Category: Negotiation

Blanket prohibitions on child testimony in custody and parent-time disputes are irrational and irresponsible

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

But we must also acknowledge that:

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

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

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

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

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

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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Special masters, parent coordinators, and the infantilization of parents

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

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

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

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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What Must the Juvenile Court Consider on a Petition to Terminate a Parent’s Parental Rights?

Before terminating a parent’s rights, the court must find that termination is “strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest.” This analysis must be undertaken from the child’s point of view. Utah law provides that termination is strictly necessary only when, after exploring possible placements for the child, the juvenile court concludes that no other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights. If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination (such as permanent custody and guardianship awarded to someone other than the parent or parents), termination is thus not strictly necessary. The strictly necessary analysis is designed to ensure that the court pause long enough to thoughtfully consider the range of available options that could promote the child’s welfare and best interest. If a court has complied with its statutory obligations, its resultant best interest determination is entitled to deference by an appellate court. Long-term guardianship arrangements are typically only in a child’s best interest where the guardians and the parent have a working, relatively healthy relationship in which they are both willing to work together to preserve the parent-child relationship and where the child has a healthy relationship with both the guardian and the parent. Thus, when a parent and potential guardian have little to no relationship, the particular circumstances of the case may indicate that permanent custody and guardianship will not meet the children’s needs as well as termination of parental rights. This post is a summary of the law as stated in the recent Utah Court of Appeals opinion in the case of  In re K.R. – 2023 UT App 75 (filed July 13, 2023).

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As a Joint Legal and Physical Custodial Parent, Can I Legally Prevent the Other Parent From Going on a Vacation (Either Out of State or Out of the Country) With Our Child or Children?

Unless a court were to order that a parent was barred from traveling out of state or out of the country with the children on vacation, a joint legal and custodial parent has an unfettered right to travel with the children out of state or out of the country on vacation, even if the other parent objects. Of course, if a parent wanted to travel somewhere that is clearly dangerous for anyone or clearly dangerous or deleterious to the children given their age or other relevant factors, a parent could object to traveling there with the children on that basis, but you’ll notice that the basis of the objection wouldn’t be “I don’t want the children traveling there with you” but an objection based upon placing the children in harm’s way. Otherwise stated, if the other parent simply doesn’t like the idea of you traveling out of state or out of the country with the children, that alone would not be a sufficient basis to prevent the children from traveling there.

Now at the beginning of this post I stated that unless a court were to order that a parent was barred from traveling out of state or out of the country with the children, a joint legal and custodial parent has an unfettered right to travel with the children out of state or out of the country, even if the other parent objects. Such an order would be very hard to come by.

Parents have a constitutional right to travel freely, and thus a constitutional right to travel freely with their children if they have sole or joint custody of those children. For a court’s order barring or restricting travel to survive and appeal and be legally enforceable, the court would have to have very good reasons for restricting a parent’s right to travel with the children, such as a parent having abducted or attempted to abduct the children in the past, that parent’s effort to abscond with and conceal the children from the other parent, whether the parent is a flight risk, the parent’s history of interfering with parent-time or visitation, and failure to provide required notices in advance of travel with the children.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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Taylor v. Taylor – 2022 UT 35 – Divorce Arbitration








No. 20191090

Heard: April 13, 2022

Filed August 18, 2022

On Certification from the Court of Appeals

Third District, Summit County

The Honorable Teresa Welch

No. 174500181


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

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

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE authored the opinion of the Court,


and JUDGE HARRIS joined.

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



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




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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


  2. Utah Law Does Not Permit David to Contest the Validity
    of the Arbitration Agreement After He Participated in
    Arbitration Without Objection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Divorce Cases Are Arbitrable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

¶66 We reversed the trial court. We explained,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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Are older lawyers better?

Are older lawyers better?

If by “older” you mean lawyers who are not fresh out of law school, the answer is: almost always yes.

They don’t teach you how to practice law in law school, they teach you how to read, research, understand, and interpret the law in law school. Law schools are getting better at providing more “clinical” experiences to law students, but law students fresh out of law school typically don’t know how to draft pleadings, prepare a case, negotiate a good settlement, and argue a case in court. I didn’t when I passed the bar. I had to learn all that through “on the job training”.

Some law students get clerkships or internships during law school that do a superb job of showing these student the ropes, so that by the time they pass the bar they have one or two years’ real-world experience in the practice of law. And some other law students are just so naturally talented and driven and autodidactic that they take to learning the practice of law like a duck takes to water.

Some say that attorneys need about 5-7 years in full-time practice before they really know what they are doing. I think that’s a good rule of thumb. Don’t pass over the less experienced prodigies if you can find them, however (and finding them will take some effort on your part). Exceptional newbies are the best value because they’re skilled yet priced lower than attorneys who have been in practice longer (notice my choice of words here: “been in practice longer” is not synonymous with “more experienced”; simply having a law license year over year doesn’t make you a skilled lawyer, so find out how active an attorney is before choosing on the basis of how long he/she got his/her law license. An attorney who has been licensed for 15 years and has no clients isn’t likely a good choice).

If by “older” you mean lawyers who are a few years short of retirement or death, then the answer is: almost always no. As with many activities, the effective practice of law is not for the old and infirm. If you don’t have the stamina to do the reading and writing and court appearances, you’re almost surely going to lose the case. Attorneys who are so old they’re forgetting details are not going to do your case any favors. Moreover, a lot of very old attorneys get jaded or complacent, lacking that fire in the belly that they need to have to motivate them to do their best work. They start coasting on their “experience,” letting their paralegal and office staff handle more and more of a case, rather than putting in the work your case needs to succeed.

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

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When a lawyer drops a client, is the reason shared with the judge and/or opposing counsel (i.e., the client refused to be reasonable, etc.)?

When a lawyer drops a client, is the reason shared with the judge and/or opposing counsel (i.e., the client refused to be reasonable, etc.)?

In Utah, where I practice divorce and family law, the answer is: no.

When a lawyer drops a client/stops representing a client (known as “withdrawing as counsel” for that client), the lawyer is not permitted to inform the judge or opposing counsel as to the reasons why. This is due to the attorney’s duties to keep confidential 1) the communications between attorney and client and 2) the information relating to the representation of the client. See Utah Supreme Court Rules of Professional Conduct:

Rule 1.16(d):

(d) Upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall take steps to the extent reasonably practicable to protect a client’s interests[.]”

Rule 1.6. Confidentiality of Information.

(a) A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation or the disclosure is permitted by paragraph (b).

(b) A lawyer may reveal information relating to the representation of a client to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary:

(b)(1) to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm;

(b)(2) to prevent the client from committing a crime or fraud that is reasonably certain to result in substantial injury to the financial interests or property of another and in furtherance of which the client has used or is using the lawyer’s services;

(b)(3) to prevent, mitigate or rectify substantial injury to the financial interests or property of another that is reasonably certain to result or has resulted from the client’s commission of a crime or fraud in furtherance of which the client has used the lawyer’s services;

(b)(4) to secure legal advice about the lawyer’s compliance with these Rules;

(b)(5) to establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client, to establish a defense to a criminal charge or civil claim against the lawyer based upon conduct in which the client was involved, or to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client;

(b)(6) to comply with other law or a court order; or

(b)(7) to detect and resolve conflicts of interest arising from the lawyer’s change of employment or from changes in the composition or ownership of a firm, but only if the revealed information would not compromise the attorney-client privilege or otherwise prejudice the client.

(c) A lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client.

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

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Some trade-offs are unavoidable

From Seth Godin:

The magic of trade-offs

If you make a laptop more powerful, the battery life will suffer and it will get heavier too.


If you make a plane bigger, it won’t land at every airport, and it will cost more to fly, even if you don’t sell all the seats.

Another set of trade-offs.

Good engineers don’t whine about trade-offs, because they realize that they’re the entire point.

If there were no trade-offs, we wouldn’t need their help, there would be no interesting problems worth solving.

In our work and our lives, we can train ourselves to say, “oh, good, an interesting trade-off.”

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

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How can I turn arguments into negotiations and agreement?

How can I turn arguments into negotiations and agreement?

If you could only read and apply one book on the subject, I would recommend “Start with No,” by Jim Camp.

Here is the link to buy the printed book on Amazon

Here is the link to the audio book on Audible

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

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How much does a collaborative divorce cost?

How much does a collaborative divorce cost?

Too much, generally. Odds are that if you attempt to settle your divorce through what is called the “collaborative law” process your experience will be a negative one and/or one that cost you far more in time and money and effort than it should have.

Truly collaborative divorce is, in practice, a sham more often than not.

Most collaborative lawyers are all hat and no cattle, selling the sizzle and not a steak. With rare exception, most attorneys who call themselves “collaborative lawyers” do so for the sole purpose of exploiting what they believe to be a lucrative trend, not to be real collaborators.

Forewarned is forearmed.

Collaborative divorce is one of those things that sounds great in concept but doesn’t translate to real world success. Even the most enthusiastic and vocal (and honest) proponents of collaborative divorce will tell you this (please read on to find out who and why).

I was recently asked why collaborative law is not utilized more in divorce cases, and while I had my own ideas for how to answer the question, I wanted to refer to someone with more expertise and a greater understanding of the subject than I do, to make sure that I did not misstate 1) the correct definition of collaborative law; and 2) did not misstate the strengths and weaknesses of collaborative law as it is practiced in the real world today.

As I searched the web for such an article, I found a few that summarized what I was thinking, but I still felt did not accurately describe what real collaborative law is or why collaborative law practice so often fails to be practiced correctly. I knew that I still did not myself have a correct definition or correct understanding of collaborative law.

