Tag: evidence

How to Avoid Being Called a Liar in a Utah Case By Braxton Mounteer

Who would you believe more in a court case: a person who admits to his/her faults, who honestly discloses all of his/her relevant information (even the information that hurts his/her case), and answered questions with “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” or a person who lied (even if just a couple times)?

One of the worst things to happen in a divorce case is for your credibility to come into question. If the court finds you lied about just one matter, it can cite that one lie as reason not to believe you on virtually all matters.

Simply put, to avoid damaging your credibility, always be truthful. This should be obvious, but I am amazed at how often clients of the firm I work for try to get away with lying (and how often they try to get away with lying about stuff that doesn’t really matter anyway, but I digress). The truth is learned and established by facts that are proven to be facts by the evidence in support of those facts. Your judge will not care much, if at all, about how you feel he or she should rule, the judge is (or should be) guided by the truth, by the facts, and then apply the law according to what the facts are.

To ensure your credibility is not questioned, admit when you are wrong. If you try to bend the truth about your sins and mistake or conceal the truth about them, you are a liar. Try to justify it any way you like, lying is lying. Whether by commission (expressly lying) or omission (withholding the whole truth, selectively disclosing the facts, shading the truth, spin, you get the idea), it’s all lying. While there are some situations in which you are not obligated to tell the truth about crime or possible crime you have committed (see the Fifth Amendment), questions of and risk of being convicted of crimes doesn’t arise very often in divorce cases. Honesty is the best policy.

I am amazed at how often client fail to understand that they lose credibility when they provide us with inaccurate information. While you may not be able to remember everything regarding your finances or your personal and family history, that doesn’t give you a license to fudge your answers or give incomplete answers. The “I didn’t understand” and “I don’t recall” excuses don’t inspire confidence in your credibility. They have just the opposite effect; they make you look lazy, scheming, and dishonest. Honest people are not forgetful people. Honest people aren’t afraid to produce their bank statements (all of them). Honest people aren’t afraid to disclose that side job. If you claim to have few or no records of things that normal people usually have records for, the default conclusion is that you have something to hide. While there are limits on what the opposing party can ask of you, when what they request complies with the rules, then answer questions completely and with complete honesty, produce all of the documents that are discoverable. Even if what you answer and what you produce may expose some of your flaws, it will also reveal you as honest and believable.

Once it’s damaged, credibility is hard to repair. Better never to do anything to call your credibility into doubt. Be honest. It’s the right thing to do, and if doing the right thing isn’t enough motivation for you, honesty tends to be the better “strategy” than lying and deception.

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No. 20200890-CA

Filed May 18, 2023

Second District Court, Ogden Department

The Honorable Joseph M. Bean

No. 191902454

Emily Adams, Freyja Johnson, and Cherise Bacalski,

Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes and William M. Hains,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which


FORSTER concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1        After Cody Murray pleaded guilty to violating a protective order, the district court ordered him to pay the victim’s moving expenses and 12 weeks of lost wages as restitution. Murray now appeals that restitution order, arguing that his criminal conduct did not proximately cause either of those losses. On the moving expenses, we agree with Murray and reverse that portion of the order. On the lost wages, however, we conclude that there was sufficient evidence to link Murray’s criminal conduct to the claimed loss. We accordingly affirm that portion of the order.


¶2        Murray married C.M. in March 2018, and they lived together throughout their short marriage. On January 2 or 3, 2019, C.M. filed a report with law enforcement alleging that Murray had engaged in sexual intercourse with her without her consent while she was medicated and sleeping. On the same day that she filed this report, C.M. obtained a temporary protective order against Murray based on this same allegation.

¶3        On January 3, 2019, law enforcement served Murray with the protective order at the residence he shared with C.M., and Murray complied with the order by packing his belongings and leaving the residence. Within an hour of leaving, however, Murray asked a friend to contact C.M. on his behalf. As subsequently alleged in a probable cause affidavit, C.M. soon received “phone calls and text messages” from the friend’s phone in which the friend relayed messages that Murray “loved her” and “missed her.” As also alleged, while the friend was on the phone speaking to C.M., Murray “passed a paper note” to the friend asking him “to let C.M. know that [Murray] was scared.” C.M. reported these communications to law enforcement as a violation of the protective order.

¶4        The State later filed two cases against Murray. The two cases were filed separately and were not consolidated. In the first case, the State charged Murray with one count of rape. That charge was based on C.M.’s allegation that Murray had sexual intercourse with her without her consent while she was sleeping. That case was later dismissed.

¶5        In the second case, which is the case at issue in this appeal, the State charged Murray with one count of violating a protective order. See Utah Code § 76-5-108 (2018). This charge was based on Murray’s indirect communications with C.M. on January 3, 2019. In March 2020, Murray pleaded guilty to the charged offense. As a result of a plea deal, the charge was reduced from a class A misdemeanor to a class B misdemeanor. In his affidavit in support of the plea, Murray admitted that “[o]n or about January 3, 2019,” he “knowingly and intentionally communicate[d] with C.M. through a mutual friend . . . through phone calls and text messages.” Murray also agreed that he “may be ordered to make restitution to any victims of [his] crimes.”

¶6        Murray agreed to be sentenced at that same hearing. During the sentencing portion of the hearing, C.M.’s attorney asked the court to leave open C.M.’s restitution claim for the “one year statutory time limit,” informing the court that she would “submit any restitution” after receiving further documentation. The court left C.M.’s restitution claim open as requested.

¶7        In July 2020, the Utah Office of Victims of Crime (UOVC) filed a motion for restitution, asserting that it had paid C.M. a total of $6,264.47.[1] Of that amount, $5,520.28 was designated as reimbursement for “[l]oss of wages” and $744.19 was designated as reimbursement for “[r]elocation.”

¶8        Murray objected to UOVC’s motion for restitution and requested a hearing. At that hearing, UOVC’s attorney called two witnesses: (1) a representative from UOVC (Representative) and (2) C.M.

¶9        Representative testified that UOVC received C.M.’s application for restitution in November 2019. Representative testified that C.M. listed both the protective order violation and the alleged rape as the bases for her restitution claim. Representative further noted that in reviewing C.M.’s restitution claim, “the reparations officer indicated that the claim was approved based on both incidents”—the alleged rape and the protective order violation—because “they were so close together” that “the reparations officer couldn’t separate them into two separate claims.”

¶10      Representative testified that UOVC ultimately approved and paid C.M.’s expenses for “loss of wages” in the amount of $5,520.28, as well as “relocation” or moving expenses in the amount of $744.19, thus totaling $6,264.47. With respect to the lost wages claim, Representative testified that UOVC received a document from C.M.’s employer that explained “how much [C.M.] made at the time and how long she was out of work.” Representative said that UOVC also received a “health provider statement” that corroborated that C.M. missed work. Representative further said that from these documents and other verification efforts with C.M.’s employer, UOVC determined that C.M. missed “over 68 days” of work, and that it had then paid “12 weeks of lost wages” for the work C.M. missed from “January 3rd of 2019 through March 15th of 2020” at “[s]ixty-six percent of the full-time salary,” which in C.M.’s case amounted to $5,520.28.

¶11      With respect to the moving expenses, Representative testified that UOVC paid C.M. $744.19 to cover “reimbursement for movers.” Representative said that C.M. told UOVC that she had moved because “she didn’t feel comfortable in having [Murray] know where she lived.”

¶12      UOVC’s attorney then called C.M., who testified that she obtained the protective order against Murray because of the “actions he was making to [her] in [her] sleep.” C.M. also provided and referred to a note from a doctor indicating that C.M. had been seen because “[f]or the duration of her marriage her husband was sexually assaulting her in her sleep,” “[s]he was experiencing UTIs on many occasions from the sexual abuse,” and she had “[m]ajor depressive disorder” and “post-traumatic stress disorder.”

¶13      During C.M.’s testimony, UOVC’s attorney asked, “[A]s a result of the violation of the protective order, can you tell us what effect the violation of the protective order, the conduct that the defendant caused—what happened to you as a result?” C.M. responded that she suffered “severe panic attacks” and flashbacks, “live[d] in fear nearly every day,” felt a “[l]oss of trust of people in general,” and had “a hard time concentrating or focusing.” She said she had “severe depression” and was simply not “able to function like [she had] always been able to.”

¶14      UOVC’s attorney then asked if Murray’s conduct “in December or January of 2018, ’19 . . . interfere[d] with [her] ability to interact with people,” to which C.M. responded, “Definitely.” C.M. testified that because these issues “interfere[d] with [her] ability to work,” there were times where she had to take leave from work. She testified that the “very first time” she “took leave was for a doctor’s appointment . . . back in December of 2018” and that she was out of work periodically after that, thus agreeing with the suggestion from the attorney that she missed work “every few days, a couple hours here, a few hours there, a full day here, a few days there” until March 2020, when she was “out of work altogether and couldn’t work at all.” UOVC’s attorney asked if C.M.’s requests to take leave from work starting in “December of 2018” were “related to [Murray’s] conduct . . . that was occurring at that time,” and C.M. responded, “It was.”

¶15      With respect to the moving expenses, C.M. testified that she moved from the home she’d shared with Murray because the divorce decree ordered her to sell it. C.M. said that she moved in May 2020—17 months after Murray violated the protective order—and that her restitution request was based on the movers she had hired to assist with that move.

¶16      Murray didn’t call any witnesses at the restitution hearing. Instead, after UOVC’s attorney rested, each side presented closing arguments. UOVC’s attorney asked the court to order restitution for lost wages because C.M. had to take leave from work “[a]s a result of [Murray’s] conduct . . . because she wasn’t able to fully perform the job.” UOVC’s attorney asked for restitution for moving expenses because “it was [Murray’s] conduct which caused” C.M. to move and she “had reason to hide her whereabouts from” Murray out of fear.

¶17     Murray, however, argued that under the restitution statute, “restitution has to be tied directly” to the offense for which he’d been convicted—which, here, was a class B misdemeanor violation of a protective order. In Murray’s view, restitution for the lost wages was not appropriate because C.M. “missing all of [that] work . . . [could not] be tied” to his violation of the protective order (as opposed to the underlying rape allegation that the protective order was based on). Murray also argued that the moving expenses could not be tied to this conviction because C.M.’s decision to move was based on an order from the divorce decree requiring C.M. and Murray to sell the house.

¶18      At the close of arguments, the court ordered restitution in the amount of $6,264.47 to cover lost wages and moving expenses. In its oral ruling, the court noted that Murray was “alleged to have committed sexual offenses against [C.M.] in her sleep” in the latter part of 2018. The court said that it would “take the testimony of the witness at face value with regard to what she felt was a violation that caused the fear,” and the court then found that Murray’s “past history” of “sexual[ly] assaulting” C.M. “in her sleep” caused her “fear” and “anxiety.” With respect to C.M.’s missed work, the court found that “whatever happened, certainly enhanced or contributed to [C.M.’s] anxiety, depression, [and] fear,” and that “after the circumstances giving rise to whatever happened in December, there was a definite downturn with regard to [C.M.’s] ability . . . to work.” And with respect to the moving expenses, the court found that the “moving expenses [were] also reasonable and arising out of the crime that occurred.”

¶19      Murray objected to the court’s ruling. Murray argued that the court could “only tie restitution to what [Murray] was convicted of or pled guilty to, which would be the violation of the protective order,” and he further argued that the court should not “consider any of the alleged sexual misconduct” in its determination of restitution. In response, the court referred to the document submitted by C.M. in her restitution application, noting that “for the duration of the marriage, [Murray] was sexually assaulting [C.M.] in her sleep” and that she “was experiencing UTIs on many occasions from the sexual abuse.” The court observed that C.M. suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress as a result. Of note, the court then wondered whether these conditions were “exacerbated . . . or caused by a violation of a protective order,” “especially the loss of work after his commission of the violation of the protective order.” (Emphasis added.)

¶20      In a subsequent written restitution order, the court ordered Murray to pay UOVC a total of $6,264.47 for lost wages and moving expenses. In its Findings of Fact, the court found that C.M. “suffered emotional trauma as a result of [Murray’s] conduct in this case” and that her “fear, anxiety, and depression . . . rendered [her] unable to perform her duties and required her to miss work.” The court found that the trauma C.M. suffered “also caused her to relocate because she feared [Murray] and didn’t want him to know where she lived.” Murray filed a timely notice of appeal from that judgment.[2]


¶21      Murray argues that the district court improperly ordered restitution for C.M.’s lost wages and moving expenses. “We will not disturb a district court’s restitution determination unless the court exceeds the authority prescribed by law or abuses its discretion.” State v. Calata, 2022 UT App 127, ¶ 12, 521 P.3d 920 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1268 (Utah 2023). “To the extent that the district court made legal determinations in connection with its restitution analysis, we review those legal determinations for correctness.” State v. Oliver, 2018 UT App 101, ¶ 15, 427 P.3d 495 (quotation simplified). But when “a defendant argues that the evidence was insufficient to support a restitution order, the defendant must demonstrate that the clear weight of the evidence contradicts the court’s ruling.” State v. Chadwick, 2021 UT App 40, ¶ 6, 486 P.3d 90 (quotation simplified).


¶22      The Crime Victims Restitution Act (the CVRA) requires the district court “to determine restitution for any pecuniary damages proximately caused by the defendant’s criminal conduct.” State v. Blake, 2022 UT App 104, ¶ 9, 517 P.3d 414. Here, Murray challenges the court’s decision ordering him to pay C.M.’s moving expenses and her lost wages. In Murray’s view, his criminal conduct did not proximately cause either loss.

¶23      We first quickly dispense with the moving expenses issue. Murray argues that “[n]o evidence tied C.M.’s move from the marital home” to his criminal conduct, but that “the evidence on the record was that C.M. had to move because of the divorce decree.” Based on this, Murray argues that there was no basis for requiring him to pay these expenses as part of restitution. In its responsive brief, the State concedes this point. Having reviewed the record, we conclude that Murray’s argument and the State’s concession are well taken. We accordingly reverse that portion of the restitution order.

¶24      The remaining and principal issue on appeal, then, is whether the court also erred in ordering Murray to pay C.M.’s lost wages. On this, Murray argues that the court erred in two key respects: (I) by taking into account the alleged rape and (II) by then determining that Murray’s criminal conduct proximately caused C.M. to miss work. We address each argument in turn.

I. Alleged Rape

¶25      Murray argues that the district court improperly based the restitution order for lost wages on C.M.’s rape allegation, rather than limiting itself to considering the sole offense to which he had pleaded guilty: violating a protective order. We see no legal error in the court’s decision.

¶26      As a general rule, we “apply the law in effect at the time of the occurrence regulated by that law.” State v. Wilkerson, 2020 UT App 160, ¶ 24, 478 P.3d 1048 (quotation simplified). The version of the restitution statute in effect at the time of Murray’s sentencing provided that

[w]hen a defendant enters into a plea disposition or is convicted of criminal activity that has resulted in pecuniary damages, . . . the court shall order that the defendant make restitution to victims of crime as provided in this chapter, or for conduct for which the defendant has agreed to make restitution as part of a plea disposition.

Utah Code § 77-38a-302(1) (2019); see also id. § 77-38a-302(5)(a) (2019) (“For the purpose of determining restitution for an offense, the offense shall include any criminal conduct admitted by the defendant to the sentencing court or for which the defendant agrees to pay restitution.”).[3] Under these statutes, Murray therefore could not “be ordered to pay restitution for criminal activities for which he did not admit responsibility, was not convicted, or did not agree to pay restitution.” State v. Randall, 2019 UT App 120, ¶ 13, 447 P.3d 1232 (quotation simplified)

¶27      It’s true that Murray was not convicted of raping C.M. As noted, the separate criminal case that was based on the rape allegation was dismissed. It’s also true that Murray did not admit to raping C.M. in this case either. But contrary to Murray’s arguments, this doesn’t mean that his alleged sexual misconduct against C.M. could play no role in the court’s restitution analysis.

¶28      Again, Murray pleaded guilty to violating a protective order, and the elements of that offense were that Murray was “subject to a protective order” and “intentionally or knowingly violate[d] that order after having been properly served or having been present . . . when the order was issued.” Utah Code § 76-5­108(1) (2018). In his plea agreement, Murray acknowledged these elements and agreed that he had “committed the crime.” In the factual basis portion of the plea agreement, Murray further agreed that he had “knowingly and intentionally communicate[d] with C.M. through a mutual friend . . . through phone calls and text messages.” Pulling this together, the criminal activity for which Murray was convicted (by way of plea) included these key pieces:

·        Murray was subject to a protective order;

·         Murray intentionally or knowingly violated the protective order; and

·         Murray did so by knowingly and intentionally communicating with C.M. through a mutual friend through phone calls and text messages.

¶29      Once Murray was convicted of this offense, the district court could then order restitution for any damages that were “proximately caused” by that offense. State v. Ogden, 2018 UT 8, ¶¶ 31–48, 416 P.3d 1132.[4] Our supreme court has explained that restitution is intended “to compensate the victim for pecuniary damages,” as well as “to rehabilitate and deter the defendant, and others, from future illegal behavior.” State v. Laycock, 2009 UT 53, ¶ 18, 214 P.3d 104. Because the question before a restitution court is what damages were proximately caused by the offense, the court isn’t confined to just the narrow elements of the offense of conviction. Rather, while the “restitution statute requires that responsibility for the criminal conduct be firmly established, much like a guilty plea, before the court can order restitution,” “it is only the initial crime for which liability must be legally certain.” State v. Hight, 2008 UT App 118, ¶¶ 3, 5, 182 P.3d 922 (quotation simplified). Once guilt for the offense has been firmly established, the court then has “broad discretion, after reviewing the evidence presented at the restitution hearing,” to “order restitution for any pecuniary damages clearly resulting from” that offense. Id. ¶ 5 (quotation simplified). In other words, once the defendant is convicted of “criminal conduct,” the defendant can “be held responsible for all damages proximately caused by that conduct.” State v. Huffman, 2021 UT App 125, ¶ 9, 501 P.3d 564 (emphasis in original), cert. denied, 509 P.3d 198 (Utah 2022).

¶30      Our decision in Huffman is illustrative. Therethe defendant pleaded guilty to possessing drugs. Id. ¶ 7. Although the offense of drug possession doesn’t include, as an element, the destruction of property, we held that it was appropriate for the court to order restitution for damage that was done to the victim’s motorhome. This was so because evidence before the court established that the defendant’s possession of drugs inside the motorhome proximately caused those damages. Id. ¶¶ 12–14.

¶31      A similar dynamic is in play here. Again, Murray pleaded guilty to violating a protective order. In doing so, he acknowledged both the existence of the protective order and that he had violated its terms. Once these things were firmly established through the guilty plea, the court then had broad discretion to order restitution for any damage that was proximately caused by Murray’s criminal conduct.

¶32      When making that proximate cause determination, the court had at least some latitude to consider the conduct that had led to the protective order, and this is largely so because of the nature of the offense. After all, Murray wasn’t convicted of a crime because he contacted a stranger with whom he had no prior history. Rather, Murray was convicted of intentionally or knowingly contacting a person who had obtained a protective order against him. In this key sense, it was the protective order that made Murray’s communications criminal.

¶33      A protective order acts as a “mechanism” for giving victims a measure of “protection against their abusers.” State v. Hardy, 2002 UT App 244, ¶ 17, 54 P.3d 645; see also State v. Baize, 2019 UT App 202, ¶ 20 n.5, 456 P.3d 770. One of the principal ways that a protective order does this is by creating a legal barrier between the victim and the abuser. If a person who is subject to a protective order subsequently breaches that barrier, a court couldn’t realistically be expected to decide whether the victim was traumatized by the violative act by considering that act as if it had occurred in a vacuum. Given that the victim had previously obtained judicial protection from the person, the nature of the alleged prior conduct would very likely have some bearing on the interconnected questions of whether and why the illegal contact had proximately caused any trauma or harm to the victim (not to mention how much damage the victim had actually suffered).

¶34      In short, because Murray pleaded guilty to violating a protective order, the district court could consider the fact that C.M. had obtained a protective order against him as part of its restitution analysis. And from there, it then had discretion to consider the conduct that led to the issuance of the protective order, at least to the extent that such conduct could inform its decision about whether Murray’s actions proximately caused any harm to C.M.

II. Proximate Cause

¶35      Murray next argues that the evidence before the district court was insufficient to show that his criminal conduct proximately caused C.M. to miss 12 weeks of work. We disagree.

¶36      The “proximate cause standard requires a showing that the crime, in a natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by any new cause, produced the injury and that the injury would not have occurred absent the crime.” Blake, 2022 UT App 104, ¶ 9 (quotation simplified). The “burden is on the State to prove proximate cause,” State v. Morrison, 2019 UT App 51, ¶ 13, 440 P.3d 942, and this “requires proof of two elements: (1) but-for causation and (2) foreseeable harm,” State v. Watson, 2021 UT App 37, ¶ 15, 485 P.3d 946.

¶37      Proximate cause is generally a “fact question[] to be resolved by the fact finder.” State v. Barzee, 2007 UT 95, ¶ 81, 177 P.3d 48; see also Mackay v. 7-Eleven Sales Corp., 2000 UT 15, ¶ 7, 995 P.2d 1233 (noting that proximate cause is a fact question). Because of this, we review a district court’s finding of proximate cause for clear error. State v. Grant, 2021 UT App 104, ¶¶ 24, 35, 499 P.3d 176, cert. denied, 505 P.3d 56 (Utah 2022). Thus, when “a defendant argues that the evidence was insufficient to support a restitution order, the defendant must demonstrate that the clear weight of the evidence contradicts the court’s ruling.” State v. Chadwick, 2021 UT App 40, ¶ 6, 486 P.3d 90 (quotation simplified).

¶38      Here, we see no clear error in the court’s finding that Murray’s violation of the protective order proximately caused C.M. to miss 12 weeks of work.

¶39      At the restitution hearing, C.M. testified that she obtained the protective order because of “actions [Murray] was making to [her] in [her] sleep” that began “at the end of December of 2018.” She further agreed that this “conduct” was “the reason for the ongoing protective order.” Of note, C.M. then testified that, “as a result of the violation of the protective order,” she has “severe panic attacks,” “severe depression,” and flashbacks; that she “live[s] in fear nearly every day”; that she has a “[l]oss of trust in people” generally; that she has a “hard time concentrating or focusing”; and that she was unable “to function like [she has] always been able to.” (Emphasis added.) When C.M. was then asked whether “the problems” that she was having “interfere[d] with [her] ability to work,” she responded, “Definitely.” While she said that the “very first time” she “took leave was for a doctor’s appointment . . . back in December of 2018” (which would have predated Murray’s violation of the protective order), C.M. also agreed that she missed work “every few days, a couple hours here, a few hours there, a full day here, a few days there” until March 2020, when she was “out of work altogether and couldn’t work at all.” The district court determined that C.M.’s testimony was credible, and on appeal, we give deference to that credibility determination. See State v. Miles, 2020 UT App 120, ¶ 34, 472 P.3d 978 (noting that “because of the district court’s advantaged position in observing the witnesses firsthand, we defer to its credibility findings” (quotation simplified)); State v. Taylor, 2017 UT App 89, ¶ 10, 402 P.3d 790 (noting that “we accord deference to the trial court’s ability and opportunity to evaluate credibility and demeanor” (quotation simplified)).

¶40      As also noted, UOVC introduced evidence showing that C.M. missed “over 68 days” of work, and UOVC’s Representative testified that UOVC paid for 12 weeks of work that she missed “span[ning] from January 3rd of 2019 through March 15th of 2020” because that missed work was “related to the incident in this particular case, which is the violation of a protective order.” When coupled with C.M.’s testimony about the effects of the protective order violation itself on her psyche and her ability to function, this provided an evidentiary basis for the court to find that Murray’s criminal conduct proximately caused C.M. to miss this work.

¶41      Murray nevertheless pushes back on several fronts, none of which are availing.

¶42      First, Murray points to testimony showing that C.M. was traumatized by the alleged rape (as opposed to the protective order violation), as well as testimony establishing that C.M. began missing work even before the unlawful communication. Both things are, on this record, unquestionably true. But even if the alleged rape caused psychological trauma to C.M. on its own, and even if that trauma caused her to miss work (either before or even after January 3, 2019), this doesn’t mean that Murray’s violation of the protective order couldn’t proximately cause her to miss work too.

¶43      Again, if there was sufficient evidence to establish that C.M.’s losses were proximately caused by the communication, then those losses were compensable. The fact that the losses may have been linked to some other causal source does not change this. In civil cases, it has long been recognized that there can be multiple causes for an injury or a trauma. See, e.g.McCorvey v. Utah State Dep’t of Transp., 868 P.2d 41, 45 (Utah 1993) (confirming “there can be more than one proximate cause” of “an injury”); Steffensen v. Smith’s Mgmt. Corp., 820 P.2d 482, 486 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (“There can be more than one proximate cause of an injury so long as each is a concurrent contributing factor in causing the injury.” (quotation simplified)). And this is true in a criminal case too. See, e.g.State v. Gonzales, 2002 UT App 256, ¶ 21, 56 P.3d 969 (“A defendant’s acts may be found to be the proximate cause of the victim’s death even if the victim actually died as a result of the combination of the defendant’s acts plus some other contributing factor.” (quotation simplified)).[5]

¶44      Here, we agree with Murray that C.M.’s trauma and associated anxiety from the violation of the protective order was likely linked in some measure to the alleged rape. As discussed above, however, the alleged rape was the very reason that C.M. had previously obtained a protective order against Murray. And as also discussed, C.M.’s testimony at the restitution hearing supported the conclusion that when Murray contacted her in violation of that order, this both exacerbated her prior trauma and caused additional trauma too, thereby further interfering with her ability to work. Given this sworn and court-credited testimony, we cannot conclude that it was against the clear weight of the evidence for the court to conclude that, even accounting for the trauma associated with the alleged rape, the violation of the protective order itself proximately caused C.M. to miss work.

¶45      Second, Murray argues that it could not have been “reasonably foreseeable that C.M. would miss 12 weeks of work” because he sent her “a single indirect text message.” As an initial matter, it’s unclear from the record if this case really does involve just a single text message. For “the purpose of determining restitution for an offense, the offense shall include any criminal conduct admitted by the defendant to the sentencing court or for which the defendant agrees to pay restitution.” Utah Code § 77-38a-302(5)(a) (2019). Here, the probable cause affidavit alleged that C.M. had “received phone calls and text messages” from Murray through their mutual friend. And in his plea affidavit, Murray agreed under oath that he “knowingly and intentionally communicate[d] with C.M. through a mutual friend . . . through phone calls and text messages.” On this record, the court could therefore assess the restitution question in light of Murray’s admission that there had been multiple communications.

