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In re D.S. – 2023 UT App 98 – reversal of termination of parental rights

In re D.S. – 2023 UT App 98

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

S.S.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220956-CA

Filed August 31, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Annette Jan

No. 1198250

Sheleigh A. Harding, Attorney for Appellant

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

John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1 After a trial, the juvenile court terminated S.S.’s (Father) parental rights regarding his two children, D.S. and K.S. (collectively, the Children), concluding that it was in the best interest of the Children for them to be adopted by their paternal grandmother (Grandmother). Father appeals the court’s termination order, asserting that—under the precise circumstances presented here, where the Children are being placed with Father’s own mother and where permanent guardianship remains a viable option—termination of his rights was not strictly necessary to promote the best interest of the Children. We agree with Father, and reverse the juvenile court’s termination order.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Father is the biological father of K.S., a boy born in 2010, and D.S., a girl born in 2016. Father resided with the Children and their mother (Mother) from the time the Children were born until approximately 2018. In 2014, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) received a report that Father had committed “Domestic Violence related child abuse” against K.S. and some of the Children’s other siblings; most notably, the report alleged that Father had “cut [a sibling’s] hand with a knife.” DCFS found the allegations “supported,” but it did not take action to remove K.S. at that time, and no criminal charges were ever filed.

¶3        Around 2017, after D.S. was born, a protective order was entered against Father, for reasons unclear from this record, that restricted his ability to contact Mother. Even after entry of the protective order, though, Father continued to reside with Mother for about another year, in apparent violation of that order. Eventually, in 2018, Father and Mother went through “a messy break up” and separated; the Children remained in Mother’s custody. In the year following the separation, Father spent time with the Children on a regular basis through “weekend visits” that Grandmother initiated and staged at her house.

¶4        During this time period, Father was arrested for “possession of a dangerous weapon”—“a pocketknife in [his] pocket”—in connection with various “protective order violations.” In late 2019, he was sentenced to prison, and ordered to serve a term of zero to five years. When Father first got to prison, he was unable to visit with the Children—even virtually— due to the continued existence of the protective order, but in March 2020, after obtaining a modification to that order, he began visiting with the Children through weekly “video visits” or “phone visits.” In the beginning, it was Grandmother who “was really insistent” that these virtual visits take place between Father and the Children. And since 2020, such visits have occurred on more or less a weekly basis.

¶5        In early 2021, while Father was still incarcerated, the Children were removed from Mother’s custody after an incident in which Mother abandoned them. The Children were later adjudicated neglected as to Mother and dependent as to Father, and the juvenile court placed them with Grandmother. In later proceedings, Mother’s parental rights were terminated, a determination Mother has not appealed. And due to Father’s ongoing incarceration, reunification services were never offered to him; the juvenile court set a permanency goal of adoption.

¶6        In January 2022, the State filed a petition seeking to terminate Father’s parental rights regarding the Children. Prior to trial on that petition, Father stipulated that—largely due to his incarceration—the State could show at least one statutory ground for termination of his parental rights. But the case proceeded to trial on the other element of the termination test: whether termination was strictly necessary to promote the best interest of the Children. On that point, Father took the position that termination of his rights was not strictly necessary, given that—at least in his view—he had a good relationship with the Children, they were in the care of his own mother (Grandmother), and he would undoubtedly be a part of their lives going forward, at least in some sense, simply due to that reality. He asserted that a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement would suit this situation better than adoption would.

¶7        In August 2022, the juvenile court held a relatively brief trial to consider that issue; during that trial, the court heard argument from counsel and testimony from three witnesses: the DCFS caseworker (Caseworker), Grandmother, and Father.[1] Caseworker testified that the Children were doing well in Grandmother’s care. She was aware that the Children have regular virtual visits with Father, but she noted that the Children “don’t talk [with her] much about” those visits and, when they do, they often just say “they don’t remember what they talked [with Father] about.” Caseworker stated that she knows that the Children “love [Father],” and did not recall either of them ever saying that they found Father “scary.” But she offered her view that adoption by Grandmother was in the Children’s best interest, opining that “adoption is necessary to allow them permanency and . . . a long-lasting, stable environment.” She also stated that she had talked to the Children “about adoption” and that the Children “would like to be adopted by [Grandmother],” but did not elaborate or offer any context for this conversation.

¶8                      Grandmother testified that the Children were doing well

in school and thriving in her care. She acknowledged that, as a general matter, “fathers are important” in the lives of children, and she stated that she had been “a big advocate for” Father throughout the entire saga, even pushing to set up virtual visits from the prison after Father was first incarcerated. But she testified that, over time, she had become more of “an advocate for the [Children],” and offered her view that, due to some of the “choice[s]” Father had made, the relationship between Father and the Children had not “functioned properly for a very long time.” She discussed, at some length, the regular virtual visits that the Children have with Father, and she acknowledged that Father is a good listener during the visits. But she stated that the Children have lost interest in the visits over time, and that the visits are “hard for” the Children and make them “uncomfortable” because “they don’t know what to do” during the visits. To cope with the discomfort, Grandmother has added some “structure[]” to the visits “so that [the Children] would have things to talk about”; for instance, K.S. often plays the piano for Father during the visits, while D.S. often “plays kitchen” and pretends to cook things for Father. Grandmother offered her perception that the Children do not wish to have regular virtual visits anymore, and that Father does not understand that the visits are hard for the Children. She noted that sometimes the Children need to “spend some time kind of snuggling” with her after the visits. Grandmother also testified that, on at least one occasion, K.S. said that Father is “scary.”

