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In re G.H. – 2023 UT App 132 – juvenile court grandparent guardianship

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF G.H. AND R.H.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

L.G.,

Appellant,

v.

R.G. AND R.G.,

Appellees.

Opinion

No. 20220920-CA

Filed November 2, 2023

Seventh District Juvenile Court, Price Department

The Honorable Craig Bunnell

No. 1210014

Steve S. Christensen and Clinton Brimhall,

Attorneys for Appellant

Colleen K. Coebergh, Attorney for Appellees

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES RYAN M. HARRIS and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        The maternal grandparents of two children filed a petition for guardianship, alleging neglect by both parents and abuse at the hands of the children’s father. The guardianship was contested, and a trial was held. After trial, the juvenile court granted the petition, finding facts consistent with the allegations of the petition and determining that the guardianship was in the best interest of the children. Further, the juvenile court determined that the mother’s parent-time, if any, would take place at the unfettered discretion of the grandparents. The mother appeals, claiming the juvenile court erred in determining neglect, erred in failing to order parent-time, and wrongfully denied a motion to change venue as to one of the children. For the most part, we affirm. However, the juvenile court’s findings regarding the mother’s parent-time rights are inadequate, and we therefore remand this matter for the entry of further findings and conclusions as necessary.

BACKGROUND

¶2        AG (Mother) and JH (Father) are the natural parents of GH and RH (the Children).[1] In April 2022, Mother’s parents, RG and RG (Grandparents), petitioned for guardianship and custody of the Children, alleging that such a placement was in the best interest of the Children due to Father’s abuse and both parents’ neglect. A few days later, Grandparents filed an ex parte motion for temporary custody of the Children, and the juvenile court granted the request.

¶3        At a pre-trial hearing, Mother asked for an expedited evidentiary hearing regarding temporary custody. The court declined that request and instead held a combined adjudication and disposition hearing over two trial days in July and August 2022.

¶4        After that hearing, the court issued an order setting forth findings of fact and conclusions of law regarding adjudication and disposition. Because Mother does not dispute the findings of fact, we recite the facts directly from the juvenile court’s findings.[2]

¶5        The court took judicial notice of a 2019 order in which the same court terminated Mother’s parental rights to an older child, who was adopted by Grandparents shortly thereafter. Mother stated she had “no idea” why her maternal rights for the older child were terminated, but the record shows that it was primarily due to Mother’s neglect.

¶6        Mother moved in with Grandparents in Price, Utah, in July 2019 and lived with them through the first part of January 2022. From June through September 2021, Mother worked evenings (5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.). She had surgery for “a minor thing” in September 2021. Mother was unemployed until she obtained full-time employment in December 2021. At this job, she worked ten-hour shifts (10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.) four days per week.

¶7        While living with Grandparents, Mother “relied on [Grandparents] almost exclusively and for nearly everything for [the Children] . . . . [Grandparents] were the primary caretakers for [the Children’s] day-to-day physical, developmental, medical, and financial needs.”

¶8        With regard to the Children’s physical needs, Mother “did very little to make arrangements for [the Children], provide basic care, or assist with household duties,” even when asked to do so. She did not provide “day-to-day food or meals” for the Children, nor did she help with potty training GH.

¶9        Regarding developmental needs, Grandparents provided for “the vast majority of [the Children’s] indoor and outdoor activities, toys, and one-on-one parent-role interactions.” Mother “did very little to actually parent [the Children] or care for their needs,” and she did not assist with “mothering” the Children. When asked to care for the Children, other than watching the Children for about five hours some weekdays when Grandparents were both working, “Mother would often say she was too tired, too busy, be on her phone or smoking, or on her bed resting or lounging.”

¶10      Mother’s sister (Sister) would often visit Grandparents’ house (about two times each week when Grandparents were not there), and she observed Mother being “verbally abusive or terse with [the Children],” leaving them “unattended or unsupervised, not changing diapers as needed, or not caring for them.” The court also found, based on Sister’s testimony, that Mother would often “come to [Sister’s] house (at times unannounced) without child­care supplies or clothes,” asking for help with the Children because Mother was “tired, needed a break, going out with friends, or going to work (although, at times, she did not go to work, but went back to [Grandparents’] house to sleep or smoke).”

¶11 Financially, Mother sometimes shared her government food assistance card but relied on Grandparents for most of the Children’s financial needs. She also relied on Grandparents to provide birthday or Christmas gifts for the Children. She did, however, reimburse Grandparents a few hundred dollars and paid for some daycare.

¶12 Regarding medical needs, Mother took the Children for immunizations, but she did not take them to other types of medical appointments or help Grandparents when the Children were sick with ear infections, colds, or other maladies.

¶13 In January 2022, Mother moved in with another relative (Step-Grandmother) in Highland, Utah, which was twenty minutes from her newly acquired job. Grandparents continued as GH’s primary caretakers in Price, but RH moved to Step-Grandmother’s house with Mother.

¶14 During this time-period, RH received daily and weekly care in four different cities separated by nearly a hundred miles and by four different caregivers besides Mother, namely Step-Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, Father’s mother, and Grandparents. Essentially, Grandparents and Great-Grandmother would relieve Step-Grandmother when she was not available to watch RH. Sometimes Mother would be the one to take RH to Great-Grandmother’s house. Step-Grandmother, Grandparents, the maternal great-grandmother (Great-Grandmother), or Mother transported RH, and sometimes GH, from house to house on weekends. Mother’s mother handled most of the Children’s care coordination, “unless Mother needed to preplan to accommodate her own work schedule.” RH did not stay in “one consistent place or house” during this time-period; RH was at a “different house almost every day of the week, and each week was different than the last.”

¶15 Watching Mother with the Children “scared” Step-Grandmother, and she never saw Mother being “a mother” to the Children. Mother was “negative verbally” to the Children and “put her own wants and needs before RH’s needs.” Mother would get upset when Step-Grandmother wanted to go out, making it necessary for Mother to watch RH.

¶16 Mother provided very little assistance to Step-Grandmother with household duties, except for washing her and RH’s clothes, and “Mother’s bedroom was always cluttered (with RH’s clothes on the floor) and never cleaned.” Mother put RH to bed half the time, but Step-Grandmother noted that the time was never consistent, as Mother sometimes would come home as late as 10:30 p.m. On some Friday nights, Mother did not come home at all until later that weekend.

¶17 While living with Step-Grandmother, Mother changed RH’s diaper only about once per day; smoked cigarettes “all the time”; was “always on her phone”; did not give baby food or regular feeding; and did not read to, play with, sing to, or bathe RH.

¶18      In mid-March 2022, Mother moved into a rental house in Murray, Utah, with RH. Although Step-Grandmother no longer provided RH daily care after the move, Mother still used Grandparents, Great-Grandmother, and Father’s mother to care for RH. Mother’s work schedule changed to eight hours per day, five days per week (12:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. or 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.). Grandparents primarily watched RH on weekends. GH continued to live with Grandparents.

¶19 On April 5, 2022, Mother picked up Father from prison, and he lived with Mother from then until at least July 2022, when Mother learned—on the first day of trial through Father’s probation officer’s testimony—that Father had used drugs just a week before. Before hearing this testimony, “Mother did not believe he would use drugs.” Mother allowed Father to watch the Children unsupervised, and until trial, she had planned to continue living with him, despite knowing that Father was convicted of assaulting someone in prison two months prior to his release and despite complaining to Grandparents that Father was “controlling and threatening her, taking her phone and car, refusing to work, and taking advantage of her.” Father’s assault conviction “did not cause her any concern” about him being with her or the Children.[3] The court found that Mother’s reintroduction of Father into the Children’s lives “was an emphatic demonstration to the Court of Mother’s poor judgment and her continued inability (since having her parental rights terminated to an older child in 2019 and since [the Children] were born) to put [the Children’s] needs and welfare before her own.”

¶20 Mother made efforts to obtain a full-time job and to perform well at her job to provide for her and the Children.[4] But the court concluded that Mother “did not progress over the last three years as was necessary and appropriate for her to meet the daily needs” of the Children. Instead, Grandparents, Step-Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, and others provided “the crucial day-to-day parenting and caretaking that are necessary for [the Children] to thrive developmentally and otherwise.”

¶21 The court also found that the Children “thrived living together with [Grandparents] prior to Mother moving out of [Grandparents’] home in January 2022” and after being reunited in Grandparents’ home in April 2022. The court noted that Grandparents “demonstrated their reliability and consistent efforts to provide for all of [the Children’s] day-to-day physical, mental, emotional, developmental, medical, financial, and educational needs.” The court emphasized that the Children should be living together.

¶22      Based on these factual findings, the court concluded there was clear and convincing evidence that Mother neglected the Children. The court also concluded, based on clear and convincing evidence, that the Children’s best interests would be met by granting Grandparents permanent custody and guardianship. Additionally, the court ordered that Mother’s and Father’s parent-time with the Children “shall be at the discretion and under the control or management of [Grandparents].”

¶23 As relevant here, Mother moved the court to dismiss Grandparents’ petition for improper venue or to transfer venue, which the court denied. Mother now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶24 Mother argues that the juvenile court erred when it determined that the Children were neglected. Mother clarifies that she is not disputing the court’s findings of fact but the court’s application of these findings to the law; therefore, “we accept these findings as true in our analysis on appeal.” d’Elia v. Rice Dev., Inc., 2006 UT App 416, ¶ 24, 147 P.3d 515. “We view the question presented here as law-like because it concerns whether the facts as constituted meet the legal standard of the statute. . . .

Accordingly, we review the issue presented here giving no deference to the juvenile court.” In re A.B., 2021 UT App 91, ¶ 10, 498 P.3d 894, aff’d, 2022 UT 39, 523 P.3d 168.

¶25 Mother also argues that the juvenile court erred in not awarding her parent-time and thus failing to give due consideration to her residual parental rights. “We generally will not disturb the district court’s parent-time determination absent a showing that the court has abused its discretion. However, we review the district court’s interpretation of a statute for correctness. Likewise, we review the legal adequacy of findings of fact for correctness as a question of law.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 4, 427 P.3d 1221 (cleaned up).

¶26 Finally, Mother argues that the juvenile court erred in denying her motion to dismiss or transfer based on venue. Venue “is a question committed to the district court’s discretion, which we review for an abuse of discretion.” Davis County v. Purdue Pharma, LP, 2020 UT 17, ¶ 7, 463 P.3d 619.

ANALYSIS
I. Neglect

¶27      “If, at the adjudication[5] hearing, the juvenile court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that the allegations contained in the abuse, neglect, or dependency petition are true, the juvenile court shall conduct a dispositional hearing.” Utah Code § 80-3­402(1). “The dispositional hearing may be held on the same date as the adjudication hearing . . . .” Id. § 80-3-402(3). At the dispositional hearing, the juvenile court then “may vest custody of an abused, neglected, or dependent minor in the division or any other appropriate person.” Id. § 80-3-405(2)(a)(i). “If a minor has been placed with an individual or relative as a result of an adjudication . . . , the juvenile court may enter an order of permanent legal custody and guardianship with the individual or relative of the minor.” Id. § 80-3-405(2)(d)(i). “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. Put differently, this standard requires the existence of facts that make a conclusion very highly probable.” In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, ¶ 22, 525 P.3d 519 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 531 P.3d 731 (Utah 2023).

¶28      Neglect is statutorily defined, and can be proved in any one of several ways. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(i)–(vi).[6] While the juvenile court found neglect under several subsections, to affirm we need conclude only that neglect was established under one of the bases. See In re E.F., 2013 UT App 13, ¶ 3, 295 P.3d 1165 (per curiam) (upholding juvenile court’s conclusion that mother neglected child under the sole basis of lack of proper parental care by reason of parent’s faults or habits). Among other bases, the juvenile court found neglect under subsection (ii), which defines neglect as “action or inaction causing . . . lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent, guardian, or custodian.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii). We agree with the juvenile court that the evidence supported a finding that this basis for neglect had been proved.

¶29      First and foremost, the factual findings demonstrated that Mother did not attend to the Children’s basic health and welfare needs, such as feeding and bathing them, changing their diapers regularly, and obtaining medical care for them when they were sick. Mother also did not show any interest in potty training GH.

¶30      Moreover, Mother did not behave in a manner consistent with parenting a child. For example, Mother did not demonstrate a desire to play with the Children, read or sing to them, or buy them birthday and Christmas presents. And Grandparents were the ones to provide the Children’s indoor and outdoor activities and toys rather than Mother.

¶31      Similarly, the findings revealed that Mother lacked interest in being around the Children, and she would refuse to care for them when asked by the family members with whom she was living. Mother would complain that “she was too tired” or “too busy,” or she would prefer to “be on her phone or smoking, or on her bed resting or lounging.” Likewise, Mother would drop off the Children unannounced at Sister’s house—“without child-care supplies or clothes”—because Mother was “tired, needed a break, [or was] going out with friends, or going to work,” although, at times she went back to Grandparents’ house “to sleep or smoke” instead. Mother also would get upset when Step-Grandmother wanted to go out some evenings, thus leaving Mother to care for the Children. In addition, “Mother did not do household duties when asked to do so.”

