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Category: Special Circumstances

My Husband Is Forcing Me to Get My Inheritance From Court From My Ex-husband’s (Deceased) Brothers, Otherwise He Will Divorce Me. What Should I Do?

Talk to a good (a good) lawyer about whether you even have the right to “inherit” from your ex-husband’s brothers. Unless there are bizarre circumstances at work here, odds are you have no rights to your ex-husband’s brothers’ decedents’ estates. Talk to a good lawyer who handles wills and probate matters to find out. Heck, bring your husband along to the meeting, so that he learns first-hand from the lawyer himself (that way he can’t tell you that “you don’t understand” if you come back from the lawyer’s office by yourself and tell your husband what the lawyer told you).

As for a husband who threatens to divorce you if you don’t try to obtain a portion of your ex-husband’s brothers brothers’ decedents’ estates, if this kind of behavior on his part is the norm in your marriage, you ought next to find out if this is mental illness, whether it’s behavior that can be corrected, whether he’ll recognize the behavior as wrong, or whether he’ll choose (regardless of why) to continue to conduct himself contemptibly. If your husband is chronically manipulating or emotionally abusing you without remorse, you may be better off without him.

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

https://motherinlawmysteriesandconflicts.quora.com/My-husband-is-forcing-me-to-get-my-inheritance-from-court-from-my-ex-husband-s-deceased-brothers-otherwise-he-will-div?__nsrc__=4

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CPS Has Encouraged Parental Alienation Before My Parental Rights Have Been Taken, My Public Defender Has Not Been Representing Me the Way He Was Supposed to Be, but I Didn’t Know Until Now. What Can I Do?

There are plenty of things you can do (plenty of activity in which you can engage), but whether any of it will do any good is the question. The answer is usually: not likely. When child protective services (CPS) is working against you, then usually law enforcement and the courts follow suit, whether you’re “guilty” or not. If you have a public defender, then you’re poor, and while there is no shame simply in being poor, it limits your options in a fight like this.

All that stated, you need to fight with all you have for what’s right, or the regret and wondering “what might have been?” will surely torment you the rest of your life. You already know the outcome if you give up.

Now, pick your battles. Don’t run faster than you have strength, and don’t engage in “ends justify the means” tactics, but fight the good fight, so that if, some day, you confront your child who asks, “Did you try your best for me, Mom/Dad?,” you can answer in the affirmative.

Sometimes doing your best means kicking the bad habits, addictions, and mental health afflictions. The work on ourselves if often the hardest—not impossible (thankfully), but the hardest

I wish I had more for you, but this is the best I can offer.

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

https://www.quora.com/In-California-CPS-has-encouraged-parental-alienation-before-my-parental-rights-have-been-taken-my-public-defender-has-not-been-representing-me-the-way-he-was-supposed-to-be-but-I-didnt-know-until-now-What-can-I-do

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House Bill 140 (HB0140 (utah.gov)), “Amendments to Custody and Parent-Time”

Today’s post on proposed family law legislation under consideration during the 2024 Utah legislative session is House Bill 140 (HB0140 (utah.gov)), “Amendments to Custody and Parent-Time”.

This bill, according to its own description:

  • provides that a substantial and material change in circumstances for a custody order includes a parent residing with an individual, or providing the individual with access to the parent’s child, when the individual has been convicted of certain crimes;
  • amends the advisory guidelines for a custody and parent-time arrangement to allow for parental notification when a parent is residing with an individual, or providing the individual with access to the parent’s child, and the individual has been convicted of certain crimes;
  • amends the advisory guidelines for a custody and parent-time arrangement in regard to notification of a parent in the event of a medical emergency; and
  • makes technical and conforming changes.

It would amend the following code sections, if passed into law:

Utah Code § 30-3-10.4

Utah Code § 30-3-33

My thoughts on this bill:

If this bill passed, what effect would it have? A parent discovers that the person he/she resides with or to whom the parent has “provide access to his/her child(ren)” meets one or more of the child abuse/child sexual abuse factors and has to notify the other parent of this fact? So what? Unless the person is barred from contact with children, then unless that person has abused, attempted to abuse, or threatened to abuse the child(ren), what can legally be done? A child being in the presence of a child abuse ex-con is not itself a “substantial and material change of circumstances” justifying a modification of child custody or parent-time, in my view. We can’t keep punishing someone repeatedly for the same crime.

And the definition of “sex offender” gets broader all the time. You can get on the sex offender list for the silliest of things (I know a guy who went streaking in college and is on the sex offender list—it was stupid of him to go streaking, but a little kid saw him from a neighboring window and that’s what got him on the sex offender list).

Yes, living with a child abuse ex-con or providing a child abuse ex-con “access to the child(ren)” is poor judgment, but without the children being harmed or in danger of being harmed, there’s not enough to go on to do anything.

But I get it. If I were a divorced or single parent, I wouldn’t want the other parent living with a convicted sex offender either (assuming the offense was a serious one, and not one of those “he/she is on the sex offender list for public urination” kind of convictions).

It’s not a matter of how I feel about sex offenders (real sex offenses are vile), it’s whether the proposed law would do any good. I don’t think it would. Especially not in the legal system we have now. What good one perceives such a law would do and what it would actually do are quite different, in my view.

I don’t know a great deal about the sex offender registry law and other post-conviction laws. Are convicted sex offenders required to notify prospective boyfriends/girlfriends or spouses that they are convicted sex offenders currently? It is my understanding that they do not. If they do, then H.B. 140 may have stronger rational footing than I believe. If not, then the bill doesn’t appear to make much legal sense to me (meaning: I don’t see what good it will actually do, no matter how good it may feel to propose such a law).

Even if the law were passed, it would not likely be the basis for a modification of a child custody or parent-time order. Living with someone who is a convicted sex offender alone is simply not proof of any harm or sufficient danger to a child (just as living with one convicted of a violent crime, drug use, drug dealing, or other crimes is not). I don’t know the real statistics about the rate of recidivism for sex offenders, but even if we assume for the sake of discussion that it’s very high, that alone would not, in my view, likely be seen by a court as a reason to change custody. Like it or not.

If a parent resided with a sex offender with a history of repeated offenses, that might qualify as too great a risk to a child, but if we’re talking one conviction (maybe even two, sadly), that may not be enough to establish the sex offender as a danger to the children. My opinion is not based upon sympathy for sex offenders but on what I believe the courts would do in the situation you describe. This is why you’ll notice that there has not been a bill proposed that prevents a single parent or divorced parent from marrying or living with a convicted sex offender. I believe it would be found unconstitutional, that it would be found to unduly punish those who don’t re-offend.

Besides, how would one ever prove that a parent who resides with a convicted sex offender or provides him/her with access to that parent’s knows that the individual is a sex offender or worse, “an offense that is substantially similar to” a sex offense (see lines 57 and 58 of the bill, emphasis mine).

No matter how good the intent behind H.B. 140 may be, I foresee far too many adverse unintended consequences and abuses of such a law.

AMENDMENTS TO CUSTODY AND PARENT-TIME

33     Be it enacted by the Legislature of the state of Utah:
34          Section 1. Section 30-3-10.4 is amended to read:
35          30-3-10.4. Modification or termination of order.
36          (1) The court has continuing jurisdiction to make subsequent changes to modify:
37          (a) custody of a child if there is a showing of a substantial and material change in
38     circumstances since the entry of the order; and
39          (b) parent-time for a child if there is a showing that there is a change in circumstances
40     since the entry of the order.
41          (2) A substantial and material change in circumstances under Subsection (1)(a)
42     includes a showing by a parent that the other parent:
43          (a) resides with an individual or provides an individual with access to the child; and
44          (b) knows that the individual:
45          (i) is required to register as a sex offender or a kidnap offender for an offense against a
46     child under Title 77, Chapter 41, Sex and Kidnap Offender Registry;
47          (ii) is required to register as a child abuse offender under Title 77, Chapter 43, Child
48     Abuse Offender Registry; or
49          (iii) has been convicted of:
50          (A) a child abuse offense under Section 76-5-10976-5-109.276-5-109.376-5-114,
51     or 76-5-208;
52          (B) a sexual offense against a child under Title 76, Chapter 5, Part 4, Sexual Offenses;
53          (C) an offense for kidnapping or human trafficking of a child under Title 76, Chapter 5,
54     Part 3, Kidnapping, Trafficking, and Smuggling;
55          (D) a sexual exploitation offense against a child under Title 76, Chapter 5b, Sexual
56     Exploitation Act; or

57          (E) an offense that is substantially similar to an offense under Subsections
58     (2)(b)(iii)(A) through (D).
59          [(1)(3) On the petition of one or both of the parents, or the joint legal or physical
60     custodians if they are not the parents, the court may, after a hearing, modify or terminate an
61     order that established joint legal custody or joint physical custody if:
62          (a) the verified petition or accompanying affidavit initially alleges that admissible
63     evidence will show that the circumstances of the child or one or both parents or joint legal or
64     physical custodians have materially and substantially changed since the entry of the order to be
65     modified;
66          (b) a modification of the terms and conditions of the order would be an improvement
67     for and in the best interest of the child; and
68          (c) (i) both parents have complied in good faith with the dispute resolution procedure
69     in accordance with Subsection 30-3-10.3(7); or
70          (ii) if no dispute resolution procedure is contained in the order that established joint
71     legal custody or joint physical custody, the court orders the parents to participate in a dispute
72     resolution procedure in accordance with Subsection 30-3-10.2(5) unless the parents certify that,
73     in good faith, they have used a dispute resolution procedure to resolve their dispute.
74          [(2)(4) (a) In determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by either
75     modifying or terminating the joint legal custody or joint physical custody order, the court shall,
76     in addition to other factors the court considers relevant, consider the factors outlined in Section
77     30-3-10 and Subsection 30-3-10.2(2).
78          (b) A court order modifying or terminating an existing joint legal custody or joint
79     physical custody order shall contain written findings that:
80          (i) a material and substantial change of circumstance has occurred; and
81          (ii) a modification of the terms and conditions of the order would be an improvement
82     for and in the best interest of the child.
83          (c) The court shall give substantial weight to the existing joint legal custody or joint
84     physical custody order when the child is thriving, happy, and well-adjusted.
85          [(3)(5) The court shall, in every case regarding a petition for termination of a joint
86     legal custody or joint physical custody order, consider reasonable alternatives to preserve the
87     existing order in accordance with Subsection 30-3-10(3). The court may modify the terms and

