children. Amy did, however, run a small “foot zoning” business from which she earned approximately $250 per month.

¶4        In April 2018, Amy filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. Jacob did not contest Amy’s petition; instead, the parties—neither of which were, at the time, represented by counsel—filed a joint stipulation, using forms provided by the court’s self-help center, agreeing to resolve all matters related to the divorce petition. As amended, the stipulation provided that Jacob would pay Amy $916 per month in child support—at least for another year or two until the parties’ youngest child reached the age of majority—and $2,300 per month in alimony. Jacob’s obligation to pay alimony was to last twenty-three years—until April 2041—unless Amy remarried or cohabited before that.

¶5        In the stipulation, the parties agreed that Jacob’s income was $8,233 per month, and that Amy’s income was $250 per month, and those figures were apparently used to calculate Jacob’s child support obligation according to applicable guidelines. But the stipulation contained no indication of how Jacob’s alimony obligation was calculated; in particular, the stipulation was silent as to what Amy’s reasonable monthly expenses might be.

¶6        Using court-approved forms, the parties incorporated the terms of their stipulation into proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, as well as a proposed divorce decree, and the district court signed the documents, thus finalizing the parties’ divorce, in May 2018. The final documents, like the parties’ amended stipulation, provided that Jacob would pay $916 per month in child support and $2,300 per month in alimony, but contained no findings about Amy’s reasonable monthly expenses.

¶7        About eighteen months later, in November 2019, Jacob— now represented by an attorney—filed a petition to modify the alimony award contained in the decree. In the petition, Jacob alleged that “the income of both parties has significantly changed since their divorce was finalized.” With regard to his own income, Jacob alleged that he was “no longer working in the oil fields” because he was “no longer able to work the same work schedule and the same type of work because of how it was negatively affecting him.” He asserted that he was “going back to school” in an effort to begin a different career, and that he was “currently not working.” With regard to Amy’s income, Jacob alleged that Amy had become employed and earned $1,200 per month, and that her “self-employment income” had increased to $1,500 per month, such that Amy’s total monthly income was $2,700. Jacob alleged that the changes in the parties’ respective incomes constituted a “substantial change in circumstances that warrants a modification” of the alimony award.

¶8        Just a few weeks later, in January 2020, Amy—also now represented by an attorney—filed a motion for an order to show cause, asserting (among other things) that Jacob had failed to fully comply with his child support and alimony obligations. The court issued an order commanding Jacob to appear and show cause why he should not be held in contempt of court, and later held an evidentiary hearing to consider the matter. At that hearing, the court found that Jacob had “voluntarily quit his employment” in the oil fields and that, “if he hadn’t, he would have been able to pay what was ordered.” The court thus found Jacob in contempt and ordered him to pay Amy more than $22,000 in back child support and nearly $6,000 in unpaid alimony.

¶9        In the meantime, Jacob’s petition to modify remained pending, and the parties exchanged updated financial declarations in anticipation of an eventual trial. Amy’s first updated financial declaration, signed in December 2019, listed total annual income of nearly $11,000 (or about $889 per month) from three different sources: a new job, her foot zoning business, and teaching yoga classes. In this same declaration, Amy set forth monthly expenses of $4,084, with some of the expenses being at least partially attributable to her youngest child, who was still living in the home with Amy at that point. Then in August 2021, on the day of trial, Amy submitted a second updated financial declaration. According to this new declaration, Amy had recently obtained a different job, this one full-time, that paid her $45,000 per year ($3,750 per month). In addition, Amy stated that she earned $241 per month from her foot zoning business and $22 per week teaching yoga. She also asserted that her monthly expenses had increased to $4,795 (although the line-items listed in the declaration add to only $4,613), even though no children were living with her any longer. Among the changes from the 2019 declaration were a $500 increase in healthcare expenses, a $175 increase in real estate maintenance, a $100 increase in entertainment expenses, and an $88 increase in utilities.

¶10      In August 2021, the district court held a one-day bench trial to consider Jacob’s petition to modify. The only two witnesses to testify were Jacob and Amy. During his testimony, Jacob explained that he voluntarily left his position in the oil fields because he was no longer able to focus on his job duties to the degree he wanted, and he was worried that—due to the dangerous nature of the work—he would injure himself or someone else. However, he acknowledged, on cross-examination, that he was still physically able to perform the duties of the job; that his employer had not asked him to leave; that he had not received mental health counseling to address his concerns about the stress of his work; that he could have taken a leave of absence to address those issues and “gone back to” his job after that; and that if he had done so, he would still “be able to . . . pay the $2,300 a month in alimony.” He testified that, as of the time of trial, he was working at a home improvement warehouse earning $14 per hour, or $2,426 each month.

¶11      During her testimony, Amy testified that she had recently obtained full-time employment with the local chamber of commerce, in which she earned a salary of $3,750 per month. In response to direct questioning about this job, Amy conceded that she has “the ability to earn at least $3,750 a month,” and that she would be able to “do that moving forward.” In addition, she acknowledged that she earned additional income from her foot zoning business and her work as a yoga instructor. Amy testified that she earned some $100 per month from teaching yoga. With regard to her foot zoning business, she testified that she averaged ten treatments per month and charges $50 per treatment, and therefore earns $500 per month in revenue. But she testified that she must pay certain expenses associated with the business that eat up most of the revenue, resulting in her making only some $90 per year (or $7.50 per month) in profit. On cross-examination, she acknowledged that her total gross income from all sources, before expenses, was approximately $4,350 per month.

¶12 Amy testified that she was still living in the same house that the couple had been living in during the marriage, but that now—at the time of trial—she was living there alone because her children were grown and gone. With regard to expenses, she testified that her total monthly expenses were $4,084 in 2019 but had increased to $4,795 at the time of trial, despite the fact that, by the time of trial, she was living alone. She explained that new health insurance and home maintenance costs were largely responsible for the increase. But then, in response to a direct question about how her expenses at the time of the 2018 divorce compared to her expenses at the time of the 2021 modification trial, she testified that her expenses had “stayed the same.”

¶13      After trial, the parties (through counsel) submitted written closing arguments. Amy argued that, for purposes of the alimony computation, the court should impute to Jacob the same income he had made in the oil fields, find there to be no material and substantial change in circumstances, and on that basis dismiss the petition to modify. For his part, Jacob argued that the court should modify (or even terminate) his alimony obligation because Amy was now employed full-time and had the ability to provide for her own needs. In particular, Jacob argued that Amy’s reasonable expenses were in actuality less than the amounts reflected on her recent financial declaration and in her testimony, and that her increased income was sufficient to meet those needs.

¶14      A few weeks later, the district court issued a written ruling denying Jacob’s petition to modify. In its ruling, the court found that Jacob had voluntarily quit his job in the oil fields, and that his monthly income had decreased from $8,233 to $2,427. The court also found that Amy “currently works” for the local chamber of commerce “earning $45,000 annually,” and that Amy “also has side businesses doing foot treatments and teaching yoga.” But the court made no specific finding regarding Amy’s total income.

¶15      Building on these findings, the court concluded that Jacob’s change in income constituted “a substantial material change in circumstances that was not expressly stated in the decree.” The court did not separately analyze whether the change in Amy’s income also constituted such a change in circumstances.

¶16      Having concluded that there existed a substantial material change in circumstances, the court proceeded to “consider whether modification [of the alimony award] is appropriate.” The court began its analysis by examining Jacob’s income situation, and concluded that, because Jacob had left his job voluntarily and had not sustained any loss in earning capacity, Jacob “remains able to earn income at the level he was earning at the oil fields.” Accordingly, the court imputed to Jacob an income of $8,233 per month for purposes of the alimony calculation.

¶17 With regard to Amy’s expenses, the court found that her “financial needs . . . [have] not changed since” 2018, when “the stipulated decree was entered,” but made no specific finding as to the exact amount of those expenses.

¶18 And with respect to Amy’s earning capacity, the court offered its view that the “determinative factor[]” was not Amy’s income but, instead, her “ability to provide” for herself. On that score, the court found that “[n]o evidence was presented that [Amy] has obtained extra education or has otherwise increased her ability to earn since the time of the divorce,” and therefore concluded that—despite her increased income—her earning capacity had not changed. In so ruling, the court observed that it was Jacob’s “unilateral decision” to leave his job that compelled Amy to “obtain employment to provide for herself,” and stated that reducing Jacob’s alimony obligation where the precipitating event “was [Jacob’s] decision to leave his employment would set a precedent allowing parties who have stipulated to pay alimony to renege on that stipulation by taking a much lower paying job and forcing receiving parties to find additional employment by stopping alimony payments.”[2]

ISSUE AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶19 Jacob now appeals the court’s denial of his petition to modify. In this context, “we review the district court’s underlying findings of fact, if any, for clear error,” Peeples v. Peeples, 2019 UT App 207, ¶ 11, 456 P.3d 1159, and we review its determination regarding the presence or absence of a substantial change of circumstances, as well as its ultimate determination regarding the petition to modify, for an abuse of discretion, see id.see also Armendariz v. Armendariz, 2018 UT App 175, ¶ 6, 436 P.3d 294. The district court’s choice of, and application of, the appropriate legal standard, however, “presents an issue of law that we review for correctness.” Peeples, 2019 UT App 207, ¶ 11.

ANALYSIS

¶20 We begin our analysis with a general discussion of petitions to modify alimony awards and the process courts are to follow when adjudicating such petitions. We then address Jacob’s claim that the court failed to follow the correct process in this case.

I

¶21      After a district court has made an award of alimony, the court “retains continuing jurisdiction to” modify that award “when it finds that there has been a substantial material change in circumstances.” See Nicholson v. Nicholson, 2017 UT App 155, ¶ 7, 405 P.3d 749 (quotation simplified); see also Utah Code § 30-3-5(8)(i)(i) (2019).[3] If the court determines that no substantial material change in circumstances has occurred, then the court’s analysis ends, and the petition to modify the alimony award is properly denied. See Moon v. Moon, 1999 UT App 12, ¶ 27, 973 P.2d 431 (“As a threshold issue, before modifying an alimony award, the court must find a substantial material change in circumstances . . .” (quotation simplified)); see also Peeples v. Peeples, 2019 UT App 207, ¶ 32, 456 P.3d 1159 (affirming a district court’s denial of a petition to modify on the ground that there existed no substantial material change in circumstances).

¶22      If, however, the court finds that a substantial material change in circumstances has occurred, the court must conduct a complete analysis regarding whether the alimony award remains appropriate. See Nicholson, 2017 UT App 155, ¶ 7 (stating that, once a finding of changed circumstances “has been made, the court must then consider” the alimony factors (emphasis added) (quotation simplified)); accord Moon, 1999 UT App 12, ¶ 29. This analysis should include examination of the statutory alimony factors, see Utah Code § 30-3-5(8)(a) (2019), including the factors commonly referred to as “the Jones factors,” see Jones v. Jones, 700 P.2d 1072, 1075 (Utah 1985); see also Nicholson, 2017 UT App 155, ¶ 7 (stating that, after finding that circumstances have changed, “the court must then consider at least the following factors in determining a new alimony award: (i) the financial condition and needs of the recipient spouse; (ii) the recipient’s earning capacity or ability to produce income; (iii) the ability of the payor spouse to provide support; and (iv) the length of the marriage” (quotation simplified)). “These factors apply not only to an initial award of alimony, but also to a redetermination of alimony during a modification proceeding.” Williamson v. Williamson, 1999 UT App 219, ¶ 8, 983 P.2d 1103.

¶23      “Consideration of these factors is critical to achieving the purposes of alimony,” Paulsen v. Paulsen, 2018 UT App 22, ¶ 14, 414 P.3d 1023, which are “(1) to get the parties as close as possible to the same standard of living that existed during the marriage; (2) to equalize the standards of living of each party; and (3) to prevent the recipient spouse from becoming a public charge,” Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 14, 496 P.3d 242 (quotation simplified). “The core function of alimony is therefore economic— it should not operate as a penalty against the payor nor a reward to the recipient.” Roberts v. Roberts, 2014 UT App 211, ¶ 14, 335 P.3d 378.

¶24      “Regardless of the payor spouse’s ability to pay more, the recipient spouse’s demonstrated need must constitute the maximum permissible alimony award.” Id. (quotation simplified); see also Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 30, 334 P.3d 994 (“An alimony award in excess of the recipient’s need is a basis for remand”). Because a recipient spouse’s demonstrated need constitutes an effective “ceiling” on an alimony award, see Fox v. Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 19, 515 P.3d 481, courts often begin their analysis by assessing whether recipient spouses are able to meet their reasonable needs through their own income. See Vanderzon v. Vanderzon, 2017 UT App 150, ¶ 42, 402 P.3d 219 (stating that, in determining alimony, courts will generally “first assess the needs of the parties, in light of their marital standard of living” (quotation simplified)). If the recipient spouse is able to meet his or her own needs, then the analysis ends, and no award should be made, but if “the recipient spouse is not able to meet [his or] her own needs, then [the court] should assess whether the payor spouse’s income, after meeting his [or her] needs, is sufficient to make up some or all of the shortfall between the recipient spouse’s needs and income.” See id. (quotation simplified).

¶25      When considering the relevant alimony factors, courts are “required to make adequate factual findings on all material issues, unless the facts in the record are clear, uncontroverted, and capable of supporting only a finding in favor of the judgment.” Bukunowski v. Bukunowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 9, 80 P.3d 153 (quotation simplified). When a district court fails to enter specific findings regarding “the needs and condition of the recipient spouse, making effective review of the alimony award impossible, that omission is an abuse of discretion.” Id. ¶ 10.

II

¶26 With these principles in mind, we turn our attention to Jacob’s assertion that the court failed to follow the correct process in adjudicating his petition to modify. In particular, Jacob asserts that the court—once it determined that there had been a substantial material change in circumstances—was required to conduct a complete analysis of all the alimony factors, and that it failed to properly do so.[4] We find merit in Jacob’s argument.

¶27      The district court started its analysis in the proper place, and assessed whether Jacob had demonstrated that there had been a substantial material change in circumstances that would justify reopening the alimony inquiry. Looking just at the change in Jacob’s own income, the court made a finding that there had been a “substantial change in circumstances.” And neither party takes issue with this finding on appeal; both appear to acknowledge the correctness of the court’s initial determination that circumstances affecting these parties had changed enough to justify a second look at the alimony situation.[5]

¶28 From there, though, the court’s analysis strayed from the proper path. After determining that the change in Jacob’s income constituted a substantial material change in circumstances, the court did not conduct a full analysis of the relevant alimony factors. With regard to Amy’s needs, the court’s analysis, in full, was simply this: “[Amyl testified that her monthly expenses have not increased from the time the parties were divorced in May 2018 until the time of trial in August of 2021.” The court made no finding that Amy’s testimony on that point was credible, see Rehn v. Rehn, 1999 UT App 41, ¶ 7, 974 P.2d 306 (“A trial court may not merely restate the recipient spouse’s testimony regarding her monthly expenses.” (quotation simplified)), and did not make any effort to assess what Amy’s reasonable monthly needs actually were; the court’s comparison to the 2018 divorce decree is especially unhelpful, in context, because that decree contained no specific determination regarding Amy’s expenses.