¶32 Although the court did acknowledge Mother’s commendable efforts with her current job, it still found that Mother “did not progress over the last three years as was necessary and appropriate for her to meet the daily needs of each of [the Children].”

¶33 Furthermore, the findings demonstrate that Mother was not troubled by Father being with her or the Children. Even though Mother knew that Father was convicted of assaulting someone while in prison and said that he was “controlling and threatening her, taking her phone and car, refusing to work, and taking advantage of her,” Mother allowed Father to watch the Children unsupervised and, until learning of his continued drug use at trial, had planned to go on living with him. Additionally, despite Father’s history with drug use, Mother “did not believe he would use drugs.” Mother’s reintroduction of Father into the Children’s lives demonstrated to the court “emphatic[ally]” that Mother showed “poor judgment and [a] continued inability (since having her parental rights terminated to an older child in 2019 and since [the Children] were born) to put [the Children’s] needs and welfare before her own.”

¶34 The court also highlighted that during the time when Mother lived with Step-Grandmother, the Children were cared for by many different caregivers other than Mother. The court found that Grandparents were the main caregivers for GH, and the court emphasized that RH’s daily and weekly care was provided by five different caregivers located in four different cities. Mother argues that a “child is not without proper parental care solely because that care is not always at the hands of a parent” and that it is “not uncommon for parents, especially single working mothers, to place children in daycare or arrange for care with family.” In support of her argument, Mother cites In re A.B., 2021 UT App 91, 498 P.3d 894, aff’d, 2022 UT 39, 523 P.3d 168, where we held that a child is not neglected if the child receives proper parental care, “even if not always at [a mother’s] hand.” Id. ¶ 20.

¶35 We agree with Mother that it can be completely appropriate for parents to arrange for others to help them in caring for their children, and we empathize with single parents whose childcare arrangements may not always seem ideal to others of greater means and opportunity. But Mother’s behavior in this case is distinguishable from that in In re A.B. Here, the juvenile court found, and Mother does not dispute, that Mother did “very little to make arrangements” for the Children, would drop off the Children at Sister’s “at times unannounced,” would not come home when she was expected to, and would not take care of the Children when at home. In contrast, In re A.B. concerned a child who spent summers with “welcoming relatives[,] . . . and on agreement, summer turned into a whole year.” Id. ¶ 1 (emphases added). Moreover, that mother arranged the child’s care with the relatives, id. ¶¶ 2–3, and she never refused to take care of her child when she oversaw the child’s care, id. ¶ 19. Therefore, Mother’s reliance on In re A.B. misses the mark.

¶36 Based on the foregoing, we conclude that the juvenile court’s findings of fact meet the legal standard of neglect. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii). Therefore, we affirm its grant of permanent custody and guardianship to Grandparents. See id. § 80-3-405(2)(d)(i).[7]

II. Parent-Time

¶37      Mother next argues that the juvenile court erred by failing “to even consider providing Mother parent-time in the final analysis order.” While we don’t quite agree with Mother’s characterization of the order as a complete failure to consider Mother’s residual rights, we agree that remand on this issue is necessary.

¶38 When the juvenile court vests custody of a child in someone other than the child’s natural parent, the court “shall give primary consideration to the welfare of the minor.” Utah Code § 80-3-405(2)(a)(ii)(A). Here the court did so by awarding custody to Grandparents, whom the court found to “have demonstrated their reliability and consistent efforts to provide for all of [the Children’s] day-to-day physical, mental, emotional, developmental, medical, financial, and educational needs.”

¶39      But the court’s responsibilities when awarding custody do not end there. The court also “shall give due consideration to the rights of the parent or parents concerning the minor.” Id. § 80-3-405(2)(a)(ii)(B). This includes consideration of awarding reasonable parent-time. Specifically, the statute provides that “[a] parent of a minor for whom a guardian is appointed retains residual parental rights and duties.” Id. § 75-5-209(5). These residual parental rights include “the right to reasonable parent-time unless restricted by the court.” Id. § 80-1-102(70)(a)(iv). Thus, our legislature intended for juvenile courts to give careful thought to an award of parent-time when granting custody and guardianship to someone else. And we note that parent-time is significant because it offers “the parent the possibility of maintaining a meaningful relationship with the child despite lack of physical custody.” Moreno v. Board of Educ., 926 P.2d 886, 890 (Utah 1996).

¶40      Yet here, the juvenile court simply stated that Mother’s and Father’s parent-time with the Children “shall be at the discretion and under the control or management” of Grandparents, without making any findings regarding the amount of parent-time that would be reasonable. Instead, the court delegated that determination entirely to Grandparents. And this could lead to Grandparents denying Mother any parent-time[8] without the court making any findings of fact to justify such a denial.[9] Here, we find the court’s findings and conclusions regarding parent-time to be inadequate.

¶41      A juvenile court’s factual findings “must be sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to clearly show the evidence upon which they are grounded.” In re S.T., 928 P.2d 393, 398 (Utah Ct. App. 1996); see also In re M.G., 2003 UT App 313U, para. 5 (holding that “a review of the court’s oral findings reveals the subsidiary facts and basis for the juvenile court’s written findings and demonstrates that the written and oral findings, taken together, are sufficiently detailed to permit appellate review”). “Put another way, findings are adequate when they contain sufficient detail to permit appellate review to ensure that the [juvenile] court’s discretionary determination was rationally based. Indeed, the [juvenile] court’s obligation to render adequate findings facilitates meaningful appellate review and ensures the parties are informed of the [juvenile] court’s reasoning.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 19, 427 P.3d 1221 (cleaned up). “Unless the record clearly and [incontrovertibly] supports the [juvenile] court’s decision, the absence of adequate findings of fact ordinarily requires remand for more detailed findings by the [juvenile] court.” Woodward v. Fazzio, 823 P.2d 474, 478 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (cleaned up).

¶42      We are unable to determine the court’s basis for leaving all parent-time decisions in the hands of Grandparents, a situation that potentially denies Mother any parent-time with the Children.

Accordingly, we vacate the juvenile court’s decision regarding parent-time and remand this matter for specific findings demonstrating what conditions of parent-time are reasonable. If the court determines that it is reasonable to award no parent-time to Mother, then the court must make specific findings to justify such a determination.

III. Venue

¶43 Mother brought a motion to dismiss or change venue on the morning of trial, asserting that the case had been brought in the wrong venue.[10] The juvenile court took the motion under advisement and delayed ruling on the motion until it could take evidence and determine facts relative to venue. In its dispositional order, the juvenile court determined that venue was correct in the Seventh District. Now on appeal, Mother challenges that conclusion only as to RH. Mother maintains that on the day the petition for guardianship was filed, RH was living with Mother in Salt Lake County. Even assuming, for purposes of the discussion, that venue was incorrectly determined to be in the Seventh District as to RH, we affirm the decision of the juvenile court because Mother has failed to show any harm.

¶44 The guardian ad litem’s briefing maintained that Mother needs to show harm to obtain reversal based on an erroneous denial of the motion to change venue as it pertains to RH. Mother does not quibble with this legal assertion but claims that she implicitly identified and showed harm in her principal brief. As both parties have proceeded under the assumption that an appellant must show harm, we will do likewise without deciding that discrete issue.[11] The sole harm Mother points to is that the case regarding RH would have been dismissed and that dismissal would have benefitted Mother. Mother is wrong on the first point and utterly fails to meet her burden of persuasion on the second.

¶45      First, as to automatic dismissal, this result was rejected several years ago by this court when In re adoption of B.N.A., 2018 UT App 224, 438 P.3d 10, explored the consequences of hearing a case in the wrong venue. Initially, we explained that under current precedent, subject-matter jurisdiction is not implicated when a case is filed in the wrong district. Id. ¶¶ 12–24. Then we concluded that the “consequence for filing in the wrong district is not automatic dismissal.” Id. ¶ 25. Instead, “any party, upon proper motion, may request that the case be transferred to the correct district.” Id. So, if the Mother’s motion had been granted, the case would have been transferred, not dismissed. Accordingly, the argument that harm resulted because the case would have been dismissed fails.

¶46 Second, Mother fails to identify any other harm. She merely concludes that “[d]ismissal would have benefitted Mother.” But as just explained, dismissal would not have occurred. And Mother presents no argument that she would have obtained a different result had the case been transferred. Importantly, where Mother does not challenge that the case involving GH would have remained in the Seventh District, we easily foresee that upon transfer, any other juvenile court would have likely transferred the RH case back to the Seventh District under its discretionary powers, and more particularly under rule 42 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.[12] Further, Mother fails to show how the result rendered in a different venue would have been better for her. Thus, Mother fails to meet her burden of persuasion that she was harmed by the denial of her motion to change venue.

¶47      Accordingly, we see no basis to reverse the judgment of the juvenile court on the issue of venue.

CONCLUSION

¶48      We affirm the juvenile court’s determination that Mother neglected the Children and that venue was proper in the Seventh District with regard to RH. We also conclude that the juvenile court made inadequate findings regarding its parent-time award. Therefore, we vacate the court’s award of sole discretion over Mother’s parent-time to Grandparents and remand the matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion to consider Mother’s residual parental rights when determining a reasonable award of parent-time.

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


[1] RH has a twin, who has lived with the maternal great-grandmother since April 2021 and is not involved in this case.

 

[2] Mother disputes the findings of fact only with regard to venue. But as our disposition makes clear, these factual disputes are immaterial.

[3] Although the court found that Father had “an extensive and violent criminal history, including convictions for interfering with arrests, assaults, disorderly conduct, and threats of violence,” it did not make a specific finding regarding Mother’s knowledge of his violent criminal history outside of the event in prison.

[4] When asked about how Mother was performing at work, her supervisor testified, “She is incredibly reliable. She’s one of my go-to staff . . . .”

[5] Adjudication “means a finding by the court . . . that the facts alleged in the petition have been proved.” Utah Code § 80-1­102(3)(a).

[6] Utah Code section 80-1-102(58)(a) defines “neglect” as follows:

[An] action or inaction causing: (i) abandonment of a child . . . ; (ii) lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent, guardian, or custodian; (iii) failure or refusal of a parent, guardian, or custodian to provide proper or necessary subsistence or medical care, or any other care necessary for the child’s health, safety, morals, or well-being; (iv) a child to be at risk of being neglected or abused because another child in the same home is neglected or abused; (v) abandonment of a child through an unregulated child custody transfer under Section 78B-24-203; or (vi) educational neglect.

[7] After a dispositional hearing, the juvenile court may award permanent custody and guardianship to a relative if it finds by clear and convincing evidence either abuse or neglect by the natural parent. See Utah Code §§ 80-3-402(1), -405. Mother made additional arguments that the court erred in determining that GH was abused by Father and that Mother had standing to appeal any determinations regarding Father that contributed to a finding that Mother neglected the Children. Because we affirm the juvenile court’s determination that Mother neglected the Children, we do not need to address these arguments.

[8] Mother alleges that when she has asked Grandparents for parent-time, they have refused and told her, “You have no rights.” Mother’s allegations are not part of our appellate record, however.

[9] It is possible for a juvenile court, in an appropriate case, to determine that a parent retaining residual rights is not entitled to any parent-time. But any such determination should be rare and should be supported with findings that demonstrate why it is not reasonable, for example, for the parent to have at least short periods of unsupervised or supervised parent-time.

[10] Utah law provides that “a proceeding for a minor’s case in the juvenile court shall be commenced in the court of the district in which . . . the minor is living or found.” Utah Code § 78A-6­350(1)(b).

[11] Some courts that have decided this issue have held that harm must be shown. See Lamb v. Javed, 692 S.E.2d 861, 864 (Ga. Ct. App. 2010); Schmutz v. State, 440 S.W.3d 29, 39 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014). But we do not decide this issue and leave it for another day.

[12] Mother asserts that venue rights are so substantial that a denial of a motion to change venue can be grounds for an interlocutory appeal, citing Davis County v. Purdue Pharma, LP, 2020 UT 17, 463 P.3d 619. While this is true, Mother sought no interlocutory appeal here. And other courts have held that failure to immediately appeal a denial of a motion to change venue constitutes a waiver of the venue claim. See, e.g.Patterson v. Alexander & Hamilton, Inc., 844 So. 2d 412, 415 (La. Ct. App. 2003).

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In re A.S.G.-R. – 2023 UT App 126 – permanent custody and guardianship

In re A.S.G.-R. – 2023 UT App 126

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF A.S.G.-R.,

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.R.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH AND E.G.,

Appellees.

Opinion No. 20220645-CA

Filed October 19, 2023

Fourth District Juvenile Court, Provo Department

The Honorable D. Scott Davis

No. 1196726

Alexandra Mareschal and Julie J. Nelson,

Attorneys for Appellant

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

Neil D. Skousen, Attorney for Appellee E.G.

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        G.R. (Mother) became convinced that E.G. (Father) was sexually abusing their daughter, A.S.G.-R. (Child). Over a nearly two-year period, Mother made or sparked some thirty reports of sexual abuse to Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). After investigation, however, DCFS was unable to discover any credible evidence supporting Mother’s allegations, and therefore did not substantiate any of them. And given the number and repeated nature of the reports, DCFS became concerned that Child was being harmed by the allegations and ensuing investigations, some of which had included invasive physical examinations of Child.