88     conditions of the existing order in accordance with Subsection 30-3-10(8) and may order the
89     parents to file a parenting plan in accordance with this chapter.
90          [(4)(6) A parent requesting a modification from sole custody to joint legal custody or
91     joint physical custody or both, or any other type of shared parenting arrangement, shall file and
92     serve a proposed parenting plan with the petition to modify in accordance with Section
93     30-3-10.8.
94          [(5)(7) If the court finds that an action under this section is filed or answered
95     frivolously and in a manner designed to harass the other party, the court shall assess attorney
96     fees as costs against the offending party.
97          [(6)(8) If an issue before the court involves custodial responsibility in the event of
98     deployment of one or both parents who are service members, and the service member has not
99     yet been notified of deployment, the court shall resolve the issue based on the standards in
100     Sections 78B-20-306 through 78B-20-309.
101          Section 2. Section 30-3-33 is amended to read:
102          30-3-33. Advisory guidelines for a custody and parent-time arrangement.
103          (1) In addition to the parent-time schedules provided in Sections 30-3-35 and
104     30-3-35.5, the following advisory guidelines are suggested to govern [all parent-time
105     arrangementsa custody and parent-time arrangement between parents.
106          [(1)(2) [Parent-time schedulesA parent-time schedule mutually agreed upon by both
107     parents [areis preferable to a court-imposed solution.
108          [(2)(3) [TheA parent-time schedule shall be used to maximize the continuity and
109     stability of the child’s life.
110          [(3)(4) [Special consideration shall be given by each parentEach parent shall give
111     special consideration to make the child available to attend family functions including funerals,
112     weddings, family reunions, religious holidays, important ceremonies, and other significant
113     events in the life of the child or in the life of either parent which may inadvertently conflict
114     with the parent-time schedule.
115          [(4)(5) (a) The court shall determine the responsibility for the pick up, delivery, and
116     return of the child [shall be determined by the court] when the parent-time order is entered[,
117     and may be changed].
118          (b) The court may change the responsibility described in Subsection (5)(a) at any time

119     a subsequent modification is made to the parent-time order.
120          [(5)(c) If the noncustodial parent will be providing transportation, the custodial parent
121     shall:
122          (i) have the child ready for parent-time at the time the child is to be picked up [and
123     shall]; and
124          (ii) be present at the custodial home or [shall] make reasonable alternate arrangements
125     to receive the child at the time the child is returned.
126          [(6)(d) If the custodial parent will be transporting the child, the noncustodial parent
127     shall:
128          (i) be at the appointed place at the time the noncustodial parent is to receive the child[,
129     and]; and
130          (ii) have the child ready to be picked up at the appointed time and place[,] or have
131     made reasonable alternate arrangements for the custodial parent to pick up the child.
132          [(7)(6) [RegularA parent may not interrupt regular school hours [may not be
133     interrupted] for a school-age child for the exercise of parent-time [by either parent].
134          [(8)(7) The court may:
135          (a) make alterations in the parent-time schedule to reasonably accommodate the work
136     schedule of both parents [and may]; and
137          (b) increase the parent-time allowed to the noncustodial parent but may not diminish
138     the standardized parent-time provided in Sections 30-3-35 and 30-3-35.5.
139          [(9)(8) The court may make alterations in the parent-time schedule to reasonably
140     accommodate the distance between the parties and the expense of exercising parent-time.
141          [(10)(9) [Neither parent-time nor child support is to be withheld due to eitherA
142     parent may not withhold parent-time or child support due to the other parent’s failure to comply
143     with a court-ordered parent-time schedule.
144          [(11)(10) (a) The custodial parent shall notify the noncustodial parent within 24 hours
145     of receiving notice of all significant school, social, sports, and community functions in which
146     the child is participating or being honored[, and the].
147          (b) The noncustodial parent [shall beis entitled to attend and participate fully in the
148     functions described in Subsection (10)(a).
149          [(12)(c) The noncustodial parent shall have access directly to all school reports

150     including preschool and daycare reports and medical records [and shall be notified immediately
151     by the custodial parent].
152          (d) A parent shall immediately notify the other parent in the event of a medical
153     emergency.
154          [(13)(11) Each parent shall provide the other with the parent’s current address and
155     telephone number, email address, and other virtual parent-time access information within 24
156     hours of any change.
157          [(14)(12) (a) Each parent shall permit and encourage, during reasonable hours,
158     reasonable and uncensored communications with the child, in the form of mail privileges and
159     virtual parent-time if the equipment is reasonably available[, provided that if the parties].
160          (b) If the parents cannot agree on whether the equipment is reasonably available, the
161     court shall decide whether the equipment for virtual parent-time is reasonably available[,by
162     taking into consideration:
163          [(a)(i) the best interests of the child;
164          [(b)(ii) each parent’s ability to handle any additional expenses for virtual parent-time;
165     and
166          [(c)(iii) any other factors the court considers material.
167          [(15)(13) (a) Parental care [shall beis presumed to be better care for the child than
168     surrogate care [and the].
169          (b) The court shall encourage the parties to cooperate in allowing the noncustodial
170     parent, if willing and able to transport the children, to provide the child care.
171          (c) Child care arrangements existing during the marriage are preferred as are child care
172     arrangements with nominal or no charge.
173          [(16)(14) Each parent shall:
174          (a) provide all surrogate care providers with the name, current address, and telephone
175     number of the other parent [and shall]; and
176          (b) provide the noncustodial parent with the name, current address, and telephone
177     number of all surrogate care providers unless the court for good cause orders otherwise.
178          [(17)(15) (a) Each parent [shall beis entitled to an equal division of major religious
179     holidays celebrated by the parents[, and the].
180          (b) The parent who celebrates a religious holiday that the other parent does not

181     celebrate shall have the right to be together with the child on the religious holiday.
182          [(18)(16) If the child is on a different parent-time schedule than a sibling, based on
183     Sections 30-3-35 and 30-3-35.5, the parents should consider if an upward deviation for
184     parent-time with all the minor children so that parent-time is uniform between school aged and
185     nonschool aged children, is appropriate.
186          [(19)(17) (a) When one or both parents are servicemembers or contemplating joining
187     a uniformed service, the parents should resolve issues of custodial responsibility in the event of
188     deployment as soon as practicable through reaching a voluntary agreement pursuant to Section
189     78B-20-201 or through court order obtained pursuant to Section 30-3-10.
190          (b) [ServicemembersService members shall ensure their family care plan reflects
191     orders and agreements entered and filed pursuant to Title 78B, Chapter 20, Uniform Deployed
192     Parents Custody, Parent-time, and Visitation Act.
193          (18) A parent shall immediately notify the other parent if:
194          (a) the parent resides with an individual or provides an individual with access to the
195     child; and
196          (b) the parent knows that the individual:
197          (i) is required to register as a sex offender or a kidnap offender for an offense against a
198     child under Title 77, Chapter 41, Sex and Kidnap Offender Registry;
199          (ii) is required to register as a child abuse offender under Title 77, Chapter 43, Child
200     Abuse Offender Registry; or
201          (iii) has been convicted of:
202          (A) a child abuse offense under Section 76-5-10976-5-109.276-5-109.376-5-114,
203     or 76-5-208;
204          (B) a sexual offense against a child under Title 76, Chapter 5, Part 4, Sexual Offenses;
205          (C) an offense for kidnapping or human trafficking of a child under Title 76, Chapter 5,
206     Part 3, Kidnapping, Trafficking, and Smuggling;
207          (D) a sexual exploitation offense against a child under Title 76, Chapter 5b, Sexual
208     Exploitation Act; or
209          (E) an offense that is substantially similar to an offense under Subsections
210     (18)(b)(iii)(A) through (D).

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

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Family Law Legislation for the 2024 Utah State Legislative Session

Here is a list of the current proposed family law legislation for the 2024 Utah State Legislative session, along with a (very) brief description of the proposed legislation. If you want to read the complete bill, I have provided the links each of them.

Next month, I will provide my comments and those of others who have expressed their opinions on whether and why these bills should or should not be passed into law.

House Bills

House Bill 20

Title:  Parental Rights Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0020.pdf

Purpose: This bill: clarifies the requirements and procedure for an individual to consent to the termination of parental rights or voluntarily relinquish parental rights.

House Bill 81

Title: Domestic Violence Modifications

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0081.pdf

Purpose: This bill adds the crime of propelling a bodily substance or material to the list of crimes that qualify as a domestic violence offense in certain circumstances; and makes technical and conforming changes.

House Bill 110

Title:  Sex and Kidnap Offender Registry Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/static/HB0110.html

Purpose: This bill changes references from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Public Safety; clarifies the purpose of the Department of Public Safety keeping certain information for individuals on the Sex and Kidnap Offender Registry; and clarifies the requirements the Bureau of Criminal Identification and the Department of Corrections must check for when an individual petitions to be removed from the registry.