¶46      In any event, whether viewed as multiple communications or even just a single communication, this argument still fails because the effect of the communication(s) can’t meaningfully be divorced from the surrounding context. Again, Murray wasn’t convicted of sending a message to a stranger with whom he had no prior history. Rather, Murray was convicted because he knowingly or intentionally communicated with C.M. in violation of a protective order. By communicating with C.M. despite the existence of an order from a judge that prohibited him from contacting her, Murray undermined the sense of distance and security that the protective order was intended to give her. Because of this context and history, we disagree with Murray’s assertion that it could not have been reasonably foreseeable that C.M. would be traumatized and miss work as a result.

¶47      Finally, Murray argues that the restitution order was at odds with our decision in State v. Bickley, 2002 UT App 342, 60 P.3d 582. We disagree. In Bickley, the defendant was charged with criminal nonsupport, and the “Amended Information listed the nonpayment period from February 1, 1997 to January 10, 2000.” Id. ¶ 3. After the defendant pleaded guilty to this offense, however, the district court awarded restitution for arrears that occurred prior to 1997. Id. ¶¶ 3–4. We reversed that decision on appeal, concluding that the court could not impose restitution for pre-1997 arrears “without making inferences.” Id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified). Because of this, we held that it was not “firmly established” that the defendant was in fact responsible for the pre-1997 arrears. Id.

¶48      Bickley is readily distinguishable. The arrears at issue in Bickley plainly fell outside the conviction (which, again, was specifically limited to arrears that occurred from February 1997 on). As discussed above, however, the offense at issue here was the violation of a protective order, and that protective order was by definition linked to some prior conduct. Thus, unlike Bickley, it’s not at all clear that this restitution order was based on damages that fell outside of the offense at issue. In addition, there’s no suggestion that the district court in Bickley based its restitution award for the pre-1997 arrears on any evidence or testimony. Id. ¶¶ 2–4, 12. This is why we faulted the court for “making inferences” and imposing restitution for arrears that were not “firmly established.” Id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified). But again, this was not the case here, where the restitution order was based on sworn testimony from the hearing itself.

¶49      In short, we can overturn the court’s proximate cause determination only if Murray has established “that the clear weight of the evidence contradicts the court’s ruling.” Chadwick, 2021 UT App 40, ¶ 6 (quotation simplified). Having reviewed the record, we conclude that C.M.’s testimony about the effects of the protective order violation on her psyche and her ability to function, coupled with the evidence presented by UOVC about the days that she missed at work, was sufficient to support the court’s finding that Murray’s criminal conduct proximately caused C.M. to miss this work, thereby causing these damages. Because the court’s ruling was not against the clear weight of the evidence before it, we affirm that determination.


¶50      The district court erred when it required Murray to pay $744.19 in restitution for moving expenses. We accordingly vacate that portion of the court’s order. But the court did not err when it ordered restitution in the amount of $5,520.28 for lost wages. We accordingly affirm the restitution award of $5,520.28 for lost wages.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

Click to access State%20v.%20Murray20230518_20200890_52.pdf


[1] UOVC was represented by an attorney from the Utah Attorney General’s office who serves as “agency counsel” for UOVC.

[2] In between the court’s oral and written rulings, Murray filed a motion to reconsider. But after the written ruling was entered, Murray filed a timely notice of appeal. Despite the fact that this notice of appeal had been filed, and over an objection from UOVC, the district court subsequently held oral argument on Murray’s motion to reconsider, after which it denied the motion.

On appeal, both parties now agree that Murray’s notice of appeal divested the district court of jurisdiction to rule on the motion to reconsider. We agree with the parties. Because the motion to reconsider was filed before the written ruling, it was a prejudgment motion to reconsider the oral ruling. While the court was “free to consider” what was essentially a request for “reargument” at “any time before entering the final judgment,” Gillett v. Price, 2006 UT 24, ¶ 7 n.2, 135 P.3d 861, the court did not do so. Instead, it issued the written final judgment. When Murray then filed his notice of appeal after that final judgment had been entered, his notice of appeal “divest[ed] the district court of jurisdiction.” Garver v. Rosenberg, 2014 UT 42, ¶ 11, 347 P.3d 380. Of note, our supreme court has held that a prejudgment motion to reconsider does “not toll the time for appeal once a final judgment [is] entered.” Gillett, 2006 UT 24, ¶ 7 n.2. We likewise see no basis for holding that a prejudgment motion to reconsider would somehow undermine the finality of a written final judgment or allow the court to retain jurisdiction after a notice of appeal has been filed. As a result, we agree with the parties that the only ruling properly before us is the original restitution order.


[3] The legislature recently amended the CVRA. The most recent version of the statute provides that the “court shall order a defendant, as part of the sentence imposed,” to “pay restitution to all victims: (i) in accordance with the terms of any plea agreement in the case; or (ii) for the entire amount of pecuniary damages that are proximately caused to each victim by the criminal conduct of the defendant.” Utah Code § 77-38b-205(1)(a) (2023).

[4] The version of the statute that governed at the time of Murray’s sentencing did not expressly state that restitution could be awarded for damages “proximately caused” by the offense, see Utah Code § 77-38a-302(1) (2019), but our supreme court had interpreted that statute as containing such an allowance, see State v. Ogden, 2018 UT 8, ¶¶ 31–48, 416 P.3d 1132. The statute has since been amended to expressly incorporate the proximate cause standard. See Utah Code § 77-38b-205(1)(a)(ii) (2023).

[5] Something somewhat similar can be true outside the proximate cause context too. In State v. O’Bannon, 2012 UT App 71, ¶ 38, 274 P.3d 992, for example, we recognized “a basis under Utah law for holding a defendant culpable for causing death even when other factors contributed to the victim’s death.”

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In re K.R. – 2023 UT App 75 – termination of parental rights vs. guardianship

In re K.R. – 2023 UT App 75










Per Curiam Opinion

No. 20230255-CA

Filed July 13, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Monica Diaz

No. 1207437

Kelton Reed and Lisa Lokken

Attorneys for Appellant

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

Verdoia, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem





¶1        R.S. (Mother) appeals the juvenile court’s order terminating her parental rights with respect to K.R. (Brother) and R.B. (Sister) (collectively, the children). Mother alleges the juvenile court exceeded its discretion in determining that it was strictly necessary to terminate her rights rather than awarding permanent custody and guardianship to the children’s maternal grandmother (Grandmother). We affirm.

¶2        In January 2022, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) received a report that Mother was using drugs and neglecting Sister, who was an infant at the time. Four-year-old Brother was already living with Grandmother, and DCFS soon placed Sister with Grandmother as well.

¶3        Following a disposition hearing, the Court set a primary goal of reunification and set up a child and family plan. Mother received an initial substance abuse and mental health assessment but made no progress toward receiving treatment. She took only five of ninety-six required drug tests and tested positive on all five.

¶4        Nevertheless, Mother continued to demonstrate an attachment to the children. She participated in visits with the children on a bi-weekly basis, although she did miss some visits and had not seen the children for several weeks prior to the termination trial. The visits were supervised by a DCFS caseworker (Caseworker), and the children had to travel six-and-a-half hours round trip to attend. On some occasions, Mother cancelled visits without notifying Grandmother, leading the children to make the trip unnecessarily. Brother became upset when Mother missed visits with him.

¶5        Early on, Caseworker observed Mother having “inappropriate conversations” with Brother regarding Grandmother, such as telling him that Grandmother was not properly caring for him. Caseworker would redirect Mother to more appropriate topics, and “with reminders, this behavior . . . stopped.” Mother engaged with the children during visits and planned activities for them to do together.

¶6      Grandmother and Mother used to have a good relationship, but it had deteriorated due to Mother’s drug use and the DCFS case. According to Grandmother, Brother’s behavior would “deregulate[] for a couple days” after visits with Mother and he would become belligerent toward Grandmother. Mother would send Grandmother insulting text messages, and she had trouble respecting boundaries Grandmother set. Both women indicated they would not be comfortable “co-parenting” with one another.

¶7        Following the termination trial, the juvenile court found several grounds for termination, which Mother does not challenge on appeal. The court then turned to the best interest analysis, including the question of whether termination of parental rights was strictly necessary.

¶8        The court considered whether awarding permanent guardianship to Grandmother was an alternative to termination that could “equally protect and benefit the children.” However, the court ultimately determined that termination was strictly necessary for the following reasons:

·         Mother and Grandmother “do not have a relationship” and are “unable to communicate regarding the children’s needs and wellbeing.” And while Grandmother attempts to set reasonable boundaries, Mother does not respect them. Mother herself acknowledged that “having her and [Grandmother] co-parent would not be healthy for the children.”

·         Mother had a history of making inappropriate comments regarding Grandmother to Brother during parent time. These comments led Brother to become belligerent toward Grandmother following visits. Although Mother had stopped making such comments at the direction of Caseworker, the court was concerned that she would “revert to making these comments, without the oversight of the Division.” The court found that pitting the children against their caregiver in this way was “unhealthy” for their “emotional development and wellbeing.”

·         Visits with Mother “are emotionally hard on the children.” Brother experiences behavioral problems after visits with Mother.

·        The children have to travel six-and-a-half hours round trip to visit Mother. Because Mother does not communicate with Grandmother, she does not let her know when she is unable to attend visits. This has led the children to “endure the travel time needlessly.” Additionally, it is emotionally hard on Brother when Mother misses visits. The long travel time, emotional harm due to missed visits, and Mother’s inability to communicate with Grandmother combine to undermine the children’s stability. “They need to know that their relationships are stable and that they can count on the adults in their lives. . . . [Mother] missing visits undermines and disregards the children’s psychological and emotional security.”

·        The children are happy and thriving in Grandmother’s care. She addresses their physical, mental, developmental, and emotional needs. The children are bonded to their extended family, which consists of Grandmother’s husband and other children living in Grandmother’s home. The children “need a permanent home,” and “[f]rom the children’s point of view, that home is [Grandmother’s] home.”

Based on these factors, the court found that termination of Mother’s parental rights was “strictly necessary from the children’s point of view.”

¶9        Mother challenges the juvenile court’s determination that termination of her rights was strictly necessary. “Whether a parent’s rights should be terminated presents a mixed question of law and fact.” In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 45, 521 P.3d 896 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1269 (Utah 2023). “We will overturn a termination decision only if the juvenile court either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶10 Mother asserts (1) that the court did not appropriately weigh certain evidence and (2) that the court inappropriately focused on the needs of the adults rather than the children by basing its decision on Mother and Grandmother’s inability to “coparent” the children.

¶11      Before terminating a parent’s rights, the court must find that termination is “strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 60, 472 P.3d 827. And this analysis must be undertaken from the child’s point of view. See Utah Code § 80-4-301(1); In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 64. “Termination is strictly necessary only when, after exploring possible placements for the child, the juvenile court concludes that no other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 15, 502 P.3d 1247 (quotation simplified). “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶12      The strictly necessary analysis “is designed to ensure that the court pause long enough to thoughtfully consider the range of available options that could promote the child’s welfare and best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 69. “[I]f a court has complied with its statutory obligations, its resultant best interest determination is entitled to deference.” In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 69. Thus, a parent’s mere dissatisfaction “with the manner in which the juvenile court weighed the evidence . . . has no traction on appeal.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 23.

¶13      Mother argues that the court’s finding that Brother was upset when she missed visits should weigh against a finding that termination was strictly necessary. She also asserts that the court should have given more weight to her recent history of stopping her inappropriate comments to Brother rather than inferring that she was likely to resume such comments in the future. These arguments ultimately take issue with “the manner in which the juvenile court weighed the evidence” rather than its compliance with its statutory mandate. See id. The court’s findings are entitled to deference, and we will not disturb them on appeal. See In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 69.

¶14      Mother next asserts that the court’s focus on her and Grandmother’s inability to “co-parent” the children was inappropriate and led it to consider the strictly necessary analysis from the adults’ perspective rather than the children’s perspective. See Utah Code § 80-4-301(1) (dictating that the strictly necessary analysis must be undertaken from the child’s point of view). Mother argues that a permanent custody and guardianship order does not result in “co-parenting” but rather involves “the Guardian call[ing] the shots” while “the parent has a handful of residual rights.” We take Mother’s point that co-parenting may not have been quite the right term to use in describing the relationship between a parent and a permanent guardian.[1] However, we are more concerned with the substance of the court’s analysis than the term it used. And that analysis indicates that the court’s true concern was whether it was in the children’s best interests to be pitted between a parent and guardian who could neither cooperate nor communicate with one another.

¶15      “[L]ong-term guardianship arrangements are typically only in a child’s best interest where the guardians and the parent have a working, relatively healthy relationship in which they are both willing to work together to preserve the parent-child relationship and where the child has a healthy relationship with both the guardian and the parent.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 22 (quotation simplified). Thus, when a parent and guardian have “little to no relationship,” the particular circumstances of the case may indicate that permanent custody and guardianship will not meet the children’s needs as well as termination of parental rights. See id. That is what the juvenile court found here, and such a finding was not an abuse of its discretion under the circumstances.

¶16      Furthermore, we are not convinced that the juvenile court inappropriately conducted the strictly necessary analysis from the adults’ point of view rather than that of the children. The court explicitly discussed the effect Mother and Grandmother’s inability to cooperate had on the children, finding that being put in the middle of the conflict was “unhealthy” for the children’s “emotional development and wellbeing” and undermined their stability, that the children suffered when Mother did not communicate with Grandmother about missing visits, and that Mother herself acknowledged that the conflict was “unhealthy” for the children. These findings indicate that the court considered the conflict between Mother and Grandmother from the children’s point of view in determining that the conflict made termination of Mother’s rights strictly necessary.

¶17      The juvenile court here carefully considered whether the children could be equally benefited and protected by a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement as opposed to termination of Mother’s parental rights. It also made detailed findings in support of its determination that termination was strictly necessary from the children’s point of view. Accordingly, the juvenile court’s decision to terminate Mother’s parental rights is affirmed.


Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

[1] Nevertheless, as the guardian ad litem observes, it is not apparent from the record that Mother was “up to the tasks involved with residual parental rights,” given that she has not paid child support, has not respected the boundaries Grandmother has put in place, has not progressed past supervised visitation, and has disappointed the children by failing to communicate about missed visits.

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2023 UT App 61 – State v. West – violation of civil stalking injunction

2023 UT App 61 – State v. West








No. 20210335-CA

Filed June 2, 2023

Fifth District Court, St. George Department

The Honorable Jeffrey C. Wilcox

The Honorable John J. Walton

No. 191500815

Nicolas D. Turner, Attorney for Appellant

Eric Clarke and James R. Weeks,

Attorneys for Appellee




¶1        Deborah Jean West appeals from a jury’s determination that she violated a civil stalking injunction, challenging her conviction and the sentencing court’s sentence on several grounds. West asserts that the trial court erred in denying her pretrial motions to exclude certain evidence and to continue the trial. West also argues that her pro se post-trial motions to dismiss were denied in error. Finally, West argues that her constitutional right to be represented by counsel was violated when the court sentenced her without first determining whether her decision to represent herself was made knowingly and intelligently.

¶2        We uphold the trial court’s denial of the motion to exclude evidence and the motion to continue and therefore affirm West’s conviction. However, because the sentencing court did not ensure that West’s waiver of counsel was done knowingly, we vacate West’s sentence and remand for further proceedings. Because of our resolution of those issues, we do not reach the merits of West’s argument regarding her post-trial motions.


The Pretrial Motions and Trial

¶3        In May 2019, West was charged with violating a stalking injunction. The stalking injunction included the restriction that West was not to come within twenty feet of C.L. (Petitioner). The charge against West derived from an encounter between Petitioner and West that occurred in their housing community’s clubhouse library. At trial, the State bore the burden to prove that West intentionally or knowingly violated the stalking injunction. See Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2)(b).

¶4        After being notified by the State that it intended to introduce evidence that West had allegedly violated the injunction on two other occasions after charges were filed, West filed a motion in limine the day before trial to preclude the admission of that evidence. The court addressed this motion on the first day of trial. West argued that the evidence should be excluded because it was improper character evidence, lacked any relevance, and posed a danger of unfair prejudice. The State argued that the evidence of West’s other alleged violations of the injunction should be admitted and presented to the jury to show West’s intent, knowledge, or lack of mistake, which the State argued was relevant to proving the intent element of the charged crime. See Utah R. Evid. 404(b) (stating that evidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible to prove propensity, but may be admissible to prove “motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident”).

¶5        When the trial court indicated its intention to admit the evidence, West’s counsel requested a continuance of the trial, arguing that as the State’s disclosure of the evidence was made only fifteen days before trial, he was precluded from appropriately preparing for the evidence, such as giving potential witnesses the proper notice to appear to testify. West’s counsel further contended that based on the sparse information regarding the State’s evidence, he would not have known whom to subpoena. The trial court ultimately denied the motion to continue, stating, “We have a jury here, a jury panel. I want the case tried,” indicating that it might “revisit the issue again” as the evidence was admitted.

¶6        During trial, the evidence presented showed that Petitioner was present at the clubhouse library, West entered the library, a brief verbal interaction occurred between the two, Petitioner called the police, and West left the library.

¶7        Petitioner testified that when she saw West was about to enter the library, she said, “Please don’t come in now. There is a 20-feet rule. You need to stay away from me 20-feet. . . . Or I’m going to have to call the police.” Despite this warning, West continued to enter the library and responded by saying something to the effect that she did not care and to “go ahead.” She then proceeded to remove her shoes, step onto a couch cushion, and hang a poster advertising a community event. Petitioner then left the clubhouse library in search of another person to witness that West had entered the clubhouse library where Petitioner had been. During Petitioner’s testimony, the State also showed video surveillance of the door to the clubhouse library, showing West walking in and Petitioner walking out shortly afterward. And a police officer testified that following the incident, based upon Petitioner’s report, he measured the approximate distance that would have been between Petitioner and West and concluded that West was easily within the twenty-foot radius prohibited by the stalking injunction.

¶8        The State also presented evidence of the two other interactions between West and Petitioner—both occurring after the library incident for which West was charged and before the trial—where West was alleged to have been closer to Petitioner than the injunction’s twenty-foot restriction. In the first incident, both West and Petitioner attended a community potluck, and West sat at a table within twenty feet of Petitioner. In the second incident, while attending services at their church, Petitioner was in the church foyer and West approached, put her things down near where Petitioner was standing, and then stood within the same area for an extended time.

¶9        West testified at trial and she and her counsel had the following exchange after viewing surveillance video from the clubhouse library:

Counsel: [S]o you saw in the video [Petitioner] walks off away from the library, correct? And then the video shows you walking out some seconds later in the same direction. Is that correct?

West: That is correct.

Counsel: Now did you know where she had gone?

West: No.

Counsel: Okay. So where were you going when you walked out of there?

West: I was going to the kitchen . . . . And then I went from there into the exercise room.

Counsel: So you hung up two more posters after the library. And then did you leave?

West: Yes . . . .

¶10 Following deliberation, the jury found West guilty of violating the stalking injunction.

The Post-trial Motions and Sentencing

¶11      After trial and prior to sentencing, West filed several pro se post-trial motions, claiming in each that she was no longer represented by counsel. West also aired numerous grievances, of which few are relevant here. Pertinent to this appeal, West took issue with the trial court’s admission of the evidence of the other instances of alleged contact between her and Petitioner, and she repeatedly requested that her case be dismissed.

¶12      During a sentencing review hearing in December 2019, the sentencing court[1] asked West if she would “like a new lawyer,” to which West responded in the negative. Without engaging in any colloquy[2] and without questioning West about her understanding of the significance and the risk of proceeding without counsel, the court accepted West’s indication to proceed pro se, ordered West’s trial counsel to withdraw, and allowed West to represent herself.

¶13      At her sentencing hearing approximately sixteen months later—the delay in proceedings due in small part to expected scheduling conflicts and in larger part to the COVID-19 pandemic—the court engaged in no further discussion with West about her decision to waive counsel and represent herself, other than to note that West “put [herself] at a disadvantage . . . having fired [her] lawyer,” which was “pretty clear in the record, and [West] confirmed that . . . at [the sentencing review].” During this hearing, the sentencing court focused on West’s post-trial motions. The sentencing court indicated on the record that West had “framed most of the written materials . . . as motions to dismiss,” and noted that the motions had not “been submitted for decision, which would normally be required under the [Utah] Rules of Criminal Procedure.” However, the court expressed its intention to provide immediate responses to the motions, having told West that the court “would rule on [the] motions” during the sentencing hearing. The court then proceeded to deny the portion of West’s motions to dismiss dealing with the evidence of the other alleged injunction violations admitted at trial.

¶14 Next, the sentencing court addressed the other issues raised in West’s motions, simply concluding that “frankly, . . . the motions that [West had] made [were] legally frivolous.” The court ultimately denied all of West’s motions in totality and then proceeded with sentencing. The court sentenced West to serve 364 days in jail, but it suspended the jail time, and imposed a fine. The court ordered West to serve eighteen months of probation with the conditions that she complete community service, complete an anger management course, and continue to comply with the stalking injunction. West appeals.


¶15      The first issue we address is West’s challenge to the denial of her pretrial motions. She argues that the trial court erred in denying the motion in limine, contending that she was denied the right to a fair trial when the court allowed evidence of additional interactions between West and Petitioner to be admitted. We review for an abuse of discretion a trial court’s decision to admit evidence under rules 404(b), 402, and 403 of the Utah Rules of Evidence. See State v. Tarrats, 2005 UT 50, ¶ 16, 122 P.3d 581 (“Trial courts have wide discretion in determining relevance, probative value, and prejudice. Therefore, we will not reverse the trial court’s ruling on evidentiary issues unless it is manifest that the trial court so abused its discretion that there is a likelihood that injustice resulted.” (quotation simplified)). In the event that the trial court admits evidence in error, “we will not disturb the outcome of a trial if the admission of the evidence did not reasonably affect the likelihood of a different verdict.” State v. Miranda, 2017 UT App 203, ¶ 24, 407 P.3d 1033 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 417 P.3d 581 (Utah 2018). And West “bears the burden of showing that [she] was harmed by the trial court’s error.” See id. ¶ 44.

¶16      West further asserts that the trial court erred in denying her request to continue the trial after the court determined the other-acts evidence was admissible. We review the court’s denial of a motion for continuance for an abuse of discretion. State v. Cabututan, 861 P.2d 408, 413 (Utah 1993) (“The standard of review for the denial of a motion for continuance is abuse of discretion: It is well-established that the granting of a continuance is discretionary with the trial judge. Absent a clear abuse of that discretion, the decision will not be reversed by this court.” (quotation simplified)). A trial court “abuses its discretion when it denies a continuance and the resulting prejudice affects the substantial rights of the defendant, such that a review of the record persuades the court that without the error there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result for the defendant.” Mackin v. State, 2016 UT 47, ¶ 33, 387 P.3d 986 (quotation simplified).

¶17      Next, we address West’s argument that her constitutional right to be represented by counsel at sentencing was violated because the sentencing court did not adequately explore through an on-the-record colloquy whether her waiver of counsel was knowingly and intelligently made with an understanding of the risks of representing herself. In the absence of a colloquy, we review the record de novo to determine whether the defendant knowingly and intelligently waived her right to counsel. See State v. Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 45, 137 P.3d 716 (“De novo review is appropriate because the validity of a waiver does not turn upon whether the trial judge actually conducted the colloquy, but upon whether the defendant understood the consequences of waiver.” (quotation simplified)). “Whether [West’s] waiver was knowing and intelligent involves a mixed question of law and fact which we review for correctness, but with a reasonable measure of discretion given to the [trial] court’s application of the facts to the law.” State v. Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 21, 501 P.3d 116 (quotation simplified).[3]


  1. Pretrial Motions

¶18      West first challenges the trial court’s denials of her motion to exclude evidence and motion to continue the trial. We do not reach the merits of West’s argument that the trial court erroneously admitted the other-acts evidence or abused its discretion in denying her continuance motion because even if the trial court erred, West has failed to meet her burden to show that she was prejudiced by either alleged error such that our confidence in the jury’s verdict is undermined. See State v. High, 2012 UT App 180, ¶ 41, 282 P.3d 1046 (“We will not disturb the jury’s verdict unless the likelihood of a different outcome is sufficiently high to undermine confidence in the verdict.” (quotation simplified)). In other words, West has not persuaded us that a “reasonable likelihood exists that the [alleged] error affected the outcome of the proceedings.” State v. Bilek, 2018 UT App 208, ¶ 35, 437 P.3d 544 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 440 P.3d 693 (Utah 2019). “A reasonable likelihood requires a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” State v. Gallegos, 2020 UT App 162, ¶ 62, 479 P.3d 631 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 496 P.3d 717 (Utah 2021).

  1. Motion to Exclude Rule 404(b) Evidence

¶19      West contends on appeal that evidence of other uncharged alleged violations of the stalking injunction admitted at trial was “precisely what [rule] 404(b) was intended to bar.”[4] West further argues that had the jury not heard the evidence of these other alleged violations, “there was a reasonable likelihood that West would not have been found guilty of the charge.” Rule 404(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence provides that other-acts evidence, while prohibited to “prove a person’s character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in conformity with the character,” may be admissible for other purposes, such as “proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.” Utah R. Evid. 404(b). Such evidence must also pass the muster of rules 402 and 403, which require that evidence be relevant and have probative value that is not substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice. See id. R. 402, 403.

¶20      However, we need not address the underlying question of whether the trial court erred in admitting the other-acts evidence because, “even if the admission of rule 404(b) evidence by the [trial] court was in error, reversal on appeal is not appropriate unless the defendant demonstrates that the error materially affected the fairness or outcome of the trial.” Bilek, 2018 UT App 208, ¶ 35 (quotation simplified). Thus, the burden rests on West to make such a showing, and she fails to carry her burden here. In arguing that she was prejudiced, West simply asserts that, “[a]bsent the 404(b) evidence, there was a reasonable likelihood that West would not have been found guilty of the charge herein.” But she does not then provide much discussion as to how the outcome of the trial would have differed absent the admitted other-acts evidence, other than to essentially conclude that because it was, therefore it is so. That is, West has failed to demonstrate how excluding evidence that she was close to Petitioner at church and at a potluck, after the events in the clubhouse library, would have changed the jury’s determination that West knowingly and intentionally came within twenty feet of Petitioner while in the clubhouse library in violation of the injunction.

¶21      To be sure, the evidence of the other acts was most likely helpful to the State in proving its case. Absent the evidence, the State would have had to rely solely on Petitioner’s credibility in the eyes of the jury and her testimony of what occurred between West and her to support its case that West had knowingly and intentionally violated the stalking injunction. See Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2)(b). But even without the other-acts evidence, evidence and testimony presented to the jury during trial sufficiently supports our confidence in the jury’s verdict. See State v. Ferguson, 2011 UT App 77, ¶ 20, 250 P.3d 89 (acknowledging that while erroneously admitted evidence had “the potential of being highly prejudicial, the other evidence presented at trial was sufficiently strong as to convince us that there was no reasonable likelihood of a different result” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 262 P.3d 1187 (Utah 2011); High, 2012 UT App 180, ¶¶ 50– 51, 54 (noting that while the case was not like Ferguson, “where the evidence of guilt was overwhelming” in the absence of evidence allegedly admitted in error, the court’s “confidence in the jury’s verdict” was not undermined as “the jury would still have heard unchallenged and properly admitted” evidence supporting the defendant’s guilt).