¶29 With regard to the parties’ earning capacity, the court acknowledged that Amy had obtained a full-time job that paid her $3,750 each month, and that Amy “earns additional income from a foot zoning business and teaching yoga.” But the court made no finding as to what Amy’s total income actually was, stating that “[n]o evidence was presented that [Amy] has obtained extra education or has otherwise increased her ability to earn since the time of the divorce, only that her actual income has increased.”

¶30 And with regard to Jacob, the court found that he had voluntarily left his job in the oil fields, and that he “remains able to earn income at the level he was earning” before. On that basis, the court imputed to Jacob income of $8,233 per month, despite the fact that Jacob was no longer earning that amount. Jacob takes no issue with this imputation determination on appeal.

¶31      The court then completed its analysis by stating as follows: “[Amy’s] financial needs and both parties’ ability to earn has not changed since the time the stipulated decree was entered. Therefore, [Jacob’s] Petition to Modify the alimony ordered in the decree is DENIED.”

¶32 In our view, the court was, at least to some extent, conflating the “changed circumstances” part of the analysis with the “Jones factors” part of the analysis. Its first mistake was failing to make a specific finding regarding Amy’s reasonable monthly needs. As noted, no such finding had been made in connection with the 2018 decree, and Amy had submitted two conflicting financial declarations since then. In order to complete the multi-factor alimony analysis mandated by the court’s unchallenged conclusion that circumstances had materially changed, the court needed to make an actual finding regarding Amy’s expenses.[6]

¶33 The next error the court made was in determining that Amy’s earning capacity had not changed, even though her income had. And here, it is important to differentiate between situations in which a spouse’s income goes down from situations in which a spouse’s income goes up. Certainly, where a spouse’s income goes down, it does not necessarily follow—indeed, it often does not follow—that the spouse’s earning capacity has also gone down; in such situations, courts retain the discretion to determine that, even though a spouse’s income has gone down, his or her earning capacity has not been diminished, and to impute to the spouse— for instance, on the basis of a finding of voluntary underemployment—an income in line with the unchanged earning capacity. See, e.g.Olson v. Olson, 704 P.2d 564, 566 (Utah 1985) (stating that where parties “experience[] a temporary decrease in income, [their] historical earnings must be taken into account in determining the amount of alimony to be paid”); Pankhurst v. Pankhurst, 2022 UT App 36, ¶¶ 14–15, 508 P.3d 612 (noting that “a finding of voluntary underemployment is not a prerequisite to imputing income,” and affirming a trial court’s determination to assess the payor spouse’s income at a higher level than his current income because the current lower income was “temporary” (quotation simplified)); Gerwe v. Gerwe, 2018 UT App 75, ¶ 31, 424 P.3d 1113 (crediting a trial court’s skepticism about a payor spouse’s sudden drop in income where the spouse “came into trial making a huge amount of money . . . and then all of a sudden is making no money because, you know, now it’s time to pay somebody” (quotation simplified)). Indeed, the district court made precisely such a finding with regard to Jacob, and no party takes issue with that finding here on appeal.

¶34 But the fact that a spouse’s income has gone up is very strong evidence that the spouse’s earning capacity has also risen. A party who is actually earning $45,000 per year will nearly always properly be deemed to have the capacity to earn at least that amount. There are, of course, exceptions: in some isolated instances, an increase in income is temporary and does not reflect an overall or long-term increase in earning capacity. See English v. English, 565 P.2d 409, 412 (Utah 1977) (stating that, when parties “experience[] unusual prosperity during one year,” that unusual income figure is not necessarily indicative of earning capacity); see alsoe.g.Woskob v. Woskob, 2004 PA Super 37, ¶ 28, 843 A.2d 1247 (holding that a spouse’s earning capacity, moving forward, was not reflected by three “retroactive salary bonuses” that were not likely to occur in the future, and stating that, since the spouse’s “elevated salary during [the] period [in which he received those bonuses] is totally disproportionate to his actual earning capacity, his support obligation should reflect his earning capacity rather than his actual earnings”). But before concluding that a spouse’s earning capacity is less than the spouse’s actual income, a court should have evidence that the spouse’s higher income is truly ephemeral and not indicative of long-term earning capacity.

¶35      No such evidence is present here. Amy has obtained a full-time salaried position that pays her a steady income of $45,000 per year. There is no indication that this job is only temporarily available to her. The evidence was undisputed that Amy’s earning capacity, moving forward, has increased, as exemplified by her new job; indeed, she testified that she has “the ability to earn at least $3,750 a month” at that job, and that she would be able to “do that moving forward.” The district court’s observation that Amy had not “obtained extra education” in an effort to grow her earning capacity is true as far as it goes. But even in the absence of any extra education or training, a spouse’s earning capacity can rise, and a spouse’s ability to obtain and maintain a salaried job is an extremely strong piece of evidence so indicating.

¶36      We certainly take the court’s point that the reason Amy felt compelled to find additional employment was because Jacob made the decision to quit his job and pay her less in alimony. In the court’s view, Jacob’s decision “forc[ed]” Amy “to find additional employment.” We take no issue with the court’s observation that the law should not incentivize payor spouses to become voluntarily underemployed. But we do not think the law contains any such incentive; indeed, the customary (and presumably adequate) remedy for such behavior is for the court— where appropriate, and as the court did here—to find the payor spouse underemployed and impute to that spouse an income commensurate with the previous salary.[7]

¶37 Thus, we conclude that the district court erred in its analysis of Amy’s earning capacity. It erroneously determined that Amy’s earning capacity had not changed. And based on this determination, it stopped short of making a specific finding as to what Amy’s new earning capacity was, taking into account her new full-time job and, if appropriate, her part-time side endeavors. See Degao Xu v. Hongguang Zhao, 2018 UT App 189, ¶ 31, 437 P.3d 411 (“When determining an alimony award, it is appropriate and necessary for a trial court to consider all sources of income that were used by the parties during their marriage to meet their self-defined needs, including income from a second job.” (quotation simplified)). The court should remedy these errors on remand, and should complete the calculation regarding Amy’s expenses and earning capacity, thus answering the question Jacob raises, namely, whether Amy has the ability to take care of her own needs through her own income.

¶38      Finally, the court’s analysis regarding Jacob’s ability to provide support was also incomplete, and will require additional analysis in the event the court concludes that Amy is not completely able to pay for all of her reasonable monthly needs. See Vanderzon v. Vanderzon, 2017 UT App 150, ¶ 42, 402 P.3d 219 (“[I]f the court finds that the recipient spouse is not able to meet her own needs, then it should assess whether the payor spouse’s income, after meeting his needs, is sufficient to make up some or all of the shortfall between the recipient spouse’s needs and income.” (quotation simplified)). As already noted, the court imputed to Jacob a monthly income of $8,233, based on a finding of voluntary underemployment, and that determination is not challenged on appeal. But in order to compute Jacob’s ability to provide support to Amy to cover any determined shortfall, the court will need to compute Jacob’s reasonable monthly expenses, see Rehn, 1999 UT App 41, ¶ 10 (“To be sufficient, the findings should also address the obligor’s needs and expenditures, such as housing, payment of debts, and other living expenses.” (quotation simplified)), which the court did not endeavor to do in its order.

¶39      As to whether a shortfall exists, the parties take divergent positions on appeal. Jacob asserts that no shortfall exists, and that Amy is able to pay all of her own reasonable monthly expenses. Amy, for her part, contends that even with her newly increased income she still has “a shortfall of over $1,800.” But Jacob’s alimony obligation ($2,300) apparently exceeds even Amy’s current calculation of her shortfall; under Amy’s computation of expenses, then, Jacob would still be entitled to at least some modification of his alimony obligation. On remand, the district court should run this complete calculation, making specific findings on each of the relevant factors, and should determine the extent to which Jacob’s alimony obligation should be modified.

CONCLUSION

¶40      The district court did not apply the proper legal analysis to Jacob’s petition to modify, and erred when it concluded that Amy’s earning capacity had not changed. We reverse the court’s denial of Jacob’s petition to modify, and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 

 

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

[2] Amy does not argue that we should affirm the denial of Jacob’s petition to modify on the basis that the original award was derived from a stipulation, and therefore the district court’s comments about holding Jacob to his stipulation are not directly before this court. But we note, for clarity, that even stipulated alimony awards are subject to modification. See, e.g.Diener v. Diener, 2004 UT App 314, ¶ 5, 98 P.3d 1178 (noting that, while a court “is certainly empowered to consider the circumstances surrounding an existing stipulation when considering a petition to modify . . . , the law was intended to give the courts power to disregard the stipulations or agreements of the parties . . . and enter judgment for such alimony . . . as appears reasonable, and to thereafter modify such judgments when change of circumstances justifies it, regardless of attempts of the parties to control the matter by contract” (quotation simplified)); accord Sill v. Sill, 2007 UT App 173, ¶¶ 12–18, 164 P.3d 415.

[3] At the time Jacob filed his petition to modify, the relevant statute authorized modification of alimony awards when the movant could demonstrate that there had been “a substantial material change in circumstances not foreseeable at the time of the divorce.” Utah Code § 30-3-5(8)(i)(i) (2019) (emphasis added). In 2021, prior to the trial on Jacob’s petition to modify, our legislature amended that statutory provision; under current law, modification is authorized upon a showing that there has been “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.” Id. § 30-3-5(11)(a) (2022) (emphasis added). In this appeal, the parties have not briefed the question of which version of the statute applies to Jacob’s petition to modify, nor has either side suggested that the outcome of this case turns on these differences in statutory text. Operating on the assumption that Jacob is entitled to application of the version of the statute in effect when he filed his petition, see State v. Clark, 2011 UT 23, ¶ 13, 251 P.3d 829 (stating that “we apply the law as it exists at the time of the event regulated by the law in question,” and that when that event is a motion, “we apply the law as it exists at the time the motion is filed”), we apply the 2019 version of the statute in this appeal, but follow the parties’ lead in presuming this application to have no effect on the outcome of the case.

 

[4] Amy characterizes Jacob’s appellate claims as assertions that the district court’s findings were inadequate, and argues based on this characterization that Jacob—by not asking the court to make more detailed findings—failed to preserve his claims for appellate review. See In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 60, 201 P.3d 985 (stating that a party “waives any argument regarding whether the district court’s findings of fact were sufficiently detailed when the [party] fails to challenge the detail, or adequacy, of the findings with the district court” (quotation simplified)). While we acknowledge— as discussed herein—that the court did not make findings on several of the alimony factors, that was due to the court’s error (discussed herein) regarding Amy’s earning capacity, and its concomitant failure to complete the proper legal analysis. Thus, we disagree with Amy’s characterization of Jacob’s claims on appeal, and note that Jacob certainly preserved for our review the general question of whether the district court applied the correct legal analysis to his petition to modify, as well as the more specific question of whether Amy can meet her needs through her own income. Thus, we reject Amy’s assertion that Jacob’s contentions on appeal were not properly preserved for our review.

[5] We note that the court made this determination by looking solely at the change in Jacob’s income. Arguably, the change in Amy’s income would constitute a second basis for a determination that circumstances had changed significantly enough to revisit the appropriateness of the alimony award. Ultimately, however, it does not matter, for purposes of this appeal, which change the district court relied on to determine that a substantial material change had taken place.

[6] Amy argues that the “facts concerning [her] financial needs and conditions are clear from the record,” and on that basis urges us to excuse the court’s failure to make a specific finding. We disagree with the premise of Amy’s argument. At trial, Amy testified that her expenses had stayed the same since May 2018, but there was no 2018 figure to which Amy’s testimony could be compared. Moreover, after 2018, Amy submitted two conflicting financial declarations and, at trial, Jacob’s attorney established that Amy was then living alone rather than with one or more of the parties’ children. We therefore agree with Jacob that the evidence in the record regarding Amy’s expenses was sufficiently conflicting as to be significantly less than “clear.”

[7] Moreover, we do not think it inappropriate, in the abstract, for payee spouses to make an effort to enter the workforce, and thereby pursue a higher standard of living and a greater degree of independence from the payor spouse. We recognize that many spouses who have long been out of the workforce may find it difficult to reenter it, with or without additional education or training; generally speaking, our law does not require payee spouses in that situation to attempt to reenter the workforce in ways incongruous with their employment history. But a spouse who, whether by chance or perseverance, manages to gain a foothold in the workforce after a long absence may very well benefit from the experience; as we see it, our law should encourage self-sustainability and independence. Accordingly, we do not necessarily view—as the district court seemed to—the outcome of Amy’s employment journey to be an unfortunate one.

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Widdison v. Widdison – 2022 UT App 46 – custody modification

Widdison v. Widdison – 2022 UT App 46
 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

NICOLE WIDDISON,
Appellant, 

LEON BRYANT WIDDISON, 

Appellee. 

Opinion 

No. 20200484-CA 

Filed April 7, 2022 

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department 

The Honorable Robert P. Faust 

No. 144906018 

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal, Attorneys
for Appellant 

Todd R. Sheeran, Attorney for Appellee 

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

TENNEY, Judge: 

¶1 By statute, a district court must ordinarily find that a material and substantial change in circumstances occurred before modifying the custody provisions in a divorce decree. In this appeal, we’re asked to answer two main questions about this statute. 

¶2 First, if a decree is silent about whether one of the parents has legal custody of a child, is the district court later required to find that there was a material and substantial change in circumstances before determining whether that parent has legal custody in the first instance? We conclude that a material and substantial change in circumstances is not required in such a scenario. 

¶3 Second, in situations where the custody modification statute is applicable, can a custodial parent’s attempt to sever a years-long relationship between the noncustodial parent and a child legally qualify as a material and substantial change? We conclude that it can. 

¶4 Based on these two conclusions, we affirm the modifications at issue. 

BACKGROUND [10]
The Divorce Decree 

¶5 Nicole and Bryant Widdison were married in June 2004. They had two children during their marriage, Daughter and Son. Bryant is Daughter’s biological father, but Nicole conceived Son with another man during a brief separation from Bryant. Nicole and Bryant reconciled before Son’s birth, however, and Bryant was in the delivery room when Nicole gave birth to Son. Bryant is listed on Son’s birth certificate, and Son bears Bryant’s surname. 

¶6 Nicole and Bryant divorced in July 2015. Daughter was ten years old at the time, and Son was about three and a half. The divorce decree (the Decree) was largely based on a stipulation between Nicole and Bryant. 

¶7 In the portions relevant to this appeal, the Decree provided: 

  1. Physical Custody: Nicole shall have physical custody of both said minor children. Bryant will remain on Son’s birth certificate unless or until he is challenged by some other legitimate party who prevails in a court of law.

. . . . 

  1. Legal Custody: The parties shall have “joint legal custody” of Daughter.

. . . . 