Then I came across ‘Collaborative Divorce’ Is Collaborative in Name Only. The author of this article, Mark Baer, hit the nail on the head when you said that what many people describe as “collaborative law” is in fact “cooperative law”.

The article laments “a collaborative law community that seems more intent on patting itself on the back and devising a way for all of us to make more money than in really helping our clients.” Again, it hits the nail squarely on the head.

Human nature being what it is, most people won’t exercise the patience or take the leap of faith needed for collaborative law to function properly. That’s a shame, but Mr. Baer’s article neatly summarizes why this is.

The real power of collaborative law practice, ADR, mediation, etc. is wasted and/or never realized when people don’t understand that the real power lies in mutual benefit as the goal. While mediation may still be better than litigation, if the main benefits are compromise obtained through conflict avoidance, the disputants “left money on the table” both literally and figuratively (i.e., emotionally and spiritually).

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

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2019 UT App 207 – Peeples v. Peeples – modification of child custody



No. 20180713-CA
Filed December 19, 2019

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable Andrew H. Stone
No. 044901980

Brian Boggess, Attorney for Appellant
Adam L. Peeples, Appellee Pro Se

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

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1           Annaleise T. Peeples (Mother) asked the district court to modify her divorce decree to give her sole custody of her two teenage daughters, but the district court refused, determining that Mother had failed to demonstrate any substantial change in the circumstances underlying the original decree. Mother now appeals the district court’s order dismissing her petition to modify, and we affirm.


¶2           In 2004, after about three-and-a-half years of marriage, Adam Legrande Peeples (Father) filed for divorce from Mother, citing irreconcilable differences. Around the same time, Father also sought and obtained a protective order against Mother, asserting that Mother had been physically abusive to him; that protective order awarded temporary custody of the parties’ two young daughters to Father. The parties were each represented by counsel in both the divorce and the protective order proceedings, and because of the allegations of physical abuse, the court also appointed a guardian ad litem to represent the best interests of the two children. Early in the divorce case, all parties and counsel appeared before a domestic relations commissioner to discuss the parties’ motions for temporary orders. Following that hearing, the commissioner entered a temporary order, later countersigned by the assigned trial judge, awarding temporary custody of the children to Father, as the protective order did, with Mother receiving parent-time.

¶3           As the divorce proceedings progressed, the district court appointed a custody evaluator to make a recommendation to the court. While the custody evaluation was ongoing, the court entered a stipulated bifurcated decree of divorce in 2005, severing the parties’ marital union but reserving all other issues, including custody and parent-time, for further proceedings. In 2007, Mother filed her first motion for a change in custody, alleging that the temporary order giving custody to Father was unworkable because Mother lived in northern Utah County and Father lived in Salt Lake County, and because Father had “moved three times in three years and has not demonstrated stability.” Father objected, and after briefing and oral argument, the commissioner denied Mother’s motion.

¶4           In October 2007, soon after the commissioner denied Mother’s motion for a change in temporary custody, the parties and counsel participated in a settlement conference with the custody evaluator, at which the evaluator orally shared with the parties his recommendation: that primary physical custody remain with Father. At a hearing in December 2007, the guardian ad litem informed the court that he agreed with the custody evaluator’s recommendation. At that same hearing, the district court set a date for a bench trial to resolve all remaining issues.

¶5           Following the commissioner’s ruling on Mother’s motion and the court’s decision to set a trial date, as well as the revelation of the recommendations made by the custody evaluator and the guardian ad litem, the parties and their counsel entered into negotiations, and were able to resolve the remaining issues by stipulation. On April 28, 2008, after more than four years of divorce litigation, the court entered a stipulated amended decree of divorce, awarding the parties “joint legal custody” of the children, but awarding Father “primary physical custody.” Mother was to have “liberal parenting time” amounting to five out of every fourteen overnights during the school year, with the schedule to be “reversed” during the summertime.

¶6           Perhaps not surprisingly, given the nature and tone of the four years of pre-decree litigation, entry of the final divorce decree did not end the divisiveness and discord between these parties. About a year-and-a-half after the amended decree was entered, Mother filed a petition to modify, seeking amendments to the parent-time provisions of the decree. Mother alleged that circumstances had changed substantially since the entry of the decree because Father had enrolled the children in year-round school, rendering certain of the decree’s provisions unworkable, and because Father had violated the decree in numerous particulars. Father responded by filing a cross-petition to modify, seeking sole legal and physical custody. After further proceedings, the district court declined to modify the original divorce decree, and denied the parties’ dueling petitions.

¶7           A few years later, in 2013, Mother filed the instant petition to modify, this time seeking sole physical custody of the children. Mother asserted that circumstances had changed in three specific ways. First, she contended that Father had been “unable to provide a stable home environment” and find “stable employment.” Second, she contended that Father had “denied [her] physical visitation” to which she was entitled pursuant to the decree. Third, she contended that Father had “become violent with other people” and that “the children [had] been emotionally abused.”

¶8           Soon after the filing of Mother’s 2013 petition to modify, the parties agreed to have another custody evaluation done. After some procedural wrangling about the identity of the evaluator, the court finally appointed one, and the new evaluator interviewed the parties and the children in the fall of 2015. In January 2016, the evaluator shared her recommendation with the parties’ attorneys: that Mother be awarded sole physical custody, with Father to receive “standard minimum parent time.” Soon thereafter, the court appointed a different guardian ad litem (GAL) to represent the best interests of the children during the proceedings on the petition to modify.

¶9           From there, it took over a year to get to trial on the petition to modify; trial eventually took place over two days in December 2017. Just a few days before trial was to begin, the GAL issued a report containing his recommendations. Unlike the custody evaluator, the GAL recommended that the custody arrangement remain unchanged, with Father retaining primary physical custody. He explained that, while he understood the evaluator’s “rationale for recommending a change in custody at the time [the] evaluation was performed, over two years [had] passed” since the evaluator conducted her interviews, and he expressed his view that the information on which the evaluator based her conclusions was outdated.

¶10         At trial, Mother (as the petitioner on the petition to modify) presented her case first, and called three witnesses over the first day-and-a-half of trial: herself, Father, and the custody evaluator. At the conclusion of Mother’s case-in-chief, Father made an oral motion to dismiss the petition to modify, arguing that Mother failed to “meet her burden to prove that a significant change in circumstances has taken place.” After hearing argument from both sides, as well as from the GAL, the court granted Father’s motion. The court explained that Father’s relative instability had been constant since before the decree was entered, and therefore was not a change in circumstances; that any violations by Father of the terms of the decree could be resolved in contempt proceedings, and—especially in a case in which “[t]he parties have been in constant conflict since their separation and likely before”—that those violations did not rise to the level of unworkability that would constitute a change in circumstances; and found that there had not been any violence or emotional abuse. The court noted that the parties had been fighting over custody for some thirteen years, and that the fighting had been fairly constant. The court stated that, in such a “high-conflict” case, “if anything, the need to show a change in circumstances [is] even stronger,” and “the need for a permanent decree . . . that people can rely on . . . is that much greater.” A few weeks later, the court entered a written order, drafted by Father’s counsel, dismissing Mother’s petition to modify; that order contained a provision stating that, “[i]n a high conflict divorce such as this one, the need for finality is even greater and therefore the burden to show a material and significant change in circumstances should be higher than normal.”


¶11         Mother now appeals from the district court’s order dismissing her petition to modify. When reviewing such a decision, we review the district court’s underlying findings of fact, if any, for clear error, see Vaughan v. Romander, 2015 UT App 244, ¶ 7, 360 P.3d 761, and we review for abuse of discretion its ultimate determination regarding the presence or absence of a substantial change in circumstances, see Doyle v. Doyle, 2009 UT App 306, ¶ 7, 221 P.3d 888, aff’d, 2011 UT 42, 258 P.3d 553. The district court’s choice of legal standard, however, presents an issue of law that we review for correctness. See id. ¶ 6.


¶12         Mother challenges the district court’s dismissal of her petition to modify on two general grounds. First, she contends that the district court employed an incorrect (and overly strict) legal standard in determining whether circumstances had changed sufficiently to justify reopening the governing custody order. Specifically, she asserts that the court did not properly take into account the fact that the decree at issue was stipulated rather than adjudicated, and she takes issue with the statement in the court’s written order that, in “high conflict” cases, the burden of demonstrating a change in circumstances is “higher than normal.” Second, Mother contends that the district court abused its discretion in determining, on the facts of this case, that no substantial and material change in circumstances existed. We address each of these contentions in turn.


¶13         Under Utah law, petitions to modify custody orders are governed by a two-part test:

A court order modifying . . . an existing joint legal custody or joint physical custody order shall contain written findings that: (i) a material and substantial change of circumstance has occurred; and (ii) a modification . . . would be an improvement for and in the best interest of the child.

Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.4(2)(b) (LexisNexis Supp. 2019). Because “[t]he required finding of a material and substantial change of circumstances is statutory, . . . [n]either this court nor the supreme court has purported to—or could—alter that requirement.” Zavala v. Zavala, 2016 UT App 6, ¶ 16, 366 P.3d 422; see also Doyle v. Doyle, 2011 UT 42, ¶ 38, 258 P.3d 553 (“Even an overwhelming case for the best interest of the child could not compensate for a lack of proof of a change in circumstances.”). Thus, “only if a substantial change of circumstances is found should the [district] court consider whether a change of custody is appropriate given the child’s best interests.” Wright v. Wright, 941 P.2d 646, 651 (Utah Ct. App. 1997) (quotation simplified).