¶22      For example, here the jury heard generally unchallenged testimony from Petitioner about the nature of her encounter with West: that she told West to stop and not enter until she was finished or she would have to call the police, and that West ignored her entreaty and threat and carried on with her business in the clubhouse library. The jury then heard West testify as to her actions following the encounter with Petitioner. Even by her own account, West did not immediately leave after the incident, but instead made her way through the clubhouse facilities without much concern about whether Petitioner was still in the area or not. The jury was also aware, by nature of the charge against West, that a stalking injunction was in place, and it could have reasonably inferred that West had a history of unwanted interactions with Petitioner that would warrant the imposition of the stalking injunction, and that the reported clubhouse library incident was not just a solitary incident. And West has not argued how all of this, standing alone and absent the added gloss of the rule 404(b) evidence, would have induced the jury to find in her favor instead.

¶23 Accordingly, we are not persuaded that exclusion of the other two alleged incidents would so tilt the jury’s view of West’s credibility as to change its verdict. In other words, West has failed to persuade us that even without the admission of the other alleged violations of the stalking injunction, the result of the trial would have been favorable for her.

  1. Motion to Continue

¶24 West also contends the court’s denial of her motion to continue to address the other violations evidence “deprived [her] of her right to a fair trial.” A defendant bears the burden of showing that the trial court’s denial of the motion to continue was “an unreasonable action that prejudiced the party.” State v. Cornejo, 2006 UT App 215, ¶ 14, 138 P.3d 97 (quotation simplified). “Such prejudice exists when our review of the record persuades us that had the trial court not denied the continuance request there would have been a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result for the moving party.” Id. (quotation simplified). West again fails to persuade us that the denial of the continuance was prejudicial.

¶25      West has not outlined on appeal how her defense strategy would have changed had she been given more time to prepare. And though she indicates in her brief and told the sentencing court judge that she had witnesses to one of the incidents, she has neither provided even the slightest information on who those witnesses may be nor provided an explanation as to whether they would have been available to testify within an appropriate time frame. Moreover, West does not flesh out on appeal why the State’s information was so lacking that she could not subpoena witnesses prior to trial. See id. ¶ 15 (“When a party to a criminal action moves for a continuance in order to procure the testimony of an absent witness, the party must demonstrate that: (1) the testimony sought is material and admissible, (2) the witness could actually be produced, (3) the witness could be produced within a reasonable time, and (4) due diligence had been exercised before the request for a continuance.” (quotation simplified) (quoting State v. Creviston, 646 P.2d 750, 752 (Utah 1982))). West contends only that once the trial court allowed the other-acts evidence to be introduced, “had the continuance been afforded as it should have been, counsel would have had time to gather evidence, find witnesses, and raise a defense against that other evidence.” This simply is not a sufficient showing on appeal to persuade us that the denial of her motion to continue affected the outcome of the trial. Therefore, her claim fails here as well.

  1. Knowing and Intelligent Waiver

¶26 The next question before us is whether West knowingly and intelligently waived her right to be represented by counsel at sentencing. West argues that because there was no colloquy on the record that would inform this court that her waiver was knowingly and intelligently made, her waiver was invalid. The State disagrees and argues that even in the absence of a colloquy conducted by the sentencing court, the record shows that West knowingly and intelligently waived her right to counsel because she “was given a front row seat to the intricacies of navigating a criminal case” as she did not excuse her counsel until after the trial.

¶27 “Under both the United States and Utah Constitutions, a criminal defendant has the right to assistance of counsel,” State v. Hall, 2013 UT App 4, ¶ 25, 294 P.3d 632, cert. denied, 308 P.3d 536 (Utah 2013), which includes the right to effective counsel for sentencing proceedings, see State v. Casarez, 656 P.2d 1005, 1007 (Utah 1982) (“Sentencing is a critical stage of a criminal proceeding at which a defendant is entitled to the effective assistance of counsel.”). “Concomitant with that right is the criminal defendant’s guaranteed right to elect to present [one’s] own defense.” State v. Hassan, 2004 UT 99, ¶ 21, 108 P.3d 695; see also State v. Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 26, 137 P.3d 716 (“Defendants also have the right to waive their right to counsel.”). Because the right to counsel and the right to waive counsel are mutually exclusive, “a trial court must be vigilant to assure that the choice [to waive counsel] is freely and expressly made ‘with eyes open.’” State v. Bakalov, 1999 UT 45, ¶ 15, 979 P.2d 799 (quoting Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 835 (1975)). “Before permitting a defendant to [self-represent], . . . a trial court should ensure that the waiver [of counsel] is voluntary, knowing, and intelligent.” Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 26.

¶28      A defendant may employ any of three different methods to validly waive a right to counsel: “true waiver, implied waiver, and forfeiture.” State v. Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 17, 414 P.3d 1092.

¶29      At issue here is true waiver: “A true waiver is one in which the defendant affirmatively represents that [she] wishes to proceed without counsel.” Id. ¶ 18. To be a valid true waiver, a defendant must “clearly and unequivocally” communicate to the court the wish “to proceed pro se.” Id. (quotation simplified); see also State v. Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 34, 501 P.3d 116 (“True waiver occurs when a defendant directly communicates a desire to proceed pro se.”). “Where a defendant expressly declines an offer of counsel by the trial judge” but later challenges the validity of that waiver, “[she] has the burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence that [she] did not knowingly and intelligently waive this right.” Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 39 (quotation simplified).[5]

¶30 There is no question in this case that West clearly and unequivocally communicated to the court her desire to represent herself at sentencing. In her written motions, and then at the sentencing hearing when the court asked if she wanted a new lawyer, West plainly expressed her wish to proceed on her own without the assistance of counsel. But waiver alone is not enough to verify that West understood the significant right being waived and how her waiver might be applied in the real-world setting of sentencing. So, we must next address whether West’s waiver was knowingly and intelligently made. See id. ¶ 34 (“To be a valid true waiver, the defendant must (1) clearly and unequivocally request self-representation and (2) act knowingly and intelligently, being aware of the dangers inherent in self-representation.” (quotation simplified) (emphasis added)).

¶31 For a waiver to be knowingly and intelligently made, a defendant must understand “the relative advantages and disadvantages of self-representation in a particular situation.” State v. Frampton, 737 P.2d 183, 188 (Utah 1987) (quotation simplified). In other words, a court must be satisfied that a defendant has “actual awareness of the risks of proceeding pro se under the particular facts and circumstances at hand.” Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 19 (quotation simplified). The best way to ascertain if a defendant has the requisite knowledge of the legal mire she wishes to wade into is for a court to engage in “penetrating questioning,” Frampton, 737 P.2d at 187, on the record, see Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 19. Such questioning is the “encouraged” practice for courts, utilizing Frampton’s “sixteen-point guide” as a framework to ensure a defendant is making the decision to proceed pro se knowingly and intelligently. See id.see also Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 42 (“The sixteen-point colloquy found in State v. Frampton establishes a sound framework for efficient and complete questioning.”); cf. State v. Patton, 2023 UT App 33, ¶ 14 n.5 (“We encourage trial courts to keep a prepared Frampton waiver-of-counsel colloquy script at the ready on the bench, for use when the occasion arises.”).

¶32      Absent a colloquy, it is still possible for a reviewing court to find that a defendant’s waiver was validly made after examining “any evidence in the record which shows a defendant’s actual awareness of the risks of proceeding pro se” at the time the defendant communicated the wish to self-represent. Frampton, 737 P.2d at 188. Therefore, we must conduct a “de novo review of the record to analyze the particular facts and circumstances surrounding the case” to establish “whether the defendant understood the consequences of waiver.” See Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 41 (quotation simplified). However, more than once and quite recently, Utah’s appellate courts have noted that such a conclusion is rare. See id. (“It is possible—although perhaps rare—for a defendant to knowingly and intelligently waive the right to counsel without a Frampton colloquy.” (citation omitted)); Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 45 (“We therefore anticipate that reviewing courts will rarely find a valid waiver of the right to counsel absent a colloquy.”).[6]

¶33 Given the rarity, we look to Frampton and Bozarth for instruction, both of which demonstrate when the record may support a conclusion that a defendant did knowingly and intelligently waive the right to counsel in the absence of an adequate colloquy. See Frampton, 737 P.2d at 188–89; Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶¶ 42–48.

¶34      In Frampton, the defendant was represented by counsel at a trial that resulted in a hung jury. 737 P.2d at 186. The defendant then opted to represent himself at a second trial that resulted in a mistrial. Id. A third trial was scheduled, and prior to the third trial, the defendant filed eighteen of his own motions, two of which “asserted his right to assistance of counsel,” but he “insisted on being represented by a non-member of the Bar,” which option is not constitutionally protected. Id. at 189. On the day of the third trial, the defendant indicated that he wished to represent himself, and the court acknowledged the defendant’s right to self-representation and indicated that “[the defendant] would be accorded every courtesy along that line.” Id. at 186 (quotation simplified). The court then appointed standby counsel, over the defendant’s objections, but the defendant “refused to receive any help from the appointed counsel.” Id. at 186, 189. On appeal, the Utah Supreme Court concluded that the defendant had “knowingly and intelligently waived the right to representation by counsel” for several reasons. Id. at 188–89. First, the record clearly indicated that the “value of counsel should have been apparent to defendant” because while represented, his trial ended in a hung jury. Id. at 189. Furthermore, the court noted that the record showed several instances that, taken together, supported a conclusion that the defendant was sufficiently versed in legal procedures and proceedings: (1) he had filed eighteen of his own motions, (2) he had explained to jurors “the statute under which he was charged,” (3) he had been informed of the charge he faced and the possible penalty for a guilty verdict, and (4) he had been “accorded . . . every courtesy” by the court when it “explain[ed] applicable procedure and [gave] defendant extremely wide latitude in conducting his defense.” Id.

¶35      Likewise, in Bozarth, this court reached a similar conclusion regarding the question of whether a waiver was knowingly and intelligently made for a similar reason: the record showed as much. 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 44. In Bozarth, the defendant initially requested counsel but reserved his right to self-representation in the event that he wanted to “retake the helm” at a later time. Id. (quotation simplified). Additionally, prior to the defendant undertaking his own representation, the trial court had instructed and the defendant was aware of the importance of having counsel, and the defendant specifically requested that standby counsel be provided to “assist” only. Id. The defendant had even demonstrated knowledge about court procedures: he invoked the exclusionary rule at an evidentiary hearing and negotiated a plea deal that included his reservation of the right to appeal all prior objections, including “ineffective assistance of counsel.” Id. ¶¶ 14, 18. Lastly, the defendant had been informed of the charges against him and the potential penalties of a conviction on his charges. Id. ¶ 44. The Bozarth court then concluded that, with all these things taken together, the defendant had failed to meet his burden of proving that he “did not knowingly and intelligently waive his right to counsel.” Id.

¶36 But West’s case went differently. Here, unlike the defendants in both Frampton and Bozarth, there is no indication in the record that West had been informed by her counsel or by the sentencing court of the risks she faced by proceeding alone, nor was it clear that she understood the associated value of having the assistance of counsel during her sentencing or that she understood the law or the procedural requirements of a sentencing hearing. When West elected to proceed pro se, the sentencing court simply mentioned on the record that by doing so, she may have put herself at a disadvantage, with no other discussion or explanation as to why West’s decision would have done so. Again, this is in direct contrast to the facts of both Frampton and Bozarth, where those judges not only advised the defendants of the risks of proceeding pro se, but also encouraged or insisted on appointing standby counsel in the event assistance was needed.

¶37      Furthermore, while it is true that West filed several pro se motions prior to sentencing, which action on its face could indicate an awareness of court procedures like in Frampton, the content of West’s filings should have suggested to the sentencing court that she did not understand that attorneys and litigants are expected to conduct themselves with decorum and professionalism every time they enter the courtroom or file a pleading. The sentencing court even commented on the disparaging content of West’s motions: “If you were a lawyer, you would, in all likelihood, if you said those kinds of things to a judge, and wrote the kinds of things that you did, there’s a significant possibility that you would have sanctions issued against you.” But even with these indications that West perhaps did not grasp the implications of proceeding without counsel, the sentencing court’s investigation of West’s knowledge of the risks of self-representation stopped there.[7]

¶38 The State defends West’s waiver as knowing and intelligent because West “was given a front row seat” to observe her trial counsel at trial and argues that this knowledge was sufficient to establish that West knew the “intricacies of navigating a criminal case.” We disagree with this reasoning. Merely observing court proceedings does not provide an untrained pro se defendant with the awareness or knowledge of the risks of appearing for sentencing without representation. Few lay people, even after observing a trial from start to finish, would then be able to understand “the various matters germane to a sentencing proceeding,” such as the ability to argue mitigating circumstances and evidence to influence sentencing. See State v. Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 26, 414 P.3d 1092. For instance, a sentencing may involve discussion of the actions that a defendant may take following a guilty verdict, the financial ability that a defendant has to pay a fine or pay for a remedial course, appropriate lengths of jail time or suspended jail time, and previous criminal history. Without prior exposure to a sentencing for a charge of violating a stalking injunction, it is not persuasive to argue that West would understand the differences between a trial and a sentencing proceeding and the risks she assumed by continuing without the assistance of counsel to aid her in arguing, for instance, against the imposition of an anger management class or for a reduced fine or suspended jail time. We therefore strongly disagree that West’s “observations” of her attorney in action in court proceedings resulted in something that resembled the legal acuity or understanding of court proceedings that the defendants in Frampton and Bozarth exhibited.

¶39      Accordingly, we conclude that West has met her burden to show that her waiver of counsel prior to sentencing, though express, was not knowingly and intelligently made. The sentencing court should have conducted further inquiry into West’s awareness, or lack thereof, of the risks of self-representation before allowing her to be sentenced without the assistance of counsel. Therefore, we vacate West’s sentence and remand for resentencing.[8]


¶40 We are not convinced by West’s argument that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the pretrial motions, because West has not met her burden to show that if the other-acts evidence had been excluded or her motion to continue had been granted the outcome of her trial would have been different. We therefore affirm West’s conviction. However, we are persuaded that West did not knowingly and intelligently waive her right to be represented by counsel at her sentencing. We therefore vacate West’s sentence and remand for the limited purpose of resentencing.


Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277


[1] The judge who presided over West’s trial and ruled on the pretrial motions was not the same judge who presided over West’s sentencing hearings and denied West’s pro se post-trial motions.

[2] The entire exchange between the sentencing court and West consisted of the following:

Sentencing Court: [Trial counsel] was appointed to represent you previously?

West: He was.

Sentencing Court: Would you like a new lawyer?

West: No. I will represent myself. I can do better representing myself.

Sentencing Court: Okay. So [trial counsel] is allowed to withdraw from the cases. And Ms. West will represent herself.

[3] West also argues on appeal that the sentencing court erred in interpreting West’s pro se post-trial motions as motions to dismiss instead of considering them as motions for a new trial and denying those motions. However, given our determination that West did not knowingly and intelligently waive her constitutional right to counsel at sentencing, which requires vacating the sentence and remanding for further proceedings, we need not reach West’s final argument here. Remand for re-sentencing will allow West to refile her motions for consideration, with the assistance of counsel if she so chooses.

[4] West highlights in her brief the fact that these events occurred after the incident for which she is charged but does not further expound on any potential significance of this. Even so, we reiterate that timing of other acts in relation to the incident for which a defendant is charged is not a precluding factor to the admission of evidence of those acts: “Rule 404(b) itself . . . makes no reference to ‘prior’ crimes, wrongs, or acts, but refers only to ‘other’ crimes, wrongs, or acts.” State v. Barney, 2018 UT App 159, ¶ 16 n.2, 436 P.3d 231. “Many courts have recognized that other crimes, wrongs, or acts can be relevant, even if those acts occurred after the charged conduct.” Id. (collecting cases).

[5] This court has recently noted the dissonance between the language in State v. Frampton, 737 P.2d 183, 187 (Utah 1987)—that a defendant who expressly declines a trial court’s offer of counsel then bears the burden to show “by a preponderance of the evidence that [she] did not so waive this right”—and the language in State v. Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 45, 137 P.3d 716—that because of the “strong presumption against waiver and the fundamental nature of the right to counsel, any doubts must be resolved in favor of the defendant.” See State v. Patton, 2023 UT App 33, ¶ 22 n.6. We again take the liberty to suggest that the “better, and far clearer, rule would be that where a trial court fails to employ a Frampton colloquy, the presumption is that waiver did not occur and the burden would be placed on the State to prove otherwise. We hope that our supreme court would look favorably on such an articulation.” Id.

[6] Echoing previous decisions addressing this issue, “we continue to strongly recommend a colloquy on the record as the preferred method of determining whether a defendant is aware of [the] risks.” Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 42. While we are cognizant that the “colloquy is not mandatory,” State v. Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 41, 501 P.3d 116, it is nevertheless “the most efficient means by which appeals may be limited,” Frampton, 737 P.2d at 187. We encourage courts to engage in a full colloquy to ensure that criminal defendants are conscious of the challenges that come with self-representation.

[7] Of further note, the April 2021 sentencing hearing occurred sixteen months after the sentencing review hearing at which West verbally asserted her desire to self-represent at sentencing. Sixteen months is a long time—with a pandemic in the middle, no less—and it would have been helpful to revisit West’s intention of being sentenced without an attorney.

[8] During oral argument, there was discussion about whether what occurred at West’s sentencing would be subject to “harmless error” review. However, the State acknowledged that it did not brief this argument. Therefore, “we do not address [the argument] on its merits.” See State v. Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 27 n.2, 414 P.3d 1092.

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How Long Does a Child Custody Court Hearing Take?

rprise that it usually takes much less time and effort to prepare for a proffer hearing than preparing for a full evidentiary hearing. In a proffer hearing the client won’t do much, if anything, during the actual hearing, with the exception of perhaps providing the occasional clarifying answer if the court asks them. No witnesses are called to testify in hearing conducted by proffer; instead, their testimony is provided by affidavit or verified declaration.

If you are unsure if your upcoming hearing will be a proffer or evidentiary hearing, ask your attorney. It could be catastrophic for your case if you show up at court believing the hearing is a proffer hearing when it’s a full-blown evidentiary hearing.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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Artificial Fraudulence

Seth Godin stated it well when he wrote, “The ease with which someone can invent and spread lies [with advancing technology] is going to take most of us by surprise. It’s going to require an entirely new posture for understanding the world around us.”

This is especially true in family law.

We will soon reach the point (some are there already) in family law where a spouse or parent can create fake email, text, and audio and visual “records” of spousal and child abuse, substance abuse, infidelity, assets and debt, property damage, diminution and dissipation of assets, scientific data, etc. that is all but indistinguishable from the genuine article. The level and volume of fakery will be impossible for all but the wealthiest of litigants to discern (and even then, if a duped judge is too proud or to biased to acknowledge and remedy the fraud, all the proof in the world won’t protect the innocent). When truth is practicably impossible to verify in the legal process, truth becomes meaningless to the process.

I don’t know how best to address this problem (it may already be too late). Unless the profession takes immediate and wise action, the liars will make such a mockery of the legal process so fast and so pervasively that trust in the system will be irreparably destroyed (and with good reason). We may reach a point where society at large gives up on the notion of justice being a function of truth (reality).

One concern I have is members of the profession (both opposing counsel and judges) acting “offended” for outraged or “concerned” if somebody claims that deepfakes and other similar tactics are being engaged. I’m concerned that someone who may in the utmost sincerity raise legitimate concerns about the authenticity and veracity of certain evidence being ridiculed as paranoid, a vexatious litigator, unprofessional, etc. Not out of a genuine belief, but in the hopes that shaming or even persecuting the whistleblower will result in the claims being retracted so that the hard work of getting to the truth can be avoided and or so that the desired outcome is not impeded by the facts. When that happens, then who will judge the judges, and by what standard?

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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What Should I Do When a Family Court Judge Refuses to Look at My Evidence?

What should I do when a family court judge refuses to look at my evidence of abuse because my ex’s lawyer lied about me bringing it to him when I had a witness with me?

What you can or should do depends upon why the judge would not consider your evidence.

You say that the judge refused to review your evidence because the judge believed a lie that your ex’s lawyer told him (I presume) something along the lines of “Objection, Your Honor, I was never given a copy of these documents/photographs/recordings. I’m not prepared to address them.”

You claim that you can prove that your ex’s lawyer is lying because you had a witness with me when you delivered the evidence to your ex’s lawyer (I presume) well in advance of the hearing.

It appears that either the judge did not believe you, or, if you did not bring the witness with you to court, that the judge ruled that without the witness’s testimony the judge would not believe that you served your ex’s lawyer with the evidence, and thus would not allow you to present that evidence to the judge.

The lesson learned here?: when you deliver or serve documents/photographs/recordings to someone and need proof that you did so, use a method of delivery or service that provides an objective means of proving it. Have the lawyer or someone at his/her office sign for the documents/photographs/recordings when you or someone from the post office deliver(s) them.  Or you could email the documents/photographs/recordings to the lawyer, which would another way of proving that you delivered/served them. Another thing you could do is file a copy with the court which, though it does not objectively prove you delivered/served the documents on the lawyer, the point is that if you went to the trouble of filing them with the court, then it’s more than likely you also delivered/served them on the lawyer too. Another thing you or your lawyer should do is file a certificate of service with the court that you or your lawyer served/delivered them.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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How Could I Use Transcripts of a Victim Impact Statement to Show the Other Party Has Told Lies in Court and Cannot Be Trusted to Be Honest?

If the statement:

  • is a sworn affidavit or in a form accepted by the court as equivalent to a sworn affidavit; and
  • the content of the affidavit/statement is relevant to the issues before the court in your particular proceeding (“relevant” means the evidence “tends to make the existence of any fact of consequence to the action more or less probable than it would be without the evidence”),

then you likely can submit the statement to the court and have the court admit it as evidence, with the content of the affidavit/statement treated like any other admissible testimony.


Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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Should I intentionally botch my hair follicle test?

Would it be better to botch my hair follicle test so it reads nothing, or allow the judge and the world to see what I’ve been doing the last 6 months? 

First, learn the truth about hair follicle drug test accuracy. 

Second, reduced to its essence your question is, “Should I lie/deceive?” No, you should not. 

Third, when people try to lie and deceive to gain an advantage, those who are caught in their lies and deception cannot be trusted anymore, even when they tell the truth. 

See “The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’”   

I know you don’t want to suffer for your wrongdoing. Few do. But it is part of the process of being accountable, responsible, and changing for the better. 

I know you fear (and with good reason) the punishment being excessive and unfair. But that doesn’t justify engaging in more wrongdoing. Two wrongs don’t make a right. 

If you are serious about being a responsible adult and changing for the better, you may, after conferring with a good (meaning not only a skilled but a decent) lawyer want to tell the court how you wrestled with this problem to show the court that you understand the difference between truth and lies, right and wrong, paying the price for one’s wrongs, and that you want no more and no less than for the punishment to fit the crime. 

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277    

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How can I make my abusive husband divorce me?

Short of holding the proverbial gun to his head (i.e., forcing him to do so against his will), you can’t.  

While you might contrive to motivate your husband to file for divorce against you by committing marital fault yourself, that might cause the court to disfavor you when making the rulings and judgments in the divorce, so you don’t want to go that route.  

If you want your husband to be the one to file for divorce so that you can claim aggrieved/martyr status, you may have to wait a long time, if he ever does in fact file for divorce.  

The good news is that if you want a divorce in the United States you do not have to wait for your husband to file for divorce to obtain a divorce. You can file for divorce yourself, and you can do so without having to blame him for anything (this is what a “no-fault divorce is; obtaining a divorce without having to allege you or your husband is at fault). 

If you are afraid that you won’t be awarded alimony or child custody or some other thing or benefit in the divorce action if you file for divorce, that’s likely not the case (I can’t speak for divorce law in all jurisdictions, but I am not aware of any U.S. jurisdiction that “punishes” a spouse merely for being the one to file for divorce).  

Besides, if your husband is abusing you—AND YOU CAN PROVE THAT (as opposed to merely asserting it in a “your word against mine” situation)—then you’re not only well within your rights to be the one to file for divorce, you are clearly justified in filing for divorce. No decent court is going to fault you for filing for divorce to escape abuse.  

Go meet with an attorney. Find out more about how the law governing divorce works in your jurisdiction. Determine what your options are, balance the risks against the benefits. Learn what you can and should do to prepare for divorce as fairly and successfully as possible.  

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277  

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Nix v. Nix – 2022 UT App 83- insufficient evidence of adultery

2022 UT App 83








No. 20200691-CA

Filed June 30, 2022

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Darold J. McDade

No. 174402122

Seth D. Needs, Attorney for Appellant

D. Grant Dickinson, Attorney for Appellee


TENNEY, Judge:

¶1        Under the Utah Code, there are ten “[g]rounds for divorce,” one of which is “adultery committed by the respondent subsequent to marriage.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-1(3)(b) (LexisNexis 2019). Interpreting this provision, our supreme court has held that evidence of adultery “subsequent to the filing of a divorce complaint is inadmissible for the purpose of establishing grounds for divorce,” though it can be “admissible as lending weight to and corroborating testimony as to prior acts” of infidelity. Vrontikis v. Vrontikis, 358 P.2d 632, 632 (Utah 1961).

¶2        When Jill Nix filed for divorce from Roland Nix Jr., she alleged “adultery committed by Roland during the marriage” as one of “the grounds for dissolution of this marriage.” During his subsequent deposition, Roland declined to answer a question from Jill’s attorney about whether he’d had extramarital sexual relations “since the marriage.” The district court later concluded that this non-response constituted an adoptive admission that Roland had committed adultery before Jill filed for divorce. Based on this conclusion, the court awarded Jill a divorce on the ground of adultery.

¶3        Roland now appeals that decision. As explained below, we agree that Roland’s non-response did not provide sufficient evidence to establish that Roland committed adultery before Jill filed her divorce petition. We accordingly reverse.


¶4        Jill filed for divorce from Roland in August 2017. In her petition, Jill asserted two “grounds for dissolution of [the] marriage,” one of which was “adultery committed by Roland during the marriage.” Jill also asserted cruelty as an alternative ground for divorce. But that alternative ground was not further litigated below, the district court never ruled on it, and neither party has raised any issue about it on appeal.

¶5        In his answer, Roland “denie[d]” Jill’s “[g]rounds.” But Roland did not want the marriage to continue, so he counter-petitioned for divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences.

¶6        Roland was later deposed. During his deposition, the following exchange occurred between Jill’s counsel, Roland, and Roland’s counsel:

[Jill’s counsel:] Have you had any sexual relations with someone other than Jill since the marriage?

[Roland:] It is none of your business.