House Bill  129

Title:  Child Support Requirements

Purpose: This bill provides that a parent or other obligated individual is not responsible for child support for a child who is in the custody of the Division of Child and Family Services; and makes technical and conforming changes.

House Bill  131

Title:  Clergy Child Abuse Reporting Requirements

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0131.pdf

Purpose:  This bill clarifies that a member of the clergy may report suspected child abuse or neglect in certain circumstances; and makes technical corrections.

House Bill  134

Title:  Marriage Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0134.pdf

Purpose: This bill addresses the validation and recognition of a marriage regardless of the race, ethnicity, or national original of the parties to the marriage; repeals a provision on interracial marriage; and makes technical and conforming changes

House Bill  140

Title:  Parental Notification Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0140.pdf

Purpose: This bill amends the advisory guidelines for a custody and parent-time arrangement to allow for parental notification when a parent is residing with an individual, or providing the individual access to the parent’s child, and the individual has been convicted of certain crimes; amends the advisory guidelines for a custody and parent-time arrangement in regard to notification of a parent in the event of a medical emergency; and makes technical and conforming changes.

House Bill  157

Title:  Child Custody Factors Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0157.pdf

Purpose: This bill provides that a parent’s approval or disapproval, in itself, of a child’s gender identity, is not a factor to be considered: in a Division of Child and Family Services determination regarding removal of a child from parental custody; and when determining child custody as part of a divorce or other family law proceeding.

House Bill  194

Title:  Child Placement Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0194.pdf

Purpose: This bill amends the definition of “relative” for purposes of child placement, including adoption; and addresses when a court holds a hearing concerning a contested adoption.

House Bill  198

Title:  Child Welfare Placement Review Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0198.pdf

Purpose: This bill addresses the analysis a juvenile court undertakes when evaluating whether to terminate parental rights; and makes technical and conforming changes.

House Bill  199

Title: Child Welfare Revisions

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0199.pdf

Purpose: This bill amends definitions related to child welfare in the Utah Juvenile Code

House Bill  200

Title:  Order for Life Sustaining Treatment

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0200.pdf

Purpose: This bill modifies professional conduct standards for physicians, advance practice registered nurses, and physician assistants to include obtaining a parent or guardian signature when completing an order for life sustaining treatment for a minor; and makes technical and conforming changes.

House Bill  219

Title:  Divorce Imputed Income Requirements

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0219.pdf

Purpose: This bill provides standards for imputing income to a spouse who will be receiving alimony payments from another spouse; provides potential limitations on imputation of income for alimony purposes in some circumstances where the recipient spouse has no recent full-time work history or has been diagnosed with a disability; excludes situations where the recipient spouse has been determined to be at fault; and makes technical and conforming changes.

House Bill  220

Title:  Divorce Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0220.pdf

Purpose: This bill adds factors to be considered when determining the standard of living that existed during a marriage; requires a specific look-back period for information provided to demonstrate the financial conditions and needs of a spouse seeking to be awarded alimony; places restrictions on when a court can reduce a showing of need related to alimony; provides alternative means for demonstrating income and the standard of living during a marriage; and  modifies provisions related to when a court may elect to equalize income between parties by means of an alimony award.

House Bill  234

Title:  Birth Certificate Modifications

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0234.pdf

Purpose: This bill requires an individual when petitioning the court for a name or sex designation change on the birth certificate to indicate on the petition whether the individual is registered with the Sex and Kidnap Offender Registry; and authorizes the court to obtain additional information from an individual that is registered with the Sex and Kidnap Offender Registry to determine whether to grant a name or sex designation change petition.

House Bill  272

Title:  Child Custody Proceedings Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/hbillint/HB0272.pdf

Purpose: This bill defines terms; in certain proceedings involving child custody: specifies requirements for the admission of expert evidence; and  requires a court to consider evidence relating to domestic violence or abuse by a parent; imposes certain requirements and limitations regarding orders to improve the relationship between a parent and a child; requires the state court administrator to make recommendations regarding the education and training of court personnel involving child custody and related proceedings;  requires that certain protective order proceedings comply with specific standards; and makes technical and conforming changes.

SENATE BILLS

Senate Bill 70

Title:  Judiciary Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/sbillint/SB0070.pdf

Purpose: This bill increases the number of district court judges in the Third Judicial District, Fourth Judicial District, and Fifth Judicial District; increases the number of juvenile court judges in the Third Judicial District and the 15 Fourth Judicial District; and makes technical and conforming changes.

Senate Bill 88

Title:  Juvenile Justice Amendments

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/sbillint/SB0088.pdf

Purpose: This bill defines terms; clarifies requirements regarding the collection of a DNA specimen from a minor adjudicated by the juvenile court; provides that a minor may not be placed in a correctional facility as an alternative to detention; provides a time period in which an agency is required to send an affidavit to an individual who is the subject of an expungement order by the juvenile court; and makes technical and conforming changes.

Senate Bill 95

Title:  Domestic Relations Recodification

https://le.utah.gov/~2024/bills/sbillint/SB0095.pdf

Purpose: This bill recodifies Title 30, Husband and Wife, to Title 81, Utah Domestic Relations Code; recodifies Title 78B, Chapter 12, Utah Child Support Act, to Title 81, Chapter 6, Child Support; defines terms; clarifies provisions related to a claim of a creditor when the joint debtors divorce or are living separately under an order of separate maintenance; clarifies the validation of a marriage to an individual subject to chronic epileptic fits who had not been sterilized; clarifies the validation of an interracial marriage; clarifies the validation of a marriage to an individual with acquired immune deficiency syndrome or other sexually transmitted disease; clarifies provisions regarding the rights and obligations during a marriage; clarifies provisions regarding the dissolution of a marriage, including: an order for separate maintenance; an annulment; and a divorce; clarifies provisions regarding child support, including: the requirements for a child support order; the general requirements for calculating child support; and the requirements for calculating child support for a sole physical custody case, a joint physical custody case, and a split physical custody case; clarifies provisions regarding custody, parent-time, and visitation; repeals statutes related to domestic relations, including a statute on the appointment of counsel for a child; and makes technical and conforming changes.

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

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

Holt v. Holt – 2024 UT App 6

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

RHONDA S. HOLT, Appellee,

v.

CHRISTOPHER JOHN HOLT, Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20220090-CA

Filed January 11, 2024

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Andrew H. Stone

No. 044902588

Ben W. Lieberman, Attorney for Appellant

Matthew A. Steward and Katherine E. Pepin,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and

DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

ORME, Judge:

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

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

BACKGROUND

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

The Stipulation and the Decree

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

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

The Petition to Modify the Decree

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Motion to Enforce the Decree

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

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

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

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

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

¶16      Christopher appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

ANALYSIS

I. Reasonable Time Under the Circumstances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Scope of District Court Review

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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What Does a Legal Assistant Think of Going Pro Se? By Braxton Mounteer

The term for representing yourself in court is “pro se” or “pro per”.

Can you navigate the legal system successfully without a lawyer representing you in your case?

Before I became a legal assistant, I thought the answer to that question was, “Well, it won’t be easy, but how hard could it be, if I tried my best?” You’d be forgiven if you think that way too. Many people do. With the exception of a few who are so rare as to make them statistically insignificant, however, going pro se is a recipe for failure.

To win a case, you need admissible evidence and enough admissible evidence. Do you know (really know) whether you have admissible evidence and enough admissible evidence? If not, proceeding pro se puts you at risk of losing.

To win a case, you first need to know whether the law supports your position. Do you know the law? Can you cite the sections of code and what rules of civil procedure and rules of evidence that apply? Do they support your position? If not, proceeding pro se puts you at risk of losing.

To win a case, you need to present your evidence and your legal argument in compliance with the rules of court and in an engaging and persuasive manner. Do you know how to do that? If not, proceeding pro se puts you at risk of losing.

Even if you went up against a brand new, inexperienced lawyer, who would you bet on? Someone with a college education, plus three years of law school (maybe more), or someone who read some blogs and watched some YouTube videos? Now add 5 to 30 years of experience to the lawyer’s side of the ledger. Do you really think you’re on a level playing field?

Would you go into unfamiliar terrain without a guide? The legal profession, the legal system, and court proceedings are all unfamiliar territory, and you can easily get lost and hurt in unfamiliar territory.

And then there’s the problem that is not so intuitive: you’re not in the club. Most judges and lawyers resent people who believe they can do what legal professionals do. Even pro se litigants who have the evidence, the law, and the arguments down can still lose just because the judge and lawyers don’t want you getting uppity.

Pro se is a path that is not for the faint of heart. It will be an uphill battle at best. If you go the pro se route, you will face people who are more knowledgeable, more experienced, and more skilled than you are or can reasonably ever hope to be.

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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.

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

2023 UT App 10

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

LIDIA V. MOWER,

Appellant,

v.

THOMAS W. MOWER, Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20210101-CA

Filed January 20, 2023

Fourth District Court, American Fork Department

The Honorable Roger W. Griffin No. 124100133

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

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

JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME authored this Opinion, in which

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

ORME, Judge:

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

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Re J.E. 2023 UT App 3, Voluntary Declaration of Paternity

2023 UT App 3

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF J.E.,

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

D.E., Appellant, v. STATE OF UTAH, Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20210921-CA

Filed January 20, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Annette Jan No. 1198329

D.E., Appellant Pro Se

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

Julie J. Nelson, Debra M. Nelson, Alexandra

Mareschal, and Kirstin Norman, Attorneys for

Amicus Curiae Utah Indigent Appellate Defense Division

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1 D.E. (Father) obtained—at least for a while—parental rights regarding J.E. (Child) when he and Child’s mother (Mother) duly signed and filed a voluntary declaration of paternity (the VDP). Later, however, genetic testing revealed that Father is not Child’s biological father. Based on those test results, the guardian ad litem (the GAL) appointed to represent Child raised a challenge to the VDP, which the juvenile court sustained, later issuing an order invalidating the VDP and declaring it “void.”