¶14         This statutory requirement that a substantial change in circumstances be present before a court may modify a custody order serves two important ends. “First, the emotional, intellectual, and moral development of a child depends upon a reasonable degree of stability.” Elmer v. Elmer, 776 P.2d 599, 602 (Utah 1989). We have previously noted the “deleterious effects of ‘ping-pong’ custody awards” that subject children to ever-changing custody arrangements. See Taylor v. Elison, 2011 UT App 272, ¶ 13, 263 P.3d 448 (quotation simplified). Second, the requirement “is based in the principles of res judicata,” as “courts typically favor the one-time adjudication of a matter to prevent the undue burdening of the courts and the harassing of parties by repetitive actions.” Id. (quotation simplified); see also Zavala, 2016 UT App 6, ¶ 16 (stating that the statutory change-in­circumstances requirement is “a legislative expression of the principle of res judicata”).

¶15         The change-in-circumstances requirement is itself comprised of two parts. In order to satisfy it, “the party seeking modification must demonstrate (1) that since the time of the previous decree, there have been changes in the circumstances upon which the previous award was based; and (2) that those changes are sufficiently substantial and material to justify reopening the question of custody.” Hogge v. Hogge, 649 P.2d 51, 54 (Utah 1982). In this context, however, our case law has drawn something of a distinction between adjudicated custody decrees and stipulated custody decrees, recognizing that “an unadjudicated custody decree” is not necessarily “based on an objective, impartial determination of the best interests of the child,” and therefore the res judicata policies “underlying the changed-circumstances rule [are] at a particularly low ebb.” See Taylor, 2011 UT App 272, ¶ 14 (quotation simplified). In Zavala, we clarified that the change-in-circumstances requirement still applies even in cases involving stipulated (as opposed to adjudicated) custody orders, although we acknowledged that, in some cases, “a lesser showing” of changed circumstances may “support modifying a stipulated award than would be required to modify an adjudicated award.” See 2016 UT App 6, ¶ 17.

¶16         In this case, the court did not specifically discuss the distinction our case law has drawn between stipulated and adjudicated decrees, or the extent to which this decree should be considered stipulated or adjudicated. The court simply applied the change-in-circumstances requirement and found it not met on the facts of this case. In one recent case, we found no error under similar circumstances. See Erickson v. Erickson, 2018 UT App 184, ¶ 21, 437 P.3d 370 (declining to reverse a district court’s determination that no substantial and material change in circumstances had been shown, despite the fact that the district court did not specifically consider “the fact that the underlying custody award was based on a stipulated agreement”).

¶17         But more to the point, we think it unhelpful to view the adjudicated/stipulated dichotomy as entirely binary; instead, in assessing how much “lesser” a showing might be required to satisfy the change-in-circumstances requirement, see Zavala, 2016 UT App 6, ¶ 17, courts should examine the origin of the order in question and analyze the extent to which the order—even if stipulated—reflects the result of robustly contested litigation aimed at ascertaining the best interest of the child.

¶18         We discern no error here, even though the district court did not expressly discuss the origin of the custody decree at issue, because the decree—although entered as a result of a negotiated settlement—was more akin to an adjudicated decree than a non-adjudicated decree. Here, the decree was finalized in April 2008, after more than four years of litigation between the parties, during which both parties were represented by counsel the entire time. The parties had fully litigated not only motions for protective orders, which involved custody determinations made by a court, but also motions for temporary orders before the court commissioner and the district court wherein temporary custody determinations were made. Moreover, the court had appointed a guardian ad litem to represent the children, and in addition a full evaluation had been performed by a neutral court-appointed custody evaluator. The parties did not reach their negotiated settlement in this case until after they had received input from not only the custody evaluator and the guardian ad litem, but also from the commissioner and the court during the temporary orders process. By the time the settlement was reached, four years of litigation had passed and a trial date had been set. In the end, the decree encapsulated, for the most part, the recommendations made by the guardian ad litem and the custody evaluator, and memorialized an arrangement very similar to the one previously ordered by the court on a temporary basis.

¶19         We certainly recognize the potential for injustice with certain types of stipulated custody orders; indeed, this is part of the reason why courts, when considering petitions to modify, retain the flexibility to be less deferential to stipulated custody orders. See Taylor, 2011 UT App 272, ¶ 14 (stating that unadjudicated custody decrees “may in fact be at odds with the best interests of the child” (quotation simplified)). Depending on the situation, our confidence that a stipulated custody decree—at least one that is submitted to the court before receipt of input from judicial officers during the temporary orders process or from custody evaluators or guardians ad litem—will actually be in keeping with the best interest of the child may be comparatively low, especially where neither side is represented by counsel (or, potentially more concerning, when only one side is represented by counsel). Inequalities in negotiating power or financial resources can sometimes result in one parent agreeing to conditions by stipulation that may not be in the long-term best interest of the child.

¶20         But such concerns are not present in a case like this one, where the parties reached a negotiated agreement after fully and robustly participating in the litigation process, with lawyers, for more than four years. The terms of the negotiated custody decree in this case—entered on the eve of a scheduled trial—did not substantially deviate from the terms of the temporary custody order imposed by the court, and were heavily influenced by the recommendations of both the custody evaluator and the guardian ad litem. In this case, therefore, we have relatively high confidence that the custody order was in line with the best interests of the children. Accordingly, we discern no error in the district court’s decision to apply the change-in-circumstances requirement without watering it down to account for the fact that the custody order in question was, technically speaking, stipulated.

¶21         We are more concerned, however, with the district court’s statement in its written order that, in “high conflict” cases, “the burden to show a material and significant change in circumstances should be higher than normal.” The district court offered no citation to any authority supporting this principle in our case law, and we are aware of none. We take this opportunity to clarify that there is no separate standard that courts are to apply in high-conflict cases when considering whether a substantial change of circumstances is present in the context of a petition to modify. Nevertheless, we are not persuaded that the district court’s statement made a material difference to its analysis in this case. In context, especially after reviewing the court’s oral ruling, we view the court’s statement as simply acknowledging that, in high-conflict divorce cases, parties are perhaps more willing to seek modification more often, and that the danger of “ping-pong” custody awards in those cases is therefore proportionately higher.

¶22         In the end, we are convinced, after a review of the full record, that the district court applied the proper two-step analysis to determine whether a substantial and material change in circumstances occurred here. First, the court analyzed whether, “since the time of the previous decree, there have been changes in the circumstances upon which the previous award was based.” See Hogge, 649 P.2d at 54. Second, the court analyzed whether “those changes are sufficiently substantial and material to justify reopening the question of custody.” See id. Because we conclude that the court applied the proper test, we now proceed to analyze whether the court abused its discretion in its application of that test.


¶23         In her petition to modify, Mother pointed to three things that she believed led to a substantial and material change in circumstances. First, she contended that Father had been “unable to provide a stable home environment” and find “stable employment.” Second, she contended that Father had “denied [her] physical visitation” to which she was entitled pursuant to the decree. Third, she contended that Father had “become violent with other people” and that “the children have been emotionally abused.” After hearing evidence for a day-and-a-half, the district court concluded that these things did not constitute a substantial and material change in circumstances, finding either that they were occurring, at most, infrequently, or that they had been occurring throughout the litigation and therefore could not constitute a change in circumstances. We conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion in making that determination.


¶24         Mother’s first contention was that Father had “been unable to provide a stable home environment” for the children because he had “been evicted from several residences” resulting in the children having to change schools a number of times. In addition, Mother contended that Father had not “had stable employment for the last eight years.” The district court acknowledged that Mother had presented evidence that Father’s “income was questionable and [his] lifestyle was a little bit itinerant.” But the court noted in its oral ruling that this had been the case both “before and after the decree,” and that nothing had changed in this regard. In its written ruling, the court made a finding that it had “not received evidence that there has been a significant and material change in [Father’s] ability to provide the children with a stable home.”

¶25         It is unclear from Mother’s brief whether she even intends to challenge the district court’s factual findings, stating that her “appeal is primarily legal.” But in any event Mother has not carried her burden—if indeed she intended to shoulder that burden—of demonstrating that the court’s factual finding was clearly erroneous. As noted above, Mother alleged as early as 2007—in her pre-decree motion to alter the terms of the court’s temporary custody order—that Father had “moved three times in three years and has not demonstrated stability.” Despite Father’s itinerant nature, the first custody evaluator recommended that primary physical custody be awarded to Father, and the stipulated decree followed that recommendation. Presumably, all of that was taken into account during the litigation that preceded entry of the decree. Moreover, in her own petition to modify filed in 2013, Mother alleged that Father’s employment instability had been an issue “for the last eight years,” dating back to 2005, three years before entry of the decree. Issues that were present prior to the decree, and continue to be present in much the same way thereafter, do not represent a change in circumstances sufficient to justify the reopening of a custody decree. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3­ 10.4(2)(b)(i) (LexisNexis Supp. 2019) (requiring a “change of circumstance” before reopening a custody decree); see also Becker v. Becker, 694 P.2d 608, 610 (Utah 1984) (stating that the rationale behind the change-in-circumstances requirement “is that custody placements, once made, should be as stable as possible unless the factual basis for them has completely changed”). In the end, Mother has not shown that the district court’s finding—that Father’s employment instability and itinerant nature had been present the whole time and therefore did not constitute a substantial change in circumstances—was clearly erroneous.


¶26         Mother’s next contention was that Father failed on numerous occasions to facilitate parent-time as required under the divorce decree. The district court found that, while Father may have committed occasional violations of the terms of the decree, “[t]he court has not received evidence that any denial of physical visitation on the part of [Father] was systemic, deliberate, or pathogenic enough to satisfy the requirements of the law in reopening” the decree.