[Jill’s counsel:] Counsel I am entitled to know.

[Roland’s counsel:] I question the relevance. I don’t think that adultery or anything has been alleged in the pleadings.

. . . .

[Roland:] We are separated and that is none of their business.

. . . . [brief break taken by the parties]

[Jill’s counsel:] We left on the question of adultery. Mr. Nix what is your response?

After another objection and then more discussion between counsel, Roland made a somewhat vague reference to a woman with whom he’d apparently had some type of relationship. A short time later, Roland was asked, “And have you engaged in sexual relations with this person?” Roland answered, “Yes.”

¶7        Roland and Jill eventually settled most aspects of their divorce. But when they weren’t able to agree on the ground for divorce, Jill’s counsel requested a trial on that issue. At a scheduling conference, however, the parties and the court agreed on an alternative procedure under which the parties would submit memoranda about the ground for divorce, after which the court would hear oral argument on the matter.

¶8        In her memorandum, Jill pointed to Roland’s non-response to the deposition question of whether he’d “had any sexual relations with someone other than Jill since the marriage.” From this, Jill asked the court to draw “an adverse inference” that Roland had “committed adultery subsequent to the marriage.” In addition, Jill pointed to Roland’s express admission that he’d “engaged in sexual relations with this person.”

¶9        In his responsive memorandum, Roland asked the court to deny Jill’s request for an adultery-based divorce. Roland asserted that under Vrontikis v. Vrontikis, 358 P.2d 632 (Utah 1961), any adultery that he had committed after Jill filed for divorce could not constitute a ground for divorce. And Roland then argued that Jill had offered no evidence that he had “committed adultery prior to her filing for divorce.”

¶10      After briefing and then a hearing, the district court issued a written decision. There, the court agreed that under Vrontikis, “adulterous conduct subsequent to a divorce petition does not constitute fault,” but that “evidence of such conduct can be used to lend weight” to other evidence that the party had “committed adultery prior to the divorce petition.” (Emphases omitted.) The court then concluded that although Roland had expressly admitted to adultery in his deposition, this express admission had only been to “adultery subsequent to the divorce petition, but prior to divorce finalization.”[2]

¶11 Given its understanding of Vrontikis, the court next considered whether there was any evidence of pre-filing adultery. The court concluded that there was. In the court’s view, Roland’s non-response to the deposition question about whether he’d had sexual relations “since the marriage” qualified as an adoptive admission under rule 801(d)(2)(B) of the Utah Rules of Evidence. Notably, the court not only regarded this as proof “that Roland did commit adultery,” but also as proof “that Roland’s adultery caused the divorce,” i.e., proof that the adultery happened pre-filing. Thus, the court concluded that even if “Roland’s express admission [was] not, stand[ing] alone, a grounds for fault, the adoptive admission satisfie[d] Jill’s burden to show that Roland’s adultery caused the divorce.” Based on this, the court later “awarded Jill a decree of divorce on the grounds of adultery.”

¶12 Roland subsequently filed a motion under rule 59 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure “for [a] new trial or for an alteration of judgment on the issue of grounds for divorce.” Roland challenged the district court’s ruling on several fronts, including procedural fairness, incorrect application of the adoptive admission standard, and insufficiency of the evidence. After Jill opposed the motion, the court denied it. Roland timely appealed.


¶13      Roland challenges the district court’s denial of his rule 59 motion. As he did below, Roland assails this ruling for several reasons. We need address only one of them: Roland’s contention that there was insufficient evidence to support the court’s determination that he committed adultery before Jill filed for divorce.

¶14      A district court ordinarily has “some discretion in deciding whether or not to grant a new trial.” Hansen v. Stewart, 761 P.2d 14, 17 (Utah 1988). But because Roland’s “challenge rests on a claim of insufficiency of the evidence, we will reverse only if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, the evidence is insufficient to support the verdict.” In re Estate of Anderson, 2016 UT App 179, ¶ 7, 381 P.3d 1179 (quotation simplified); accord Hansen, 761 P.2d at 17.


¶15      The district court determined that Roland had committed adultery before Jill filed for divorce. It based this determination on Roland’s non-response to a question about this subject in his deposition, which the court regarded as an adoptive admission of pre-filing adultery.

¶16      On appeal, Roland first argues that the district court erred in concluding that his non-response qualified as an adoptive admission. But we need not decide whether this was so. Even assuming for the sake of argument that the non-response did qualify as an adoptive admission, the court was still required to point to some evidence that Roland had committed adultery before Jill filed for divorce. See Vrontikis v. Vrontikis, 358 P.2d 632, 632 (Utah 1961) (holding that evidence of adultery “subsequent to the filing of a divorce complaint is inadmissible for the purpose of establishing grounds for divorce,” though it can be “admissible as lending weight to and corroborating testimony as to prior acts” of infidelity).

¶17      Roland argues that there was no such evidence. Of note, Roland points out that, in the deposition exchange at issue, he “was never specifically asked whether he had had sexual relations with someone other than Jill since the marriage, but prior to the filing of the petition for divorce.” Having reviewed the portion of the deposition that is in the record, we agree. While Jill’s counsel asked Roland whether he had engaged in extramarital sexual relations, Jill’s counsel never asked Roland when he had done so. As a result, with respect to the critical issue of timing, the question and non-answer that supported the court’s adoptive-admission determination were silent.

¶18 Jill nevertheless points to Roland’s express admission of adultery. But on this, the district court only found that Roland had expressly admitted to postfiling adultery, and Jill has not challenged the court’s temporal limitation of its own finding on appeal. In any event, we’ve reviewed the exchange ourselves. We see nothing in it in which Roland said that his extramarital conduct was limited to post-filing behavior, but we also see nothing in it in which he admitted to any pre-filing conduct. Instead, as with the (alleged) adoptive admission, the timing of Roland’s behavior simply never came up.

¶19      This same defect exists with respect to the small amount of other evidence that Jill provided below to inferentially support her claims about Roland’s adultery. For example, Jill provided the court with a check that Roland had given her for alimony. This check was embossed with a picture of Roland and another woman, and in the identification block in the upper corner, it identified the other woman’s last name as “Nix.” Even accepting Jill’s contention that this could inferentially show that there was a sexual relationship between Roland and the other woman, what matters here is that the check was dated September 2019—which was after Jill had filed for divorce.

¶20      This leaves us with Jill’s final argument, which is to rely heavily on the favorable standard of review. Because Roland challenges the district court’s ruling on sufficiency grounds, we’re required to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the district court’s determination. But Roland’s argument presents us with a “no evidence” challenge—i.e., he argues that “even with the evidence in the record, nothing would demonstrate that . . . Roland committed adultery prior to the filing of the Petition for Divorce.” And to defeat such a claim, Jill “need only point to a scintilla of credible evidence from the record that supports the finding of fact in order to overcome [Roland’s] ‘no evidence’ assertion.” Wilson Supply, Inc. v. Fraden Mfg. Corp., 2002 UT 94, ¶ 22, 54 P.3d 1177.

¶21 She hasn’t. Even on such a review, there must be some evidence to support the determination in question. As we have explained in another context, a “reviewing court will stretch the evidentiary fabric as far as it will go,” but “this does not mean that the court can take a speculative leap across a remaining gap in order to sustain a verdict.” State v. Pullman, 2013 UT App 168, ¶ 14, 306 P.3d 827 (quotation simplified). Here, the evidence demonstrates that Roland engaged in sexual activity with another woman before his divorce was finalized. After all, he expressly admitted as much. But Vrontikis requires evidence of adultery at a particular time—namely, before the petitioner filed for divorce. Jill points to no evidence, and we see none, that even inferentially says anything about when Roland engaged in extramarital sexual activity. Without such evidence, the district court’s finding that Roland had engaged in pre-filing extramarital sexual relations cannot stand. We accordingly reverse for insufficient evidence.[3]


¶22 There was insufficient evidence to support the district court’s determination that Roland committed adultery before Jill filed for divorce. We accordingly reverse that decision and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.[4]

[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. Also, for purposes of consistency and readability, we’ll use the parties’ first names (and corresponding pronouns) when quoting references to them from the record or the briefing, and we’ll do so without using brackets to note any such alterations.

[2] We note that Roland did not actually draw this chronological line in the portion of the deposition in which he made his express admission. But neither party has challenged the court’s determination that the express admission was only to post-filing adulterous conduct.

[3] Our determination leaves a potential wrinkle about what should happen next. At the close of his brief, Roland asks us to not only reverse on insufficiency grounds, but also to “alter the Ruling” ourselves to grant him a divorce on “the grounds of irreconcilable differences.” Roland provides us with no authority that establishes our ability to modify an order in this manner, however, so this request is inadequately briefed. Moreover, Jill petitioned for divorce on an alternative ground, but neither party on appeal has competently briefed the question of whether Jill would be entitled to continue litigating that ground if we reverse the district court’s adultery-based decree. Without such briefing, we decline to decide the question in the first instance.

[4] Jill has asked for her attorney fees on appeal. See Utah R. App. P. 24(a)(9). Because she is not the prevailing party in this appeal, we deny her request.

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What if your client gets custody when they should not have, due to you?

What should you do if you represented a client in a divorce who should not have gotten the kids, but got them due to your ability? 

We have a word for those who do such things, who compromise their principles, who devote their talent and effort to an unworthy purpose for personal gain. 


Many lawyers (more than you likely comfortably believe) come up with all kinds of ways to rationalize and justify it (“everyone deserves a zealous advocate/defense,” “it’s not my place to judge,” “I was just doing what I was trained and paid to do,” etc.), but it’s all prostitution, pure and simple. 

I went through a phase when I sincerely confused being clever with being a “skilled” attorney. There’s a great line from the movie adaptation of John Grisham’s “The Rainmaker”: 

Every lawyer, at least once in every case, feels himself crossing a line that he doesn’t really mean to cross… it just happens… And if you cross it enough times it disappears forever. And then you’re nothin’ but another lawyer joke. Just another shark in the dirty water. 

Fortunately, I quickly realized the error of my ways and just as quickly corrected them as well. I’m not perfect, but I aspire as best I can to do what is right and let the consequence follow. What Hugh Nibley had to say about God’s law applies equally to earthly law: 

The legal aspects of are not what counts — the business of lawyers is to get around the law, but you must have it written in your hearts (Jeremiah 31:33), to keep it “with all thine heart, and with all thy soul,” because you really love the Lord and his law, which begins and ends with the love of God and each other (Deuteronomy 6:5). It must be a natural thing with you, taken for granted, your way of life as you think and talk about it all the time, so that your children grow up breathing it as naturally as air (Deuteronomy 6:7-9). 

I have believed/believed in a client and won cases for clients who I have later learned was in the wrong, who was lying, who shouldn’t have won. I was just as duped as the court in cases like those. I don’t feel guilty or ashamed (I can’t), but I do feel used and demoralized. 

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” –  Friedrich Nietzsche 

“One lie is enough to question all truth.” – Unknown 

Ethical rules prohibit a lawyer from prostituting himself/herself. To cite the two most relevant: 

Rule 3.1: Meritorious Claims & Contentions 

A lawyer shall not bring or defend a proceeding, or assert or controvert an issue therein, unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous, which includes a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law. A lawyer for the defendant in a criminal proceeding, or the respondent in a proceeding that could result in incarceration, may nevertheless so defend the proceeding as to require that every element of the case be established. 

Rule 3.3: Candor Toward the Tribunal 

(a) A lawyer shall not knowingly: 

(1) make a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal or fail to correct a false statement of material fact or law previously made to the tribunal by the lawyer; 

(2) fail to disclose to the tribunal legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction known to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client and not disclosed by opposing counsel; or 

(3) offer evidence that the lawyer knows to be false. If a lawyer, the lawyer’s client, or a witness called by the lawyer, has offered material evidence and the lawyer comes to know of its falsity, the lawyer shall take reasonable remedial measures, including, if necessary, disclosure to the tribunal. A lawyer may refuse to offer evidence, other than the testimony of a defendant in a criminal matter, that the lawyer reasonably believes is false. 

(b) A lawyer who represents a client in an adjudicative proceeding and who knows that a person intends to engage, is engaging or has engaged in criminal or fraudulent conduct related to the proceeding shall take reasonable remedial measures, including, if necessary, disclosure to the tribunal. 

(c) The duties stated in paragraphs (a) and (b) continue to the conclusion of the proceeding, and apply even if compliance requires disclosure of information otherwise protected by Rule 1.6. 

(d) In an ex parte proceeding, a lawyer shall inform the tribunal of all material facts known to the lawyer that will enable the tribunal to make an informed decision, whether or not the facts are adverse. 

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277  

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

Twitchell v. Twitchell – 2022 UT App 49








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



¶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.


¶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.


¶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).


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.


¶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.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277 

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Noel v. James – 2022 UT App 33 – civil stalking injunction

Noel v. James – 2022 UT App 33








No. 20200565-CA

Filed March 10, 2022

Sixth District Court, Kanab Department

The Honorable Marvin D. Bagley

No. 190600053

William Thomas James, Appellant Pro Se

Frank D. Mylar, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES JILL M. POHLMAN and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

HAGEN, Judge:

¶1        To obtain a civil stalking injunction, a petitioner must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the alleged stalker’s “course of conduct . . . would cause a reasonable person: (a) to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person; or (b) to suffer other emotional distress.” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021); see id. §§ 78B­7-102(21), -701(1), -701(5). In this case, the district court granted a stalking injunction against Appellant William James, but it made no finding as to whether James’s course of conduct would have caused a reasonable person in Appellee Michael Noel’s position to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Because the basis for the injunction is not apparent in the record, we vacate the injunction and remand for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.


¶2        Noel sought a stalking injunction after he and James were kicked out of a Kanab City Council meeting. Noel is an experienced public official who previously served as a state legislator for sixteen years and now serves as the executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District. James is a member of a local conservancy group. Both had attended the meeting to give public comment on a controversial permitting issue.

¶3        Noel “got up and got in line” once the comment period opened. James then “got up from the corner” and joined Noel in line. As Noel later testified, “[James] came right at me in kind of a burly manner . . . requiring me to move over for him to get by in an intimidating way. . . . I’m not saying I was fearful, but he came at me and forced me” to move aside. “If I wouldn’t have moved, he would have banged into me.”

¶4        While waiting in line, Noel decided he wanted to be the last person to address the council. Accordingly, he left his place in line and moved to the back. James, however, “wanted to prevent [Noel] from having the last word on [him]”—so he, too, gave up his spot and moved to the back of the line. Noel eventually gave up waiting in line altogether. But when he turned to leave, James stood in his way “to stop [Noel] from getting behind” him once again. And so Noel and James “jockeyed” for a few moments, with Noel unable to get past James and James unwilling to let Noel through. Noel testified, I wanted him to get out of the way, and he was blocking me, and it did anger me to do that. But I was also wondering if there was going to be a confrontation here. I was actually fearful that he might, you know, . . . take a shot at me.

¶5        Noel called James “a worthless piece of garbage.” James, in turn, shouted to the audience, relaying what Noel had just called him. At this point, law enforcement intervened and asked both men to leave the meeting. Noel went home, and James was arrested after he refused to comply. At the encouragement of the chief of police, Noel later petitioned for a civil stalking injunction against James.

¶6        The district court held a full-day evidentiary hearing on the petition. At the hearing, James sought to admit videos of both the city council meeting and a chamber of commerce meeting earlier that day through a witness who had attended both meetings. The videos had not been previously disclosed.

¶7        When the issue first arose, the court and counsel for both parties were under the impression that there were only two videos—one of the chamber of commerce meeting recorded by the witness herself and one of the city council meeting recorded by a videographer hired by the conservancy group. Noel stipulated to the admission of the first video, but he objected to the second video because the videographer was not present to lay foundation. Specifically, Noel’s counsel explained, “If there’s a woman here [who] says she videoed this on her camera, and it accurately depicts what she videoed on her camera, and she was there at the meeting, and she’s subject to cross-examination, and she made the video, I think that that’s proper. But the other one I don’t.”

¶8        But when the witness was called to testify, she explained that there were actually three videos: one video from each of the two meetings that she recorded with her personal cell phone, and a third video from the city council meeting recorded by the videographer. At that point, Noel’s counsel objected to the admission of all three videos because they had not been disclosed and he was “surprised” that they were being offered as evidence. James’s counsel did not dispute that the videos had not been disclosed in advance but claimed that, when the matter was discussed earlier, Noel “had stipulated to anything that [the witness] had personally recorded.” In response, Noel’s counsel argued that he had merely stipulated to the chamber of commerce video: “That’s all we were discussing at the time.” The court agreed with Noel’s counsel that the stipulation was limited to the chamber of commerce video. And because Noel “didn’t make the objection before about not having [the chamber of commerce video] in advance,” the court held him to that stipulation. The court received the chamber of commerce video into evidence per the stipulation, but excluded the other two based on the objection.

¶9        At the conclusion of the hearing, the district court determined that James had engaged in a course of conduct directed at Noel, as required under the civil stalking statute. The court found that the course of conduct consisted of two component acts, each committed at the city council meeting: (1) when James approached Noel “in a kind of burly manner,” and (2) when James “blocked [Noel] from going back to his seat.” The court did not make an express finding that James’s conduct would cause a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Nonetheless, the court granted the requested stalking injunction.


¶10 James now appeals, contending that the district court erred in imposing a civil stalking injunction against him.[2] James primarily argues that his course of conduct would not have caused a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Although the question of whether “a reasonable person would suffer fear or emotional distress” under the circumstances “is a question of fact that we review for clear error, we review the district court’s interpretation [and application] of the underlying legal standard for correctness.” Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 16, 491 P.3d 835; see also Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 16, 322 P.3d 728 (“The proper interpretation and application of a statute is a question of law which we review for correctness, affording no deference to the district court’s legal conclusion.” (cleaned up)).

¶11 James also challenges the district court’s decision to exclude video evidence of the city council meeting. Specifically, he contends that the “videos met the [parties’] stipulation for new video evidence” and that, therefore, the district court erred by excluding them. “The scope of a stipulation presents a question of fact, which we review for clear error.” Fuller v. Bohne, 2017 UT App 28, ¶ 9, 392 P.3d 898 (cleaned up).


I. Civil Stalking Injunction

¶12 To obtain a civil stalking injunction, the petitioner “must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that ‘an offense of stalking has occurred.’” Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25, 491 P.3d 835 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 77-3a-101(7) (LexisNexis 2017)).[3] “The crime of stalking consists of two elements. First, a person must ‘intentionally or knowingly engage in a course of conduct directed at a specific person.’” Id. (cleaned up) (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2) (LexisNexis 2017)). By statute, a “‘[c]ourse of conduct’ means two or more acts directed at or toward a specific person.” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021) (listing several examples of qualifying acts). Second, the respondent “must ‘know or should know that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person’ to ‘fear for the person’s own safety’ or ‘suffer other emotional distress.’” Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 76-5­106.5(2)). A “reasonable person” is statutorily defined as “a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstances.” § 76-5­106.5(1)(d).

¶13      Although the district court recited both elements, it made findings on the first element only. It identified an intentional course of conduct consisting of two acts: approaching Noel in a “burly manner” and later blocking Noel from returning to his seat. But the court did not make a factual finding on the second element, that is, whether James knew or should have known that his course of conduct would have caused a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. “When confronted with questions of fact, this court will only rule as a matter of law if the evidence is so clear and persuasive that all reasonable minds would find one way.” See Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 29, 322 P.3d 728 (cleaned up). Otherwise, “remand is appropriate” to allow the district court to make that determination. See id.

¶14      Noel acknowledges that the district court never addressed the second element on the record, but he argues that James failed to preserve the issue for appeal. We disagree. To issue a stalking injunction, “the district court necessarily had to consider whether [Noel] had established each element of a stalking offense.” See id. ¶ 20. Thus, the court had an opportunity to rule on whether the statutory elements were met, and that issue is “adequately preserved” for appeal. See id. In any event, James specifically argued to the court that “[t]his [was] not a situation where a reasonable person . . . in [Noel’s] position” would have been “afraid of physical harm or . . . in emotional distress.” And he moved “essentially for a directed verdict” on that basis. Therefore, we are confident that James presented this issue “to the district court in such a way that the court ha[d] an opportunity to rule on it.” See State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 15, 416 P.3d 443 (cleaned up).

¶15      Alternatively, Noel contends that we can affirm on appeal because the district court “had evidence to determine that James acted in a threatening manner that would have made a reasonable person fearful or suffer some emotional distress over the two encounters.” When the district court does “not explicitly make a necessary finding,” we may still affirm “if the evidence and statements contained in the record make the evidentiary basis for this finding sufficiently clear.” See Sheeran v. Thomas, 2014 UT App 285, ¶ 8, 340 P.3d 79 (cleaned up); see also State v. Bingham, 2015 UT App 103, ¶¶ 28–29, 348 P.3d 730 (explaining that a reviewing court may “assume that the [district] court found the facts in accord with its decision,” unless “the ambiguity of the facts makes this assumption unreasonable” (cleaned up)). But here, the evidentiary basis for finding that Noel satisfied the second element is not sufficiently clear from this record.

¶16 To determine whether the petitioner has met the second element required for a civil stalking injunction, we apply “an individualized objective standard.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 26. Under this standard, the “subjective effect of the respondent’s conduct on the petitioner is irrelevant.” Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 45. Instead, the relevant question is whether the conduct would have caused fear or emotional distress to “a reasonable person in the petitioner’s circumstances.” Id. (quoting Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 25). “In applying this standard, courts must consider the entire context surrounding a respondent’s conduct” and “must consider the conduct cumulatively, accounting for the facts and circumstances of the individual case.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶17      Our supreme court has suggested a non-exhaustive list of factors that may be relevant to this assessment. Those factors include “the victim’s background, the victim’s knowledge of and relationship with the defendant, any history of abuse between the parties, the location of the alleged stalking and its proximity to the victim’s children, if any, and the cumulative effect of defendant’s repetitive conduct.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 27 (cleaned up). “Furthermore, under an individualized objective standard, a court may consider whether the defendant had knowledge of a particular vulnerability of the victim and then acted with full knowledge of the victim’s vulnerability.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶18 Under this standard, it is far from obvious that a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances would have feared for his safety or suffered emotional distress, given the context in which James’s conduct took place. See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2)(a)–(b) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). The encounter occurred in a public place—a city council meeting—and in full view of a room packed with witnesses. Law enforcement officers were stationed at the meeting and ready to intervene. And Noel is an experienced public official accustomed to dealing with members of the public. See Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 27 (indicating that the individualized objective standard considers “the victim’s background”). Although Noel testified that James was “a loose cannon” and “a different guy than [Noel had] dealt with in [his] years of public service,” the district court made no finding that a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances would have found James particularly threatening. And even though James was ultimately arrested, his arrest was based not on his conduct toward Noel, but on his refusal to comply when law enforcement ordered both men to leave the meeting.

¶19 Noel argues that a reasonable person would fear for his safety under these circumstances. He suggests that the district court’s finding that James approached in a burly manner “could mean that James was acting tough or flexing his muscles or puffing his chest in a manner that would suggest physical aggression.” Perhaps it could, but we have no findings to that effect. Nor do we have a finding that such a display would cause a reasonable person to fear for his safety in the context in which it occurred—a well-attended, public meeting, with law enforcement officers standing by.

¶20 Noel also argues that the evidence supported a finding that James’s conduct would have caused “some emotional distress,” but that is not the standard. The stalking statute defines “emotional distress” as “significant mental or psychological suffering, whether or not medical or other professional treatment or counseling is required.” See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(1)(b) (emphasis added). Noel has pointed to no evidence in the record that would have clearly supported a finding that James knew or should have known that his course of conduct would cause a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to suffer “emotional distress,” as defined by statute.

¶21      If the district court applied the correct legal standard and implicitly found the second element satisfied, the evidentiary basis for that ruling is not clear on this record. Although the interaction that occurred at the city council meeting was certainly uncivil, it is not the type of conduct that would ordinarily cause a reasonable person to fear for his physical safety or experience “significant mental or psychological suffering”—at least not without other contextual facts not apparent from the record. See id.

¶22 Having heard the evidence firsthand, the district court is in an advantaged position to make factual findings as to whether Noel has proved the second element by a preponderance of the evidence. We ordinarily rely on the district court to make those kinds of assessments, because it has “personally observed the quality of the evidence, the tenor of the proceedings, and the demeanor of the parties.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 30. “This is particularly true in a case like this one where the record consists almost entirely of evidence presented at an evidentiary hearing.” See id. Therefore, we vacate the injunction and remand for the district court to determine whether Noel has proved the second element under the legal standard explained in this opinion.

II. Scope of the Stipulation

¶23 Because we are remanding for further findings, we must also reach the question of whether the district court properly excluded video of the interaction between James and Noel at the city council meeting. James argues on appeal that the district court abused its discretion by excluding both videos of the city council meeting, because Noel had stipulated to the admission of late-disclosed videos so long as James laid sufficient foundation by calling the person who recorded each one.

¶24 But in excluding the videos of the city council meeting, the district court found that the parties’ stipulation was limited to the chamber of commerce video. James’s counsel asserted that Noel “had stipulated to anything that [the witness] had personally recorded,” but Noel’s counsel pointed out that, at the time of the stipulation, he was unaware of the existence of the third video and that the only thing counsel had discussed was the chamber of commerce video. The court agreed with Noel’s counsel, saying, “That’s the way I understood the stipulation.”

¶25 The district court’s finding that the stipulation was limited to the chamber of commerce video was not clearly erroneous. At the time of the stipulation, the parties were discussing only two videos. Noel stipulated to the admission of the chamber of commerce video taken by the witness and objected to the admission of the city council video taken by the videographer based on lack of foundation. His stipulation to the chamber of commerce video cannot fairly be read as a stipulation to a third video that he did not know existed.

¶26 James has not argued that the videos were timely disclosed, that the disclosure violation could be excused for good cause, or that the failure to disclose was harmless. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(d)(4) (“If a party fails to disclose or to supplement timely a disclosure or response to discovery, that party may not use the undisclosed witness, document, or material at any hearing or trial unless the failure is harmless or the party shows good cause for the failure.”). Therefore, he has not established any basis on which to reverse the district court’s exclusion of the city council videos.


¶27 James has not established that the district court erred in excluding the late-disclosed videos of the city council meeting, but he has established that the injunction was entered without the necessary findings. Specifically, the district court made no express finding as to whether James knew or should have known that his course of conduct would have caused a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Because the record does not provide a clear evidentiary basis for the court’s decision, we vacate the stalking injunction against James and remand for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.

[1] “On appeal, when a trial court has made findings of fact to support a civil stalking injunction, we will recite the facts in a light most favorable to the trial court’s findings.” Sheeran v. Thomas, 2014 UT App 285, ¶ 2 n.1, 340 P.3d 797.

