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State v. Smith – 2024 UT App 82

State v. Smith – 2024 UT App 82



Opinion No. 20220299-CA Filed May 31, 2024

Fifth District Court, St. George Department, The Honorable Jeffrey C. Wilcox No. 211501082

Nicolas D. Turner and K. Andrew Fitzgerald, Attorneys for Appellant, Sean D. Reyes and Karen A. Klucznik, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE AMY J. OLIVER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred.

OLIVER, Judge:

¶1 After coming home ¶1 After coming home from work, Shawntell Smith (Shawntell) gathered her family as she had planned and calmly told her husband of nearly thirty years, Steven Timothy Smith (Smith), that she was leaving him and taking their kids with her. Over the next twenty-five minutes, Smith left the house, drove to the bank and withdrew $15,000, returned home and put the cash in a drawer, got his gun from the closet and loaded the magazine, and asked his two sons if they agreed with the plan to move out. He then fatally shot Shawntell seven times in the back as she stood in the kitchen. At trial, Smith confessed on the stand, and a jury convicted him of first-degree murder. Smith challenges his conviction on the grounds that the trial court erred in denying his request for a jury instruction on the defense of extreme emotional distress and in denying his last-minute motion for a continuance to hire an expert witness. We reject both of Smith’s arguments and affirm his conviction.


¶2        Shawntell and Smith were married and had four children, three of whom were adults in May 2021. The two youngest sons, a fourteen-year-old (Teen Son) and a twenty-year-old (Adult Son), lived at home. Smith “was quick to anger or snap at the kids,” threatening them with a belt, cussing at them frequently, and sometimes throwing things at them. Smith also directed his temper, which he believes “every male has,” at his wife, Shawntell. As Adult Son testified, Smith once got so angry when Adult Son wanted Shawntell’s—not Smith’s—help with homework that Shawntell said she would call the police if Smith did not calm down. Smith then “got into her face” and said, “I’m going to put a bullet in your head.” Shawntell rarely stood up for herself, was often sleep-deprived from working two jobs— including a graveyard shift—to pay the bills, and had stopped inviting her friends into her house.

¶3        Shawntell eventually decided to leave Smith. For months, she quietly put a plan into action: she confided in her close friends and neighbors, asking for their help storing some of her things; she slowly began packing up boxes; and she found a townhouse and arranged for Adult Son to sign the lease on it. Shawntell decided she would hold a family meeting on May 21, 2021, to tell Smith she was leaving him that same day; she arranged for a couple of friends and neighbors to come help her move after the meeting. One neighbor (Neighbor) was worried about Shawntell’s safety if she left the same day she told Smith and suggested, instead, giving Smith “time to process” the news before moving out. But, Shawntell insisted on sticking with her plan out of fear Smith would “retaliat[e]” if she stayed. Neighbor remained “concerned enough” for Shawntell’s safety that he “put a gun in [his] truck.”

¶4        On May 21, just after 5:00 p.m., Shawntell and three of the kids—Adult Son, a twenty-five-year-old daughter (Daughter), and Teen Son—went into the home office where Smith was on his computer. Shawntell calmly told Smith she was leaving that day and that Adult Son and Teen Son were leaving with her. Smith simply said, “Okay,” and asked where they were going, along with who would pay rent on the family house. Shawntell replied that rent “would be his responsibility.” Smith calmly turned off his computer, walked to the master bedroom, and looked in the closet for his keys despite always keeping them on the dresser. Shawntell followed him and asked if she could help him find anything. Smith asked if Teen Son had known of her plan to leave, and Shawntell replied that only the older children had known beforehand.

¶5        Despite being “distraught” at the news his wife was leaving and he “was the last one to know,” Smith did not reach for any of the guns he kept in a chest on one of the bedroom dressers. Instead, he got his car keys and walked out of the bedroom, leaving the house at about 5:30 p.m. in a “calm” mood. Smith decided to take Shawntell’s car rather than the Suburban that was packed up, inferring she was taking the Suburban. He drove down the street to the bank and asked for a specific employee to help him withdraw $15,000 in cash. Smith opted to wait for that employee, who was busy with another customer. The employee suggested that a cashier’s check would be safer than carrying around so much cash. Smith refused and told the employee he was not concerned about safety because he was a retired police officer.

¶6        Smith drove home, arriving at approximately 5:45 p.m. A box truck that Adult Son had brought to help move was taking up most of the driveway, so Smith changed his mind about parking there, reversed the car, and found another parking spot. Neighbor observed Smith driving “at kind of a high rate of speed that just led [him] to believe that [Smith] was agitated.” Neighbor tried “to defuse the situation in some manner” by saying hello. Smith replied, “Get the fuck off my property” and Adult Son, who overheard Smith, said to Neighbor, “My dad’s true colors shining through.”

¶7        Smith walked into the house and went straight to the master bedroom, where he put the cash in a dresser drawer. Smith then saw a friend of Shawntell’s packing up her things from the closet and “forcefully” told her to leave. According to Smith, he “wanted to shoot” himself at that point, so he took out a .45 caliber pistol from the gun chest on his dresser and ammunition from the closet, and he went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet to load the gun. Smith claimed he felt “foggy” and “extremely out of it,” so when he tried to load the magazine, he did it the wrong way. He realized his mistake and then properly filled the magazine with seven bullets.

¶8        Deciding to kill himself in the backyard, Smith first went to find his sons, intending to ask them “if they wanted [him] around.” What he ended up asking, though, was whether they were okay with Shawntell’s plan to leave and take them. When they said they were, Smith said it felt like a slap in the face.

¶9        At approximately 5:52 p.m., Smith walked down the hallway to the back door and saw Shawntell with her back to him, her attention focused on doing something in a kitchen drawer. Smith thought to himself, “Okay. It’s her fault.” Lifting his gun, Smith aimed it at Shawntell and pulled the trigger seven times, hitting her each time. According to the medical examiner, the bullets penetrated Shawntell’s lungs, heart, kidney, bowel, and wrist. Smith watched Shawntell fall, face down, on the kitchen floor. He then went and sat on the couch, placing the gun on the nearby hutch.

¶10      Hearing gunshots from the driveway, Adult Son cried out and ran into the house, where he and Daughter found their mother lying on her stomach. Neither of them saw Smith near their mother, but Adult Son noticed Smith going into the master bedroom and followed, physically attacking him and asking, “Why? Why would you do this?” Smith responded, “I have nothing left.” Meanwhile, Daughter called 911 and attempted CPR.

¶11 When the police arrived, Teen Son ran out of the house, and the officers directed him to stay near them as another officer (Officer) “took a tactical position in front of the house.” The other two children came out, looking “frantic.” Adult Son exclaimed, “I beat the fuck out of my dad. He shot her. The gun is empty. And he’s sitting on the couch.” Officer ordered Smith to exit the house with his hands up. Smith calmly complied and was arrested. The police asked where the gun was, and Smith told them it was inside. Upon entering the house, the officers found Shawntell’s dead body surrounded by blood and seven .45 mm shell casings. After searching for “a long time,” the officers found the gun Smith used in the master closet, under a bloody American flag and “tucked” by the wall.

¶12 Smith was taken to the police station, where he received medical treatment for injuries caused by Adult Son. At the beginning of his first police interview, Smith was “pretty calm” but had “periods where he would become emotional.” Smith claimed to have memory gaps in the events leading up to the murder, so the police interviewed him a second time to ascertain whether he “recalled or was able to recall anything.” During the second interview, Smith claimed he did not remember shooting Shawntell, but he also “never denied that he shot her” and made statements such as, “I don’t deny that I’m not innocent” and, “I probably shot my wife.”

¶13      A few days later, the State charged Smith with murder. He pleaded not guilty. Out of an abundance of caution, Smith’s appointed counsel (Trial Counsel) requested a competency evaluation. The court granted the request, and Smith was later found competent to proceed. In mid-October, the parties agreed they would be ready for trial if it were set for the following month. On October 29, the State moved to preclude a jury instruction on an extreme emotional distress (EED) defense, contending the evidence would not support the defense under the new governing statute, which requires (among other things) evidence that the defendant had an “overwhelming reaction of anger, shock, or grief” to a “highly provoking act” by the victim, which reaction both (a) “cause[d] the defendant to be incapable of reflection and restraint” and (b) “would cause an objectively reasonable person to be incapable of reflection and restraint.” Utah Code § 76-5-205.5(1)(a)(i).[2] The court heard argument and deferred ruling until trial.

¶14 Two business days before trial, Smith filed a “two-page motion” requesting the appointment of an expert witness for an EED defense, a continuance, and funding for the expert. At oral argument on the motion, Trial Counsel argued an expert was needed to help the jury “recognize shock, anger, or grief, and how those things could be manifest.” Regarding the lateness of the filing, Trial Counsel argued that a continuance was “a reasonable accommodation” for “a complex issue” and “[t]here are other cases that are set to go if this one has to be continued.” In response, the State asserted “the statute is written in such a way that it doesn’t require expert testimony.” The trial court agreed and denied the motion, concluding that although expert testimony may explain the subjective part of the statute that looks to whether a defendant is “incapable of reflection and restraint,” see Utah Code § 76-5-205.5(1)(a)(i)(A) (2019), an expert is unnecessary to explain how an “objectively reasonable person” would react to a common occurrence like divorce, see id. § 76-5-205.5(1)(a)(i)(B). The trial court reasoned, “People get divorced all the time. And it is very rare that when someone is told, nothing more, ‘I’m leaving you,’ that that becomes so shocking and overwhelming[] that the person . . . leaving gets killed.”

¶15 At the three-day trial, two adult children, neighbors, friends, officers, and the medical examiner testified as recounted above. Smith testified in his defense, confessing on the stand that as he walked to the backyard, “I saw Shawntell right there. And that’s when I shot her.” At the close of evidence, the trial court heard argument outside the presence of the jury on the State’s motion to exclude the EED jury instruction. The court, finding that Shawntell did not engage in any type of highly provoking act before Smith killed her, ruled that the instruction would not be allowed because the evidence did not meet “the statutory requirement of a highly provocative act of the victim.” In closing, Trial Counsel argued, “[Smith] did not mean to shoot his wife. That was not his intent.” In response, the State pointed out there was plenty of evidence to support Smith’s intent to shoot and kill Shawntell, including his own statement that he shot her, the fact he never claimed it was a mistake, and the way he pulled the trigger seven times and did not miss a single time, all indicating Smith “clearly intended to kill her.”

¶16 The jury convicted Smith of murder, and the trial court sentenced Smith to fifteen years to life in prison. The court gave Smith credit for time served but then “recommend[ed] to the Board of Pardons [and Parole] that [Smith] remain in jail for the rest of [his] natural life.”


¶17 Smith argues the trial court erred in granting the State’s motion to exclude the EED jury instruction. The parties cite differing standards of review for this issue. The State asserts that we should review the decision to give a jury instruction for abuse of discretion, see State v. Karren, 2018 UT App 226, ¶ 18, 438 P.3d 18, while Smith states that we should review the decision for correctness, see State v. Kruger, 2000 UT 60, ¶ 11, 6 P.3d 1116.[3]

Ultimately, however, we need not resolve the question of which standard applies because, even under the more stringent correctness standard, we affirm the trial court’s decision denying Smith a jury instruction on EED.