¶27         Ordinarily, when one parent commits a violation of the terms of a divorce decree, the other parent’s remedy lies in contempt. See Utah Code Ann. §§ 78B-6-301(5), -310 (LexisNexis 2018) (categorizing “disobedience of any lawful judgment [or] order” as “contempt[] of the authority of the court,” and authorizing courts to sanction violators); see also, e.g., Clarke v. Clarke, 2012 UT App 328, ¶¶ 24–31, 292 P.3d 76 (resolving one parent’s request for contempt sanctions against the other for asserted violations of a custody order). In most cases, violations of a custody order by one party will not constitute the type of substantial and material change in circumstances that will justify reexamining the propriety of the order. But if the violations are so numerous and pervasive that it becomes evident that the custody arrangement is “not functioning,” then a change in circumstances may have occurred. See Moody v. Moody, 715 P.2d 507, 509 (Utah 1985) (“[T]he nonfunctioning of a joint custody arrangement is clearly a substantial change in circumstances which justifies reopening the custody issue.”); see also Huish v. Munro, 2008 UT App 283, ¶ 13, 191 P.3d 1242 (same).

¶28         In this case, the district court, after hearing Mother’s evidence, made a factual finding that the evidence of Father’s potentially contemptuous behavior was not so overwhelming as to render the decree unworkable. The court noted that the parties had been “in constant conflict since their separation and likely before,” and that they were “still at war” thirteen years after their separation. The court found that, while Father may have violated the decree with regard to parent-time on a few occasions, Father’s violations were not “systemic, deliberate, or pathogenic enough to satisfy the requirements of the law in reopening” the decree.

¶29         As noted above, it is unclear if Mother even intends to challenge the district court’s factual findings, but in any event she has not demonstrated clear error here. The district court’s finding that the decree had not been rendered unworkable as the result of Father’s violations was supported by, among other evidence, the recommendation of the court-appointed GAL, who expressed the view that the custody arrangement was working well enough and should remain unchanged, and that “the children have maintained throughout these proceedings that they are happy with the current arrangement.” Mother has not demonstrated that the district court’s determination about the decree’s workability was clearly erroneous.


¶30         Mother’s final contention was that Father had “become violent with other people and the children have been emotionally abused.” After hearing the evidence, the district court found insufficient evidence that Father had been violent or that he had emotionally abused anyone. In her brief, Mother makes no serious effort to challenge this factual finding, and therefore we are unable to find any error therein.


¶31         Given that Mother has not mounted a successful challenge to any of the district court’s factual findings, all that remains is for us to examine whether, given these findings, the court abused its discretion in determining that no material and substantial change in circumstances had occurred. See Doyle v. Doyle, 2009 UT App 306, ¶ 7, 221 P.3d 888, aff’d, 2011 UT 42, 258 P.3d 553. And on this record, we have no trouble concluding that the court did not abuse its discretion in making that determination. Many of the issues identified by Mother in her petition—such as Father’s unstable employment and frequent change of residence—had been present from the outset of this case, and were present before the decree was entered; such ever-present conditions cannot constitute a change in circumstances sufficient to reopen a custody decree. Any issues Father had with complying with the terms of the decree were apparently not egregious or pervasive enough to render the custody arrangement unworkable. And the district court, after listening to a day-and-a-half of evidence, did not hear any evidence that Father had acted violently or abusively toward anyone.

¶32         Under these circumstances, the district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that Mother had not carried her burden of demonstrating a change in circumstances that was substantial and material enough to justify reexamining the parties’ longstanding custody arrangement. Because Mother did not satisfy the first part of the statutory test for obtaining a modification of a divorce decree, the district court did not err by dismissing her petition.


¶33         For all of the foregoing reasons, we affirm the district court’s dismissal of Mother’s petition to modify.

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

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Can you tell the judge to award no alimony if both parties agree and settle?

Well, you can’t dictate to your judge as to what your judge will do, but if you and your spouse agree that no alimony will be awarded and then tell the judge that that is how you and your spouse want the judge to rule, 9 1/2 times out of 10 the judge will do as the parties agree.

This is true of most settlement agreements reached in divorce as to virtually any and every issue the case. If you and your spouse reach agreement as to settlement of an issue, the judge will do as the parties agree, unless what the parties have agreed to constitutes a violation of the law or if the judge deems the agreement to be inequitable.

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

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Why doesn’t family law immediately use collaborative law practices to reach decisions?

Because 1) paradoxically, those for whom the true collaborative law process would work best are those who really don’t need collaborative law; and 2) “collaborative law” as it is practiced (as opposed to how it should be practiced) are not the same thing.

Now there’s going to be a collaborative family lawyer who will read this response and tell you that I am wrong and that collaborative law works wonders. you’ll notice, however, that that this so-called collaborative lawyer will avoid the hard questions, which include (but are not limited to): does collaborative law succeed without both parties to the case being committed to the success of the other?

On the surface, collaborative law sounds like a great idea, but as it is practiced it just doesn’t work for the majority of people because what goes by the name “collaborative law” among most of its ostensible practitioners is overwhelmingly 1) not truly collaborative and 2) was never really intended to be. ‘Kinda like the salesman who claim not to be “selling to” you but “selling for” you. Yeah, right. Sure, it can happen, but human nature being what it is, the odds are highly against it.

Even the name “collaborative law” is misleading in most cases because what passes for “collaboration” is just conflict avoidance and compromise, not seeking to make life better for both yourself and your spouse and family.

If you and your spouse are those who could benefit from collaborative law to settle your divorce case, you probably could have settled your divorce case without the complexity, burdens, and expense of the institutional “collaborative law” process.

Frankly, very few divorce cases consist of two people who do not see themselves as adversaries, but as being interested in helping each other leave each other better than they found each other. Now when’s the last time you heard of the divorce ending like that? If divorcing couples could get to that point, they’d choose to stay married, rather than divorce.

Here’s an article that claims to describe for you how the collaborative divorce process works:

How Collaborative Divorce Works – FindLaw

And here’s an article by the same company explaining to you some of the flaws in collaborative law as it is practiced today by 99.5% of the so-called “collaborative law” practitioners:

5 Reasons to Avoid Collaborative Divorce – FindLaw

Finally, here is an excellent article exposing the contemporary “collaborative law” movement as by and large a sham, and explaining why:

‘Collaborative Divorce’ Is Collaborative in Name Only – HuffPost

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

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Janson v. Janson – 2019 UT App 106 – setting aside settlement agreement

2019 UT App 106 – Janson v. Janson – setting aside stipulation


Opinion No. 20170541-CA
Filed June 20, 2019

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable Andrew H. Stone
No. 164906327
Jamie Carpenter, Attorney for Appellant
Kara L. Barton and Ashley Wood, Attorneys for Appellee



¶1        Deidre Sue Janson appeals the district court’s order denying her motion to set aside a written stipulation (the Stipulation) entered in her divorce action against Jeffrey Alan Janson. We affirm.


¶2        The parties entered into the Stipulation following mediation on November 14, 2016, to resolve the issues in their divorce. As part of the Stipulation, Deidre[1] agreed to pay Jeffrey alimony of $2,500 per month for eighteen months and $1,500 per month for an additional eighteen months.

¶3        The Stipulation awarded the marital home to Jeffrey.

Deidre was awarded half of the equity in the home, less $45,000 that constituted Jeffrey’s inherited funds. The Stipulation also divided the equity in the parties’ vehicles, requiring Deidre to pay Jeffrey $13,178 from her share of the parties’ bank accounts to equalize the vehicle equity disparity.

¶4 The parties had a number of retirement funds and accounts. Regarding the retirement, the parties agreed as follows:

  1. [Deidre] has the following retirement accounts: Utah Retirement in the amount of approximately $72,440; General Electric in the approximate amount of $100,435; Roth IRA in the approximate amount of $18,252; FDIC in the approximate amount of $16,719 and $17,431; and Utah Pension in the amount of $15,281.
  2. [Jeffrey] has the following retirement accounts: Fidelity in the approximate amount of $22,012; Bernstein in the approximate amount of $18,305.
  3. The above retirement accounts will be divided equally between the parties. In addition [Deidre] has a premarital IRA in the approximate amount of $17,682 which is her separate property.
  4. [Jeffrey’s] Alliant Technical Systems Pension plan which will be divided pursuant to the Woodward formula.
  5. The parties will share equally the cost of any qualified domestic relation order.

¶5        On January 12, 2017, Deidre moved to set aside the Stipulation on the ground that there was not a meeting of the minds regarding various provisions in the agreement. She asserted that she “did not receive [Jeffrey’s] financial disclosures until the morning of mediation and was not able to consult with her attorney prior to mediation.” She asserted that because her Utah pension was listed with its approximate value alongside the other retirement accounts, her understanding was that Jeffrey was to receive only half of the listed $15,281 partial lump sum value of that pension rather than half of the entire monthly payment amount as determined by a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO). According to Deidre, the total value of Jeffrey’s half of the pension if the monthly payment option were utilized would amount to approximately $80,000. Deidre claimed that had she understood that Jeffrey would be entitled to half of the entire Utah pension, she would not have agreed to provisions granting Jeffrey premarital equity in the home. She pointed to the lack of specific dates for the accounts to be divided and the impracticality of preparing a QDRO for every retirement account as support for her assertion that the Stipulation should be interpreted as granting Jeffrey only half of the stated partial lump sum value of her Utah pension account.[2]

¶6        Jeffrey opposed the motion to set aside the Stipulation, pointing out that his financial declaration was provided to Deidre well in advance of mediation and that she was represented by counsel at the mediation. He also explained the discrepancy between how the Stipulation described the division of his pension account and how it described the division of Deidre’s—his account had been partially accrued prior to the marriage, whereas Deidre’s had been accrued entirely during the period of the marriage. He asserted that Deidre was aware that an equal division of her pension could result in him receiving half of the monthly payments rather than half of the partial lump sum payout value because her own financial declaration included a summary of the various payout options. Jeffrey also asserted that only three QDROs, at maximum, were necessary to divide the retirement accounts.

