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Tag: conclusions of law

2023 UT App 62 – Cox v. Cox – Adequacy of Court Findings

2023 UT App 62 – Cox v. Cox

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

BLANCHE COX,

Appellee,

v.

JAMES A. COX,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210455-CA

Filed June 8, 2023

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Lynn W. Davis

The Honorable Robert C. Lunnen

No. 124402230

Brett D. Cragun, Attorney for Appellant

Jarrod H. Jennings, Attorney for Appellee

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

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1 James and Blanche Cox were married for over 20 years, during which time they had 10 children and acquired a large number of marital assets. In September 2012, Blanche filed for divorce.[1] After 4 years of pretrial litigation and then 14 days of trial, the district court issued a 35-page divorce ruling that settled various issues relating to child custody, child support, alimony, and the division of the marital estate.

¶2        James now appeals, arguing that many of the court’s rulings were not supported by adequate findings. We agree with James with respect to each challenged ruling. We accordingly vacate those rulings and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

¶3        James and Blanche Cox were married in 1990. During their marriage, they had 10 children and acquired a large number of assets. In September 2012, Blanche filed for divorce. After 4 years of litigation, the case went to trial, and that trial occurred over the course of 14 days between December 2016 and May 2017. In January 2017 (while the trial was proceeding), the court issued a bifurcated divorce decree granting Blanche’s request for a divorce and reserving other issues for further hearings and determinations.

  1. The Ruling

¶4        In October 2017, the court issued a 35-page Ruling and Memorandum Decision (the Ruling) that entered findings of fact and legal determinations regarding many issues related to child custody, child support, alimony, and the valuation and division of the marital estate. This appeal implicates the court’s findings and determinations regarding essentially three groups of issues: the parties’ marital properties, alimony and child support, and marital debts.[2]

Marital Properties

¶5        The court found that James and Blanche “enjoyed the benefit or acquired” five properties during their marriage: (1) the Hildale Home, (2) the Henderson Home, (3) the Eagle Mountain Home, (4) the Rockville Property, and (5) the Cedar Highlands Lots. The court then entered findings and made rulings regarding how to divide the parties’ marital interest in each property.

¶6        The Hildale Home: The court found that James built this home (located, as our reference would suggest, in Hildale, Utah) before his marriage to Blanche. The court found that James, Blanche, and their children lived in this property until 2010, after which they moved to a different residence. The court heard testimony that title to the Hildale Home was held by the United Effort Plan Trust (the Trust). But the court then concluded that no evidence had been presented of the value of James’s interest in the Trust and that “establishing the value of a beneficial interest in property of the [Trust]” would be “practically and legally impossible.” The court acknowledged that Blanche had submitted an appraisal of the Hildale Home at trial (which, according to the record on appeal, estimated its value as being around $200,000), but the court concluded that the appraisal was deficient because it failed to account for costs and fees associated with the Trust ownership. From all this—and without any further explanation— the court then ruled that Blanche was “entitled to an award of $100,000” based on the home’s value.[3]

¶7        The Henderson Home: The court found that this home was purchased by James in 2004 for $420,000. It found that after the parties fell behind on mortgage payments, at which point they still owed around $288,000, the house was “lost in a short sale in 2013 for $225,000.” The court made a finding that the fair market value of the home at the time, according to Zillow, was $323,861.

¶8        But the court also heard competing testimony from the parties about whether the loss of the home could have been avoided. From Blanche, the court heard testimony that the home “could have been rented out” but that James refused to sign papers that would have modified the loan and, theoretically, allowed the parties to avoid losing it. From James, however, the court heard testimony that maintaining or leasing the home wasn’t actually possible for several different reasons.

¶9        From this, the court found that “[t]he parties would likely have had at least $100,000 in equity to split if they had kept” the Henderson Home and “rented it as suggested by [Blanche] numerous times.” The court then ruled that James “should be responsible to, and give [Blanche] credit for, $50,000 in equity representing her share of the lost asset dissipated by him.”

¶10 The Eagle Mountain Home: The court found that James and Blanche bought this home in 2009 and made a $120,000 down payment on it, $80,000 of which was borrowed from James’s mother. The court found that they moved into the home sometime in 2010 and began using it as their primary residence. James testified that he had at one point intended to sell the Eagle Mountain Home in an effort “to cover all the debts” on the parties’ credit cards but that Blanche refused to cooperate with him on the sale. Evidence presented at trial suggested that the home was sold in 2015 by a bankruptcy trustee for $520,000, with the parties still owing $292,000 at that time. Without citing any specific piece of evidence, the court found that if the Eagle Mountain Home had “not been lost to a forced sale, [Blanche] would have been able to receive at least another $25,000 today because of the current market value of $606,000,” and the court then ruled that she was “entitled to that sum.”

¶11      The Rockville Property: The court described this as a “7.5 acre parcel of farm property” located near Rockville, Utah. In its ruling on how to divide the marital interest in this property, the court referred to evidence it had received indicating that the parties were “forced to sell” the property for $270,000 after falling behind on the mortgage payments, as well as evidence showing that the parties still owed around $190,000 on the property when it was sold.

¶12      But the court then referred to several sources of evidence it had received that suggested that this property had a higher value and could have been sold for more. For example, it referred to evidence that a realtor had listed what the court thought was a similar 11.4 acre parcel for $1,195,000 (though the court then acknowledged that it was “debatable” whether this comparison provided an accurate valuation for the Rockville Property). The court also noted testimony that a realtor had valued the property at “approximately $900,000” due to “28 [shares of] water rights [that were] attached to it.” And the court referred to an “analysis from Zillow” that suggested the property’s value was $1,195,000.

¶13      From all this, the court then found that the forced sale of the property for $270,000 was a loss that “cost the parties at least $450,000 each,” and the court awarded Blanche “damages of $450,000 offset by monies she did receive in the amount of $42,000.”

¶14 The Cedar Highlands Lots: The Cedar Highlands Lots were “two lots down by Cedar City,” one of which was around 2 acres and the other around 2.5 acres. The court found that the lots were purchased for $40,000 each sometime in 2003 but that they were later “lost” through a forced sale because of the parties’ ongoing failure to pay various taxes and fees.

¶15 At trial, there was conflicting evidence and argument about the amount of the loss suffered by the parties because of the sale of these lots. James testified that the parties lost $60,000, while Blanche claimed that they lost somewhere between $153,000 and $280,000 (with her estimate being largely based on the lots’ appreciation in value since the time that the parties had purchased them—and, thus, the parties’ loss of potential equity by virtue of the forced sale). The court ultimately found that the parties’ inability to “pay the property taxes and Homeowners Association fees . . . resulted in [an] $80,000 loss to the parties.” The court did not explain how it had arrived at the $80,000 amount, nor did it explain how this loss was to be distributed between the parties.

Alimony and Child Support

¶16 Blanche’s Income: Under an initial subheading of the Ruling that was entitled “The Parties[’] Income,” the court found that Blanche is “an experienced bookkeeper with QuickBooks who has elected to be employed by About Faceology,” but that she was currently a “self employed Uber/Lift driver and has been so since 2015.” Under a subsequent subheading entitled “Income of the Parties,” however, the court then determined that “[f]or child support purposes [Blanche’s] income cannot be imputed at more than [the] minimum wage of $1,257 per month.” Elsewhere in the Ruling, and without explanation for the discrepancy, the court found that Blanche’s imputed minimum wage income was actually $1,260 per month (rather than $1,257). The court included no explanation for its conclusion that Blanche’s income could not be imputed at more than the minimum wage.

¶17 Child Support: At the time of the Ruling, the parties had five minor children. The court initially ordered James to pay $3,781 per month in child support. Elsewhere in the Ruling, however, and again without explanation, the court stated that it was ordering James to pay $3,336 per month in child support.

¶18      Alimony: Turning to alimony, the court noted that under the controlling statute, it should consider a number of factors. One of the factors it considered was Blanche’s “financial condition and needs.” With respect to this factor, the court opined that Blanche’s “needs have been overstated in her financial declarations,” but the court made no ruling about Blanche’s financial condition and what her needs actually were. With respect to Blanche’s earning capacity, the court again noted that Blanche “claim[ed] she earns just a little better than minimum [wage] even though she is an experienced and sophisticated bookkeeper with many years of experience having run, managed, overseen and monitored millions of dollars in income and expenses that ran through the parties[’] businesses.” But the court made no further findings about her particular earning capacity as it related to a potential alimony award. The court also noted that there were “minor children in the home,” five of whom were “younger than eighteen years of age or have not yet graduated from high school with their expected class.” But the court made no findings about how (or how much) these children impacted Blanche’s earning capacity. Finally, with respect to James’s ability to pay alimony, the court found that James was a “voluntarily under employed” electrician, and it then opined that “[t]here is no question that [Blanche] claims that her needs exceed hers and [James’s] monthly incomes.” Considering these factors together, the court then ordered James to pay $8,286 per month in alimony.

Marital Debts

¶19 Finally, the court made certain findings concerning the “business debt” that was “incurred” by the parties during the marriage. While the divorce proceedings were pending, James filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. In the Ruling, the court found that, after the bankruptcy proceedings had begun, James incurred $30,000 in debt while purchasing stock in his business and business-related property from the bankruptcy trustee. Since the court determined that Blanche was “entitled to 50% of [the] value” of the business, the court then concluded that she was entitled to an award of $15,000 as a result of this debt.

¶20      The court also noted that Blanche had “received financial compensation from the sale of assets and the conversion of assets into cash.” But the court opined that it was “difficult, if not impossible, to decipher whether each expenditure was personal, business related, or partially business-related.” From this, and without further explanation, the court awarded Blanche “judgment against [James] in the amount of $50,000.”

  1. Motions for Clarification

¶21      James and Blanche were both dissatisfied with the Ruling, and in January 2018, they each filed a motion requesting clarification. Each motion raised a host of issues regarding alleged errors.

¶22      Of note here, in her motion, Blanche asked for clarification “as to whether or not” she was entitled to $25,000 for the Eagle Mountain Home or, instead, “another amount.” She argued that an award of $25,000 “seem[ed] incorrect mathematically” because if the fair market value of the Eagle Mountain Home was $606,000, and the home sold for $520,000, the “resulting equity would have been $86,000, which if divided equally would result in [Blanche] receiving judgment for $43,000,” as opposed to $25,000. Blanche also requested clarification as to the court’s determination “that the loss to the parties” concerning the Cedar Highlands Lots was $80,000. She argued that, based on the evidence presented at trial, the loss was $280,000. Blanche also requested clarification regarding the court’s determination of marital debts, specifically, whether the $15,000 was “to be added to the $50,000 for a total of $65,000” or whether “there [was] another number the court considered.” Finally, Blanche requested clarification of the court’s order regarding child support, given that in one portion of its Ruling the court ordered James to pay child support in the amount of $3,781 per month, and in another portion it altered that amount to $3,336 per month.

¶23 In his motion, James likewise requested clarification of various aspects of the Ruling. Among other things, he asked the court to “enter supplemental, amended, and or additional findings” regarding its ruling that Blanche was “entitled to $100,000” concerning the Hildale Home, explaining that he was “unaware of any evidence upon which the [court] could have relied in finding the $100,000 in equity the [court] awarded” Blanche. James also asked for clarification on the court’s findings concerning the Henderson Home, Eagle Mountain Home, and Rockville Property, asserting that the court had not “identified the facts upon which it relied” in making its calculations. Regarding the Henderson Home, James alleged that the court’s finding that “the parties would likely have had at least $100,000 in equity if the home had been rented” for the years 2013 through 2017 “fail[ed] to account for the costs of managing a rental property from a long distance, the likelihood of vacancies, the cost of utilities, maintenance, repairs, property taxes” and other related fees. Regarding the Eagle Mountain Home, James argued that the Ruling did not “accurately account for the additional $25,000” that Blanche received from the bankruptcy trustee “in addition to the $102,486.28 she received” from the sale. Regarding the Rockville Property, James requested clarification as to what facts the court relied upon to conclude that “the parties owned 28 shares of water,” given that the evidence “actually showed,” in his view, that they owned only 19 shares of water. Additionally, James requested clarification as to the court’s comparison of the Rockville Property to a parcel of “11.4 acre[s] of land with Virgin River frontage that was listed for $1,195,000.” Finally, with respect to the marital debts, James asked the court to “enter supplemental, amended and or additional findings” that would “identify the facts upon which [the court] relied in awarding [Blanche] $15,000 representing [the business’s] hypothetical equity or value.”