¶18 Smith also argues the trial court erred by denying his motion seeking a continuance to obtain an expert witness on an EED defense. “We will not reverse the trial court’s decision to grant or deny a continuance absent a clear abuse of discretion.” State v. Alonzo Peraza, 2020 UT 48, ¶ 58, 469 P.3d 1023 (cleaned up).


I. EED Jury Instruction

¶19      Smith asserts the trial court erred when it declined to give

an EED jury instruction that could have reduced his murder charge to manslaughter. See Utah Code § 76-5-205.5(2)(a)–(b), (5) (2019). Specifically, Smith claims the court “substituted itself as the trier of fact” when it failed to consider Smith’s “background or experience” and concluded that no special mitigation existed because Shawntell committed no “highly provoking act,” id. § 76­5-205.5(2)(b).

¶20 “When requested by a criminal defendant, a trial court must give an instruction regarding a particular affirmative defense if evidence has been presented . . . that provides any reasonable basis upon which a jury could conclude that the affirmative defense applies to the defendant.” State v. Rivera, 2019 UT App 27, ¶ 19, 440 P.3d 694 (cleaned up). However, “a court need not instruct the jury on the requested affirmative defense where the evidence is so slight as to be incapable of raising a reasonable doubt in the jury’s mind as to whether the defendant” killed the victim while under the influence of EED. State v. Burke, 2011 UT App 168, ¶ 81, 256 P.3d 1102 (cleaned up).

¶21 Under Utah law, EED is defined as “an overwhelming reaction of anger, shock, or grief that . . . causes the defendant to be incapable of reflection and restraint” and “would cause an objectively reasonable person to be incapable of reflection and restraint.” Utah Code § 76-5-205.5(1)(a)(i). As relevant here, the defense applies only when the defendant acted “under the influence of extreme emotional distress that is predominantly caused by the victim’s highly provoking act immediately preceding the defendant’s actions.” Id. § 76-5-205.5(2)(b).

¶22      Here, the trial court correctly declined to give a jury instruction on the EED defense because the facts do not constitute a “highly provoking act.” As the trial court noted, “People get divorced all the time. And it is very rare that when someone is told, nothing more, ‘I’m leaving you,’ that that becomes so shocking and overwhelming[] that the person . . . leaving gets killed.” Shawntell’s announcement was a common one— relationships routinely end and people move out—and she made her announcement in a composed and rational way that she had thoughtfully planned out, calmly telling Smith she was leaving during a family meeting in his home office. Under these circumstances, the trial court correctly concluded that Shawntell’s actions were not “highly provoking.”

¶23 But even if we were to somehow construe Shawntell’s civilized, calm disclosure to Smith that she was leaving as a “highly provoking act,” it would still not satisfy the statute because it did not occur “immediately preceding” her murder. Approximately twenty-five minutes elapsed between the time Shawntell told Smith she was leaving and when he fatally shot her in the back seven times. Smith argues that the highly provoking act was more like a compilation of acts that was “ongoing from the time Shawntell informed him, and through her efforts to immediately remove everything from the home utilizing the aid of many friends and neighbors.” According to the relevant language of the statute, however, a defendant’s EED must be “predominantly caused by the victim’s highly provoking act immediately preceding the defendant’s actions.” Id. (emphasis added). Smith didn’t shoot Shawntell immediately after she told him she was leaving. He shot her twenty-five minutes later when she was in the kitchen doing something in a drawer with her back turned. Shawntell standing in her kitchen facing away from Smith was the antithesis of “highly provoking.”

¶24 Thus, the evidence at trial was “incapable of raising a reasonable doubt in the jury’s mind as to whether [the] defendant killed the victim while under the influence of” EED. State v. Piansiaksone, 954 P.2d 861, 872 (Utah 1998) (cleaned up). We therefore conclude the trial court correctly declined to give the jury instruction on the EED defense.

II. Continuance to Obtain an Expert Witness

¶25 Smith also contends that the trial court should have granted his motion for a continuance to obtain an expert witness because the shock or grief required by the EED statute “may require expert explanation to the jury about the various ways in which such emotions or psychological issues can manifest themselves.” The State, however, contends the trial court did not abuse its discretion because Smith failed to meet his burden for such a motion to be granted.

¶26 Because Smith moved “for a continuance to procure the testimony of an absent witness,” he must show (1) “that the testimony sought is material and admissible”; (2) “that the witness could actually be produced”; (3) “that the witness could be produced within a reasonable time”; and (4) “that due diligence has been exercised before the request for a continuance.” Mackin v. State, 2016 UT 47, ¶ 33, 387 P.3d 986 (cleaned up). “A failure to establish even one aspect of the above test defeats [a defendant’s] claim.” Id. Here, Smith falls well short of establishing the required elements.

¶27      First, Smith must show that an expert witness was material to his defense, which required him to “demonstrate with a reasonable probability that the nonadmitted evidence would affect the outcome of the criminal proceeding.” Id. ¶ 34 (cleaned up). But because Smith was not entitled to the EED jury instruction, see supra Part I, any testimony from an expert witness on the elements of the EED defense would have been irrelevant.[4] Thus, any such expert testimony was not material and Smith cannot demonstrate that there is “a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result” at trial had the motion been granted. Id. ¶ 37 (cleaned up).

¶28      Next, the cursory motion was lacking any of the required specifics. It failed to identify any expert by name, the substance of the expert’s testimony, how quickly the expert could be retained and prepared to testify, and that the unnamed expert would actually be able to appear at trial. Id. ¶ 33.

¶29      Finally, Smith failed to demonstrate that he acted with due

diligence. He filed his expert witness motion requesting the continuance on the eve of trial, after the State had raised the issue the previous month in its motion to exclude the EED jury instruction.

¶30 In the face of such deficiencies in Smith’s expert witness motion, the trial court acted well within its discretion in denying the motion. Id. (“A failure to establish even one aspect of the above test defeats [the defendant’s] claim.”).


¶31 Shawntell’s calm announcement to Smith that she was leaving and taking the kids with her did not constitute the “highly provoking act” required for an EED defense and, in any event, it did not occur “immediately preceding” Smith’s fatal shooting of her. Therefore, the trial court did not err when it declined to instruct the jury on the EED defense. The court likewise did not abuse its discretion when it denied Smith’s last-minute motion for an expert witness to assist in presenting that defense. Accordingly, we affirm Smith’s conviction.

[1] “On appeal, we review the record facts in a light most favorable to the jury’s verdict and recite the facts accordingly.” State v. Samples, 2022 UT App 125, n.3, 521 P.3d 526 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1279 (Utah 2023).

[2] In 2019, the legislature overhauled Utah Code section 76-5­205.5, which governs how a defendant may seek mitigation of a criminal homicide offense for “mental illness or provocation,” including “extreme emotional distress.” Compare Utah Code § 76­5-205.5 (2018), with id. (2019).

[3] This dispute may stem from a shift our supreme court made in Miller v. Utah Department of Transportation, 2012 UT 54, 285 P.3d 1208. There, the court held that “the refusal to give a jury instruction is reviewed for abuse of discretion, although in some circumstances that discretion will be narrowly constrained.” Id. ¶ 13. The court went on to clarify that “in certain circumstances a district court’s discretion will be constrained such that a party is legally entitled to have a particular instruction given to the jury. In those circumstances, refusal constitutes an error of law, and an error of law always constitutes an abuse of discretion.” Id. ¶ 13 n.1. The court concluded by holding that “[t]o the extent earlier cases conflict with this opinion in their enunciation of the standard of review for refusal to give a jury instruction, this opinion controls.” Id.

But despite this clarification, there remains confusion as to when the trial court’s “discretion will be narrowly constrained” such that the refusal to give a jury instruction “constitutes an error of law,” Id. ¶ 13 & n.1. See, e.g.State v. Rivera, 2019 UT App 27, ¶ 14, 440 P.3d 694 (reviewing “a trial court’s refusal to give a requested jury instruction for correctness” with no mention of the abuse of discretion standard set forth in Miller (cleaned up)); State v. Dozah, 2016 UT App 13, ¶ 12, 368 P.3d 863 (same); State v. Karren, 2018 UT App 226, ¶¶ 18, 24, 438 P.3d 18 (identifying the standard of review for refusal to give a jury instruction as abuse of discretion, but concluding that “the district court did not err” in denying to give the requested jury instruction). Thus, “we flag the issue for consideration in a future case, noting the apparent lack of clarity in Utah law as to the appropriate standard of review” for the refusal to give a requested jury instruction. Amundsen v. University of Utah, 2019 UT 49, ¶ 19 n.5, 448 P.3d 1224.

[4] Additionally, testimony about whether Smith was “incapable of reflection and restraint,” see Utah Code § 76-5-205.5(1)(a)(i)(A), may have been inadmissible under rule 704(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence, which prohibits an expert witness in a criminal case from giving “an opinion about whether the defendant did or did not have a mental state or condition that constitutes an element of the crime charged or of a defense.”

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ABC News Article, Skyrocketting Child Care Costs Show How Inflation Could Impact The 2024 Election.

Recently, Max Zahn of ABC News reported on the rise of child-care costs and how inflation is making it harder for families to afford child-care. Inflation is a top issue that will be discussed as the November election approaches.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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A.W. v. Marelli – 2024 UT App 8 – infliction of emotional distress

A.W. v. Marelli – 2024 UT App 8


A.W., Appellant, v.  MILLIE MARELLI, Appellee.


No. 20220207-CA

Filed January 19, 2024

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Andrew H. Stone

No. 190902075

Michael W. Young, Alan S. Mouritsen, and

Adam Bondy, Attorneys for Appellant

Emily Adams, Freyja Johnson,

Hannah K. Leavitt-Howell, and James I. Watts,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which



¶1 AW[1] alleges that when, as a teenager, she accused her stepfather of sexual abuse, her mother, Millie Marelli, maintained the abuse did not occur and told AW to never speak of it again. But speak of it AW did—to her biological father, who reported the abuse to authorities. Ultimately, AW was removed from Marelli’s home, and not long thereafter she cut off all contact with Marelli. When Marelli allegedly persisted over a number of years in making unwelcome contact, AW sued Marelli, claiming negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress as well as negligent sexual abuse. Marelli moved for summary judgment on all claims, which the district court granted on the basis that AW failed to establish the required quantum of proof on each claim. AW appeals, and we affirm.


¶2        AW alleges that in late 2008 or early 2009—when she was twelve years old—her stepfather (Stepfather) sexually abused her. When Marelli was hospitalized for several days while undergoing a medical procedure, she left AW in the care of Stepfather. According to AW, she became scared of the dark and Stepfather invited her to sleep in his bed. Once in the bed, Stepfather put his hand inside her underwear and began touching her genitals.

¶3        Shortly thereafter, AW disclosed the incident to Marelli. Marelli asked Stepfather what had happened, and he said that he awoke with his hand on AW and immediately withdrew it. He explained to AW that it was an accident and apologized. AW says Marelli and Stepfather told her the abuse never occurred and not to speak of it again. Marelli did not report the incident to authorities. Approximately one week later, AW told her father (Father) about the incident. Father immediately filed a complaint with the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) and sought a protective order against Stepfather. DCFS made a supported finding that Stepfather presented a credible threat to AW’s safety, but DCFS did not find evidence to support a finding that Marelli failed to protect AW. Father was eventually awarded sole legal custody of AW.

