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Tag: ¶ 11

Mintz v. Mintz – 2023 UT App 17

Mintz v. Mintz – 2023 UT App 17

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

RAYNA ELIZABETH MINTZ,

Appellant and Cross-appellee,

v.

GLEN RYAN MINTZ,

Appellee and Cross-appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200507-CA

Filed February 9, 2023

Third District Court, Silver Summit Department

The Honorable Kent R. Holmberg

No. 174500034

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

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

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

MORTENSEN, Judge:

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

BACKGROUND[3]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

¶12      Second, Rayna contends that the district court erred when it determined that the list of clients Glen managed as an investment advisor (the book of business) was not a divisible marital asset. “Determining and assigning values to marital property is a matter for the trial court,” and an appellate court “will not disturb those determinations absent a showing of clear abuse of discretion.” Talley v. Talley, 739 P.2d 83, 84 (Utah Ct. App. 1987).

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

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

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

ANALYSIS
I. Alimony

A.        Investment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B.         Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

II. Book of Business

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

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

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

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

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

Another read,

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

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

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

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

III. Dissipation

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

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

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

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

IV. Property Distribution Appreciation

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

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

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

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

V. Investment Income

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Myers v. Myers 2023 UT App 20 – Alimony Modification

Myers v. Myers 2023 UT App 20

2023 UT App 20

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

Opinion

No. 20220002-CA

Filed March 2, 2023

Sixth District Court, Richfield Department

The Honorable Brody L. Keisel

No. 184600056

Benjamin L. Wilson, Attorney for Appellant

Douglas L. Neeley, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and JOHN D. LUTHY

concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUE AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

ANALYSIS

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

I

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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