¶2 Father now challenges that order, asserting that the GAL (on behalf of Child) had no right under applicable law to challenge the VDP. We first determine that we have jurisdiction to consider Father’s appeal. And on the merits, we conclude that the juvenile court correctly determined that, under the circumstances presented here, Child has statutory standing to challenge the VDP. On that basis, we affirm the court’s decision to reach the merits of Child’s challenge and to sustain that challenge. But the court should not have declared the VDP “void,” and we remand for correction of the language used in the court’s order and for such other proceedings as might be appropriate.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶3 In 2021, Father and Mother were residing together—but not married—with three children: then-one-year-old Child and his two older siblings. All three children are Mother’s biological children, and Father’s paternity had been established as to the older two children. At the time, both Mother and Father were uncertain whether Father was the biological father of Child, because they were both aware that Mother had engaged in sexual activity with both Father and another man in 2019, around the time Child had been conceived. But neither Father nor any other man had established paternity with regard to Child.

¶4 In early 2021, Father was arrested and charged with aggravated assault involving domestic violence, as well as commission of domestic violence in front of a child, related to an incident in which Mother accused him of attempting to smother her with a pillow in front of the children. The charging document labeled Father a “habitual violent offender,” explaining that he had previously been convicted of domestic violence against Mother in connection with a 2019 incident. Father remained incarcerated on these new charges for several weeks. Mother also obtained a civil protective order against Father, which remained in effect for several months, until she asked for it to be dismissed.

¶5 A few weeks after Father’s arrest, Mother was arrested and incarcerated on charges of drug possession. Mother later admitted that she had been using methamphetamine. At that point, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition seeking custody of the children, and the court granted that request at a subsequent shelter hearing.

¶6 A month later, in May 2021, Mother remained incarcerated—she was eventually released in August—but Father had been released from jail after the criminal charges against him were dismissed. The record before us does not disclose the reasons for the dismissal of the criminal case, but the dismissal occurred on the date set for preliminary hearing, and it was entered without prejudice. Neither the State nor the juvenile court viewed the dismissal of the criminal charges as an exoneration of Father; indeed, the court eventually scheduled an evidentiary hearing to consider whether Father had committed domestic violence against Mother and, at the conclusion of that hearing, found that all three children were “neglected by” Father.

¶7 After his release from jail, Father requested that the children be returned to his custody. The court denied that request, but did order that Father be allowed supervised visitation with at least some of the children.

¶8 At another hearing a couple of weeks later, the GAL first raised the issue of Child’s paternity, and asked that the court order genetic testing to determine whether Father was indeed Child’s biological father. Neither Father nor Mother opposed this request, and the court therefore ordered that genetic testing take place, an order that necessarily required that Father, Mother, and Child all separately submit to genetic testing.

¶9 On August 5, 2021, Father submitted a biological sample for genetic testing. Mother and Child, however, did not submit biological samples until August 19. On August 18, the day before Mother and Child submitted their samples, Father and Mother signed and filed the VDP. On that form, they both swore that they “believe[d]” that Father was Child’s biological father. And Father answered “no” to a question asking whether “the birth mother, child, and biological father” had “submitted to genetic testing.” The Utah Office of Vital Records and Statistics accepted the VDP as valid, and that same day issued an amended birth certificate for Child, listing Father as Child’s father.

¶10 Following the filing of the VDP, Father (through counsel) filed a motion seeking visitation with Child, alleging that DCFS had been “not allowing” him to have visitation because the GAL “is opposed to the visits.” The GAL filed a response that asked the court to postpone its decision on visitation with Child until the results of the genetic testing were known. In that same opposition memorandum, the GAL raised a challenge to the VDP, specifically invoking sections 78B-15-302 and -307 of the Utah Code. In particular, the GAL asserted that Father had fraudulently answered some of the questions on the VDP, and asserted that, if the pending genetic testing excluded Father as Child’s biological father, the VDP could also be challenged on the ground that there had been a material mistake of fact. In reply, Father asserted that the VDP, which had been accepted by the Office of Vital Records and Statistics, gave him parental rights as Child’s father, and that he was therefore entitled to visitation. He also requested a hearing regarding the GAL’s challenge to the VDP.

¶11 In late September 2021, while Father’s motion for visitation was pending, the genetic test results came back and demonstrated that Father is not Child’s biological father.

¶12 Eventually, the court held an evidentiary hearing to consider Father’s motion for visitation. At that hearing, the court heard brief testimony, under oath, from both Father and Mother. After their testimony, the GAL asserted that Father should be denied visitation because, among other reasons, Father was not Child’s biological father. In connection with that argument, the GAL pressed the challenge to the VDP that she had raised in her opposition brief and asked for the VDP to “be declared void and be rescinded,” specifically asking for that relief to be “entered pursuant to [section] 78B-15-623” of the Utah Code (referred to herein as “Section 623”), a statutory provision the GAL had not mentioned in her opposition brief. Section 623 provides, in relevant part, that “[a] child is not bound by a determination of parentage” unless “the determination was based on an unrescinded declaration of paternity and the declaration is consistent with the results of genetic testing.” See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-15-623 (LexisNexis 2018). The GAL asserted that the VDP was subject to a challenge by Child because the results of the genetic testing indicated that Father was not Child’s biological father. In addition, the GAL pressed the arguments that had been raised in her brief, asserting that the VDP was fraudulent because Father had allegedly been less than candid when he stated that he “believe[d]” that he was Child’s father and when he answered “no” to the question on the form about genetic testing.

¶13 At the conclusion of the hearing, and after a brief recess, the court in an oral ruling granted the GAL’s request to invalidate the VDP, relying on Section 623 and on the fact that the genetic testing had conclusively determined that there was no biological relationship between Father and Child. Addressing Father, the court stated, “[Y]ou are not the father of [Child] at this point.” And the court declined Father’s invitation to order that he receive visitation with Child but, given Father’s established biological relationship with the other two children and given the fact that Father was “probably the only parental figure on the male side that [Child] has know[n],” the court nevertheless left the door open for DCFS to “allow” Father to have visitation with Child if DCFS believed that visitation would serve Child’s best interest. The court later signed a minute entry reflecting its oral ruling, therein declaring that the VDP “is void.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶14 Father appeals the juvenile court’s decision to invalidate the VDP and to declare it void. At the center of Father’s challenge is his assertion that Child, by and through the GAL, does not possess statutory standing to challenge the VDP. This question is one of statutory interpretation, and on such matters we afford no deference to trial courts’ decisions. See State v. Outzen, 2017 UT 30, ¶ 5, 408 P.3d 334 (“We review questions of statutory interpretation for correctness, affording no deference to the [trial] court’s legal conclusions.” (quotation simplified)).

¶15 But before reaching the merits of Father’s appeal, we must first determine whether we have jurisdiction to adjudicate it.[2]

“Questions about appellate jurisdiction are questions of law” that, by definition, arise for the first time in the appellate setting. See Zion Village Resort LLC v. Pro Curb U.S.A. LLC, 2020 UT App 167,

¶ 21, 480 P.3d 1055 (quotation simplified); see also Powell v. Cannon, 2008 UT 19, ¶ 9, 179 P.3d 799 (“The question of whether an order is final and appealable is a question of law.” (quotation simplified)).

ANALYSIS

I. Jurisdiction

¶16 Before we may reach the merits of Father’s appeal, we must first assess whether we have jurisdiction to adjudicate it. For the reasons discussed, we conclude that we do.

¶17 “As a general rule, an appellate court does not have jurisdiction to consider an appeal unless the appeal is taken from a final order or judgment that ends the controversy between the litigants.” Copper Hills Custom Homes LLC v. Countrywide Bank, FSB, 2018 UT 56, ¶ 10, 428 P.3d 1133 (quotation simplified); see also Williams v. State, 716 P.2d 806, 807 (Utah 1986) (noting that one of the “traditional principles of appellate review” is “the final judgment rule,” which generally (subject to a few exceptions) prevents appellate courts from reviewing an appeal unless it comes “from a final judgment concluding all of the issues in the case”). The final judgment rule promotes efficiency by preventing the piecemeal litigation and seriatim appeals that would result if litigants were permitted, by right, to immediately appeal any adverse ruling by a trial court.

¶18 Conceptually, “the finality of an order in juvenile proceedings is determined the same way as the finality of an order in other courts.” In re A.F.,2007 UT 69, ¶ 3, 167 P.3d 1070 (quotation simplified). Indeed, in juvenile courts, as in other courts, a “final order is one that ends the current . . . proceedings, leaving no question open for further judicial action.” Id. (quotation simplified). Certainly, an order in a juvenile court case that completely resolved all matters as to all parties would be a final order, just as a similar order would be in a district court case.

¶19 But it is fair to say that, in appeals from juvenile court, finality is viewed somewhat more flexibly than in the district court context. “In the child welfare arena, the determining factor in deciding if an order is final and appealable is whether it effects a change in the permanent status of the child.” Id. Because a child’s status can change more than once, and because a “juvenile court frequently retains jurisdiction over cases [even] after some of the issues have been finally resolved,” see In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 36, 201 P.3d 985 (quotation simplified), “in child welfare proceedings, unlike traditional civil cases, appeals may be heard from more than one final judgment,” In re A.F.,2006 UT App 200, ¶ 8, 138 P.3d 65, aff’d, 2007 UT 69, 167 P.3d 1070 (quotation simplified). Therefore, a determination of whether a juvenile court order is final and appealable “requires pragmatic analysis of the order itself.” Id. ¶ 9.