¶4        In a sworn declaration, Marelli’s neighbor (Neighbor) stated that in late 2007 or early 2008, prior to the abuse AW alleged, she informed Marelli of an incident between her young daughter and Stepfather. Neighbor explained that her daughter came home from playing at Marelli’s house with writing and pictures on her buttocks in the handwriting of an adult. When she asked her daughter about it, her daughter said that she and Stepfather were playing a game where the winner wrote on the other person. Neighbor spoke with Marelli about it, and Marelli “became defensive,” denying Stepfather had “anything to do with it.” Marelli blamed Neighbor’s daughter for it, saying she had “offered herself” to Stepfather. Neighbor said her instincts told her to stop allowing her daughter to play at Marelli’s house.

¶5        Since losing custody of AW in 2009, Marelli and AW have not seen one another outside of some initial court-ordered therapy sessions and a few brief encounters. AW claims that Marelli’s alleged “denial [of the abuse] and victim blaming behavior are significant sources of [her] psychological disorders.” Over the past decade, Marelli has continued to contact AW by sending letters, birthday gifts, and Facebook messages. AW claims she has repeatedly expressed her wishes not to have any contact at all. In Facebook messages from 2011, AW responded to Marelli with “STOP TALKING TO ME UNTIL U GET RID OF [STEPFATHER]!!!!!!!” and “STOP IT I WILL BLOCK THIS I AM NOT AFRAID TO SO STOP!!”

¶6        AW submitted many examples of communication she received from Marelli over the course of more than ten years. Those communications included handwritten letters and some photos with messages written on them, such as the following, which we present unedited for grammatical errors:

  • [AW] give your mom a call with [heart drawing] always mom.
  • I am sorry that you have forgotten the moments when you had with [Stepfather] to be your dad. I hope someday you will remember with all my heart and soul I loved you and will always love you because you are my girly for eternity.
  • We all make mistakes in life, it is what we learn from them is the most important. Forgive yourself, forgive me I am truly sorry for all the many tears & fears you went through without your mothers warmest embrace . . . with love mom.
  • [Stepfather] sure misses being your dad [heart drawing] be kind be forgiving be of great courage.
  • Oh I miss my little girl that is all grown up. I love every min every hour every dam week month & year of your life. I hope to enjoy and embrace my lovely daughter again to look into your loving eyes and find you again. With love Mom.
  • All my children was mislead away from the true. I have been told recently that I am not in reality but you see Reality isn’t the truth.

¶7        Some of the photos sent to AW included pictures of both Marelli and Stepfather. Marelli also sent several publications and transcripts of public addresses from her religious leaders covering a wide range of topics.

¶8        AW also asserted that Marelli made two unwanted visits to her. The first occurred on AW’s sixteenth birthday, when Marelli went to her school. The second was on her seventeenth birthday, when Marelli went to AW’s house.

¶9        In 2019, AW commenced the present action against Marelli, claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED), and negligent sexual abuse. Marelli moved for summary judgment on the three claims. Shortly after filing the summary judgment motion, Marelli sent AW a second box of letters, religious publications, and some of AW’s old toys. AW argues that even though service of the complaint put Marelli on notice that her conduct caused AW distress, she nonetheless sent AW the box full of additional communication. AW filed a supplemental opposition to the motion, arguing that Marelli sent the communication with knowledge that AW did not want any contact with her. Marelli moved to strike the supplemental opposition, arguing that the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure allow for only supplemental authority not supplemental facts.

¶10      The district court allowed the supplemental opposition “in the interest of justice” and considered it in its decision. The district court granted Marelli’s motion for summary judgment on all three of AW’s claims. On the IIED claim, the court concluded that Marelli’s conduct was not objectively outrageous. The court concluded that the NIED claim failed because AW did not show that Marelli’s conduct objectively amounted to the “type of conduct ‘especially likely’ to cause severe and unmanageable emotional distress.” Finally, on the negligent sexual abuse claim, the court concluded there was no support in the record that Stepfather had a history of inappropriate sexual behavior with children of which Marelli was aware or that Marelli’s failure to report the alleged abuse harmed AW. AW appeals.


¶11 On appeal, AW contends that the district court erred in granting Marelli’s summary judgment motion with respect to each of her three claims. We review a grant of summary judgment for correctness, giving “no deference to the district court’s legal conclusions.” Ipsen v. Diamond Tree Experts, Inc., 2020 UT 30, ¶ 7, 466 P.3d 190 (cleaned up).


¶12 Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party shows that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Utah R. Civ. P. 56(a). We conclude that the district court properly granted summary judgment disposing of all three of AW’s claims against Marelli. We address the IIED, NIED, and negligent sexual abuse claims in turn.

  1. IIED

¶13      The district court concluded that Marelli’s conduct was not outrageous as a matter of law because all Marelli’s “voluminous” communications with AW “plainly represent attempts by [Marelli] to reconcile with her daughter.” AW contends that the district court erred because it (1) stepped into the role of the jury when determining that all the communications were an attempt to reconcile, (2) failed to consider other evidence of Marelli’s outrageous behavior, and (3) applied an unnecessarily restrictive test for outrageous behavior. But we agree with the district court.

¶14      In addition to elements not at issue here,[3] to succeed on a claim for IIED, a plaintiff must show that the defendant’s conduct “was outrageous and intolerable in that it offended generally accepted standards of decency and morality.” Prince v. Bear River Mutual Ins. Co., 2002 UT 68, ¶ 37, 56 P.3d 524 (cleaned up). Our supreme court in Retherford v. AT&T Communications of Mountain States, Inc., 844 P.2d 949 (Utah 1992), explained that “the standard Utah has adopted for determining whether the conduct of a defendant is sufficiently offensive to permit recovery is whether the defendant’s actions offend against the generally accepted standards of decency and morality.” Id. at 977 (cleaned up). The court clarified that this standard does not “weaken” that adopted by the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which uses the language “beyond all possible bounds of decency.” Id. at 977 n.19; see also Restatement (Second) of Torts § 46 cmt. d (Am. L. Inst. 1965). The court made clear that the use of the language “generally accepted standards of decency” was not a change in the standard but only an acknowledgment that “all possible bounds” is difficult for any court to determine. Retherford, 844 P.2d at 977 n.19The court emphasized that it “in no way softened the Restatement’s requirement of extraordinarily vile conduct, conduct that is atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” Id. (cleaned up). As made explicitly clear by the court, this standard still applies and is appropriate to apply in this case.

Conduct is not necessarily outrageous merely because it is tortious, injurious, or malicious, or because it would give rise to punitive damages, or because it is illegal. To be considered outrageous, the conduct must evoke outrage or revulsion; it must be more than unreasonable, unkind, or unfair. Indeed, in order to prevail on a claim for IIED, a plaintiff must be able to prove that the defendant engaged in extraordinarily vile conduct, conduct that is atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.

Chard v. Chard, 2019 UT App 209, ¶ 57, 456 P.3d 776 (cleaned up).

¶15      On a claim for IIED, “it is for the court to determine, in the first instance, whether the defendant’s conduct may reasonably be regarded as so extreme and outrageous as to permit recovery.” Id. (cleaned up). “However, where reasonable [minds] may differ, it is for the jury, subject to the control of the court, to determine whether, in the particular case, the conduct has been sufficiently extreme and outrageous to result in liability.” Cabaness v. Thomas, 2010 UT 23, ¶ 36, 232 P.3d 486 (cleaned up), abrogated on other grounds by Gregory & Swapp, PLLC v. Kranendonk, 2018 UT 36, 424 P.3d 897. “[A] district court is not required to draw every possible inference of fact, no matter how remote or improbable, in favor of the nonmoving party. Instead, it is required to draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party.” IHC Health Services, Inc. v. D&K Mgmt., Inc., 2008 UT 73, ¶ 19, 196 P.3d 588. “An inference is unreasonable if there is no underlying evidence to support the conclusion.” Medina v. Jeff Dumas Concrete Constr. LLC, 2020 UT App 166, ¶ 21, 479 P.3d 1116 (cleaned up).

¶16      Looking at the “voluminous” examples of communication from Marelli to AW, we agree with the district court that the communications represent attempts—though at times poorly executed—of a mother to reconcile with her daughter. While statements such as “[Stepfather] sure misses being your dad” may not be the most sensitive way for Marelli to rebuild a relationship with her daughter, we cannot conclude that this and all the other communications can be reasonably said to violate “generally accepted standards of decency and morality.” See Prince, 2002 UT 68, ¶ 37 (cleaned up). It is well within the court’s authority to ascertain Marelli’s intent when reasonable minds could not differ, as is the case here.

¶17 When a claim for IIED involves allegedly “ongoing and continuous conduct,” the plaintiff “may recover for the entire course of [the] defendant’s conduct.” See Cabaness, 2010 UT 23, ¶ 27. Considering the whole of Marelli’s conduct—including the facts that the correspondence was unwanted, that Marelli made a couple of unwelcome visits to AW over the last decade, and that Marelli sent AW correspondence after the present lawsuit commenced—does not change our determination that Marelli’s conduct cannot be reasonably found to evoke the outrage or revulsion required to succeed on a claim for IIED.

¶18 The communications and even visits by Marelli to AW represent a mother’s attempt to build a relationship with her estranged daughter and, though insensitive at times, do not rise to the level of extraordinarily vile conduct required. Therefore, we affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment against AW’s claim of IIED.

  1. NIED

¶19      AW also asserts that the district court erred in dismissing her NIED claim, arguing the court applied the wrong standard and overlooked contrary evidence.

¶20      Prior to 2018 in Utah, plaintiffs outside the “zone-of-danger”[4] had no means to recover for NIED. Mower v. Baird, 2018 UT 29, ¶¶ 75–85, 422 P.3d 837. Mower expanded “recovery for [NIED] in very limited circumstances” where “certain types of relationships, activities, and undertakings” exist that go to “the core of another person’s emotional well-being and security.” Id. ¶ 76. Because the case before us does not involve a zone-of-danger scenario, we apply the principles set forth in Mower. Under the Mower analysis, a plaintiff must establish that (1) the defendant owed a “traditional duty of reasonable care to the plaintiff” and (2) the “relationship, activity, or undertaking [is] of the type that warrants a special, limited duty to refrain from causing severe emotional distress.” Id. ¶ 78.

¶21 The second step requires an additional three-prong analysis asking the following:

(1) Does the relationship, activity, or undertaking necessarily implicate the plaintiff’s emotional well-being?; (2) Is there an especially likely risk that the defendant’s negligence in the course of performing obligations pursuant to such relationship, activity, or undertaking will result in severe emotional distress?; and (3) Do general public policy considerations warrant rejecting a limited emotional distress duty where prongs one and two would otherwise find one to exist?