¶24 In the meantime, the Office of Recovery Services (ORS) intervened in the case based on its obligation to provide child support enforcement services. ORS filed a memo in response to Blanche’s motion for clarification in which it likewise requested clarification of the child support amount. After recounting its view of the evidence, ORS recommended that if Blanche’s income was imputed at minimum wage, and if James’s income was imputed at $18,500 per month, James should be ordered to pay $3,236 per month for the five minor children.

¶25      In August 2018, the court issued a ruling on James’s and Blanche’s motions. With respect to the child support amount, the court now ordered that James’s monthly obligation be $3,236 per month, thus apparently adopting ORS’s recommendation. With respect to the properties, the court now ruled—without explanation—that Blanche was entitled to $25,000 in relation to the Eagle Mountain Home and $40,000 for the Cedar Highland Lots. And with respect to the marital debts, the court found— again without explanation—that “[t]he $15,000 amount awarded is to be added to the $50,000 amount awarded for a total of $65,000” to be awarded to Blanche.

¶26 The court ordered Blanche’s counsel to prepare the final findings of fact and conclusions of law. In a November 2018 filing, however, Blanche alleged that she was unable to do so without “additional findings” regarding, among others, the marital debts. In May 2019, the court heard additional oral arguments. After the parties filed additional objections and motions, the case was reassigned from Judge Lynn Davis—who had heard the trial testimony and had issued both the Ruling and the rulings on the motions for clarification—to Judge Robert Lunnen. Judge Lunnen then heard oral arguments on the parties’ objections and outstanding motions.

  1. The Supplemental Decree

¶27      In April 2021, the court (through Judge Lunnen) issued a “Supplemental Decree of Divorce” (the Supplemental Decree).[4]

¶28 The Supplemental Decree reiterated and incorporated many of the findings and determinations from the Ruling. As in the Ruling, for example, the court awarded Blanche $100,000 for the Hildale Home, $50,000 for the Henderson Home, and the (clarified) amount of $40,000 for the Cedar Highlands Lots. But without explanation, the court altered the order regarding the Eagle Mountain Home, awarding Blanche $43,000 as opposed to the $25,000 that was previously ordered. Also without explanation, the court altered the order regarding the Rockville Property, first concluding that Blanche’s offset should be $38,000, not $42,000, and now awarding Blanche $412,000 from this property as opposed to the $408,000 that had previously been awarded.

¶29      The court also determined that Blanche’s income should be imputed at minimum wage for a total of $1,260 per month. Based on its findings about the parties’ incomes, it then ordered James to pay $3,236 per month in child support, and it again ordered him to pay $8,286 per month in alimony.

¶30 Finally, the court awarded Blanche $65,000 relating to the marital debts. The court explained that $15,000 of that amount “represent[ed] her interest” in various purchases made by James from the bankruptcy trustee and that the remaining $50,000 represented “her interest in other assets, business and otherwise.”

¶31      James timely appealed.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶32 James argues that the district court issued “inadequate” fact findings to explain its rulings regarding the marital properties, child support and alimony, and marital debts. “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 (quotation simplified); see also Brown v. Babbitt, 2015 UT App 161, ¶ 5, 353 P.3d 1262 (“We review the legal sufficiency of factual findings—that is, whether the trial court’s factual findings are sufficient to support its legal conclusions—under a correction-of-error standard, according no particular deference to the trial court.” (quotation simplified)).[5]

ANALYSIS

¶33 A district court’s “[f]indings of fact are adequate . . . only when they are sufficiently detailed to disclose the steps by which the district court reached its ultimate conclusion on each issue.” Oldroyd v. Oldroyd, 2017 UT App 45, ¶ 5, 397 P.3d 645. When assessing a challenge to the adequacy of a district court’s findings, we look to whether the court “adequately disclosed the analytic steps” it took in reaching its conclusions. Keiter v. Keiter, 2010 UT App 169, ¶ 21, 235 P.3d 782. In this sense, the court’s findings of fact must show that its “judgment or decree follows logically from, and is supported by, the evidence.” Id. ¶ 17 (quotation simplified). “This obligation facilitates meaningful appellate review and ensures the parties are informed of the trial court’s reasoning.” Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 5, 406 P.3d 258; see also Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 22, 379 P.3d 882 (explaining that findings “are adequate when they contain sufficient detail to permit appellate review to ensure that the district court’s discretionary determination was rationally based”). While “unstated findings can be implied if it is reasonable to assume that the trial court actually considered the controverted evidence and necessarily made a finding to resolve the controversy, but simply failed to record the factual determination it made,” Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 22 (quotation simplified), we “will not imply any missing finding where there is a matrix of possible factual findings and we cannot ascertain the trial court’s actual findings,” Hall v. Hall, 858 P.2d 1018, 1025–26 (Utah Ct. App. 1993) (quotation simplified).

¶34 James argues that a number of the court’s findings were inadequate. His arguments address three groups of findings— namely, findings regarding (I) marital properties, (II) child support and alimony, and (III) marital debts. We address each group in turn.[6]

  1. Marital Properties

¶35 James first challenges the adequacy of the findings that supported the rulings about how to value and distribute the parties’ marital properties. We recognize at the outset that district courts “have considerable discretion in determining property distribution in divorce cases.” Marroquin v. Marroquin, 2019 UT App 38, ¶ 11, 440 P.3d 757 (quotation simplified). But while a district court “does not have to accept [a party’s] proposed valuation” of an item in the marital estate, the court “does have to make findings sufficient to allow us to review and determine whether an equitable property award has been made.” Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶ 53, 379 P.3d 890. In ruling on such a claim, we will uphold a district court’s “valuation of marital assets” if “the value is within the range of values established by all the testimony, and as long as the court’s findings are sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.” Wadsworth v. Wadsworth, 2022 UT App 28, ¶ 64, 507 P.3d 385 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1259 (Utah 2022).

  1. The Hildale Home

¶36 James first argues that the court’s findings regarding the Hildale Home were inadequate. In James’s view, the court “simply concluded that $100,000 was an appropriate amount of an award without providing factual findings” supporting “the appropriateness” of that award. We agree.

¶37 The court’s discussion of the Hildale Home spans roughly two pages of the Ruling. Much of the discussion concerns the ownership of the home. The court found that the home’s title is held by the Trust, that James’s interest in the home is that “of a beneficiary” to the Trust, and that Blanche, by contrast, is “not a legal beneficiary” of the Trust. But the court then found that “[n]o evidence was presented to the court of the value [of] [James’s] beneficial interest” in the Trust and that “establishing the value of a beneficial interest in property of the [Trust] is practically and legally impossible[,]” in part, because “the Trust is not receptive to, nor responsive to, legal inquiries.” The court also recognized that Blanche submitted an appraisal of the home, but it then concluded that the appraisal was not an adequate mechanism for establishing the home’s value because the appraisal failed to account for “title to the home being in the [Trust], the costs of getting the [Hildale Home] conveyed from the [Trust], or the thousands of dollars owed to the [court] appointed Trustee of the [Trust] which the Trustee is owed for administering the [Trust’s] assets.” After discounting its ability to rely on either James’s interest in the Trust or Blanche’s appraisal, the court ruled that the property was “a marital asset” to some “narrow extent.” Without further explanation, it then ruled that while it couldn’t grant title to Blanche, she was “entitled to an award of $100,000.”

¶38      We recognize the difficulties that the court faced with this trial in general—as should be clear by now, this was a very complicated divorce with a lot of things to decide and divide. And as evidenced by the preceding paragraph, the nature of parties’ apparent interest in the Hildale Home made the question of how to divide that interest particularly complicated. But even so, we see nothing in the Ruling that “adequately disclosed the analytic steps” the court took, Keiter, 2010 UT App 169, ¶ 21, when deciding that Blanche was entitled to $100,000. The court clearly explained what it thought it couldn’t rely on, but it didn’t explain what it thought it could rely on or how it arrived at this particular amount. Without such an explanation, James has no meaningful way to challenge that $100,000 award, nor do we have any meaningful way to assess whether it was legally warranted in light of the “matrix of possible factual findings” on this issue that are apparent from the record. Hall, 858 P.2d at 1025 (quotation simplified). We accordingly vacate this determination.

  1. The Henderson Home

¶39 James next argues that the court “did not provide any analysis” as to how it determined there was $100,000 in equity in the Henderson Home and that, as a result, the $50,000 award to Blanche was based on inadequate findings. We agree.

¶40      The court found that the home was purchased by James in 2004 for $420,000. It explained that by August 2012, James and Blanche were “months behind in their [mortgage] payment” and that they owed $288,000 when the home was “lost in a short sale in 2013 for $225,000.” The court made a finding that the fair market value of the home at the time—according to Zillow—was $323,861.[7] The court found that James and Blanche “would likely have had at least $100,000 in equity to split if they had” managed to keep the home, but because James “ignored” Blanche’s suggestions to rent the home out, which in theory would have prevented them from losing it, it then ruled that James “should be responsible to, and give [Blanche] credit for, $50,000 in equity representing her share of the lost asset dissipated by him.” It appears the court thus based the $50,000 award on its finding that “the parties could likely have rented and made money as shown or just maintained [the Henderson Home] and sold it for profit presently.”

¶41      James’s initial argument here is that it’s unclear how the court arrived at the $100,000 in equity that it then divided. In response, Blanche suggests that this amount could have been derived from the court’s apparent acceptance of the home’s fair market value as being $323,861 (a value derived from Zillow— which, again, neither party has challenged on appeal as being improper), an amount that is approximately (though, we note, not precisely) $100,000 more than the parties received in the short sale. We have some concern that Blanche is asking us to do too much inferential work on our own, and we could vacate on this basis alone. But in any event, the court’s division of the apparent equity also seems to have been based on a dissipation (or, perhaps, a waste) determination stemming from James’s conduct. Assuming this was so, the court’s findings about James’s conduct, whether the home could actually have been rented out, what the parties could have received in rent, and whether this unspoken amount would actually have prevented them from losing the home were all either missing or decidedly cursory. We’ve previously held, however, held that when a court rules that a party “should be held accountable for the dissipation of marital assets,” the court must support the ruling with “sufficiently detailed findings of fact that explain the trial court’s basis” for that ruling, and we’ve also laid out a number of factors that “may be relevant to” and could support such a ruling. Rayner v. Rayner, 2013 UT App 269, ¶¶ 19–21, 316 P.3d 455 (quotation simplified). While that list is not mandatory or exhaustive, we still have an inadequate findings-based foundation here from which we could review what seems to have been an implicit dissipation determination. When coupled with the lack of explanatory findings about the basis for the equity determination, we conclude that the findings about this home are, as a whole, legally inadequate to support meaningful appellate review of this ruling. We accordingly vacate them.

  1. The Eagle Mountain Home

¶42      James argues that the court’s findings regarding the Eagle Mountain Home were legally inadequate. We agree.

¶43 In the Ruling, the court (through Judge Davis) initially awarded Blanche $25,000 for this home. But the court failed to explain the analytic steps it took to arrive at that amount. The court did enter a few findings about this home—namely, that the parties made a $120,000 down payment when they purchased the home in 2009 ($80,000 of which was borrowed from James’s mother), that they were forced to sell it in 2015 in conjunction with James’s bankruptcy, and that, as a result of that sale, Blanche received “one half” of its equity. But the court made no findings about the sale price or how much equity the parties had in the home at the time of the sale. And then, without any explanation, the court opined that “[h]ad it not been lost to a forced sale,” Blanche “would have been able to receive at least another $25,000 today” because of the home’s “current market value.” The court provided no basis for the $25,000 amount, and we see no reasonable basis in its findings for inferring one.