¶20 Under this “pragmatic analysis,” “it is the substance, not the form, of the . . . order that matters . . . because the determination whether an order is final and appealable turns on the substance and effect of the order.” Id. (quotation simplified). Any order that effects a “permanent change in the child’s status vis-à-vis the child’s parent” is considered final. See In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 36. Particular types of orders that are considered final include those “entered upon disposition of an adjudicated petition of abuse, neglect, or dependency” and those “terminating parental rights,” see id. (quotation simplified), as well as “orders that otherwise relieve a party from further litigation,” see In re A.F., 2006 UT App 200, ¶ 10. On the other hand, shelter orders and orders that “merely terminate reunification services and change the child’s permanency goal to adoption” are not considered final because they contemplate “further judicial action” regarding the parent and the child. See In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 37.

¶21 Father asserts that the juvenile court’s order declaring the VDP void is final and appealable because it “effectively terminated the parental rights statutorily conferred upon him” through the VDP. We agree with Father, as does the State. From a finality perspective, the court’s order declaring the VDP void is analogous to an order terminating parental rights, because the order canceled theretofore-valid parental rights that Father had (at least temporarily) acquired by virtue of filing a voluntary declaration of paternity that was accepted by the Office of Vital Records and Statistics. See Scott v. Benson, 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 22 n.4, 501 P.3d 1148 (“A [voluntary declaration of paternity] is valid and effective if it meets all the basic statutory requirements and is accepted by the Office of Vital Records.”), cert. granted, 509 P.3d 196 (2022). In analogous contexts, we have determined that similar orders are final and appealable. See In re A.S., 2007 UT App 72U, para. 1 (per curiam) (holding that an order dismissing a putative father “from the termination case and denying a motion for genetic testing” was final and appealable because it “dismissed [the putative father] as a party and relieved him from further litigation”); see also In re A.F., 2006 UT App 200, ¶ 10 (stating that “orders that otherwise relieve a party from further litigation” are appealable).

¶22 The fact that litigation regarding Child continues in the juvenile court is not dispositive of the question of appealability of the subject order. See In re E.L.F., 2011 UT App 244, ¶ 5, 262 P.3d 1196 (recognizing that a “juvenile court’s retention of jurisdiction over a child does not necessarily defeat finality”); see also In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 36 (stating that a “juvenile court frequently retains jurisdiction over cases [even] after some of the issues have been finally resolved” (quotation simplified)). The fact that the juvenile court left the visitation door slightly ajar for Father likewise does not defeat finality, under the unique circumstances presented here; the court’s order deprived Father of all parental rights, leaving DCFS with sole discretion to determine whether, and to what extent, Father may visit Child.

¶23 Applying a pragmatic analysis here, we conclude that the subject order, by eliminating all of Father’s claimed parental rights, effected a “permanent change in the child’s status vis-à-vis” Father, see In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 36, and effectively ended Father’s involvement in the case. Under these circumstances, the order from which Father appeals must be considered final, and we therefore have jurisdiction to consider the merits of his appellate challenge.

II. The Merits of Father’s Appeal

¶24 We begin our analysis of the merits of Father’s appeal with a discussion of voluntary declarations of paternity, and by explaining how Father did—at least for a time—secure valid parental rights regarding Child. We then list some of the ways in which voluntary declarations of paternity can be challenged, and conclude that Child (through the GAL) had standing to raise one such challenge, and that Child’s challenge has merit. Accordingly, we conclude that the juvenile court correctly sustained Child’s challenge to the VDP, but should not have referred to it as “void.”

A

¶25 There are a number of ways for a parent to establish a legally valid parent-child relationship, many of which are “based on the notion that parents should generally have parental rights regarding their biological children.” See Scott v. Benson, 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 18, 501 P.3d 1148, cert. granted, 509 P.3d 196 (2022); see also Lehr v. Robertson, 463 U.S. 248, 256–57 (1983) (recognizing “[t]he intangible fibers that connect parent and child”); Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651 (1972) (holding that a biological father’s interest “in the children he has sired and raised, undeniably warrants deference and, absent a powerful countervailing interest,” constitutional protection). “In most cases, parental status is established, based on an assumed biological connection, simply by presumption of circumstance.” Scott, 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 19. For example, in the absence of a valid gestational agreement, a mother establishes a parental relationship with any child to whom she gives birth. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-15-201(1)(a)(i) (LexisNexis 2018).

¶26 Some fathers also obtain parental rights by presumption of circumstance. For instance, a father-child relationship is established when a man “and the mother of the child are married to each other” when the child is born. Id. §§ 78B-15-201(2)(a), -204(1)(a). But a father who is not married to the mother of the child must take additional steps to establish his paternity.

¶27 One avenue open to unmarried biological fathers is to establish paternity by declaration, an option that—crucially— requires the written consent of the child’s mother. See id. §§ 78B15-301, -302. A successful declaration of paternity, “duly signed and filed, has the same effect as a judicial determination of paternity.” In re S.H., 2005 UT App 324, ¶ 15, 119 P.3d 309. To be effective, both the mother and declarant father must sign the declaration “in the presence of two witnesses” and make several statements “under penalty of perjury.” See Utah Code Ann§ 78B15-302(1). Of particular relevance here, the parties must also attest that the child “whose paternity is being declared” does not have a presumed, adjudicated, or declarant father, and they must “state whether there has been genetic testing and, if so, that the declarant man’s paternity is consistent with the results of the testing.” See id. § 78B-15-302(1)(d), (e). “A declaration of paternity shall be considered effective when filed and entered into a database established and maintained by the Office of Vital Records.” Id. § 78B-15-302(9).

¶28 Father chose this avenue; he and Mother jointly signed and filed the VDP on August 18, 2021, after answering several written questions under penalty of perjury. As already noted, they both averred that they “believe[d]” Father to be Child’s biological father, and Father answered “no” to a question asking whether “the birth mother, child, and biological father [had] submitted to genetic testing.” The Office of Vital Records and Statistics accepted the VDP as valid, and that same day issued an amended birth certificate for Child, listing Father as Child’s father. At that point, Father’s parental rights regarding Child were definitively established. See id. § 78B-15-305(1) (LexisNexis 2018) (stating that “a valid declaration of paternity filed with the Office of Vital Records is equivalent to a legal finding of paternity of a child and confers upon the declarant father all of the rights and duties of a parent”); see also Scott, 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 22 n.4 (“A declaration is valid and effective if it meets all the basic statutory requirements and is accepted by the Office of Vital Records.”); In re S.H., 2005 UT App 324, ¶ 15 (stating that a declaration of paternity “duly signed and filed, has the same effect as a judicial determination of paternity”).

B

¶29 Declarations can, however, be challenged after they have been accepted by the Office of Vital Records and Statistics. See Scott, 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 23 (“Voluntary declarations of paternity are, however, subject to challenge.”). Applicable statutes permit several different types of challenges to validly filed declarations. For example, a declaration may be challenged as “void” if it fails to meet certain threshold criteria regarding the existence of another potential father. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B15-302(3) (referred to herein as “Section 302”). Alternatively, a “signatory” of a declaration may rescind it within sixty days, without specifying any reason. Id. § 78B-15-306(1) (referred to herein as “Section 306”). Further, after the rescission period has expired, a declaration may be challenged by certain parties “on the basis of fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact.” See id. § 78B-15-307 (referred to herein as “Section 307”). And as relevant here, Section 623 provides that “[a] child is not bound by a determination of parentage . . . unless . . . the determination was based on an unrescinded declaration of paternity and the declaration is consistent with genetic testing.” See id. § 78B-15-623(2).

¶30 Before the juvenile court, the GAL raised a challenge to the VDP and, by the time of the hearing, had elected to ground that challenge largely in Section 623.[3] The court accepted the GAL’s Section 623 argument, and Father challenges that decision here on appeal. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the juvenile court correctly found merit in the GAL’s Section 623 challenge.

¶31 Section 623 begins by stating that “a determination of parentage is binding on . . . all signatories to a declaration . . . of paternity . . . and . . . all parties to an adjudication [of parentage] by a tribunal.” Id. § 78B-15-623(1). The next section of the statute provides as follows:

(2) A child is not bound by a determination of parentage under this chapter unless:

(a) the determination was based on an unrescinded declaration of paternity and the declaration is consistent with the results of genetic testing;

(b) the adjudication of parentage was based on a finding consistent with the results of genetic testing and the consistency is declared in the determination or is otherwise shown; or

(c) the child was a party or was represented in the proceeding determining parentage by a guardian ad litem.

Id. § 78B-15-623(2). The precise question presented is whether Section 623 gives a child the right to challenge a putative father’s duly filed declaration of paternity on the basis that the declaration is inconsistent with genetic testing results. We hold that it does.

¶32 The question before us is, at root, one of statutory interpretation. “When interpreting a statute, our primary objective is to ascertain the intent of the legislature, the best evidence of which is the plain language of the statute itself.” Taylor v. Taylor, 2022 UT 35, ¶ 28, 517 P.3d 380 (quotation simplified). In examining the language of a statute, “we do not view individual words and subsections in isolation; instead, our statutory interpretation requires that each part or section be construed in connection with every other part or section so as to produce a harmonious whole.” Penunuri v. Sundance Partners Ltd., 2013 UT 22, ¶ 15, 301 P.3d 984 (quotation simplified); see also State v. Bess, 2019 UT 70, ¶ 25, 473 P.3d 157 (“We read the plain language of the statute as a whole and interpret its provisions in harmony with other statutes in the same chapter and related chapters.” (quotation simplified)). And if this exercise “provides a workable result, we need not resort to other interpretive tools, and our analysis ends.” Torrie v. Weber County, 2013 UT 48, ¶ 11, 309 P.3d 216 (quotation simplified). In accordance with these principles, we begin our analysis with an overview of the relevant statute’s structure.