  1. Parent-Time/Visitation: Bryant shall be entitled to reasonable parent-time with Daughter. Reasonable parent-time shall be defined as the parties may agree. However, if the parties are not able to agree, Bryant shall be entitled to the following parent-time:

. . . . 

2) . . . Bryant may have two (2) overnights each week to coincide with the days that he is off work with the parties’ oldest child, Daughter[,] during the school year. . . . During the Summer months Bryant may have three overnights every other week and two overnights on the alternating weeks. . . . As for the youngest child, Son, parent-time will be at Nicole’s sole discretion . . . . 

3) Bryant shall also be entitled to holidays and summer parent-time as articulated in U.C.A. § 30-335 . . . . 

. . . . 

  1. Child Support: . . . Based on [the parties’] incomes, and a sole custody worksheet (even though the parties have a different parent-time arrangement and with the benefit and consent of counsel after being informed and involved), Bryant shall pay Nicole child support in the amount of $450.00 each month for the one female child (Daughter). . . . Any reference to a financial obligation[] or child support in this document shall be interpreted as applying only to the older child (Daughter).

(Emphases added.) 

¶8 As noted, the Decree gave Nicole “sole discretion” over whether Bryant could spend parent-time with Son. During the first three years after the divorce, Nicole “regularly and consistently allowed Son to exercise time with Bryant.” Her usual practice was to allow Son to accompany Daughter whenever Daughter visited Bryant. Since the Decree entitled Bryant to spend a little over 30 percent of the time with Daughter, this meant that Bryant spent a little over 30 percent of the time with Son during those years too. 

The Modification Petitions 

¶9 In November 2016, the State filed a petition to modify the Decree to require Bryant to pay child support for Son. The State’s petition noted that Son was born during Nicole and Bryant’s marriage, and it asserted that Bryant was Son’s presumptive legal father under Utah Code § 78B-15-204(1)(a) (LexisNexis 2018)11, which states that a “man is presumed to be the father of a child if,” among others, “he and the mother of the child are married to each other and the child is born during the marriage.” The State noted that “[n]o child support has been ordered for this child.” It accordingly asked the court to “find[] Bryant to be the legal father of Son” and order him to pay child support for Son. 

¶10 In his answer to the State’s petition, Bryant agreed that he “is the presumptive father” of Son and expressed his “desire[]” to “be treated as the natural father of Son” “for all intents and purposes.” Bryant also asked the court for an order granting him joint legal and physical custody of Son, as well as a “clarification of his rights and duties, namely parent-time with Son.”12  

¶11 In September 2018, Bryant filed his own petition to modify the Decree. There, Bryant asserted that he “has been the only father figure that Son has known,” and he argued that he “should be presumed and considered the legal father of Son.” Bryant also argued that “[t]here has been a significant, substantial and material change in circumstances that has occurred since the parties’ Decree of Divorce concerning custody, parent-time, and child support, such that modification of the Decree of Divorce is in the best interests of the minor children.”13  

Motion for Temporary Relief 

¶12 About two months after Bryant filed his petition to modify, Nicole suddenly cut off Bryant’s parent-time with Son. After she did, Bryant filed a motion for temporary relief, asking the court to award him “his historical/status quo parent time with both the minor children” until his petition to modify was resolved. 

¶13 The matter went before a court commissioner, and a hearing was held in which Bryant and Nicole and their respective attorneys were present. During the hearing, the commissioner heard how often Son accompanied Daughter during her visits with Bryant. At the close of the hearing, the commissioner ordered Nicole to “immediately resume Bryant’s historical/status quo parent time with both minor children” and to “allow Son to follow the parent-time schedule of Daughter, consistent with the historical parent-time exercised by Bryant.” 

¶14 Nicole objected to the commissioner’s recommendation, but the district court overruled that objection. The court instead agreed to temporarily “modify the stipulation to reflect what the parties themselves were actually doing regarding parent time.” The court surmised that “reducing the visitation the parties themselves were doing” might “be harmful to the child.” The court continued that it “could also be argued that such visitation is helpful and beneficial to the child, especially since both children will be doing visitation together and parents have the right of visitation with their children.” Nicole was thus ordered to give Bryant “the same parent-time with Son, consistent with Bryant’s parent time with Daughter,” while Bryant’s petition to modify was pending. 

The Relocation Proceedings 

¶15 A short time later, Nicole requested an expedited phone conference with the court, explaining that the company she worked for was requiring her to relocate to California. After a hearing, the commissioner recommended that “[t]he children . . . remain in Utah until the Court changes the Order regarding custody and parent time.” 

¶16 During the hearing, the commissioner further noted that “[c]onspicuously absent from Nicole’s argument [was] anything—from this Court’s perspective—showing she’s considering the child’s perspective.” In particular, the commissioner explained that 

Son has shared time with the older sibling going to Bryant’s home. Nicole has regularly and consistently allowed this child to exercise time with Bryant. In [November] of 2018, Nicole disagreed. And I agree, she does have the discretion to make decisions with regard to Son. From the child’s perspective, however, one child goes with Dad and the other doesn’t, because Bryant stepped on Nicole’s toes. She says, I’m establishing boundaries; you don’t get to see this child. That’s fine if this child is a car or a refrigerator. Son [is] a person who has Bryant’s surname, who has been exercising time—from what I can see—[a] full seven years. 

The commissioner further explained that “there’s been enough of a change, enough consistency for this younger child, that he has followed the older child, has the same surname [as Bryant], [Bryant’s] name’s on the birth certificate that has not been changed, to follow [Daughter’s parent-time] schedule.” 

¶17 Nicole did not object to the commissioner’s recommendation, and she hasn’t relocated in the meantime. 

The District Court’s Ruling on Bryant’s Petition to Modify 

¶18 A bench trial was held in November 2019 to settle the issues raised in Bryant’s petition to modify and Nicole’s request to relocate. The district court later entered an order titled “Amended Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law on Petitioner’s Relocation Request,” which addressed both the relocation request and the broader issues regarding Bryant’s legal and physical custody. 

¶19 In its order, the court first concluded that the petition to modify was “appropriate in that there have been material changes in circumstances warranting modification of the parties’ Decree in the children’s best interests, which have not previously been adjudicated.” The court did not, however, more specifically identify what those “changes in circumstances” were. 

¶20 Second, the court concluded that Nicole had “failed to rebut the presumption of paternity that exists in this case.” In the court’s view, Nicole had not shown by a “preponderance of the evidence that it would be in the best interest of Son to disestablish the parent-child relationship that has been created and substantiated by both of the parties over many years.” The court then “enter[ed] an adjudication that Bryant is the father of Son” and modified the Decree to “impose as to Son parental obligations” on Bryant, “including the obligation to pay child support for Son.” 

¶21 Third, the court “award[ed] Bryant joint legal custody of Son on the same terms as the Decree provide[d] for Daughter.” 

¶22 And finally, the court ruled that Nicole was “free to relocate.” If she did, the court awarded Bryant parent-time with both children under the terms set forth in Utah Code section 303-37(6) (Supp. 2021). If Nicole stayed in Utah, however, the court awarded Bryant “parent time with Son on the same terms as was occurring with Daughter.” 

¶23 That same day, the court issued a separate “Order Modifying Decree of Divorce.” This order reiterated that Bryant is “adjudicated to be the legal father of both Daughter and Son,” that Bryant now bore “all parental obligations in accordance with Utah law,” including the “obligation to pay child support” for both children, and that Bryant had “joint legal custody of both children on the same terms set forth in the [original] Decree with respect to Daughter.” The court further repeated the parent-time schedule that was set forth in its ruling on the relocation request—i.e., it awarded Bryant parent-time with Son on the same terms that he had with Daughter. It then declared that, “[e]xcept as modified by this Order, the parties’ Decree remains in full force and effect.” 

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW 

¶24 Nicole challenges the district court’s decisions to give Bryant (1) legal custody of Son and (2) parent-time with Son. We review a district court’s decision to modify a divorce decree, as well as a court’s parent-time determination and custody award, for abuse of discretion. See Stephens v. Stephens, 2018 UT App 196, ¶¶ 20–21, 437 P.3d 445; MacDonald v. MacDonald, 2017 UT App 136, ¶ 7, 402 P.3d 178. 

¶25 As discussed below, we regard one portion of the ruling in question as a determination of custody in the first instance. “A district court’s award of custody is reviewed for abuse of discretion.” Taylor v. Elison, 2011 UT App 272, ¶ 8, 263 P.3d 448. As also discussed below, another portion of Nicole’s argument turns on whether the circumstances at issue can legally qualify as a change in circumstances. We review that decision for correctness. See Toone v. Toone, 952 P.2d 112, 114 (Utah Ct. App. 1998) (“[I]n this case, we are presented with a question of law regarding what constitutes a substantial change of circumstances, which is reviewed for correctness.”). 

ANALYSIS 

¶26 “While there are several tools that can generally be used to modify final judgments, one tool that is specific to family law cases is the petition to modify.” McFarland v. McFarland, 2021 UT App 58, ¶ 25, 493 P.3d 1146 (quotation simplified); see also Ross v. Ross, 2019 UT App 104, ¶ 11, 447 P.3d 104 (“[R]ule 106 establishes a general rule . . . that any changes to divorce decrees must be brought about by the filing of a petition to modify.”). “Parties in family law cases may use this tool, in accordance with applicable statutes and rules, to seek modification of various provisions of decrees.” McFarland, 2021 UT App 58, ¶ 25. 

¶27 “On the petition of one or both of the parents,” the governing statute allows a court to “modify or terminate an order that established joint legal custody or joint physical custody” if “the circumstances of the child or one or both parents . . . have materially and substantially changed since the entry of the order to be modified” and the modification “would be an improvement for and in the best interest of the child.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.4(1) (LexisNexis 2019). This is a “bifurcated procedure,” Hogge v. Hogge, 649 P.2d 51, 53 (Utah 1982), and Utah courts have consistently referred to it as a “two-step” process, Doyle v. Doyle, 2011 UT 42, ¶ 24, 258 P.3d 553. See also Becker v. Becker, 694 P.2d 608, 610–11 (Utah 1984). Notably, it’s also a sequential process, in that a court cannot “reopen[] the custody question until it has first made a threshold finding of substantially changed circumstances.” Doyle, 2011 UT 42, ¶ 25 (quotation simplified).14  

¶28 As explained above, the district court made a number of changes to the Decree, and Nicole now challenges two of them on appeal: the decision to award Bryant legal custody of Son and the decision to grant Bryant parent-time with Son. We address each in turn.

I. Legal Custody

¶29 Nicole first challenges the district court’s decision to award Bryant joint legal custody of Son. Nicole claims that, “[u]nder the decree, [she] had sole . . . legal custody of Son,” and she then argues that under the two-step process described above, the district court erred by granting legal custody to Bryant without first providing any “analysis regarding a change in circumstances.” In her view, “[t]he district court disregarded the custody . . . arrangements from the decree and awarded joint [legal] custody of Son as if the decree had never been entered.” 

¶30 Nicole’s argument, however, is based on a false premise— namely, that the Decree had awarded her sole legal custody of Son. But it hadn’t. The Decree had a separately enumerated “Legal Custody” subsection. That subsection stated that “[t]he parties shall have ‘joint legal custody’ of Daughter.” (Emphasis added.) This provision said nothing about Son, and no other provision in the Decree purported to establish whether Nicole had legal custody of Son (let alone sole legal custody), or instead whether Bryant did (or didn’t) have any form of legal custody of Son himself. Instead, on this, the Decree was silent.15  

¶31 But the court was legally required to make a legal custody determination for Son. The Utah Code states that courts “shall enter . . . an order of custody”—both legal and physical—when a “married couple’s marriage is declared void or dissolved.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(1) (2019) (emphasis added). The term “shall,” of course, has long been regarded as a command. See, e.g., Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 12, 427 P.3d 1221.16  

¶32 The Decree’s silence impacts how we view Nicole’s arguments on appeal. Again, the Decree is silent about whether Bryant (or any other putative father) had legal custody of Son, and it likewise said nothing about whether Nicole (or any other mother) had legal custody of Son. So the question here is whether the court could correct this oversight without having to first determine that there had been a sufficient change in circumstances to warrant modification. 

¶33 We conclude that a change in circumstances was not required for the court to correct the Decree in this manner. As noted, the change-in-circumstances requirement is set forth in Utah Code section 30-3-10.4. This requirement “serves multiple interests.” Doyle, 2011 UT 42, ¶ 25. “First, because a custody decree is predicated on a particular set of facts, that decree is res judicata,” so “the changed-circumstances requirement prevents an unnecessary drain on judicial resources by repetitive litigation of the same issue when the result would not be altered.” Miller v. Miller, 2020 UT App 171, ¶ 17, 480 P.3d 341 (quotation simplified). “Second, the changed-circumstances requirement protects the custodial parent from harassment by repeated litigation.” Id. (quotation simplified). And third, “the requirement protects the child from ‘ping-pong’ custody awards,” id. (quotation simplified), thus emphasizing “the importance of a stable and secure homelife for children who are shifted from one parent figure to another” and ensuring that custody issues are not frivolously or infinitely “reopen[ed],” Hogge, 649 P.2d at 53–54 (quotation simplified). 

¶34 None of these concerns are implicated here. To the contrary, since the question of whether Bryant had legal custody of Son was unaddressed in the Decree, there was nothing for the court to “reopen” or change. Id. at 53. Thus, properly understood, Nicole isn’t really challenging a decision to modify a prior determination that Bryant should (or shouldn’t) have legal custody of Son. Rather, what Nicole is actually challenging is a decision that, in effect, decided legal custody in the first instance. Because of this, we conclude that no change in circumstances could reasonably be required. After all, if it were true that a court couldn’t correct an omission of a required determination without pointing to a change in circumstances, divorce decrees like this one would be left indeterminate about key issues such as who had legal custody of a child. And the effect of such omissions would be felt by both the children and the parents, all of whom would be left without the guidance and certainty that custody determinations are intended and required to provide. We decline to create, let alone endorse, such an approach. 

¶35 Our determination thus leaves the remaining question of whether the court exceeded its discretion when it awarded joint legal custody of Son to Bryant in the first instance. We conclude that it didn’t. 

¶36 “Under both the United States Constitution and the constitution of [Utah], a parent possesses a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent’s child.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(1) (Supp. 2021). Because of this, legal custody is linked to the fact of parentage. Our supreme court, for example, has held that a father has “legal custody of [his] [c]hild by virtue of his paternity,” In re adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 81, 417 P.3d 1, and the same would of course be true for mothers by virtue of their maternity. Indeed, by statute, Utah law “presume[s] that a parent automatically enjoys legal custody” of his or her child, and this is so because of “the fundamental liberty interest of a parent concerning the care, custody, and management of the parent’s child.” Id. (quotation simplified). The legislature has also established “a rebuttable presumption that joint legal custody” “is in the best interest of the child.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(3) (2019). 