¶2        Eventually, the State filed a petition for protective supervision and obtained an order removing Child from Mother’s custody and placing her with Father. After affording Mother fifteen months of reunification services, including a psychological evaluation and therapy, the juvenile court determined that the services had not resulted in sufficient change to the situation and that Child would be placed at substantial risk if she were returned to Mother, and therefore terminated reunification services. And after a four-day permanency hearing, the court entered a permanent custody and guardianship order in favor of Father.

¶3        Mother now appeals, arguing that the court erred in its decisions to not extend reunification services and to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. We discern no reversible error in those decisions, and therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶4        Child was born in January 2017. Mother and Father separated shortly before Child’s birth, and about two years later they finalized their divorce. In the decree of divorce, Mother and Father were awarded joint legal custody of Child, but Mother was awarded primary physical custody with Father having statutory parent-time.

¶5        Child welfare officials first became involved with this family in November 2018, when DCFS made a supported finding of domestic violence with Father as the perpetrator and Child as the victim. At some point during this same time frame, Mother obtained a protective order against Father, based on allegations that he committed domestic violence against her also.

¶6        Beginning in May 2019, Mother began to make accusations that Father was sexually abusing Child. Over the course of the next two years, Mother made at least eight direct reports to DCFS of alleged sexual abuse. In addition, Mother reported her allegations to various medical and mental health professionals, some of whom also made reports to DCFS based on Mother’s representations. In total, between May 2019 and February 2021, some thirty separate reports were made to DCFS that Father was sexually abusing Child. DCFS investigated these reports and could not substantiate any of them. In connection with some of these reports, Mother took Child to the hospital. During two of these visits, Child—approximately three years old at the time— was subjected to invasive physical examinations, including one “code-R” rape examination.[2] The examinations yielded no evidence of abuse, and in January 2020 DCFS representatives spoke with Mother about the potential harm that could result to Child from repeated unfounded allegations and needless forensic medical examinations. In addition, in April 2020 the “medical director of Utah’s [Center for] Safe and Healthy Families” program advised Mother that subjecting Child to “any further sexual assault examinations could result in an allegation of abuse for [Mother] due to the harm that unnecessary examinations can cause a child.”

¶7        During this time frame, and in an effort to expand Mother’s understanding of the relevant issues, DCFS opened a “voluntary services case” to provide Mother the opportunity to take advantage of certain services, and Mother agreed to work with DCFS to try to improve the situation.

¶8        During the pendency of the voluntary services case, however, Mother hired a private investigator to investigate the possibility of sexual abuse by Father, and she did not tell DCFS that she had done so. This investigator interviewed Child, using techniques the juvenile court later found to “violate[] nearly every guideline for child forensic interviewing,” including “ask[ing] leading questions, [making] promises to [Child] that could not be kept, and offer[ing Child] ice cream if she would tell the interviewer what ‘daddy’s secret’ is.”

¶9        Despite DCFS’s efforts to assist Mother, the voluntary services case did not have its desired effect. Mother proved unable or unwilling to follow the plan DCFS outlined, and she stopped communicating with the DCFS caseworker.[3] Eventually, DCFS closed the voluntary services case.

¶10 Sometime after that case was closed, Mother—in a continuing effort to present evidence that Father was sexually abusing Child—took a video recording of Child in an incident the juvenile court described as follows: Mother “videotaped [Child], naked on a bed, having her point to where [Father] touches her. On the video, [Mother] touches [Child’s] genitals and has her spread her legs and moves the camera angle close-up to [Child’s] genitals.” Mother provided a copy of this recording to DCFS, but caseworkers declined to view it “based on concerns that it may potentially contain child pornography.” Mother then provided the video recording to law enforcement.

¶11      In January 2021, Mother again brought Child to a hospital, alleging that Child “disclosed that [Father] had put his mouth on [Child’s] vagina just hours prior.” Another invasive physical examination was performed on Child, yet “no male DNA was found on [Child’s] genitals.” DCFS was informed about this incident, presumably from hospital personnel, and investigated it; the investigation included interviewing Child at the Children’s Justice Center. After completing its investigation, DCFS found “no corroborating evidence” and concluded that Child’s “disclosure was coached” and “not credible.”

¶12      The present case was initiated in March 2021 when Mother sought a protective order barring Father from having contact with Child, and the State responded by not only intervening in the protective order case but also by filing this action: a petition for protective supervision services in which the State asked the court to “discontinue” the protective order, conclude that Child was “abused, dependent, and/or neglected,” award DCFS protective supervision of Child, and allow DCFS to place Child in Father’s custody during the pendency of the case.

¶13      At a shelter hearing held about a week later, the juvenile court ordered Child removed from Mother’s custody and placed in the temporary custody of DCFS, which then placed Child, on a preliminary basis, with Father. Child has remained in Father’s care ever since.

¶14      Later, at a subsequent hearing, the court found, based on stipulation, that Child was dependent as to Father. With regard to Father, the court indicated that the primary permanency goal was “Reunification/REMAIN HOME,” and that the concurrent goal was “Remain Home with non-custodial parent.”

¶15      The court held an adjudication hearing as to Mother; at that hearing, Father and the guardian ad litem (the GAL) asserted that Mother’s conduct—making repeated false claims of sexual abuse, thereby subjecting Child to interviews, investigations, and physical examinations—constituted abuse, but the State argued only for a finding of neglect. After the hearing, the court found “no specific evidence” of harm to Child that could support a finding of abuse, but instead determined that Child “is neglected” as to Mother because Child “lacks proper care by reason of the fault or habits of [Mother].” For Mother, the court set a primary permanency goal of “RETURN HOME” and a concurrent permanency goal of “Permanent Custody and Guardianship with a Relative.” The court explained that it was setting “different permanency goals for each parent,” and that for Father, “the primary goal will be” for Child to “remain[] home with him,” with “the concurrent goal of reunification if she is removed from his care.” For Mother, the primary goal was “reunification, with the concurrent goal of guardianship with [a] relative.”

¶16 In connection with setting these permanency goals, the court adopted a Child and Family Plan (the Plan). Under the terms of the Plan, Mother was required to, among other things, “complete a psychological evaluation and follow through with all recommendations”; “participate in individual therapy”; participate in a “parenting class”; and “maintain stable and appropriate housing” for herself and Child. The Plan also required Mother to be “open and honest” in connection with the psychological evaluation, as well as with therapists and other mental health professionals. The Plan provided that its objectives would “be achieved when [Child] is living at [Mother’s] home” and when Mother “is providing a healthy, stable, and age-appropriate environment . . . that supports a strong co-parenting relationship with” Father. No party lodged any objection to the terms of the Plan or to the permanency goals the court set.[4]

¶17 Thereafter, Mother completed a parenting class as well as—after some delay that may or may not have been attributable to her—the required psychological evaluation. The psychologist who conducted the evaluation (Evaluator) diagnosed Mother with “unspecified personality disorder” characterized by “symptoms indicative of borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders as well as paranoid-like features.” In particular, Evaluator noted that Mother has “a belief that she can only be understood by a few people,” a “sense of entitlement,” a “lack of empathy,” and a “pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others” that leads her to sometimes “suspect[], without sufficient basis, that others are harming and deceiving her.” Evaluator offered his view that, “unless [Mother] overcomes her psychopathological features,” she “cannot act in [Child’s] best interest.” He noted that the “obvious recommendation” for Mother would be for her to “pursue an effective treatment program,” but he was doubtful that such a program would succeed in Mother’s case, because Mother “is convinced that she is not the problem” and because, “given her personality disorder features, . . . it would be hard for [Mother] to develop an effective psychotherapeutic alliance with her psychotherapist.”

¶18 Thereafter, DCFS sent Mother a list of recommended therapists, and Mother attended therapy sessions with at least three different mental health professionals. DCFS expressed concern that Mother “was seeking out multiple providers,” some of whom reported that Mother was attempting to “get a second opinion on the psychological evaluation,” and DCFS was worried that Mother was “continu[ing] to report” to these therapists “that [Child] was being sexually abused.” Because of this, DCFS harbored a “concern that there is no clear progress in therapy, due to minimal communication from providers, multiple providers involved and regular changes in therapy.” Mother maintains, however, that she “engaged in all recommended therapy,” an assertion no party apparently contests, although the record is far from clear about what the specific recommendations were and exactly how Mother complied with them.

¶19 After the psychological evaluation was completed, the parties appeared for a review hearing before the court. At that hearing, the results of the evaluation were discussed, and the court commented that, “if the case were closed today and things returned to how they were before the case, [Child] would be at risk of harm by” Mother. The court ordered that Child remain in DCFS custody and placed with Father, with whom the court stated it had “no safety concerns.”

¶20 As the twelve-month permanency hearing approached, Mother moved for an extension of reunification services for “at least 90 days.” Mother argued that she had complied with the Plan, in that she had completed the parenting class and the psychological evaluation and had engaged in therapy. In this motion, Mother also argued that the juvenile court could not enter an order of permanent custody and guardianship with Father, because the district court had already entered a custody order, in connection with the parties’ divorce case, and in Mother’s view the district court should be the court to enter and modify custody orders between the parents. Father opposed Mother’s motion for extended services, but the State did not register opposition. The court scheduled an evidentiary hearing to consider the matter. But due to problems with witness subpoenas, the evidentiary hearing needed to be postponed, which resulted in Mother’s motion for an extension of services being de facto granted: services were then extended for another ninety days, and the postponed evidentiary hearing was turned into a permanency hearing.

¶21      After these delays, the permanency hearing was held, over four nonconsecutive trial days, in April and June 2022. Child’s DCFS caseworker testified that she believed that Mother had been “coaching [Child] into telling people certain things.” And Child’s psychologist testified that she “did not observe significant behaviors or concerns, [or] emotions concerning expressions that would signal to [her] that [Child] has experienced sexual abuse.”

¶22      Evaluator testified at length during the trial, and discussed the specifics of his evaluation of Mother. He discussed his diagnosis that Mother had an “unspecified personality disorder.” He testified that the evaluation took longer than anticipated because Mother “did not involve herself in the evaluation in a forthright manner,” “withheld relevant information that was requested of her,” and “intentionally distorted information.” In his view, Mother did not think that she was the problem or that she had done anything wrong. Evaluator reiterated his view that unless Mother “overcomes her psychopathological features, [she] cannot act in [Child’s] best interest.”

¶23 During her own testimony, Mother continued to cling to her viewpoint that Father had been sexually abusing Child. She testified that “she does not agree with a doctor’s opinion that there was no evidence of sexual abuse.” When asked whether she “still believe[d]” that Father had sexually abused Child, she answered that she did not know, but that some “part of [her]” still believed that abuse took place, and that she still had “a suspicion” in that regard. She did not recognize any impropriety in her multiple reports of sexual abuse to DCFS and other authorities, testifying that she did not “think [she] was doing anything incorrectly” regarding the parenting of Child. And she did not agree that her behavior constituted neglect of Child.

¶24      In this same vein, Mother also called her ongoing therapist to testify at the trial. The therapist testified that he had spent some thirty hours of therapy with Mother and that she had been cooperative. The therapist opined, to the extent he was able to as a fact witness, that Evaluator’s diagnosis of an “unspecified personality disorder” was incorrect, that Mother had not neglected Child by reporting sexual abuse to the authorities, and that Father had indeed sexually abused Child.

¶25      At the conclusion of the trial, the juvenile court took the matter under advisement. A few weeks later, the court issued a written decision containing several different rulings. First, the court declined Mother’s invitation to further extend reunification services, and it terminated those services. Important to the court’s decision in this regard were its findings that—although Mother had taken certain steps, including completing parenting classes, engaging in therapy, and completing the psychological evaluation—Mother had not fully complied with the terms of the Plan, because even after all of these services, Mother “accepted virtually no responsibility for [Child] being in DCFS custody for more than one year,” “demonstrated virtually no insight regarding the harm she has caused” to Child, and offered “varied and conflicted” testimony “regarding whether she still believed” that Father had sexually abused Child, “despite there being no credible evidence that he has.” The court also determined that reunification between Mother and Child was not “probable or likely within the next 90 days” and that the extension of services was not in Child’s best interest.

¶26 Second, the court awarded “permanent custody and guardianship” of Child to Father. Important to the court’s decision in this regard were its findings that “return of [Child] to [Mother’s] care would create a substantial risk of detriment to [Child’s] physical or emotional well-being,” that there is “no credible evidence” that Father has ever sexually abused Child, and that Child “seems to be thriving and well-adjusted [and] well cared for” in Father’s care.

¶27 Finally, after denying Mother’s request for additional reunification services and granting permanent custody and guardianship in favor of Father, the court terminated its jurisdiction in the case.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶28 Mother now appeals, and she raises two issues for our consideration. First, she challenges the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. The juvenile court is “in the best position to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, the parent’s level of participation in reunification services, and whether services were appropriately tailored to remedy the problems that led to the child’s removal.” In re D.R., 2022 UT App 124, ¶ 9, 521 P.3d 545 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1264 (Utah 2023). Accordingly, “absent a demonstration that the determination was clearly in error, we will not disturb the determination” to terminate reunification services. See id. (quotation simplified).