¶33 The statute in question is the Utah Uniform Parentage Act (the Act), codified at Title 78B, Chapter 15 of the Utah Code. See Utah Code Ann. §§ 78B-15-101 to -902 (LexisNexis 2018). Section 623’s reference to “a determination of parentage under this chapter,” then, refers to any determination of parentage made under any of the various parts of the Act. See id. § 78B-15-623(2) (emphasis added). Part 3 of the Act governs voluntary declarations of paternity, see id. §§ 78B-15-301 to -313, and Part 6 of the Act governs judicial adjudications of parentage, see id. §§ 78B-15-601 to -623. Indeed, the term “determination of parentage,” as used in Section 623, has a specific statutory definition: our legislature has provided that a “determination of parentage” means either (a) “the establishment of the parent-child relationship by the signing of a valid declaration of paternity under Part 3,” or (b) “adjudication [of parentage] by a tribunal” under Part 6. See id. § 78B-15-102(9).

¶34 In this case, any parental rights claimed by Father are derived not from any judicial adjudication of paternity but, rather, from the VDP. Indeed, the Act is clear with regard to the effect of a properly filed declaration of paternity: “a valid declaration of paternity filed with the Office of Vital Records is equivalent to a legal finding of paternity of a child and confers upon the declarant father all of the rights and duties of a parent,” without the necessity of initiating judicial proceedings or obtaining a court order. See id. § 78B-15-305(1); see also In re S.H., 2005 UT App 324, ¶ 15 (stating that a declaration of paternity “duly signed and filed, has the same effect as a judicial determination of paternity”). Phrased in the language of Section 623, then, the “determination of parentage” at issue here took place pursuant to Part 3, not Part 6, and it occurred not in any courtroom but at the front counter (or its metaphorical online equivalent) at the Office of Vital Records and Statistics.

¶35 As noted, Section 623 provides that “[a] child is not bound by a determination of parentage” unless at least one of three criteria are met. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-15-623(2). With regard to the specific “determination of parentage” at issue here, none of the three listed criteria are met.

¶36 First, the “determination of parentage” at issue in this case was not “based on an unrescinded declaration of paternity” that is “consistent with genetic testing.” See id. § 78B-15-623(2)(a). To be sure, the determination of parentage here was based on an “unrescinded declaration of paternity”; after all, Father’s only claim to paternity was made through the VDP, and neither Father nor Mother had exercised any rights they had, pursuant to Section 306, to rescind the VDP within sixty days of signing it. See id. § 78B-15-306. But the unrescinded VDP at the heart of Father’s paternity claim turned out to be entirely inconsistent with the genetic test results that came back in September 2021. For this reason, the “determination of parentage” at issue here was not based on a declaration of paternity that was “consistent with the results of genetic testing.” Id. § 78B-15-623(2)(a) (emphasis added). Thus, the first criterion is inapplicable.

¶37 The second criterion is likewise inapplicable, for two reasons. First, this criterion applies only to an “adjudication of parentage,” see id. § 78B-15-623(2)(b), and no such adjudication occurred here, where Father’s parental rights, if any, are derived under Part 3, from the VDP, rather than through a judicial process. And second, this criterion also depends upon “genetic testing” being “consistent with” the adjudication of parentage and, as already noted, the genetic testing in this case excluded Father from any biological relationship with Child. See id.

¶38     Finally, the third criterion has no application either. That criterion applies if “the child was a party or was represented in the proceeding determining parentage by a guardian ad litem.” Id. § 78B-15-623(2)(c). To be sure, Child was represented by the GAL in the proceedings before the juvenile court, and is represented by the GAL in this appeal. But Child was not involved, in any way, in the “proceeding determining parentage” at issue here. Again, that “proceeding” occurred on August 18, 2021, when Father and Mother appeared at the Office of Vital Records and Statistics to fill out the VDP, and when that office accepted the VDP they filed. That proceeding took place entirely outside of court, and Child had no voice or representation therein. Accordingly, the third criterion is likewise inapplicable.

¶39 Because none of the three exceptional criteria apply here, Section 623 provides that Child is “not bound by [the] determination of parentage” in this case. See id. § 78B-15-623(2) (emphasis added). In our view, this language must necessarily mean that Child has the right to challenge the VDP.[4]

¶40 The words “not bound by” are not defined in the Act. In such a situation, we “interpret the statutory language according to the plain meaning of its text.” See O’Hearon v. Hansen, 2017 UT App 214, ¶ 24, 409 P.3d 85 (quotation simplified). And in doing so, we give the words the meaning they are given in ordinary daily usage. See State v. Rincon, 2012 UT App 372, ¶ 10, 293 P.3d 1142 (“When construing a statute, words that are used in common, daily, nontechnical speech, should, in the absence of evidence of a contrary intent, be given the meaning which they have for laymen in such daily usage.” (quotation simplified)).

¶41 In our view, the words “not bound by” must include a right to challenge the determination of parentage. A child who has no right to challenge the determination in question, even in a case where none of the three statutory criteria applied, would effectively be bound by it. Stated another way, in order to be “not bound by” something, there must exist a way to get out from under its obligations. After all, the words “not bound by” would be deprived of all effective meaning if a child had no right to challenge the determination of parentage at issue. Even Father and the amicus curiae both acknowledge, in recently filed briefs, that Child has statutory standing to challenge the VDP under Part 6. For these reasons, we conclude that Section 623 provides Child the right to challenge the VDP—an unrescinded declaration of paternity upon which Father’s claim to paternity is based—on the ground that the declaration is inconsistent with “the results of genetic testing.” See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-15-623(2)(a).

¶42 Once it is established that Child has the right to mount a challenge to the VDP, we must turn to the merits of that challenge. And Father, here on appeal, does not seriously contest the merits of Child’s attack on the VDP. Father instead acknowledges, as he must, that the genetic testing excluded him as Child’s biological father, and that the genetic testing is, therefore, inconsistent with his claims to paternity under the VDP. Accordingly, the juvenile court correctly determined that Child’s Section 623 challenge to the VDP was meritorious.

¶43 But while the juvenile court’s ruling is correct on its merits, the court used incorrect nomenclature to describe the effect of its ruling. The court ruled that the VDP “is void,” thereby apparently purporting to invalidate it ab initio and render it without force or effect from the date it was filed. This was incorrect. A challenge to a declaration of paternity based on inconsistency with genetic testing is a challenge alleging “a material mistake of fact.” See id. § 78B-15-307(5) (stating that “genetic test results that exclude a declarant father . . . constitute a material mistake of fact”). And as we explained in Scott, the effect of a successful challenge on this basis—as opposed to a challenge grounded in Section 302 or Section 306—is “not that the declaration of paternity is rendered void from its inception” but, instead, that the “declaration will be set aside, on a going-forward basis.” See 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 40.

¶44 In our view, a challenge brought by a child under Section 623 alleging that genetic testing is inconsistent with a declarant father’s declaration is substantively similar to the type of challenge we examined in Scott. Neither challenge is grounded in Sections 302 or 306, statutory provisions that expressly provide that voidness will result from a successful challenge. And both challenges arise from the same set of circumstances, namely, genetic testing that does not match a putative father’s claims to paternity. We therefore hold that, where a child makes a successful Section 623 challenge to a declaration of paternity, the result is that the declaration “will be set aside, on a going-forward basis,” and will not be declared void from the date of its inception. See id. As applied to this case, these principles dictate that Father had legal parental rights for some three months, from August 18 through November 16, 2021, but that his parental rights ended, prospectively, with entry of the court’s order sustaining Child’s Section 623 challenge.

¶45 Finally, both Father and the amicus curiae—in recently filed supplemental briefs—raise the potential applicability of section 78B-15-608 of the Utah Code (referred to herein as “Section 608”), a statutory section that allows a court, under certain conditions, to “disregard genetic test results that exclude the . . . declarant father.” Father asserts, for the first time in his supplemental brief, that he should be entitled to a hearing to determine whether the genetic test results eliminating him as Child’s biological father should be “disregarded” pursuant to Section 608. But Father makes this request for the first time in this recent brief; he did not raise a Section 608 defense to the GAL’s challenge before the juvenile court, nor did he mention Section 608 in either his opening or reply brief on appeal. Under these circumstances, Father has raised this legal theory far too late for us to consider it in the context of this appeal. Cf. Viertel v. Body Firm Aerobics LLC, 2022 UT App 96, ¶ 11, 516 P.3d 791 (“Appellants are not permitted to raise matters for the first time in a reply brief.” (quotation simplified)).

¶46 The amicus curiae, for its part, asserts that it was “mandatory” for the juvenile court to have conducted a Section 608 inquiry, including a “best interest of the child” analysis, even in the absence of a request by Father for it to do so; in this vein, the amicus curiae argues that the juvenile court committed plain error by not engaging in that analysis sua sponte. In particular, the amicus curiae rests its argument on statutory language stating that the court “shall consider the best interest of the child.” See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-15-608(2) (emphasis added). But in our view, the amicus curiae overreads the statute.