¶44      Of note, the court (through Judge Lunnen) then changed the awarded amount in the Supplemental Decree, now awarding Blanche $43,000 for it. But the court didn’t explain why it increased this award from the award that had previously been entered in the Ruling. And while Blanche suggests on appeal that the court had now accepted a new valuation of the home that she offered in her motion for clarification, the court never said that it was doing so, nor did it provide any other explanation for why it increased this award at all, let alone by this particular amount.

¶45      In light of this procedural history, it’s unclear to us what analytic steps led the court to first award Blanche $25,000 for this home and what caused the court to later change that award to $43,000. As a result, the findings with respect to this home are legally inadequate and are therefore vacated.

  1. The Rockville Property

¶46      James argues that the court’s findings about the Rockville Property are legally inadequate because it’s “not clear” how the court “reached its valuation of the Rockville Property” or how it divided that value as part of its division of the marital estate. We agree.

¶47 In the Ruling, the court explained that the Rockville Property was a “7.5 acre parcel of farm property” owned by James and Blanche near Rockville, Utah. As for its value and how to determine that value, the court pointed to three options: (1) it noted that a realtor had listed a similar 11.4 acre parcel for $1,195,000, though the court opined that this valuation was “debatable”; (2) the court noted that Blanche “discussed” its value with a realtor who “indicated back then” (which, though unsaid by the court, seems from context to have been in 2013) that the “lot was worth approximately $900,000, due to the 28 water rights attached to it”; and (3) the court pointed to a “[c]urrent market value analysis from Zillow” that “estimate[d]” the property’s value at $1,195,000. The court then found that the parties were “forced to sell” the property in December 2013 for $270,000 due to financial troubles. And the court apparently faulted James for this, determining that at the time of the forced sale, the parties “only owed approximately $190,000” on the property, that it could have been refinanced, and that it was James’s fault that they did not do so. From this, the court found that the forced sale “cost the parties at least $450,000 each,” and it accordingly awarded Blanche “damages of $450,000 offset by monies she did receive in the amount of $42,000.”

¶48 From an adequacy-of-the-findings perspective, the initial problem here is that the court never stated whether it was accepting $1,195,000 or $900,000 as the property’s value. Given that the property’s value would be the numerator for any division of it as a marital asset, this omission is, of course, significant. And while Blanche invites us to engage in some loose math that would account for both possibilities and arrive at the same endpoint, the difference between the two initial valuations might matter if James wished to mount a sufficiency of the evidence challenge. Moreover, to the extent that the court’s determination about how to divide the property’s value turned on an implicit dissipation determination, we again note that the court failed to support such a determination with adequate findings. And finally, while the court offset the award to Blanche by “monies she did receive in the amount of $42,000,” an amount that it later changed to $38,000 in the Supplemental Decree, the court didn’t explain the basis for either amount in either ruling.[8]

¶49 Given the unanswered questions about how the court valued both this property and the offset, we have no basis for conducting a meaningful review of this award. We accordingly vacate it.

  1. The Cedar Highlands Lots

¶50 James’s final property-related challenge is to the findings regarding the Cedar Highlands Lots. In James’s view, the court improperly failed to “indicate . . . how the $80,000 was calculated.” We again agree.

¶51      In the Ruling, the court found that James and a business partner had purchased the two lots for $40,000 each, that Blanche had “controlled the book-keeping for the marital businesses,” and that the lots “were lost when the parties were unable or could not pay the property taxes and Home Owners Association fees,” thus “result[ing] in [an] $80,000 loss to the parties.” In a subsequent ruling, the court determined that this loss should now result in an award of $40,000 to Blanche, and that award was later confirmed in the Supplemental Decree.

¶52 From the court’s findings, it’s unclear why the court determined that there was an $80,000 loss. The court seems to have assumed that the lots were completely lost with no return in value, but the court never said so. And more importantly, even assuming that this was the implicit finding, the court never explained why it concluded that Blanche should receive an award of $40,000 as the result of this particular loss to the marital estate of $80,000. Without such an explanation, we have no meaningful basis for reviewing the ruling. As a result, we vacate it.

  1. Child Support and Alimony

¶53 James challenges the adequacy of the findings relating to child support and alimony. James’s challenges here fall into two groups: first, he challenges the adequacy of the findings relating to Blanche’s income (which, as explained below, matter to both child support and alimony); and second, with respect to the alimony determination, he challenges the adequacy of the court’s findings relating to Blanche’s financial condition and needs.

  1. Blanche’s Income

¶54      James argues that the court’s findings regarding Blanche’s income were inadequate because they failed to “provide any reasoning for disregarding [Blanche’s] earning capacity.” We agree.

¶55      A party’s income matters to a determination of both child support and alimony. First, with respect to child support, a “noncustodial parent’s child support obligation is calculated using each parent’s adjusted gross income.” Twitchell v. Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 34, 509 P.3d 806 (quotation simplified); see also Utah Code §§ 78B-12-202, -301 (establishing guidelines for child support awards). Importantly, the court “is required to enter detailed and specific findings on all material issues which must be considered when making a child support award.” Breinholt v. Breinholt, 905 P.2d 877, 881 (Utah Ct. App. 1995) (quotation simplified). But “so long as the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached are apparent, a trial court may make findings, credibility determinations, or other assessments without detailing its justification for finding particular evidence more credible or persuasive than other evidence supporting a different outcome.” Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 6 (quotation simplified). Second, with respect to alimony, a court must examine, among other factors, “the recipient’s earning capacity or ability to produce income.” Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 16, 496 P.3d 242 (quotation simplified). And a court must in “all cases . . . support its alimony determinations with adequate findings . . . on all material issues,” and “failure to do so constitutes reversible error, unless pertinent facts in the record are clear, uncontroverted, and capable of supporting only a finding in favor of the judgment.” Id. ¶ 17 (quotation simplified).

¶56      Of note, when “there is insufficient evidence of one of the statutory alimony factors, courts may impute figures.” Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 98, 452 P.3d 1134 (quotation simplified). For example, a “court may impute income to a former spouse for purposes of calculating alimony after finding that the former spouse is voluntarily unemployed or voluntarily underemployed.” Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 15. And it “is not unusual for courts to impute income to a spouse who has not worked during the marriage (or who has not worked for a number of years preceding the divorce) but who is nevertheless capable of producing income.” Petrzelka v. Goodwin, 2020 UT App 34, ¶ 26, 461 P.3d 1134 (emphasis in original). But when a court imputes income, the “imputation cannot be premised upon mere conjecture; instead, it demands a careful and precise assessment requiring detailed findings.” Christensen v. Christensen, 2017 UT App 120, ¶ 22, 400 P.3d 1219 (quotation simplified); see also Reller v. Argenziano, 2015 UT App 241, ¶ 33, 360 P.3d 768 (“Before imputing income to a parent, the trial court must enter findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.” (quotation simplified)).

¶57      Income can likewise be imputed as part of a child support determination. See Utah Code § 78B-12-203(8). But, as with an alimony award, a court must support such an imputation with adequate findings. See id. § 78B-12-203(8)(a) (explaining that in contested cases, “[i]ncome may not be imputed to a parent unless,” after an evidentiary hearing on the matter, the court “enters findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis or the imputation”); id. § 78B-12-203(8)(b) (detailing the evidentiary bases upon which a court may impute income for child support purposes); see also Rayner, 2013 UT App 269, ¶ 10 (“Imputation cannot be premised upon mere conjecture; instead, it demands a careful and precise assessment requiring detailed findings.” (quotation simplified)).

¶58 Here, the court determined that although Blanche was currently working as a “self employed Uber/Lift driver,” her “income cannot be imputed at more than minimum wage of $1,257 per month.” In a different portion of the Ruling, however, the court found that Blanche’s “gross income” should actually be imputed at “$1,260 per month.”

¶59 On appeal, James doesn’t focus on this three-dollar discrepancy. Rather, James argues that the court erred by failing to explain why Blanche’s income should be imputed at minimum wage at all. As James points out, the court elsewhere found that Blanche is “an experienced bookkeeper with QuickBooks who has elected to be employed by About Faceology,” and it further found that she was “an experienced and sophisticated bookkeeper with many years of experience having run, managed, overseen and monitored millions of dollars in income and expenses that ran through the parties[’] businesses.”

¶60      Having reviewed the Ruling, we see no explanation for the court’s determination that, although Blanche is an experienced bookkeeper with the skill set to manage millions of dollars in income for a company, her income should still be imputed at minimum wage. In an attempt to justify this on appeal, Blanche points to a passing statement from the alimony portion of the ruling in which the court noted that the parties “have ten children, five of which are younger than eighteen years of age or have not yet graduated from high school with their expected class.” But as James points out in response, the parties had even more minor children at home during the years in which Blanche was working as a bookkeeper with responsibilities for “millions of dollars in income.” And while it’s possible that the court believed that something had now changed that would prevent Blanche from still doing this work (such as her new status as a post-divorce single parent), the court never said this or entered any findings to support such a determination, it never explained why it was implicitly determining that Blanche could work as an Uber/Lyft driver but not as a bookkeeper, and it entered no findings to explain why her current employment as an Uber/Lyft driver would result in an income imputation of minimum wage.

¶61      To be clear: as with the other issues in this appeal, we express no opinion about the proper resolution of any of these questions. But without an explanation from the district court, James has no basis for properly challenging the decision about Blanche’s income, nor do we have an adequate basis for reviewing it. Given the importance of Blanche’s income to both child support and alimony, we accordingly vacate those rulings.

  1. Blanche’s Financial Condition and Needs

¶62 As part of its alimony determination, the court was also required to consider Blanche’s “financial condition and needs.” Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 16 (quotation simplified). James argues that the court failed to enter adequate findings to support this assessment. We agree.

¶63 In the Ruling, the court noted that Blanche had claimed that she had “monthly needs of $18,565,” but it then concluded that these needs were “overstated.” And while Blanche had also suggested that she needed the alimony award to account for “over $200,000 in credit card and business debts,” the court suggested that this debt was either accounted for by other portions of its ruling or had “been discharged in the bankruptcy case.”

¶64 But even so, while the court then concluded that James “simply does not make sufficient money to satisfy all of [Blanche’s] claims” about what “she reasonably needs to support herself,” the court did not make any determination about what Blanche’s needs actually are. As James correctly points out, the absence of such an explanation prevents us from conducting a meaningful review of how this factor should weigh into the court’s alimony award, a problem that is compounded by the failure discussed above to adequately explain its determination about Blanche’s income.

¶65 We accordingly vacate the alimony award to allow the court to enter more detailed findings and, “if necessary, recalculat[e] . . . appropriate alimony.” Fitzgerald v. Fitzgerald, 2005 UT App 67U, para. 6 (quotation simplified); see also Eberhard v. Eberhard, 2019 UT App 114, ¶¶ 39–40, 449 P.3d 202 (faulting a district court for not “spelling out” “how much more [the petitioner] actually needs each month to pay down her debt and elevate herself to the marital standard of living,” thus leaving the appellate court “unable to discern whether the alimony award, in fact, exceeds her needs”).

III. Marital Debts

¶66 Finally, James challenges the adequacy of the court’s findings with respect to the parties’ marital debts. We agree that these findings are inadequate.

¶67      “In issuing a divorce decree, a trial court must include an order specifying which party is responsible for the payment of joint debts, obligations, or liabilities of the parties contracted or incurred during marriage.” Fox v. Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 32, 515 P.3d 481 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022); see also Utah Code § 30-3-5(3)(c)(i). Utah law “requires only a fair and equitable, not an equal, division of the marital debts.” Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 32 (quotation simplified). A district court is in the “best position to weigh the evidence, determine credibility and arrive at factual conclusions”; as a result, a district court’s division of marital debts is “entitled to a presumption of validity.” Mullins v. Mullins, 2016 UT App 77, ¶ 20, 370 P.3d 1283 (quotation simplified). But, again, the district court must enter findings of fact that are “sufficiently detailed to disclose the steps by which [it] reached its ultimate conclusion on each issue.” Oldroyd, 2017 UT App 45, ¶ 5.

¶68 Here, the court found that the “parties incurred business debt while married.” James challenges the adequacy of the findings with respect to two of those debts.