¶37 Here, Son was born during Nicole and Bryant’s marriage, so Bryant was legally “presumed to be” Son’s father. Id. § 78B15-204(1)(a) (2018). And while this presumption of paternity can be overcome, the district court concluded that it was not. Instead, in the same ruling at issue on appeal, the court declared Bryant to be Son’s legal father, and Nicole has not challenged that paternity decision on appeal. 

¶38 As also noted, however, Bryant’s now-established paternity of Son presumptively gave him joint legal custody of Son too, based in part on Bryant’s own constitutional interests in the care and raising of Son, who is his child. See In re adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 81. In her arguments to us, the only reason that Nicole gives for overcoming this presumption is the fact that the initial Decree was silent about whether Bryant had legal custody of Son. But as we’ve explained, that omission was a legal error. And when the district court was alerted to that error, it appropriately fixed it. Once the court did, the result was that Bryant—who was present at Son’s birth, was listed on Son’s birth certificate, and has acted as Son’s father since birth—was now Son’s legal father, which meant that he was presumptively entitled to legal custody of Son too. 

¶39 In short, under these circumstances, no change in circumstances was required, and we see no abuse of discretion in the court awarding legal custody of Son to Bryant in the first instance.

II. Physical Custody

¶40 Nicole next challenges the district court’s decision to modify the Decree’s provisions regarding parent-time with Son. As set forth below, we first clarify (A) the nature of the modification, (B) the district court’s reasons for it, and (C) the standard of review applicable to Nicole’s particular challenge. We then hold that (D) the change in circumstance at issue can legally support a modification of custody. 

A. The Nature of the Modification

¶41 The Decree was silent about legal custody of Son, but it wasn’t silent about physical custody. Instead, it affirmatively gave Nicole “physical custody of both said minor children”—i.e., both Daughter and Son. And while the Decree then set forth a delineated parent-time schedule for Daughter, it left Bryant’s parent-time with Son to “Nicole’s sole discretion.” 

¶42 In the ruling at issue, the district court modified this. The court removed Nicole’s “sole discretion” over parent-time for Son and set forth two alternative parent-time schedules. If Nicole remained in Utah, Bryant would have parent-time with Son “on the same terms as was occurring with Daughter.” If she moved to California, however, Bryant would have one weekend per month with both children as well as additional time with them during the summer. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-37(6) (2019). 

¶43 Although this ruling was couched in terms of parent-time, the parties have both suggested in their briefing that this amounted to a modification of physical custody of Son. We agree. 

¶44 Physical custody and parent-time “are conceptually distinct.” Ross, 2019 UT App 104, ¶ 14 n.3. “Physical custody has long been understood to involve much more than actual possession and care of a child,” instead implicating the right and “legal responsibility to provide supervision and control” of a child. Hansen v. Hansen, 2012 UT 9, ¶ 15, 270 P.3d 531. By contrast, the term “parent-time” more narrowly refers to the amount of time that a parent is entitled to spend with the child. See generally Utah Code Ann. §§ 30-3-34 to -36 (2019 & Supp. 2021) (setting forth minimum, optional, and equal parent-time schedules as well as parent-time considerations for special circumstances). 

¶45 That said, the terms are intertwined because, “[b]y statutory definition, there are two kinds of physical custody— sole physical custody and joint physical custody,” and “the dividing line” between the two is largely “based on the number of overnight visits enjoyed by each parent.” McFarland, 2021 UT App 58, ¶ 36. When a child “stays with each” of his or her “parent[s] overnight for more than 30% of the year, and both parents contribute to the expenses of the child in addition to paying child support,” each of the parents has joint physical custody of the child. Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.1(3)(a) (2019). But when a child stays with one parent overnight for less than 30% of the year, the parent who has over 70% of the overnights is considered to have sole physical custody of the child. See id.; Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-102(15) (Supp. 2021); McFarland, 2021 UT App 58, ¶ 36. 

¶46 Here, the Decree did not specifically determine whether Nicole had “sole” or “joint” physical custody of either of the children. But at least with regard to Son, the Decree effectively awarded Nicole sole physical custody because it gave her “sole discretion” whether Son would spend any parent-time with Bryant at all. And, critically for this appeal, the Decree also awarded Bryant what amounted to joint physical custody of Daughter. After all, the dividing line is 30% of the overnights, and 30% of the 365 days in a year is roughly 110. In the proceedings below, the commissioner reviewed the Decree and determined that the parent-time schedule gave Bryant more “than the 110 overnights,” which accordingly meant that Bryant had “joint physical custody” of Daughter. Thus, when the district court later equalized Bryant’s parent-time with Son to match the parent-time he had with Daughter, it in effect modified the Decree to give Bryant joint physical custody of Son too.17  

B. The Basis for the District Court’s Change-in-Circumstance

Determination 

¶47 As noted, the district court determined that “there have been material changes in circumstances warranting modification of the parties’ Decree in the children’s best interests, which have not previously been adjudicated.” But the court did not specifically delineate what those changes were. Because of this, Nicole initially asks us to reverse the modification based on the court’s failure to provide any “analysis as to why a custody modification was justified” under the required change-in-circumstances test. 

¶48 We acknowledge that the district court’s ruling on this could have been more clear. But even so, “a trial court’s failure to make explicit findings supporting its decision does not, alone, warrant reversal so long as the basis for the trial court’s ruling is readily apparent from the record.” In re A.S., 2014 UT App 226, ¶ 7, 336 P.3d 582; cf. State v. Pecht, 2002 UT 41, ¶ 34, 48 P.3d 931 (explaining that “where the record as a whole sufficiently” indicates the basis for the court’s ruling, “an absence of written findings will not invalidate the trial court’s conclusions”). 

¶49 Here, the court expressly concluded that there had been a change in circumstances, so the court was plainly cognizant of the requirement and believed that it had been met. And from our review of the record, we believe that the basis for the court’s determination is sufficiently apparent. In its ruling regarding the temporary orders, the court temporarily “modif[ied] the stipulation to reflect what the parties themselves were actually doing regarding parent time.” The court surmised that “reducing the visitation the parties themselves were doing” might “be harmful to the child” and that “visitation is helpful and beneficial to the child, especially since both children will be doing visitation together and parents have the right of visitation with their children.” It thus ordered Nicole to give Bryant “the same parent-time with Son, consistent with Bryant’s parent time with Daughter,” while Bryant’s petition to modify was pending. This initial decision demonstrated two key things: (1) the court intended to equalize Bryant’s parent-time with Daughter and Son, and (2) it more specifically intended to prevent Nicole from “reducing” Bryant’s parent-time with Son. 

¶50 The court’s ruling on Nicole’s relocation request (which, again, accompanied the modification ruling) was consistent with these goals. There, the court ruled that Bryant should be declared Son’s father—a determination that, again, Nicole has not challenged on appeal. Notably, in doing so, the court expressed its intention to not allow Nicole to “disestablish the parent child relationship” between Bryant and Son “that has been created and substantiated by both of the parties over many years.” 

¶51 Together, these orders reflect the court’s intention to formally recognize and now protect Bryant’s relationship with Son. From all this, we believe it is “readily apparent from the record,” In re A.S., 2014 UT App 226, ¶ 7, that the change in circumstances found by the court to support modification included: (i) the changes in Bryant’s relationship with Son (namely, the three years of additional parent-time bonding, as well as Bryant’s new status as Son’s legally recognized father), and (ii) Nicole’s recent attempts to cut off Bryant’s access to Son. 

C. Standard of Review

¶52 Nicole next argues that Bryant’s further-developed relationship with Son and her decision to cut off parent-time between the two could not legally qualify as a change in circumstances under the custody modification statute. As noted in the Standard of Review section above, supra ¶ 25, we regard this as a legal question that is reviewed for correctness. In light of our past caselaw, this warrants some explanation. 

¶53 This court has previously held that a district court’s “determination regarding whether a substantial change of circumstances has occurred is presumptively valid, and our review is therefore limited to considering whether the [district] court abused its discretion.” Nave-Free v. Free, 2019 UT App 83, ¶ 8, 444 P.3d 3 (quotation simplified); accord Christensen v. Christensen, 2017 UT App 120, ¶ 10, 400 P.3d 1219; Doyle v. Doyle, 2009 UT App 306, ¶ 7, 221 P.3d 888, aff’d, 2011 UT 42, 258 P.3d 553. We reaffirm our adherence to this general rule here. 

¶54 On occasion, however, we have held that the abuse-of-discretion standard applies to a district court’s “ultimate determination regarding the presence or absence of a substantial change in circumstances.” Peeples v. Peeples, 2019 UT App 207, ¶ 11, 456 P.3d 1159 (emphasis added); accord Harper v. Harper, 2021 UT App 5, ¶ 11, 480 P.3d 1097. But when we have been presented with an argument that didn’t challenge the court’s “ultimate determination” of whether certain facts constituted a material and substantial change in circumstances, but instead contended that particular facts or developments simply couldn’t be legally considered as part of the court’s analysis, we have treated those questions as questions of law for which we give the district court’s ruling no appellate deference. 

¶55 Our decision in Toone v. Toone, 952 P.2d 112 (Utah Ct. App. 1998), is illustrative. There, after a divorce had been finalized, federal laws regarding military pensions changed; and if those new laws were applied to the parties’ divorce, they would have allowed the ex-wife a larger share of her ex-husband’s military pension. See id. at 113–14. The ex-wife accordingly filed a petition to modify, asserting that the change in laws amounted to a change in circumstances that justified modification of the divorce decree. Id. We disagreed. See id. at 114. Notably, while reaffirming the rule that a district court’s “modification determination” is reviewed “for an abuse of discretion,” we regarded the particular question before us as being “a question of law regarding what constitutes a substantial change of circumstances, which is reviewed for correctness.” Id. 

¶56 Another case proceeded similarly. In Davis v. Davis, 2011 UT App 311, ¶ 6, 263 P.3d 520, we construed a party’s argument that certain events “could not be used as evidence” in the change-in-circumstances analysis as a legal question that we reviewed for correctness. 

¶57 This distinction, though perhaps subtle, is important, and it accords with how standards of review operate. The “primary function of a standard of review is to apportion power and, consequently, responsibility between trial and appellate courts for determining an issue.” State v. Levin, 2006 UT 50, ¶ 19, 144 P.3d 1096 (quotation simplified). In this sense, the standard of review determination “allocate[s] discretion between the trial and appellate courts” based on an assessment of “the relative capabilities of each level of the court system.” Id. (quotation simplified). 

¶58 Again, the statute in question here requires a court to determine whether there was a material and substantial change in circumstances. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.4(2)(b)(i) (2019). The evaluation of whether a particular change was material or substantial enough calls for a weighing of facts and circumstances. District courts are in a better position than we are to do such weighing, which is why those ultimate determinations receive discretionary deference. But if a party instead makes a threshold argument that a particular kind of fact or development can’t legally be used in the weighing at all, that argument essentially asks us to establish the permissible boundaries of the district court’s discretionary decision-making authority. Such a question is legal in nature, which is why that aspect of the ruling is reviewed for correctness. 

¶59 In her opening brief, Nicole argues that the change in circumstances identified by the district court “is not the sort of ‘change’ that justifies modification under Utah law.” (Emphasis added.) In her reply brief, Nicole similarly asserts that the district court “did not find[] changed circumstances that qualify under Utah law.” (Emphasis added.) She accordingly asks us to review the district court’s decision for correctness, rather than an abuse of discretion. So viewed, we don’t understand Nicole to be challenging the court’s weighing of the permissible facts. Rather, we understand Nicole to be making a legal argument about whether the court could even consider the change in relationship between Son and Bryant in the intervening years and Nicole’s subsequent, unilateral decision to cut off their parent-time as a material change in circumstances. Because her argument is legal in nature, we review this aspect of the ruling for correctness. 

D. The Change in Circumstances

¶60 Properly understood, the question, then, is whether the change in circumstances identified above can legally qualify as a change in circumstances under Utah law. We conclude that it can.18  

¶61 As noted, the statute requires a determination that “a material and substantial change in circumstance has occurred.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.4(2)(b)(i) (2019). A chief “goal” of this required determination is to give children “some measure of certainty and stability” after their parents or guardians have separated. In re E.H., 2006 UT 36, ¶ 2, 137 P.3d 809. Indeed, the supreme court has suggested that children are “entitled” to “permanence and stability” moving forward. Id. ¶ 16. 

¶62 For good reason. The “emotional, intellectual, and moral development of a child depends upon a reasonable degree of stability in the child’s relationships to important people and to its environment.” Elmer v. Elmer, 776 P.2d 599, 602 (Utah 1989). Both the supreme court and this court have recognized that stability is paramount with respect to “custody arrangements.” Hogge, 649 P.2d at 54; see also Kramer v. Kramer, 738 P.2d 624, 626 (Utah 1987) (recognizing that “stable custody arrangements are of critical importance to the child’s proper development”); Taylor v. Elison, 2011 UT App 272, ¶ 22, 263 P.3d 448 (recognizing the “general policy of maintaining custodial stability to the extent it is reasonable and wise to do so while [a child’s] parents seek to resolve their differences” and that “it is generally in the best interests of the child to remain with his or her existing custodial parent”). 

¶63 This stability interest is one of the driving forces behind the change-in-circumstances requirement, which “provide[s] stability to children by protecting them from ‘ping-pong’ custody awards.” Chaparro v. Torero, 2018 UT App 181, ¶ 39, 436 P.3d 339 (quotation simplified). “Absent such a requirement, a decree of divorce would be subject to ad infinitum appellate review and readjustment.” Foulger v. Foulger, 626 P.2d 412, 414 (Utah 1981). Thus, the understood “rationale” for this requirement is “that custody placements, once made, should be as stable as possible unless the factual basis for them has completely changed.” Kramer, 738 P.2d at 627 (quotation simplified). 

¶64 But this leads to the problem that the district court was confronted with here. Again, the parent-child relationship between Bryant and Son had existed since birth, had solidified in the several-year period after the divorce, and had just now been officially recognized as a matter of law. Despite this, Nicole had recently invoked her authority under the Decree to cut off Bryant’s access to Son entirely, thus amounting to something akin to complete custodial interference. 

¶65 The legislature, however, has recognized that “each divorcing, separating, or adjudicated parent is entitled to . . . frequent, meaningful, and continuing access with the parent’s child consistent with the child’s best interest,” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-32(2)(b)(ii) (Supp. 2021) (emphases added), and that, absent evidence of abuse or harm to the child, “it is in the best interests of the child to have both parents actively involved in parenting the child,” id. § 30-3-32(2)(b)(iii) (emphasis added). True, such relationships can be altered or even severed by operation of law. But here, the Decree was the product of a stipulation, not a court determination, and no court has ever determined that it was not in the best interests of Son to have a relationship with Bryant. 

¶66 Given that Bryant has now been adjudicated to be Son’s father, we believe that the court could legally conclude that this change, coupled with Nicole’s concomitant attempt to undermine their ability to have any relationship at all, warranted a modification of the Decree to protect the father-son relationship moving forward. 