¶47 As we interpret it, Section 608 does not compel a juvenile court, in every instance in which any challenge to a VDP is sustained, to undertake a Section 608 analysis even if none of the parties request it. Litigants are entitled to select the specific defenses they raise to an opponent’s claim. The general rule, applicable in both district and juvenile courts, is that parties must request specific relief in order for a court to award it. Our judicial process ordinarily does not require courts to step in and examine legal theories that the parties have not themselves raised. See State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 14, 416 P.3d 443 (“Under our adversarial system, the parties have the duty to identify legal issues and bring arguments before an impartial tribunal to adjudicate their respective rights and obligations.”). In this case, Father—who was represented by counsel at the time—elected to defend against the GAL’s challenge to the VDP by calling into question the GAL’s (or

Child’s) right to even mount the challenge. Father did not raise Section 608 as a possible defense, and he did not ask the juvenile court—in the event it concluded that the GAL had standing to challenge the VDP—to disregard the results of the genetic testing pursuant to Section 608.

¶48 We take the amicus curiae’s point that, whenever a party does specifically invoke Section 608 and ask a court to disregard genetic test results, that court must “consider the best interest of the child” in determining whether to do so. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-15-608(2). But courts do not have an obligation to sua sponte raise Section 608, and undertake its concomitant best-interest analysis, in every case in which they are asked to consider a challenge to a VDP.[5] See Utah Stream Access Coal. v. VR Acquisitions, LLC, 2019 UT 7, ¶ 41, 439 P.3d 593 (stating that “judges are neutral arbiters—not advocates,” and that judges “keep [themselves] out of the business of second-guessing the pleading decisions of the parties”); cf. Scott, 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 43 (noting that the lower court, in that case, turned to a Section 608 analysis only at the “request” of one of the parties). If a putative parent wants a court to take the rather drastic and unusual step of disregarding the results of genetic testing, it will ordinarily be the parent’s responsibility to raise the issue.

¶49 And even assuming, for the purposes of the discussion, that plain error review is available here, see Kelly v. Timber Lakes Prop. Owners Ass’n, 2022 UT App 23, ¶ 42 n.10, 507 P.3d 357 (suggesting that plain error review may be available in certain types of civil cases, including termination of parental rights cases), we reject the amicus curiae’s assertion that, on the record before us, the juvenile court committed plain error by not invoking Section 608 sua sponte. Plain error occurs only when a court commits an obvious prejudicial error. See Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 20. Here, the juvenile court committed no obvious error. Nothing in Section 608 indicates that it is to be applied in every case, even sua sponte, regardless of whether any party ever invokes it. And the amicus curiae cites no appellate court case that so indicates. Where the law is not clear, a court does not commit obvious error. See State v. Dean, 2004 UT 63, ¶ 16, 95 P.3d 276 (“To establish that the error should have been obvious to the trial court, [a litigant] must show that the law governing the error was clear at the time the alleged error was made.”).

¶50 For these reasons, the juvenile court did not plainly err by not sua sponte undertaking an analysis pursuant to Section 608. And because Father did not raise that issue either before the juvenile court or in his initial brief, we decline to address Father’s argument that the court should have conducted such an analysis. We offer no opinion, however, regarding whether the issue could properly be raised after remand, especially given the fact that the juvenile court left the door open to Father’s involvement in the case going forward.

CONCLUSION

¶51 We have jurisdiction to consider the merits of Father’s appeal, because the juvenile court’s order canceled the parental rights that Father had temporarily acquired by filing the VDP and thereby effected a permanent change in Child’s status regarding Father. But on the merits of that appeal, we conclude that the juvenile court correctly sustained the GAL’s Section 623 challenge to the VDP, even if the court should not have used the word “void” to describe the result of its ruling. We therefore affirm the juvenile court’s decision to sustain the GAL’s challenge to the VDP, but remand with instructions for the court to modify its order to indicate that it has prospective effect only, and for such other proceedings as may be appropriate.

 

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[1] “We recite the facts in a light most favorable to the juvenile court findings.” In re K.J., 2013 UT App 237, ¶ 2 n.2, 327 P.3d 1203 (quotation simplified).

[2] After recognizing this jurisdictional question, we issued a Sua Sponte Motion for Summary Disposition, explaining that this appeal was being considered for summary disposition “on the basis that this court lacks jurisdiction because the order appealed from was not a final, appealable order.” We then ordered the parties to submit briefing on the jurisdictional question, which they did. Later, we also provided the parties the opportunity to submit supplemental briefing on the statutory standing question. Father and the GAL submitted supplemental briefs, and an amicus curiae submitted a brief on this topic as well. We appreciate the assistance of the parties and the amicus curiae in submitting supplemental briefing.

[3] As noted already, the GAL’s pre-hearing briefing before the juvenile court invoked Sections 302 and 307, but not Section 623. In their briefing on appeal, the parties include some discussion of other potential avenues for challenge. No party invokes Section 306, and both the State and the GAL appear to concede that the GAL—apparently because Child is not a “signatory” to the VDP—does not have statutory standing to challenge the VDP under Section 307. But the State does appear to invoke Section 302 in connection with its argument that the VDP was “fraudulently executed,” and on that basis appears to ask us to affirm the juvenile court’s ruling on this alternative ground. We have serious doubts about the merits of this argument, primarily because none of the three criteria for voidness set forth in Section 302 are present here, but also because any evidence of fraud on the part of Father or Mother is thin at best: they were not sure whether Father was Child’s biological parent, but had a basis to “believe” that he was, and Father’s answer about the state of genetic testing was technically correct, because on August 18 neither Mother nor Child had yet submitted samples for genetic testing. But we need not delve deeper into the State’s alternative argument, because we affirm the substance of the court’s ruling under Section 623.

[4] After all, Part 6 of the Act expressly provides that “the child” may maintain “a proceeding to adjudicate parentage,” and thereby challenge a parent’s paternity. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-15-602(1). All parties to this appeal agree that a child has statutory standing under Part 6 to challenge a parent’s paternity.

[5] The amicus curiae runs into the same problem with its other best-interest related argument. It points out that guardians ad litem have authority created by statute, and that they are appointed “to represent the best interest of a minor.” See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-2-803(1)(a)(i) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). It asserts that the GAL in this case, by challenging Father’s paternity, acted outside Child’s best interest, pointing out that Child has no other father figure in his life, and offering its view that “it is difficult to see how it can be in a child’s best interest to challenge the paternity of the only father figure participating in the case.” We acknowledge this argument, and agree with the amicus curiae that guardians ad litem have a statutory obligation to carefully consider whether the actions they take on a child’s behalf are in the child’s best interest. But ordinarily any challenge to a guardian ad litem’s actions as being outside a child’s best interest must come from one of the parties rather than from a court sua sponte, and must be raised in the first instance in the district or juvenile court. No such challenge was levied here by any party before the juvenile court, rendering the merits of any such challenge inappropriate for appellate review.

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

2022 UT App 145

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

ROBBEN ANN OLDROYD,

Appellant,

v.

FARRELL LYNN OLDROYD, Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20210073-CA

Filed December 22, 2022

Second District Court, Morgan Department

The Honorable Noel S. Hyde No. 134500028

Brent D. Wride, Attorney for Appellant

Brian E. Arnold and Lauren Schultz, Attorneys for Appellee

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

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

I. Contribution Exception

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

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

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

II. Extraordinary Situation Exception

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

Widdison v. Widdison – 2022 UT App 46
 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

NICOLE WIDDISON,
Appellant, 

LEON BRYANT WIDDISON, 

Appellee. 

Opinion 

No. 20200484-CA 

Filed April 7, 2022 

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department 

The Honorable Robert P. Faust 

No. 144906018 

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal, Attorneys
for Appellant 

Todd R. Sheeran, Attorney for Appellee 

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

TENNEY, Judge: 

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

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

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

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

BACKGROUND [10]
The Divorce Decree 

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

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

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

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

. . . . 

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

. . . . 

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

. . . . 

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

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

. . . . 

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

(Emphases added.) 

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

The Modification Petitions 

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

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

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

Motion for Temporary Relief 

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

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

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

The Relocation Proceedings 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW 

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

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

ANALYSIS 

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

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

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

I. Legal Custody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Physical Custody

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

A. The Nature of the Modification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Determination 

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

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

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

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

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

C. Standard of Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D. The Change in Circumstances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION 

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

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

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MacFarland v. MacFarland – 2021 UT App 58

021 UT App 58 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

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

Opinion 

No. 20190541-CA 
Filed June 4, 2021 

Second District Court, Farmington Department 

The Honorable David J. Williams 

No. 084701533 

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

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

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

HARRIS, Judge: 

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

BACKGROUND 
The Divorce Decree 

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

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

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

Post-Divorce Events and Conduct 

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

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

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

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

The Post-Divorce Filings 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hearing and Subsequent Ruling 

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW 

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

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

ANALYSIS 
I. Alimony 

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

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

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

  1. Child Support

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

A 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B 

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

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

1 

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

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

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

Id. 

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

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

2 

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

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

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

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

3 

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

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

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

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

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

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

C 

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

CONCLUSION 

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

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

 

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

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What happens to child support if the parent paying moves out of the country?

Assuming that you are asking whether a parent who is, in the course of a United States divorce or child custody proceeding, ordered to pay child support, moving out of the country would not change that parent’s legal obligation to pay child support, but moving out of the country could make it difficult, even impossible to enforce that child support order. Moving out of the country might make it impossible to locate that parent and the source of that parent’s income. If a parent moves to a country that doesn’t recognize and enforce court orders from the United States, that too would make it impossible to enforce child support orders. 

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

https://www.quora.com/What-happens-to-child-support-if-the-parent-paying-moves-out-of-the-country-We-live-in-Florida-US/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1  

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Do judges sometimes feel overburdened by the responsibilities of their job?