¶29      Second, Mother challenges the juvenile court’s decision to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father, her fellow parent. As part of this challenge, she takes issue with the court setting slightly different permanency goals for each parent, and with the court accomplishing two separate objectives—namely, choosing among those goals and awarding permanent custody to Father—all in connection with the same hearing. In the main, Mother’s challenges in this regard involve questions of statutory interpretation, which “are questions of law that we review for correctness.” In re S.Y.T., 2011 UT App 407, ¶ 9, 267 P.3d 930 (quotation simplified). But to the extent that Mother here challenges the court’s underlying factual findings, we adopt a more deferential standard of review. See In re L.M., 2013 UT App 191, ¶ 6, 308 P.3d 553 (“We review the juvenile court’s factual findings for clear error . . . .” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 320 P.3d 676 (Utah 2014).[5]

ANALYSIS

I

¶30      Mother first challenges the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. For the reasons discussed, we discern no clear error in the court’s decision.

¶31 When a juvenile court removes a child from a parent’s custody, it may afford the parent the opportunity to take advantage of certain services—e.g., mental health counseling or parenting classes—designed to address the problems that led to removal and aimed at facilitating reunification between parent and child. See Utah Code § 80-3-406. However, due to the need for swift permanence in child welfare cases, the duration of reunification services may not ordinarily “exceed 12 months” from the date of removal. See id. § 80-3-406(13)(a); see also id. § 80­3-409(6). A juvenile court may, however, extend reunification services by an additional “90 days”—for a total of fifteen months—if the court finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, “that (i) there has been substantial compliance with the child and family plan; (ii) reunification is probable within that 90-day period; and (iii) the extension is in the best interest of the minor.” Id. § 80-3­409(7)(a). And in exceptional cases, the court may extend services for a second ninety-day period—for a total of eighteen months— but only if the court can make those same three findings by clear and convincing evidenceId. § 80-3-409(7)(c).

¶32      In this case, Child was removed from Mother’s custody at a shelter hearing in March 2021. Thus, reunification services were to presumptively end in March 2022, unless the court made findings sufficient to support an extension. In early April 2022, the court commenced an evidentiary hearing for the purpose of determining whether reunification services should be terminated or extended but, due to problems with witness subpoenas, the evidentiary hearing needed to be postponed, which resulted in a de facto extension of reunification services for another three months, into June 2022. Finally, at the conclusion of the four-day hearing that same month, the court ordered that reunification services be terminated. In its order, the court—presumably out of an abundance of caution given the timing of the hearing—stated that it was “not able to find by a preponderance of the evidence, and certainly not by clear and convincing evidence, that [Mother] is in substantial compliance with [the Plan], that reunification . . . is probable or likely within the next 90 days, or that extension of services for [Mother] is in [Child’s] best interest.”

¶33 Mother challenges this decision, asserting that it goes against the clear weight of the evidence because, she asserts, she at least substantially complied with the Plan. We acknowledge that Mother did take certain actions that the Plan required, such as completing the psychological evaluation and participating in parenting classes and individual therapy, and we therefore agree with Mother’s assertion that she complied with many—if not necessarily all[6]—of the Plan’s individual requirements.

¶34      But even taking Mother’s assertion—that she completed all of the Plan’s individual subsidiary tasks—at face value, that does not necessarily compel the conclusion that Mother substantially complied with the Plan, because in this case Mother’s efforts did not bear fruit. That is, at the end of fifteen months of reunification services, Mother had not rectified the problem that led to the removal of Child from her custody. The Plan explicitly stated that its goals would be “achieved when [Child] is living at [Mother’s] home [and] where Mother is providing a healthy, stable, and age-appropriate environment . . . that supports a strong co-parenting relationship with [Father].” Child was removed from Mother’s custody because Child lacked “proper care by reason of the fault or habits of [Mother]” due to Mother’s continued unsupported reports to authorities that Father was sexually abusing Child. After fifteen months of services, the court—based at least in part on Mother’s own testimony at the evidentiary hearing— determined that the original problem still existed, and that Child could not therefore safely be returned to Mother’s custody. It is far from clear error for a juvenile court to determine that a parent who has completed many of a child and family plan’s individual requirements, but who has still not meaningfully addressed the underlying problem the plan was designed to solve, has not substantially complied with the plan.

¶35      Moreover, even if we were to assume, for the purposes of the discussion, that Mother’s actions constituted substantial compliance with the Plan, Mother must also grapple with the juvenile court’s findings that reunification was not probable within the next ninety days, and that another extension of reunification services was not in Child’s best interest. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(7)(a)(ii), (iii); see also In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶ 54, 523 P.3d 736 (“Although [the mother] subsequently complied with the child and family plan, the court nonetheless determined that [the child] could not safely be returned to her care because it found that the return posed a substantial risk of detriment to [the child’s] physical or emotional well-being.”), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023). While Mother spends many pages in her brief contesting the court’s “substantial compliance” finding, she does not directly engage with the court’s findings that, given her lack of progress on solving the underlying problem, she had not shown—by either evidentiary standard— that reunification was probable in the next ninety days or that reunification was in Child’s best interest. And based on our review of the record, we discern no clear error in these findings.

¶36      Accordingly, we discern no error, let alone reversible error, in the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services.

II

¶37 Next, Mother challenges the juvenile court’s decision to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. Her challenge in this regard is multi-faceted. First, she challenges the substance of the court’s decision, and asserts that the court—by considering its options limited to those set forth in section 80-3­409(4)(b) of the Utah Code—erred in its interpretation of the governing statute. And in connection with this argument, Mother asks us to overrule one of our recent opinions. Second, Mother challenges the procedure the court used in reaching its decision. For the reasons discussed, we reject Mother’s arguments.

A

¶38      Under our law, in any case in which reunification services are ordered, “the juvenile court shall, at the permanency hearing, determine . . . whether the minor may safely be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(2)(a). And “[i]f the juvenile court finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that return of the minor to the minor’s parent would create a substantial risk of detriment to the minor’s physical or emotional well-being, the minor may not be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent.” Id. § 80-3-409(2)(b).

¶39      In this case, as already discussed, the juvenile court ordered reunification services for Mother, and therefore needed to confront, at the permanency hearing, the question of whether Child faced “substantial risk of detriment to her physical and emotional well-being if returned to [Mother’s] care.” In its findings and conclusions entered following that hearing, the court specifically found, by “both a preponderance of the evidence” and by “clear and convincing evidence, that return of [Child] to [Mother’s] care would create a substantial risk of detriment to [Child’s] physical or emotional well-being.” Mother does not directly challenge that finding on appeal.[7]

¶40      In situations where a juvenile court makes a finding of risk and therefore determines that a child cannot be returned to the parent’s custody, our law then requires the court to do certain things: “(a) order termination of reunification services to the parent; (b) make a final determination regarding whether termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship is the most appropriate final plan for the minor . . . ; and (c) . . . establish a concurrent permanency plan that identifies the second most appropriate final plan for the minor, if appropriate.” Id. § 80-3-409(4). As discussed above, the court terminated reunification services, and did not err by so doing.

¶41      The court then considered the three options presented by the second part of the governing statute: termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship.[8] See id. § 80-3-409(4)(b). The court determined that permanent custody and guardianship with Father was the most appropriate of those three options.

¶42      Mother challenges the substance of this determination, and she makes two specific arguments. First, she asserts that the statutory subsection the court believed governed the situation— section 80-3-409(4) of the Utah Code—doesn’t actually govern, because in Mother’s view Child was “returned to” a parent (Father) after the permanency hearing. Second, and relatedly, Mother acknowledges that one of our recent decisions—In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, 523 P.3d 736, cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023)—interpreted the governing statute in a manner unfavorable to her, and she asks us to overrule that recent case. We find neither of Mother’s arguments persuasive.

1

¶43 Mother’s first argument challenges the juvenile court’s interpretation of statutory text. In particular, she notes that a threshold requirement of the governing statute is that the minor not be “returned to the minor’s parent or guardian at the permanency hearing.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4). Only if a child is not “returned to the minor’s parent” at the permanency hearing does a court need to choose from one of the three options set forth in subsection (4)(b): termination, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship. See id. If a child is “returned to the minor’s parent,” then a court presumably could select some other option not listed in subsection (4)(b). As Mother sees it, the statutory reference to “the minor’s parent” includes not only the parent from whom the child was removed and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made, but also the child’s other parent. And she asserts that, because Child was placed in the custody of Father—Child’s other parent—after the permanency hearing, the court erred by considering itself limited to the three options set out in subsection (4)(b).

¶44      Our “overarching goal” in interpreting a statute is “to implement the intent of the legislature.” See State v. Rushton, 2017 UT 21, ¶ 11, 395 P.3d 92. In attempting to ascertain that intent, we start with “the language and structure of the statute.” Id. “Often, statutory text may not be plain when read in isolation, but may become so in light of its linguistic, structural, and statutory context.” Id. (quotation simplified). “The reverse is equally true: words or phrases may appear unambiguous when read in isolation, but become ambiguous when read in context.” Id. For this reason, “we read the plain language of the statute as a whole, and interpret its provisions in harmony with other statutes in the same chapter and related chapters, avoiding any interpretation which renders parts or words in a statute inoperative or superfluous in order to give effect to every word in the statute.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶45 In our view, the phrase “the minor’s parent,” as used in section 80-3-409(4), refers only to the parent from whom the child was removed, who was offered reunification services, and to whom return of the child “would create a substantial risk of detriment” to the child. It does not refer to another parent with whom the child is currently placed, who has not been ordered to complete any reunification services, and with regard to whom the court has not made any “substantial risk” determination. Indeed, the thrust of this entire statutory section has to do with whether a child will be reunited with a parent from whom the child has been removed and who has received reunification services. See Utah Code § 80-3-409. As already noted, subsection (2) requires a court to make a threshold determination about whether the “minor may safely be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent,” something that may not occur if “return of the minor to the minor’s parent would create a substantial risk of detriment” to the minor. Id. § 80-3-409(2)(a), (b). The verb “returned” is meaningful here: one does not “return” to a situation in which one has never been in the first place. See Return,    Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/return            [https://perma.cc/Y4YF-3ENP]
(defining “return” as “to go back or come back again”). In the subsection (2) context, the phrase “the minor’s parent” clearly refers to the parent from whom the minor was removed, who received reunification services, and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made; indeed, the statute instructs juvenile courts that are making the subsection (2) threshold determination to consider, among other things, whether the parent in question has demonstrated “progress” and whether the parent has “cooperated and used the services provided.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(3)(a)(iv), (v). In our view, it would be nonsensical to apply this phrase to the minor’s other parent in a situation where the child was already in the custody of that parent at the time of the permanency hearing, where that parent did not receive reunification services, and where the court made no “substantial risk” determination concerning that parent at that hearing. Indeed, at oral argument before this court, Mother conceded that the phrase “the minor’s parent,” as used in subsection (2), must refer solely to the parent who received reunification services and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made.

¶46 That same phrase—“the minor’s parent”—used two subsections later means the same thing. As noted, we read statutes as a whole, including all of their subsections, and “interpret [their] provisions in harmony with other statutes in the same chapter and related chapters.” See Rushton, 2017 UT 21, ¶ 11 (quotation simplified). Under “the canon of consistent meaning,” there is a “presumption that the established meaning of a word in a given body of law carries over to other uses of the same term used elsewhere within that same law.” In re Childers-Gray, 2021 UT 13, ¶ 142, 487 P.3d 96 (Lee, J., dissenting). And the “canon of consistent meaning is at its strongest when it is applied to a term used in neighboring subparts of the same statutory provision.” Irving Place Assocs. v. 628 Park Ave, LLC, 2015 UT 91, ¶ 21, 362 P.3d 1241; see also Barneck v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2015 UT 50, ¶ 31, 353 P.3d 140 (determining that a term “cannot properly mean one thing as applied to two of the objects in a series . . . but something else as applied to the other object in the same series”). Thus, when assessing the meaning of the phrase “the minor’s parent” in subsection (4), it is highly relevant how that phrase is used in subsection (2). And we conclude that, interpreted in its proper context, the phrase—as used in subsection (4) as well as subsection (2)—refers only to the parent from whom the child was removed, who received reunification services, and with regard to whom the court is making the “substantial risk” determination, and not to another parent who does not fit those criteria.

¶47      Accordingly, we reject Mother’s argument that subsection 409(4) has no application to her situation. By the plain terms of that statutory section, the juvenile court—as soon as it determined that Child could not safely be returned to Mother—was obligated to apply that statutory subsection according to its text.

2

¶48      Under the text of that statutory subsection, a court that has made a “substantial risk” determination must terminate reunification services. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4)(a). At that point, the statute requires the court to “make a final determination regarding whether termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship is the most appropriate final plan for the minor.” Id. § 80-3-409(4)(b). The language of this statutory subsection therefore speaks of only three options, and requires the court in this situation to choose one of them. And we have recently interpreted this language according to its text, even as applied to disputes between parents. See In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, 523 P.3d 736, cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023).