¶67 Nicole, however, resists this conclusion. She argues that her decision “to allow (or not allow) parent-time” is not “the type of change in circumstances that justifies modification under Utah law.” We disagree. 

¶68 As a starting point, we note that Nicole’s argument has no support in the controlling statutory text. Section 30-3-10.4(2)(b)(i) requires a court to find that “a material and substantial change of circumstance has occurred.” There is nothing in the text of this statute that creates the limit suggested by Nicole—i.e., the statute doesn’t prevent a district court from concluding that a custodial parent’s efforts to cut off a years-developed relationship between a child and the noncustodial parent qualifies as such a change. 

¶69 Nicole nevertheless points to two cases that, in her view, support her proposed limitation. But we don’t find either case to require a different result here. 

¶70 First, Nicole relies on a passage from Doyle in which the supreme court “adopted a general rule” under which “the asserted change” in circumstances must be related to the “parenting ability or the functioning of the presently existing custodial relationship,” rather than the “parenting of the noncustodial parent.” 2011 UT 42, ¶ 41 (quotation simplified). 

¶71 But while Doyle referred to this as a “general rule,” it never said it was an “exclusive” one. Indeed, in the very next sentence, Doyle recognized “an exception to the general rule” that was based on a prior Utah case. Id. Doyle itself thus shows that this “general rule” is subject to judicially recognized exceptions. 

¶72 Moreover, section 30-3-10.4(1)(a) itself provides that, in a petition to modify, the petition or affidavit must “allege[] that admissible evidence will show that the circumstances of the child or one or both parents . . . have materially and substantially changed since the entry of the order to be modified.” (Emphasis added.) By allowing a modification to be based on a change in the circumstances of “the child or one or both parents,” the legislature directly contemplated that a change in circumstances of any of the parties—the child or either parent—can provide the basis for a modification. So while Doyle’s statement provides some guidance, we do not understand it to be an inviolable limitation of the sort proposed by Nicole. 

¶73 Second, Nicole claims that in Crouse v. Crouse, 817 P.2d 836 (Utah Ct. App. 1991), we adopted a rule under which a noncustodial parent’s strengthened relationship with a child cannot qualify as a change in circumstances for purposes of a subsequent modification request. We disagree with Nicole’s interpretation of Crouse. 

¶74 In Crouse, the mother had been given primary physical custody of the children after the divorce, but she had then allowed the children to “spen[d] almost equal time” with their father in the ensuing years. Id. at 837. Based in part on this allowance of extra time, the father later requested a modification of the decree to give him “primary physical custody” over the children. Id. The district court denied his modification request, and we affirmed that decision. Id. at 837, 840. 

¶75 Nicole points to a passage from our affirmance in which we recognized that the “fact that Mrs. Crouse has been generous in sharing physical custody with Mr. Crouse is not a ground to change physical custody; if anything, it supports leaving primary physical custody with Mrs. Crouse, as it shows that she has lived up to the responsibilities of a custodial parent.” Id. at 839. 

¶76 In contrast to Nicole, however, we don’t read this passage as having determined that, as a matter of law, a district court cannot consider such facts in its analysis. It’s significant that we were affirming the district court’s denial of a petition to modify in Crouse. It’s also significant that the same section of the opinion began with a reminder that a “trial court’s decision concerning modification of a divorce decree will not be disturbed absent an abuse of discretion,” id. at 838, and that we then referred to the court’s “discretion” three more times in that section, id. at 838– 39. Thus, properly understood, Crouse was not establishing rules about the facts that a court could legally consider. Rather, Crouse was giving deference to the district court’s determination that the facts before it were not enough to satisfy the requisite standard. 

¶77 Moreover, we also note that the district court’s use of its discretion in Crouse was consistent with the understood purpose behind the change-in-circumstances requirement. The mother there had originally been awarded primary physical custody, and after she let the children “spen[d] almost equal time” with their father over a period of a few years, the father asked the court to grant him “primary physical custody” as a result. Id. at 837. In this sense, the father’s request, if granted, would have created instability in the children’s lives by changing their primary caregiver. 

¶78 The opposite is true here. Again, Bryant had acted as Son’s father since birth. After Nicole then allowed Son to continue developing this relationship with Bryant over the course of several post-divorce years, Nicole changed her mind and decided to cut off their relationship, thus essentially leaving Son fatherless. Put simply, the effect of our decision here is consistent with Crouse, not inconsistent with it. There, we affirmed a district court decision that preserved stability in the children’s lives. And here, we’re likewise affirming a district court decision that preserved stability in the affected child’s life. 

¶79 In sum, the statute does not impose the limitation proposed by Nicole, and we think that doing so ourselves would be inconsistent with Utah caselaw, the importance of parent-child relationships, the protections given to those relationships by constitution and statute alike, and the modification statute’s recognized goal of promoting stability in children’s lives. We therefore conclude that a district court can legally determine that a unilateral attempt by a custodial parent to sever a child’s years-developed relationship with his or her noncustodial parent can constitute a substantial and material change in circumstances, thereby allowing the court to proceed to the best interests step of the modification analysis. We accordingly affirm the district court’s conclusion that a change in circumstances occurred here. 

¶80 Having done so, we add two cautionary notes to this decision. First, Nicole suggests that a ruling like this one will essentially penalize a custodial parent for being generous with the noncustodial parent’s ability to exercise parent-time. We’re sensitive to this concern. But again, a district court can’t proceed to the best-interests step of the analysis based on just any change in circumstances. Rather, the court must first determine that the change is “material and substantial.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.4(2)(b)(i). Whether a particular increase or decrease in parent-time is enough to qualify will be circumstance-dependent, and we have no need to more specifically cabin the district courts’ discretionary authority here. But in light of Nicole’s concern, we do note that the change in question in this case was from something akin to 30% of the time to 0%. We’re simply holding that a court can regard such a dramatic alteration of the existing parent-child relationship to be a material and substantial change in circumstances. 

¶81 Second, we again note that, even when a district court concludes that a change in circumstances has occurred, this does not mean that the court must modify the decree. Again, this is a two-step analysis, and under the second step, a court can only modify a decree if it finds that the modification “would be an improvement for and in the best interest of the child.” Id. § 30-3-10.4(2)(b)(ii). Thus, even in a circumstance like this one, a district court could still determine that modification is not appropriate if it concludes that the proposed modification would not be in the best interests of the child. 

¶82 In this sense, our decision today does not restrict the district courts’ options. Rather, it keeps them open. We simply hold that, in a case like this one, a district court can determine that a material and substantial change in circumstances has occurred—not that it must, and not that it must then make any particular ruling regarding the best interests of the child.19  

CONCLUSION 

¶83 For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the district court’s decision to give Bryant joint legal and physical custody of [decision ends here inexplicably]. 

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

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

2022 UT App 5 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

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

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

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department 

The Honorable Su Chon 

No. 104904966 

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

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

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

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge: 

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

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

BACKGROUND 

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

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

Pre-Divorce Proceedings and Temporary Orders 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Procedural History of the Divorce 

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

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

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

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

Expert Valuation of Marital Property 

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

Notes Receivable 

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

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

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

WBC’s Backlog 

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

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

WBC’s Equipment 

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

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

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

Dissipation 

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

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

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

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

Division of the Estate and Equalization Payment 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alimony 

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW 

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANALYSIS 

  1. Operative Dates

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

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

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

  1. Access to Marital Estate

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

  1. Monthly Spending

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

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

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

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

  1. Tangible Assets

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

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

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

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

  1. Notes Receivable

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

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

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

  1. Backlog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Equipment

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Dissipation

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Yacht

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

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

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

  1. North Dakota Investment

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

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

  1. Division of the Estate and Equalization Payments

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

  1. Estate Division

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

awarded her a greater share of cash and retirement accounts; 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Security

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Interest Rate

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Transaction Costs

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Alimony

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

  1. Alimony Award

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

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

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

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

  1. Taxes

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

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

  1. Life Insurance

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

  1. Contempt

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION 

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

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

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

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

_________ 

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

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

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Johansen v. Johansen – 2021 UT App 130 – compliance with court rules

2021 UT App 130 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

COLTEN JOHANSEN, 

Appellee, 

KATHY JOHANSEN, 

Appellant. 

Opinion 

No. 20200234-CA 

Filed November 26, 2021 

Second District Court, Ogden Department 

The Honorable Joseph M. Bean 

No. 114900531 

Charles R. Ahlstrom, Attorney for Appellant
Jason B. Richards, Attorney for Appellee 

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

concurred. 

ORME, Judge: 

¶1 Kathy Johansen challenges the district court’s denial of her motion to dismiss Colten Johansen’s petition to terminate alimony. She argues that the court erred in finding that Colten’s failure to provide initial disclosures was harmless.12 We agree and reverse. 

BACKGROUND13  

¶2 In 2011, Kathy and Colten divorced. The divorce decree required Colten to pay Kathy alimony that was to terminate after 15 years or upon Kathy’s remarriage or cohabitation. On October 30, 2018, Colten filed a petition to terminate alimony, alleging that Kathy had been cohabitating with another man (Boyfriend) since at least January 2018. Acting pro se, Kathy filed her answer on November 8, 2018, denying the allegation. A pretrial conference was held the following March, during which the district court set the case for a three-day bench trial to begin in late August 2019. On July 29, Colten, having never filed his initial disclosures, provided pretrial disclosures that included his witness list and his exhibits. The witness list named Kathy, Colten, a private investigator, and Kathy and Colten’s daughter (Daughter). On August 6, Kathy moved to dismiss the petition to terminate alimony, alleging that Colten never served initial disclosures as required by rule 26 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. Pursuant to rule 26, Colten was required to provide these disclosures way back in November 2018, 14 days after Kathy filed her answer to his petition. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(2)(A). 

¶3 Just before the trial began, the district court addressed Kathy’s motion to dismiss. Although the court stated that Colten appeared to have violated rule 26’s disclosure requirements, it declined to exclude Colten’s witnesses and exhibits because it found that the apparent violation of the rule was harmless. Specifically, while addressing Kathy, the court ruled: 

[Colten’s] responsibility exists in and of itself to provide those initial disclosures to you. However, there is an exception. If . . . they can show that the failure is harmless or there is good cause, . . . they can overcome that requirement. 

There’s one other requirement, and that is they don’t have to disclose anything to you that would be used for impeachment purposes. And so what they would do is they would simply call you to testify in their case in chief, allow you to testify. 

Once you testify in a certain way, then [Colten] is going to say, “Well, we have witnesses.” 

You’ll say, “Wait, those witnesses weren’t disclosed to me.” 

And then he’ll say, “These are for rebuttal purposes or impeachment purposes only. We didn’t have to disclose impeachment evidence,” and so, really, it turns out to be harmless. It’s just a matter of the order in which they call their witnesses. 

And in calling you first and having you testify first, then they bring in people [such as] a private investigator, your daughter or whoever that would be in the nature of impeachment evidence, which they are not required to disclose under Rule 26. 

So the Court finds that while this does appear to be a violation of . . . or I’ll say could be a violation of Rule 26(a)(2) and Rule 26.1(b), the violation would be harmless in that they’re not required under Rule 26 or 26.1(b) to disclose impeachment evidence that was retained for impeachment purposes only. 

¶4 And a few months after trial, at a hearing on Kathy’s motion to amend the court’s findings, the court added to its harmlessness finding: 

As a party and as a person involved in a case, to . . . disclose [Kathy] as a potential witness certainly is helpful, but what is she going to do to then go find out from herself what her testimony will be and to find out from herself what her documents may be? She’s already got those. She should have that knowledge. That . . . is harmless. . . . I think this a prime and premium example of harmlessness, because her attempts to depose herself or subpoena her own documents or anything like that, that . . . just doesn’t make sense at all why that is necessary. 

. . . . She had . . . at least 28 days to prepare for the fact that she was going to be a witness. 

I believe . . . the [pretrial disclosures filed on July 29, 2019,] also disclosed the impeachment witnesses that were going to testify. So it’s not like she didn’t know that either. 

So all of the purposes of Rule 26 were served under these circumstances[.] 

¶5 At trial, Colten first called Kathy to testify. She testified that during the time in question, Daughter and other family members lived with her. She stated that she and Boyfriend had been dating for approximately two years. Although she did affirm that Boyfriend kept a few dress shirts and a pair of running shoes at her house, and that he occasionally spent the night there, she denied that he had ever lived in the home with her. Colten then presented Kathy with photographs taken from inside her home. One photograph showed a carburetor that Boyfriend had designed and a plaque that he had received as an award for it. Kathy explained that Boyfriend had gifted both to her. The second photograph depicted a laptop and a pair of glasses. Kathy claimed that the laptop was Boyfriend’s that he let her borrow and that the glasses belonged to her. The next photograph was taken in her bathroom and showed shaving cream, a razor, and a bag. Kathy claimed that the shaving cream and razor were hers but the bag belonged to Boyfriend, which contained “his stuff to stay overnight.” Colten then showed Kathy multiple photos of a computer, her bedroom, and a spare bedroom. Kathy claimed that most of the items depicted in the photographs belonged to her or her children, with the exception of the dress shirts and running shoes that belonged to Boyfriend. Throughout Kathy’s testimony, she continued to aver that, while Boyfriend obviously spent time at the house, he did not live there. 

¶6 Colten next called himself as a witness. He testified that when he went to pick up his children from Kathy’s home, they “would tell me that [Boyfriend] was there the whole time that they would stay there.” Colten also testified that Boyfriend’s car would be at Kathy’s house a majority of the time he came by to pick them up. Colten then offered into evidence a mailed envelope, addressed to Boyfriend at Kathy’s address, that he found in a garbage can in front of Kathy’s house. Kathy objected to this evidence, claiming that she was not made aware of the envelope when Colten identified exhibits in his pretrial disclosures. The court overruled her objection, stating, “For impeachment purposes those things are not required to be disclosed.” 

¶7 Colten next called Daughter to testify. She stated that Boyfriend was living with Kathy in the home, that he kept his personal belongings in the home, that he had a key to the home, and that he had complete access to the home at all times. She also claimed that Boyfriend slept in the same room as Kathy, gave Kathy money, and bought groceries. Daughter stated that she had taken the photographs that were shown to Kathy during Kathy’s testimony, and that the computer, clothes, and other items mostly belonged to Boyfriend and not to Kathy or to Kathy’s children, as Kathy had claimed. Finally, Daughter testified that Boyfriend spent approximately 95% of his nights at the home. 

¶8 Colten’s final witness was a private investigator. He testified that over the course of the five days he spent surveilling the home, he witnessed Boyfriend carry groceries from his vehicle into the home, take tools from the garage and put them in his truck, have conversations with neighbors in which he presented himself as Kathy’s husband, enter the home in the evening and leave the next morning in different clothes, and undertake other actions indicative of Boyfriend living in the home. Colten then offered into evidence the investigator’s written report, which the court accepted. 