¶7        In responding to Jeffrey’s memorandum in opposition to her motion, Deidre raised additional issues impacting the Stipulation’s alimony award—she indicated that after filing the motion to set aside, she was involuntarily terminated from her job without notice, that the loss of her job precluded her from continuing to pay alimony, and that Jeffrey had become eligible to draw on his social security and retirement accounts to support himself. She asserted that these changes in circumstances justified setting aside the Stipulation.

¶8        Following a hearing, the district court denied Deidre’s motion. The court found that both parties understood that Deidre’s Utah pension had the potential for an annuitized benefit. The court determined that the language in the Stipulation dividing the pension equally was clear as to how the retirement accounts would be treated and contained sufficient detail to enforce the Stipulation. The court stated that it was reasonable to anticipate that additional details would be filled in when the QDROs were prepared. The court also determined that issues related to Deidre’s alleged change in circumstances should be handled separately as a petition to modify.

¶9        Deidre now appeals.


¶10 Deidre asserts that the Stipulation is unenforceable because there was no meeting of the minds regarding various aspects of the Stipulation.[3]

Whether the parties had a meeting of the minds sufficient to create a binding contract is an issue of fact, which we review for clear error, reversing only where the finding is against the clear weight of the evidence, or if we otherwise reach a firm conviction that a mistake has been made.

LD III, LLC v. BBRD, LC, 2009 UT App 301, ¶ 13, 221 P.3d 867 (quotation simplified).

¶11 Deidre also asserts that the district court erred in declining to consider her substantial change in circumstances argument as a basis for setting aside the Stipulation and instead determining that a petition to modify was the necessary route for her to pursue this argument. Whether a district court erred in accepting and enforcing a proffered stipulation is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. See In re N.M., 2018 UT App 141, ¶ 17, 427 P.3d 1239.


  1. The District Court Did Not Clearly Err in Rejecting Deidre’s Assertion That There Was No Meeting of the Minds.

¶12 “It is a basic principle of contract law there can be no contract without a meeting of the minds.” Granger v. Granger, 2016 UT App 117, ¶ 14, 374 P.3d 1043 (quotation simplified). “A binding contract exists where it can be shown that the parties had a meeting of the minds as to the integral features of the agreement and that the terms are sufficiently definite as to be capable of being enforced.” LD III, LLC v. BBRD, LC, 2009 UT App 301, ¶ 14, 221 P.3d 867 (quotation simplified). “Whether there is a meeting of the minds depends on whether the parties actually intended to contract, and the question of intent generally is one to be determined by the trier of fact.” Terry v. Bacon, 2011 UT App 432, ¶ 21, 269 P.3d 188 (quotation simplified).

¶13 “[I]n divorce cases, the ability of parties to contract is constrained to some extent by the equitable nature of the proceedings . . . .” Granger, 2016 UT App 117, ¶ 15. “Because retirement funds are prospectively marital property if acquired or contributed to during the marriage, the distribution of such marital funds must fit within the overarching principle of equity unless the parties have freely and knowingly agreed to a different result that has been appropriately sanctioned by the court.” Id. ¶ 16. Nevertheless, “it is not the court’s prerogative to step in and renegotiate the contract of the parties. Instead, courts should recognize and honor the right of persons to contract freely and to make real and genuine mistakes when the dealings are at arms’ length.” Id. ¶ 14 (quotation simplified).

A. Retirement Funds

1. The Court Did Not Err in Accepting Jeffrey’s Interpretation of the Stipulation.

¶14 At the evidentiary hearing, the district court considered both parties’ testimonies regarding their understanding of the Stipulation and their intent regarding the division of their retirement funds. Having considered this evidence, the district court found that both parties understood that Deidre’s Utah pension had the potential for an annuitized benefit and that the Stipulation was clear that the listed retirement accounts were to be divided equally between the parties. Deidre asserts that this conclusion was clearly erroneous because it is inconsistent with the principle that retirement funds that can be “presently valued” should be equally divided.

¶15 As a general matter, equitable division of a defined benefit plan is accomplished by the Woodward formula[4] and equitable division of a defined contribution plan is accomplished by dividing the value contributed during the marriage. Granger Granger, 2016 UT App 117, ¶ 23, 374 P.3d 1043. While Deidre’s pension fund had a “partial lump sum” payout option—which was listed as the “approximate value”[5] in the Stipulation—it also had a monthly payment option. Because pension funds are presumptively divided according to the Woodward formula, an interpretation of the Stipulation that requires dividing the entire fund rather than only the partial lump sum amount is more consistent with equity. It is also the most logical approach in light of Deidre’s own financial declaration, which acknowledged that her Utah pension had a monthly payment option.

¶16 Deidre also asserts that Jeffrey himself testified that he believed the “approximate” amount listed for Deidre’s pension, rather than the entire pension, would be divided equally. But the record does not support Deidre’s characterization of Jeffrey’s testimony. At the hearing, Jeffrey was asked, “So it was your understanding that [the] specific value you listed would be, at least with 401-Ks or whatnot, would be divided. You would get half of that value?” (Emphasis added.) Jeffrey responded, “It would be half the value as identified by the amounts listed in the stipulation.” Jeffrey was asked specifically about the division of the 401(k)s, not the pension. Thus, his answer to this question cannot be construed as a statement that he expected and agreed that the pension would be divided only according to the amount listed in the Stipulation.

¶17 Indeed, Jeffrey testified that based on the document Deidre produced in her financial declaration outlining the various options for the distribution of the Utah pension, he understood that Deidre’s pension could be taken either “as a partial lump sum” or as “monthly payments” and that he “would have a choice” either to take half of the monthly payments or to add half of the partial lump sum to his share of the distributions of the other IRA and 401(k) accounts. Deidre also testified that she knew that a monthly payment could be an option for payout of her pension. Thus, the court’s interpretation of the Stipulation is supported by the evidence and is not clearly erroneous.

2. The Court Did Not Err in Enforcing the Stipulation.

¶18 Deidre also asserts that the Stipulation should not be enforced because it was not equitable. She argues that the district court should have considered the Stipulation as a whole and recognized that she had given up other valuable assets in exchange for treating the pension as a lump sum rather than as a monthly benefit calculated by utilizing the Woodward formula. However, there is nothing on the face of the Stipulation to indicate that such an exchange was made. The Stipulation states that Jeffrey was granted an extra $45,000 of equity in the home because he had contributed inherited funds to the home, not in exchange for the retirement.

¶19      Even if the court had accepted Deidre’s argument, it is by no means clear that she gave up anything in exchange for the pension, let alone something of comparable value such that the court should have recognized the retirement division as inequitable. Presumably, Jeffrey would have contested Deidre’s assertion that the inheritance funds were comingled, and she has not established that she was equitably entitled to share in the portion of the equity gained by investing the inheritance funds. Further, her half of that portion of the equity was significantly smaller than the amount of the pension Jeffrey would be giving up by accepting half of the partial lump sum value rather than half of the monthly payments. Additionally, Deidre herself asserted only that her belief regarding the pension made her “a little more flexible” on the issue of the allegedly comingled inheritance, not that she bargained for an exchange of one for the other.

¶20 To require the district court to examine and evaluate the Stipulation to the degree recommended by Deidre would be to undermine the parties’ right to contract freely. While courts should ensure that the provisions of a divorce stipulation comply with “the overarching principle of equity,” Granger v. Granger, 2016 UT App 117, ¶ 16, 374 P.3d 1043, they are also to “respect[] and give[] considerable weight” to the parties’ agreement, Maxwell v. Maxwell, 796 P.2d 403, 406 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). Thus, weighing every provision of a stipulation against every other to ensure that the parties have reached a perfectly fair agreement is beyond the scope of the court’s mandate.

¶21      Indeed, the court’s equity analysis generally focuses “not on the contract’s subject matter, but rather on whether the contract was fairly negotiated and does not result in an outcome so severely one sided that it prevents the district court from fulfilling its equitable obligations.” Ashby v. Ashby, 2010 UT 7, ¶ 21, 227 P.3d 246. We see nothing in the record to suggest that the district court was presented with such a situation. Both parties were represented by counsel, and the terms of the Stipulation were not so one-sided as to give the court reason to believe that the parties’ agreement had violated the principles of equity. Thus, the court did not exceed its discretion in determining that the Stipulation’s division of the retirement funds was enforceable.

B. Deidre’s Arguments Regarding Alimony and Vehicles Were Not Preserved for Appeal.

¶22 On appeal, Deidre renews the arguments made in her motion to set aside that there was no meeting of the minds with respect to the Stipulation’s provisions regarding alimony and the division of equity in the vehicles. However, the district court made no ruling on these issues.[6]

¶23      “[I]n order to preserve an issue for appeal the issue must be presented to the trial court in such a way that the trial court has an opportunity to rule on that issue.” Brookside Mobile Home Park, Ltd. v. Peebles, 2002 UT 48, ¶ 14, 48 P.3d 968. “[O]nce trial counsel has raised an issue before the trial court, and the trial court has considered the issue, the issue is preserved for appeal.” Id. (emphasis added).