¶49      Yet here, Mother nevertheless asserts that, at least in cases involving disputes between two parents, juvenile courts ought to be allowed to choose a different option: entry of a simple custody order that is controlled by the usual standards governing entry and modification of custody orders in divorce court. Mother asserts that awarding a parent the status of “guardian” makes no sense, given that a parent already has all the rights that a guardian has. And she asserts that entering orders of permanent guardianship as between parents has the effect—one she posits was unintended—of preventing one parent from being able to seek modification of the custody order.

¶50      To her credit, Mother recognizes that our recent holding in In re H.C. forecloses her argument for a fourth option. In that case, the parents of a child were divorced, with a parenting plan that gave primary custody to the mother. Id. ¶ 2. But later, the juvenile court determined that the child had been neglected by the mother, and the child was placed in the care of the father. Id. ¶¶ 4, 8. After the permanency hearing, the juvenile court determined that the child would be at substantial risk if returned to the mother’s custody, and the court placed the child with the father under an order of permanent custody and guardianship. Id. ¶¶ 28, 38. On appeal, we affirmed the juvenile court’s decision, and we interpreted subsection 409(4)(b) as limiting the juvenile court to the three options set forth therein. Id. ¶ 58. We held that subsection 409(4)(b) “leaves a juvenile court judge with no discretion” to do anything else, and we specifically stated that the statute “does not vest the juvenile court with the authority to defer to the district court” with regard to custody of the adjudicated child. Id. (quotation simplified).

¶51      In an effort to get around this roadblock, Mother asks us to overrule In re H.C. We do possess the authority to overrule our own precedent in appropriate cases. See State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 11, 417 P.3d 592 (stating that one panel of this court “retains the right to overrule another panel’s decision if the appropriate standard is met”). “But we do not do so lightly,” given our respect for the principle of stare decisis, which ordinarily requires us to defer to “the first decision by a court on a particular question.” See State v. Garcia-Lorenzo, 2022 UT App 101, ¶¶ 42, 44, 517 P.3d 424 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022).

¶52      “Before we may overrule one of our precedents, we must engage in the two-part exercise required by our supreme court in such situations.” Id. ¶ 45. “First, we must assess the correctness of the precedent, and specifically examine the persuasiveness of the authority and reasoning on which the precedent was originally based.” Id. (quotation simplified). “Second, we must assess the practical effect of the precedent, including considerations such as the age of the precedent, how well it has worked in practice, its consistency with other legal principles, and the extent to which people’s reliance on the precedent would create injustice or hardship if it were overturned.” Id. (quotation simplified). Both parts of the test must be satisfied before we may overrule a precedent. See id. In this case, we need not discuss the second part because, in our view, the first one is not satisfied.

¶53 With regard to the first part—the correctness of the precedent—Mother asserts that our decision in In re H.C. “upends the district court’s jurisdiction over custody matters and imposes an unnecessarily restrictive scheme on custody between two parents.” She points out that, when a child is placed with the other parent after a permanency hearing, “the child isn’t in ‘legal limbo’” and “all that is left to determine is what [the] custody [arrangement] between the parents will look like.” And she maintains that, if subsection 409(4)(b) is interpreted to require courts to order permanent custody and guardianship in favor of one of the parents, that result would serve to “override[] district court custody orders” and would create a “super sole custody” arrangement in which “the non-guardian parent can never modify the terms of the guardianship.” She asserts that this is an “absurd result” that “cannot be what the legislature intended.”

¶54 But in our view, the panel’s reasoning in In re H.C. was sound. There, the court analyzed the text of subsection 409(4)(b) and concluded that the language used by the legislature limited juvenile courts in this situation to the three options set forth in the text of the statute. See In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶¶ 58–59. Our analysis of that same text leads us to the same conclusion.

¶55      Moreover, Mother overlooks the fact that the panel in In re H.C. considered many of the same arguments that Mother is advancing here. In that case, the appellant asserted that “juvenile courts should not be deciding custody between two fit parents.” Id. ¶ 52 (quotation simplified). And the appellant complained that an order of permanent custody and guardianship in favor of the other parent may prevent her “from petitioning for custodial change in the future.” Id. ¶ 53. We rejected these arguments, in part, by noting that, given the court’s adjudication rulings, “this was not merely a custody proceeding ‘between two fit parents.’” Id. ¶ 54. And we acknowledged the remainder of these arguments in a footnote, editorializing that “it seems odd that, in a situation such as this with two parents vying for custody of a minor child, the statute authorizes the award of permanent guardianship to one parent over the other, where both enjoy parental rights in the minor child.” Id. ¶ 59 n.13. But we found these arguments nevertheless unpersuasive in light of the text of the “statutory regimen that we [were] called upon to interpret and apply.” Id.

¶56      We share the sentiment of the panel in In re H.C. that the text of the governing statute compels the interpretation described there. The text selected and enacted by our legislature limits juvenile courts to just three options in this situation. See id. ¶¶ 58– 59 & n.13 (stating that “permanent custody and guardianship is one of only three options available by the terms of the controlling statute when parental neglect has triggered the juvenile court’s jurisdiction and the case progresses to a permanency hearing at which parental neglect is found and reunification services are terminated”). If our legislature intended a different result, it can always amend the statute to provide for additional options—for instance, entry of a simple custody order awarding primary physical custody to the other parent, and allowing the district court to manage things from there—that a juvenile court might be able to apply in cases involving disputes between two parents. But for now, the text of the governing statute speaks of only three options, applicable in all cases, and we must apply the statute as written, Mother’s policy arguments notwithstanding.[9]

¶57 For all of these reasons, we decline Mother’s invitation to overrule In re H.C. That case—and the statutory text interpreted therein—compels the conclusion that the juvenile court, in this case, had only three options after concluding that it could not return Child to Mother’s custody: it had to either (a) terminate Mother’s parental rights, (b) work toward adoption, or (c) enter an order of permanent custody and guardianship with someone other than the parent at issue. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4)(b); see also In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶¶ 58–59. The juvenile court, by selecting permanent custody and guardianship in favor of Father, chose one of the available options.[10] In so doing, the court properly followed the governing statute, and did not misinterpret it. We therefore reject Mother’s second substantive argument.

B

¶58      Finally, Mother makes two challenges to the procedure the juvenile court employed in arriving at its conclusion to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. We reject both challenges.

¶59 First, Mother claims that the court acted inappropriately when it took the following two actions in the same ruling and after the same hearing: (a) it changed Child’s final permanency goal to permanent custody and guardianship and (b) it entered an order effectuating the permanent custody and guardianship. As Mother sees it, the court was required “to first change the permanency goals . . . and then hold a review hearing (possibly another evidentiary hearing) to determine whether the final permanency goal is established.” Mother notes that “nothing in section 409 permits a juvenile court to” accomplish both things in the same ruling and after the same hearing. But Mother cites no statute or appellate opinion forbidding the court from doing so and, in this situation, we see no reason why the court could not have proceeded as it did.

¶60 Had the court chosen “adoption” as the primary permanency goal following the permanency hearing, then perhaps Mother would have a point: as a practical matter, setting adoption as the goal entails a fair bit of extra work. To facilitate an adoption, the parent’s rights would need to be terminated, and to make that happen, the State (or another petitioner) would need to file a petition for termination of parental rights, which would need to be litigated. And the juvenile court would also need to concern itself, in the event the parent’s rights were terminated, with finding an appropriate adoptive placement for the child.

¶61 But where the court selects permanent custody and guardianship as the primary permanency goal, and the child is already placed with the person to whom custody and guardianship is to be given, there are not necessarily any additional steps that the court needs to take before making that goal a reality. Certainly, in this case Mother doesn’t identify any additional work that needed to be done in the interim. And as noted, Mother points to no statute or governing case forbidding the juvenile court, in cases like this one, from proceeding efficiently and entering the order of guardianship in the same order as it selects the primary permanency goal. Mother has therefore not carried her burden of demonstrating error.

¶62 Second, Mother takes issue with the juvenile court’s decision, earlier in the case, to set different permanency goals for each parent. As noted above, after adjudicating Child dependent as to Father, the court initially set the primary permanency goal, as to Father, as “Reunification/REMAIN HOME,” and the concurrent permanency goal as “Remain Home with non­custodial parent.” Later, after adjudicating Child neglected as to Mother, the court set a primary permanency goal, as to Mother, of “RETURN HOME” and a concurrent permanency goal of “Permanent Custody and Guardianship with a Relative.” The court explained that it was setting “different permanency goals for each parent,” and that for Father, “the primary goal will be” for Child to “remain[] home with him,” with “the concurrent goal of reunification if she is removed from his care.” For Mother, the primary permanency goal was “reunification, with the concurrent goal of guardianship with [a] relative.” Mother challenges this procedure as improper, asserting that this choice made “it additionally difficult for any parent to determine what the effect of abandoning one of the primary plans would be.” But Mother cites no statute or governing case forbidding the court from engaging in this procedure, and she overlooks the fact that she did not object to these goals when they were set. In addition, Mother does not articulate how the court’s decision to set slightly different permanency goals vis-à-vis each parent resulted in any harm to her at the end of the case. Accordingly, Mother has not carried her burden of demonstrating reversible error.[11]

CONCLUSION

¶63 We discern no clear error in the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. And we reject Mother’s challenges—both substantive and procedural—to the court’s award of permanent custody and guardianship to Father.

¶64 Affirmed.

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

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How should the child support payment system in the U.S. be changed?

How should the child support payment system in the U.S. be changed to make it more fair? 

What is unfair about child support for the child support payor (also known as the child support obligor): 

  • tying child support to the number of overnights the child spends in the custody of a parent entices many parents to seek being awarded as many overnights as possible, thereby ensuring that the one receiving child support receives as much as possible or ensuring that the one who pays child support pays as little as possible. Even when the child would benefit from being in the joint (or even joint equal) physical custody of the parents, many parents try to seek sole or primary physical custody awards simply to gain the child support calculation process. 
  • child support recipients (also known as the child support payees or obligees) who use child support money for the their own personal expenses and not for the child’s actual support.  
  • lack of accountability on the part of the child support recipient for how the child support monies are spent, to ensure that the monies are being spent on the financial support of the child, as opposed to the personal expenses of the child support recipient. 
  • child support calculation formulae that are not commensurate with the child’s actual financial needs, i.e., orders that someone has to pay more money each month (in some cases substantially more money) than is necessary to meet the child needs. 
  • child support awards that “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs” by requiring such a high amount of child support be paid that the child support payor cannot meet his/her own basic monthly costs of living. 

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

https://www.quora.com/How-should-the-child-support-payment-system-in-the-U-S-be-changed-to-make-it-more-fair/answer/Eric-Johnson-311 

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What should the child support award be if my ex makes $1,200 per week?

Should I be receiving more than $300 a month in child support if my ex-husband makes $1,200 per week? 

Each jurisdiction has different child support laws and rules, but I can answer this question in the context of Utah law, because I practice divorce and family law in that state: 

Your question is how do I know if I am receiving the correct amount of child support from the child support obligor parent. “Obligor” means the person who is obligated to do something, in this case a child support to the child support recipient, who is also known as the child support “obligee”. 

In the past, Utah’s law left how child support was calculated to what the parties and/or the courts felt was appropriate. As you can imagine, however, leaving something so contentious as child support so wide open led to a tremendous amount of child support litigation. In response, the Utah State Legislature created a presumptive statutory formula for calculating child support.  

Now let me walk you through what the statutory guidelines for child support calculation in Utah are, and how they apply. I have provided links to the code sections that I cite at the end of this post.  

Utah Code § 78B-12-210 is entitled “Application of guidelines—Use of ordered child support.” For the average family and their children, the guidelines apply as a rebuttable presumption in establishing or modifying the amount of temporary or permanent child support. That means the amount of the child support award resulting from application of the guidelines, and the use of worksheets consistent with those guidelines, are presumed to be correct and binding upon the parents. This presumption can be rebutted and child support award be lower than what the guidelines provide, but only where the court is convinced that use of the guidelines would be unjust, inappropriate, or not in the best interest of a child in a particular case. Deviating downward from the guidelines rarely occurs.  

Utah Code § 78B-12-205, entitled “Calculation of obligations” provides that, except for parents whose monthly adjusted gross incomes are $1,050 or less, each parent’s child support obligation is established in proportion to their adjusted gross incomes. Utah Code § 78B-12-204 defines “adjusted gross income” is the amount calculated by subtracting from gross income alimony previously ordered and paid and child support previously ordered. The guidelines do not reduce the total child support award by adjusting the gross incomes of the parents for alimony ordered in the pending proceeding. In establishing alimony, the guidelines do not provide for your alimony obligation to be deducted from your gross income. So if you are not paying alimony or child support to a previous spouse (not your current spouse) or to children in addition to the ones who are the subject of your current child support case, your child support obligation will be calculated based upon your gross monthly income. Gross monthly income means before tax income.  

Some people get angry when they hear that child support is based upon gross before tax income. Remember, the statutory guidelines don’t treat you as though you don’t pay taxes. The child support calculation formula takes the fact that you have to pay taxes into account.  