¶9 Kathy called no witnesses of her own. The district court subsequently found that Kathy and Boyfriend had cohabitated from January 2018 until at least November 2018, when Colten served Kathy with the petition to terminate alimony. Accordingly, the court terminated Colten’s alimony obligations retroactive to January 2018 and entered judgment against Kathy in the amount of the excess alimony Colten had paid since that time. 

¶10 Kathy appeals. 

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW 

¶11 Kathy contends that the district court erred in denying her motion to dismiss Colten’s petition to terminate alimony and bar all his witnesses as a sanction pursuant to rule 26(d)(4) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.14 “We review a district court’s interpretation of our rules of civil procedure, precedent, and common law for correctness.” Keystone Ins. Agency v. Inside Ins., 2019 UT 20, ¶ 12, 445 P.3d 434. But in reviewing a court’s determination with respect to harmlessness and good cause, our review is necessarily deferential. This is because “a court’s decision in discovery matters is a discretionary call, and . . . we will affirm such decisions when the court’s discretion was not abused, even if we or another court might have made a different decision in the first instance.” Segota v. Young 180 Co., 2020 UT App 105, ¶ 22, 470 P.3d 479 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, we will reverse a court’s harmlessness determination “only if there is no reasonable basis for the district court’s decision.” See Berger v. Ogden Reg’l Med. Center, 2020 UT App 85, ¶ 15, 469 P.3d 1127 (quotation simplified). 

ANALYSIS 

¶12 In relevant part, rule 26 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure requires parties to serve initial disclosures “without waiting for a discovery request.” Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(1). These disclosures must include “the name and, if known, the address and telephone number of . . . each individual likely to have discoverable information supporting its claims or defenses, unless solely for impeachment . . . ; and . . . each fact witness the party may call in its case-in-chief and, except for an adverse party, a summary of the expected testimony.” Id. R. 26(a)(1)(A). A party is further required to serve on the opposing party “a copy of all documents, data compilations, electronically stored information, and tangible things in the possession or control of the party that the party may offer in its case-in-chief.” Id. R. 26(a)(1)(B). 

¶13 A plaintiff is required to make initial disclosures “within 14 days after filing of the first answer to the complaint.” Id. R. 26(a)(2)(A). If a party fails to serve these disclosures, “that party may not use the undisclosed witness, document or material at any hearing or trial unless the failure is harmless or the party shows good cause for the failure.” Id. R. 26(d)(4). In cases like the one now before us, “where initial disclosures were not provided at all,” a party faces an uphill battle to show harmlessness because otherwise it would shift “an unacceptable burden on the opposing party to closely parse the pleadings and discovery exchanged (if any) to decrypt which individuals even have discoverable information.” Hansen v. Kurry Jensen Props., 2021 UT App 54, ¶ 44 n.12, 493 P.3d 1131 (Mortensen, J., and Pohlman, J., concurring). See also Ollier v. Sweetwater Union High School Dist., 768 F.3d 843, 863 (9th Cir. 2014) (“An adverse party should not have to guess which undisclosed witnesses may be called to testify.”), cited with approval in Hansen, 2021 UT App 54, ¶ 44 n.12. 

And even in cases that do not involve “complicated” factual disputes, this burden may still be significant. As just one example, witnesses known to the opposing party may nevertheless speak to other individuals (unknown to the opposing party) about the operative facts of the case. These individuals would thus, unbeknownst to the opposing party, have discoverable information and might even be crucial witnesses. 

Hansen, 2021 UT App 54, ¶ 44 n.12 (internal citation omitted). Thus, “a disclosing party who endeavors, by stratagem or otherwise, to disclose as little as possible faces a significant risk that the disclosure will be found insufficient and the evidence or the witness may not be allowed. To minimize this risk, disclosing parties should be liberally forthcoming rather than minimally compliant and risk the possible consequences of testimony exclusion.” RJW Media Inc. v. Heath, 2017 UT App 34, ¶ 30, 392 P.3d 956 (quotation simplified). 

¶14 Here, it is undisputed that Colten completely failed to file his rule 26 initial disclosures detailing the witnesses or the material supporting his claim, insofar as then in his possession, either when initially due or at any time thereafter. Thus, the presumptive sanction was for his evidence to be barred from trial. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(d)(4). But because the district court found this failure to be harmless, Colten was ultimately allowed to present all his evidence at trial. To come to this conclusion, the court made what is in essence a two-part ruling. First, it found that Colten’s failure to disclose Kathy as a case-in-chief witness was harmless because she presumably knew what her testimony would be. Second, having found that this was harmless, it essentially piggybacked on that ruling and determined Colten did not have to disclose the remaining witnesses and evidence under rule 26’s impeachment exception. We disagree on both counts. 

  1. Kathy’s Testimony

¶15 Colten argues that the district court’s harmlessness ruling in regard to his calling Kathy as a witness was correct because “it is nonsensical to think that Kathy would need to depose or seek document production from herself” and because “[t]here were many times throughout the history of the case where Kathy was put on notice that her alleged cohabitation was the only issue for trial.” All this, Colten argues, put Kathy “at absolutely no disadvantage by her not being listed on Colten’s initial disclosures.” We disagree. 

¶16 Colten and the district court both focus unduly on the fact that Kathy would know what her testimony would be. But both fail to recognize that if Colten had actually served his initial disclosures informing Kathy that she was the only witness on whom his case was based—and the court’s order assumes he had to disclose only Kathy—that disclosure could have completely altered Kathy’s legal strategy, including her decision on whether she should retain counsel. 

¶17 Knowing that Colten was going to make his case based on her testimony would be quite instructive concerning Colten’s trial strategy or lack thereof. Having knowledge of this important fact early on, Kathy likely would have deposed Colten or at least sent him interrogatories to ferret out how he believed her testimony would help him prove his case-in-chief, given the denial in her answer that she was cohabitating. See Saudi v. Valmet-Appleton, Inc., 219 F.R.D. 128, 134 (E.D. Wis. 2003) (“The importance of . . . witness disclosures and the harms resulting from a failure to disclose need little elaboration. When one party does not disclose, the responding party cannot conduct necessary discovery, or prepare to respond to witnesses that have not been disclosed[.]”), cited with approval in Hansen v. Kurry Jensen Props., 2021 UT App 54, ¶ 44 n.12, 493 P.3d 1131 (Mortensen, J., and Pohlman, J., concurring). Early disclosure of Kathy’s pivotal role in Colten’s case-in-chief would have led Kathy to discover the “impeachment” witnesses and materials Colten had in reserve and through which he actually intended to prove his case under the guise of impeaching Kathy’s testimony, long before he made Kathy aware of this information in his pretrial disclosures just 28 days before trial. 

¶18 Thus, had Kathy been informed that she would be Colten’s only case-in-chief witness,15 she would have been given a better opportunity to decide whether she needed to hire an attorney and investigate what Colten’s case really hinged on, better preparing herself for trial. Not being provided this information until 28 days before trial—months past the rule 26 deadline for initial disclosures—went against the purpose of rule 26, “which is to preclude parties from trying to gain an advantage by offering ‘surprise’ testimony at trial that has not been [properly] disclosed.” Arreguin-Leon v. Hadco Constr. LLC, 2018 UT App 225, ¶ 24, 438 P.3d 25, aff’d, 2020 UT 59, 472 P.3d 927. See also Utah R. Civ. P. 26 advisory committee notes (“The intent of [initial disclosures] is to give the other side basic information concerning the subjects about which the witness is expected to testify at trial, so that the other side may determine the witness’s relative importance in the case, whether the witness should be interviewed or deposed, and whether additional documents or information concerning the witness should be sought.”). As we have explained, 

Disclosure of specific facts and opinions is required so that parties can make better informed choices about the discovery they want to undertake or, just as important, what discovery they want to forgo. More complete disclosures serve the beneficial purpose of sometimes giving the opposing party the confidence to not engage in further discovery. But this is only true if the potential for surprise is reduced by at least minimum compliance with the rule 26 disclosure requirements. 

RJW Media Inc. v. Heath, 2017 UT App 34, ¶ 25, 392 P.3d 956. While RJW Media dealt with disclosures about expert testimony, these policy considerations apply to all disclosures and to the circumstances present in the instant case. 

¶19 Essentially, Colten’s and the district court’s rationale would lead to the conclusion that it is always harmless to omit from initial disclosures the fact that the plaintiff plans to call the opposing party as a witness because that party will always know their own testimony. But this approach essentially eviscerates the rule that explicitly requires parties to designate the opposing party as a witness if they intend to call the opposing party in their case-in-chief at trial, albeit with a less extensive disclosure duty than with other witnesses. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(1)(A)(ii) (requiring parties to designate “each fact witness the party may call in its case-in-chief and, except for an adverse party, a summary of the expected testimony”). Ultimately, this rationale misses the point that an opposing party can be harmed in this situation. A party may well know the content of their own testimony, but the fact that they will or will not be called as a witness by the other side in the other side’s case-in-chief undoubtedly will dictate how they prepare to prosecute or defend at trial. Thus, the district court exceeded its discretion in determining that Colten’s failure to provide initial disclosures naming Kathy as his only case-in-chief witness was harmless, and the court should have precluded Colten’s use of her testimony due to his clear violation of the rule. 

¶20 This is not the end of the inquiry, however, because “when we determine that a trial court erred, we do not reverse unless there is a reasonable likelihood that a different result would have been reached absent the errors,” or, in other words, we do not reverse unless the aggrieved party was prejudiced. Lee v. Williams, 2018 UT App 54, ¶ 69, 420 P.3d 88 (quotation simplified). See also Utah R. Civ. P. 61 (“The court at every stage of the proceeding must disregard any error or defect in the proceeding which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties.”). We need not belabor this analysis. It is perfectly clear that had the court excluded Kathy from testifying as Colten’s witness, it is certain that a different result would have been reached given that Colten’s strategy was to call Kathy and then prove his case by impeaching her testimony. Specifically, had the court precluded Colten from calling Kathy to testify, Colten would have had no testimony to impeach and he would have been unable to prove his case for lack of evidence. Thus, Kathy was prejudiced by the court’s failure to exclude her as a witness for Colten. 

  1. Remaining Evidence

¶21 Colten argues that the district court did not err in admitting his remaining evidence because rule 26 “does not require a party to disclose witnesses or evidence if it is solely used for impeachment.” See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(1)(A)(i). Colten also asserts that because “Utah has not held that the ‘solely for impeachment’ language means that you can only present it when challenging a particular witness’s veracity or credibility . . . , the trial court ha[d] the discretion to use impeachment evidence to assist in establishing the core facts of a case.” We disagree and we reverse the court’s ruling concerning the remaining evidence on two grounds. 

  1. First Ground: Kathy’s Testimony

¶22 To be clear, in a technical sense, we need not reach the district court’s impeachment ruling because of the nature of its order regarding Colten’s ability to call Kathy as a witness. Specifically, the court actually excluded Colten’s remaining witnesses and evidence from being used in his case-in-chief for anything other than impeachment by reason of his failure to make his initial disclosures. Accordingly, under the court’s ruling, and had Kathy been precluded from testifying as she should have been, Colten would not have been able to present any of his remaining evidence because the court would allow it only for the purpose of impeaching Kathy. And because we have determined that the court exceeded its discretion in allowing Colten to call Kathy as a witness despite not having initially disclosed his plan to do so, it necessarily follows that none of Colten’s remaining witnesses and evidence should have been allowed. Because Kathy could not properly have been called, there would have been no testimony to impeach. Kathy was thus necessarily prejudiced because, without this evidence, Colten could not have proven his case, and the district court should have then dismissed his petition. See Lee v. Williams, 2018 UT App 54, ¶ 69, 420 P.3d 88. 

  1. Second Ground: Limits of Impeachment Exception

¶23 We also reverse the district court’s ruling on the independent ground that, even if it was not error to allow Kathy to testify in Colten’s case-in-chief, the court misapplied the rules of civil procedure in allowing Colten to present his remaining witnesses and documents as impeachment evidence. Regardless of whether Kathy should have been permitted to testify, the court still erred in allowing Colten’s remaining evidence under rule 26’s impeachment exception.16  

¶24 Rule 26 states that 

(a)(1) . . . a party shall, without waiting for a discovery request, serve on the other parties: 

(A) the name and, if known, the address and telephone number of: 

(i) each individual likely to have discoverable information supporting its claims or defenses, unless solely for impeachment, identifying the subjects of the information; and 

(ii) each fact witness the party may call in its case-in-chief and, except for an adverse party, a summary of the expected testimony; 

(B) a copy of all documents, data compilations, electronically stored information, and tangible things in the possession or control of the party that the party may offer in its case-in-chief . . . . 

Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(1). 

¶25 “When we interpret a procedural rule, we do so according to our general rules of statutory construction.” Arbogast Family Trust v. River Crossings, LLC, 2010 UT 40, ¶ 18, 238 P.3d 1035. Thus, “we start by examining the ordinary meaning or usually accepted interpretation.” Id. If we determine the language is unambiguous, then the inquiry ends there. Pilot v. Hill, 2018 UT App 105, ¶ 11, 427 P.3d 508, aff’d, 2019 UT 10, 437 P.3d 362. Cf. Amax Magnesium Corp. v. Utah State Tax Comm’n, 796 P.2d 1256, 1258 (Utah 1990) (“[S]tatutory construction mandates that a statute be read according to its literal wording unless it would be unreasonably confusing or inoperable.”). In undertaking this inquiry, we presume “that the words and phrases used were chosen carefully and advisedly.” Amax Magnesium Corp., 796 P.2d at 1258. 

¶26 Based on the plain language of rule 26, the “solely for impeachment” exception is found within subsection (a)(1)(A)(i), which addresses only “individual[s] likely to have discoverable information supporting [the party’s] claims or defenses.” Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(1)(A)(i). This exception does not appear in subsections (a)(1)(A)(ii) or (a)(1)(B), which deal with witnesses and documents and other tangible things that a party plans on using in its case-in-chief. Thus, because we presume that the drafters of the rule used the words and phrases in rule 26 “carefully and advisedly,” Amax Magnesium Corp., 796 P.2d at 1258, an impeachment exception cannot be read into subsections (a)(1)(A)(ii) and (a)(1)(B) to allow for witnesses or documents and tangible things a party plans to use in its case-in-chief to not be initially disclosed even if their use is focused on impeachment. Therefore, an analysis of whether a witness should have been disclosed turns initially on whether that witness will be called in a party’s case-in-chief or held in reserve as a possible rebuttal witness whose testimony is “solely for impeachment.” 

¶27 This interpretation comports with the purpose of the rule as a whole, see id. (“A principal rule of statutory construction is that the terms of a statute should not be interpreted in a piecemeal fashion, but as a whole.”), which is to maximize disclosure “to preclude parties from trying to gain an advantage by offering ‘surprise’ testimony at trial that has not been [properly] disclosed,” see Arreguin-Leon v. Hadco Constr. LLC, 2018 UT App 225, ¶ 24, 438 P.3d 25, aff’d, 2020 UT 59, 472 P.3d 927. If we were to allow a party to forgo disclosing in initial disclosures the witnesses and documents it planned to use in its case-in-chief and then slip them in at trial under the impeachment exception, then we would not be following the clear language of the rule, much less honoring its purpose.17  

¶28 We first address the documents and tangible things the court allowed and then turn to the witnesses Colten was permitted to call at trial. 