¶24 We agree with Jeffrey that Deidre’s reference to the alimony and vehicle issues in her motion to set aside was not sufficient to preserve them for appeal when she did not present evidence or argue these issues to the district court at the evidentiary hearing and the district court did not rule on them. “[T]he mere mention of an issue in the pleadings, when no supporting evidence or relevant legal authority is introduced at trial in support of the claim, is insufficient to raise an issue at trial and thus insufficient to preserve the issue for appeal.” LeBaron & Assocs., Inc. v. Rebel Enters., Inc., 823 P.2d 479, 483 (Utah Ct. App. 1991). Further, a party may waive an issue by relinquishing or abandoning it before the district court, either expressly or impliedly. State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 16 n.4, 416 P.3d 443.

¶25      “The fundamental purpose of the preservation rule is to ensure that the district court had a chance to rule on an issue before an appellate court will address it.” Helf v. Chevron U.S.A. Inc., 2015 UT 81, ¶ 42, 361 P.3d 63. Because the district court did not rule on the alimony and vehicle issues, and Deidre made no attempt to remedy that omission before raising the issues on appeal, her arguments regarding these issues are unpreserved, and we will not consider them for the first time on appeal. See Vandermeide v. Young, 2013 UT App 31, ¶¶ 8–9, 296 P.3d 787 (holding that a challenge to a district court’s failure to rule on an issue raised in the pleadings was not preserved for appeal, because the appellants did not object to the court’s findings or file a post-judgment motion requesting additional findings).

II. Deidre Will Have the Opportunity to Pursue Her Change of Circumstances Argument in the Context of a Petition to Modify.

¶26 Deidre also argues that the district court erred in declining to consider the change in her employment status as a basis for setting aside the Stipulation before a final order was entered. Although Deidre filed her motion to set aside prior to the entry of the final Decree of Divorce (the Decree), the court declined to consider whether the Stipulation should be modified based on a change of circumstances, stating, “[O]ur procedural rules contemplate that a petition to modify has to be made when the parties reached this state of the proceeding. The Parties reached a resolution in this case and new situations are handled differently.”

¶27 The district court has the discretion to reconsider a prior ruling any time before a final judgment is entered. See Utah R. Civ. P. 54(b); see also Hafen v. Scholes, 2014 UT App 208, ¶ 3, 335 P.3d 396 (per curiam); Durah v. Baksh, 2011 UT App 159, ¶ 5, 257 P.3d 458 (per curiam). However, to seek a modification of a divorce decree, a movant must show “a substantial change of circumstances occurring since the entry of the decree and not contemplated in the decree itself.” Gardner v. Gardner, 2012 UT App 374, ¶ 38, 294 P.3d 600 (emphasis added) (quotation simplified).

¶28      The change in Deidre’s employment status occurred after the Stipulation was signed but before the Decree was entered. Thus, Deidre asserts that the district court’s refusal to reconsider the alimony portion of the Stipulation as part of her motion to set aside was an abuse of discretion because it put her in a catch-22—the court would not let her seek a modification prior to the entry of the Decree, but she would be precluded from seeking one afterward because her alleged change in circumstances occurred before the entry of the Decree.

¶29 We agree with Deidre that the district court, contrary to its own assertion, had the discretion to reconsider whether to accept the parties’ Stipulation as to alimony prior to the entry of the Decree, since the alleged change in circumstances occurred prior to a final judgment being entered. This issue was relevant to the court’s consideration of whether the Stipulation complied with the “overarching principle of equity.” See Granger v. Granger, 2016 UT App 117, ¶ 16, 374 P.3d 1043. The court may have determined that the Stipulation as to alimony was no longer equitable in light of the change in circumstances and that the parties would not have entered into the Stipulation as to alimony had they been aware that Deidre would lose her employment.

¶30 However, while considering Deidre’s alleged substantial change of circumstances at an earlier stage of the proceedings may have been desirable as a matter of judicial economy, Deidre has not been prejudiced by the district court’s refusal to do so. Deidre filed a Petition to Modify on January 9, 2018, which is currently pending in the district court. The district court gave Deidre leave to pursue her substantial change of circumstances argument subsequent to the entry of the Decree, and Jeffrey has conceded that she should be allowed to do so. These circumstances avoid the catch-22 scenario Deidre feared. Because Deidre has not actually been precluded from raising her substantial change of circumstances claim, any error on the part of the district court in declining to consider her motion to set aside the alimony portions of the Stipulation on that basis was harmless.


¶31 The district court’s interpretation of the Stipulation’s retirement provisions is supported by the evidence presented at the evidentiary hearing. Deidre’s arguments concerning other aspects of the Stipulation were not preserved, and we therefore do not consider them. Further, while the district court could have considered Deidre’s arguments concerning her alleged change in circumstances in the context of the motion to set the Stipulation aside, the court’s refusal to do so was not prejudicial. Deidre will be permitted to pursue her claim in the context of the petition to modify already filed with the district court. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s denial of Deidre’s motion to set aside the Stipulation.

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


[1] Because the parties share the same last name, we refer to them by their first names to avoid confusion, meaning no disrespect by the apparent informality.

[2] Deidre also challenged other provisions of the Stipulation that she asserted were inartfully drafted. Specifically, she claimed that there was a mathematical error in the calculation of the vehicle equity and that a lack of language regarding the parties’ incomes and needs in the alimony provision had the potential to preclude a future modification. However, she did not present argument or evidence on these issues at the evidentiary hearing, and the district court ultimately made no ruling on them. See infra ¶¶ 22–25.

[3] Deidre also asserts that the district court erred in determining that the Stipulation was unambiguous. Although the court stated that it considered the Stipulation’s language to be “clear,” it did not make an explicit ruling regarding whether the Stipulation was ambiguous. In fact, the district court’s consideration of extrinsic evidence suggests that the court actually did consider the Stipulation to be ambiguous, since the purpose of considering extrinsic evidence is to clarify ambiguous terms in the contract. See Ward v. Intermountain Farmers Ass’n, 907 P.2d 264, 268 (Utah 1995) (explaining that if a court determines that a contract is ambiguous, the next step is to admit extrinsic evidence “to clarify the ambiguous terms”). We therefore review only the district court’s evaluation of the extrinsic evidence and its determination that Jeffrey’s interpretation of the Stipulation was more reasonable, that there was a meeting of the minds regarding how the retirement was to be divided, and that the

Stipulation was enforceable.

[4] The Woodward formula grants a spouse one-half of the “portion of the retirement benefits represented by the number of years of the marriage divided by the number of years of the [acquiring spouse’s] employment.” Woodward v. Woodward, 656 P.2d 431, 433–44 (Utah 1982).

[5] Incidentally, the fact that the parties listed only the “approximate” values of the various retirement funds also undermines Deidre’s assertion that the parties intended to effectuate the division based on the listed values rather than the actual values of the funds.

[6] Deidre asserts that the court’s ruling that “[i]n order to have a contract, the Court doesn’t need perfect clarity on every factual point” constituted a ruling on all the issues she raised. However, Deidre omits vital language from the court’s ruling. The court actually stated, “In order to have a contract, the Court doesn’t need perfect clarity on every factual point that might fill in a QDRO here.” (Emphasis added.) Thus, it is clear from the context that the court’s ruling contemplated only the issues Deidre raised with respect to the retirement, not the alimony and vehicle issues.

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A real client’s questions about divorce settlement and mediation

Here is a real client’s questions about divorce settlement and mediation. Don’t worry, I’ve removed the names and changed out the details to protect confidentiality. This client asked a lot of questions that frequently come up, so the client’s e-mail was particularly well-suited for a blog post.

I think you’ll really benefit from seeing what real people ask me and what my responses are.

The client’s e-mail and the client’s questions are in the left column below, and my responses to the client’s questions are in the right column:

Client asks:

My responses:


I have a hodgepodge of questions…

What comes next and what are you needing me to prepare for and how to get “it” ready for you? I know I need an appraisal… do I notify [my spouse] this is coming out of the funds? …and what is the appraisal used for? Other than getting the appraisal, I don’t anticipating needing anything from you between now and the mediation date. But if anything comes up, I will notify you immediately.

The appraisal helps us get a neutral, professional opinion as to the true, market value of your house, so that you and [your spouse]—who aren’t really in any position to speak authoritatively on the value of the house—don’t have to argue about its value.

I’d e-mail [your spouse] with something simple, like this:

[your spouse],

My attorney suggested that, to get an accurate idea of the value of the house, we get an appraisal between now and our mediation date. I suggest we pay for a mutually chosen, neutral appraiser to conduct the appraisal and share the costs of the appraiser equally. How does that sound to you?


Do you need me to still provide bank statements, paycheck subs? [my spouse] is the primary on the [credit card] and I don’t have the ability to see what is being charged or paid on that card anymore. It’s only under his login and password now. He was going to send me the rest of December [credit card] statement…but didn’t. Do you still need that from me, and do I press for it with [my spouse]? Yes, press for it. Gently, but firmly.

Press for the email password he changed too.

Even if [your spouse] never sends it, pressing for it (in a classy, non-nagging way) shows that you did you part to get it and that [your spouse] withheld it.

Should I start making plans with [my spouse] to arrange the exchange of property in dividing up the household and personal items. Do you recommend this done before mediation? Sure. If you and he can start working out the division of your personal property by agreement, start making overtures. Start seeing if you and he can agree.

It would be great if you could get this at least started before mediation. The more you can discuss or agree upon before mediation the less time and money you’ll spend in mediation. And if you can get it done before mediation, that’s great too.

Make sure that you understand that once something leaves your possession, it will be nigh on to impossible to get it back, if you want it back.