¶69      First, the court found that as a result of James’s bankruptcy, James took on $30,000 in debt to finance the purchase of his business’s stock and other business-related property. In the court’s view, Blanche was “entitled to 50% of [the] value” of the business, which meant, in its view, that she was also entitled to $15,000. But the court never explained why it concluded that Blanche was entitled to this amount. While it’s possible, as Blanche now suggests, that the court thought that James had drawn the $30,000 from marital assets—and, thus, that $15,000 of it belonged to Blanche—the court didn’t say this, and its reference to this as “$30,000” in “debt” that James had incurred is somewhat at odds with this inference. In the absence of any explanation, we vacate this ruling.

¶70      Second, at the close of the “Marital Debts” section of its ruling, the court found that Blanche had “received financial compensation from the sale of assets and the conversion of assets into cash.” But it then opined that it was “difficult, if not impossible, to decipher whether each expenditure was personal, business related, or partially business-related.” Without any further explanation, the court then held that Blanche

was “awarded judgment against [James] in the amount of $50,000.”

¶71                   It’s entirely unclear to us what the basis for this $50,000

award was. So far as we can tell, the court seems to have concluded that Blanche had already received some prior distributions from marital assets and that she should now receive $50,000 more. But there’s no explanation for how the court arrived at this particular amount, what the amount was linked to, or why it would be listed alongside an analysis of “Marital Debts.” Without any such explanation, we vacate this award.

CONCLUSION

¶72 We agree with James’s assertion that the challenged findings were not legally adequate and that these inadequacies impaired both his ability to challenge the court’s various rulings and our ability to review them. We accordingly vacate the above rulings and remand the case with instructions for the court to enter more detailed findings and then alter any of its rulings as may be necessary.

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

 

[1] Because the parties share the same last name, we’ll follow our normal practice and refer to them by their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] In this Background, we’ll recount the main findings regarding each ruling at issue on appeal, but in some instances, additional relevant findings will be discussed in the Analysis below.

[3] With respect to some (though not all) of the dollar amounts included in the rulings at issue, the court added “.00” signifiers. For readability, those have been omitted throughout this opinion.

[4] As noted above, the court had previously entered a bifurcated divorce decree while the trial on the parties’ assets and the like was still ongoing.

[5] As evidenced by the passages quoted above, there’s something of a disconnect in how we’ve referred to this kind of argument in past cases. In some cases, we’ve described it as an argument about the “legal adequacy” of the district court’s findings, see, e.g.Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 20, 427 P.3d 1221, but in others, we’ve described it as an argument about the “legal sufficiency” of the findings, see, e.g.Brown v. Babbitt, 2015 UT App 161, ¶ 5, 353 P.3d 1262. For consistency’s sake, it might be better if bench and bar alike settled on a single usage. And on reflection, we suggest that such an argument should be described in adequacy terms.

The reason for this is to reduce the potential for confusing this kind of argument with the similar sounding but substantively distinct “sufficiency of the evidence” argument. At the risk of over-simplification: a sufficiency of the evidence argument asserts that there was insufficient evidentiary support for a particular factual finding. As detailed more fully below, however, the argument at issue here—a challenge to the adequacy of the findings—asserts that the court’s findings did not adequately explain the basis for the court’s rulings, thereby impairing our ability to review those rulings (for sufficiency of the evidence or anything else).

[6]Two notes are warranted at the outset—one about our usage patterns regarding the rulings at issue, and one about a threshold argument made by Blanche.

First, as discussed above, there are two decisions that largely drive the various arguments in this case: the Ruling and the Supplemental Decree. The Ruling was issued by Judge Davis, who heard the trial evidence, while the Supplemental Decree was issued by Judge Lunnen, who was assigned to the case after the Ruling was issued. At one of the hearings in the intervening period, Judge Lunnen responded to a party’s argument by stating that “[t]he findings, they’re set in stone. So all this is . . . a result of the findings.” As noted, however, Judge Lunnen did alter a few of the Ruling’s legal determinations in the Supplemental Decree. In consequence of how this all played out, the Supplemental Decree recites many of the findings that were issued in the Ruling, though not with the same level of detail. It instead essentially incorporates the bulk of the Ruling by implicit reference. For this reason, the parties’ arguments on appeal have largely focused on whether the findings from the Ruling were adequate, and we’ll follow suit. To avoid redundancy, we won’t repeatedly mention whether we think the findings from the Supplemental Decree were likewise inadequate (even if they were reiterated in the Supplemental Decree); instead, we’ll discuss the Supplemental Decree only in those instances where it differs in some meaningful way from the Ruling (usually because of an altered legal determination).

Second, in her opening brief, Blanche argues that James did “not comply with Utah’s marshaling requirement” in his briefing on appeal. But the marshaling requirement applies when a party “seeks to prevail in challenging the sufficiency of the evidence to support a factual finding or a verdict on appeal.” State v. Nielsen, 2014 UT 10, ¶ 40, 326 P.3d 645; see also State v. Wall, 2020 UT App 36, ¶ 53, 460 P.3d 1058; Wilson v. Sanders, 2019 UT App 126, ¶ 17, 447 P.3d 1240. As noted, however, James is not arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support any particular finding. Rather, James is arguing that the findings were inadequate to explain the court’s various rulings. As we’ve explained, an argument about the adequacy of the findings presents a legal question. Because of this, “marshaling is not required.” Jensen v. Jensen, 2009 UT App 1, ¶ 8 n.3, 203 P.3d 1020; see also Woodward v. Fazzio, 823 P.2d 474, 477–78 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (“There is, in effect, no need for an appellant to marshal the evidence when the findings are so inadequate that they cannot be meaningfully challenged as factual determinations. . . . Rather, appellant can simply argue the legal insufficiency of the court’s findings as framed.”).

 

[7] While a topic at oral argument, neither party raised on appeal the issue of whether the district court could appropriately rely on Zillow for its valuation of the property, as opposed to evidence submitted at trial. For this reason, we do not address the issue here.

[8] It seems possible (if not probable) that this offset was intended to reflect a determination that the parties received $80,000 in equity when they sold the property for $270,000 while still owing $190,000 on it. But if this was the determination, (1) the court didn’t say so, and (2) it also didn’t explain the basis for initially deviating upward by $2,000 to arrive at $42,000, nor did it explain the basis for subsequently deviating downward by $2,000 to arrive at $38,000.

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In Re K.K. – 2023 UT App 14 – Abuse and Neglect Adjudication

In re K.K. – 2023 UT App 14

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.K., S.K., AND S.K.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

B.K.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220051-CA

Filed February 9, 2023

Second District Juvenile Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable Sharon S. Sipes

No. 1176751

Scott L. Wiggins, Attorney for Appellant

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

Roach, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion,

in which JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME concurred. JUDGE RYAN M.

HARRIS concurred, with opinion.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1        This is a companion case to and arises out of the same facts involved in In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, which also issues today. In short,[1] B.K. (Mother) and D.K. (Father) are the parents of triplets K.K., S.K., and S.K. (collectively, the Children). When the Children were six years old, the State filed a petition for custody and guardianship on the grounds that the Children were neglected and abused by Mother and Father. The underlying facts giving rise to the petition were multiple acts of domestic violence, culminating in a physical and boisterous verbal altercation between the couple that occurred on June 22, 2021, and that took place in front of the Children and other witnesses.

¶2        Following an adjudication trial on the petition, during which the juvenile court heard testimony from Mother, Father, two neighbors who had witnessed the June 22 altercation, and two police officers who had responded to the neighbors’ 911 calls regarding the June 22 altercation, the court issued an order adjudicating the Children neglected and abused as to Mother.

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

¶4        As to Mother, the court found she was not yelling back at Father during the June 22 altercation but that she did yell at him on another occasion during which officers were dispatched to the house on a “domestic” call. In addition, the court found that Mother “is not concerned” that the Children witness her and Father fight and that her “demeanor and testimony”—including her inability to recall much of what happened on June 22—“is in tune with her desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.” Based on these findings, the court concluded that Mother “has failed to protect the [C]hildren from exposure to domestic violence in the home” and that “[Father] and [Mother’s] domestic violence in their home has harmed the[] [C]hildren.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶5        Mother now appeals the juvenile court’s neglect and abuse adjudications, asserting the court erred in determining that she neglected and abused the Children. We review the juvenile court’s factual findings deferentially, reversing the court’s findings only if they are clearly erroneous. In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 15, 496 P.3d 58. A finding is clearly erroneous when the court either “failed to consider all of the facts or reached a decision against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified). And we review the juvenile court’s underlying legal determinations nondeferentially for correctness. See In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶¶ 27–28.

ANALYSIS

¶6        Mother argues the juvenile court erred in determining that the State had proved by clear and convincing evidence that she neglected and abused the Children “by exposing them to domestic violence.” Clear and convincing evidence is an “intermediate standard of proof” that “implies something more than the usual requirement of a preponderance . . . of the evidence; and something less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Essential Botanical Farms, LC v. Kay, 2011 UT 71, ¶¶ 21, 24, 270 P.3d 430 (quotation simplified). “For a matter to be clear and convincing to a particular mind it must at least have reached the point where there remains no serious or substantial doubt as to the correctness of the conclusion.” In re S.Y.T., 2011 UT App 407, ¶ 42, 267 P.3d 930 (quotation simplified).

¶7        Because neglect and abuse are distinct, with different statutory definitions, we address Mother’s challenge to the juvenile court’s adjudications separately. With regard to Mother’s neglect adjudication, we conclude the court did not err in determining that she neglected the Children. As to the court’s abuse adjudication, we conclude that Mother, like Father, cannot show prejudice resulting from the abuse adjudication where the underlying facts giving rise to both adjudications are the same. Accordingly, we decline to address the merits of Mother’s challenge to the abuse adjudication.

I. Neglect

¶8        To prove that Mother neglected the Children, the State needed to present clear and convincing evidence that Mother’s “action[s] or inaction[s]” caused the Children to experience a “lack of proper parental care . . . by reason of the fault or habits of” Mother or that Mother “fail[ed] or refus[ed] . . . to provide proper . . . care necessary for [the Children’s] health, safety, morals, or well-being.” See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii)–(iii). Mother argues the juvenile court’s conclusion that she neglected the Children by “‘allowing’ them to be exposed to her abuse at Father’s hands” does not satisfy the statutory definition of neglect. She further contends that the court “engaged in unwarranted assumptions that are contrary to the well-settled notions underlying the Battered Woman Syndrome” by concluding that Mother’s “behavior constituted ‘nonaccidental’ conduct or that her behavior was due to her ‘faults or habits.’” We disagree.

¶9        The evidence presented at trial included testimony from six witnesses who detailed Father and Mother’s history of engaging in domestic disputes with each other and specifically described the altercation that occurred on June 22. The testimony indicated that two of the children were present during the June 22 altercation and were observed “clinging” to Mother outside in the front yard while Father argued with her, punched her, and threw objects at her. One of the officers who responded to the June 22 altercation testified that the two children who had witnessed the altercation “seemed calm” and were not “distraught or flustered at all.”[2] The officers acknowledged they had been called to Mother and Father’s house prior to the June 22 altercation on a “domestic” call after neighbors reported Mother and Father were screaming at each other.

¶10 Mother also testified that on many occasions she tried to prevent the Children from observing her and Father fight. To accomplish this, “as soon as any argument started” she would send the Children downstairs with her roommate, where they would wait until the fight was over. Despite making this effort, Mother testified that she believed the Children were aware they were sent downstairs to avoid hearing any fighting. Moreover, the evidence also showed that Mother repeatedly allowed Father to return home after the court issued a criminal no contact/protective order and that she minimized the severity of the domestic violence. Mother was also largely unwilling to testify at trial about the June 22 altercation, claiming that she had “trouble remembering” much of what happened. Based on this evidence, the juvenile court found, “[Mother] is not concerned that the [C]hildren are subjected to the argument[s] between [Mother] and [Father]. [Mother’s] demeanor and testimony is in tune with her desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.”