  1. Documents and Tangible Things

¶29 Once Colten filed his petition, under subsection (a)(1)(B) any documents and tangible things in his possession that Colten intended to present in his case-in-chief were required to be disclosed to Kathy in initial disclosures. In making initial disclosures, no impeachment exception exists allowing such evidence not to be disclosed. Therefore, all the pictures Colten presented from inside Kathy’s home and the private investigator’s report should not have been allowed at trial because Colten failed to disclose any of it to Kathy in his initial disclosures.18 Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(1)(B); id. R. 26(d)(4). 

  1. Witnesses

¶30 Colten, Daughter, and the private investigator were all witnesses Colten called as part of his case-in-chief for purposes of subsection (a)(1)(A)(i) of rule 26. They were not merely “individual[s] likely to have discoverable information supporting [his] claims” who had nothing to offer beyond impeachment evidence, which would make them exempt from disclosure under subsection (a)(1)(A)(ii). On the contrary, as witnesses used exclusively in Colten’s case-in-chief, their contact information and a summary of their expected testimony was required to be served on Kathy in initial disclosures. See id. R. 26(a)(1)(A)(ii). 

¶31 Colten’s trial strategy was to first call Kathy in his case-in-chief, and she categorically denied that she was cohabitating with Boyfriend. Continuing with his case-in-chief, Colten then called himself, Daughter, and the private investigator to testify that Kathy was, in fact, cohabitating with Boyfriend.19 The court allowed these witnesses to testify in Colten’s case-in-chief even though they had not been disclosed in initial disclosures because it ruled that they were used solely for impeaching Kathy’s testimony and did not have to be disclosed under subsection (a)(1)(A)(i). This reasoning was flawed because this subsection’s “solely for impeachment” exception did not properly come into play.20 While these witnesses may have been impeaching Kathy’s testimony, they were still called in Colten’s case-in-chief, before Kathy presented any evidence in her defense, and were thus fact witnesses Colten intended to call in his case-in-chief for purposes of subsection (a)(1)(A)(ii), thus requiring that they be disclosed in initial disclosures. This is borne out by the fact that had Colten simply called Kathy in his case-in-chief and then rested, his case would have been dismissed for lack of evidence. Rather, after he called Kathy to testify, he continued his presentation of witnesses and called himself, Daughter, and the private investigator to establish that Kathy was cohabitating—all as part of his case-in-chief. 

¶32 Based on the plain language of rule 26, the district court 

erred in allowing Colten to call any of his witnesses or to present the photographs and investigator’s report because it was all used in Colten’s case-in-chief and was required to be disclosed in initial disclosures pursuant to subsections (a)(1)(A)(ii) and (a)(1)(B). Yet, the court essentially allowed Colten to present his entire case-in-chief under subsection (a)(1)(A)(i)’s impeachment exception, which is an incorrect use of that extremely limited exception, constituting reversible error.21 Because Colten was required to serve his initial disclosures detailing this information and failed to do so, Colten has to show that such failure was harmless to Kathy or that his failure to disclose was a result of good cause. See id. R. 26(d)(4). He has not made that showing, and Kathy was prejudiced by the district court’s erroneous ruling because without the evidence Colten presented during his case-in-chief, he could not have proven that Kathy cohabited with Boyfriend. See Lee v. Williams, 2018 UT App 54, ¶ 69, 420 P.3d 88. 

CONCLUSION 

¶33 The district court erred in allowing Colten to call his witnesses and present his documents at trial. Kathy was harmed by not being informed in the required initial disclosures that she would be called as a witness by Colten in his case-in-chief, and the court misapplied rule 26 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure in allowing Colten’s remaining witnesses to testify under the “solely for impeachment” exception because they were witnesses used in Colten’s case-in-chief. The court also erred in allowing Colten to present any of his documents and tangible things under the inapplicable impeachment exception. We therefore vacate the judgment against Kathy and remand with instructions to dismiss Colten’s petition to terminate alimony. 

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

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MacFarland v. MacFarland – 2021 UT App 58

021 UT App 58 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

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

Opinion 

No. 20190541-CA 
Filed June 4, 2021 

Second District Court, Farmington Department 

The Honorable David J. Williams 

No. 084701533 

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

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

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

HARRIS, Judge: 

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

BACKGROUND 
The Divorce Decree 

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

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

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

Post-Divorce Events and Conduct 

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

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

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

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

The Post-Divorce Filings 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hearing and Subsequent Ruling 

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW 

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

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

ANALYSIS 
I. Alimony 

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

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

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

  1. Child Support

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

A 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B 

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

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

1 

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

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

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

Id. 

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

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

2 

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

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

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

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

3 

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

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

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

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

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

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

C 

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

CONCLUSION 

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

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

 

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After a divorce, should my kids be with me or with the mom?

First, you need to understand that you’re asking the wrong question.

Child custody is not a zero-sum game; otherwise stated, when parents divorce, or when unmarried parents separate, where you get the idea that the children must be in the custody of one parent or the other, but not in the joint custody of both?

Perhaps it has come from the idea you been taught most of your life that children of divorced or separated parents must spend the majority of their time in the custody of one parent. I’m 52 years old at the time I write this, and throughout my youth I was taught that very thing.

Not only were we taught the children should spend most of their time in the custody of just one parent, but we were taught that the parent that should be the “custodial” or primary custodial” parent was the mother. Almost always the mother. The mother, unless it could be proven that the mother was heinously unfit to have custody of the children. It was not uncommon to hear about perfectly good and decent fathers not being awarded custody or not being awarded joint physical custody of their children even when mom had a substance abuse problem or was physically and/or emotionally abusive.

The idea that children could be or should be cared for equally or as near to equally as possible by both parents was in the not so distant past unthinkable. The idea of children being cared for by their fathers was believed to be emotionally and psychologically damaging to children, especially very young children. The more research that is conducted on the subject, however, the more we learn that such thinking is wrong. I’ll be the first to admit that, especially in American culture, it seemed somewhat intuitive to believe that children might need or fare better in the care of their mothers instead of their fathers, but it turns out that’s false.

Unfortunately, the legal profession and the courts have been very slow to accept, let alone embrace, this fact. But things are changing in the legal profession and the courts, and at a comparatively rapid pace.

Now (I write this May 27, 2021), things are different, or I should say they are becoming different. As well they should be. Just as this country realized it made no sense to make the black man or woman sit at the back of the bus and that all citizens deserve fair and equal treatment under the law, it makes no sense to deny children of as much love and care and companionship of both of their loving, fit parents as possible.

To crib from C.S. Lewis a bit, asking which fit parent the children are better off with is like asking which blade of the scissors we’re better off with.

When children have to loving, caring parents who are physically and emotionally and financially capable of providing the minimally necessary levels of care their children require, there is no to deny children the benefits of being reared by both parents equally. Period.

I am a divorce lawyer in Utah. For those of you who are currently facing or who are contemplating a possible divorce or child custody dispute in Utah, you may find these statutory criteria that the courts are supposed to apply when making child custody determinations:

Utah Code:


Section 10
. Custody of a child — Custody factors.

Section 10.1. Definitions — Joint legal custody — Joint physical custody.

Section 10.2. Joint custody order — Factors for court determination — Public assistance.

And these sections are worth reviewing to get an idea of what the definitions of child custody are, whether that be legal custody or physical custody:


Section 33
. Advisory guidelines.

Section 34. Parent-time — Best interests — Rebuttable presumption.

Section 34.5. Supervised parent-time.

Section 35. Minimum schedule for parent-time for children 5 to 18 years old.

Section 35.1. Optional schedule for parent-time for children 5 to 18 years of age.

Section 35.2. Equal parent-time schedule.

Section 35.5. Minimum schedule for parent-time for children under five years of age.

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

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Does a spouse have the right to see a DUI report?

First, if you are referring to a police report of a DUI citation and/or arrest, in most jurisdictions such records are public record, and thus available not only to your spouse, but to any other member of the public.

Second, if the question of whether you were cited and/or convicted of DUI arises in a divorce or child custody case because your spouse and/or the court has determined that alcohol or other substance abuse concerns are relevant to the child custody award or alimony award or other issues, then even if your DUI report were not already public record, it would likely be discoverable in the course of litigating the case and preparing for trial, so that both your spouse and the court would have that information available to them when arguing over which parent should receive child custody and/or how much time each parent should spend with the parties’ children, whether alimony should be tempered by your substance and/or spousal abuse history, etc.

Bottom line: records of a citation for, arrest for, conviction of, and or incarceration resulting from DUI are almost certainly discoverable in most divorce and child custody cases.

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

https://www.quora.com/Does-a-spouse-have-the-right-to-see-a-DUI-report/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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I have custody of my child. He’s refusing to come home. What now?

I have custody of my child. He left to go to his mom’s last Friday for the weekend. He is refusing to come home because he wants to live there. What happens now?

I will answer this question in the context of my experience as a lawyer in the jurisdiction where I practice divorce and family law, which is Utah.

And that answer is: realistically speaking, probably nothing.

As a divorce and family law attorney, I have been on both sides of this issue, meaning I’ve represented the parent with custody of the child who won’t come back, and I’ve also represented the noncustodial parent to whose house the child has “fled” and won’t leave.

This is a weird area of Utah law because you’ll hear the legislature and the courts tell you that children don’t get to choose where they live, and then when children do that very thing (i.e., refuse to live where the court orders them to live), the courts find themselves essentially powerless to change anything. At least that’s my experience over the 24 years I’ve been in practice.

Briefly, if the children are old enough that they cannot be physically controlled by a parent and forced into a car from the noncustodial parents house back to the custodial parent’s house, then the courts are usually not going to intervene. This means that a court will, in fairness and realistically, tell the parents that pragmatically there’s really nothing that they ought to do to enforce the child custody order if the child himself or herself is old enough to put up a fight and/or call the police and/or DCFS and report you for child abuse if you try to force them into the car to go back to the custodial parent’s house. Besides, the child who is old enough to put up a fight is also likely old enough to run away from the noncustodial parents home if anyone tries to force him or her to reside with a parent with whom the child doesn’t want to live.

And so, you get in a situation where the child is disobeying the court’s custody order, but most courts either don’t have the cats to hold the child in contempt of court or don’t feel it is appropriate to sanction a child who won’t comply with the court’s child custody orders. Yet these same courts will also often refuse to modify the child custody award because they don’t want to acknowledge that children, of all people, have the de facto power to defy court orders with impunity.

Next, you need to be aware of the possibility that your custodial parent ex will try to blame you for your child refusing to return to the custodial parent’s home, regardless of whether that is true. Many times, a perfectly innocent noncustodial parent will tell his or her acts and the court, “Look, I’ve told the child what the court order is and that both our and I are expected to comply. But the child refuses to comply anyway. Now what you want me to do? Kick the child out and lock the door behind him?” Some courts sympathize with that predicament, others don’t buy it. Which means it is entirely possible that you would be held in contempt of court for doing absolutely nothing wrong, if the court believes you enticed or coheirs the child to say he or she wants to stay with you. So you need to keep that in mind.

So if you are a noncustodial parent of a child who refuses to reside with the court ordered custodial parent, then you must ask yourself a few questions:

First, if the child refusing to live with the custodial parent because the child is a spoiled brat who has no legitimate reason for refusing to live with the custodial parent? If the answer is yes, then you as the noncustodial parent have both a legal and moral obligation to talk the child into going back to the custodial parent’s home, or if persuasion doesn’t work, imposing limitations and restrictions and punishments upon the child so that the child won’t get the impression that he or she is in charge.

Second, if the child is refusing to reside with the custodial parent because the custodial parent is truly neglectful and/or abusive, and if you have independently verifiable proof of this, you have the option of petitioning the court to modify the child custody award, changing the custodial parent from your ex to you. While that petition is pending, your child may refuse to return to the custodial parent’s home, and for reasons at least you and the child know to be valid. Whether the court allows your child to stay with you depends upon how your court views the situation and what is best for the child.

If you find yourself in this kind of situation, whether you are the custodial parent or the noncustodial parent, this is one of those situations where you need to seek good legal advice immediately, to help ensure that neither you nor the child is victimized.

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Child refuses to leave noncustodial parent’s house. What happens now?

I am the noncustodial parent. Our child came to my house for parent-time and now refuses to leave because he wants to live with me. What happens now?

I will answer this question in the context of my experience as a lawyer in the jurisdiction where I practice divorce and family law, which is Utah.

This is a weird area of Utah law because you’ll hear the legislature and the courts tell you that children don’t get to choose where they live, and then when children do that very thing (i.e., refuse to live where the court orders them to live), the courts find themselves essentially powerless to change anything. At least that’s my experience over the 24 years I’ve been in practice.

Now before some of you start licking your lips and scheming, thinking, “I’m the noncustodial parent, but I can change that by simply telling our child to choose to refuse to return to the custodial parent’s house,” you need to be aware of the realities.

If you’re the noncustodial parent and your child or children are under the age of 14 or so, and they claim that they don’t want to live with the custodial parent, there’s a very good chance that the court is going to believe that you are a puppet master who coached the children or otherwise induced or coerced them into claiming they want to live with you. That may not be true, but you’re going to be met with that kind of skeptical presumption. So if you are the noncustodial parent with young children who you assert claim they don’t want to live with the custodial parent, you have an uphill battle ahead of you. If you are the noncustodial parent and a father, you have an almost impossibly uphill battle ahead of you.

If, however, your children are 14 years or older, and you are the noncustodial parent with whom your children say they want to live, it will be harder for your ex and/or the court to presume that the children are lying and/or don’t have good reasons for wanting to live with you. Again, if you are the father making this claim, your claim will be met with more skepticism than if you were the noncustodial mother making such a claim. Why is this? Because there is a pernicious belief in the legal system that fathers are generally worse parents than our mothers, that fathers don’t want custody of their children, and that the only reason fathers would seek custody of their children is to avoid paying child support. As a result of these beliefs, fathers who seek custody of their children are met with not just skepticism, but often derisive skepticism. Forewarned is forearmed.

So, if you are a noncustodial parent who is good and decent, and your child honestly and sincerely comes to you saying, “mom/dad, I can’t stand living with the custodial parent anymore, and I want to live with you,” how do you proceed?