¶9        Grandmother testified that she is ready, willing, and able to continue caring for the Children. But she voiced a strong preference for adopting them rather than acting as their permanent guardian. When asked why, she offered her view that adoption would be “less confusing” for the Children and that she could be “a consistent parent” for them given her “resources.” She opined that a guardianship arrangement “may suit [Father],” but she didn’t think it was “in the [C]hildren’s best interests.” She also stated that she was worried about what would happen to the Children—and, specifically, whether they would return to Father’s custody—if something were to happen to her. She acknowledged, however, that she would be willing to care for the Children in either form of custody (adoption or guardianship). And she also acknowledged that, even if Father’s parental rights were terminated and she were allowed to adopt the Children, she would nevertheless be open to the possibility that Father could still have a role in the Children’s lives, and in that situation she would “ask for some guidance from people that know more than [she does] about that,” such as the Children’s therapist. She testified that she had discussed the possibility of adoption with the Children, and that D.S. had compared it to those “commercials on TV about adopting a dog.” Referring to that comment, Grandmother acknowledged that the Children “have some misconceptions about” what adoption would mean and stated that she had “tried to fix” those misconceptions, but she offered no specifics about how she had attempted to do that.

¶10      Father was the trial’s final witness. In his testimony, he first described the involvement he has had in the Children’s lives since their birth, stating that when the family was living together he saw the Children every day, “took them to school, [and] everything.” Father acknowledged that the situation had changed due to his incarceration, and he recognized that the virtual visits from prison are “not ideal” because there are often other inmates in the background on video calls and because the technology sometimes has issues, but overall, he offered his view that the visits had been going well and that he did not think the visits were uncomfortable for the Children. As he perceived it, the Children “seem[ed] excited to see” him and “always tell [him] they love” him. He credited the virtual visits for allowing him to “maintain a relationship with” the Children despite his incarceration. He stated that he had “a really good bond” with K.S., with whom he shares a connection to music. He also spoke positively of his visits with D.S., although he acknowledged that D.S. sometimes “gets upset because [Father] can’t be there with her” in person.

¶11      Father testified that he was scheduled to be released from prison in December 2022, and he articulated a desire to “have a stronger relationship with” the Children than he was able to enjoy during incarceration. Father acknowledged that, immediately upon his release from prison, he would be in no position to assume custody of the Children, because he would “have a lot of stuff to deal with,” like “getting a job,” addressing his housing situation, and sorting out outstanding “immigration” issues.[2] But he was vocal about wanting to continue and improve his relationship with the Children after his release from prison.

¶12 After the presentation of evidence, the attorneys made closing arguments. The juvenile court did not make any ruling on the record at the close of the trial; instead, it asked the parties to submit additional briefing on “the issue of strictly necessary.” A few weeks later, the parties submitted those supplemental briefs, and thereafter the court issued a written ruling terminating Father’s parental rights.

¶13 Because Father had conceded the existence of statutory grounds for termination, the only issue the court needed to address was whether termination of Father’s rights was in the best interest of the Children and, as part of that inquiry, whether termination was strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest. And on that score, the court concluded that termination was indeed strictly necessary. The court acknowledged that both Father and Grandmother love the Children. The court also acknowledged that “there were no allegations of abuse and neglect regarding [Father] at the time the [C]hildren were ordered into” the custody of DCFS.[3] But the court found that Father’s “ability to offer love, affection, [and] guidance, and to continue with the [C]hildren’s education is very limited both due to his incarceration and [the Children’s] resistance to engaging with” Father. The court noted that the Children “have had stability” with Grandmother and were doing well in her care. The court also referenced its belief that the Children “desire to remain with and be adopted” by Grandmother, but it made no determination that the Children were of sufficient capacity to be able to meaningfully express their desires in this context.