I don’t have any more money in the [my checking account with X bank]. I have no need to keep this account open, but I identified it in my Financial Declaration, so do you recommend to leave it open until the divorce is finalized? If you do say it’s ok to close and stop the account, what documentation is needed to be provided to the court in closing that account? Do you see any need for it to remain open? Any harm it would do [your spouse] if you closed it? If not, go ahead and close it, e-mail [your spouse] and tell him you closed it because there was no money left in it. You need to be able to document that you notified [your spouse] that you closed the account. If he gives you a hard time about closing the account, let me know, but I doubt he will.
Have you heard back about taxes, and how do I prepare… either way? [my spouse] has always gotten his taxes in early… I have e-mailed his attorney again about your desire to file a joint return. That’s about all we can do for now. Their failure to respond isn’t doing them any favors. You are free to inquire with [your spouse] about this too. I would, if I were you. Since we will be meeting in mediation before the filing deadline for income taxes, we can discuss this at mediation. If [your spouse] files before then, we can move the court to award you half of any refund you would have gotten had you filed jointly. Whether the court will grant that motion is not known, but the odds favor you.
Has his lawyer sail mailed his accounts statements documents?  He has always had full access and quick retrieval of all his accounts updates. Just recently he was able to quickly send me [credit card X] statements in the past few weeks.


The manner in which [my spouse] turned in his financial declaration and his supporting documents has me confused and baffled… as long as I have known him… he is most concerned about how he appears and is perceived by others. This has always been of highest priority to him. Do I say anything about the way he filled out his paperwork?

Nothing more than what we received the first time. You’ve seen my e-mails to his attorney asking for the supplementation/updates, but he’s ignoring me (this is normal for most divorce attorneys—not right, but normal).

Please send me anything [your spouse] has sent you by way of supplementation.

Don’t hassle [your spouse] directly about his financial declaration and supporting documents. Tell me, and let me hassle him through his attorney. His financial declaration is a joke, and his attorney knows better.

What does mediation look like? Will [my spouse] have to be here in person? [my spouse] had emailed me stating: Most divorce cases settle. Your odds of settling in your particular are good, in my opinion.

Most cases today settle in mediation.

Warning: mediators love to tell people how wonderful it is. Take this with a grain of salt.

Here is basically how mediation works:

The Mediation Process

The mediator will ask you to sign an agreement that acknowledges that what’s is discussed in mediation is confidential and not admissible in court, that the mediator cannot be called as a witness, and that you agree to pay the mediator’s fee.

At mediation you will usually start speaking with the mediator and provide background information about your marriage, your family, and what the issues are.

You’ll then meet in a conference room or office where the mediator will explain what you can expect from the process. For example, the mediator may tell you that everyone will be in the same room for the entire mediation or that you’ll meet in separate rooms (this is known as shuttle mediation) so that the mediator can get the views or positions of the parties in private and discuss their ideas and concerns openly, without the other party there to hear you.

If you reach agreement, either as to all issues or as to some, either the mediator or one of your attorneys will write a settlement agreement for the parties to sign. The settlement agreement is contractually binding. The terms of the settlement agreement will be incorporated into the Decree of Divorce.


If you want a good laugh, do a search on YouTube for “divorce mediation” for some of the worst acting you’ve ever seen and some of the most contrived mediation depictions. Still, you might learn a little useful information about the setting and the process, so either way, it’s worth a look.

“Regarding mediation, my plan will be to approach the meeting with an agreed upon amenable divorce so we don’t have to come prepared try to use the venue to air out the personal damages we caused each other.  I will share perspectives if you choose to go down that path but hopefully we will walk into the room with lift regarding personal matters and focus on how we will address agreed upon finances.

“I think you can see that I am doing my best to give when it comes to financial matters.  If you will do the same when it comes to the length of alimony payments asked for, this meeting could be brief and less traumatic on the already fragile lives we are living out.”

[your spouse] is a real bag of wind.

The more you can discuss in advance the more productive mediation will be.

DO NOT agree to anything with [your spouse], either orally or in writing, without consulting me first.

If you agree to anything with [your spouse], either orally or in writing, outside of mediation that may (in the case of an oral agreement) still be binding upon you (certainly in the case of a written agreement). Even just sending emails back and forth can constitute a written agreement. Don’t believe there can’t be a written agreement without there being a “formal” contract that is signed in ink. No, no.

This leads me to believe he may try engage in conversation about these matters. I have had a bare minimum interaction on as little topics as possible, because of his emails. I am needing to have more interaction on other topics of straightening out of some of our accounts. Go ahead and converse as much as you wish. Just don’t ever agree to anything with him without first consulting me.
Should I see if he’ll go ahead and give me the password to our family email? Absolutely.
Should I pay off my [credit card Y] bill I’m paying you on? If he has to pay my legal fees, would it look better to have the debt still unpaid as opposed to having them paid?? Make the monthly payment, if you like, or pay the whole balance off. I don’t think it will make any difference either way. Remember, most of the time the court does not award attorney’s fees, or if it does, it awards a fraction of what you incurred. I’m talking like 10 cents on the dollar.
More mediation questions:
What topics should I be preparing for…?? All issues raised by the pleadings of you and [your spouse].
How detailed in the personal aspects should I be ready for?? Negotiation is all business. Personal feelings and such really aren’t what mediation can help. It’s not a grievance airing session or therapy. It’s a business deal: “you get this, I get that, I trade this for that, you do this, and I’ll do that.”
[my spouse] has expressed his concern about how public the information is in mediation to me and others… so how public is it? Stupid question on his part. Mediation is private, but that doesn’t mean you can’t discuss your divorce with others.
How does [my spouse’s attorney] run his mediation?…and since [my spouse’s attorney] suggested the mediator, is there any concerns I need to be aware of??? Mediators have no power. They can make you do nothing. They make no report to the court. They can tell no one what goes on in mediation.

The mediator is not the key to a settlement. You could have a cardboard cutout serve as mediator.

Good mediators can help negotiations and may pull back from the brink a negotiation that is teetering on the edge of failure, but what makes for successful mediation and negotiation is YOU knowing what matters to you most and at what point you would say, “This and no further. If you won’t accept these terms, I’ll see you in court.”

We’re required to go to mediation, but frankly I have yet to see a “master” of mediation who can magically bring parties together.

I have no problem with our choice of mediator. I’ve used [the selected mediator] myself before. She’s good but no one special. She’s not a ringer for [my spouse’s attorney].

I do have questions about understanding alimony… for me those questions would work better in a conversation as to what our options are? What judgments can be made or set up from the beginning similar to civil judgments at that time, if any can be made similar to other civil judgments regarding money? Such as garnished wages, and other means that civil cases use? You will almost certainly not get as much alimony as you want or think you deserve.

You can have alimony awarded to be paid on a monthly basis. You can ask for a “lump sum” alimony award.

If [your spouse] does not pay child support as ordered, you can garnish his bank accounts and pay checks to ensure you get paid. The process of garnishing alimony is the same as for garnishing to collect a judgment.

I would be happy to meet with you again over lunch for an hour to discuss alimony and only alimony for the entire hour. Please call Phillip to schedule.

Thank you,


You’re welcome. If you have any other questions, please ask.

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

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A Spouse’s Questions about the Divorce Mediation Process


  • If we go to mediation, can I hire an attorney after to review the documents from mediation before I sign anything?
  • What if I hire an attorney before we meet with a mediator? Do I have to tell the mediator that I have an attorney?
  • Will the attorney want to be at mediation?
  • Just trying to figure out what will be the best plan. My husband claims he doesn’t want an attorney. He said if I get an attorney he will get one too. I don’t want this to be a drawn out pissing match. He’s hurt, sad, and angry and I just want to fair, yet have my kids and my best interests protected. Thoughts?


Yes, you can go to mediation without a lawyer and (and if you do, I would recommend you notify everyone in advance of this; it’s the only decent thing to do, and it preserves your credibility) notify your spouse that you have come to discuss and negotiate the issues and reach agreement, but that you will not sign any final, binding agreement unless and until you have reviewed any proposed written settlement agreement with an attorney. If you choose to go to mediation without an attorney, this is the way I’d recommend you do it.

You do not have to tell the mediator or your spouse that you have an attorney, if you elect to attend mediation without an attorney.

I would recommend you attend mediation with an attorney, as opposed to going to mediation without a lawyer and then planning to review any proposed written settlement agreement with an attorney. Telling your spouse you won’t reach agreement without first taking more time to review a proposed settlement with an attorney can chill the attitude of compromise and settlement.

Your attorney should, in my opinion, want to be at the mediation settlement conference to help you negotiate and negotiate quickly and fairly to a settlement.

Your husband claims he doesn’t want an attorney? No surprise there. Nobody really wants an attorney (unless perhaps the attorney is a big help and free of charge). My feelings aren’t hurt; attorneys have come to be viewed–accurately–as providing too little value for the money they charge. But not all attorneys are that way. You can find an attorney whose ROI (“return on investment”) is well worth it, and that kind of attorney is worth seeking and hiring.

I think people get it all wrong when they see “If you get an attorney, then I will!” as an antagonistic sentiment. Both parties having good (meaning skilled, knowledgeable, sensible) helps the negotiation process work better, faster, and inexpensively. Both parties make far better informed decisions. Bringing a lawyer to mediation should not have the same effect as would bringing a gun–and if it does, you and your lawyer are doing more harm than good to the settlement process.

Mediations aren’t a time to negotiate by threat (although there is nothing wrong with standing one’s ground and taking the position of “this is my bottom line: if this isn’t acceptable to you, I believe I will do at least this well, if not better, if the case goes to trial”–just make sure you really mean it and not use it as an idle threat; bluffs are easy to call). If you and/or your husband see hiring a lawyer as a threat, as a purely defensive move, then you are not wanting to win by settlement, you want to “beat” the other in settlement, and that is sure to result in anger, frustration, stalemate, wasted time, and wasted money.