Id. ¶ 80 (cleaned up).[5]

¶22 The district court considered solely the second prong of this analysis; however, we find that analysis unnecessary as AW’s claim fails on the first prong. The first prong is meant to ensure that the relationship, activity, or undertaking complained of is one “fraught with the risk of emotional harm to the plaintiff.” Id. ¶ 81 (cleaned up). The Utah Supreme Court has made clear that “this prong can be met only in those very limited situations where the emotional well-being of others is at the core of, or is necessarily implicated by, the relationship, activity, or undertaking.” Id. (cleaned up). The court did not delineate all possible relationships, activities, or undertakings that meet this requirement but instead indicated that courts should make this determination on a case-by-case basis with the recognition that this high threshold will be met in very few instances. Id.

¶23 As pointed out by AW, the court in Mower found that a nonpatient parent’s claim against the therapist who caused the parent’s child to develop false memories while treating the child for potential sexual abuse met this threshold as both an activity and relationship that implicates the parent’s emotional well­being. See id. ¶ 97. The Restatement (Third) of Tortsupon which our supreme court based this rule and upon which courts in other jurisdictions have relied—identifies NIED as actions such as the mishandling of a corpse, an erroneous announcement of a death or illness, a physician negligently diagnosing a patient with a serious disease, a hospital losing a newborn infant, an employer mistreating an employee, and a spouse mentally abusing the other spouse. See Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical & Emotional Harm § 47 cmt. f (Am. L. Inst. 2012); see also Mower, 2018 UT 29, ¶ 70; see, e.g.Hedgepeth v. Witman Walker Clinic, 22 A.3d 789, 819–20 (D.C. 2011) (applying NIED to a patient receiving a false HIV diagnosis); Doe Parents No. 1 v. State, 58 P.3d 545, 580–82 (Haw. 2002) (applying NIED to a school reinstating a teacher accused of child molestation without sufficient investigation of the claim); Boorman v. Nevada Mem’l Cremation Society, 236 P.3d 4, 7–8 (Nev. 2010) (en banc) (applying NIED to mortuary’s negligent handling of a loved one’s corpse).

¶24      Such a relationship, activity, or undertaking is not present here. While sexual abuse, particularly within one’s own home, is a serious and clearly harmful occurrence for a child, the activity that AW argues supports her NIED claim is Marelli’s continued communications with her, including two brief visits, over the decade following the alleged abuse. While this activity, which we view as attempts by a mother to reconcile with her daughter, may evoke strong emotions, as the district court pointed out, it is not “fraught with the risk of emotional harm.” Mower, 2018 UT 29, ¶ 81 (cleaned up). The expansion of NIED in Mower was extremely limited to the narrow circumstances explained above, and allowing recovery here would expand that rule exponentially. An estranged relationship with a parent is too ubiquitous to meet the specific requirement set out by our supreme court that this rule will be met in very few instances. See id. Applying NIED to the facts before us would open the door to a seemingly endless number of possible circumstances where communication between a parent and child is strained, hurtful, or unwanted. Thus, the activity here does not rise to the level of those “very limited situations where the emotional well-being of others” lies “at the core.” Id. (cleaned up). We therefore affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment against AW’s claim of NIED.

III. Negligent Sexual Abuse

¶25 AW argues that Marelli was negligent in preventing the alleged sexual abuse AW suffered because Marelli had previous warning about Stepfather’s “inappropriate behavior around children.”[6] The district court found legally insufficient support in the record for this contention—a conclusion with which we agree. To support this claim, AW relies on Neighbor’s declaration that Stepfather wrote on her daughter’s buttocks. AW argues that the district court inappropriately weighed and discounted the declaration, particularly by calling the declaration “one somewhat vague report of inappropriate conduct.”

¶26 In addition to other factors, a negligence claim requires foreseeable injury to establish whether a defendant had a duty “to conform to a particular standard of conduct toward another.” Normandeau v. Hanson Equip., Inc., 2009 UT 44, ¶ 19, 215 P.3d 152 (cleaned up). “What is necessary to meet the test of negligence . . . is that [the harm] be reasonably foreseeable, not that the particular accident would occur, but only that there is a likelihood of an occurrence of the same general nature.” Steffensen v. Smith’s Mgmt. Corp., 862 P.2d 1342, 1346 (Utah 1993) (cleaned up); accord Normandeau, 2009 UT 44, ¶ 20. Duty—which includes the issue of foreseeability—is “a purely legal issue for the court to decide.” Normandeau, 2009 UT 44, ¶ 17.

¶27 While summary judgment is appropriate only “when, viewing all facts and reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law,” a plaintiff “is not entitled to build a case on the gossamer threads of whimsy, speculation and conjecture.” Kranendonk v. Gregory & Swapp, PLLC, 2014 UT App 36, ¶ 15, 320 P.3d 689 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 329 P.3d 36 (Utah 2014). “When the facts are so tenuous, vague, or insufficiently established that determining an issue of fact becomes completely speculative, the claim fails as a matter of law, and summary judgment is appropriate.” Hardy v. Sagacious Grace LC, 2021 UT App 23, ¶ 21, 483 P.3d 1275 (cleaned up); see also Nelson v. Target Corp., 2014 UT App 205, ¶ 25, 334 P.3d 1010 (“A plaintiff cannot avoid summary judgment based on doubtful, vague, speculative or inconclusive evidence.” (cleaned up)).

¶28 Although certainly disconcerting, the singular incident described in Neighbor’s declaration is not enough to make it reasonably foreseeable to Marelli that Stepfather would sexually abuse AW and thereby leaves AW’s claim in the realm of vague speculation, which is appropriate for summary judgment. First, the evidence AW points to suggests that the incident with Neighbor’s child was an isolated event. Second, writing on a child’s buttocks during a game, though deplorable and entirely inappropriate, is markedly different than lying in bed with and touching a child’s genitals under her clothing. See McGuire v.Cooper, 952 F.3d 918, 922–23 (8th Cir. 2020) (concluding that summary judgment was appropriate in a case involving a sexual assault as “the prior instances of sexual misconduct [were] not similar in kind or sufficiently egregious in nature to demonstrate a pattern of sexual assault”); Bjerke v. Johnson, 727 N.W.2d 183, 190 (Minn. Ct. App. 2007) (“The foreseeability of a sexual assault often hinges on whether the defendant was aware of prior similar behavior by the third party. Indeed, sexual assault will rarely be deemed foreseeable in the absence of prior similar incidents.” (cleaned up)), aff’d, 742 N.W.2d 660 (Minn. 2007).[7] Finally, AW points to no evidence that Stepfather had taken any liberties with or made any inappropriate advances toward her prior to the incident at issue here. See Doe v. Franklin, 930 S.W.2d 921, 924–29 (Tex. App. 1996) (concluding that summary judgment was not appropriate on a negligence claim where a grandmother left her granddaughter alone with the grandfather after the granddaughter told the grandmother he had sexually abused her).[8] Therefore, seeing insufficient evidence in the record that Marelli should have reasonably foreseen the threat of Stepfather sexually abusing AW, we affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment on AW’s claim of negligent sexual abuse.


¶29 We conclude that the district court correctly granted Marelli’s motion for summary judgment, thereby disposing of all three of AW’s claims against her.

¶30 Affirmed.

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[1] Dear Reader: Judge Mortensen recognizes that you may be accustomed to the use of periods after each letter when we use initials in place of a party or witness name. However, he chooses to depart from that practice now and in the future. Removing the periods is both space saving and easier on the eyes.

[2] We recite the facts of the case and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to AW as the nonmoving party. See USA Power, LLC v. PacifiCorp, 2010 UT 31, ¶ 33, 235 P.3d 749 (“[I]n a summary judgment proceeding, all facts and the reasonable inferences to be made therefrom should be construed in a light favorable to the non-moving party.”).

[3]  “In Utah, a claim for IIED is actionable if: (i) the defendant’s conduct is outrageous and intolerable; (ii) the defendant intends to cause emotional distress; (iii) the plaintiff suffers severe emotional distress; and (iv) the defendant’s conduct proximately causes the plaintiff’s emotional distress.” Chard v. Chard, 2019 UT App 209, ¶ 57, 456 P.3d 776 (cleaned up).

[4] The zone-of-danger rule set forth in section 313 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts allows a plaintiff within the physical zone of danger resulting from a defendant’s actions “to recover for emotional distress caused by fear for personal safety even though the plaintiff suffered no physical harm as a result of the defendant’s breach of duty.” Mower v. Baird, 2018 UT 29, ¶¶ 51–52, 422 P.3d 837 (cleaned up); see also Restatement (Second) of Torts § 313 (Am. L. Inst. 1965).

[5] The district court and parties have assumed a duty existed by moving directly to step two of the Mower analysis. Therefore, for purposes of this appeal, we do the same and move directly to the three prongs under step two. However, this is not an indication of whether a duty did in fact exist under step one of the Mower analysis in this case.

[6] In her complaint, AW asserted that Marelli’s failure to report Stepfather’s sexual abuse to the proper authorities also constituted negligence—a claim which the district court determined failed. AW does not raise this issue on appeal; therefore, we will not address it.

[7] To support her argument that Marelli should have foreseen the threat that Stepfather posed, AW cites O.L. v. R.L., 62 S.W.3d 469 (Mo. Ct. App. 2001), which states that “[a]s the gravity of possible harm from sexual molestation of a young child is high, we recognize that it may require a lesser showing of likelihood than with other types of injuries.” Id. at 477. However, in O.L., the court concluded that summary judgment was appropriate as the harm was not foreseeable where a grandmother left her grandchild with the grandfather, who then sexually abused the child. Id. at 481. The evidence presented included the fact that the grandfather physically abused the grandmother decades previously and broke her nose, which the child’s father knew about and considered “so remote in time that he had no qualms” with leaving his child in the grandfather’s care. Id. at 478–79. The parents additionally presented evidence that fifteen years prior to the abuse of the child, the grandfather subscribed to Playboy magazine for one year. Id. at 479. Finally, the parents relied on speculative evidence that the grandfather sought extramarital sexual liaisons through advertisements and at a social gathering. Id. The court concluded that the evidence presented was “so tenuous that it [could not] give rise to a genuine dispute as to whether a reasonable person knew or should have known that [the] grandfather might pose a danger to [the grandchild] if she was left unsupervised in his care, thereby breaching a duty of care.” Id. at 481. While the evidence here, namely the incident involving Neighbor’s daughter, is much more related in time and conduct to the abuse AW suffered, it is still tenuous as we have discussed and does not meet even a requirement of a “lesser showing of likelihood,” id. at 477, if that standard were to apply in Utah.

[8] 8. AW cites Doe ex rel. Pike v. Pike, 424 F. Supp. 3d 170 (D. Mass. 2019), to support her argument that a reasonable jury could conclude the harm of sexual abuse was reasonably foreseeable. The case is unpersuasive. In Pike, a granddaughter in the care of her grandparents suffered sexual abuse from her grandfather. Id. at 172. The court concluded that summary judgment was inappropriate because, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, a jury could find that “a reasonable person in [the grandmother’s] position would have or should have known that [the grandfather] was abusing [the granddaughter].” Id. at 182. As AW points out in her brief, the court based this determination on such evidence as “[the grandmother’s] own observations of [the grandfather’s] conduct toward [the granddaughter] and their other grandchildren, including observing him playing the radio game [which involved twisting the children’s nipples], engaging in the tickle game to excess, being in the vicinity when the abuse occurred and ‘locking eyes’ with [the granddaughter] while she sat next to [the grandfather] on the couch and his hands were under the blanket hidden from view.” Id. This evidence involved multiple incidents and red flags that the grandmother chose to ignore, unlike the singular incident here when Stepfather allegedly wrote on Neighbor’s daughter. Furthermore, the Pike court additionally based its decision on the evidence, which AW fails to note, that the grandmother knew the grandfather had been accused of sexual assault previously. Id. With all this evidence taken into account, we do not view Pike as analogous or persuasive.