¶11      As described above, in its adjudication order, the juvenile court made several findings in support of its determination of neglect as to Mother. Those findings address Mother’s ongoing relationship with Father and the violent dynamic of their relationship, Mother’s knowledge that the Children were aware of her fights with Father despite her attempts to shield them from the violence, and Mother’s apparent lack of concern or desire to extricate herself from future interactions with Father. Under Utah law, a parent “ha[s] a statutory duty not to knowingly place [their] child in harm’s way.” In re C.B., 1999 UT App 293, ¶ 9, 989 P.2d 76. By voluntarily returning to the abusive relationship with Father, Mother ignored this duty by “potentially subjecting the [Children] to witness, or be the victim of, further abuse.” See id. Moreover, as discussed in In re C.C.W., 2019 UT App 34, 440 P.3d 749, a parent’s act of domestic violence can have adverse impacts on a child, even if there is no evidence of violence toward the child and even if the child does not directly witness the violence. Relying on “both common sense and expert opinion,” this court recognized that children who are exposed to domestic violence may suffer “direct physical and psychological injuries,” regardless of whether they are physically harmed. Id. ¶¶ 20–21 (quotation simplified). Among other things, children who observe domestic violence “may be taught that violence is an acceptable way to handle issues with loved ones,” which “breeds a culture of violence in future generations. . . . Abused children are at great risk of becoming abusive parents.” Id. ¶ 20 (quotation simplified). Although it is unfortunate that Mother is a victim of domestic violence, her decision to knowingly return to Father and to protect him rather than to protect the Children despite her knowledge that the Children are aware of the abuse in the home satisfies the statutory definition of neglect.

¶12      We recognize that most, if not all, of the domestic violence at issue in this case was committed by Father against Mother and that Mother was therefore often the victim rather than the perpetrator. But under Utah’s statutory definition of neglect, under certain circumstances, even victims of domestic violence can “neglect” their children if they fail to take sufficient steps to protect them from the domestic violence present in the home or if they choose to prioritize their relationship with the perpetrator of the violence over the need to protect their children. After all, neglect can stem from either “action or inaction” on the part of a parent, see Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a), as long as the “inaction” in question causes either “lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent” or “failure or refusal of a parent . . . to provide . . . care necessary for the child’s health, safety, morals, or well-being,” see id. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii)–(iii). Here, the juvenile court found that Mother was “not concerned” about protecting the Children from domestic violence and that Mother had a “desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.” These findings were supported by substantial evidence presented at trial. And these facts, as found by the court, constitute “neglect” as our legislature has defined that term. In short, Mother’s “inaction” in failing to protect the Children from exposure to domestic violence and prioritizing her toxic relationship with Father resulted in a failure to provide the “care necessary for [the Children’s] health, safety, morals, or well-being” and caused the Children to experience a “lack of proper parental care.” See id.

¶13      Mother resists this conclusion by contending the juvenile court improperly relied on In re C.C.W. for “the proposition that children are harmed by domestic violence in the home.” She asserts the court’s reliance on In re C.C.W. was unwarranted because that case concerned a proceeding to terminate parental rights whereas this case concerns abuse and neglect adjudications. While Mother is correct that the two proceedings are different, those differences do not bear on whether the court could properly rely on the research and studies cited in In re C.C.W. supporting the general proposition that domestic violence is harmful to children. See 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 20. Termination proceedings and abuse and neglect adjudications are both governed by the Utah Juvenile Code, see Utah Code § 80-4-301 (termination of parental rights); id. § 80-3-201 (abuse or neglect proceedings), and the statutory definitions of “neglect,” “abuse,” “harm,” and “threatened harm” are the same in both proceedings, see id. § 80­1-102(1), (37), (58)(a), (92) (providing definitions applicable to provisions of Title 80, Utah Juvenile Code). Accordingly, it does not follow that the court may properly consider the effect of domestic violence in finding neglect in one proceeding but not the other.

¶14      In addition, Mother asserts that the juvenile court “rel[ied] on the unfounded presumption that Mother’s decision to maintain a relationship with Father constituted a conscious failure to protect the Children from exposure to domestic violence.” In so doing, Mother posits that the juvenile court ignored the directive offered in In re C.C.W. cautioning courts “to avoid unnecessarily drawing negative inferences from a battered spouse’s decision to maintain a relationship with the batterer, or from a battered spouse’s decision to decline to immediately seek help.” See 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 19 n.4. But that is not what happened here.

¶15      In this case, the juvenile court analyzed the evidence before it in adjudicating Mother for neglect. Thus, the court’s conclusion was not based on an unfounded presumption. As previously discussed, the evidence the court considered included testimony that Father had engaged in multiple acts of domestic violence in the presence of the Children. And based on Father’s multi-year track record of assaulting Mother, even after services were provided to him, the court could reasonably conclude that Father is likely to continue perpetrating acts of domestic violence against Mother in the future and that the Children will continue to be exposed to the violence if Mother fails to take action. In short, the court’s determination that Mother failed to provide the proper care for the Children’s health, safety, morals, or well-being by failing to protect them and prioritizing her relationship with Father was based on the evidence presented at trial and not on an unwarranted presumption.

¶16      Finally, Mother misconstrues the directive offered in In re C.C.W. cautioning courts to “avoid unnecessarily drawing negative inferences from a battered spouse’s decision to maintain a relationship with the batterer.” See id. Mother contends that by adjudicating her for neglect, the juvenile court made an “automatic determination that both the batterer and victim are responsible as a unit,” which in turn results in the victim being blamed for the domestic violence. While we are sympathetic to Mother and acknowledge that extricating oneself from an abusive relationship can often prove difficult, see In re L.M., 2019 UT App 174, ¶ 9, 453 P.3d 651 (per curiam); In re C.C., 2017 UT App 134, ¶¶ 46–48, 402 P.3d 17 (Christiansen, J., concurring), we cannot say that a parent’s status as a domestic violence victim excuses the parent’s duty to protect the children or provides the parent with license to elevate the relationship with the abuser over the safety of the children. Indeed, the directive offered in In re C.C.W. merely cautions courts to “avoid unnecessarily drawing negative inferences” about a victim’s decision to stay in an abusive relationship. 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 19 n.4. It does not prevent the court from considering domestic violence issues in their entirety, nor does it provide absolution for a parent who continues to expose a child to domestic violence. To find otherwise would be contrary to precedent. See, e.g.In re L.M., 2019 UT App 174, ¶ 8 (“A parent who maintains a relationship with an abusive partner jeopardizes a child’s safety.”); In re T.M., 2006 UT App 435, ¶ 20, 147 P.3d 529 (collecting cases and observing that “Utah case law indicates that courts have minimal empathy for parents whose strong emotional ties to their spouses or significant others jeopardize their children’s safety”).

¶17      Accordingly, we affirm the court’s neglect adjudication.

II. Abuse

¶18      The juvenile court determined that Mother both neglected and abused the Children by failing to protect them from exposure to domestic violence and that Father and Mother’s “domestic violence in their home has harmed the[] [C]hildren.” Mother argues the court’s abuse adjudication was in error because the State failed to produce clear and convincing evidence of abuse as it is statutorily defined. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(1)(a)(i)(A)–(B), (37)(a)–(b) (defining abuse as including “nonaccidental harm of a child” and “threatened harm of a child” and defining harm as “physical or developmental injury or damage” and “emotional damage that results in a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning”). Mother raises a fair point that other than applying the general principles set forth in In re C.C.W. to infer harm, the State did not present specific evidence that the Children had sustained harm, and the court made no specific findings—other than that the Children appeared calm during incidents of domestic violence between their parents—that the Children were developmentally harmed or suffered the sort of emotional damage that constituted serious impairment to their growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.[3]

¶19      But even if we were to agree with Mother that the juvenile court erred in adjudicating the Children as abused as to Mother, Mother cannot show she was prejudiced by any such error. See In re N.M., 2018 UT App 141, ¶ 27, 427 P.3d 1239 (“An error is prejudicial only if a review of the record persuades the appellate court that without the error there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result for the appellant.” (quotation simplified)); In re. J.B., 2002 UT App 268, ¶¶ 8–12, 53 P.3d 968 (affirming the termination of a father’s parental rights despite the juvenile court’s reliance on improper findings because such reliance did not result in “prejudicial error”). Mother claims that being labeled an abuser “negatively affect[s] her ability—going forward—to perform the primary caretaking responsibilities to [the] Children.” But Mother does not demonstrate how the court’s abuse adjudication will affect her more severely or more negatively as this case proceeds than the neglect adjudication will. See In re G.B., 2022 UT App 98, ¶ 34, 516 P.3d 781 (declining to reach the merits of a challenge to an abuse adjudication where the parent did not challenge a neglect adjudication based on the same facts because the parent did not demonstrate that the abuse adjudication carried “some collateral consequences . . . that [did] not follow from a neglect determination”). Indeed, post-adjudication dispositions turn on the factual circumstances that bring a family into court rather than on the category of adjudication and are implemented based on concern for the child’s health and safety and remedying the underlying issues resulting in the adjudication. See Utah Code § 80-3-405. Here, as found by the juvenile court, whether her inaction is labeled as abuse or neglect, Mother failed to protect the Children from exposure to domestic violence and prioritized her relationship with Father over the well-being of the Children. The services that will be offered to Mother and the Children to remedy these circumstances are not likely to differ based on whether the adjudication is for neglect or abuse. We agree with the guardian ad litem’s assertion that “any or all three categories of adjudication (abuse, neglect, dependency) trigger the same dispositional provisions.” Accordingly, because Mother has not demonstrated how the court’s abuse adjudication will affect her any differently than the neglect adjudication, she cannot show prejudice.[4] See In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, ¶ 28 (concluding, based on the same facts as the current case, that Father could not show prejudice stemming from the court’s abuse adjudication because the abuse adjudication was based on the same underlying facts supporting the neglect adjudication).

CONCLUSION

¶20 We are cognizant that Mother is a victim of domestic violence, not a perpetrator. Nevertheless, the primary purpose of the State’s petition alleging neglect was to protect the Children, not to punish Mother. Based on the foregoing, we conclude the evidence presented by the State was sufficient to support the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication as to Mother. And even if the juvenile court erred in its abuse adjudication, Mother has not persuaded us that she was prejudiced by any such error because she has not shown how she will be negatively affected by the abuse adjudication over and above the effect of her neglect adjudication. Accordingly, we affirm.

_____________

HARRIS, Judge (concurring):

¶21      I concur fully in the majority opinion. I write separately to offer a word of caution to juvenile courts when it comes to finding that a parent who is a victim of domestic violence has “abused” or “neglected” his or her children by allowing them to be exposed to domestic violence in the home. In my view, Utah’s statutory definitions of the terms “abuse” and “neglect” are broad enough to make it possible, in certain situations, for courts to determine that a domestic violence victim has committed abuse or neglect. But courts should exercise caution in doing so, and should make these rather striking findings only in appropriate cases.

¶22 With regard to neglect, we hold today that the juvenile court’s determination was appropriate in this case, because Mother’s “inaction” in failing to protect the Children from the domestic violence occurring in the home constituted a lack of proper parental care, as well as a failure to provide care necessary for the Children’s health, safety, or well-being. See supra ¶¶ 8–16; see also Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii)–(iii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). In my view, the key to affirming this determination, in this case, was the court’s finding that Mother had prioritized her relationship with her abuser over the safety and well-being of the Children. Evidence presented at trial indicated that Mother repeatedly allowed Father to return to the home despite the existence of protective orders making it unlawful for him to be there, and that she was less than fully cooperative with DCFS and law enforcement officials who were investigating the situation. This sort of evidence, to my way of thinking, is critical to any determination that a domestic violence victim has neglected his or her children. Absent evidence like this, domestic violence victims will likely not have committed actions or inactions significant enough to constitute “neglect” of their children.

¶23      And given the differing statutory definitions, it is even more difficult for domestic violence victims to be considered to have “abused” their children than it is for them to be considered to have “neglected” their children. The statutory definition of “abuse” is (justifiably) narrower than the statutory definition of “neglect.” In order to find that abuse has occurred, a court in most cases (that is, in cases not involving sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, human trafficking, or the child’s death) must find either (a) “nonaccidental harm of a child” or (b) “threatened harm of a child.” See id. § 80-1-102(1)(a)(i)(A), (B); see also In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 9, 424 P.3d 91 (“To find abuse under Utah law, a court must find harm.”).