Think through your objectives. Know what matters to you most. Think through the various ways to achieve your objectives; the more creatively you think the more likely you will be to find a way. Be honest. Be fair. Be flexible. Prepare a comprehensive settlement proposal well in advance of mediation and send it to you husband or his attorney, if he has one. Negotiation by ambush will likely result in a tremendous waste of time and money, and reduces the efficacy and likelihood of success in mediation and negotiation process.

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

Divorce is on the horizon for my parents. What do I do?

Mom is treating Dad so bad that I think a divorce is on the horizon. Nobody is supportive. What do I do as a son?

Love and support your parents, both of them. Even if your mother is mistreating your father, she is still worthy of love on some level as your mother.

Let your father fight his own battles, unless and until he reaches out to you for help. If he does, give him the help you can and should give him in good conscience. No more, no less. Don’t give in to the temptation to help Dad fight dirty if Mom fights dirty; if you do, you will regret it later.

Feel free to share with your parents the sentiments expressed above. Let them know that because they are adults and because their marriage/divorce is their business and not yours that you don’t intend insinuate yourself in any divorce proceedings between them unless you feel morally or legally compelled to do so. Let them know that you will not lie or cheat to help one or the other. Tell them that you don’t want their behavior in divorce to give you any reason to love either one any less.

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


So many divorcing people pin so much hope on mediation and settlement. While a fair negotiated settlement is obviously desirable, negotiation is only as valuable as it is effective. With that in mind, read this and understand better when negotiation is worthwhile and when it’s just a waste of time and money.

Negotiation is Sometimes a Waste of Your Time

By Lee Rosen

Every one of us has had a moment when we realized all the time we spent in negotiations was wasted.

In retrospect, it should have been clear at the time. “There was never going to be an agreement,” we say to ourselves. “That person was impossible.”

“Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

That’s from Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” Go watch the video. It’s awesome.

How do country musicians know so much? I don’t even like country music, but the songs are filled with lessons.

But they aren’t the only source of wisdom.

“You can’t negotiate with the ocean”

That nugget of wisdom came from Ned, the Technical Director at Rosen Institute.

Ned and I have worked together for years. It’s shocking how many profound things he says. I suspect he borrows them, but what do I know? I don’t Google his pronouncements to find out if they’re original. That would destroy the magic.

I’ve spent my adult life surrounded by moderately weird guys making these kinds of statements. Ned was preceded by James. James’ comments were equally profound, but weirder and more ominous. He was fond of writing them down and saving them in a sealed envelope. Strange, but endlessly fascinating.

Back to the ocean . . .

Ned’s wisdom came in reply to my complaints about my hotel room’s proximity to the ocean in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka.

The hotel room was ten meters from the water. On stormy days, the water rushed right up to our bedroom wall. The roar of the ocean was loud, endless, and sometimes threatening.

In fact, that hotel sits in the exact spot a tsunami once struck. Graves line the roads in every direction. The number of bodies so overwhelmed the country that the government directed survivors to bury the dead in any available spot on public land. They ran out of lumber for coffins. The graves are a constant reminder of the day death struck the small country.

Of course, the immense power of the ocean is another reminder. A quick swim teaches Ned’s lesson. Before you know it, you’re spinning upside down and brushing against the shallow corals. You can’t negotiate with the ocean.

It’s pointless to negotiate with an incredibly powerful, persistent force that doesn’t care what you think. The ocean doesn’t care. The tide goes in and out, the waves rise and fall, day after day. Sometimes you find yourself listening for a pause, a second of silence, but the ocean doesn’t care. It’s going to keeping doing what it does.

But that doesn’t always stop us

In our roles, we interact with clients, opposing parties, and opposing counsels with whom negotiation is pointless. We try to be reasonable, but negotiating with these people is like negotiating with the ocean.

These “oceans” refuse to compromise–they’ll never come to agreement–for a variety of reasons.

Some use negotiation as informal discovery. They listen to your offer to learn how you’ve prepared your case.

Some use negotiation to distract you from preparing. They give you hope that settlement is near so you’ll walk into the courtroom unprepared.

Some use negotiation to throw you off your game. They keep you in a courthouse anteroom, talking and needling you until seconds before the trial starts.

Some negotiate because they can bill more hours to their clients.

These folks will never settle. Sometimes you’ll see it in action when you acquiesce to their terms and they ask for even more. Mostly, you’ll realize, often too late, they’re just jerking you around.

While it may be tempting to believe that we can convince these people to become rational, that hope is futile. Like the ocean, they will never buy our argument, see it our way, or accept our proposal. We waste our time negotiating with these people.

The sooner we accept that, the better.

That doesn’t mean we give up

Just because we can’t negotiate with certain people doesn’t mean we can’t make progress. We can still attack the problem. Negotiation isn’t the only solution.

Sometimes negotiation helps us acquire more and better resources to bolster our position. Sometimes it prepares us for the harsh environment of whatever proceeding is about to get involved in.

Sometimes negotiation helps us find better alternatives. Sometimes it teaches us that we don’t really want whatever we were seeking.

I’ve watched people try to negotiate with the ocean. They take small steps, wade into the conflict, try to make adjustments, and eventually get tired. They try and try and try. They weaken with each attempt.

The ocean wins, but it’s not always clear that’s what’s going to happen. We might see small measures of progress (and get excited!), but we fail to see the larger situation.

At some point, when you negotiate with the ocean, you lose.

Sometimes it happens suddenly, like when you’re knocked over by a wave.

Sometimes it’s subtle, like when you’re lulled to sleep on a raft and gently pulled far from the shore.

Sometimes it’s violent and dramatic, like when the tide sweeps you off your feet, pulls you under, and decides you’re a keeper.

You can’t negotiate with the ocean. It’s not going to end well for you and you’re going to lose. When we attempt to negotiate with the ocean, we walk away with less time, energy, resilience, and money.

Learn when to walk away

Knowing when to negotiate and when to walk away takes time, reflection, and skill. You’ll get better at it as you reflect on your experiences.

Note the frustrations you experience as you negotiate with different types of people in different types of matters. Train your brain to classify, categorize, recognize patterns, and get smarter.

There’s tremendous value in learning the subtle art of knowing when and where to invest your time. Knowing when to walk away will result in significant savings over the long haul. Those savings can be used to advance your clients’ causes. Plus, your bank balance will increase as you gain these insights.

Kenny Rogers wraps up his song with “You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealing’s done.”

Learning when to skip negotiations will give you more to count.



Negotiation is Sometimes a Waste of Your Time

What is the best way to get the courts to follow the laws already on books and the constitution for custody battles?

What is the best way to get the courts to follow the laws already on the books and the constitution for custody battles?

To be frank, in my opinion there is not a lot you can do successfully within the legal system. You are at the mercy of the system far more than it will ever be at yours. Although the system is actually fairly well designed, it only works as well as it is administered, and in my opinion, it isn’t as consistently administered as well as it can be. So some of the best advice I have found is: “Extricate yourself from the system, don’t try to vindicate yourself within it” (Paretz Partensky). This does not mean that you fight fire with fire and become a law unto yourself. It does not mean you disregard or violate laws and procedures. No, it means that you find ways to justice and equity that don’t rely (or completely rely) upon the legal system. You solve the problem(s) with alternative approaches that are lawful, just not in and through the legal system.

A word here on settlement. Lawyers frequently advise clients to settle. Why? If the legal system worked so well, lawyers wouldn’t need to harp on settling “out of court” so frequently. If the legal system worked so well, it would be efficient, inexpensive, consistent, peaceful, and reliable. It would be seen as a prudent and savvy way to address and resolve disputes. Lawyers urge settlement for many reasons, one of which can be because of a lack of faith in the system. Settlements rarely, if ever, result in a perfect solution, and rarely result in a “net gain” solution for you. But even a “settlement I don’t love, but can live with” will likely resolve your dispute more efficiently, inexpensively, consistently, peacefully, and reliably than going to court. Were this not so, then there would be virtually no reason not to go to court for a resolution.

If your judge is the kind who acts as a law unto himself or herself, or if your judge is too apathetic or indifferent to follow and enforce the applicable legal and constitutional provisions, it’s easy for your judge to get away with such behavior. I’m not saying it’s impossible to hold such a judge accountable, but it is not easy. Worse, sometimes you end up winning the battle, but losing the war if you insist on the judge following and enforcing the law to the point that the judge feels antagonized. You then risk the judge becoming biased against you (but in a plausibly deniable way; no judge who is biased wants to appear that way because that could jeopardize his/her job).

So what can and should you do?

Cite, cite, cite the applicable legal and constitutional provisions. Cite them conspicuously in your legal briefs and memoranda. Attach copies of the applicable legal and constitutional provisions to them. Quote them out loud in your hearings. Be as persuasive and appealing in your arguments as you can. Point out (as inoffensively as you can without your message being silenced or overlooked) every time the opposing party/lawyer misstates. misconstrues, misapplies, flouts, and/or ignores them. Object clearly and unequivocally every time the judge or opposing party misstates, misconstrues, misapplies, flouts, and/or ignores the applicable legal and constitutional provisions .

If your judge is the kind who takes it personally if he/she is appealed, find ways to make it known that you are not afraid to appeal decisions that misstate, misconstrue, misapply, flout, and/or ignore the applicable legal and constitutional provisions. Don’t make idle threats. And don’t frivolously appeal or intimate that you will appeal. It’s not only morally wrong, it’ll likely backfire.

Finally, if a judge’s disregard of the law is sufficiently egregious, you can lodge a complaint with the presiding judge and/or your judicial conduct board. But if you contemplate this action remember the “win the battle and lose the war” warning.

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

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