Yes, and for good reason. First, let me be unusually but sincerely candid: many judges and many of the actions that judges take disappoint me. There are some excellent judges on the bench who are clearly skilled in the law and know how to apply it accurately, justly, and equitably. Would that all judges lived up to this standard. But not all judges do. I mention this so that the context of my answer to your question is clear.

Being a judge is, in my opinion, mostly a thankless job. Sure, there are some obvious perks to being a judge, including, but not limited to, a good salary, state and federal holidays off, most judges receive a generous pension when they retire, the prestige of being called “Your Honor,” but the burdens of being a judge are in some ways unimaginable. Can you conceive of sentencing someone to life in prison or death? Or even sentencing someone to 5 to 10 years in prison when you’re not certain of his or her guilt? Can you imagine what it must be like to spend your work week, week after week, hearing hundreds of stories of lying, cheating, robbing, destroying property, assaulting, raping and murdering? It all takes an inevitable toll on even the strongest of people. Those judges who do the best they can and do the job well day after day, year-over-year deserve not only our respect, but our sympathy, our thanks, and support.

All that stated, there are clearly some judges who are not cut out for the job and need to quit. Some need to quit because they are not competent as judges. Some need to quit because, while they might have been up to the demands of the job in the beginning, they aren’t anymore. Some need to quit before they become so jaded that they cannot give the job and the people who come before them the attention both the job–and the cases they hear and decide–deserve.

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

https://www.quora.com/Do-judges-sometimes-feel-overburdened-by-the-responsibilities-of-their-job/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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Can a divorced spouse claim rights to a previous primary residence?

Can a divorced spouse claim rights to a previous primary residence?

A court can, in exceptional circumstances, award a spouse some or all of your premarital and separate property that is clearly not a marital asset. In the jurisdiction where I practice family law (Utah), the rule in caselaw is:

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

The general rule is that equity requires that each party retain the separate property he or she brought into the marriage, including any appreciation of the separate property. Burt v. Burt, 799 P.2d 1166, 1168 (Utah Ct.App.1990) (separate property, in this case inherited property, includes “its appreciated value” during the marriage). Exceptions to this general rule include whether the property has been commingled, whether the other spouse has by his or her efforts augmented, maintained, or protected the separate property, and whether the distribution achieves a fair, just, and equitable result. Id.; Noble v. Noble, 761 P.2d 1369, 1373 (Utah 1988).

Elman v. Elman, 245 P.3d 176 (Utah Ct.App. 2002):

In distributing property in divorce proceedings, trial courts are first required to properly categorize the parties’ property as marital or separate. See, e.g., Kelley v. Kelley, 2000 UT App 236,¶ 24, 9 P.3d 171. Generally, trial courts are also required to award premarital property, and appreciation on that property, to the spouse who brought the property into the marriage. See Dunn v. Dunn, 802 P.2d 1314, 1320 (Utah Ct.App.1990); see also Mortensen v. Mortensen, 760 P.2d 304, 308 (Utah 1988).

6¶ 19 However, separate property is not “totally beyond [a] court’s reach in an equitable property division.” Burt v. Burt, 799 P.2d 1166, 1169 (Utah Ct.App.1990). The court may award the separate property of one spouse to the other spouse in “ ‘extraordinary situations where equity so demands.’ ” Id. (quoting Mortensen, 760 P.2d at 308); see also Rappleye v. Rappleye, 855 P.2d 260, 263 (Utah Ct.App.1993) (“ ‘Exceptions to this general rule include whether … the distribution achieves a fair, just, and equitable result.’ ” (quoting Dunn, 802 P.2d at 1320)).

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

https://www.quora.com/Can-a-divorced-spouse-claim-rights-to-a-previous-primary-residence/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Can a divorced spouse claim rights to a premarital primary residence?

Can a divorced spouse claim rights to a premarital primary residence?

A court can, in exceptional circumstances, award a spouse some or all of your premarital and separate property that is clearly not a marital asset. In the jurisdiction where I practice family law (Utah), the rule in caselaw is:

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

The general rule is that equity requires that each party retain the separate property he or she brought into the marriage, including any appreciation of the separate property. Burt v. Burt, 799 P.2d 1166, 1168 (Utah Ct.App.1990) (separate property, in this case inherited property, includes “its appreciated value” during the marriage). Exceptions to this general rule include whether the property has been commingled, whether the other spouse has by his or her efforts augmented, maintained, or protected the separate property, and whether the distribution achieves a fair, just, and equitable result. Id.; Noble v. Noble, 761 P.2d 1369, 1373 (Utah 1988).

Elman v. Elman, 245 P.3d 176 (Utah Ct.App. 2002):

In distributing property in divorce proceedings, trial courts are first required to properly categorize the parties’ property as marital or separate. See, e.g., Kelley v. Kelley, 2000 UT App 236,¶ 24, 9 P.3d 171. Generally, trial courts are also required to award premarital property, and appreciation on that property, to the spouse who brought the property into the marriage. See Dunn v. Dunn, 802 P.2d 1314, 1320 (Utah Ct.App.1990); see also Mortensen v. Mortensen, 760 P.2d 304, 308 (Utah 1988).

6¶ 19 However, separate property is not “totally beyond [a] court’s reach in an equitable property division.” Burt v. Burt, 799 P.2d 1166, 1169 (Utah Ct.App.1990). The court may award the separate property of one spouse to the other spouse in “ ‘extraordinary situations where equity so demands.’ ” Id. (quoting Mortensen, 760 P.2d at 308); see also Rappleye v. Rappleye, 855 P.2d 260, 263 (Utah Ct.App.1993) (“ ‘Exceptions to this general rule include whether … the distribution achieves a fair, just, and equitable result.’ ” (quoting Dunn, 802 P.2d at 1320)).

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

https://www.quora.com/Can-a-divorced-spouse-claim-rights-to-a-previous-primary-residence/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Judge says stay away from my paramour. Can judge do that?

Judge says stay away from my paramour. Can judge do that?

I became pregnant by my paramour after my husband and I separated. The court order states we are not to have paramours around our child. Will the judge take custody from me if I have my paramour around due to the situation?

I assume that your question is based upon a situation in which:

  • you and your husband have a child together (we’ll call that child “Child A”).
  • you and your husband are separated.
  • there is a divorce case pending, and the court has ordered that your paramour can not be around Child A (which is not an unusual order for courts to make, by the way).
  • at some point, whether before or after separation, you were impregnated by your paramour.

Now that you are pregnant by your paramour, it appears that both you and your paramour wants to be together to support one another during your pregnancy and be a witness to the miracle of birth as it unfolds. That’s understandable.

But there’s this court order that prohibits you from being with your paramour when you are with Child A. And you appear to want your paramour with you when you are with Child A. And you wonder whether the court would take custody of Child A from you if you violate the court’s order.

Your questions are essentially: is the court’s order fair? And will I lose custody if I disobey the court’s order?

The answers to your question (and for anyone in your situation) are:

Yes, the court’s order is fair. Reasonable minds can differ as to whether it is necessary that you be ordered to bar your paramour from being with you when Child A is also with you, but if a court concludes that having the paramour around might confuse the child as to who the child’s parent is and that exposing a child to adulterous relationships and/or that shacking up is morally and pragmatically unwise is well within a judge’s rational and sound discretion.

Yes, a court could base, in whole or in part, a decision to award custody of Child A to your husband upon the fact that you are disobeying its order barring you from being with your paramour when you are with Child A. Why? Because violating court orders shows that you cannot be trusted, that you place your interests ahead of law and order and/or ahead of what the court deems best for your child. Solution: don’t have your paramour around when you are scheduled to spend time with Child A. Is this hard? Perhaps. Is it worth it to ensure you don’t lose custody or parental rights? Of course.

https://www.quora.com/I-became-pregnant-by-my-paramour-after-my-husband-and-I-separated-The-court-order-states-we-are-not-to-have-paramours-around-our-child-Will-judge-take-custody-from-me-if-I-have-my-paramour-around-due-to-the/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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

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If everyone agrees that the judge needs to know what the child is experiencing, observing, and feeling, why won’t the judge interview the child?

If everyone agrees that the judge needs to know what the child is experiencing, observing, and feeling, why won’t the judge interview the child?

 

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

 

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

 

I respectfully submit that claiming a child will know or “feel” a painful or harmful difference between an interview conducted by a judge as opposed to an interview by a GAL and/or custody evaluator is patently without merit. There is no independently verifiable proof for the claim that a judge interviewing a child on the subject of child custody issues inherently harms a child or exposes a child to a risk of harm. And when you think about, the very idea that a judge talking to a child will cause the child some kind of unwarranted harm—if indeed any real harm at all—is silly on its face.

 

If everyone agrees that the judge needs to know what the child is experiencing, observing, and feeling, what concerns the child, and what the child’s opinions and desires are, the idea that the best way to do this is through an interview by anyone but the judge is as absurd as it is counterproductive. Worse, to suggest that a guardian ad litem (who got literally a few hours of training in a hotel ballroom seminar and YouTube) or mental health professional thousands of dollars and take weeks or months to provide a milquetoast report and recommendations is indefensible.

 

You may ask why custody evaluators analyses and recommendations are usually so vague and timid. It’s a fair and crucial question. It’s out of fear of being reported to DOPL or sued for malpractice by the parent against whom the evaluator may make adverse recommendations. Knowing this, it is impossible to justify why so many judges and lawyers are so resistant to a judge conducting the interview of the child directly and on the record.

 

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

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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 | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/My-uncle-passed-away-but-my-Mom-is-treating-my-Dad-so-bad-that-I-think-a-divorce-is-on-the-horizon-Nobody-is-supportive-What-do-I-do-as-a-son/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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