[2] James, a non-attorney, represents himself in this appeal. We hold him “to the same standard of knowledge and practice as any qualified member of the bar,” but accord him “every consideration that may reasonably be indulged.” See State v. Winfield, 2006 UT 4, ¶ 19, 128 P.3d 1171 (cleaned up).

[3] Although the 2018 amendment of the civil stalking statute governs this case, we cite the most recent version of the civil stalking statute for convenience—unless a prior version is quoted by a different source. Regardless of the version quoted throughout this opinion, the statutory language at issue is the same.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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Hinds v Hinds-Holm – 2022 UT App 13 – child custody award factors

Hinds v Hinds-Holm – 2022 UT App 13




No. 20200586-CA

Filed January 27, 2022

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable James T. Blanch

No. 174905091

Theodore R. Weckel, Attorney for Appellant
Jonathan G. Winn, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which


¶1        Bradley Hinds (Father) and Rachel Hinds-Holm (Mother) married and had a son (Child). After the parties divorced, the district court awarded custody of Child to Father. Mother challenges the court’s discretion in weighing the statutory custody factors and the court’s denial of her motion to continue the trial. We affirm.


¶2        Father and Mother married in May 2015. Within a few weeks of the wedding, they experienced marital difficulties, and Mother left the family home. But after discovering Mother was pregnant, the parties reconciled, and Child was born in February 2016.

¶3        Father, who was in the military, was transferred to New Mexico, where Mother and Child joined him. For a period of about fifteen months, Mother and Father shared the parental duties of raising Child. However, Father contended that Mother interfered in his relationship with Child by not including him in medical decisions, not supporting his family’s relationship with Child, and giving contact with her mother (Grandmother) priority over his involvement with Child.

¶4        In June 2017, Father reported an incident of domestic violence. Father alleged “that he was physically assaulted by [Mother] and [Grandmother] resulting in a bruise on his arm, that he called the police, that base personnel intervened, and that the incident was investigated as domestic violence perpetrated by [Mother].” Mother claimed that “she was yelled at and verbally abused by [Father] during that episode.” While the report from the military labeled Mother as the perpetrator, it determined that the incident “did not meet the criteria for physical maltreatment and entry into” the military’s database. (Cleaned up.)

¶5 Mother then left New Mexico with Child to live with Grandmother in Utah. Thereafter, Father had difficulty reaching Mother and was unable to have contact with Child until September 2017, shortly after he filed for divorce in Salt Lake City, Utah. Under a temporary custody agreement reached by the parties and approved by the court, Mother was awarded sole physical custody, and the parties shared joint legal custody. Pursuant to this arrangement, “[t]he parties were ordered to cooperate with each other in terms of making decisions about the minor child, his health care, his education, and other decisions relating to the parties’ joint exercise of legal custody.”

¶6        However, on at least two occasions, Mother “declined to follow either something she and [Father] agreed to or something she was ordered to do by” the court commissioner. In December 2017, Father filed for an order to show cause in which he raised multiple issues regarding payment of certain expenses and Mother’s failure to follow court orders about joint custody arrangements.

¶7        In early April 2018, the parties attended mediation but were unable to reach an agreement. About a week later, Mother’s first attorney withdrew “as a result of [Mother’s] conduct that appear[ed] to be in bad faith.”

¶8        Mother hired a second attorney, and the parties attended a hearing on Father’s first motion for an order to show cause in May 2018. The court commissioner ruled in Father’s favor, ordering Mother to, among other things, involve Father in daycare and medical decisions regarding Child and to follow parent-time orders.

¶9        In September 2018, the commissioner ruled in Father’s favor on a second motion for an order to show cause, which also concerned matters of parent-time and shared expenses. In that order, the commissioner warned Mother about the consequences of future violations: “The Court admonishes [Mother] that if a third Order to Show Cause is raised before the Court for her inability to facilitate [Father’s] ordered parent-time, the Court will sentence [Mother] to five days of jail for every count of contempt for parent-time which is missed.” The commissioner also ordered Mother to respond to all discovery requests.

¶10      In September 2018, Mother’s second attorney withdrew as counsel. That attorney stated that she was “incredibly frustrated” with Mother and Mother was “acting in bad faith.”

¶11 Later that month, the court ordered that a custody evaluation be conducted by a licensed clinical social worker (Evaluator). The court ordered the parties to “cooperate as reasonably requested by” Evaluator, including participating in appointments and “[s]ubmission of any documents, names of collateral contacts, and other pertinent material for review during the first month of the evaluation process.” Mother did not comply with the evaluation order. Specifically, she (1) did not timely return the completed evaluation agreement; (2) did not timely provide the initial parenting questionnaire; (3) did not fully complete the parenting questionnaire when she did return it; (4) was dismissive concerning the information requested by Evaluator; (5) provided no helpful information by merely answering “yes” or “no” to Evaluator’s questions or by telling Evaluator, “Ask [Father], this is [Father’s] responsibility not mine”; (6) was slow in providing information; and (7) failed to provide Evaluator all the information requested.

¶12 In December 2018, Mother hired a third attorney for the limited purpose of “settling and preparing the final documents.”

¶13      In May 2019, as relevant here, the commissioner certified for trial the determination of physical custody, legal custody, and parent-time. The commissioner also heard Mother’s request to reopen discovery to appoint a rebuttal expert to Evaluator, but the commissioner “declined to rule on it and reserved the issue to be raised by [Mother] before” the judge. Moreover, the commissioner ordered Mother to “complete the outstanding discovery requests,” as the commissioner had ordered in September 2018, and “provide her responses” to Father within twenty-one days. Subsequently, the parties agreed to proceed by informal trial, see Utah R. Jud. Admin. 4-904, and the matter was referred back to the commissioner. A trial was scheduled for September 4, 2019.

¶14      In August 2019, Father filed a third motion for an order to show cause, alleging that Mother was not observing ordered parent-time and had failed to include Father in medical decisions. On August 28, Mother requested that the trial be continued, which the commissioner granted, resulting in a new trial date of November 5. In early September, Mother informed the commissioner that she no longer agreed to the informal trial, and the commissioner recommended that the parties contact the district court for a trial date. Mother’s third attorney withdrew in January 2020.

¶15 After the court scheduled a trial for March 9, Mother hired a fourth attorney on February 11. But he moved for permission to withdraw just fifteen days later, stating, “This withdrawal is done at the request of [Mother], her having knowledge of pending trial date on March 9, 2020. There has been a complete breakdown of attorney-client relationship which makes it impossible for counsel to be provided. [Mother] has indicated that she is planning to represent herself Pro Se at trial.” On February 27, the court entered an order granting the motion, stating that the pending trial of March 9 would not be continued.

¶16 On the morning of trial, Mother, proceeding pro se, informed the court that she had filed a motion to continue on February 26 but that the court clerks informed her that the motion had never been received. She then made an oral motion to continue so that she could retain counsel. The judge noted that Mother’s fourth attorney “represented . . . that [Mother] wanted him to withdraw, that it was at [Mother’s] request that he was withdrawing, . . . that [Mother] understood that the trial would not be continued, and that [Mother] understood that [she] would be representing [herself] at the trial.” Mother responded that when she asked him to withdraw, she thought she would still “be able to have [someone] that would be able to advocate and be there for” her. The court denied the motion.

¶17 At trial, as a threshold matter, the parties agreed that a joint custody arrangement “was not feasible” or in Child’s best interest. Thus, Mother and Father differed only as to which of them should receive sole legal and physical custody. Because the parties lived more than 1,000 miles apart and had an acrimonious relationship, the court determined that joint custody was, indeed, not feasible.

¶18 The court heard testimony from Father, Mother, and Evaluator. Evaluator provided extensive testimony concerning the best interest of Child in light of the statutory factors. Evaluator opined it was in Child’s best interest for Father to be awarded sole legal and physical custody of Child, with Mother receiving parent-time.

¶19 The court was “persuaded” (1) that Evaluator “did a thorough and careful evaluation that included an appropriate analysis of all the pertinent factors” and (2) “by a preponderance of the evidence that [Evaluator’s] expert opinions [were] in the best interests of the minor child in this case.”

¶20 In reaching the conclusion that it was in Child’s best interest that Father be awarded sole legal and physical custody, the court noted that it had not “delegate[d] decision-making responsibility” to Evaluator but had conducted “an independent analysis on the custody factors” set forth in Utah Code section 30-3-10(2) and applied “the evidence presented at trial” to arrive at a determination of Child’s best interest. The court then proceeded to address the custody factors.

¶21      The court found the following factors weighed in favor of Father:

·         Domestic violence, see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(a) (LexisNexis 2019): Despite the evidence being in dispute, the court determined that this factor weighed in favor of Father based on Father’s resulting injury, military documents listing Mother as the perpetrator, and Evaluator’s investigation into the incident.

·         Developmental needs of Child, see id. § 30-3-10(2)(b): Even though both parties unquestionably loved Child, the court reasoned that this factor weighed in favor of Father because evidence was presented that Mother was “not interested in [Child] having an emotional father-son attachment to [Father], and to [the] contrary [had] taken steps to prevent or interfere with such an attachment.” The court noted that there was no evidence that Father “would interfere” with Child’s relationship with Mother. The court concluded that it was “manifestly in [Child’s] best interests to have an emotional bond and supportive parent-child relationship with both parents” and that goal was more likely to be achieved if custody was awarded to Father than if it was awarded to Mother.

·         Parent’s capacity and willingness to function as a parent, see id. § 30-3-10(2)(c): Overall, this factor weighed “very strongly” in favor of Father. The court agreed with Evaluator that if Father “were awarded sole custody, he would cooperate better in terms of facilitating parent-time with [Mother] than she would in facilitating parent-time with him.” The court also found that there had “been a frustrating pattern throughout the pendency of this action of [Mother] agreeing to do things, or being ordered to do things, and then almost immediately refusing to follow through with agreements she made or Court orders she was given.”

·         Wishes and concerns of Child, see id. § 30-3-10(2)(p): While Mother tried to portray in her testimony that Child did not like Father, the court expressed concern that any dislike Child had toward Father was “the product of [Mother] instilling negative feelings in the mind of [Child] against [Father].” And given the court’s impression that Mother was attempting to manipulate Child, it found that this factor militated in favor of Father.

·         Any other relevant factor, see id. § 30-3-10(2)(r): This factor tilted to Father, the court concluded, because if Father was “awarded sole legal and physical custody, he [would] likely cooperate to the extent necessary to ensure that [Mother had a] bond and relationship with [Child].” “But based on [Mother’s] pattern of behavior throughout this action,” the court found it was “more likely than not that if sole legal and physical custody were to be awarded to [Mother], she would not cooperate to support the parent-child relationship and bond between [Father] and [Child].” And because it was “in [Child’s] best interest to have a bond with both parents, and since joint custody [was] not feasible,” the court found that the best way to ensure Child’s best interests were protected was “by awarding [Father] sole legal and physical custody with [Mother] to enjoy parent-time.”

¶22      The court found the following factors weighed in favor of Mother:

·         Child’s interaction and relationship with extended family, see id. § 30-3-10(2)(l): This factor weighed in favor of Mother because Child had a “strong relationship” with Grandmother.

·         Parent who has been the primary caretaker, see id. § 30-3­10(2)(m): This factor weighed in favor of Mother because she had primary custody during temporary orders.

·         Child’s bond with parent, see id. § 30-3-10(2)(q): “This factor [did] not strongly militate for or against either parent” but “[t]o the extent that [Mother had] been the primary caretaker under the temporary orders, this factor would likely militate in her favor.”

¶23      The court concluded these factors favored neither party:

·         Past conduct and moral character of the parent, see id. § 30-3-10(2)(d): The court noted that while evidence of Mother’s prior criminal convictions was presented, those convictions had, according to Mother, been expunged, and Father had presented no evidence to the contrary. Stating that it would not consider expunged charges, the court determined this factor weighed in neither party’s favor.

·         Relinquishment of custody or parent-time, see id. § 30-3­10(2)(h).

·         Duration and depth of desire for custody or parent-time, see id. § 30-3-10(2)(i).

·         Religious compatibility with Child, see id. § 30-3-10(2)(j).

·         Parent’s financial responsibility, see id. § 30-3-10(2)(k).

·         Happiness of Child in previous parenting arrangements, see id. § 30-3-10(2)(n).

¶24      After weighing these factors, the court entered the divorce decree, awarding Father sole legal and physical custody and Mother parent-time as set forth by Utah Code section 30-3-37(6).

¶25      Two days after the trial, Mother’s fifth attorney entered a limited appearance to assist Mother with filing a rule 52 motion[2] to amend the findings of fact and conclusions of law and a rule 59 motion[3] for a new trial. The court denied both motions, ruling Mother raised nothing in them “that she could not have raised earlier” and that they were “impermissible motions to reconsider” lacking “substantive merit.” Mother appeals.


¶26      Mother asserts that the district court erred in applying the statutory custody factors and Utah case law when it found that it was in the best interest of Child to award Father full custody. “We review custody determinations under an abuse of discretion standard, giving the district court broad discretion to make custody awards.” Nebeker v. Orton, 2019 UT App 23, ¶ 15, 438 P.3d 1053 (cleaned up). And “we will not disturb the district court’s judgment unless we determine the district court has exceeded the scope of permitted discretion or has acted contrary to law.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶27      Mother also alleges that she was denied the right to a fair trial when the district court denied her motion to continue the trial. “We review a trial court’s decision on a motion to continue for an abuse of discretion.” Vaughan v. Romander, 2015 UT App 244, ¶ 6, 360 P.3d 761. “Indeed, courts have substantial discretion in deciding whether to grant continuances, and their decisions will not be overturned unless that discretion has been clearly abused. Stated differently, a district court’s denial of a motion to continue is an abuse of its discretion only if its decision is clearly unreasonable and arbitrary.” Clarke v. Clarke, 2012 UT App 328, ¶ 19, 292 P.3d 76 (cleaned up).


I. Custody Determination

¶28 Mother first challenges the award of full custody to Father, arguing that the district court misapplied Utah common law in weighing the factors.[4] We disagree with Mother.

¶29      In the context of determining custody, the court analyzes the child’s best interest through the factors found in Utah Code section 30-3-10(2) in light of the evidence. “Generally, it is within the trial court’s 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.” Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. The “court’s discretion stems from the reality that in some cases the court must choose one custodian from two excellent parents, and its proximity to the evidence places it in a more advantaged position than an appellate court.” Tucker v. Tucker, 910 P.2d 1209, 1214 (Utah 1996). Thus, a custody determination “may frequently and of necessity require a choice between good and better.” Hogge v. Hogge, 649 P.2d 51, 55 (Utah 1982).

¶30      While the district court is accorded discretion in weighing these factors, “it must be guided at all times by the best interests of the child,” see Tucker, 910 P.2d at 1214, and it “must set forth written findings of fact and conclusions of law which specify the reasons for its custody decision,” see id. at 1215. And “[w]henever custody is contested, the district court must provide the necessary supporting factual findings that link the evidence presented at trial to the child’s best interest and the ability of each parent to meet the child’s needs.” K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 27, 414 P.3d 933.

¶31      Here, the district court clearly operated within the above framework in reaching its custody decision. The court found the evidence supported the conclusion that Father was better able to meet the developmental needs of Child. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(b) (LexisNexis 2019). Specifically, the court focused its attention on each parent’s relative ability to co-parent Child. It determined that persuasive evidence was presented to show that Mother was “not interested in [Child] having an emotional father-son attachment to [Father], and to [the] contrary [had] taken steps to prevent or interfere with such an attachment.” As evidence of this tendency, the court pointed to Mother’s testimony and closing arguments:

[Mother] went out of her way several times to tell the Court that [Child] did not like to be around [Father], and that [Child] would act up when it was time to transition to [Father]. It was clear from [Mother’s] testimony that she believed it was an appropriate response to such perceptions to interfere with [Father’s] access to [Child], including interfering with his parent time, and that she . . .

believed such interference was appropriate even in the face of court orders if her perception as [Child’s] mother was that . . . she should keep him from [Father].

¶32 The court also noted that Mother regularly referred to Father by his first name when speaking about him to Child rather than referring to him as Child’s father. The court concluded that “[i]t was evident” that Mother’s testimony “was an effort to suggest that this four-year-old child had a preference for her over [Father].” In addition, the court noted that there was “ample evidence” that Mother had “interfered significantly” in Child’s relationship with Father by “a pattern of misbehavior, violating the orders of the court, and not cooperating with the custody evaluation.” In contrast, the court found “there was no evidence” that Father “would interfere” with Child’s relationship with Mother.

¶33      The court observed that if Mother was truly “looking out for the emotional needs” of Child, she “would make efforts to ensure [Child had] a strong emotional bond and parent-child relationship with both parents.” Based on this evidence, the court concluded,

[T]here is a strong reason to believe [Child] can have an appropriate parent-child relationship with [Mother] if custody of [Child] is awarded to [Father]. But there is an equally strong reason to believe that [Mother] will prevent [Child] from having any such relationship with [Father] if custody is awarded to [Mother]. This is apparent from the pattern of intransigence and noncompliance with Court orders, particularly regarding parent time, that [Mother] has demonstrated during the pendency of this action. It is manifestly in [Child’s] best interests to have an emotional bond and supportive parent-child relationship with both parents, and that goal is more likely to be achieved if custody is awarded to [Father] than if custody is awarded to [Mother].

¶34 With regard to each parent’s capacity and willingness to function as a parent, see id. § 30-3-10(2)(c), the court concluded that this factor overall weighed “very strongly” in favor of Father. As evidence, the court cited the “frustrating pattern throughout the pendency of this action of [Mother] agreeing to do things, or being ordered to do things, and then almost immediately refusing to follow through with agreements she made or Court orders she was given.” This pattern led the court to not being “persuaded that [Mother] would cooperate with [Father] having a parent-child relationship with [Child].” Thus, the court concluded that it was in Child’s best interest for Father to have sole custody because “he would cooperate better in terms of facilitating parent-time with [Mother] than she would in facilitating parent-time with him.”

¶35 One overarching concern of the court in weighing the factors was that it was in the best interest of Child “to live in a situation that maximizes the probability that he will maintain a strong bond and a productive and healthy relationship with both parents.” And “[b]ased on the evidence that was presented at trial,” the court found that if Father was awarded sole legal and physical custody, he would “likely cooperate to the extent necessary to ensure” Mother would have a bond and relationship with Child. But the same could not be said if Mother was awarded sole custody. On the contrary, based on her pattern of behavior, the court found it “more likely than not” that she would not cooperate in fostering a parent-child relationship and bond between Father and Child.

¶36 The court in this case “had to choose between two good parents,” but one of those parents—Mother—had consistently

manifested behavior that suggested she would not support or nurture Child’s relationship with Father. See Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 38, 989 P.2d 491; see also Tucker v. Tucker, 910 P.2d 1209, 1215 (Utah 1996) (“Often, when there are two equally suitable parents, the trial judge may be compelled to base a custody award upon observations of the parents in court, the reactions of the child to each parent, or other factors. A trial court need not find one parent inadequate before awarding custody to the other.”). So even though certain factors weighed slightly in Mother’s favor, see supra ¶ 22, “we must defer to the trial court’s broad discretion and affirm its conclusion that [Child’s] interests would best be served by awarding [Father] primary physical custody,” see Hudema, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 38. In other words, the court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that it was in Child’s best interest to live with the parent who would most likely ensure that he would have a strong bond and healthy relationship with both parents and that this goal would best be achieved by awarding Father sole legal and physical custody.

II. Motion to Continue

¶37      Mother next argues that she was denied the right to a fair trial when the district court denied her motion to continue the trial.

¶38 “Courts have substantial discretion in deciding whether to grant continuances, and their decisions will not be overturned unless that discretion has been clearly abused.” Clarke v. Clarke, 2012 UT App 328, ¶ 19, 292 P.3d 76 (cleaned up). Stated another way, “we will conclude that a trial court has abused that discretion only if the decision to grant or deny a continuance is clearly unreasonable and arbitrary.” Vaughan v. Romander, 2015 UT App 244, ¶ 10, 360 P.3d 761 (cleaned up).

¶39 Mother has not shown that the district court abused its discretion in denying her motion to continue. In no way did the court act unreasonably or arbitrarily in coming to its decision. In Layton City v. Longcrier, 943 P.2d 655 (Utah Ct. App. 1997), this court adopted a five-prong test to determine whether a district court acted reasonably in denying a motion to continue: (1) “whether other continuances have been requested and granted”; (2) “the balanced convenience or inconvenience to the litigants, witnesses, counsel, and the court”; (3) “whether the requested delay is for legitimate reasons, or whether it is dilatory, purposeful, or contrived”; (4) “whether the [requesting party] contributed to the circumstance which gives rise to the request for a continuance”; and (5) “whether denying the continuance will result in identifiable prejudice to [the requesting party’s] case, and if so, whether this prejudice is of a material or substantial nature.” Id. at 659. We address each factor in turn.

¶40 First, Mother had already received one continuance and one extended period of time following her revocation of consent to an informal trial. While the transitory time between the second scheduled informal trial in November and the March trial date did not result from an express continuance, as a functional matter, granting this motion would have effectually resulted in a third continuance; so the first factor supports a determination that the court acted reasonably in denying the motion.

¶41 Second, granting the motion, which was made on the morning of the trial, would have resulted in significant inconvenience. Father had taken time off work and traveled from New Mexico to be present at trial. Evaluator was also present, and Father had paid her for her time. Mother had also been notified of the trial date and was present in court. So apart from her lack of counsel, she faced no inconvenience in proceeding—other than her desire not to.

¶42 Third, Mother had displayed a pattern of dilatory behavior throughout the proceedings, and the court could have reasonably concluded that her request for a continuance was yet another manifestation of this tendency.

¶43 Fourth, Mother’s action of firing her fourth attorney constituted the very circumstance that gave rise to the putative reason (namely, to hire another attorney) for requesting the third continuance.

¶44 Fifth, and most importantly, Mother was not prejudiced by the denial of the motion. Indeed, the court noted that Mother

was well prepared and represented herself quite effectively at trial, despite not ultimately convincing the court to rule in her favor. She had done research into relevant legal and factual issues. She represented herself tenaciously while still following the procedural rules set forth by the court. She cross-examined witnesses, testified, and presented arguments effectively. . . . Overall, the court’s impression of [Mother’s] performance at trial was that she had successfully deployed evidence and argument to present her strongest possible case to the court, albeit not a case that ultimately prevailed. In light of this, and considering that [Mother’s] inability to present an expert witness at trial was due to decisions by [her] prior counsel not to designate an expert and not due to the court’s refusal to grant a continuance, the court [was] hard-pressed to conclude that counsel could have secured a better result for [Mother] at trial than she secured for herself.

Thus, this final factor also supports the conclusion that the district court acted reasonably in denying the motion. See State v. Wallace, 2002 UT App 295, ¶ 37, 55 P.3d 1147 (“Unless a defendant shows that denial of the continuance had a material [e]ffect on the outcome of the trial, thereby demonstrating prejudice, the trial court’s decision would not constitute an abuse of discretion.”).

¶45 Mother had already effectively received two continuances, and granting a third would have disproportionately inconvenienced Father. Moreover, Mother had a pattern of delaying the custody proceedings and had occasioned the need for a third continuance by her own actions. Finally, there is no evidence that Mother would have received a more favorable outcome had the continuance been granted. Under these circumstances, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Mother’s motion on the morning of the trial.

III. Attorney Fees on Appeal

¶46 Father requests attorney fees incurred pursuant to this appeal. “Generally, when the trial court awards fees in a domestic action to the party who then substantially prevails on appeal, fees will also be awarded to that party on appeal.” Wollsieffer v. Wollsieffer, 2019 UT App 99, ¶ 11, 446 P.3d 84 (cleaned up). But that is not the case here. The court awarded attorney fees below relative to the two orders to show cause, which are not the subject of this appeal. Because Father prevails on separate issues on appeal (namely, the award of custody and the denial of Mother’s motion to continue), he is not entitled to fees incurred on appeal.


¶47 We see no abuse of discretion in the district court’s weighing of the statutory factors in reaching its decision to award custody to Father. We also conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion in denying Mother’s motion to continue. And we decline to award Father attorney fees incurred on appeal. Affirmed.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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What affects the outcome of court cases more?

What affects the outcome of court cases more, the relative strengths and experience of the opposing lawyers, actual facts, relevant law, or some other factor? 

I answer this question in the context of divorce and family law, not all legal settings. 

Now remember, every case involves some unique elements, every case is affected by different influences and to differing degrees, but GENERALLY SPEAKING, in divorce and family law (in my experience), here are the factors that affect the successful outcome of the case most (in descending order): 

  • being the woman (in a heterosexual divorce or child custody case) 
    • I’m not divorced (God willing, I never will be), so please don’t write me off as a bitter misogynist. I represent both men and women in divorce, and the undeniable fact is (at the time I write this, i.e., the early 21st century in the U.S.A.) that unless the woman has some high-profile strikes against her (i.e., an undeniable history of serious substance abuse, violence (against children and/or spouse), child neglect, mental health instability, serious physical disability, dishonest behavior (including, but not limited to infidelity, lying to the police making false allegations of violent, committing fraud, etc.), it’s the woman’s case to lose. The odds favor the woman. 
    • The odds are getting more even between men and women, but the women still generally have an unfair advantage. No question. Even the women attorneys will tell you that. 
      • It should be clear by now that I my statements are generalities, but if it’s still not clear, I will clarify further: I know there are women who are treated miserably unfairly by the legal system from the get-go in divorce and child custody disputes (I’ve represented some), but they are much, much fewer in number than men who suffer the same fate. 
    • having sufficient undisputed facts on your side 
      • Wait, being the woman is a bigger advantage than having sufficient undisputed facts on your side? Is that what you’re saying, Eric? Generally, yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Don’t get me wrong; sufficient undisputed facts are great, often the deciding factor, but not always (and that’s a shame). 
    • having a skilled, persuasive lawyer on your side 
    • the competency of the judge 
      • how impartial the judge is 
        • being friends with the judge—whether that means your lawyer or you—or just well thought of by the judge is a factor. It shouldn’t be, but it is. 
      • how gullible the judge is 
      • how well the judge understands and applies the law correctly 
      • how well the judge crafts rulings that are 1) no more and no less than the circumstances appear to require; 2) both just and equitable; and 3) work in the real world. 
    • being a victim 
      • If the court to pities you, that helps. 
    • how attractive you are in your appearance and speech. This can cut both ways. Ugly inarticulate people generally get treated worse than attractive and articulate people. Yet being “too” good looking or “too” smart can cause some judges to envy and resent your good fortune in the looks and brains department and thus mistreat you for it. And some judges confuse being ugly and dumb as being worthy of preferential treatment. But overall if you’re ugly and dull-witted, that’s a strike against you more often than not. 

 Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277  

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Does saying after an answer “I truly believe that”, “it truly is”, damage your credibility as a lay witness in court or is it better to don’t add this type of qualifiers?