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Can Adoptive Parents Lose Their Kids When They Divorce?

Adoptive parents cannot lose custody of the children they adopted merely because they divorce. The children of adoptive parents are treated no differently in divorce than children who are issue of the marriage (“issue of the marriage” means the children are the biological children of the married couple). Divorcing parents who are not unfit parents cannot be deprived of the legal and physical custody of their children merely because they divorce. Instead, the court will award custody to one or both of the parents (such as “sole custody,” which means that the children live primarily with one parent and the other parent exercises “visitation” with the children on weekends, holidays, and in the summertime; or joint custody, which means that the children reside with each of the parents a portion of the year, year after year).

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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If You Are Separated and She Wants Her Money for Child Support and Alimony Early Payment for the Child Support, Can She Get It by Taking You to Court?

It appears that your question is: can child support be awarded to a parent even if a divorce or child support action has not yet been filed? If that is your question, then the answer is “yes” in many jurisdictions. You’ll want to verify whether that is the case in your particular jurisdiction.

In Utah, where I practice divorce and family law, one can obtain child support without a court order by obtaining an administrative order awarding child support instead. Here is how that process works (click this link):

Can one obtain spousal support or alimony without a court order? I can’t say as to all jurisdictions, but in Utah the answer is: no. The only order that entitles one to spousal support or alimony is a court order. Spousal support can be ordered on a temporary basis during the pendency of a divorce action before the court issues its decree of divorce.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


  1. The Extraordinary Circumstances Exception

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

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

[1] On the commingling exception:

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

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

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

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Has Anyone Relinquished Full Custody to Their Spouse to Avoid Putting Their Child Through the 50/50 Split?

I had a weird experience as a lawyer in a situation kind of like the one you’re asking about.

The ex-spouse didn’t end up with sole custody of the children, but one of the reasons (if not the controlling reason) why equal (50/50) physical custody wasn’t awarded blew me away: the custody evaluator said that she would have recommended 50/50 custody if not for her fear that if the court awarded 50/50 physical custody the mother would take out her “defeat” on the children by making them feel guilty and by trying to alienate the children from their father so that they would resent and refuse to exercise equal custody. For the sake of protecting the children from that possibility the court awarded the mother custody of the children 8 out of 14 days on a rotating 2-week basis. If that’s not capitulating to a form of extortion (however mild), then what was it?

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

 Has anyone relinquished full custody to their spouse to avoid putting their child through the 50/50 split? – Quora

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What Is the Aim of Manipulating Children in Divorce Cases?

There can be many aims. Such as (in no particular order of popularity):

  • gaining or saving money
    • If the children “side” with a parent, that could influence the child custody award, and the more time a child spends with a parent the more that parent benefits financially either by receiving more child support from the other parent or by paying less child support to the other parent.
  • spite for the other parent
    • Causing the other parent emotional and psychological harm by damaging or destroying the relationship between the child and the other parent by alienating the child’s affection for and trust of the other parent
  • spite for the child
    • Abusing the child emotionally and psychologically out of animus or contempt for the child
  • attention seeking
    • Some people are drama queens (both men and women), and nothing keeps the drama not only going but going at a high level and focused on “me, me, me” like manipulating and exploiting the children.
  • co-dependency
    • Some parents rely on their child or children to keep them physically, mentally, and emotionally stable and to keep them happy. Such codependent parents form an abnormal and unhealthy attachment to their children that harms parent and child alike.
  • pride
    • A bad parent going through a divorce will manipulate (or at least attempt to manipulate) their children to avoid being exposed as a bad parent.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

Eric Johnson’s answer to What is the aim of manipulating children in divorce cases? – Quora

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

2023 UT App 38








No. 20210345-CA

Filed April 13, 2023

First District Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Brian G. Cannell

No. 154100713

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

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

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which


LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        This case raises issues regarding the claim preclusion

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

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

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

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


The Parties’ Marriage and Divorce

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

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

Isaac’s Petition to Modify the Divorce Decree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stashia’s Motion for an Order to Show Cause

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

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

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

Isaac’s Certificate of Readiness for Trial

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Id. (cleaned up).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

¶52 Affirmed.


Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When an Order of Protection Gets Dismissed, Then Legally, There’s Nothing in Place Stating How We Will Share Our Son. What Do I Do Now?

Generally speaking (you will need to confer with an attorney who knows the law governing this question in the jurisdiction where you, the other parent, and the child reside), if there are no other court orders in place that govern the custodial rights of you and the other parent, then:

  • You and the other parent have co-equal custodial rights to the child, but that does not mean that there is any “default” custody schedule or custody sharing schedule that takes effect if you and the other parent cannot agree upon a schedule.
  • That means that (unless a law on the books in your jurisdiction provides otherwise) a parent can withhold contact with the child from the other parent without that constituting any kind of crime. Otherwise stated, it’s legal for a parent to do so. It’s not kind. It’s not fair, but it’s not illegal. You could call the police (as many people do) and tell them (honestly), “The other parent is refusing to let me spend any time with our child” and there is nothing that the police could do for you. Many parents are stunned to learn this when they call the police requesting and expecting help with obtaining time with their children.

o    If you and the other parent are married: you can file for a separation order or for a decree of divorce to request child custody and parent-time orders.

o    If you and the other parent are not married: you can file a child custody action or a paternity (also known as a “parentage”) action to request child custody and parent-time orders, and once the court issues those orders, you and the other parent are bound to comply with them. Failure or refusal to comply can result in A) being held in contempt of court and sanctioned for that contempt and/or B) criminal charges for custodial interference, even child kidnapping.

  • Once the court issues those orders, you and the other parent are bound to comply with them. Failure or refusal to comply can result in A) being held in contempt of court and sanctioned for that contempt and/or B) criminal charges for custodial interference, even child kidnapping.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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What Famous Court Cases’ Outcomes Were Strongly Influenced by Little-Known Definitions or Uses of Common Words?

I remember a story recounted in my bar examination review course that I loved.

A man was ticketed for stopping and parking his car in an area where it a sign was clearly and conspicuously posted reading “No stoping zone”. And what was his defense?

  1. “Stoping” and “stopping” are two different words with entirely different meanings.
  2. “Stopping” means “coming or having come to a stop”
  3. “Stoping” means “(in mining) the excavation of a series of steps or layers in the ground or rock. ’Underground stoping and work on the smelters had been very costly’”
  4. He was ticketed for disobeying the “no stoping” sign when it was undisputed that he did not in fact stope.
  5. He could not be ticketed for stopping in a “no stoping” zone.

He won the case.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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How Much Is a Family Attorney?

The American Bar Association has general rules on fees you can find here: ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.5.

I will answer this question as it applies in the jurisdiction where I practice divorce and family law (Utah). Each jurisdiction has its own rules governing the fees attorneys charge.

According the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.5 (Fees):

(a) A lawyer shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an unreasonable fee or an unreasonable amount for expenses. The factors to be considered in determining the reasonableness of a fee include the following:

(1) the time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved and the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly;

(2) the likelihood, if apparent to the client, that the acceptance of the particular employment will preclude other employment by the lawyer;

(3) the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services;

(4) the amount involved and the results obtained;

(5) the time limitations imposed by the client or by the circumstances;

(6) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client;

(7) the experience, reputation and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services; and

(8) whether the fee is fixed or contingent.

(b) The scope of the representation and the basis or rate of the fee and expenses for which the client will be responsible shall be communicated to the client, preferably in writing, before or within a reasonable time after commencing the representation, except when the lawyer will charge a regularly represented client on the same basis or rate. Any changes in the basis or rate of the fee or expenses shall also be communicated to the client.

(c) A fee may be contingent on the outcome of the matter for which the service is rendered, except in a matter in which a contingent fee is prohibited by paragraph (d) or other law. A contingent fee agreement shall be in a writing signed by the client and shall state the method by which the fee is to be determined, including the percentage or percentages that shall accrue to the lawyer in the event of settlement, trial or appeal; litigation and other expenses to be deducted from the recovery; and whether such expenses are to be deducted before or after the contingent fee is calculated. The agreement must clearly notify the client of any expenses for which the client will be liable whether or not the client is the prevailing party. Upon conclusion of a contingent fee matter, the lawyer shall provide the client with a written statement stating the outcome of the matter and, if there is a recovery, showing the remittance to the client and the method of its determination.

(d) A lawyer shall not enter into an arrangement for, charge, or collect:

(1) any fee in a domestic relations matter, the payment or amount of which is contingent upon the securing of a divorce or upon the amount of alimony or support, or property settlement in lieu thereof; or

(2) a contingent fee for representing a defendant in a criminal case.

(e) A licensed paralegal practitioner may not enter into a contingent fee agreement with a client.

(f) Before providing any services, a licensed paralegal practitioner must provide the client with a written agreement that:

(1) states the purpose for which the licensed paralegal practitioner has been retained;

(2) identifies the services to be performed;

(3) identifies the rate or fee for the services to be performed and whether and to what extent the client will be responsible for any costs, expenses or disbursements in the course of the representation;

(4) includes a statement printed in 12-point boldface type that the licensed paralegal practitioner is not an attorney and is limited to practice in only those areas in which the licensed paralegal practitioner is licensed;

(5) includes a provision stating that the client may report complaints relating to a licensed paralegal practitioner or the unauthorized practice of law to the Office of Professional Conduct, including a toll-free number and Internet website;

(6) describes the document to be prepared;

(7) describes the purpose of the document;

(8) describes the process to be followed in preparing the document;

(9) states whether the licensed paralegal practitioner will be filing the document on the client’s behalf; and

(10) states the approximate time necessary to complete the task.

(g) A licensed paralegal practitioner may not make an oral or written statement guaranteeing or promising an outcome, unless the licensed paralegal practitioner has some basis in fact for making the guarantee or promise.



Reasonableness of Fee and Expenses

[1] Paragraph (a) requires that lawyers charge fees that are reasonable under the circumstances. The factors specified in (a)(1) through (a)(8) are not exclusive. Nor will each factor be relevant in each instance. Paragraph (a) also requires that expenses for which the client will be charged must be reasonable. A lawyer may seek reimbursement for the cost of services performed in-house, such as copying, or for other expenses incurred in-house, such as telephone charges, either by charging a reasonable amount to which the client has agreed in advance or by charging an amount that reasonably reflects the cost incurred by the lawyer.

Basis or Rate of Fee

[2] When the lawyer has regularly represented a client, they ordinarily will have evolved an understanding concerning the basis or rate of the fee and the expenses for which the client will be responsible. In a new client-lawyer relationship, however, an understanding as to fees and expenses must be promptly established. Generally, it is desirable to furnish the client with at least a simple memorandum or copy of the lawyer’s customary fee arrangements that states the general nature of the legal services to be provided, the basis, rate or total amount of the fee and whether and to what extent the client will be responsible for any costs, expenses or disbursements in the course of the representation. A written statement concerning the terms of the engagement reduces the possibility of misunderstanding.