So if your ex-husband makes $1,200 per week, if that’s a gross amount he is paid, then that means he earns $5,200 per month. Child support is based upon both what your husband earns and what you earn. There is a child support calculator provided by the State of Utah free of charge. I’ve included a link to that calculator at the end of this post too. Here is how filling out the child support worksheet works: 

You need to know how much both your ex-husband’s and your adjusted gross monthly incomes are. You need to know how many minor children will be included in the child support calculation, and you need to know how many overnights the minor children spend with each parent.  

So assume for our purposes that your ex-husband’s gross monthly income is $1,257 per month. $1,257 is equal to earning minimum wage on a full-time, 40-hour per week basis, so it would be almost impossible to calculate child support on anything less than $1,257 per month. We would also plug your gross monthly income into the calculator. So let’s use $1,257 for you too. If you are not disabled and can work full-time, even if you are unemployed currently, you cannot have your income be less than $1,257 per month because it’s assumed that anyone can earn minimum wage.  

Let’s also assume that you have three minor children and that you have them in your custody 220 overnights annually and your ex-husband has than 145 overnights annually.  

Now we have all the information we need to fill out the calculator, so will fill it in now in the appropriate blanks, then will click the “Continue” button to generate the child support worksheet. As you can see, your ex-husband’s child support obligation for three minor children would be $260 per month. As you can see, the child support calculator is pretty clear and straightforward, and now you know the basics of how child support is calculated, you can figure out for yourself what child or will be in your case by following the instructions on the child support worksheet calculator. You can even calculate different scenarios to find out what child support would be depending upon differences in income and in number of overnights each parent spends with the children on an annual basis. 

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

Utah Code Part 78B-12-2 

Utah Code Part 78B-12-3  

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

https://www.quora.com/Should-I-be-receiving-more-than-300-a-month-in-child-support-if-my-ex-husband-makes-1200-per-week/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

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Erickson v. Erickson – 2022 UT App 27

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

DEAN ERICKSON,

Appellee,

v.

JANICE ERICKSON,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200193-CA

Filed March 3, 2022

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Todd M. Shaughnessy

No. 174901105

Albert N. Pranno, Attorney for Appellant

Jordan M. Putnam, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN

FORSTER concurred. HAGEN, Judge:

¶1        During their thirty-four years of marriage, Dean and Janice Erickson acquired substantial assets, including a veterinary pharmaceutical business.[1] But, in anticipation of their divorce, Janice engaged in an intentional scheme to dissipate those assets and devalue the marital estate. Solely because of Janice’s misconduct, the district court appointed a receiver, ordered a valuation of the couple’s business, and sanctioned Janice with the obligation to pay all Dean’s attorney fees and costs.

¶2        Janice now contends that the court erred when it failed to deduct her personal goodwill when calculating the value of the couple’s business, excluded her rebuttal expert on valuation, and imposed sanctions against her that were greater than the injury her misconduct caused Dean. We affirm on the first two issues and remand on the third.

BACKGROUND[2]

¶3        Dean filed for divorce from Janice in early 2017. The couple’s marital estate consisted of substantial assets, including a veterinary pharmaceutical business, Meds for Vets, LLC (Meds). Meds “is a pharmaceutical compounding business with many employees.” The company “does the majority of its business online through its website” and sells “to customers throughout the country.” At the time of the divorce, Meds employed three pharmacists who held the necessary licenses to conduct the business. Janice was one of those pharmacists and held “the majority of the licenses.” Janice also functioned “as the sole manager and chief executive officer of Meds.”

¶4        Around the time Dean filed for divorce, Janice entered into a series of fake business contracts with a friend for the purpose of dissipating marital assets. Dean moved the court for a temporary restraining order, asking the court to appoint a receiver for Meds. The court denied the temporary restraining order but appointed a receiver for Meds in an effort “to prevent further irreparable injury/harm to the marital estate through waste/dissipation of marital assets.” At the recommendation of the receiver, Janice was allowed to continue her role in the company due to her “familiarity with the industry, regulatory environment and existing relationship[] with the customer base . . . so as to not disrupt [Meds’] operations and employees.”

¶5        In addition to the oversight of Meds, the receiver had authority to conduct an “investigation concerning whether and how the joint marital assets . . . were used or misused and how to effectively separate the parties and their marital estate in all business regards.” In its final report to the court, the receiver concluded that Janice had dissipated known marital assets totaling $2,247,274. Janice accomplished that feat, in part, by unilaterally entering into a fraudulent “business relationship which resulted in a substantial and ongoing dissipation of marital assets.”

¶6        The receiver was also charged with “perform[ing] a valuation of the normalized operation of Meds.” The final report included a business valuation placing Meds’ value at $1,560,000. The valuation report explained the different factors considered, including “whether or not the enterprise has goodwill or other intangible value.” Ultimately, the valuation did not include any amounts associated with goodwill.

¶7        The court scheduled a trial on December 2, 2019, the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday, to determine the final division of the marital estate. The pretrial disclosure deadline was set for November 4, but Janice moved to extend the deadline. The court granted her motion, extending the deadline to Tuesday, November 26 at 5:00 p.m.

¶8        Just before 5:00 p.m. on November 26, Janice filed a disclosure that identified a valuation expert she intended to call as a rebuttal witness. But she did not serve the disclosure on Dean’s attorney until after the deadline had passed. In addition, she did not provide the expert’s report to Dean’s attorney until the afternoon of Wednesday, November 27—the day before Thanksgiving and less than five days before trial.

¶9        On the first day of trial, Janice asked to call her valuation rebuttal expert as the first witness because it was the only day he was available to testify. Dean objected to the admission of the expert’s testimony because it was untimely disclosed, giving Dean insufficient time to prepare. The court allowed Janice to call the expert out of order and reserved its ruling on Dean’s objection until after the expert testified. During his testimony, the expert opined that the receiver’s valuation had overstated Meds’ value as an ongoing business by improperly considering Janice’s personal goodwill.

¶10 The court ultimately excluded the expert’s testimony based on Janice’s untimely disclosure. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(d)(4) (“If a party fails to disclose or to supplement timely a disclosure or response to discovery, that party may not use the undisclosed witness, document, or material at any hearing or trial unless the failure is harmless or the party shows good cause for the failure.”) The expert had testified that it had taken him only a few weeks to prepare his report, but that Janice had not hired him until shortly before trial. Accordingly, the court found that Janice “had ample opportunity to seek an independent valuation of the marital businesses at her own expense” and noted that it had “addressed this issue with [Janice] several times.” The court further found that Dean had an “understandable inability to be able to fully address [that information] in the limited time that remained prior to trial.”

¶11 The court alternatively ruled that even if it had not excluded Janice’s valuation rebuttal expert as untimely, his testimony was unpersuasive. The court rejected the expert’s opinion, based on Janice’s own representations, that Meds’ value was dependent on Janice’s personal goodwill. The court noted that Utah case law generally associates personal goodwill with “sole proprietorships essentially run by one person” and that such businesses are not “comparable to the situation here with [Meds].” The court also found that it had “not been provided any evidence from which [it could] draw a conclusion that [Janice’s] presence at [Meds], given the point to which its grown, is essential for that business to continue, given the number of employees and the extent of the operations that it has.”

¶12 After trial, the court entered a supplemental decree regarding the division of marital assets. The court “affirm[ed] and accept[ed] all recommendations, valuations, findings, and conclusions contained” in the receiver’s reports, unless the decree stated otherwise, “and incorporate[d] them by reference” into the decree, including the receiver’s $1,560,000 valuation of Meds.

¶13 Due to Janice’s “intentional efforts to dissipate marital assets,” the court also assigned the cost of the receivership and Dean’s attorney fees to Janice as a sanction for contempt and other misconduct. The court found that Janice’s behavior was sanctionable because she “engaged in substantial dissipation of marital assets” that was, “in some cases, in direct violation of this Court’s orders.” Indeed, “the approximately $2.5 million [she] dissipated . . . was one of the largest, if not the largest, blatant dissipation of marital assets the Court ha[d] ever seen.”

¶14 With respect to Dean’s legal fees, the court found that Janice’s contemptuous conduct forced Dean to incur “extraordinary legal costs in enforcing Court orders and attempting to track down and preserve marital assets” and that a “substantial amount of additional work [was] required to address the dissipation issues in this case” because of Janice. The court found that it was therefore appropriate and equitable to assign all Dean’s attorney fees to Janice because “[t]he lion’s share of [Dean’s] legal costs were incurred in connection with issues surrounding the dissipation of marital assets and the nefarious conduct engaged in by [Janice] in this case.”

¶15 More than three months after trial, Janice filed a motion for new trial pursuant to rule 59 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing that there was irregularity in the trial proceedings, that there was insufficient evidence to support the valuation of Meds, and that the court erred in awarding Dean attorney fees. The court dismissed that motion as untimely without reaching the merits.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶16 Janice now appeals, raising three issues. First, she contends the district court erred in the value it assigned to Meds because it failed to exclude the value of her personal goodwill. A district court is “entitled to a presumption of validity in its assessment and evaluation of evidence, and we defer to the district court’s findings of fact related to property valuation and distribution unless they are clearly erroneous.” Marroquin v. Marroquin, 2019 UT App 38, ¶ 10, 440 P.3d 757 (cleaned up).

¶17 Second, she contends the court erred in excluding her valuation rebuttal expert as a sanction for untimely disclosure. “We review a district court’s decision [to impose] sanctions under rule 26(d)(4) for an abuse of discretion.” Segota v. Young 180 Co., 2020 UT App 105, ¶ 10, 470 P.3d 479 (cleaned up). We will find abuse of discretion where there exists an erroneous conclusion of law or “where there is no evidentiary basis for the trial court’s ruling.” Arreguin-Leon v. Hadco Constr. LLC, 2018 UT App 225, ¶ 15, 438 P.3d 25 (cleaned up), aff’d 2020 UT 59, 472 P.3d 927.

¶18 Third, she contends that the court erred when it ordered her to pay all Dean’s attorney fees and costs, rather than limiting the award to the amounts caused by her sanctionable conduct. “Both the decision to award attorney fees and the amount of such fees are within the sound discretion of the trial court.” Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶ 86, 379 P.3d 890 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

I. The Valuation of Meds

¶19      In her challenge to the district court’s valuation of Meds, Janice argues that the court failed to consider the value of her personal goodwill.[3] “When valuing a business in marriage dissolution cases, district courts must consider whether goodwill is institutional or personal to one spouse.” See Marroquin v. Marroquin, 2019 UT App 38, ¶ 15, 440 P.3d 757. Goodwill is personal when the business “is dependent for its existence upon the individual who conducts the enterprise and would vanish were the individual to die, retire or quit work.” Stevens v. Stevens, 754 P.2d 952, 956 (Utah Ct. App. 1988). Personal goodwill is based on an individual’s “reputation for competency.” Marroquin, 2019 UT App 38, ¶ 15. And unlike institutional goodwill, personal goodwill is not subject to distribution in the marital estate. Id.

¶20      Janice contends that the district court erred as a matter of law by failing to consider whether the value of the business depended on goodwill that was personal to her and thus not divisible. We disagree. The district court did consider goodwill in valuing the business, but specifically found that there was no personal goodwill associated with Meds. Unless the court clearly erred, we presume this assessment is valid and we defer to its findings. See id. ¶ 10.

¶21      In finding that there was no personal goodwill associated with Meds, the court rejected Janice’s contention that Meds was comparable to a sole proprietorship and that her “personal goodwill, as opposed to entity or enterprise goodwill,” should have been excluded in valuing the company. The court concluded that Meds was unlike “sole proprietorships essentially run by one person”—where the value of the company rests primarily on the work and professional reputation developed by the proprietor—“given the number of [Meds] employees and the extent of its operations.”

¶22 On appeal, Janice claims that the court failed to consider the personal goodwill engendered by her own “management and licensure role” in Meds. Before the receiver’s appointment, Janice “had acted as sole manager and chief executive officer of the company,” but there was no evidence to suggest that placing someone else in that role would diminish the value of the company. Indeed, the court specifically found that it had not been “provided any evidence from which [it could] draw the conclusion that her presence at the business, given the point to which it’s grown, is essential for that business to continue given the number of employees and the extent of operations it has.” Janice has not demonstrated that those findings were clearly erroneous.

¶23 As evidence of her personal goodwill, Janice cites the receiver’s report that some Meds employees “attributed the company’s declining revenue, in part, to [Janice] being distracted by the divorce.” But the decline in Meds’ revenue during this period does not suggest that the company’s value was dependent on Janice being in a management role. To the contrary, the court found that Janice’s continued involvement was detrimental because she “continue[d] to take steps to harm and devalue” Meds, even after the appointment of the receiver. In other words, Meds’ declining revenue during that time was caused not by Janice’s inattention to her management role, but by her deliberate efforts to devalue the company.

¶24 Janice also points to the fact that the company used her licenses to operate in multiple states. The court found, however, that Meds holds the necessary pharmacy licenses among three pharmacists. And there was no evidence that Janice’s licenses could not be obtained by the other pharmacists already on staff or that Meds could not hire a replacement pharmacist with those licenses. Thus, the fact that some licenses were historically held by Janice does not undermine the court’s finding that the value of Meds as an ongoing business did not depend on Janice’s involvement.