¶24 A finding that a child has sustained nonaccidental harm involves a backward-looking determination, one that must be supported by evidence that the child has already been harmed. And the kind of harm at issue—according to strict statutory definition—must be either “physical or developmental injury or damage” or the sort of “emotional damage that results in a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” See id. § 80-1-102(37)(a), (b). I can envision a court, in many cases, being able to make a finding of physical harm without the necessity of expert testimony, but in my view a finding of already-sustained “developmental injury or damage” or emotional damage severe enough to cause “a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning” will often require expert testimony. I think this will nearly always be the case where the question presented is whether a child has already sustained non-physical “harm” as a result of a victim parent failing to protect the child from violence in the home.

¶25      A finding that a child has sustained “threatened harm” is— by contrast—more of a forward-looking inquiry, under the applicable statutory definition. As our legislature has defined it in this context, “threatened harm means actions, inactions, or credible verbal threats, indicating that the child is at an unreasonable risk of harm or neglect.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-1­102(92) (emphasis added). A child can sustain “threatened harm” even if the child has not yet sustained actual “harm.” Pursuant to statutory definition, a child sustains “threatened harm” when, through the “actions” or “inactions” of a parent, the child is placed at “unreasonable risk” of future “developmental injury or damage” or “emotional damage” severe enough to seriously impair the “child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” See id. § 80-1-102(37)(a)–(b), 102(92). In cases involving parents who are victims of domestic violence, a juvenile court could perhaps more easily make a finding of “threatened harm” than already-sustained past harm. Indeed, we have already recognized that “domestic violence can have adverse impacts on a child, even if that child is not the direct object of such violence, and even if the child does not directly witness the violence.” See In re C.C.W., 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 20, 440 P.3d 749. A parent victim’s failure to adequately protect a child from violence in the home could—if the violence was frequent and severe enough, and likely to continue in the future—lead to a supported finding that the parent, through inaction, has placed the child at an unreasonable risk of future developmental damage. It may even be possible, in appropriate cases, for such a finding to be made without expert testimony.

¶26      But in order to reach “abuse” through “threatened harm” in cases involving victims of domestic violence, a court must make specific and supported findings regarding each of the elements of the statutory definition. First, a court must specify that it is finding “abuse” by way of “threatened harm” (as opposed to through a finding of already-sustained “nonaccidental harm”). Second, the court must make a detailed finding of threatened harm on the facts of the case at hand, including specific identification of the “action or inaction” taken by the parent that leads to the “unreasonable risk” of future harm, as well as a satisfactory explanation of why the risk of future harm is “unreasonable.” Third, the court must specify the type of future harm it believes the child is at risk of sustaining, whether it be developmental injury or severe emotional damage, and should explain—with reference to specific evidence in the record—why the court believes the child is likely to sustain that particular type of harm.

¶27 In short, Utah’s statutory definitions of “neglect” and “abuse” are broad enough to allow courts, in appropriate cases, to find that a parent who is the victim of domestic violence has committed neglect or abuse by failing to protect his or her child from domestic violence in the home. But courts should exercise caution in so doing, and should reserve such findings for those cases in which the domestic violence is severe and sustained and in which the victim parent has taken specific actions or inactions aimed at prioritizing his or her relationship with the abuser over care and protection of the children.

¶28      In this case, I concur in the majority’s view that the court made appropriate findings of neglect with regard to Mother. I also concur in the majority’s decision not to reach the merits of the propriety of the court’s findings regarding abuse as to Mother, but I register serious reservations about the adequacy and sufficiency of those findings, and urge courts to exercise caution in making neglect and abuse determinations in situations like this one.

 

______________

[1] A more fulsome description of the relevant facts and procedural history can be found in In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, the case in which we adjudicated Father’s appeal. In this case, we adjudicate Mother’s appeal.

[2] The juvenile court did not take this evidence to mean that the Children had not been adversely affected by their parents’ inappropriate behavior. Rather, the inference drawn by the court was that the parental conflict had been so pervasive that the Children had become somewhat numb to it.

[3] We do not intend to suggest the State could never demonstrate that a parent who is the victim of domestic violence has “abused” his or her children, as that term is statutorily defined. We agree with the general sentiments expressed in the concurring opinion that such a path is possible but is more difficult than demonstrating “neglect” and would require specific evidence and findings. See infra ¶¶ 22–27.

[4] In fact, a review of the underlying docket in Mother’s case reveals that Mother and the Children have done so well in their treatment and services that the juvenile court released the Children from DCFS’s protective supervision and terminated the court’s jurisdiction last fall.

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In re K.K. – 2023 UT App 13

In re K.K. – 2023 UT App 13

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.K., S.K., AND S.K.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

D.K.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220050-CA

Filed February 9, 2023

Second District Juvenile Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable Sharon S. Sipes

No. 1176751

Freyja Johnson, Emily Adams, and Hannah K.

Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellant

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

Roach, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

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

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

CONCLUSION

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

¶30 Affirmed.

______________

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

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

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Twitchell v. Twitchell – 2022 UT App 49 – child custody and support

Twitchell v. Twitchell – 2022 UT App 49

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

JAZMIN S. TWITCHELL,

Appellee,

V.

JOSEPH N. TWITCHELL,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200546-CA

Filed April 14, 2022

First District Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Brian G. Cannell

No. 184100383

Ryan L. Holdaway and Diane Pitcher, Attorneys

for Appellant

Robert L. Neeley, Attorney for Appellee

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

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1 Joseph N. Twitchell appeals from a divorce decree and appurtenant findings of fact and conclusions of law, arguing that the district court failed to consider relevant statutory factors when forming its custody determination, awarded him less parent-time than the statutory minimum, and erroneously calculated his child support obligation based on an inaccurate accounting of the income of his ex-wife, Jazmin S. Twitchell. We find Joseph’s arguments persuasive on each of these issues, and accordingly, we remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

¶2 Joseph and Jazmin[1] were married in 2016 and share one child (Child), who was born in May 2017. The parties “separated about a year after she was born.” Shortly thereafter, in June 2018, Jazmin filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences.”

¶3 The court issued temporary orders in December 2018, awarding the parties joint legal custody of Child and designating Jazmin as the primary physical custodian, “subject to [Joseph’s] right to parent-time.” As to the parent-time schedule, the court directed the parties to follow the minimum schedule set out in section 30-3-35 of the Utah Code, with Joseph generally “designated as the non-custodial parent,” meaning that he could exercise parent-time on alternating weekends. In addition, the temporary orders granted Joseph an additional overnight with Child “every Thursday night,” with Joseph keeping Child for the weekend when it was one of his parent-time weekends and returning Child to Jazmin’s care by noon on Friday when it was not.

¶4 As the case proceeded to trial, Jazmin filed her financial disclosures, dated November 7, 2019. In her disclosures, Jazmin reported her gross monthly income as $2,111. In this document, under an entry entitled “Employment Status,” Jazmin listed the name of a child care center where she worked at some point. Under an entry for “Name of Employer,” she listed a local private school. Jazmin also filed a supplemental disclosure, dated September 23, 2019, informing the court that she had been serving as a “houseparent” at the private school since September 1, 2019, for which she received no monetary compensation but was provided room and board. Jazmin included a letter from a representative of the school who estimated that the value of the housing and utilities provided to Jazmin was $980 per month.

¶5 A two-day trial was held in December 2019, at which multiple witnesses testified. During Joseph’s testimony, he described instances of physical and verbal altercations beginning a few months into the parties’ marriage. He averred that the first time things became physical between the two was in November 2016, when stress regarding the upcoming holiday season resulted in an argument and Jazmin eventually “going after [him] with a knife,” cutting his hand. Joseph also described a time in Spring 2017 when he and Jazmin were in another argument, and he “went to go give her a hug and apologize . . . and she bit [his] right arm.” He then described one more instance where Jazmin told Joseph “she hated [him], over and over and over again,” which prompted him to threaten leaving with Child. In response, Jazmin “slapped or hit [him] with something across the face.” Joseph also presented photographs of injuries he sustained from each of these incidents, which were admitted into evidence without objection.

¶6 Several witnesses also testified as to their observations of Child’s condition once she went from Jazmin’s to Joseph’s care. One witness testified that on multiple occasions when Joseph received Child from Jazmin, Child had “severe diaper rashes” with blistering, “yeast infections,” and “bite marks on her feet,” and that she was “really dehydrated” to the point of not “even having a bowel movement for a day or two after.” Another witness also confirmed that Child had severe diaper rashes when she came to Joseph, to the point that Joseph had to seek care from a pediatrician, and testified that Child often “had bite marks on both her hands . . . and her feet.” Joseph also produced evidence documenting incidents of what he characterizes as “assaults” from other children at a daycare while Child was in Jazmin’s care.

¶7 Jazmin testified about her employment history since the parties’ separation. During the marriage, Jazmin had been “a stay-at-home mom,” but she started a job “within two weeks of leaving” to help provide for Child. She testified to working at a child care center from approximately July 2018 until March 2019, when she left to accept an offer to work for higher pay at another daycare center. She worked at that second center full-time until October 2019. Jazmin began serving as a houseparent at the private school in September 2019, a role she was still working in at the time of trial.

¶8 In addition to her financial disclosure in which she reported the aforementioned $2,111 figure, Jazmin also offered her 2018 tax return into evidence. That return listed only the first child care center as her employer and an annual gross income of $7,044.75—which would translate to approximately $587 per month. Jazmin nevertheless confirmed at trial that her gross monthly income was $2,100. When asked if that amount included the $980 value of her housing and utilities, she stated, “No. That . . . doesn’t have anything to do with that.” When asked about her current employment, she testified that she had just started working as a substitute teacher earning $75 per day, which she “guesstimate[d]” she did two to three days per week. Based on that “guesstimate,” Jazmin testified that she earned approximately $813 per month from substitute teaching as opposed to the $2,100 in her financial declaration. Jazmin also confirmed that, at the time of trial, she had no sources of income other than her “service as a houseparent, [and her] income from substitute teaching.”

¶9 Later, on cross-examination, when asked about the $2,111 reported as her gross monthly income in her disclosure, Jazmin admitted that there was actually “no documentation being provided with that [disclosure] that would substantiate that number.” While Jazmin was being cross-examined, the court interjected and expressed its confusion as to whether the $980 value of her housing expenses had been included in her reported monthly income; although Jazmin never answered the court directly, her attorney asserted that it was included within that amount (contradicting Jazmin’s earlier testimony in which she had stated the opposite). Jazmin also stated that at the time of trial, she had actually worked as a substitute teacher on only one occasion up to that point.

¶10 Testimony was also given by a representative of the private school, whom Jazmin had contacted to secure documentation of the value of her housing and utilities. A final draft of a letter from the representative was attached to Jazmin’s supplemental disclosure. But at trial, Joseph offered evidence of an earlier draft of the letter in which the representative had originally stated that the value of what Jazmin received was estimated at $1,800 per month for rent and $1,000 per month for utilities, whereas the amount given in the final letter was $980 for both rent and utilities. The representative testified that she had sent the initial draft to Jazmin’s grandmother asking if it was “acceptable,” and either Jazmin or her grandmother had then asked additional questions about the square footage and what portion of the house Jazmin was actually living in, and whether that was reflected in the amount the representative gave. This prompted the representative to change the amount to $980 in the final letter, based on a “pro-rated amount” that seemed more consistent with the part of the house where Jazmin was living.