First, whether you “truly believe” something or “find it hard to believe,” testifying to something you believe or don’t believe, as opposed to testifying as to something you know, is the first and biggest problem. 

Testifying about something you believe (but do not know) is inadmissible testimony. Testifying based upon belief (as opposed to personal knowledge)—whether you testify that you “believe” or “don’t believe” a thing to be true, is known in legal parlance as “speculative” and speculative testimony is objectionable and inadmissible. Speculation is no different than guessing, and it would be frightening unfair to decide a case based upon beliefs, instead of based upon facts. 

Second, and somewhat ironically, trying to qualify or bolster your statement to make it more believable may have the opposite effect. Adding qualifiers to your testimony may raise the question as to why you would add them. For example, if you were to answer a question with “To be honest, I do(n’t) know,” use of the phrase “to be honest” is unnecessary. So, one could (could, not must, but could) infer that someone who starts a statement with “to be honest” may often answer questions dishonestly as a general matter, which is why the person distinguishes between when he/she speaks honestly and when he/she does not. So why introduce the doubt as to your credibility at all when there is no need to do so? Better to say merely “I don’t know” and “yes” and “no” than to say, “To be honest, I do(n’t) know” or “To tell the truth, I do(n’t) know”. 

Many people have the linguistic tic or affectation of responding to questions with the phrase “I believe” when in fact such people are not guessing or speculating but know. Imagine a situation where when the witness left the office on a particular day is a crucial fact to be established. Imagine that the witness knows precisely when he/she left the office that day, i.e., 5:15 p.m. When such a person is testifying and says, in response to the question as to what time he/she left the office at the end of the day, “I believe I left the office at 5:15 p.m.,” then the witness is needlessly confusing the judge and/or jury. Saying, “I believe” before making a statement of fact changes that statement of fact into a statement of speculation, a guess. 

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277  

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2021 UT App 77 – Miner v. Miner – alimony, attorney fees



LISA P. MINER, Appellee,  

JOHN E. MINER, Appellant.  



No. 20200098-CA  

Filed July 15, 2021  


Fifth District Court, St. George Department  

The Honorable Jeffrey C. Wilcox No. 174500373  


Troy L. Booher, Julie J. Nelson, and Rodney R. Parker, Attorneys for Appellant  

  1. Adam Caldwell, Attorney for Appellee 


JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which JUDGE  



HARRIS, Judge:  

¶1 John E. Miner appeals several aspects of a comprehensive set of rulings issued following a four-day divorce trial and posttrial proceedings; his chief complaints have to do with the trial court’s award of alimony to his ex-wife, Lisa P. Miner. We affirm the court’s orders in many respects, but reverse certain parts of the alimony award and the court’s attorney fees determination, and remand for further proceedings.   


¶2 John and Lisa2 married in 1997, while John was in medical school. During the course of the marriage, John developed a highly successful anesthesiology practice, with his income generally rising over time; in the marriage’s final years, the family earned, from all income sources, just shy of $1 million per year. John and Lisa have four children together, three of whom were minors at the time of trial and two of whom are still minors today.   

¶3 The Miner family, and Lisa in particular, are equine enthusiasts and for years have owned horses. In 2007, at the total price of $2.6 million, the family completed construction of and moved to a property they colloquially refer to as “the Farm.” Situated on twenty acres of land, the Farm included both a 7,000 square-foot house and extensive equestrian facilities, including an “eight-stall barn” that was built with the intention—at least in part—to allow the family to “make money” from “board[ing] horses.” Maintenance of the Farm was expensive; mortgage payments alone were in excess of $16,000 per month, and it cost another $3,000 per month, on average, to cover utilities and other maintenance costs. John described the Farm as “a wonderful place” that “provided a lot of joy for [the] family,” but acknowledged that “it was over-the-top expensive.”   

¶4 In addition to their equestrian activities, members of the Miner family also enjoy other expensive hobbies. For instance, three of the children, as well as John, “are avid tennis players”; two of the children—the ones that are currently still minors—are particularly active in the sport, and have “aspirations to play . . . in college.” As a result, the cadence of the family’s schedule often revolves around the children’s tennis activities, including not only practices with expensive private coaches but also frequent tournaments, many of which involve travel to other cities. And while the family’s travels often involve tennis— including an expensive annual “pilgrimage” to a professional tournament in California—they sometimes travel for pleasure as well, including trips to Europe and other international destinations.   

¶5 In order to meet the “exorbitant” costs of maintaining the family’s lifestyle, during the marriage John maintained an aggressive and “erratic” work schedule, sometimes working sixty to ninety hours in a week. Although it is not unusual for anesthesiologists to work odd shifts with long hours, John chose to work more than any other partner in his practice and often volunteered for procedures that paid at a higher hourly rate, making him “the top wage earner” in his practice for twelve years running. From his medical practice, John earned on average about $900,000 per year in the last three years of the marriage. Anesthesiologists are “paid based on time and the type of case,” meaning that, in large part, John’s earnings were “based on the amount of time that [he] put in.” John had significant involvement with the children when he was at home—for instance, he helped with homework and coached their sports teams—but due in part to John’s heavy work schedule, Lisa managed the lion’s share of the day-to-day childcare duties.   

¶6 Lisa has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s degree in athletic training, but she has never worked as an athletic trainer or exercise specialist, choosing instead to devote her time to raising the parties’ children. After the family finished building the Farm, Lisa began to earn an income as well, mostly by boarding horses and offering lessons as a dressage and horse riding instructor. In the last few years of the marriage, her average annual revenue from teaching lessons and boarding horses was approximately $32,000.   

¶7 In April 2017, Lisa filed for divorce, citing (among other things) irreconcilable differences. Lisa sought primary physical custody of the children, child support, alimony, and equitable division of the marital property. Some months later, the trial court entered an initial bifurcated divorce decree and two sets of temporary orders. Under those orders, Lisa and John were awarded joint physical custody, with Lisa the primary physical custodian, and with John exercising parent-time pursuant to section 30-3-35.1 of the Utah Code. John was to pay the parties’ monthly bills, and Lisa was allocated $3,000 per month for other expenses. The court also ordered the parties to sell the Farm, which they did.   

¶8 Soon thereafter, the case proceeded to a bench trial, which was held during four trial days spaced out over several months in mid-2018. During the trial, the court heard testimony from Lisa and John, as well as several other individuals, most notably a forensic accountant (Accountant)—who testified about a report (the Report) he had prepared regarding “marital income, marital expenditures,” and valuation of marital property, including valuation of John’s medical practice—and Lisa’s brother (Brother), a fellow anesthesiologist in John’s medical practice, who testified about the nature of the medical practice and its typical business expenses. After trial, the court issued a lengthy oral ruling stating its findings and conclusions; the ruling was later memorialized into written findings and a supplemental decree of divorce that were entered on December 31, 2018.   

¶9 We will discuss some of the particulars of the court’s ruling in more detail below, on an issue-by-issue basis. But in broad strokes, the court ruled in relevant part as follows: (a) the parties were “awarded joint legal and physical custody of the[] minor children,” with Lisa the primary physical custodian, and with John awarded six overnights in each fourteen-day period, although the court stated that equal parent-time should ultimately “be the goal”; (b) John’s income, for purposes of the child support and alimony calculations, was set at $75,000 per month; (c) Lisa’s income, for those same purposes, was set at $1,500 per month; (d) based on those calculations, John was ordered to pay monthly alimony to Lisa in the amount of $18,690 for twenty years, unless terminated earlier “upon the death of either party, or upon [Lisa’s] remarriage or cohabitation”; and (e) each party should pay his or her own attorney fees.   

¶10 After the ruling, both parties filed post-trial motions and, following two hearings on these motions, the court made four additional rulings pertinent to our review: (i) it reiterated the length and duration of its original alimony award, declining to grant John’s post-trial request to shorten the alimony period and craft a rehabilitative alimony award; (ii) it applied its alimony award retroactively to cover the months when its temporary orders were in effect, and determined that Lisa was entitled to $66,072.80 in retroactive alimony; (iii) it reiterated its order that each party pay his or her own attorney fees, despite John’s posttrial argument that he had, in effect, paid for a large portion of Lisa’s attorney fees during the proceedings and had not been credited for doing so; and (iv) it altered its previous parent-time order to impose an equal parenting arrangement, wherein each party would have the children for seven overnights during each fourteen-day period.   


¶11 John now appeals the trial court’s rulings, and presents two principal issues for our review. First, he challenges several aspects of the trial court’s alimony award. Where such challenges are preserved, we review all aspects of the trial court’s “alimony determination for an abuse of discretion and will not disturb its ruling on alimony as long as the court exercises its discretion within the bounds and under the standards [our supreme court has] set” and so long as the trial court “has supported its decision with adequate findings and conclusions.” Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 84, 459 P.3d 276 (quotation simplified). However, John acknowledges that some of his challenges to the court’s alimony award are unpreserved, including some of his challenges to certain line items in the court’s calculation of Lisa’s needs. At John’s request, we will review these unpreserved challenges for plain error. See Vanderzon v. Vanderzon, 2017 UT App 150, ¶¶ 37–39, 402 P.3d 219. “To demonstrate plain error, [an appellant] must establish that (i) an error exists; (ii) the error should have been obvious to the trial court; and (iii) the error is harmful.” Id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified).3 

¶12 Second, John challenges the court’s attorney fees ruling, which we review for abuse of discretion. See Roberts v. Roberts, 2014 UT App 211, ¶¶ 7, 27, 335 P.3d 378 (“In divorce cases, both the decision to award attorney fees and the amount of such fees are within the trial court’s sound discretion.” (quotation simplified)).4    


¶13 We begin with John’s multifaceted challenge to the court’s alimony award, analyzing each aspect of his challenge in turn. We then address John’s challenge to the court’s attorney fees order.   

  1. Alimony 

¶14 Under Utah law, “the primary purposes of alimony . . . are: (1) to get the parties as close as possible to the same standard of living that existed during the marriage; (2) to equalize the standards of living of each party; and (3) to prevent the recipient spouse from becoming a public charge.” See Rule v. Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 14, 402 P.3d 153 (quotation simplified). “Alimony is not limited to providing for only basic needs but should be fashioned in consideration of the recipient spouse’s station in life in light of the parties’ customary or proper status or circumstances, with the goal being an alimony award calculated to approximate the parties’ standard of living during the marriage as closely as possible.” Id. (quotation simplified). During their marriage, John and Lisa enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle and high standard of living, and to allow Lisa to participate in that lifestyle following the divorce, the court ordered John to pay Lisa $18,690 per month in alimony for a twenty-year period.   

¶15 John advances a three-part challenge to the alimony award. First, he takes issue with the amount of that award, and contends that the court erred in its calculation of Lisa’s demonstrated needs, Lisa’s potential income, and John’s potential income. Second, he challenges the duration of the award, asserting that the court should not have awarded Lisa alimony for twenty years—the length of the marriage—but instead for a shorter “rehabilitative” period. Finally, John takes issue with the court’s decision to make the alimony award retroactive to cover the temporary orders period. We address each of these challenges, in turn.  

  1. Amount of Alimony  

¶16 The appropriate amount of any alimony award is governed by a multi-factor inquiry, first articulated in Jones v. Jones, 700 P.2d 1072 (Utah 1985). See id. at 1075. Now expanded and codified in statute, see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(8)(a)(i)–(vii) (LexisNexis 2019), the first three factors—the so-called “Jones factors”—require a court to examine “(i) the financial condition and needs of the recipient spouse; (ii) the recipient’s earning capacity or ability to produce income; [and] (iii) the ability of the payor spouse to provide support,” Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶¶ 94–95, 459 P.3d 276 (quotation simplified).   

¶17 “A party seeking alimony bears the burden of demonstrating to the court that the Jones factors support an award of alimony.” Id. ¶ 95. “To satisfy this burden, a party seeking alimony must provide the court with a credible financial declaration and financial documentation to demonstrate that the Jones factors support an award of alimony.” Id. ¶ 96. “And in all cases” the trial court “must support its [alimony] determinations with adequate findings,” Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 22, “on all material issues,” Howell v. Howell, 806 P.2d 1209, 1213 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (quotation simplified). “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. (quotation simplified).  

¶18 “In many cases, the level of expenses and the standard of living of the separated parties at the time of trial will not be representative of the parties’ customary or proper status or circumstances” during the marriage. See Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 16 (quotation simplified). “Our precedent thus reflects and reinforces the general rule that alimony should be based upon the standard of living the parties established during the marriage rather than the standard of living at the time of trial.” Id. ¶ 15. “We have therefore cautioned against determining alimony based upon actual expenses at the time of trial because . . . a party’s current, actual expenses may be necessarily lower than needed to maintain an appropriate standard of living for various reasons, including, possibly, lack of income.” Id. ¶ 16 (quotation simplified); see also Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(8)(e) (“As a general rule, the court should look to the standard of living, existing at the time of separation, in determining alimony . . . .”). However, in appropriate situations with regard to certain line items, a court may apply “equitable principles,” in its discretion, to “base alimony on the standard of living that existed at the time of trial.” See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(8)(e); see also Degao Xu v. Hongguang Zhao, 2018 UT App 189, ¶ 21, 437 P.3d 411 (“[A] trial court may, in its discretion, assess some of the parties’ expenses as of the time of separation, but nevertheless assess other expenses as of the time of trial.”).   

¶19 With these principles in mind, we turn to John’s challenge to the amount of the alimony award, which also breaks down into three parts: John challenges the court’s computations of Lisa’s needs, Lisa’s income and earning capacity, and John’s income and earning capacity. We address John’s arguments in that order.  

  1. Lisa’s Needs 

¶20 As part of its overarching ruling awarding Lisa monthly alimony of $18,690, the court determined that Lisa’s reasonable monthly expenses, measured with the marital standard of living in mind, were $26,000. That figure, in turn, was the sum of fortyfive separate line-item determinations, most of which John does not challenge. However, John raises eleven separate criticisms of the court’s computation of Lisa’s expenses, asserting that the court’s awards in certain categories “were unsupported by any documentation or corroborating evidence,” and that other awards exceeded what was supported in the evidence. We address each of these challenges, but first pause to describe, by way of background, how Lisa developed many of the expense computations she included in her financial declarations and about which she testified at trial.5 

¶21 In early 2018—after Lisa had filed for divorce but before trial—John and Lisa jointly hired Accountant to create the Report, in which he itemized the parties’ past and future estimated monthly expenses, and valued their marital property, including John’s business. In describing the process of preparing the Report, Lisa testified that she and Accountant gathered credit card statements, bank statements, and “everything we could possibly find” for “every month in 2015 and ’16.” Once they had the documents, they “spent several hours over many days” going over “every single transaction and expense for 2015 and ’16” and “placing them into categories.” The Report was admitted into evidence, and served as the primary support for the expense line items on Lisa’s financial declarations. In addition, both John and Lisa testified as to different aspects of their marital standard of living, and Lisa also testified extensively about several of the line items in her expense requests.   

  1. Tennis Expenses  

¶22 The trial court allocated $1,000 per month to Lisa for tennis-related expenses, an allocation John asserts was “unsupported by any documentation or corroborating evidence.” This challenge is preserved, so we review for abuse of discretion.   

¶23 John correctly points out that Lisa did not include a tennis-related line item in her financial declarations, nor was it included in the Report. However, in her closing argument memorandum, Lisa requested $1,000 per month to be used for “Tennis Coaching/Tennis Tournaments & Travel,” and the trial court granted this request in full, without elaboration in its written findings as to what the funds were intended to cover. Yet it is clear from Lisa’s testimony and evidence for other line items (which went unchallenged by John) that this tennis specific line item was not intended to include money for Lisa to buy the children tennis-related clothing, or to pay for gasoline and other expenses related to transporting the children to tennis activities.  

¶24 John challenged this line item in a post-trial motion, asserting that because he had “agreed to pay for all tennis related items and the court awarded him the money to do so,” Lisa had no need for funds to be allocated toward tennis expenses. In the back-and-forth associated with that motion, it became clear that the line item was meant to include expenses for tennis camps, lessons, rackets, and other tennis-related costs; Lisa acknowledged that John was paying most of these expenses, but she argued that the court should allow her to have a budget for some of them—and not run them all through John’s side of the finances—so that she would not end up “stuck at home while [John] is . . . the only one that gets to . . . participate in these [tennis] activities that” the family had “historically all shared and enjoyed in.” The trial court was persuaded by that argument, at one point stating that it was awarding this particular line item to Lisa so that she—like John—could have some ability to spend money on “tennis for the kids,” and stating, by way of example, that Lisa could use the money to enroll the children in a particular tennis camp, even if John did not agree to it.   

¶25 There is no dispute that the costs associated with the children’s tennis activities—even excluding amounts for tennis clothing, and gasoline for transportation, which are included in other categories—were a “family expense,” and that the total costs amounted to, on average, somewhere around $2,500 per month. We perceive no abuse of the court’s discretion in ordering that some of these expenses be routed through John’s side of the finances, and some through Lisa’s, in order to give both parties some measure of control over how those funds are spent. And given that the family’s tennis expenses totaled some $2,500 per month, the court’s choice of $1,000 for this line item was—contrary to John’s assertion—well within the range supported by the evidence. We therefore reject John’s challenge to the tennis expense line item.   

  1. Entertainment  

¶26 The trial court allocated $625 per month to Lisa for “entertainment,” which was exactly half of what Lisa requested. John challenges this line item, asserting that Lisa failed to provide any evidence supporting it. This challenge is preserved, so we review for abuse of discretion.   

¶27 When asked on direct examination what was included in this category, Lisa indicated that she was unsure, but that even her requested amount of $1,250 was “less than what [the family had] historically spent” on entertainment. On cross examination, she was not able to cite any specific examples of what she intended to include in that category, but testified that she and Accountant had derived the number by going through the credit card statements and that “every single thing that was entertainment, we put in there.” John asserts  that this evidence is insufficient, comparing this situation to the one presented in Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, 459 P.3d 276, in which our supreme court clarified that the recipient spouse needs, at minimum, some evidence of financial need beyond merely “unsubstantiated testimony” regarding marital expenses. See id. ¶¶ 108–09 (explaining that the petitioner did not meet her burden of showing financial need because “[s]he provided no financial declaration, no supporting financial documentation, and no expert testimony”).   

¶28 We take John’s point that Lisa’s trial testimony about this line item was not as specific as it could have been. But in our view, this situation is a far cry from Dahl. Here, Lisa’s entertainment expense was supported by more than unsubstantiated testimony. As Lisa explained, the line item was created during the thorough review she and Accountant made of the family’s financial documents, and the $1,250 amount appears as a line item in the Report. And our examination of some of the credit card statements admitted into evidence reveals that John and Lisa each were spending several hundred dollars every month on things that certainly appear to be entertainment-related. Indeed, John requested as much as $1,000 per month in entertainment expenses. We also note that the trial court penalized Lisa for her lack of specificity by cutting her request in half.   

¶29 In the end, we consider the “entertainment” line item to be supported by sufficient evidence, and we perceive no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s handling of the matter. To the contrary, we agree with its assessment that an entertainment budget for Lisa of $625 per month was not “out of line,” considering that the parties “liv[ed] on almost a million dollars a year” during the marriage.   

  1. Legal and Accounting Expenses  

¶30 The trial court allocated $200 per month to Lisa for legal and accounting expenses, cutting Lisa’s request down from $333.33. John challenges this line item, again asserting that Lisa failed to provide any evidence supporting the expenses. This challenge was preserved, so we review for abuse of discretion.   

¶31 Lisa explained at trial that her request for $333 per month in legal and accounting costs was based on Accountant’s review of the parties’ expenses, and was intended to cover her costs of “[h]aving taxes prepared, things like that,” and for non-divorce-related legal fees for things that come up from time to time, as had happened occasionally during the parties’ marriage. The line item appeared in the Report. John protests that this amount is not intended to cover any of the attorney fees incurred in the divorce case—indeed, those are discussed separately in this opinion, see infra part II—and that Lisa presented no evidence that she would have any legal expenses after the divorce was over. The trial court appeared to take John’s point about attorney fees, and on that basis cut Lisa’s allocation from $333.33 to $200, but still found that Lisa needed some money for legal fees and accounting fees combined, offering its view that Lisa “was going to need some accounting help” that consisted of “more than [simply] taking [her tax documents] to H&R Block,” and that “$200 a month is fair” for someone in that situation to pay for accounting services.   

¶32 John contends that this amount is too high, but he supports that contention only with a bare assertion that tax preparation costs for many people typically amount to only “a couple hundred dollars per year, not per month.” John makes no effort to engage with the trial court’s viewpoint that, given the nature of these parties’ finances, and the contested post-divorce situation Lisa would be in, Lisa would need more legal and accounting services than an average person might. Under these circumstances, where the line item amount was supported by Accountant’s Report, as well as by Lisa’s testimony, there was more than mere unsubstantiated testimony to support Lisa’s request. We perceive no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s determination that Lisa would need $200 per month for legal and accounting services in the future.   

  1. Out-of-Pocket Health Expenses  

¶33 The court allocated $727.58 per month to Lisa for out-of-pocket health-related expenses (as distinct from health insurance premiums). John challenges this line item, again asserting that Lisa failed to provide any evidence supporting it. This challenge was preserved, so we review for abuse of discretion.   

¶34 For an expense category entitled “Other Health, Out of Pocket, Uninsured, Deductible,” Lisa requested $8,731 annually (or $727.58 per month). When asked about this category during trial, Lisa testified that it was intended to include, among other things, money for “allergy shots” that she and two of the children receive every six weeks (which cost about $1,500 annually), and money for the children to attend counseling (which apparently costs $120 per child per session). Indeed, Lisa’s requested figure is derived directly from the Report, in which Accountant concluded that the parties spent $17,462 annually on “Other Health” costs, apart from insurance premiums, and that Lisa’s share of these expenses was $8,731 per year, or $727.58 per month. Based on this evidence, the trial court granted Lisa’s request, allocating her $727.58 per month for these expenses.   

¶35 John asserts that the trial court’s allocation is unsupported by evidence, claiming that the children did not really go to counseling that often and that, in any event, the children’s health expenses would phase out over time and therefore should not be included in the alimony calculation. John’s objection is unpersuasive, however, where the trial court’s award is based— to the penny—on the figures generated by Accountant, which in turn were derived from the parties’ expenses during the marriage. In this situation, the court’s allocation is supported by ample evidence, and the court did not abuse its discretion in allocating $727.58 to Lisa in this category.  

  1. Car Payment  

¶36 The trial court allocated $833 per month to Lisa for “Existing/Replacement Vehicle Purchase.” John challenges this award, asserting that it exceeds both the amount that Lisa originally requested and the amount supported in the evidence. This challenge is preserved, so we review for abuse of discretion.   

¶37 In her financial declaration, Lisa listed $600 as an expense item for “Vehicle – Future Replacement.” But Accountant did not include any such line item in the Report; instead, the Report indicates loan payments for two specific vehicles, and Accountant testified that he assumed, for purposes of preparing the Report, that John was making both of those payments. However, he also testified that, if Lisa was driving one of those vehicles, then it would make sense to move the payment associated with that vehicle to Lisa’s column. Lisa was in fact driving one of those vehicles and, according to the Report, the monthly payment on that vehicle was $809. By way of comparison, the monthly payment on the vehicle John was driving was $890, and—as discussed below, infra part I.A.3.b— the court found that John should be allocated $833 for a car payment expense.   

¶38 At trial, Lisa was asked about the discrepancy between the monthly payment on the car she was driving ($809) and the monthly car expense she was asking for in her financial declaration ($600), and she pointed out that the amount she was asking for was “considerably less” than what she had been spending. Lisa even indicated that she was willing to sell that vehicle and “replac[e] [it] with something with a lower payment,” and that this was the reason why she asked for only $600 for a future car payment. But despite these concessions, Lisa—in her written closing argument—requested $833 for a car payment, and the trial court ultimately allocated her that amount.   

¶39 John assails the trial court’s allocation for Lisa’s car payment, asserting that no evidence supports the $833 allocation, and that the court abused its discretion by not selecting $600 as the appropriate amount for this line item. We disagree. That $833 figure is the same amount the court allocated to John, and is only $24 more than the amount that the family had been spending on Lisa’s car payment during the marriage. While the trial court, with appropriate findings, could have awarded a lesser amount in line with Lisa’s $600 request, see Degao Xu v. Hongguang Zhao, 2018 UT App 189, ¶ 21, 437 P.3d 411 (noting that courts have the discretion, for certain line items, to assess certain expenses as of the time of trial, rather than as of the date of separation), it is the “general rule” that “the court should look to the standard of living, existing at the time of separation, in determining alimony,” see Utah Code Ann. § 30-35(8)(e) (LexisNexis 2019). We perceive no abuse of discretion in either the court’s general decision to base Lisa’s car payment allowance on the parties’ expenses during the marriage, or in the court’s specific decision to allocate $833 for that purpose—the same figure it allocated to John, and within the range ($809 to $890) that the parties had spent on each of their car payments during the marriage.   

  1. Student Loan Payments  

¶40 The trial court allocated $134.75 per month to Lisa for student loan payments. John challenges this line item, asserting that this amount exceeds what the evidence supports. This particular challenge is unpreserved, so we review for plain error.   

¶41 In her financial declaration, Lisa requested an allocation of $135 per month to make payments on her outstanding student loan obligations. In his Report, Accountant determined that Lisa had $1,617 in annual student loan expenses, an amount that, paid monthly, equals $134.75. The trial court awarded Lisa the amount reflected in the Report.   

¶42 John acknowledges that Lisa has legitimate student loan debt. But he contends that the total debt is less than $7,000, and at $135 per month can be paid off in about four years. John calculates that, over the full twenty-year alimony period, this line item will result in him paying Lisa more than $32,000, and will require him to make payments for Lisa’s student loans long after they have been paid in full. John therefore contends that the court plainly erred by including any amount for student loan debt in the long-term alimony computation. We disagree.   

¶43 In this situation, the trial court did not commit plain error by including a line item for an uncontested student loan payment. As noted above, one of the purposes of an alimony award is to “approximate the parties’ standard of living during the marriage as closely as possible.” See Rule v. Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 14, 402 P.3d 153 (quotation simplified). In assessing alimony, the trial court was tasked with looking at Lisa’s needs and expenses “in light of the marital standard of living.” Id. ¶ 15. During the marriage, and at the time of trial, Lisa had a student loan expense, and we do not consider it plain error for the court to allocate an amount for such an expense, even if it may not be certain that the expense will be present for the entire twenty-year alimony period. “Prospective changes to alimony are disfavored,” although they “are appropriate” when “the future event is certain to occur within a known time frame.” See Richardson v. Richardson, 2008 UT 57, ¶ 10, 201 P.3d 942. Given the relative certainty of the expiration of Lisa’s student loan debt, it would have been within the court’s discretion to order a prospective change—had John asked for one—in John’s alimony obligation in four years, when those loans will be paid off. But we cannot say that the court plainly erred by declining to sua sponte make such an order in this case.   