¶25 In sum, the record shows that the court considered and rejected Janice’s contention that her personal goodwill was included in the valuation of the business, and Janice has not shown that those findings were clearly erroneous. Therefore, there is no basis on which to disturb the court’s valuation of Meds.

II. Excluding Janice’s Rebuttal Expert

¶26 Next, Janice challenges the court’s ruling excluding her valuation rebuttal expert based on her untimely disclosure. Expert disclosures are governed by rule 26 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. Under that rule, proper disclosure of an expert witness requires the timely disclosure of “(i) the expert’s name and qualifications, . . . (ii) a brief summary of the opinions to which the witness is expected to testify, (iii) the facts, data, and other information specific to the case that will be relied upon by the witness in forming those opinions, and (iv) the compensation to be paid for the witness’s study and testimony.” Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(4)(A). “If a party fails to disclose or to supplement timely a disclosure or response to discovery, that party may not use the undisclosed witness, document, or material at any hearing or trial unless the failure is harmless or the party shows good cause for the failure.” Id. R. 26(d)(4). “Thus, Utah law mandates that a trial court exclude an expert witness disclosed after expiration of the established deadline unless the district court, in its discretion, determines that good cause excuses tardiness or that the failure to disclose was harmless.” Solis v. Burningham Enters. Inc., 2015 UT App 11, ¶ 21, 342 P.3d 812 (cleaned up); see also Arreguin-Leon v. Hadco Constr. LLC, 2018 UT App 225, ¶ 22, 438 P.3d 25 (“[I]f a party fails to disclose or supplement a discovery response, the evidence or testimony may not be used.”), aff’d 2020 UT 59, 472 P.3d 927.

¶27 Janice does not dispute that the disclosure of her valuation expert and his report was untimely. The question is whether Janice established an exception to the otherwise mandatory sanction of exclusion under rule 26(d)(4). We conclude that the district court did not exceed its discretion in rejecting Janice’s claim that her untimely expert disclosure was either harmless or justified.

¶28 First, the record amply supports the court’s conclusion that the untimely expert disclosure was not harmless. The court enlarged Janice’s time to serve her disclosures, extending her deadline from November 4 to November 26 at 5:00 p.m.—a mere six days before trial. On November 26, “shortly before 5:00 p.m.” Janice filed her expert disclosure with the court, but she did not serve that disclosure on Dean’s counsel until after the 5:00 p.m. deadline. Moreover, she did not serve the expert report until the following afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving. The timing left only the holiday weekend for Dean’s counsel to review the expert report and prepare to meet that testimony before the trial began on Monday. On the first day of trial, Janice called her rebuttal expert witness out of order, depriving Dean of any additional time he might have had to prepare during the course of the trial. The purpose of rule 26 is to eliminate unfair surprise and provide the opposing party with a reasonable opportunity to prepare for trial. Drew v. Lee, 2011 UT 15, ¶ 28, 250 P.3d 48. Here, the late disclosure deprived Dean of a reasonable opportunity to prepare to rebut the newly disclosed expert’s testimony. Under these circumstances, the district court acted well within its discretion in concluding that the late disclosure was not harmless.

¶29 Second, the record also supports the court’s determination that Janice had no good reason to delay disclosing her expert and his report. The court found that it gave Janice “months” to “call an expert to dispute the valuation that was done by the court-appointed receiver,” yet she waited until “a couple weeks” before trial to hire her valuation rebuttal expert. Moreover, the court found that Janice’s excuse for not hiring an expert—that she was waiting because she wanted the marital estate to pay for the expert—“carrie[d] no water with [the court]” because the court had made clear, at least since the previous August, that Janice had to pay for her own rebuttal valuation expert. Under these circumstances, the district court did not exceed its discretion in finding that the delay was unjustified.

¶30 We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that Janice’s untimely disclosure was neither excused for good cause nor harmless to Dean. Therefore, the district court correctly applied the automatic sanction dictated by rule 26(d)(4) and excluded the expert’s testimony.

III. Sanction of Attorney Fees and Costs

¶31 On appeal, Janice does not challenge the court’s finding that she engaged in sanctionable conduct and acknowledges that “the bulk of the court’s award of fees and allocation of costs were within the court’s authority.” Instead, she argues that the award was excessive because it included some attorney fees and costs not attributable to her sanctionable conduct. Because we cannot determine whether the attorney fees award exceeded the costs that Dean incurred as a result of Janice’s sanctionable conduct, we remand to the district court for further proceedings.

¶32 “[W]hen a court imposes an award of fees or costs as a sanction, its award must be limited to the amount actually incurred by the other party” as a result of the sanctionable conduct. Goggin v. Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶ 36, 299 P.3d 1079. In Goggin, the district court awarded the former wife all her attorney fees and costs after finding that they were “largely due to [her former husband’s] untoward and contemptuous behavior.” See id. ¶ 38 (cleaned up). Our supreme court reasoned that “this language implies that [the former wife] may have been awarded at least some attorney fees and out-of-pocket costs that were not caused by [the former husband’s] contemptuous behavior.” Id. (cleaned up). The supreme court therefore held that the district court had exceeded its discretion by awarding costs and fees in excess of the amount attributed to the sanctionable conduct. Id.

¶33 Here, it is not clear whether the district court limited the award to the fees and costs that Dean incurred as a result of Janice’s sanctionable conduct. In assigning the entire cost of Dean’s attorney fees and expenses to Janice, the court found that Dean had incurred “extraordinary legal costs in enforcing Court orders and attempting to track down and preserve marital assets” and that a “substantial amount of additional work [had been] required to address the dissipation issues in this case.” Yet the court also found that Dean’s legal fees and costs “incurred in connection with issues surrounding the dissipation of marital assets and the nefarious conduct engaged in by [Janice]” merely constituted the “lion’s share” of Dean’s legal fees. Like the district court’s use of the term “largely” in Goggin, the use of the term “lion’s share” here suggests that a portion of Dean’s fees and costs were not the direct result of Janice’s sanctionable conduct. To the extent that the attorney fees award included such additional costs, it exceeded the district court’s discretion.

¶34 Accordingly, we vacate the attorney fee award and remand for further proceedings. On remand, the district court should either make findings to support the determination that all Dean’s legal expenses were caused by Janice’s sanctionable conduct or modify the award to exclude any amounts not caused by that conduct.[4]

CONCLUSION

¶35 Janice has not shown that the court failed to consider goodwill in valuing the business or that it clearly erred in finding that there was no personal goodwill associated with Meds. Nor has she shown that the court exceeded its discretion in determining that her untimely expert disclosure was not harmless or justified. However, to the extent that the attorney fees award exceeded the costs Janice’s sanctionable conduct caused Dean to incur, the court exceeded its discretion in granting that award. Therefore, we remand for further proceedings on that issue consistent with this opinion.[5]

—————————————————————-

[1] As is our practice when parties share the same last name, we refer to each by their first names, intending no disrespect to either party.

[2] “On appeal 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, and we present conflicting evidence to the extent necessary to clarify the issues raised on appeal.” Nakkina v. Mahanthi, 2021 UT App 111, n.2, 496 P.3d 1173 (cleaned up).

[3] Janice also argues that there was “[i]rregularity in the proceedings” because the receiver “hire[d] a business valuator who is . . . a partner with the receiver at the [same] firm.” But this issue was not preserved. See Brookside Mobile Home Park, Ltd. v. Peebles, 2002 UT 48, ¶ 14, 48 P.3d 968 (explaining that for an issue to be preserved “(1) the issue must be raised in a timely fashion; (2) the issue must be specifically raised; and (3) a party must introduce supporting evidence or relevant legal authority” (cleaned up)). Janice did not challenge this alleged irregularity below. It appears that Janice may have attempted to raise the issue in a motion pursuant to rule 59 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, see Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a)–(a)(1) (providing that “a new trial may be granted to any party on any issue” because of “irregularity in the proceedings of the court, jury or opposing party, or any order of the court, or abuse of discretion by which a party was prevented from having a fair trial”), but the district court properly refused to consider that motion as untimely, and the issue is therefore unpreserved for appeal, see Tschaggeny v. Milbank Ins. Co., 2007 UT 37, ¶ 30, 163 P.3d 615 (holding that an issue raised in an untimely posttrial motion was not preserved for appellate review where district court “properly refused to address the” untimely motion).

[4] Dean argues that even if the district court awarded attorney fees and costs not attributable to Janice’s contemptuous behavior, that error was harmless because a mathematical error resulted in Janice not paying the intended award. If the district court determines that “a clerical mistake or a mistake arising from oversight or omission” has occurred, the court may correct the mistake on remand. See Utah R. Civ. P. 60(a).

[5] “Although [Dean] requests attorney fees on appeal, because the trial court awarded [him] attorney fees only as a sanction for [Janice’s] conduct during litigation, we deny that request.” Liston v. Liston, 2011 UT App 433, ¶ 27, n.6, 269 P.3d 169.

Erickson v. Erickson – 2022 UT App 27

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

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How can a mother leave the father of her baby and get full custody, when she does not trust him to look after the baby by himself?

How can a mother leave the father of her baby and get full custody, when she does not trust him to look after the baby by himself? The mother (or any parent in such a situation) would need to prove, by a preponderance of evidence, to the court that the father (or other parent) is sufficiently unfit to be entrusted with the child. Simply telling the court “I don’t trust the other parent” is not enough, not even close to enough to persuade the court.

The mother would need to provide the court independently verifiable facts that show the father is either unable or unwilling to provide adequate care and attention and supervision of the child. A court cannot award a parent sole legal and/or sole physical custody of a child without first finding there is sufficient evidence to justify such an award (or at least cannot do its job properly without first finding there is sufficient evidence to justify such an award).

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

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How can I get full custody, when I don’t trust the other parent with the baby?

How can my friend leave the father of her baby and get full custody, when she doesn’t trust him to look after the baby by himself?

The mother (or any parent in such a situation) would need to prove, by a preponderance of evidence, to the court that the father (or other parent) is sufficiently unfit to be entrusted with the child. Simply telling the court “I don’t trust the other parent” is not enough, not even close to enough to persuade the court. The mother would need to provide the court independently verifiable facts that show the father is either unable or unwilling to provide adequate care and attention and supervision of the child.

A court cannot award a parent sole legal and/or sole physical custody of a child without first finding there is sufficient evidence to justify such an award (or at least cannot do its job properly without first finding there is sufficient evidence to justify such an award).

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

https://www.quora.com/How-can-my-friend-leave-the-father-of-her-baby-and-get-full-custody-when-she-doesn-t-trust-him-to-look-after-the-baby-by-himself/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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What happens after an affair when you have kids?

What happens after an affair when you have kids?

I’ll answer as if this question were asked in the belief that the affair will have a profound effect upon child custody, child support, and/or alimony.

If you’ve had an extramarital affair, it generally won’t do your divorce case any favors, won’t win you any sympathizers.

But will it generally result in you being “punished” by the divorce court? The answer to that question is, in my experience as a divorce lawyer: probably not (unless your affair could be shown to have done your spouse and kids egregious financial, physical, or emotional harm) and/or you were a serial, unrepentant adulterer/adulteress).

Child custody: in the jurisdiction where I practice divorce law (Utah), it has been my experience that extramarital affairs are rarely seen as rendering a parent “unfit” to exercise sole or joint custody of his/her children.

While the court is required to consider “the past conduct and demonstrated moral character of the parent” (Utah Code § 30-3-10(2)(d)) in making its child custody evaluation and award, usually the court will reason that an adulterous parent is not inherently any worse as a parent than one who is not.

If the affair cause the parent to spend excessive time away from the children, caused the parent to neglect the children, or if the children’s knowledge of the affair caused the children serious psychological or emotional harm and/or the children distrust or hate a parent because of the affair, then it’s not really the affair that is the problem itself, but the effects of the extramarital affair.

Child support: I have never seen an extramarital affair cited as a reason for awarding more or less child support had the child support payor not committed adultery.

Alimony: in Utah (where I practice divorce law), adultery can affect the alimony award, but will not automatically have an effect on the alimony award. Here is what the Utah Code contains:

(b) The court may consider the fault of the parties in determining whether to award alimony and the terms of the alimony.

(c) “Fault” means any of the following wrongful conduct during the marriage that substantially contributed to the breakup of the marriage relationship:

(i) engaging in sexual relations with an individual other than the party’s spouse[.]

(See Utah Code § 30-3-5(9)(c))

What does this mean? The Utah Supreme Court construed that section of the Utah Code in the case of Gardner v. Gardner (2019 UT 61, 452 P.3d 1134 (Supreme Court of Utah 2019)):

¶ 26 As with harm in a negligence case, a “great number of events” may have contributed to a divorce. In fact, we have previously recognized “that it is seldom, perhaps never, that there is any wholly guilty or wholly innocent party to a divorce action.” So in almost all divorce cases, it could be argued that each spouse contributed in some way to the breakup of the marriage. But some causes are clearly more substantial, or significant, than others. So even though it may be impossible to state with certainty a sole, or even the first, cause leading to the breakup of the marriage, it will certainly be possible in many cases for a court to determine the significant or important causes of the divorce.