[3] Contingent fees, like any other fees, are subject to the reasonableness standard of paragraph (a) of this Rule. In determining whether a particular contingent fee is reasonable, or whether it is reasonable to charge any form of contingent fee, a lawyer must consider the factors that are relevant under the circumstances. Applicable law may impose limitations on contingent fees, such as a ceiling on the percentage allowable, or may require a lawyer to offer clients an alternative basis for the fee. Applicable law also may apply to situations other than a contingent fee, for example, government regulations regarding fees in certain tax matters.

Terms of Payment

[4] A lawyer may require advance payment of a fee but is obligated to return any unearned portion. See Rule1.16(d). A lawyer may accept property in payment for services, such as an ownership interest in an enterprise, providing this does not involve acquisition of a proprietary interest in the cause of action or subject matter of the litigation contrary to Rule 1.8(i). However, a fee paid in property instead of money may be subject to the requirements of Rule 1.8(a) because such fees often have the essential qualities of a business transaction with the client.

[5] An agreement may not be made whose terms might induce the lawyer improperly to curtail services for the client or perform them in a way contrary to the client’s interest. For example, a lawyer should not enter into an agreement whereby services are to be provided only up to a stated amount when it is foreseeable that more extensive services probably will be required, unless the situation is adequately explained to the client. Otherwise, the client might have to bargain for further assistance in the midst of a proceeding or transaction. However, it is proper to define the extent of services in light of the client’s ability to pay. A lawyer should not exploit a fee arrangement based primarily on hourly charges by using wasteful procedures.

Prohibited Contingent Fees

[6] Paragraph (d) prohibits a lawyer from charging a contingent fee in a domestic relations matter when payment is contingent upon the securing of a divorce or upon the amount of alimony or support or property settlement to be obtained. This provision does not preclude a contract for a contingent fee for legal representation in connection with the recovery of post-judgment balances due under support, alimony or other financial orders because such contracts do not implicate the same policy concerns.

Disputes over Fees

[7] If a procedure has been established for resolution of fee disputes, such as an arbitration or mediation procedure established by the Bar, the lawyer must comply with the procedure when it is mandatory, and, even when it is voluntary, the lawyer should conscientiously consider submitting to it. Law may prescribe a procedure for determining a lawyer’s fee, for example, in representation of an executor or administrator, a class or a person entitled to a reasonable fee as part of the measure of damages. The lawyer entitled to such a fee and a lawyer representing another party concerned with the fee should comply with the prescribed procedure.

[8] This rule differs from the ABA model rule.

[8a] This rule differs from the ABA Model Rule by including certain restrictions on licensed paralegal practitioners.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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In re K.K. – 2023 UT App 13

In re K.K. – 2023 UT App 13










No. 20220050-CA

Filed February 9, 2023

Second District Juvenile Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable Sharon S. Sipes

No. 1176751

Freyja Johnson, Emily Adams, and Hannah K.

Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, John M. Peterson, and Candace

Roach, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem




¶1        D.K. (Father) and B.K. (Mother) are the parents of triplets K.K., S.K., and S.K. (collectively, the Children). When the Children were six years old, the State filed a child welfare petition for custody and guardianship on the grounds that the Children were neglected and abused by Father and Mother. Following an adjudication hearing on the petition, the juvenile court issued an order adjudicating the Children as neglected and abused.

¶2        Father now appeals the juvenile court’s abuse adjudication, arguing that the State failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he abused the Children. We affirm.


¶3        In 2019, when the Children were four years old, the State filed a petition seeking protective supervision services based on allegations that Father and Mother had engaged in repeated acts of domestic violence in front of the Children. Thereafter, Father and Mother agreed to engage in services voluntarily, and the State eventually dismissed its petition.

¶4        Two years later, however, Father and Mother again engaged in a series of domestic violence incidents that involved law enforcement. In May 2021, Father called the police and told them that Mother had “beat him up.” When officers arrived on scene and talked to Father, he told them he and Mother were “fighting about money” and that Mother “swung to hit him but never touched him.” On June 10, officers were again dispatched to the family home on a “domestic” call because Father and Mother were “screaming at each other with the [C]hildren in the home.” When officers arrived, they could hear the screaming. Father was uncooperative with the officers, but he eventually left the home. However, Father returned to the home later that same night.

¶5        On June 22, Father and Mother were involved in an altercation that led the State to seek custody and guardianship of the Children. During this altercation, Father and Mother were arguing inside the home. Mother was sitting on the couch, and Father sat on top of her demanding that she give him the keys to the car. Father then “head butted” Mother and told her to get out of the home, which she did. Once Mother was outside, Father followed her and began punching her “with a closed fist on the side of her stomach.” Father proceeded to grab a large rock and chase Mother around the car, “acting like he was going to throw the rock at her.” The Children were outside of the home for the duration of the altercation and witnessed Father chasing Mother and hitting her. Several neighbors also witnessed the altercation and called the police. When officers arrived, Father was arrested and taken to jail.

¶6        After Father’s arrest, Mother completed a lethality assessment, an evaluation given to assess the level of danger an abused person faces, which resulted in a score of high risk. Mother did not seek a protective order for herself or for the Children during the eight days Father was in jail. However, due to the severity of the prior altercation, the district court entered a criminal no contact/protective order on July 1. The order prohibited Father from residing with Mother and the Children.

¶7        On July 8, a caseworker from the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) went to the home for an unannounced visit. During the visit, the caseworker found Father outside; Father reported that Mother was inside sleeping. Father allowed the caseworker to interview the Children. During the interview, the Children reported that Father and Mother “fight and yell” and “hurt each other’s bodies.” Father was subsequently arrested for violation of the criminal no contact/protective order. Thereafter, the caseworker attempted to talk to Mother, who had been inside sleeping, but Mother refused to speak with the caseworker.

¶8        Based on the foregoing, the State filed a petition for custody and guardianship of the Children on the grounds that they were neglected and abused based on Father and Mother engaging in domestic violence in the home. Following a shelter hearing, the juvenile court determined the Children should remain in Mother’s custody for the time being but ordered Mother and the Children to have “absolutely no contact” with Father and that Mother “immediately notify law enforcement” if Father appeared at the home.

¶9        Following a series of pretrial hearings, the matter proceeded to an adjudication trial in December 2021. At trial, the State presented the testimony of six witnesses: Mother, Father, two neighbors who had witnessed the June 22 altercation, and two police officers who had responded to the neighbors’ 911 calls regarding the June 22 altercation.

¶10 According to the neighbors, Father and Mother were arguing about car keys. As Father approached Mother, “she put her arms out to stop him . . . and he slapped her hands aside.” Father then began punching Mother “haymaker style” to her side and stomach. The punching continued “for a minute or two,” and Father connected “five to ten” times. After the punching stopped, Father chased Mother around the front yard, “throwing rocks” and “bikes and other toys” in the direction of Mother, although the neighbors did not see any of the objects hit Mother.

¶11      The neighbors testified that during the altercation, two of the Children were in the front yard “standing behind [Mother]” and “clinging” to her. Mother was positioned between Father and the two children, acting as a “buffer” between them. One neighbor opined that he did not “believe any [of Father’s] aggression was towards the children,” and that “at no[] point did [he] think [the two children] were in any sort of danger.” However, the two children were outside the entire time, “seeing everything.”

¶12      In addition, one neighbor testified that she had witnessed Father and Mother “screaming” at each other multiple times in the presence of the Children prior to the June 22 altercation. Moreover, the neighbor had witnessed Father yelling at the Children twice and had observed that the Children “are terrified and trying to do whatever [Father] says to not be in trouble.”

¶13      The responding officers testified next. One officer testified that after arriving at the scene on June 22, he interviewed Mother, who told him that she had been arguing with Father over car keys. During the argument, Father “sat down on her” to keep her from leaving, headbutted her in the forehead, and “punched her in the back of the leg.” After Mother jumped out the window to the front yard, Father followed her and the two continued arguing. Father chased Mother around a vehicle parked in the front yard; once he caught her, he began “punching her in the side underneath her arms with a closed fist.” Mother was able to break away, but Father chased her with a rock in his hands. Mother told the officer the Children were outside with her during the altercation.

¶14      The officer also interviewed Father about the altercation. Father said he was “upset” because Mother hid the car keys from him but that “nothing got physical.” Father told the officer he and Mother had argued and run around the vehicle in the front yard. Father indicated that he had picked up a rock and held it over his head, but he did not throw it, nor did he intend to.

¶15      Lastly, the officer testified regarding his observations of the Children. When the officer arrived at the scene, the Children were inside the house. The officer interviewed Mother while she was standing at the front door. During the interview, the officer saw “at least two” of the Children standing by the front door behind Mother and “one of the kids popped his head outside” and asked for stickers. Officer opined that the Children’s demeanor “seemed calm.” The Children seemed “a little upset that some toys were . . . strewn about the front yard,” but otherwise they did not seem “distraught or flustered” by the altercation.

¶16      Mother testified that the June 22 incident started when she refused to give Father the keys to the car. Mother explained that she could not remember all the details about the altercation because she has “trouble remembering things.” However, she did remember that the altercation began when Father headbutted her in the house. After the headbutt, Father and Mother went outside to the front yard. Although Mother did not remember whether Father hit her in the yard, she recalled that he “didn’t follow [her] around the yard,” that he picked up a basket and “threw it up in the air” but not “at” her, and that he “picked up a rock” but did not chase her while holding it. Mother maintained that the Children had not observed the altercation because they were downstairs inside the house with a roommate where they stayed until the officers arrived.

¶17      Mother also testified that the Children “were never present for full on arguments or yelling.” She explained that “as soon as any argument started,” her roommate would take the Children downstairs so they would not be able to hear the fighting. Although Mother did not believe the Children had been impacted by the fighting, she did believe the Children were aware that they were sent downstairs to avoid hearing any fighting.

¶18 Father testified last. When asked about the June 22 altercation he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify because criminal charges were pending against him regarding that incident. But Father explained that “before” he and Mother would engage in any verbal arguments, the Children would go downstairs.

¶19      After considering all the evidence, the juvenile court issued an adjudication order. In the order the court found, among other things, that Father and Mother had engaged in numerous acts of domestic violence, some of which had occurred in the presence of the Children, including the one on June 22; that when Father and Mother fight they sometimes send the Children downstairs to wait with a roommate, which had occurred two or three times that year; that the Children are aware that they are sent downstairs because Father and Mother fight; that “[a]ccording to the [C]hildren, [Father] and [Mother] fight and yell and hurt each other’s bodies”; and that “[t]he [C]hildren have experienced domestic violence with enough frequency that they appear calm during incidents between their parents . . . even though the parents ‘fight a lot and hurt’ each other.”

¶20 As to Father, the court drew a number of adverse inferences based on his decision to invoke his constitutional right to silence when asked specific questions about the June 22 altercation. And as to Mother, the court found that she “is not concerned” about the Children witnessing her and Father fighting and that her “demeanor and testimony”—including her inability to recall much of what happened on June 22—“is in tune with her desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.” Based on these findings, the court concluded that Father “failed to provide proper care necessary for the health, safety, morals and well-being of the children in that he has engaged in domestic violence with [Mother], and [both Father and Mother] failed to protect the [C]hildren from exposure to domestic violence in the home.” The court also concluded that “[Father] and [Mother’s] domestic violence in their home has harmed [the Children]” and, accordingly, adjudicated the Children as neglected and abused as to Father.