First, if the child refusing to live with the custodial parent because the child just wants to spend more time with you and/or less time with the custodial parent, and the custodial parent is not neglecting or abusing the child in any way, then you as the noncustodial parent have both a legal and moral obligation to talk the child into going back to the custodial parent’s home, or if persuasion doesn’t work, imposing limitations and restrictions and punishments upon the child so that the child won’t get the impression that he or she is in charge. At the same time, the custodial parent needs to acknowledge the child’s desires to spend more time with the noncustodial parent as being a legitimate concern that needs to be addressed and resolved, and that usually means the custodial parent agreeing to give the child and the noncustodial parent more time together. If the custodial parent refuses to do the right thing, you may ask whether it’s wise to petition the court for a modification of the child custody award, so that you and the child get more time together. Unfortunately, odds are that if you file a petition to modify child custody and the only basis for your petition is the child’s desire to spend more time with you, you will probably lose. While it is technically and conceivably possible to win such a petition, usually the courts in Utah require more than just the child’s desire as the basis for a modification. And what form does this “more” take? Typically, you would have to show that the custodial parent is neglecting and/or abusing the child to get a modification of the child custody award.

Second, if the child is refusing to reside with the custodial parent because the custodial parent is truly neglectful and/or abusive, and if you have independently verifiable proof of this, you have the option of petitioning the court to modify the child custody award, changing the custodial parent from your ex to you. While that petition is pending, your child may refuse to return to the custodial parent’s home, and for reasons at least you and the child know to be valid. Whether the court allows your child to stay with you depends upon how your court views the situation and what is best for the child.

If you find yourself in this kind of situation, whether you are the custodial parent or the noncustodial parent, this is one of those situations where you need to seek good legal advice immediately, to help ensure that neither you nor the child is victimized.

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

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Father has 50/50 custody. Now ex is trying to take it away. What to do?

I am a father who has exercised at least 50/50 custody with my ex. Now she’s trying to take me to court for full custody and me getting every other weekend visits. How can I avoid losing 50/50 custody?

First, thank your lucky stars you are a father who currently has 50/50 custody of his children. Far, far too many fit and loving fathers who could easily exercise joint equal physical custody of their children and whose children would do nothing but benefit from the exercise of joint equal custody are needlessly and unjustifiably denied a joint equal child custody award by courts who simply cannot bring themselves to believe, much less conceive of, the idea that children being reared by both parents equally is better than relegating one parent to second class visitor status in his child’s life.

Second, the fact that you have been exercising at least 50–50 custody of your children for the past few years helps to make it much harder for your ex to build a case against you for modifying the child custody award in a manner that deprives both father and children of a 50–50 custody schedule. Again, be grateful this is the case, because if you were trying to win 50–50 custody of your children on the first go around during your divorce or other child custody legal action, the odds are grossly stacked against fit and loving fathers.

Third, if you are afraid that your judge is going to discriminate against you on the basis of sex, you need to understand this principle: “if it isn’t close, there cheating won’t matter.” Otherwise stated, you need to ensure that you win six ways from Sunday. you have to bring overwhelming amounts of evidence and proof into court, so that you leave the judge no option but to rule in your favor. Easier said than done, certainly, but now is not the time to become complacent or substitute hope for effort. Spare no expense to preserve your joint equal physical custody award. A necessary component of a winning case is that you are living a life beyond reproach. Get your house in order. If there is anything remotely amiss in your life, correct course immediately, clearly, and permanently.

Fourth, make sure you understand and that your attorney understands what statutory and case law factors and criteria govern the original child custody award and a petition to modify the original child custody award. It may be that your ex does not have sufficient grounds for a petition to modify child custody to survive a motion to dismiss.

Fifth and finally, do not take on a petition to modify child custody alone, without a vigilant and skilled attorneys assistance. There is an undeniable culture of bias and discrimination and prejudice against fathers when it comes to courts making child custody awards. This doesn’t mean that every judge in every court indulges in sexual discrimination against father, but it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference between an impartial judge and a biased one, and so you need an attorney who will not suffer fools gladly, who will defend the joint equal custody award.

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

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Does a spouse have the right to see a DUI report?

Does a spouse have the right to see a DUI report?

First, if you are referring to a police report of a DUI citation and/or arrest, in most jurisdictions such records are public record, and thus available not only to your spouse, but to any other member of the public.

Second, if the question of whether you were cited and/or convicted of DUI arises in a divorce or child custody case because your spouse and/or the court has determined that alcohol or other substance abuse concerns are relevant to the child custody award or alimony award or other issues, then even if your DUI report were not already public record, it would likely be discoverable in the course of litigating the case and preparing for trial, so that both your spouse and the court would have that information available to them when arguing over which parent should receive child custody and/or how much time each parent should spend with the parties’ children, whether alimony should be tempered by your substance and/or spousal abuse history, etc.

Bottom line: records of a citation for, arrest for, conviction of, and or incarceration resulting from DUI are almost certainly discoverable in most divorce and child custody cases.

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

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Can a mother lose custody even if the child is still very young?

Can a mother lose custody even if the child is still very young?

Are there any situations where a mother can lose custody even if their child is still very young (e.g., under 5 years old)?

Oh, heck yeah. Many possible situations. Rather than identify all the various ways that a mother of a young child could lose or not be awarded sole or primary custody of that child or children, let’s just examine the basis for determining whether a parent keeps, wins, or is deprived of custody of a child. All states have slightly different criteria but these criteria all come down to this: parental fitness.

Parental fitness is evaluated in the contexts of a parent’s desire and ability to provide for the child’s physical and emotional needs and welfare.

In Utah, where I practice family law and go to hearings and trials over child custody disputes, the factors the court must consider and factors that the court can consider when determining whether to award sole or joint custody are contained in these sections of the Utah Code and the Utah Rules of Judicial Administration:

Utah Code § 30–3–10:

(a) evidence of domestic violence, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, involving the child, the parent, or a household member of the parent;

(b) the parent’s demonstrated understanding of, responsiveness to, and ability to meet the developmental needs of the child, including the child’s:

(i) physical needs;

(ii) emotional needs;

(iii) educational needs;

(iv) medical needs; and

(v) any special needs;

(c) the parent’s capacity and willingness to function as a parent, including:

(i) parenting skills;

(ii) co-parenting skills, including:

(A) ability to appropriately communicate with the other parent;

(B) ability to encourage the sharing of love and affection; and

(C) willingness to allow frequent and continuous contact between the child and the other parent, except that, if the court determines that the parent is acting to protect the child from domestic violence, neglect, or abuse, the parent’s protective actions may be taken into consideration; and

(iii) ability to provide personal care rather than surrogate care;

(d) in accordance with Subsection (10), the past conduct and demonstrated moral character of the parent;

(e) the emotional stability of the parent;

(f) the parent’s inability to function as a parent because of drug abuse, excessive drinking, or other causes;

(g) whether the parent has intentionally exposed the child to pornography or material harmful to minors, as “material” and “harmful to minors” are defined in Section 76-10-1201;

(h) the parent’s reasons for having relinquished custody or parent-time in the past;

(i) duration and depth of desire for custody or parent-time;

(j) the parent’s religious compatibility with the child;

(k) the parent’s financial responsibility;

(l) the child’s interaction and relationship with step-parents, extended family members of other individuals who may significantly affect the child’s best interests;

(m) who has been the primary caretaker of the child;

(n) previous parenting arrangements in which the child has been happy and well-adjusted in the home, school, and community;

(o) the relative benefit of keeping siblings together;

(p) the stated wishes and concerns of the child, taking into consideration the child’s cognitive ability and emotional maturity;

(q) the relative strength of the child’s bond with the parent, meaning the depth, quality, and nature of the relationship between the parent and the child; and

(r) any other factor the court finds relevant.

Utah Code §30–3–10.2:

(a) whether the physical, psychological, and emotional needs and development of the child will benefit from joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both;

(b) the ability of the parents to give first priority to the welfare of the child and reach shared decisions in the child’s best interest;

(c) co-parenting skills, including:

(i) ability to appropriately communicate with the other parent;

(ii) ability to encourage the sharing of love and affection; and

(iii) willingness to allow frequent and continuous contact between the child and the other parent, except that, if the court determines that the parent is acting to protect the child from domestic violence, neglect, or abuse, the parent’s protective actions may be taken into consideration; and

(d) whether both parents participated in raising the child before the divorce;

(e) the geographical proximity of the homes of the parents;

(f) the preference of the child if the child is of sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent preference as to joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both;

(g) the maturity of the parents and their willingness and ability to protect the child from conflict that may arise between the parents;

(h) the past and present ability of the parents to cooperate with each other and make decisions jointly; and

(i) any other factor the court finds relevant.

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

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What policies and factors determine how child support is calculated?

What policies and factors determine how child support is calculated?

This is a good question and a question that many parents ask.

Every state in U.S. has child support calculation guidelines and formulae to determine which parent pays child support and how much child support that parent will pay. Each state’s child support calculation guidelines utilizes or is based upon one of three different models:

  • Income Shares Model
  • Percentage of Income Model
  • The Melson Formula

Under the Income Shares Model, each parent is responsible for a portion of the amount of financial support a child needs to maintain the lifestyle the child would have had the parents were not separated. The Income Shares Model relies upon knowing each parent’s to calculate the support award. The parent with the lower income of the two parents will receive a monthly child support payment from the other parent. This amount is known as the base child support award.

The Percentage of Obligor Income Model utilizes the obligor parent’s income only in calculating child support. Many (though not all) Percentage of Obligor Income guidelines assume that the support payee parent’s child-rearing costs are the same dollar amount or percentage of income as the obligor parent’s child-rearing costs. The Income Shares Model considers the incomes of both parents. The Percentage of Obligor Income Model does not factor in the custodial parent’s income in calculating the support award amount.

The Melson Formula[1] is different from the other two models. Rather than calculating child support based upon parental incomes, it first considers the basic needs of the child and each parent before determining whether and how much child support the obligor parent can and will pay.

This July 10, 2020 article from the National Conference of State Legislatures [click the link to access the article] provides a list of links to the child support calculation guidelines for every state and Washington D.C. in the U.S., as well as the Guan and Virgin Islands territories

Note: legislation, regulations, and caselaw governing child support policy and calculation change, so be sure you know both A) what your jurisdiction’s current child support guidelines are and B) how to use apply them correctly and accurately when calculating child support.

Income Shares Model

• Alabama • Arizona • Arkansas • California • Colorado • Connecticut • Florida • Georgia • Idaho • Illinois • Indiana • Iowa • Kansas • Kentucky • Louisiana • Maine • Maryland •  Massachusetts • Michigan • Minnesota • Missouri • Nebraska • New Hampshire • New Jersey • New Mexico • New York • North Carolina • Ohio • Oklahoma • Oregon • Pennsylvania • Rhode Island • South Carolina • South Dakota • Tennessee • Utah • Vermont • Virginia • Washington • West Virginia • Wyoming (also • Guam • Virgin Islands)

Percentage of Income Model (this model has two variations: the Flat Percentage Model and the Varying Percentage Model)

Percentage of Income Model

• Alaska • Mississippi • Nevada • North Dakota • Texas • Wisconsin

Flat Percentage Model

Alaska • Mississippi • Nevada • Wisconsin

Varying Percentage Model

• North Dakota • Texas

Melson Formula

• Delaware • Hawaii • Montana

According to the July 10, 2020 NCSL article the District of Columbia uses a hybrid model that starts as a varying percentage of income model and is then reduced by a formula based on the custodial parent’s income.

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

[1] Named from the Delaware Family Court judge who articulated the formula in Dalton v. Clanton, 559 A.2d 1197 (Del. 1989).

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Why do I pay child support if we have joint custody and we both work?

I know two people that separated and share custody and both have jobs yet he pays child support? How does this work?

This is a great question and a question that many parents ask. I will answer it using the law that applies in the jurisdiction where I practice law (Utah).

Some believe that if child custody is equally awarded to/shared between the parents, so that the children spend as many overnights with one parent as they do with the other, that neither parent pays the other child support. This is not true.

In a nutshell, the amount of child support a parent who shares joint equal physical custody of their children is not determined by the number of overnights the children have with that parent but by income.

If one of the two joint equal custodial parents earns more than the other, that parent will end up paying some child support. Here is how it works:

Add the father’s and mother’s gross monthly income to determine the combined gross monthly income of the parents.

Then find out what the parents’ combined child support obligation is using the child support tables in the Utah Code.

So if Mom and Dad have two kids and earn a combined total of $7,100 per month, their combined child support obligation for two kids would be $1,413 per month.

Next, you determine what percentage of the combined gross monthly income each parent has earned. So let’s say that Mom earns 20% of the combined parental income and Dad earns 80%. That would mean Mom earns a gross monthly income $1,420 per month and Dad earns a gross monthly income of $5,680.

If you stopped here and awarded child support on a sole custody basis, and if Dad were the noncustodial parent (Dad almost always is when there isn’t joint custody, but I digress) the noncustodial parent would pay 80% of the combined parental child support obligation of $1,413 per month. 80% of $1,413 is $1,130.

Now with joint equal custody, you take an additional step before your child support calculations are complete. Specifically, you account for the fact that each parent has the children in his/her custody an equal number of overnights, which means that, unlike a noncustodial parent situation, the children are spending more time in Dad’s care and custody, meaning they eat more of his food and use more of his water and he has to provide more in the way of heating and bedding, etc. The financial burdens of parenthood do not fall primarily on one parent’s shoulders or the other, and so the amount of money that Dad pays in child support becomes essentially only a function of the disparities in the parents’ respective incomes and not so much a function of how many overnights the children spend with each parent. This is why, if the Dad in our hypothetical scenario had joint equal custody his child support obligation of between $411 and $437, instead of a noncustodial child support obligation of $1,130.

Utah Office of Recovery Services Child Support Calculator – (utah.gov)

Utah Code Chapter 78B-12. Utah Child Support Act

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

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Do parents who share joint equal custody pay child support?

Do parents who share joint equal physical custody of their children pay child support?

If my spouse and I were to agree to share joint equal physical custody (50-50) of our child or children, would one of us still end up being ordered to pay child support to the other? If so, why? And how?

This is a good question and a question that many parents ask.

Some believe that if child custody is equally awarded to/shared between the parents, so that the children spend as many overnights with one parent as they do with the other, that neither parent pays the other child support. This is not true.

In a nutshell, whether a joint equal physical custody parent pays child support is not determined solely by the number of overnights the children have with that parent but by each parent’s income.

In a nutshell, the amount of child support a parent who shares joint equal physical custody of their children is not determined solely by the number of overnights the children have with that parent but by a combination of overnights with each parent and analysis of each parent’s income.

Generally speaking, unless the parents agree to a different arrangement and the court approves that arrangement, if one of the two joint equal custodial parents earns more than the other, that parent will end up paying some child support.

Every state in U.S. has child support calculation guidelines and formulae to determine which parent pays child support and how much child support that parent will pay.

Legislation, regulations, and caselaw governing child support policy and calculation change, so be sure you know both A) what your jurisdiction’s current child support guidelines are and B) how to use apply them correctly and accurately when calculating child support.

This July 10, 2020 article from the National Conference of State Legislatures [click the link to access the article] provides a list of links to the child support calculation guidelines for every state and Washington D.C. in the U.S., as well as the Guan and Virgin Islands territories.

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

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