  1. Farm and Horse Expenses  

¶44 The trial court allocated $5,000 per month to Lisa for “Farm/Horse Expenses.” This is the largest single expense category in the court’s alimony award, and John challenges it on the basis that the amount exceeds what the evidence supports. This challenge is preserved, so we review for abuse of discretion.   

¶45 In her financial declaration, Lisa asked for an allocation of $5,000 for “Horse care (food, boarding, veterinarian, equipment).” Lisa owned five horses during the final years of the marriage, although one horse died prior to trial, leaving Lisa with four horses at the time of trial. Accountant computed Lisa’s historical expenses related to horse care and upkeep to be nearly $90,000 annually, but given that the family had been ordered to sell the Farm, Lisa recognized that her horse operations would not proceed in exactly the same manner moving forward. In light of the changed circumstances, Lisa estimated that her horse expenses, in a post-Farm world, would be $60,000 annually, or $5,000 per month. Although Accountant had solid figures to support the higher historical expense amount, he acknowledged on cross examination that the lower $60,000 figure was “Lisa’s estimate,” based on “historical expenses, [of] what she planned to do in the future, [and] kind of taking an amount per horse and dividing that out.” He asserted that this was his and Lisa’s “best shot at a reasonable estimate.”   

¶46 Lisa provided a document that gave a “breakdown” of estimated prices for numerous horse-related expenses, which was entered into evidence for “illustrative purposes.” According to Lisa’s estimates, her horse care and maintenance expenses would, in the future, range from $4,691.25 to $5,241.25 per month. During trial, Lisa testified in detail about several of these estimated costs, including: boarding costs; hay and other feed; hoof care; lessons for Lisa to continue training the horses; vaccinations; preventive dental care; supplements, vitamins, and prescription medications; money that would allow her to have “wiggle room” for colic and other ailments that might come up; and “bridal bits, saddle bags, . . . [and other] horse-related equipment that need[s] to be replaced every so often.”   

¶47 The trial court recognized that John vigorously disputed Lisa’s requested amount for horse care. But “after some careful analysis and looking at what the evidence was,” the court ultimately found that, although it was “expensive to have horses,” Lisa had owned horses “for 20 years” and opined that she should not be required to cease her equestrian pursuits merely because she was divorced. As for the amount of the costs, the court found that “$5,000 a month is needed,” although it did not make any specific finding about the number of horses (whether four, five, or some other number) that Lisa would be expected to have.   

¶48 John assails the allocation for horse care expenses, raising two specific challenges. First, he contends that Lisa did not produce sufficient documentation to support the $5,000 monthly figure. We disagree. The reason no historical documentation was available to support that exact figure was because the historical expenses, incurred while the family lived at the Farm, were much higher. Lisa acknowledged that the post-Farm landscape would look different, and that it would not make sense for her to be allocated the same amount for horse care in the future as the parties had spent in the past; accordingly, Lisa attempted to estimate what the new (and reduced) future expenses would be based on extrapolation from the higher historical expenses. Those estimates were supported not only by Lisa’s trial testimony, but also by a “breakdown” document setting forth each estimated expense. While expenses, for alimony purposes, are usually calculated based on historical data taking into account the parties’ standard of living during the marriage, see Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 15, in certain instances parties may acknowledge changed circumstances, and attempt to estimate expenses moving forward, cf. Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(8)(e) (LexisNexis 2019) (stating that, in appropriate situations with regard to certain line items, a court may apply “equitable principles,” in its discretion, to “base alimony on the standard of living that existed at the time of trial”). Lisa and the court properly engaged in that exercise here, coming up with a reasonable estimate for future horse care expenses that was significantly less than the historical amount.   

¶49 Second, John asserts that the $5,000 amount was calculated based on five horses, and contends that this amount is too high in view of the fact that one of the horses died prior to trial, and that only two of the surviving horses were Lisa’s “personal horses” (with the other two apparently sometimes used to produce income through lessons). But even if the court based its calculations on an assumption that Lisa had five horses, we see no abuse of discretion there. Lisa had at least five horses during the marriage, and John offers no good reason why the court could not have assumed, based on the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage, that Lisa would be rightfully able to replace the horse that died. And any income from the horses should be taken into account during consideration of the second Jones factor—Lisa’s ability to earn income—and not during consideration of the expenses associated with keeping the horses.   

¶50 Thus, we perceive no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s allocation of $5,000 per month to Lisa for horse care and maintenance.   

  1. Mortgage and House-Related Expenses  

¶51 The trial court allocated $3,500 per month to Lisa for a mortgage payment. The court’s calculation assumed that Lisa would purchase a house worth approximately $750,000, and would make a down payment of approximately $150,000. John does not dispute that a $3,500 monthly payment is an appropriate allocation for a $750,000 house, but he nevertheless challenges this line item, asserting that, following the court’s equitable distribution of marital property, “neither party is left with $150,000 for a down payment,” and as a result “Lisa will not be able to afford a $750,000 home.” This challenge was not preserved, so we review for plain error.  

¶52 As noted, during the marriage the parties lived at the Farm, a $2.6 million property complete with equestrian facilities. The court and the parties acknowledged that neither John nor Lisa would be able to live in that kind of property following the divorce; indeed, the court recognized that John had made a “voluntary choice to downsize” into “a modest, . . . $345,000 home.” But the court did not deem it necessary to require Lisa to make that exact same choice, instead finding it appropriate and equitable for Lisa to have the ability to acquire a $750,000 property. The court offered its viewpoint that, because Lisa “had a horse property before, . . . she should be able to continue that lifestyle, if possible.” And the court ultimately “agree[d] that to get a horse property, she would need something . . . in the value of $750,000.” It therefore granted her request for $3,500 per month in mortgage expenses.   

¶53 In challenging the court’s allocation for this line item, John does not assert that a $750,000 house is out of line for Lisa, taking into account the parties’ marital standard of living. Nor does John challenge $3,500 as being an inappropriate amount for a mortgage payment on a $750,000 house. Instead, he focuses his energies on the assertion that Lisa will have only $100,000—and not $150,000—for a down payment, and reasons therefrom that, without a $150,000 down payment, she will not be able to afford a $750,000 house, and therefore concludes that Lisa’s actual mortgage payment will be lower than $3,500 per month. But John does not cite any evidence in the record supporting the notion that Lisa will not be able to purchase a $750,000 house with a $100,000 down payment. Under these circumstances, we cannot conclude that the court committed plain error in allocating $3,500 to Lisa for a monthly mortgage payment.6   

  1. i.  Parenting Expenses 

¶54 John next challenges the amounts the court allocated to Lisa for food and other household expenses, pointing out that these allocations were based on the assumption that Lisa would have the minor children in her care for eight overnights during each fourteen-day period, and asserting that the court should have adjusted those line items after it changed the parties’ parent-time arrangement post-trial to a true 50/50 split. This argument was preserved, so we review for abuse of discretion.   

¶55 John asserts that several of Lisa’s expense allocations were calculated under the assumption that she would have more parent-time than he would; by way of example, he points out that Lisa’s food allocation is “2.5 times larger” than his, and that her “clothing budget [is] twice as large.” John brought this issue to the trial court’s attention in a post-trial motion, but the court did not grapple with John’s argument that some of Lisa’s line items might need to be reduced in light of the post-trial parent time adjustment. Similarly, John raises this issue in his appellate brief, but Lisa provides no argument in response.   

¶56 Given that John’s argument makes intuitive sense—Lisa might need slightly less for food and other household expenses under a 7/7 parent-time arrangement than she would under an 8/6 arrangement—and given that neither the trial court nor Lisa has endeavored to explain why John’s argument is wrong, we credit John’s argument and remand this issue to the trial court for adjustment, or at least for an explanation as to why no such adjustment is necessary.   

  1. Retirement Savings and Asserted Mathematical Error  

¶57  Next, John asserts that the trial  court made a “mathematical error” in adding the various line-item allocations for Lisa’s expenses. In particular, John asserts that the individual line-items total $25,512.13, yet the trial court found that Lisa had $26,000 in monthly expenses. Thus, John asserts that the court’s summed figure is approximately $500 too high. Lisa counters that there is no mathematical error but, instead, opines that the discrepancy results from a “typo” in the court’s listing of her allocation for “Voluntary Retirement Savings.” In Lisa’s view, the court listed $2,000 for that line item in the table in its written ruling, but really intended to award $2,500; Lisa maintains that, when the correct number is used in the tally, the total is $26,012.13.7  John did not preserve this challenge, and we therefore review only for plain error.   

¶58 In her financial declaration, Lisa listed $2,500 as the amount she spent as a “Retirement Contribution.” And in the Report, Accountant determined that the parties had been saving approximately $54,000 per year during the marriage, and proposed that each of them be allocated $30,000 ($2,500 monthly) for “Voluntary Retirement.” Lisa repeated this request in her closing argument memorandum, again asking the court to allocate $2,500 per month to her for “Voluntary Retirement Savings.” John asserted at trial that retirement savings was not a legitimate need, but the court, although noting that “there is some traction to that argument,”8 made a contrary oral finding. It opined that “it would seem prudent,” based on how the parties “were living, that a $2,500 a month need to put away for savings . . . is a need.” It also pointed out that John had “historically . . . been putting away $4,500 a month out of his income in retirement,” and found that Lisa should be allowed to share in that opportunity.   

¶59 But in the table in its written findings, the court struck through the $2,500 figure and inserted a $2,000 figure. Notably, it also mentioned this change in its narrative written findings, specifically stating in the paragraph following the expense table that it had “reduced the proposed amount from $2,500 to $2,000.” Thus, the reduction from $2,500 to $2,000 is not—as Lisa suggests—merely an unintended “typo,” but appears to have been an intentional adjustment by the trial court.   

¶60 The court, however, apparently neglected to re-sum all of the line items after making this adjustment. Indeed, our own review of the court’s arithmetic confirms John’s assertion that the court made a mathematical error, because the individual line items, when added together, total only $25,512.13. Such an error constitutes plain error—it should have been obvious to the trial court, and the error is prejudicial to John. See Vanderzon v. Vanderzon, 2017 UT App 150, ¶ 32, 402 P.3d 219. Accordingly, we direct the trial court, on remand, to correctly sum up the line items that constitute Lisa’s reasonable expenses.  

  1. Tax-Related Expenses  

¶61 The trial court determined that Lisa would need to pay $3,416.66 per month in federal income tax, $916.67 per month in state income tax, and $116.67 per month for FICA and Medicare. John challenges these amounts, asserting that the tax computations relied on assumed income from a higher alimony amount than Lisa was ultimately awarded. This challenge was preserved, so we review for abuse of discretion.   

¶62 The tax figures adopted by the court were taken directly from Lisa’s financial declaration. But those figures were based on an underlying assumption that Lisa’s total monthly expenses, excluding taxes, were $23,638, and that she would be receiving taxable alimony payments in excess of $28,000. The trial court, however, did not allocate to Lisa all of the amounts she had requested. In the end, the court found that Lisa’s total monthly non-tax expenses were $21,062.13, and ordered that she receive taxable alimony payments of $26,000.   

¶63 John asserts that the court erred by not redoing the tax computation following its downward adjustments to some of the line items in the list of Lisa’s expenses. We agree. The tax figures were derived from underlying expense amounts that the court partly rejected. When adjustments are made to the amount of a recipient spouse’s non-tax expenses, it becomes necessary to recalculate that spouse’s tax obligations. We therefore instruct the trial court, on remand, to recalculate the tax expense line items, based both on the adjustments it already made to Lisa’s expenses and failed to account for, as well as on the new adjustments that we, in this opinion, instruct it to make to Lisa’s expenses and (as discussed below, infra part I.A.2) to her imputed income.   

¶64 Thus, in sum, we sustain John’s challenge to the court’s findings regarding Lisa’s expenses in the following particulars: (a) we instruct the court to adjust, if necessary, Lisa’s food and household expense allocations based on the change to equal parent-time; (b) we instruct the court to correctly sum its line items, and correct the mathematical error; and (c) we instruct the court to recalculate Lisa’s tax obligations, after making the rest of the adjustments required by this opinion. In all other respects, we reject John’s challenges and affirm the trial court’s determinations with regard to Lisa’s reasonable monthly expenses.   

  1. Lisa’s Earning Capacity 

¶65 The trial court determined that Lisa was capable of earning $1,500 per month, and imputed that figure to her for purposes of the second Jones factor. John challenges this determination, asserting that Lisa should be deemed capable of earning more. This issue is preserved, so we review for abuse of discretion.   

¶66 The second Jones factor requires a court to assess the recipient spouse’s “earning capacity or ability to produce income.” Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶¶ 94–95, 459 P.3d 276 (quotation simplified). And when faced with “an underemployed spouse,” a trial court “may impute income” to that spouse. Vanderzon v. Vanderzon, 2017 UT App 150, ¶ 63, 402 P.3d 219 (quotation simplified). “The imputation analysis involves determining whether a party is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed and, if so, how much income ought to be imputed. A person is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed when he or she intentionally chooses of his or her own free will to become unemployed or underemployed.” Christensen v. Christensen, 2017 UT App 120, ¶ 21, 400 P.3d 1219 (quotation simplified). “Any income imputation must ‘be based upon employment potential and probable earnings as derived from employment opportunities, work history, occupation qualifications, and prevailing earnings for persons of similar backgrounds in the community.’” Vanderzon, 2017 UT App 150, ¶ 63 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(7)(b) (LexisNexis 2012)). Furthermore, “imputation cannot be premised upon mere conjecture; instead, it demands a careful and precise assessment requiring detailed findings.” Christensen, 2017 UT App 120, ¶ 22 (quotation simplified).  

¶67 In her financial declaration, Lisa listed her occupation as “Homemaker/Part-Time Horse Boarding.” At trial, Lisa indicated that she had made a deliberate choice not to seek fulltime employment outside the home, choosing instead to devote her time to caring for the parties’ children. Nevertheless, she was able to generate some revenue (if not profit, given the high costs of keeping horses) during the final years of the marriage through boarding horses and giving riding lessons. In 2015 and 2016, her average annual income from these activities was $32,865. But because the parties found it necessary to sell the Farm, including the equestrian facilities, no party seriously contends that Lisa should be expected, moving forward, to earn income from horse boarding and giving riding lessons.   

¶68 Instead, John contends—after retaining a vocational consultant whose report was admitted into evidence—that Lisa is capable of full-time employment in several capacities (for instance, as an exercise specialist, production assembler, customer service representative, office clerk, or receptionist), and that Lisa should therefore be imputed a full-time wage.  

According to the consultant’s report, an exercise specialist earns $35,945 per year, while the other jobs would pay between $19,280 and $20,930 per year. During examination by her own attorney at trial, Lisa was asked about these potential jobs, and she acknowledged that she “could learn” to be a receptionist; that she had the necessary skills to be an office clerk; that she “could do what was needed” to succeed as a customer service representative; and that, although she did not know what a “production assembler” was, she “could learn what [she] needed to do” in order to manage the job. Lisa pushed back, however, when asked if she could succeed as an exercise specialist, and offered her view that she did not have the necessary current qualifications and experience for that job.   

¶69 The court found that Lisa was not qualified to work as an exercise specialist, stating that it was “not persuaded that [Lisa] is capable of earning the $3,000.00 to $4,000.00 [per month that John] suggests . . . , given that [Lisa] has not primarily worked outside the home, and has had no relevant work related experience in the field in which she obtained her degree in the last 20 years.” However, the court made no specific finding that Lisa was unqualified for the other full-time positions. Instead, the court stated as follows:  

The Court also finds that where [Lisa] has been a full-time stay-at-home mother for the past 20 years, it is not reasonable in this case to expect that [Lisa] should go out and get a job, making her work fulltime, forcing the children into further surrogate care. Thus, the Court imputes [Lisa] with $1,500.00 per month, and it will be up to [Lisa] to determine whether or not she ultimately wants to obtain employment.   

¶70 John challenges this ruling, asserting generally that— especially given the equal parent-time arrangement—Lisa should be expected to work full-time, just as he is expected to work full-time, and asserting specifically that Lisa should be imputed “at least $20,600” of annual income, approximately the amount earned by a customer service representative. We agree with John.   

¶71 First, as discussed more fully below, the court did not abuse its discretion by expecting John to continue to work at least full-time, as he historically has, despite the fact that he cares for the minor children on seven out of every fourteen nights. See infra part I.A.3.c. In this case, given that each parent is capable of full-time employment and has equal childcare obligations moving forward, it is inequitable to expect one parent to work full-time but excuse the other from any similar obligation. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(8)(e) (LexisNexis 2019) (explaining that in determining alimony, “the court shall consider . . . equitable principles”). The calculus may well be different in other situations, such as where one parent bears the lion’s share of childcare duties. See Rehn v. Rehn, 1999 UT App 41, ¶¶ 4, 9, 974 P.2d 306 (stating, in a case where the payor spouse had only three overnights in a fourteen-day period, that the trial court had properly “impute[d] a lesser income to the recipient spouse so that she might give adequate care and nurturing to the parties’ minor children”); see also Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(8)(a)(v) (mandating that, in determining alimony awards, a court “shall consider . . . whether the recipient spouse has custody of minor children”). But here, where childcare obligations are equal, and where neither parent labors under any particular impediment to full-time employment, we are persuaded by John’s argument that Lisa should be imputed a full-time wage.   

¶72 Second, with regard to which full-time wage to impute, John does not directly challenge the trial court’s finding that Lisa was not qualified to assume a full-time position as an exercise specialist. But John does challenge the trial court’s failure to impute income to Lisa in line with a customer service representative position, which position Lisa acknowledged she was qualified to assume. We find John’s argument persuasive. A vocational consultant determined that Lisa is capable of working as a customer service representative, and Lisa herself acknowledged as much. And the trial court offered no reason— in either its oral or written findings—why Lisa’s acknowledgement should not be given weight. Moreover, we cannot ascertain the source of the court’s $1,500 monthly figure.   

¶73 Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court abused its discretion by not imputing a full-time wage to Lisa, in line with the parties’ equal parent-time arrangement and in line with Lisa’s acknowledgement that she was qualified for full-time work. We therefore reverse the court’s ruling on this point, and remand with instructions to impute $20,600 in annual income to Lisa—the specific amount John asks us to impute.   

  1. John’s Ability to Provide Support 

¶74 The trial court determined that John’s income, for purposes of the third Jones factor, was $75,000 per month. John challenges this determination on several grounds, all but one of which (identified below) were preserved. Thus, unless otherwise noted, we review the court’s determinations for abuse of discretion.   

  1. Farm Income  

¶75 The trial court calculated John’s income from the parties’ tax returns from 2015, 2016, and 2017. But the amounts listed on those tax returns included not only the income John earned from his anesthesiology practice, but also income the parties earned together from operating the Farm. In his first challenge to the trial court’s computation of his income, John complains that the court improperly included Farm income in the computation, and asserts that it should have been excluded moving forward since the parties have sold the Farm. We agree with John.   

¶76 We take Lisa’s point that courts typically use historical averages as the starting point for calculations of income for alimony purposes. But in situations like this, where the source of part of the income is a property that the court has ordered to be sold in connection with the divorce, it may be improper to include that portion of income in the calculation. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(8)(e) (stating that, in appropriate situations regarding certain aspects of an alimony calculation, a court applying “equitable principles” may “base alimony on the standard of living that existed at the time of trial”). In this case, there is no evidence that John intends to attempt to earn income from equestrian-related endeavors in the future; indeed, as discussed above, the Farm has been sold and the horses now belong to Lisa. Thus, there is no evidence to support an imputation of equestrian-related income to John. We agree with John that the trial court abused its discretion in including Farm income in John’s income calculation, and we direct the court, on remand, to exclude Farm income from the calculation.   

  1. John’s Business Expenses  

¶77 With regard to John’s income from his anesthesiology practice, the trial court recognized that John’s gross income as a self-employed individual was to be “calculated by subtracting the necessary expenses required for self-employment of business operation from gross receipts.” (Citing Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12203(4).) After considering the relevant testimony and argument, the court found that the following were reasonable business expenses: $120 per month for “phone expenses”; $100 per month for “computer expenses”; $78 “per month for car insurance”; $254 per month for “vehicle gas and oil”; $330 per month for “vehicle maintenance and repair”; $100 per month for vehicle “licensing and registration”; $833 per month for a car payment; and $300 “per month for continuing medical education.” The court then divided all of these expenses in half, in view of the fact that there were “both business and personal uses for” them, and determined that John’s reasonable monthly business expenses were $980.   

¶78 John mounts a two-part challenge to the court’s assessment of his reasonable business expenses. First, he asserts that the court erred when it divided all of the expenses in half, including the one for “continuing medical education.” This particular challenge is unpreserved, so we review for plain error. On this point, the trial court did not plainly err. Certainly, it is no abuse of discretion—and John does not contend otherwise—to divide phone, computer, and vehicle expenses in half, since those are used partly for personal use. See Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶¶ 15–16, 334 P.3d 994 (recognizing that expenses that are “commonly used for personal as well as business purposes,” such as a “vehicle and a cellular telephone,” may not be entirely business expenses, depending on the circumstances). And in this particular case, Accountant explained that John’s “continuing medical education” expenses included costs for travel, with other doctors, to medical conferences, and that certain expenditures associated with those trips—such as costs of “taking family” along or for “activities while you’re there”— were more appropriately classified as personal. Given these facts, we perceive no plain error in the trial court’s decision to divide the listed expenses in half.   

¶79 However, we find merit in the second part of John’s argument, in which he asserts that there exist other business expenses that the court improperly refused to subtract from his gross receipts, including the cost of medical malpractice insurance, overhead, and the cost of maintaining a medical license. Lisa does not argue that these items, in the abstract, are not proper business expenses; indeed, we observe that these expenses are “necessary to allow the business to operate at a reasonable level.” See id. ¶ 15 (quotation simplified). Instead, Lisa contends that John failed to provide the court with sufficient evidence of these expenses. We disagree.   

¶80 Evidence of these expenses came not only from John, but also from Brother, one of John’s partners in the medical practice. Brother testified that maintaining a medical license costs “around $400 or $500” each year, and that malpractice insurance costs “$8,500 a year,” or “about $700 a month.” Brother testified that, in their medical practice, overhead was “around 7 to 8 percent” of gross income. This evidence is clear, and supports John’s position that these business expenses are an essential part of his medical practice, and that they have specific costs associated with them. Moreover, these expenses are entirely business-related, and not at all personal, and thus should not be cut in half. Accordingly, we conclude that the court abused its discretion by rejecting John’s request that these reasonable business expenses be subtracted from his gross receipts in calculating his income.   

  1. John’s Medical Income and Work Expectations  

¶81 The final—and main—challenge John makes to the trial court’s computation of his income is his contention that the court’s computation, including the implied expectation that John continue to work long hours, is fundamentally at odds with the court’s custody and parent-time rulings, in which the court found that it would be in the best interest of the minor children for them to spend half of their time under John’s care. In essence, John’s argument is that, by setting his income at $900,000 annually ($75,000 monthly), the court is forcing him to continue to work sixty-plus-hour weeks, and that this will impede his ability to effectuate a 50/50 parenting arrangement.   

¶82 Not all people—and not even all anesthesiologists—work as many hours as John worked during the course of the parties’ marriage. As noted, John decided to work long hours, sometimes in excess of sixty hours in a week, in order for the family to be able to enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle. And John established a long-term and consistent pattern of working more than others in his practice group; indeed, he was the top wage-earner in his practice for twelve years running, a status that he earned by voluntarily working long hours and extra shifts. Over the last three years of the marriage, John earned $882,132, $979,787, and $906,199 from his medical practice (excluding the Farm income).   

¶83 Under Utah law, “[i]ncome from earned income sources” is typically “limited to the equivalent of one full-time 40-hour job.” See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(2) (LexisNexis 2018).9  However, “if during the time before the original support order, the parent normally and consistently worked more than 40 hours at the parent’s job, the court may consider this extra time as a pattern in calculating the parent’s ability” to earn income. See id. Where, as here, there is evidence suggesting a long-term pattern of a parent (or spouse) working extended hours, a trial court does not abuse its discretion by concluding that the parent’s (or spouse’s) income, for purposes of child support and alimony, should be calculated with the historically longer workweek in mind. See Tobler v. Tobler, 2014 UT App 239, ¶¶ 27–28, 337 P.3d 296 (affirming a trial court’s finding, based on evidence that the husband “normally and consistently worked” overtime hours, that the husband’s income should be calculated based on the longer hours). Perhaps because of this statutory and case law guidance, John does not directly challenge the court’s determination that his historical work habits justify calculating his future income based on more than a forty-hour workweek.   

¶84 Instead, John’s challenge is subtler. He acknowledges—at least impliedly—that the trial court’s income computation might have been acceptable if the court had not, at the same time, awarded him equal parent-time. In John’s view, it is the combination of the court’s income determination and its custody and parent-time orders that leads to problems; specifically, he contends that the court’s “findings are internally inconsistent” and “impossible in practice,” and that working so many hours will make him less effective as a parent. We see the matter differently.  

¶85 As an initial matter, John made a decidedly different argument in the fall of 2017, during the temporary orders phase of the case, when he needed to rebut Lisa’s argument that he should have only minimal parent-time in light of the demands of his job. At that time, John asked for temporary orders that gave each party “equal parent time with the minor children, to be arranged in advance but taking into account [John’s] work schedule, so that [John’s] parent time overlap[s] to the extent possible the blocks of time when he is not scheduled to work.” And in a supporting affidavit, John averred, “Although my work schedule varies, I know what my work schedule is going to be up to four months in advance and can schedule parent time accordingly.” During the year in which he took those positions, John earned $906,199 in income from his medical practice.   

¶86 Moreover, if anything, the time demands that will be placed on John during his parent-time have decreased since 2017. For one thing, by the time of trial, two of the three minor children were already well into their teenage years, and the youngest was eleven. And it bears noting that the two youngest children—the two who are still minors today—are now both teenagers and are proficient college-aspirant tennis players; the court might reasonably have assumed that these children are often in school, at tennis lessons, or otherwise engaged, and do not need constant supervision as would a toddler, for instance, and that, in a situation like this, John may well be able to work at least some hours even during the weeks when he has the children in his care.   

¶87 For these reasons, we do not view the trial court’s orders as necessarily inconsistent, and we do not view the tasks set before John as impossible. The trial court acted within the bounds of its discretion when it took John’s temporary orders affidavit at its word, and concluded that—given his flexible work schedule, coupled with appropriate planning, foresight, and perhaps a little help from friends and family on occasion— John was up to the challenge of working his historical number of hours while at the same time having seven nights of parent-time during each fourteen-day period.   

¶88 Moreover, although the trial court could have conceivably credited John’s later statements—that he did not intend to keep working such long hours, that working fewer hours would make him a better parent, and that the court should assess his future income according to a lighter work schedule—the court was within its discretion to be somewhat skeptical of John’s stated plans for a significant drop in income on the heels of contested divorce proceedings. Cf. Gerwe v. Gerwe, 2018 UT App 75, ¶ 31, 424 P.3d 1113 (“It was within the court’s discretion to discredit Husband’s claim that he was unable—as opposed to merely unwilling—to provide the support ordered by the court.”).   