¶21 Father now appeals only the juvenile court’s abuse adjudication, arguing that the court’s ruling was in error because the State failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he had harmed or threatened harm to the Children. “We apply differing standards of review to findings of fact, conclusions of law, and determinations of mixed questions of law and fact.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 14, 496 P.3d 58. We review the juvenile court’s factual findings deferentially, reversing the court’s findings only if they are clearly erroneous. Id. ¶ 15. A finding is clearly erroneous when the court either “failed to consider all of the facts or reached a decision against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified). However, the question of whether the juvenile court properly applied the governing law to the facts of the case presents “a law-like mixed question subject to nondeferential review.” In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶ 27.


¶22      At an adjudication trial, the juvenile court must determine whether “the allegations contained in the abuse, neglect, or dependency petition are true” by “clear and convincing evidence.” Utah Code § 80-3-402(1). Clear and convincing evidence is an “intermediate standard of proof” that “implies something more than the usual requirement of a preponderance . . . of the evidence; and something less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Essential Botanical Farms, LC v. Kay, 2011 UT 71, ¶¶ 21, 24, 270 P.3d 430 (quotation simplified). Put differently, this standard requires “the existence of facts that make a conclusion very highly probable.” Id. ¶ 24 (quotation simplified).

¶23      As relevant here, “abuse” is defined as the “nonaccidental harm of a child” or the “threatened harm of a child.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(1)(a)(i)(A), (B). Thus, “[t]o find abuse under Utah law, a court must find harm.” In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 9, 424 P.3d 91. “Harm” includes “physical or developmental injury or damage” and “emotional damage that results in a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(37)(a), (b). And “[t]hreatened harm” is defined as “actions, inactions, or credible verbal threats, indicating that the child is at an unreasonable risk of harm or neglect.” Id. § 80-1-102(92).

¶24      As applied to this case, to satisfy the clear and convincing standard, the State “needed to present evidence that would allow the [juvenile] court to conclude that it was very highly probable that the [C]hildren had been harmed.” See In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 9 n.3 (quotation simplified). In reaching this conclusion the court may properly “infer harm” based on the evidence presented. Id. ¶ 14. However, the court may not “speculate” about the existence of harm absent clear and convincing evidence demonstrating the actions actually resulted in harm. Id. ¶¶ 14–17.

¶25 After considering the evidence presented during the adjudication trial, the juvenile court concluded the Children were abused because “[Father] and [Mother’s] domestic violence in their home has harmed [the Children].” Father argues the court’s conclusion was in error because the State failed to produce clear and convincing evidence that he physically harmed the Children or that the Children were developmentally harmed or emotionally damaged by observing Father assault Mother and Father and Mother argue. But even if we were to agree with Father that the State failed to present sufficient evidence that Father harmed the Children and were to agree that the juvenile court erred in adjudicating Father as abusing the Children, Father has not demonstrated that he was prejudiced by the alleged error. See In re N.M., 2018 UT App 141, ¶ 27, 427 P.3d 1239 (“An error is prejudicial only if a review of the record persuades the appellate court that without the error there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result for the appellant.” (quotation simplified)); In re. J.B., 2002 UT App 268, ¶¶ 8–12, 53 P.3d 968 (affirming the termination of a father’s parental rights despite the juvenile court’s reliance on improper findings because such reliance did not result in “prejudicial error”). As noted above, the court adjudicated the Children as both neglected and abused, and Father appeals only the court’s abuse adjudication. Although Father is correct that “[a]buse and neglect are statutorily defined and given ‘distinct statuses’” and that “[u]nder the statutory definitions . . . abuse requires a higher level of improper conduct from a parent than neglect,” that distinction has no bearing in this case—and Father has not shown that it is likely to have any bearing in the future—because the court’s adjudications of neglect and abuse were based on the same underlying incidents of domestic violence.

¶26 When a juvenile court adjudicates a child as either neglected or abused, that determination brings the child within the jurisdiction of the court and allows the court to enter dispositional orders. See Utah Code § 80-3-402. The dispositions available to the court do not hinge on whether the child was adjudicated as neglected or abused. Instead, dispositions are tied to the factual findings about what is going on in the case and are implemented based on concern for the child’s health and safety and remedying the underlying issues resulting in the adjudication. See id. § 80-3-405.

¶27 Here, the juvenile court’s disposition is governed by the need to address Father’s commission of domestic violence in the presence of the Children and the risk such behavior will continue. Services to address this behavior will not differ whether the underlying adjudication is labeled as neglect or abuse because the court’s neglect determination was based on the same underlying facts as the abuse determination: here, Father’s failure to protect and to provide proper care for the Children as a result of his engaging in acts of domestic violence.[1]

¶28      Father cites this court’s decision in In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, 473 P.3d 184, for the proposition that Father was harmed by the court’s abuse adjudication, asserting that the findings of abuse in the adjudication order “will form the basis for whether [Father] is able to comply with the requirements of [any service plan] going forward and whether [Father] can be reunited with the Children.” See id. ¶ 28. But unlike the mother in In re C.M.R., who was potentially prejudiced by entering admissions to allegations regarding a specific additional incident of abuse at the adjudication hearing, Father’s abuse adjudication was based on the exact same underlying set of facts as his neglect adjudication. In this case, Father has not challenged the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication, nor has he challenged the court’s underlying factual findings—which support both the neglect and the abuse adjudications—that he assaulted Mother in the presence of the Children and repeatedly engaged in heated verbal arguments with her. Those underlying actions, which form the foundation for both adjudications, are the reason why he “can only have supervised visitation with [the] Children” and why “[h]e is not allowed in the home,” and not because the court adjudicated the Children as abused in addition to neglected. Because Father has not challenged the neglect adjudication or demonstrated how the ramifications flowing from this unchallenged adjudication would be less severe than those resulting from an abuse adjudication, he has not demonstrated that he has sustained any prejudice as a result of the court’s abuse adjudication.[2] See In re G.B., 2022 UT App 98, ¶ 34, 516 P.3d 781 (declining to reach the merits of a challenge to an abuse adjudication where the parent did not challenge a neglect adjudication based on the same facts because the parent did not demonstrate that the abuse adjudication carried “some collateral consequences . . . that [did] not follow from a neglect determination”).



¶29 On appeal, Father does not challenge the juvenile court’s findings that he committed domestic violence in the presence of the Children or that those actions resulted in him neglecting the Children by failing to provide them proper care and to protect them from exposure to domestic violence. Under these circumstances, even if the juvenile court erred in its separate abuse adjudication—a conclusion we stop short of reaching—Father has not demonstrated he was prejudiced by any such error because he has not challenged the court’s neglect adjudication or the facts underlying it, which are the same facts underlying the court’s abuse adjudication, and any court-ordered disposition will be based upon Father’s own acts and not the adjudication of abuse.

¶30 Affirmed.


[1] In his reply brief Father argues he was harmed by the juvenile court’s abuse adjudication because “an abuse adjudication goes into a central abuse registry system managed by DCFS” and “the information in that registry is used for licensing purposes and prevents individuals who have been adjudicated of abuse from holding licenses in certain professions.” But this argument misses the mark. While Father correctly notes that the abuse registry system—called the Management Information System (the MIS)— can be accessed by the State for all future cases involving Father, see Utah Code § 80-2-1001, he conflates the MIS with a “sub-part” of the MIS called the Licensing Information System (the LIS), see id. § 80-2-1002(1)(a)(i). Information on the MIS includes facts relevant to each child welfare case, whereas the LIS is maintained for “licensing purposes.” See id. § 80-2-1002(1)(a)(i). Although an individual on the LIS may be prohibited from, among other things, holding licenses in certain professions, see id. § 80-2-708(2)(a)(v), inclusion on the LIS is not automatic in every child welfare case. Rather, the LIS identifies only individuals found to have committed a “severe type of child abuse or neglect.” See id. § 80-2-708(1). Because the court did not adjudicate Father as severely abusing the Children, inclusion on the LIS does not automatically follow, and Father has not asserted that he has been—or is likely to be—included therein. Accordingly, Father has not demonstrated that, in this case, he has sustained any prejudice as a result of the juvenile court’s abuse determination.

[2] Indeed, in the juvenile court’s dispositional order, entered approximately two months after the adjudication order, Father’s primary responsibility is to “complete a domestic violence/mental health assessment . . . and follow any and all of the recommendations made.”

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When the Spouse Who Moved Out Does Not Get His Stuff by the Deadline of the Final Divorce Agreement, Can the Other Spouse Who Bought Out Marital Home Keep It or Sell It?

Great question, and one that arises often in divorce.

If the decree of divorce provides for what happens to unclaimed/unpossessed property, you would rely on the court’s orders as articulated in the decree. Rarely does this happen, but read your decree to see if it did in your case.

As best I can conclude after doing much more research on this question than I thought would be necessary to answer it (and I am still not completely sure what the answer to your question is), property does not automatically acquire “abandoned” status after being left in someone else’s possession for a particular period of time.[1]

It’s tempting to claim that the matter can be resolved by appealing to landlord-tenant law, which is quite clear on how a landlord must behave before it can dispose of a tenant’s abandoned property. The problem is that the relationship between freshly divorced people is not one of landlord and tenant.

What about claiming that the matter can be resolved by self-storage facility law (Utah has a whole set of code sections on the subject at Utah Code Title 38, Chapter 8)? No. The relationship between freshly divorced people is not one of storage customer and storage provider under self-service storage facilities law.

Researching this question has inspired me to include in a divorce settlement agreement and decree of divorce provisions for how property abandoned by one ex-spouse at the other ex-spouse’s home or other location owned by or under the control of that ex-spouse. Because divorce-specific law on this subject simply doesn’t exist (which is odd because the problem of an ex-spouse failing to take his/her property out of the house/apartment when ownership or occupancy of the house/apartment was awarded to the other spouse arises so often in divorce).

If the decree of divorce is silent on the matter of what one in possession of property left behind by his/her ex-spouse can do with that property, then you need to look to what the law governing bailments, lost and abandoned property, and conversion. There may very well be other law(s) you need to consider, but you need to be aware of at least bailment, lost and abandoned property, and conversion law.

From Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019):


abandoned property. (1841) Property that the owner voluntarily surrenders, relinquishes, or disclaims. Cf. lost propertymislaid property.


bailment n. (16c) 1. A delivery of personal property by one person (the bailor) to another (the bailee) who holds the property for a certain purpose, usu. under an express or implied-in-fact contract. • Unlike a sale or gift of personal property, a bailment involves a change in possession but not in title. Cf. pawn.

– constructive bailment. (1843) A bailment that arises when the law imposes an obligation on a possessor of personal property to return the property to its rightful owner, as with an involuntary bailment. • For example, a police department becomes a constructive bailee for an impounded vehicle. Cf. involuntary bailment.