¶ 27 Accordingly, we conclude that “substantially contributed” to the breakup of the marriage is conduct that was a significant or an important cause of the divorce. Under this definition, conduct need not be the sole, or even the most important, cause for it to substantially contribute to a divorce. So when an important or significant cause falls into a category of conduct specifically identified in section 30-3-5(8), courts are authorized to consider it in an alimony determination, even if the at-fault party can point to other potential causes of the divorce.

*****

¶ 53 Section 30-3-5(8)(a) requires district courts to consider the financial situations of both spouses as part of its alimony determination. Additionally, section 30-3-5(8)(e) urges district courts to “look to the standard of living, existing at the time of separation, in determining alimony in accordance with Subsection (8)(a),” and section 30-3-5(8)(f) provides that the “court may … attempt to equalize the parties’ respective standards of living.” Together these provisions codify the default rules that an alimony award should be crafted to “provide support for the [receiving spouse] as nearly as possible at the standard of living [he or] she enjoyed during marriage,” and, “to the extent possible,” to “equalize the parties’ respective standards of living.”

¶ 54 As we have explained, these default rules tend to further the court’s aim of achieving “a fair, just, and equitable result between the parties” because they typically put the parties in the best possible position to “reconstruct their [separate] lives on a happy and useful basis.” So the economic factors, and the general aim of placing the parties in the same position they enjoyed during the marriage, stand as an important starting point in any alimony determination.

¶ 55 But section 30-3-5(8) also provides courts the flexibility and discretion to depart from these default rules in certain situations where fairness demands. For example, in addition to the economic factors listed in section 30-3-5(8)(a), section 30-3-5(8)(b) also authorizes courts to consider “the fault of the parties in determining whether to award alimony and the terms of the alimony.” So the statute expressly provides district courts with the discretion to consider fault in determining whether to award alimony, as well as in determining the terms—the amount and length—of the alimony award.

¶ 56 Section 30–3–5 also provides guidance for how a court may adjust the amount and length of an alimony award in the event the court determines that one spouse’s fault necessitates a departure from the default economic alimony factors. For example, although section 30-3-5(8)(e) urges district courts as “a general rule,” to “look to the standard of living, existing at the time of separation,” it also instructs courts to “consider all relevant facts and equitable principles,” and grants courts “discretion” to “base alimony on the standard of living that existed at the time of trial.” When section 30-3-5(8)(e) is read together with section 30-3-5(8)(b)’s fault provision, it is clear that where a court determines that one spouse’s fault would make it inequitable to maintain both parties at the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage, the court has the discretion to lower the award to an amount sufficient to sustain the at-fault spouse at a reasonable standard of living post-marriage, rather than the standard of living the couple enjoyed during the marriage.

¶ 57 Similarly, section 30-3-5(8)(f) authorizes courts to depart from default alimony awards where fault contributed to the break-up of the marriage. It instructs courts to “attempt to equalize the parties’ respective standards of living.” But it also notes that courts should do so only “under appropriate circumstances.” So once again, when this provision is read together with section 30-3-5(8)(b)’s fault provision, it is clear that courts need not attempt to equalize the parties’ respective standards of living where one spouse’s fault would make equalization inappropriate.

¶ 58 Therefore, under the plain language of section 30-3-5(8), courts have discretion to depart from the default economic rules where one party’s fault makes it appropriate to do so. Because the district court determined that Ms. Gardner’s conduct qualified as fault under the statute, the court was authorized to depart from the default alimony rules by reducing Ms. Gardner’s alimony award by some amount.

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

https://www.quora.com/What-happens-after-an-affair-when-you-have-kids/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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Do women get sole or primary custody of children by default?

How do you feel about the fact that in divorce, the mother seems to get custody of the child almost by default? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have 50/50 custody by default, or an actual assessment on which parent is more suited?

This is an excellent question, and an insightful one.

First, it is a fact that the mothers get custody of the children more often than do the fathers. Even if you factor out those fathers who could be awarded custody due to parental fitness issues or work schedules that are incompatible with sole or shared custody, mothers get custody more often than fathers.

Second, it would not just make “more sense” to have 50/50 custody as the rebuttable default presumption because that would be an impartial, equitable basis on which to start building the child custody analysis, it’s the only impartial, equitable way to start the child custody analysis. Assuming one sex is better than the other is inherently discriminatory and sexist.

Third, once we eliminate any presumptions that one sex is better than the other, we are clear to make the child custody determination based upon an actual assessment of whether the children are better off in the sole or primary physical custody of one parent, instead of in the joint custody of both parents.

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

https://www.quora.com/How-do-you-feel-about-the-fact-that-in-divorce-the-mother-seems-to-get-custody-of-the-child-almost-by-default-Wouldnt-it-make-more-sense-to-have-50-50-custody-by-default-or-an-actual-assessment-on-which-parent-is/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

Nebeker v. Orton – 2019 UT App 23 – child custody and parent-time

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What kind of lawsuit judgments are marital property?

When lawsuit judgments may or may not be marital property: lessons from Utah appellate case law

In the Utah divorce case of Andersen v. Andersen, 379 P.3d 933 (Utah Court of Appeals 2016), the husband appealed the trial court’s denial of his claim that the settlement proceeds he had received from city in civil rights lawsuit were marital rather than separate property.

Did the Utah Court of Appeals agree?

Let’s read a summary of the case and then before I tell you the decision, reach your own conclusions first. The paragraph notations in the summary below are references to the paragraph numbers in the Court of Appeals’ decision.

¶5 In March 2015, the trial court held a two-day bench trial. With regard to Husband’s income and child support, the court noted that it had “great difficulty in attributing full candor to [Husband] on financial matters.”

¶7 In distributing the parties’ marital property, the trial court included $130,000 that Husband received in a settlement from Riverton City stemming from a civil suit alleging the city violated the Fair Housing Act. Husband argued the settlement proceeds were separate property because they were received as the result of a personal injury. To support his contentions, Husband provided a copy of his amended complaint (the Amended Complaint) and a settlement agreement (the Settlement Agreement).

¶8 The trial court ultimately concluded the settlement proceeds were marital property because the “complaint sought only damages and sought compensation for lost rents and costs and attorney fees for bringing the action” and therefore determined that Wife was entitled to a portion of the proceeds.

¶16 Husband argues “the court erred in determining factually and legally that the settlement from the civil rights lawsuit was marital property.” He argues it was legal error not to conclude that the settlement was for a personal injury. He further asserts “the court’s determination that absolutely no part of the settlement was to compensate for personal injury is unsupported by any facts or findings.” Finally, Husband argues the trial court “erred in deciding not to hear testimony from [his attorney in the civil rights case] about the nature of the settlement.”

¶17 “There is no fixed formula upon which to determine a division of properties in a divorce action….” Naranjo v. Naranjo, 751 P.2d 1144, 1146 (Utah Ct. App. 1988). Accordingly, “[w]e afford the trial court considerable latitude in adjusting financial and property interests, and its actions are entitled to a presumption of validity.” Bradford v. Bradford, 1999 UT App 373, ¶ 25, 993 P.2d 887 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, “changes will be made in a trial court’s property division determination in a divorce action only if there was a misunderstanding or misapplication of the law resulting in substantial and prejudicial error, the evidence clearly preponderates against the findings, or such a serious inequity has resulted as to manifest a clear abuse of discretion.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

¶18 “In addressing the distribution of property between divorcing spouses, the trial court must first determine whether the assets in dispute are marital or separate property.” Keyes v. Keyes, 2015 UT App 114, ¶ 28, 351 P.3d 90 (citing Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 23, ¶ 121, 345 P.3d 566). “Marital property is ordinarily all property acquired during the marriage … whenever obtained and from whatever source derived.” Id. (omission in original) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Gardner v. Gardner, 748 P.2d 1076, 1078–79 (Utah 1988) (explaining that “marital property encompasses all of the assets of every nature possessed by the parties, whenever obtained and from whatever source derived” (citation and internal *938 quotation marks omitted)). By contrast, “separate property, which may include premarital assets, inheritances, or similar assets, will be awarded to the acquiring spouse.” Keyes, 2015 UT App 114, ¶ 28, 351 P.3d 90 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

¶19 Here, relying on Husband’s testimony, the Amended Complaint, and the Settlement Agreement, the court determined that Husband’s compensation was marital property. Specifically, it concluded,

The First Amended Complaint does not mention personal injury. The Settlement Agreement does not use the words “personal injury” anywhere in the document. The allegations included injuries that could be considered personal, such as an arrest, but the settlement did not describe whether the payment was based solely on the Fair Housing Act violations or other aspects of the litigation. The court cannot guess the payment amount was selected because of personal injury, again no claims being directly styled personal injury. The complaint sought only damages and sought compensation for lost rents and costs and attorney fees for bringing the action.

The trial court declined to find that the settlement was for a personal injury. But even if we assume it erred by failing to conclude that violations of the Fair Housing Act are not considered personal injuries, we are not convinced the court erred when it determined the settlement was marital property.

¶20 This court [i.e., the Utah Court of Appeals] has explained that compensation for a personal injury can be either separate property or marital property, depending on the nature of the damages. Naranjo, 751 P.2d at 1148. Specifically, “amounts received as compensation for pain, suffering, disfigurement, disability, or other personal debilitation are generally found to be the personal property of the injured spouse in divorce actions.” Id.; see also Izatt v. Izatt, 627 P.2d 49, 51 (Utah 1981) (determining that a wife’s personal injury compensation related to a medical malpractice suit that caused her to have two cardiac arrests was her personal property). But “money realized as compensation for lost wages and medical expenses, which diminish the marital estate, are considered to be marital property.” Naranjo, 751 P.2d at 1148; see also Bugh v. Bugh, 125 Ariz. 190, 608 P.2d 329, 331–32 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1980) (concluding that compensation awarded to an injured employee for lost wages and medical expenses, and not pain and suffering, was marital property).

¶21 So, even assuming Husband’s civil rights action against Riverton City equated to a personal injury claim, whether Husband’s claims were for personal injuries is not determinative of whether the compensation for those claims constitutes marital or separate property. Rather, the court must look to the nature of the personal injuries to determine whether the compensation is for injuries usually considered so personal as to render it separate property.

¶22 In Naranjo v. Naranjo, 751 P.2d 1144 (Utah Ct. App. 1988), this court affirmed the trial court’s determination that the defendant’s compensation for lost wages and medical costs for a knee injury incurred in an industrial accident was marital property. Id. at 1146, 1148–49. The defendant injured his knee during his marriage to the plaintiff. The injury prevented the defendant from working for nine months and required numerous surgeries. Id. at 1146. At trial, he argued the compensation was not marital property and that “he planned to use the award proceeds to meet his future medical expenses and to offset his potential reduced earning capacity.” Id. The defendant further explained that he was unable to articulate how much of the compensation was for pain and suffering “because the judgment was awarded in Colorado, and, according to Colorado procedure, the jury verdict was not broken into general or special damages.” Id. at 1148. Nevertheless, the trial court found that the defendant had failed to meet his burden of showing the amount of the award attributable to pain and suffering. Id. at 1146.

¶23 Like the defendant in Naranjo, Husband argues the settlement was separate property, not marital. But Husband has failed to set forth any evidence to show that any amount of the settlement was for pain and suffering. The evidence Husband offered regarding the settlement was his own testimony, the Amended Complaint, and the Settlement Agreement. At most the Amended Complaint alleged Husband was harassed by a city official and was arrested. Husband’s prayer for relief in the Amended Complaint only requested compensation for “lost rental income,” “start-up costs lost,” “[r]easonable [a]ttorney fees,” and civil penalties and punitive damages “in an amount sufficient to punish” the City for violating the Fair Housing Act. At no point did it suggest Husband sought compensation for pain and suffering, nor does it allege the City violated any law that would warrant special damages that could be considered so personal as to render them separate property. Furthermore, as the trial court explained, the Settlement Agreement “did not describe whether the payment was based solely on the Fair Housing Act violation or other aspects of the litigation.”

¶29 We therefore conclude the trial court did not err when it determined that the settlement proceeds were marital property. Further, because he failed to actually object to the court not hearing the attorney’s testimony, Husband has not preserved the issue for appeal. In any event, he has not met his burden of proof to demonstrate that not hearing the attorney’s testimony was a harmful error.

CONCLUSION

¶33 Husband has failed to meet his burden of demonstrating the court erred in determining the settlement proceeds from Husband’s suit against Riverton City were marital property. Although a suit alleging violations of civil rights may be characterized as a personal injury lawsuit, our court has explained that proceeds from a personal injury lawsuit may be either separate or marital property, depending on the nature of the relief sought. See Naranjo v. Naranjo, 751 P.2d 1144, 1146 (Utah Ct. App. 1988). Thus, because Husband sought compensation for lost wages and rents—costs usually defined as marital—we cannot agree with Husband that the district court erred.

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

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Is it true that the first to file for divorce has to pay the other party’s lawyer fees?

Is it true that the first to file for divorce has to pay the other party’s lawyer fees?

No. Filing for divorce first does not obligate the filing party to pay the opposing party’s attorney fees.

Attorney’s fees are rarely awarded. Prevailing in the case does not automatically entitle the prevailing party to an award of attorney’s fees. Whether attorney’s fees are awarded is a matter left to the discretion of the judge.

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

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