¶89 Accordingly, we reject John’s main challenge to the trial court’s calculation of his income, but agree with John that the trial court abused its discretion by including the Farm income and excluding certain business expenses in its calculation. We remand with instructions for the court to correct these errors, although we acknowledge that their correction may or may not affect the ultimate alimony award.   

  1. Duration of Alimony  

¶90 The trial court ordered John to pay alimony to Lisa for twenty years—the duration of the parties’ marriage. John challenges that determination, contending that he should not be required to pay alimony for that long, and that the court abused its discretion by not selecting a shorter, rehabilitative time period. This argument is preserved, so we review for abuse of discretion.  

¶91 Our legislature has set an outer boundary on the length of alimony awards, mandating that, in the absence of “extenuating circumstances,” “[a]limony may not be ordered for a duration longer than the number of years that the marriage existed.” See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(8)(j) (LexisNexis 2019). But there is no inner boundary on the length of an alimony award: a trial court may, in appropriate cases, order that alimony be paid for a shorter period, or may order that alimony payments taper off gradually. See Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 80, 452 P.3d 1134 (stating that “nothing in the [alimony] statute bars an award for a shorter duration” than the length of the marriage, and that “an alimony award for shorter than the term of the marriage should be upheld unless it results in a serious inequity evidencing an abuse of discretion” (quotation simplified)); Boyer v. Boyer, 2011 UT App 141, ¶ 14, 259 P.3d 1063 (stating that, “in the case of rehabilitative alimony, a gradually decreasing award may be appropriate”).   

¶92 Rehabilitative alimony is a remedy “intended to ease the recipient spouse’s financial adjustment period.” See Boyer, 2011 UT App 141, ¶ 15. Courts have ordered rehabilitative alimony, within their discretion, in cases where marriages are not extremely long in duration, and where the recipient spouse is of an age and in possession of employment skills that make selfsufficiency likely. Id. ¶ 17; see also Jensen v. Jensen, 2008 UT App 392, ¶¶ 17–19, 197 P.3d 117. Rehabilitative alimony can also further important societal goals; for instance, it discourages a recipient spouse’s dependency on alimony payments, and encourages self-sufficiency and independence. See Boyer, 2011 UT App 141, ¶¶ 4, 16–17. But courts risk abusing their discretion when ordering rehabilitative alimony in cases that involve long marriages and older parties. See, e.g., Mark v. Mark, 2009 UT App 374, ¶ 15, 223 P.3d 476 (concluding that a court abused its discretion by ordering rehabilitative alimony where the parties had been married for twenty-five years and the recipient spouse was fifty-two years old with “limited marketable skills and employment prospects”); Rasband v. Rasband, 752 P.2d 1331, 1333–35 (Utah Ct. App. 1988) (concluding that a court abused its discretion by ordering rehabilitative alimony where the parties had been married for thirty years).   

¶93 John and Lisa had been married for twenty years and were in their late forties when they divorced. Although Lisa has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s degree in athletic training, she has never worked in those fields. After considering the evidence presented, the trial court ordered John to pay alimony, in the full amount without tapering, for twenty years. John challenges this ruling, asserting that it “requires him to work at a breakneck pace for the rest of his career, while simultaneously relieving Lisa of the obligation to make any progress toward self-sufficiency.”   

¶94 In this case, the trial court was presented with facts that cut both ways on the rehabilitative alimony question. On the one hand, Lisa is a competent, educated individual with marketable skills, and not so advanced in years that she would be unable to develop a career in a chosen field. But on the other hand, the parties were married for twenty years, Lisa was the primary caregiver for the children and had never worked outside the home, and the parties lived a very comfortable lifestyle based primarily on John’s income; even if Lisa ultimately procures gainful employment outside the home, the income from that job, by itself, is unlikely to be enough to allow her to enjoy anything close to the lifestyle the parties enjoyed during the marriage.   

¶95 Under the facts presented here, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining not to order rehabilitative alimony, and to order that John pay full alimony for a period of time equal to the length of the marriage. We therefore reject John’s challenge to the duration of the trial court’s alimony award.   

  1. Retroactive Alimony  

¶96 The trial court also ordered that its alimony award, although entered in December 2018, be made retroactive for a six-month period dating back to June 1, 2018, the date corresponding to the court’s first temporary financial order in the case. John challenges that decision in two respects. He first asserts that the court erred in making its alimony order retroactive “because the parties reached a stipulation regarding temporary orders.” Second, he contends that the retroactive award “should be reduced for all the same reasons . . . that the forward-looking alimony award should be reduced.” With regard to these challenges, we review the court’s decisions for abuse of discretion.   

  1. Stipulation 

¶97 In divorce, custody, and other domestic cases, the trial court “may order a party to provide money, during the pendency of the action, for the separate support and maintenance of the other party and of any children in the custody of the other party.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(3) (LexisNexis 2019). Such temporary orders “may be amended during the course of the action or in the final order or judgment.” Id. § 30-3-3(4). Soon after filing her petition for divorce, Lisa invoked these provisions and asked the court to enter temporary orders of support. Later, in May 2018, the court entered a temporary support order that memorialized a stipulation reached between the parties: Lisa would be able to use a joint credit card for “household expenses,” and John would pay those charges (as well as most of the parties’ bills), but Lisa would “limit her charges to $3,000 per month,” and would “charge no more attorney’s or expert fees to the card.” The parties followed that procedure for the next few months, up until trial.   

¶98 At trial, Lisa testified that the $3,000 monthly allowance turned out to be insufficient to allow her to meet her needs, and that during the temporary orders period she had been forced to “change the lifestyle from what [she] had previously enjoyed during the marriage.” She testified that she was unable to attend tennis tournaments with the children or properly care for her horses, that she could not get necessary medical treatment for herself, and that she had to “eat down [her] food storage” and depend on members of her church congregation for “a lot of meals.” The trial court credited this testimony, stating during the course of its oral findings that “the temporary orders [had] left [Lisa] almost destitute,” and at times dependent on “the bishop’s storehouse to put food on the table.”  

¶99 In its written findings, issued in December 2018, the court found that “retroactive child support and alimony should be awarded from June 1, 2018 to November 30, 2018.” In a subsequent order, following post-trial motions, the court calculated the amount of retroactive alimony owed to be $147,000. However, the court “allowed [John] to deduct any amounts he ha[d] paid for bills on [Lisa’s] behalf as he was ordered to do in the temporary order,” including “the approximately $3,500.00 per month that [Lisa] was able to charge on the joint credit card.” The court determined that John had paid “$80,927.20 . . . on [Lisa’s] behalf, so that the final remaining amount of retroactive alimony to be awarded [was] $66,072.80.”   

¶100 John challenges this aspect of the trial court’s alimony award, asserting that, because Lisa stipulated to the temporary orders arrangement, she should not now be heard to complain about its consequences, and that the parties’ “stipulation must have an effect.” We reject John’s argument.   

¶101 Trial courts have “significant discretion in fashioning temporary support during the pendency of a divorce action,” Stonehocker v. Stonehocker, 2008 UT App 11, ¶ 39, 176 P.3d 476, and, as noted, may at any time amend the orders “during the course of the action or in the final order or judgment,” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(4) (emphasis added). In practice, temporary orders are often entered after only a brief hearing, where evidence—if taken at all—is taken by proffer, and are intended to be merely a rough-cut estimate of what a court might do after hearing all of the evidence at trial. Cf. Montano v. Third Dist. Court, 934 P.2d 1156, 1157–58 (Utah Ct. App. 1997) (per curiam) (acknowledging the parties’ representations that “it is a routine practice to issue temporary . . . orders based solely on proffers of witness testimony,” and noting that such a practice “is discouraged” in custody proceedings). An arrangement memorialized in a temporary order can of course be changed, in a final decree of divorce, after a court hears all of the evidence during a full trial. See id. at 1157. And this is no less true in cases where a court enters a temporary order pursuant to the parties’ stipulation. Indeed, a court asked to revisit a temporary orders arrangement after trial might even be justified in applying a higher level of scrutiny to an arrangement reached by stipulation than to one reached after a contested hearing before a commissioner. Cf. Taylor v. Elison, 2011 UT App 272, ¶ 14, 263 P.3d 448 (deciding, at least in a custody context, to view stipulated divorce decrees more skeptically than adjudicated decrees).10  Although Lisa stipulated to the temporary arrangement whereunder she would be allotted $3,000 for household expenditures, that stipulation did not bar her from testifying, several months later, that the arrangement had proven itself unworkable when viewed against the backdrop of the parties’ historical lifestyle. And the stipulation certainly did not prevent the trial court from amending the temporary order retroactively after hearing all of the evidence presented at trial.   

¶102 Trial courts have considerable discretion to amend temporary orders at any time during the proceeding; they are certainly justified in doing so in a final judgment entered after a trial in which the parties have had a full and fair opportunity to present evidence. In this situation, the court did not abuse its discretion by making its alimony award retroactive to June 2018, and thereby superseding the apparently unworkable arrangement set forth in the temporary orders. We therefore affirm the court’s determination that John should be ordered to pay alimony retroactive to June 2018.11    

  1. Reductions in Retroactive Award 

¶103 John’s second challenge to the court’s retroactive alimony award is his contention that the retroactive award “should be reduced for all the same reasons . . . that the forward-looking alimony award should be reduced.”12  We find merit in this argument. As discussed above, several of the inputs to the court’s alimony calculation—regarding some of Lisa’s needs, Lisa’s earning capacity, and certain aspects of John’s income— need to be adjusted. These adjustments will affect not only the prospective amount of alimony owed, but also the court’s calculation of how much retroactive alimony John owes. We therefore remand for a recalculation of the retroactive alimony, in light of the adjustments necessary to the overall alimony amount.   


March 2018 rather than September 2018. However, John acknowledges that, as part of the court’s calculation of the retroactive alimony award, he was credited for all funds that Lisa withdrew from that account between April and September 2018. John therefore concedes that if we affirm the retroactive alimony award, then his checking account argument fails. Accordingly, because we affirm the retroactive award, we need not further address this argument.  


  1. Attorney Fees 

¶104 With regard to attorney fees, the court ruled that, “[b]ased on [its] rulings [regarding] division of property and debts . . . , the Court is not awarding either party his/her attorney’s fees—in that both parties will have sufficient assets and/or income to pay their attorney’s fees.” John challenges this ruling, asserting that, although the court nominally ordered each party to bear his or her own fees, the practical effect of its ruling was that “John paid both parties’ fees.” This claim was preserved, so we review for abuse of discretion.   

¶105 Prior to entry of the temporary orders, Lisa had charged nearly $80,000—and John charged nearly $40,000—in attorney and expert fees to the parties’ joint credit card, which caused the card account to “reach[] its credit limit” because John “had been unable to pay down the balance while continuing to meet the parties’ other obligations.” John ultimately borrowed $50,000 against his 401(k) to help pay off the balance. Due in part to this development, the parties agreed to include in the temporary order a provision barring Lisa from charging any more attorney and expert fees to the joint credit card, and Lisa charged no additional fees to the card after that. After trial, the court ordered each party to pay his or her own attorney and expert fees, and made no adjustment to account for the portion of Lisa’s attorney fees that John had already paid.    

¶106 John brought this issue to the court’s attention in a posttrial motion, asserting that, in essence, he had paid a substantial portion of Lisa’s attorney fees without being credited for it, and because the court had “ordered that each party should pay his or her own attorney’s fees,” “[a]n adjustment [was] needed . . . in order to make that happen.” As a result, John asked the court to treat the payments “as premature distributions of the marital estate” when formulating its retroactive alimony determination. Lisa opposed this, arguing that John was “attempting to ‘double count’ many of the same funds” by asking for the 401(k) loan to be included in the marital debt calculation, while also asking for attorney fees he paid in the past to be assigned to Lisa.”   

¶107 Ultimately, the court sided with Lisa: it refused to change its prior ruling regarding attorney fees, and declined John’s invitation to adjust the retroactive alimony amount to account for fees he had already paid. In its oral ruling, the court stated simply that it was “not going to change” its prior ruling, that it “[did not] care if [payments were made] during that retroactive time,” and that it was “not going to” give John credit for his payment of some of Lisa’s fees. In its written order, the court devoted one sentence to the issue, stating simply that it was “declin[ing] to equalize the parties’ use of marital funds for payment of attorney’s fees prior to trial,” and that it “denie[d] [John’s] motion on this point.”   

¶108 “In divorce cases, both the decision to award attorney fees and the amount of such fees are within the trial court’s sound discretion.” Roberts v. Roberts, 2014 UT App 211, ¶ 27, 335 P.3d 378 (quotation simplified). “Attorney fee awards, however, must be based on [i] evidence of the financial need of the receiving spouse, [ii] the ability of the other spouse to pay, and [iii] the reasonableness of the requested fees. And, failure to consider these factors is grounds for reversal on the fee issue.” Id. (quotation simplified). In Roberts, we “conclude[d] that the [trial] court did not adequately explain” its attorney fees award decision because, although it did make a finding about the amount of fees, the trial court “did not make any specific findings on the reasonableness of the award, [the husband’s] ability to pay, or [the wife’s] needs.” Id. ¶¶ 28–29.   

¶109 In this case, it was within the court’s discretion to make attorney fees awards to one party or another. But in order to do so, the court must first make adequate findings. See id. ¶¶ 27–29. Here, the court professed not to be making any award of attorney fees, and to be requiring each party to bear his or her own, but John has persuasively argued that he paid a significant part of Lisa’s fees without being credited for that payment. If the court wishes to award Lisa those fees, and require John to pay them, it must engage with the three-part test, and make the required findings. It cannot make such an award sub silentio, while asserting that its order asks both parties to bear their own fees.   

¶110 We therefore remand this issue to the trial court for it to clarify which path it is taking. It has two options. It can continue to insist that both parties bear their own fees, in which case it needs to make an adjustment to account for any portion of Lisa’s fees that John paid, or at least explain why no such adjustment is necessary. Alternatively, it can explicitly make a partial award of attorney fees to Lisa, in which case it needs to make appropriate findings, as set forth in Roberts.   


¶111 We affirm many aspects of the trial court’s alimony award. In particular, we affirm the court’s decisions to award alimony for twenty years and to award retroactive alimony. We also reject John’s argument that, with respect to his future income, the court’s alimony award is inconsistent with its custody award. However, we have identified a number of errors in the court’s computation of the amount of alimony, and we have identified a potential inconsistency in the court’s handling of the attorney fees issue. Accordingly, we reverse those aspects of the court’s rulings, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.  


Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277   

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Ward v. McGarry – 2021 UT App 51

Ward v. McGarry – 2021 UT App 51 



Court of Appeals of Utah. 

Sara WARD, Appellant, v. Meredith MCGARRY, Appellee. 

No. 20200435-CA 

Filed May 6, 2021 

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department, The Honorable Richard D. McKelvie, No. 134901200 

Attorneys and Law Firms 

Angilee K. Dakic, Attorney for Appellant 

Martin N. Olsen, Midvale, and Beau J. Olsen, Attorneys for Appellee 

Judge Michele M. Christiansen Forster authored this Opinion, in which Judges David N. Mortensen and Ryan M. Harris concurred. 




*1 ¶1 Sara Ward challenges the district court’s final order regarding child support in a paternity action. We reverse and remand for further proceedings. 


¶2 Ward and Meredith McGarry have one child together. The two have been involved in a paternity action regarding that child since 2013. Although they have resolved custody issues relating to the child, they were unable to reach a resolution regarding child support. 


¶3 The parties’ dispute centers on disagreements regarding the amount of McGarry’s monthly income. McGarry is self-employed and has an ownership interest in at least one company. Ward reports having ongoing difficulties obtaining documentation relating to McGarry’s income, asserting that his disclosures were incomplete and heavily redacted. The parties engaged in settlement negotiations and exchanged rule 68 settlement offers, see Utah R. Civ. P. 68, and in his rule 68 settlement offer, McGarry offered to have income of $30,000 per month imputed to him. But the parties were unable to come to an agreement. 


¶4 The parties appeared before a domestic relations commissioner for a hearing on March 11, 2020, to address various non-dispositive motions then pending before the court, including motions for sanctions and a motion to strike. The parties did not anticipate that the substantive issues in the case would be resolved at that time. However, at the hearing, which lasted only a few minutes, the commissioner did not directly address the pending motions; instead, she announced that she was “going to make a recommendation … to wrap this up and resolve” the case and proceeded to impute McGarry’s income “at $30,000 a month going forward for child support purposes” based on McGarry’s “agreement.” Further, the commissioner recommended that McGarry pay $56,000 in child support arrearages and attorney fees, a number calculated by averaging Ward’s request for $60,000 and McGarry’s rule 68 offer of $52,000. The commissioner did not take evidence at the hearing, made no further findings in support of these calculations, and did not distinguish which portion of the lump sum award was attributable to attorney fees as opposed to arrearages. The commissioner’s recommendation took the form of an order captioned “Final Order Re Child Support.” 


¶5 Ward objected to the commissioner’s recommendation, asserting that the commissioner “failed to make requisite findings that would support the order” and erred by relying on McGarry’s rule 68 settlement offer to reach the imputation number rather than calculating that amount based on the evidence. Ward further asserted that the commissioner “made no findings as to how she calculated the child support arrears or attorney fees awarded to” Ward and erred in lumping the arrears and fees together rather than calculating them separately. Ward also claimed that the commissioner’s order, in the absence of an evidentiary hearing, deprived her of her “right to a trial.” The district court countersigned the commissioner’s recommendation, making it the final order of the court, and denied Ward’s objection without holding any further hearing or making any additional findings on the record. Ward now appeals. 


*2 ¶6 Ward asserts that the district court erred in approving the commissioner’s recommendation and summarily denying her objection without adequate findings and without a trial or other evidentiary hearing.1 “The ultimate question of whether the trial court strictly complied with … procedural requirements … is a question of law that is reviewed for correctness.” State v. Holland, 921 P.2d 430, 433 (Utah 1996); accord Brigham Young Univ. v. Tremco Consultants, Inc., 2007 UT 17, ¶ 25, 156 P.3d 782. Further, “we review the legal adequacy of findings of fact for correctness as a question of law.” Jacobsen v. Jacobsen, 2011 UT App 161, ¶ 15, 257 P.3d 478 (quotation simplified). 


¶7 “In all actions tried upon the facts without a jury …, the court must find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law. The findings and conclusions must be made part of the record and may be stated in writing or orally following the close of evidence.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(1). Moreover, when a party objects to a commissioner’s recommendation, the judge must “make independent findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the evidence.” Id. R. 108(f); see also Day v. Barnes, 2018 UT App 143, ¶ 16, 427 P.3d 1272 (“[R]ule [108] is explicit that the district court’s review is independent on both the evidence and the law.”). A court’s findings must “contain sufficient detail to permit appellate review to ensure that the district court’s discretionary determination was rationally based.” Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 22, 379 P.3d 882. 


¶8 In this case, the district court did not make any independent findings of fact or conclusions of law, as required by rule 108 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.2 McGarry urges us to construe the court’s signing of the commissioner’s recommendation and summary denial of Ward’s objection as an implicit adoption of the same findings and conclusions entered by the commissioner. However, nothing in the record supports such an assumption.3 


¶9 In any event, the commissioner’s findings are inadequate to support her legal conclusions. The commissioner made a single finding in support of her recommendation: “The parties have had extensive, ongoing litigation for the past seven (7) years and a conclusion of this matter is critical for the parties and the minor child.” This finding does not address any of the evidence pertaining to McGarry’s income, the arrearages owed, or the attorney fees incurred by Ward. Rather than receiving and examining any evidence and reaching legal conclusions based on that evidence, the commissioner imputed income based solely on McGarry’s rule 68 settlement offer, which was never accepted.4 See generally Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(8)(b) (LexisNexis 2018) (outlining the factors a court must consider in calculating the appropriate amount of income to impute to a parent). The commissioner’s recommendation regarding child support arrearages and attorney fees was likewise unsupported by any evidence. Rather than examining the actual numbers and making findings regarding the amount owed, the commissioner simply split the difference between the two parties’ claimed numbers in their rule 68 settlement offers. Such findings would not adequately support the court’s decision even if we could somehow construe them as independent. 


*3 ¶10 The overarching problem in this case—and the ultimate source of the inadequacy and insufficiency of the court’s findings—is that no judicial officer ever took evidence or held a hearing on the contested child support issues. Unless the matter in question can be resolved summarily (for instance, by summary judgment pursuant to rule 56 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure), parties have a right to their “day in court,” in which they have the opportunity to testify and present evidence regarding the relevant issues. See Utah Const. art. I, § 11 (“All courts shall be open, and every person, for an injury done to the person in his or her person, property or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law, which shall be administered without denial or unnecessary delay; and no person shall be barred from prosecuting or defending before any tribunal in this State, with or without counsel, any civil cause to which the person is a party.”); Miller v. USAA Cas. Ins. Co., 2002 UT 6, ¶ 38, 44 P.3d 663 (“Parties to a suit, subject to all valid claims and defenses, are constitutionally entitled to litigate any justiciable controversy between them, i.e., they are entitled to their day in court.”). 


¶11 At some level, we understand the commissioner’s frustration with parties who had litigated for several years over positions that were perhaps not all that far apart. But concerns regarding judicial efficiency alone cannot justify depriving parties of their day in court. The contested child support issues in this case needed to be resolved, if not through negotiation or summary resolution, then through a trial at which evidence was presented. The commissioner’s and the district court’s actions to short-circuit that process here were improper. 


¶12 Because the district court did not take evidence and make “independent findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the evidence,” see Utah R. Civ. P. 108(f), in resolving Ward’s objection, we must reverse the order and remand for further proceedings. 




1 Ward also raises arguments regarding the inadequacy of McGarry’s disclosures. However, she does not identify any particular errors the court made with respect to discovery issues, and we are therefore unable to review her arguments on this point. In any event, as we are reversing the district court’s child support order, Ward will have the opportunity to raise any ongoing issues with respect to discovery on remand. 


2 We are also concerned about the court’s refusal to grant Ward a hearing when requested. See generally Utah R. Civ. P. 108(d)(3) (“If the hearing before the commissioner was in a domestic relations matter other than a cohabitant abuse protective order, any party has the right, upon request … to a hearing at which the judge may require testimony or proffers of testimony on genuine issues of material fact relevant to issues other than custody.”). 


3 If the commissioner had taken evidence and if the district court, after reviewing that evidence, had expressly adopted the commissioner’s findings as its own, then it might be possible to construe those findings as independent findings mirroring those of the commissioner. But that is not what occurred in this case. 


4 The commissioner relied on McGarry’s rule 68 settlement offer to calculate the $30,000 imputation amount, but Ward never agreed to this amount. “Income may not be imputed to a parent unless the parent stipulates to the amount imputed, the parent defaults, or, in contested cases, a hearing is held and the judge … enters findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(8)(a) (LexisNexis 2018). McGarry asserts that we should construe this provision as permitting a court to impute income to a parent based on that parent’s unilateral stipulation to the amount imputed. However, McGarry’s interpretation is inconsistent with the language of the statute and would also lead to an absurd result. 

First, nothing in the statute requires the court to impute income based on the imputed parent’s stipulation. It simply states that the court cannot impute income “unless the parent stipulates” or other conditions are met. Id. And in fact, the statute explicitly states that “in contested cases,” the imputation requires a hearing and factual findings entered by the judge in support of the imputation. Id. Here, Ward maintained that McGarry’s income was greater than $30,000 per month. The appropriate amount of McGarry’s income was therefore contested, requiring the court to calculate the appropriate amount after a hearing if the parties could not reach an agreement. 

Moreover, even if the statute was ambiguous and McGarry’s interpretation was consistent with the plain language of the statute, his reading would lead to an absurd result, as it would essentially require the court to impute income at whatever level the party being imputed requests. See, e.g.Encon Utah, LLC v. Fluor Ames Kraemer, LLC, 2009 UT 7, ¶ 73, 210 P.3d 263 (“When statutory language plausibly presents the court with two alternative readings, we prefer the reading that avoids absurd results.” (quotation simplified)). Interpreting the statute in this way could have a significant negative impact on the right children have to be supported by their parents—a right that we have consistently held “is not subject to being bartered away, extinguished, estopped or in any way defeated by the agreement or conduct of the parents.” Hills v. Hills, 638 P.2d 516, 517 (Utah 1981); accord Andrus v. Andrus, 2007 UT App 291, ¶ 14, 169 P.3d 754. 


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I paid my ex in cash for child support. Will the court give me credit for it?

I paid my ex in cash for child support. Will the court give me credit for it?

In Utah (where I practice family law), the answer is: yes. And while I cannot speak for all jurisdictions, I would presume that most other jurisdictions have similar laws or rules in place.

For those of you wondering why this is an important question, this is why: if you don’t have independently verifiable, documented proof that you have paid child support, and the child support payee/recipient claims that you have not paid, the burden is on you and you alone to prove you paid. And if the only evidence of payment that you have is your word against your ex’s, you will lose the argument every single time.

So, before I finish my answer to your question, a word to the wise: never, ever pay child support in cash, if you can avoid it. If you must, for some reason, pay in cash, get a receipt from your ex acknowledging payment (amount paid, date paid). pay child support by check, money order, direct deposit, or through the child support collection agency (in Utah, this state agency’s name is the Utah Department of Human Services Office of Recover Services (known as Office of Recovery Services or just “ORS” for short).

Indeed, in my professional opinion, the best way to pay child support and to have proof you have paid child support, is to have your states child support collection agency garnish your wages (also known as “income withholding”) or to pay child support directly to the child support collection agency. Whether you are garnished or pay child support to the collection agency, the result is the same: the agency will make a record of your payment and forward payment to the child support payee. This way, you cannot ever be accused of not paying child support because the collection agency is responsible for collecting that payment and/or keeps a record of you making payment to the agency, and so it would be virtually impossible for the child support payee to accuse you, successfully, of nonpayment. Just remember that if you don’t let the collection agency garnish or paychecks, and if you pay child support directly to the collection agency, you will still want to keep independent documentation of those payments, in the event the collection agency fails to give you credit.

So, if you have been paying child support in cash to your ex, and your ex is willing to sign a statement (usually in the form of a sworn affidavit, but if your jurisdiction requires that you use a particular form and/or follow a particular procedure, make sure you do exactly as required) and submit that statement to the court acknowledging that you have paid in cash and stating how much you have paid, you are an extraordinarily fortunate person. And while it’s only right for someone who has received child support to acknowledge it and to give credit where credit is due, there are far too many child support payees who get paid in cash, then deny ever having been paid, and end up double dipping on child support by getting a judgment against you for child support falsely claimed to have been “unpaid”.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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