¶11 The court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law in April 2020.[2] While it awarded the parties joint legal custody of Child, it also found that it was in Child’s “best interest” that Jazmin be awarded primary physical custody. In support, the court cited the following findings: Jazmin had primary physical custody of Child since the parties separated, and the parties had been “following” the parent-time schedule imposed by the court in its temporary orders, consisting of “alternating weekends, with [Joseph] being awarded overnight every Thursday”; Child was “happy and well[-]adjusted and [was] progressing well developmentally”; Child was “closely bonded to [Jazmin] as she ha[d] been the primary custodial parent since birth, while [Joseph] was the primary bread winner in the family”; it was in Child’s “best interest . . . to maintain a close relationship with her half sister,” of whom Jazmin has primary physical custody; Jazmin had “exhibited good parenting skills” and was “of good moral character, and emotionally stable”; Jazmin had “exhibited a depth and desire for custody of [Child] since . . . birth”; Jazmin had “a flexible work and school schedule and she ha[d] the ability to provide personal care rather than surrogate care”; Jazmin had experience in early childhood education; and Jazmin “exhibited sound financial responsibility” whereas the court was “concerned about [Joseph’s] lack of financial responsibility” based on his debt accumulations. In the findings, the court also expressed its “concern[] about the alleged physical abuse between the parties during the marriage” and therefore found it “appropriate” for the exchanges of Child to occur at a police department safe zone located roughly halfway between the parties’ homes.

¶12 The court additionally noted its consideration of the factors outlined in section 30-3-10.2 of the Utah Code, finding in particular that Child’s “physical, psychological, emotional and development needs will benefit from the parties sharing joint legal custody.” But the court listed several reasons under these factors why joint physical custody would not be appropriate, finding that the “parties do not effectively communicate with each other”; they lived “approximately 60 miles” apart; Joseph “participated in raising [Child] but not to the extent that [Jazmin] did”; “[t]o date there ha[d] not been . . . opportunities for either parent to protect [Child] from any conflict that may arise between the parties, due to [Child’s] age”; and “the parties’ relationship ha[d] stabilized and once these divorce proceedings have concluded it is anticipated the parties will be able to cooperate with each other and make appropriate joint decisions regarding [Child].”

¶13 As to parent-time, the court concluded that Joseph’s parent-time “shall be, until [Child] starts Kindergarten, every Thursday overnight and every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday evening at 6 p.m.” And on weeks that ended with Jazmin’s designated weekend, Joseph “shall return [Child] to [Jazmin] by Friday at noon, after his Thursday overnight visit.” The court also concluded that “[t]he parties shall follow the holiday parent time pursuant to Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35” but that Joseph “shall be awarded six[ ]weeks of extended summer vacation instead of four[ ]weeks, consistent with Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35 and by stipulation of [Jazmin] at closing arguments.”

¶14 Regarding child support, the court found that Jazmin “earn[ed] $980 per month gross wage from her house parent job” and “approximately $780 per month” from substitute teaching. It therefore calculated her gross monthly income at $1,760 for child support purposes. The court then found that Joseph’s average gross income is $5,011 per month, and therefore his “child support obligation is $582 per month.”

¶15 The court entered a decree of divorce in June 2020, in which it largely echoed the parent-time findings, ordering that Joseph’s parent-time “shall be every Thursday overnight and every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday evening at 6 p.m. On [Jazmin’s] weekend with the parties’ child, [Joseph] shall return [Child] to [Jazmin] by Friday at noon following his Thursday overnight parent time.” And once Child “commences Kindergarten [Joseph’s] parent time shall change[] to every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday at 6 p.m., and a mid-week from after school until 7 p.m.” The decree did not mention a schedule for holidays or extended/vacation parent-time. The decree also reiterated what the court found to be the parties’ respective incomes, and accordingly it memorialized its decision ordering Joseph to pay $582 per month in child support.

¶16 Joseph promptly appealed the findings of fact and conclusions of law, as well as the divorce decree.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶17 On appeal, Joseph presents two main issues for our consideration. First, he attacks the district court’s custody determination on two bases, arguing that the court’s custody conclusion and the underlying factual findings are deficient because it failed to consider certain relevant factors and that the court erred in awarding him less than the minimum time provided by statute without explaining a reason to depart from the statutory minimum. “[W]e review the district court’s custody and parent-time determination for abuse of discretion.” T.W. v. S.A., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 15, 504 P.3d 163. “This discretion is broad; indeed, as long as the court exercises it within the confines of the legal standards we have set, and the facts and reasons for the decision are set forth fully in appropriate findings and conclusions, we will not disturb the resulting award.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶18 Second, Joseph challenges the district court’s child support determination, asserting that it made errors in calculating Jazmin’s income, resulting in an inaccurate child support obligation.[3] “In reviewing child support proceedings, we accord substantial deference to the [district] court’s findings and give it considerable latitude in fashioning the appropriate relief. We will not disturb that court’s actions unless the evidence clearly preponderates to the contrary or there has been an abuse of discretion.” Hibbens v. Hibbens, 2015 UT App 278, ¶ 17, 363 P.3d 524 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

I. Custody and Parent-Time

A. Consideration of the Relevant Factors

¶19 Joseph first asserts that the district court erred by failing to adequately consider certain statutory factors in formulating its custody determination. Specifically, he asserts that two factors did not receive the attention he feels they deserved by the district court, namely, any “evidence of domestic violence, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, involving the child, the parent, or a household member of the parent” and “the past conduct and demonstrated moral character of the parent.” See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(a), (d) (LexisNexis 2019). We agree with Joseph that it is not clear from the district court’s findings that it considered evidence regarding abusive behavior by Jazmin, neglect and injuries to Child, or Jazmin’s moral character. Accordingly, we remand for the court to fully evaluate that evidence through supplemented or additional findings.

¶20 “In all custody determinations, the district court’s primary focus must be on the best interests of the child.” Pingree v. Pingree, 2015 UT App 302, ¶ 7, 365 P.3d 713 (quotation simplified). Furthermore, when “determining any form of custody and parent-time” arrangement, the district court “shall consider the best interest of the child and may consider [any] factors the court finds relevant” to that end, including certain factors that are specifically articulated in the Utah Code. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2). Importantly, not all these factors are “on equal footing”; instead, the district court generally has “discretion to determine, based on the facts before it and within the confines set by the appellate courts, where a particular factor falls within the spectrum of relative importance and to accord each factor its appropriate weight.” T.W. v. S.A., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 16, 504 P.3d 163 (quotation simplified).

¶21 Determining which factors the court must address in a given case, and to what degree, presents a tricky task. Inevitably, some factors will loom larger in a given case than other factors, and “[t]here is no definitive checklist of factors to be used for determining custody.” Sukin v. Sukin, 842 P.2d 922, 924 (Utah Ct. App. 1992). Consequently, “courts are not required to render a global accounting of all evidence presented or to discuss all aspects of a case that might support a contrary ruling.” Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 6, 406 P.3d 258. On the other hand, a “court’s factual findings are adequate only if they are sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 19, 427 P.3d 1221 (quotation simplified). And where significant evidence concerning a particular factor is presented to the district court, findings that omit all discussion of that evidence must be deemed inadequate. See Barnes v. Barnes, 857 P.2d 257, 261 (Utah Ct. App. 1993) (“The record is replete with highly disputed evidence relevant to the custody issue which is not dealt with at all in the findings. The findings do not show whether the court considered the moral conduct or emotional stability of the parties and what evidence the court found determinative in deciding the best interests of the children.”); Sukin, 842 P.2d at 925 (“Whenever custody is contested and evidence presents several possible interpretations, a bare conclusory recitation of factors and statutory terms will not suffice. We must have the necessary supporting factual findings linking those factors to the children’s best interests and each parent’s abilities to meet the children’s needs.” (quotation simplified)).

¶22 Joseph asserts that the district court failed to consider evidence presented at trial of domestic violence Jazmin had perpetrated against him as well as neglectful behavior Jazmin had purportedly inflicted on Child. Specifically, Joseph points to his own testimony at trial that Jazmin had slapped him in the face hard enough to leave red marks, had attempted to stab him with a pocket knife, and had bitten him. Joseph also presented photographic exhibits purporting to show his injuries from these incidents. Joseph also points to testimony at trial and an exhibit he introduced into evidence tending to show injuries that Child sustained while she was in Jazmin’s care. One witness testified that when Joseph received Child from Jazmin, Child often had “severe diaper rashes” with blistering, “yeast infections,” and “bite marks on her feet,” and that she was “really dehydrated” to the point of not “even having a bowel movement for a day or two after.” Another witness also confirmed that Child had severe diaper rashes when she came to Joseph, such that Joseph had to seek care from a pediatrician, and testified that Child often “had bite marks on both her hands . . . and her feet.” Finally, Joseph asserts that the court did “not analyze or even mention . . . multiple incidents” in which Jazmin supposedly “engaged in deceitful tactics” during the litigation. Specifically, Joseph asserts that Jazmin instructed a witness on what to testify regarding Jazmin’s income from her houseparent job, that Jazmin and another witness mischaracterized the events that precipitated an incident when the police were called around the time of the parties’ separation, that Jazmin claimed that the parties were married on a date different from that indicated on their marriage certificate, and that Jazmin supposedly attempted to manipulate the testimony of her ex-husband in the case.

¶23 With respect to “evidence of domestic violence, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, involving the child, the parent, or a household member of the parent” and “the past conduct and demonstrated moral character of the parent,” see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(a), (d), the court made only the following finding: “[Jazmin] has exhibited good parenting skills, is of good moral character, and emotionally stable.” It then proceeded to emphasize the facts it believed supported Jazmin’s bid for custody: that Jazmin had been Child’s primary caretaker; that Child had a bond with Jazmin’s other child, her half-sister; that Jazmin had made sure Joseph received his parent-time in accordance with the temporary orders; that Jazmin had “a depth and desire for custody”; that Jazmin had a flexible schedule that would allow her to provide personal care for Child; that Jazmin had taken Child to her medical appointments; and that Jazmin was financially responsible, “industrious,” and “goal oriented.” The court made no findings regarding Joseph’s parenting abilities, past conduct, bond with Child, etc., except to express concern that he was in debt.[4] Finally, the court stated that it was “concerned about the alleged physical abuse between the parties” and concluded it was therefore appropriate for them to exchange Child at a police department safe zone.

¶24 “To ensure that the trial court’s custody determination, discretionary as it is, is rationally based, it is essential that the court set forth in its findings of fact not only that it finds one parent to be the better person to care for the child, but also the basic facts which show why that ultimate conclusion is justified.” Sukin, 842 P.2d at 924 (quotation simplified). The court’s finding that Jazmin “has exhibited good parenting skills, is of good moral character, and emotionally stable” is inadequate for us to determine whether the court exceeded its discretion in assessing the abuse/neglect and moral character factors or how those factors impacted Child’s best interests. Likewise, the court’s expression of “concern[] about the alleged physical abuse between the parties during the marriage” tells us nothing about how or even if the court weighed the abuse allegations in its custody evaluation. Indeed, it is not clear to us that the court considered this factor at all in assessing which parent should be awarded custody, as it mentioned the factor only in the context of concluding that it would be “appropriate” for the exchanges of Child to occur at a police department safe zone. Without at least some discussion of the evidence the court relied on in assessing the factors and how the court related the factors to Child’s best interests, the court’s findings regarding the custody factors are inadequate. See, e.g.K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶¶ 30–42, 414 P.3d 933 (determining that the court’s factual findings were inadequate where it made factual conclusions but did not discuss the evidence underlying those conclusions and rejected the guardian ad litem’s recommendation without explanation); Bartlett v. Bartlett, 2015 UT App 2, ¶ 6, 342 P.3d 296 (rejecting the court’s conclusory finding that the mother was “better able and equipped to support and sustain a positive relationship between the children and their father” where the “court identified no subsidiary facts supporting this finding” and had, in fact, “admonished Mother for denying Father court-ordered access to the children” (quotation simplified)); Barnes, 857 P.2d at 261 (rejecting as inadequate the court’s finding that “[t]he Plaintiff’s level of commitment to her children during the course of this separation has exceeded that of the Defendant and that’s been established by their actions during the course of their separation” because “[t]he findings do not show whether the court considered the moral conduct or emotional stability of the parties and what evidence the court found determinative in deciding the best interests of the children”); Roberts v. Roberts, 835 P.2d 193, 196–97 (Utah Ct. App. 1992) (deeming inadequate findings that “Husband has physically abused Wife during the marriage” and that “both parties have participated in acts that bear on their moral character,” accompanied by a recitation of examples of each party’s bad behavior because the recitation did not give any “guidance regarding how those acts bear on the parties’ parenting abilities or affect the children’s best interests” (quotation simplified)); Cummings v. Cummings, 821 P.2d 472, 478–79 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (reversing the district court’s custody determination based on its failure to make findings regarding evidence relating to important custody factors); Paryzek v. Paryzek, 776 P.2d 78, 83 (Utah Ct. App. 1989) (holding that it was an abuse of discretion for the court’s findings to “omit any reference” to a custody evaluation and evidence relating to the bond between father and son, the father’s status as primary caretaker pending trial, the fact that the child thrived while in the father’s care, and the son’s preference for living with his father).