– involuntary bailment. (1840) A bailment that arises when a person accidentally, but without any negligence, leaves personal property in another’s possession. • An involuntary bailee who refuses to return the property to the owner may be liable for conversion. — Also termed involuntary deposit. See abandoned propertylost propertymislaid property under property. Cf. constructive bailment.

CONVERSION. 2. Tort & criminal law. The wrongful possession or disposition of another’s property as if it were one’s own; an act or series of acts of willful interference, without lawful justification, with an item of property in a manner inconsistent with another’s right, whereby that other person is deprived of the use and possession of the property. — Also termed tortious conversioncriminal conversion. — convert, vb. — conversionary, adj.

– conversion by taking. (1905) Conversion by taking a chattel out of the possession of another with the intention of exercising permanent or temporary dominion over it, despite the owner’s entitlement to use it at all times.

– conversion by wrongful delivery. (1917) Conversion by depriving an owner of goods of possession by delivering them to someone else.

– conversion by wrongful destruction. Conversion by willfully consuming or otherwise destroying a chattel belonging to another person.

– conversion by wrongful disposition. Conversion by depriving an owner of goods by giving some other person a lawful title to them.

– direct conversion. (1841) The act of appropriating the property of another to one’s own benefit, or to the benefit of a third person. • A direct conversion is per se unlawful, and the traditional requirements of demand and refusal of the property do not apply.

– fraudulent conversion. (17c) Conversion that is committed by the use of fraud, either in obtaining the property or in withholding it.

– innocent conversion. See technical conversion.

– involuntary conversion. (1876) The loss or destruction of property through theft, casualty, or condemnation.

– negligent conversion. See technical conversion.

– technical conversion. (1871) The taking of another’s personal property by one who acts in good faith and mistakenly believes that he or she is lawfully entitled to the property. — Also termed innocent conversionnegligent conversion.

In the Utah Supreme Court case of Gurgel v. Nichol (429 P.2d 47 (Utah 1976), the question was whether the seller of a house who left some personal property behind in the house had thus abandoned the property and lost ownership of the personal property as a result. Here is what the Utah Supreme Court ruled:

[1] Whether or not personal property is abandoned by the owner is a matter of intention, which is ordinarily a question of fact to be ascertained by a jury upon a consideration of all of the facts and circumstances in the case.

[2] Section 41 of 1 Am.Jur.2d, Abandoned, Lost, Etc., Property, reads as follows:

Mere nonuse of property, lapse of time without claiming or using property, or the temporary absence of the owner, unaccompanied by any other evidence showing intention, have generally been held not enough to constitute an abandonment. However, such facts are competent evidence of an intent to abandon and as such are entitled to great weight when considered with other circumstances, as, for instance, a failure on the part of the owner by acts or otherwise to assert any claim to the property or right alleged to have been abandoned. But mere nonuser is not evidence of abandonment unless it continues for the statutory period of limitation of actions to recover the right or property, or unless it would be inequitable to allow the right to be asserted.

The probative force of a showing of absence, lapse of time, and nonuser may of course be rebutted by proof of facts or circumstances explaining the relinquishment and showing the absence of an intention to abandon the thing or the right, and slight circumstances have been allowed to rebut the inference of abandonment arising from long disuse. * * *

[3] It may be that upon a trial of this case the jury, or the court if no jury is had, could find from a lapse of time that there had been an abandonment, but we do not believe that the court can say as a matter of law that personal property is abandoned when nothing more is shown than a delay of nine months is coming to get it.

[4] The plaintiff made some claim of right to the personal property by reason of the terms ‘tenements, hereditaments, and appurtenances’ in the deed given to his predecessor. This claim is dismissed as being without merit.

To treat property as abandoned it appears that (in Utah) you must establish this fact by filing a law suit (and in that law suit establish that did everything required of you, including giving the owner of the property sufficient notice) to have it declared abandoned before you can assume ownership and control of it.

If you want to play it safe (in Utah) and wait until the statute of limitations for conversion has run, it appears to me that the limitations period is 3 years. But even then, there are exceptions that can “toll” the statute of limitations, so be warned.


[1] Perhaps something like this (consult an attorney knowledgeable on the subject in your jurisdiction to know how to address and resolve this issue in compliance with the law):

“Husband/wife has X days from the date this Decree of Divorce is entered to retrieve his/her ________, _______, and _______ from the marital residence, and if it is not retrieved on or before X days from the date this Decree of Divorce is entered, husband/wife forfeits his/her rights to the property and [the other ex-spouse to whom the property was not awarded] shall be free to keep said property as his/her own property and/or to dispose of said property has he/she pleases.”

If you are not yet divorced and you don’t have a clause like this in your divorce settlement or decree, it may be wise to include such a clause to define when property is deemed abandoned and establishing your right to own and/or dispose of it at the time the decree of divorce is entered.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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2023 UT App 10 – Death of Spouse Before Court Rules

2023 UT App 10





THOMAS W. MOWER, Appellee.


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


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.


¶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.


¶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.


¶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]


¶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.

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[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] 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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How Can Family Law Mediation Help You?

You can find tens of thousands—and I wouldn’t be surprised if you could find millions—of articles about divorce and family law mediation and all of the benefits thereof. Just Google “divorce mediation” or “family law mediation” and you will find limitless numbers of articles on divorce and family law mediation of varying degrees of detail and quality. These are usually not objective articles but articles written by mediators who want you to use their mediation services, and so, as with any sales pitch, you should receive them a healthy dose of skepticism (A healthy dose, not too much, but not too little).

Given the extreme volume of articles that describe what family law mediation is and how it can be conducted, I’m not going to rehash here what you can read in the literally countless number of articles that have been written about the benefits of divorce and family law mediation.

Instead, I will tell you what many of you who believe or want to believe that mediation is a magic pill by which you and/or your spouse we’ll quickly, inexpensively, comprehensively, and amicably resolve your divorce or other family law dispute probably don’t want to know but need to know: mediation only works as well as the people who engage in it. Thus:

  • evil people;
  • vindictive people;
  • greedy people;
  • lazy people;
  • cheapskates;
  • sociopaths;
  • conflict averse people (cowards); and
  • stupid people

rarely reach agreement in mediation quickly, inexpensively, comprehensively, fairly, or amicably.

No matter how good your mediator is (and I have yet to meet a mediator with a magic touch, someone who has that supernatural ability to transform bitter rivals into “problem solving partners” who think win-win), your odds of reaching a quick, inexpensive comprehensive, fair, and amicable settlement agreement in mediation are slim to none if you and/or your spouse or your children’s other parent aren’t decent, intelligent, informed, rational, and pragmatic people yourselves.

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In a Divorce, Why Do Courts Want to Know About Other Persons Living in the Home, Not Involved in the Divorce and Their Income?

There could be many reasons. Here are a few of the most common (not an exhaustive list, but a list of many reasons why a court may want to know about other persons (and/or their income) living in a spouse’s/parent’s home, even if such persons are not directly involved in the divorce action):

  • Do these persons (or does this person) share living expenses with the parent with whom they reside? This question may arise when determining what the child support or alimony awards will be.
    • If so, how much do such persons contribute toward the spouse’s/parent’s living expenses?
  • Do these persons (or person) pose a danger to the parties’ children (if the parties have minor children and there is a dispute over what the child custody award is and shall be)?
    • Are they violent? Do they have violent friends or associates?
      • Do they abuse the parent?
      • Do they abuse the children?
    • Are they pedophiles?
    • Do they engage in criminal activity? Do they have friends or associates who engage in criminal activity?
    • Are they drug or alcohol abusers or addicts?
    • Are they emotionally and/or psychologically abusive toward the parent and/or children?
    • Do they engage in needlessly dangerous or risky activities in the house and around the children?
    • Do such persons contribute to the household expenses? Or are they a drain on the parent financially or emotionally, causing the parent or children to suffering financial and/or emotional hardships as a result?
    • Do they set a bad moral example for the children?

These are common and highly relevant reasons why a court may be interested to know about who lives with a spouse or parent, what kind of people such persons are, whether such persons have an income, and if so, how much their incomes are.


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How Do You Get a Divorce That Involves No Children and No Property or Money if You Haven’t Been Able to Find Your Spouse for Almost 10 Years, and Without Having to Hire a Lawyer?

You probably worry that hiring a lawyer will bankrupt you, and so you’re afraid to get the help a good divorce lawyer could be to you.

Before you resolve not to hire an attorney to represent you, find out what it will cost you to get a good divorce attorney’s help in your situation. You may be surprised that it’s not ruinously expensive.

I won’t lie: sometimes the cost of what it would cost you to have an attorney represent you is ruinously expensive, but find out if that’s true in your case. Don’t deny yourself the benefits of good legal representation because you foolishly refused to find out if you can afford it.

In the situation you described (no children to fight over, no property to fight over, and your spouse has been AWOL for ten years), getting your divorce case filed, service of process completed, and your decree of divorce issued by the court may not take long or cost much, if you end up getting a divorce by default.

Even if you ultimately decide not to hire an attorney, meeting for an initial consultation with an attorney or two is still a good way to get informed about certain aspects of the divorce process.

If, after you consult with an attorney, you determine that you cannot afford an attorney’s services or you prefer not to spend the money on the attorney’s services, there are do-it-yourself options available, but frankly, do it yourself divorce is a risky proposition.

To find out what do-it-yourself options are available to you for your jurisdiction, visit the local courthouse and the law school nearest you; they may have forms and even clinics that offer help and guidance in the DIY process. You can (and should) read about divorce online to educate yourself about what divorce is and how the law applies and functions, but before you order a set of DIY divorce forms online, talk with the people at the courthouse and law schools to get your bearings.


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What Are the Divorce Laws in Utah?

While visiting a lawyer’s website is not a bad place to look for answers to this question, it is not the best.

If you want to know the divorce laws for Utah, you will want to read the laws and court rules that govern divorce actions..

Here are the most important statutes to start with:

Title 30. Husband and Wife.

Title 78B. Judicial Code. Chapter 12. Utah Child Support Act.

Title 78B. Judicial Code. Chapter 20. Uniform Deployed Parents Custody, Parent-time, and Visitation Act.

Utah Code. Title 62A. Utah Human Services Code. Chapter 11. Recovery Services.

Read and become familiar with the rules of court that apply to divorce. Those rules (not all of which apply to divorce) are:

Utah Rules of Civil Procedure

Judicial Council Code of Judicial Administration

Ch 4: Operation of the Courts

Utah Rules of Evidence

Read—and comprehend*—good websites (not just any websites) that explain and discuss Utah divorce law and how it applies. Read about how divorce law is applied in Utah, read case law about it.

And you will want to meet with an experienced, knowledgeable, and skilled attorney who is licensed in the state of Idaho to practice law to gain a better understanding of Utah divorce law generally and how Utah divorce law can affect you and your family specifically. Don’t skip this step. Don’t jump over dollars to pick dimes by fooling yourself with “Just think of the money I saved by not talking to an expert on a subject that will have a profound effect on the rest of my life but of which I know nothing!”


*reading (and listening to podcasts or watching videos) does you no good if you do not in fact learn anything from it. Pay attention. Understand what you’re reading. Just reading alone doesn’t educate you. If you don’t understand the subject after reading/listening/watching, then read/listen/watch more and/or pay closer attention. No “A” is given for effort.


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