¶25 Thus, we conclude that the district court exceeded its discretion by failing to include in its findings any discussion of the evidence relating to the abuse allegations against Jazmin, her alleged neglect of Child, and her moral character, as well as the effect that evidence had on its best-interest analysis. Accordingly, we vacate the district court’s custody and parent-time order and remand for the court to revisit that evidence and enter additional or supplemented findings, as necessary.

B. Deviation from Statutory Minimum Parent-Time Schedule

¶26 Joseph next argues that the district court committed reversible error by awarding him less than the minimum parent-time he is guaranteed by statute. Because we agree that the court’s custody award indeed creates a situation in which Joseph is guaranteed less than the statutory minimum, without explaining its reasoning in adequate factual findings, we conclude that this is an additional reason to vacate the court’s parent-time order.

¶27 In the event that the parents of a minor child litigating that child’s custody are unable to agree to a parent-time schedule, our legislature has codified a “minimum parent-time [schedule] to which the noncustodial parent and the child shall be entitled.” See Utah Code Ann. §§ 30-3-35(2), 30-3-35.5(3) (LexisNexis 2019 & Supp. 2021). In fashioning its parent-time order, the court may either “incorporate[] a parent-time schedule provided in Section 30-3-35 or 30-3-35.5; or . . . provide[] more or less parent-time” than outlined in those sections, but in either case “[t]he court shall enter the reasons underlying the court’s order for parent-time.” Id. § 30-3-34(4) (Supp. 2021). The court’s reasoning must be outlined in adequate factual findings, which must “contain sufficient detail to permit appellate review to ensure that the district court’s discretionary determination was rationally based.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 19, 427 P.3d 1221 (quotation simplified). Thus, the statutory minimum “provides [the court with] a presumptive minimum, but the district court still retains discretion to award more [or less] time” to the noncustodial parent, so long as it identifies “the reasons underlying its order” in sufficiently detailed factual findings. See T.W. v. S.A., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 30, 504 P.3d 163 (quotation simplified).

¶28 There is a separate section dealing with the minimum schedule for children who are under five years of age, see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35.5 (2019), and those who are between five and eighteen years of age, see id. § 30-3-35 (Supp. 2021). As Child was born in May 2017, she is still currently younger than five, so section 30-3-35.5 applies. Under that section, Joseph is entitled to “one weekday evening between 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.,” “alternative weekends . . . from 6 p.m. on Friday until 7 p.m. on Sunday,” certain holidays, and “two two-week periods, separated by at least four weeks, at the option of the noncustodial parent.” See id. § 30-3-35.5(3)(f) (2019).

¶29      Under the court’s findings and the divorce decree, Joseph receives parent-time “every Thursday overnight and every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday evening at 6 p.m.,” and when it is Jazmin’s weekend, he returns Child to Jazmin “by Friday at noon following his Thursday overnight parent time.” Although Joseph correctly points out that the parent-time order requires him to return Child one hour earlier on Sundays than provided for in the statutory minimum schedule, Joseph ultimately receives more than the minimum parent-time required by statute while Child is under five, because he receives an additional weekday overnight, whereas the statute requires only a weekday evening visit. See id. Thus, for the time being, Joseph receives more than the statutory minimum.

¶30 But the situation changes when Child starts school. The district court ordered that once Child “commences Kindergarten,” Joseph’s parent-time “shall change[] to every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday at 6 p.m., and a mid-week from after school until 7 p.m.” This schedule deviates from the statutory minimum, under which Joseph is entitled to “[a]lternating weekends . . . from 6 p.m. on Friday until Sunday at 7 p.m.,” and one weekday evening from either “5:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m.” or, “at the election of the noncustodial parent, one weekday from the time the child’s school is regularly dismissed until 8:30 p.m.” Id. § 30-3-35(2)(a)(i), (2)(b)(i)(A) (Supp. 2021) (emphases added). Thus, under the court’s parent-time order, once Child begins kindergarten Joseph is required to return her to Jazmin one hour early on his weekends and one-and-a-half hours early during his weekday evenings.

¶31 As Joseph convincingly points out, while these discrepancies “may seem minor” to a casual observer, for “the non-custodial parent on a minimum visitation schedule, hours matter.” And, more importantly, the court did not explain—or even acknowledge—that it was departing from the statutory minimum. While section 30-3-35 is referenced in the findings of fact with respect to Joseph’s parent-time for holidays and summer vacation, the court made no other mention of the statutory minimum schedule.[5] As noted, when making its custody decision the court must give the “reasons underlying” its decision. See id. § 30-3-34(4); T.W., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 30. The court did depart from the statutory minimum in this case, and it gave no reason for doing so in its findings.

¶32 As a result, we are prevented from conducting meaningful “appellate review to ensure that the district court’s discretionary determination was rationally based.” See Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 19 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, the findings in support of the district court’s parent-time order are insufficient, leaving us with no choice but to remand the matter for the court to adopt the statutory minimum schedule or otherwise explain its reasoning for departing from the minimum through adequate factual findings. See id.

II. Child Support

¶33 Joseph next challenges the district court’s child support determination, arguing that its determination of Jazmin’s income was entirely unsupported by the evidence and insufficiently explained. Because we agree that the court did not sufficiently explain how it reached the number it did in calculating Jazmin’s monthly income, we remand for entry of additional findings.

¶34 “A noncustodial parent’s child support obligation is calculated using each parent’s adjusted gross income.” Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 11, 334 P.3d 994. Each parent’s “gross income” for purposes of child support “includes prospective income from any source, including earned and nonearned income sources which may include salaries, wages, . . . [and] rents.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(1) (LexisNexis 2018). “Income from earned income sources is limited to the equivalent of one full-time 40-hour job.” Id. § 78B-12-203(2). “[C]hild support is appropriately calculated based on earnings at the time of trial,” but district courts also “have broad discretion to select an appropriate method” of calculating each parent’s income. Griffith v. Griffith, 959 P.2d 1015, 1019 (Utah Ct. App. 1998).

¶35      In this case, there were a number of potential bases for the court to assess Jazmin’s income. First, it could have accepted the declared full-time income in her financial declaration of $2,100, which she initially reaffirmed at trial. Second, it could have used her part-time substitute teaching income of approximately $813 per month combined with her in-kind income of $980 per month to reach a monthly income of $1,793. Third, it could have imputed her full-time income based on her substitute teaching salary of $75 per day for a total of $1,625 per month. There may, perhaps, have been other methods the court could have employed as well, had it adequately explained its reasoning.

¶36 Generally, “so long as the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached are apparent, a trial court may make findings, credibility determinations, or other assessments without detailing its justification for finding particular evidence more credible or persuasive than other evidence supporting a different outcome.” Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 6, 406 P.3d 258 (quotation simplified). And had the court taken one of the approaches outlined above, or another approach for which its reasoning was apparent, we would be inclined to affirm the court’s decision.[6] However, here the district court’s finding that Jazmin earned “approximately $780 per month” from substitute teaching does not align with any evidence submitted at trial, nor, so far as we can tell, can it be extrapolated from that evidence.[7] As Joseph observes, this number “do[es] not appear to come from the documentary or testimonial evidence at all.” Jazmin testified that she earned $75 per day working as a substitute teacher but that she worked only two to three days a week. Using these numbers, she reached a “guesstimate” of her monthly income of $813 per month ($75 per day x 2.5 days per week x 52 weeks per year / 12 months). While Jazmin was admittedly unsure about the amount she would be able to earn, the $780 figure adopted by the court appears to not be supported by the evidence presented at trial. While we are reluctant to reverse a district court’s child support order on this basis considering the small discrepancy between the $813 and $780 figures, the fact remains that we are unable to identify the “steps by which the ultimate conclusion on [this] factual issue was reached.” See id. (quotation simplified).

¶37 In such situations, “without the benefit of the reasoning and additional findings by the [district] court,” we must remand the child support decision to the district court to detail its full reasoning, through adequate findings, for why it chose the income amount for Jazmin that it did. See Bell v. Bell, 2013 UT App 248, ¶ 19, 312 P.3d 951.

CONCLUSION

¶38 This appeal compels us to remand the case because the district court’s findings and conclusions were infirm in several respects. First, the court failed to address disputed evidence that was highly relevant to the court’s custody determination. Second, the court’s order awards Joseph less than the statutory minimum parent-time once Child starts kindergarten, without explaining why or recognizing that it did so. And third, the court’s findings regarding Jazmin’s income contain insufficient detail for us to adequately review its reasoning.


[1] Because the parties share the same surname, we follow our oft-used practice of referring to them by their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] Other than mentioning that “both parent[s] can step up and be good parents and both parents in large part have been good parents,” the court did not announce a ruling from the bench at the conclusion of the trial. Instead, it asked both parties to prepare proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law and heard closing arguments at a subsequent hearing. Ultimately, with only a few minor alterations, the court adopted Jazmin’s findings of fact and conclusions of law in their entirety.

While we would not go so far as to say that it is inappropriate for the court to fully adopt one party’s proposed findings, before signing off the court should confirm that those findings conform to the evidence presented at trial and that the findings sufficiently explain the court’s reasoning for the decision. In this case, it appears that the court adopted Jazmin’s version of the evidence without confirmation of that evidence and without disclosing the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.

[3] As part of his broader challenge to the district court’s child support determination, Joseph purports to include another argument: that the court erred in dividing the parties’ debts. However, Jazmin points out that while Joseph included this argument in his articulation of the issues on appeal, he “did not [substantively] address the debt issue in his brief.” Indeed, we find a dearth of any argument regarding the debt distribution in Joseph’s brief; accordingly, Joseph has failed to properly raise such an argument for our consideration.

[4] We are troubled by the manner in which the district court’s findings focused exclusively on Jazmin rather than comparing hers and Joseph’s relative character, skills, and abilities. See Woodward v. LaFranca, 2013 UT App 147, ¶¶ 22, 26–28, 305 P.3d 181 (explaining that a court’s findings must “compare the parenting skills, character, and abilities of both parents” and reversing a finding that the emotional stability factor weighed in favor of mother because it was based solely on the determination that mother was emotionally stable without any findings regarding father’s emotional stability; “the question for the court was not whether Mother was emotionally stable, but whether Mother was more emotionally stable than Father” (quotation simplified)), abrogated on other grounds by Zavala v. Zavala, 2016 UT App 6, 366 P.3d 422. We urge the court on remand to make the appropriate comparisons in revising its findings.

[5] Furthermore, section 30-3-35.5 is not referenced at all, which would have been the operative section from the time the decree was entered until Child turns five.

[6] While a finding that aligned with the various numbers presented at trial would have met the bare minimum threshold for sufficiency, we note that this case would substantially benefit from further analysis. First, the court did not address the inconsistencies in Jazmin’s trial testimony regarding her income. Jazmin first agreed that the $2,111 monthly income in her financial declaration was accurate but then went on to testify that she made only $75 per day substitute teaching and worked only two to three days per week. But the court did not address or explain the reasoning behind its resolution of this inconsistency. Second, Joseph presented evidence that Jazmin’s housing and utilities had been undervalued. The court’s decision included no discussion of the conflicting evidence regarding the value of Jazmin’s in-kind earnings or its assessment of that conflicting evidence. On remand, the court’s findings could benefit from a more thorough discussion of the evidence and explanation for its resolution of these conflicts.

[7] In Jazmin’s post-trial brief, she stated, without any supporting evidence, that she earned $72 per day, for a total of $780 per month. This appears to be the source of the court’s number. As assertions in the post-trial brief are not evidence, the court could not rely on this number to calculate child support.

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