¶14      In addition, the court opined that adoption was “necessary and essential to [the Children’s] well-being as it will protect them from [Father’s] desire to have ongoing and frequent visitation.” The court chided Father for failing “to recognize that the [C]hildren . . . do not want to visit with him,” and concluded that this failure “raises questions as to whether [Father] could act in the [C]hildren’s best interest.” In the court’s view, the fact that Father “believes [the Children] enjoy the visits” and that he “would, ideally, exercise more visitation [after release from prison] is exactly why a permanent custody and guardianship neither protects nor benefits the [C]hildren.” The court stated that a guardianship arrangement would “fail to ensure adequate protections against [Father’s] commitment for increased and continued visitation,” and would leave the Children “vulnerable to [Father’s] residual parental rights.” Indeed, the court observed that, “under a permanent custody and guardianship order,” the Children’s “emotional and physical needs” would be “subsumed by [Father’s] residual rights.” The court offered its view that adoption would serve the Children’s needs better than guardianship would, because it “affords them the protection of ensuring that any future assessment of contact with [Father] will [be] considered solely from their respective points of view.” The court stated that, “[i]f the legal assessment for best interest and strictly necessary was from the parental perspective, permanent custody and guardianship with [Grandmother] would likely [be] the best solution.” But it observed that “the legal assessment of best interest and strictly necessary is focused solely upon the [C]hildren and their needs” and, viewing the situation from that perspective, the court concluded that termination of Father’s rights was strictly necessary to promote their best interest.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶15      Father appeals the juvenile court’s termination order, and challenges the court’s conclusion that termination of his parental rights was strictly necessary to further the Children’s best interest. “We review a lower court’s best interest determination deferentially, and we will overturn it only if it 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.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 30, 518 P.3d 993 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1279 (Utah 2023). But “we do not afford a high degree of deference to such determinations; rather, we simply apply the same level of deference given to all lower court findings of fact and fact-like determinations of mixed questions.” Id. (quotation simplified). Moreover, because the “evidentiary standard applicable in termination of parental rights cases” is “the clear and convincing evidence standard,” we will “assess whether the juvenile court’s determination that the clear and convincing standard had been met goes against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. (quotation simplified); see also In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 37, 491 P.3d 867 (“Whether the juvenile court correctly concluded there was no feasible alternative to terminating . . . [the father’s] parental rights is a mixed question of fact and law,” and “we review the juvenile court’s findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law for correctness, affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts.” (quotation simplified)).

ANALYSIS

¶16      “The right of parents to raise their children is one of the most important rights any person enjoys.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 31. Perhaps for this reason, our legislature has provided specific requirements that must be met before a parent’s rights may be terminated. First, at least one of the enumerated statutory grounds for termination must be present. See Utah Code § 80-4­301. Second, termination of parental rights must be in the best interest of the affected children. In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 32. “The party seeking termination of a parent’s rights bears the

burden of proof on both parts of this test,” and “that party must make this required showing by clear and convincing evidence.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶17      At trial, Father did not contest the State’s assertion that at least one of the statutory grounds for termination of his parental rights was present. He did, however, contest the State’s assertion that termination was in the Children’s best interest. And his appellate challenge to the juvenile court’s termination order is similarly limited to the best-interest portion of the two-part test.

¶18      “The best-interest inquiry is wide-ranging and asks a court to weigh the entirety of the circumstances of a child’s situation, including the physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness of the child.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 26, 520 P.3d 38 (quotation simplified). Our legislature has provided important guidance regarding the best-interest question. First, statutes emphasize the importance of maintaining familial relationships where possible. As a general rule, it is “in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents.” Utah Code § 80-4-104(8). This is because “[a] child’s need for a normal family life in a permanent home, and for positive, nurturing family relationships is usually best met by the child’s natural parents.” Id. Therefore, “the juvenile court should only transfer custody of a child from the child’s natural parent for compelling reasons and when there is a jurisdictional basis to do so.” Id.see also In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 31 (stating that a parent’s “fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent’s child . . . does not cease to exist simply because . . . a parent may fail to be a model parent” (quoting Utah Code § 80-4-104(1), (4)(a)(i))).

¶19      Next, our legislature requires that termination of parental rights be “strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1). “Our supreme court has interpreted this statutory requirement to mean that ‘termination must be strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest.’” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 36 (quoting In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 60, 472 P.3d 827). And as the juvenile court here correctly noted, this inquiry is to be conducted “from the child’s point of view,” and not from either the parent’s or the prospective adoptive family’s. See Utah Code §§ 80-4­104(12)(b), -301(1); see also In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶¶ 25 n.5, 64 (stating that the “best interest analysis should be undertaken from the child’s point of view”). “[W]hen two placement options would equally benefit a child, the strictly-necessary requirement operates as a preference for a placement option that does not necessitate termination over an option that does.” In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 75, 491 P.3d 867; see also In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 29 (“Courts must start the best interest analysis from the legislatively mandated position that wherever possible, family life should be strengthened and preserved, and if the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary.” (quotation simplified)). Thus, the best-interest inquiry—informed by the “strictly necessary” requirement—“requires courts to explore whether 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 B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 67 (quotation simplified). In particular, “courts should consider whether other less-permanent arrangements might serve the child’s needs just as well” as termination of the parent’s rights would. Id. (quotation simplified).

¶20    With these considerations in mind, we turn to the issue at hand: whether the State presented clear and convincing evidence that termination of Father’s rights was strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest. The juvenile court determined that the State had cleared this hurdle, and it based its best-interest determination largely on two subsidiary conclusions: (1) that the Children needed stability, which the court believed could be better provided through adoption than through a permanent guardianship arrangement, and (2) that the Children needed to be “protect[ed] against [Father’s] commitment for increased and continued visitation,” including protection against Father’s “residual rights,” which protection the court believed could be better provided through adoption than through a permanent guardianship arrangement. Father asserts that, on this record, these reasons constitute an insufficient basis to terminate his parental rights, and he maintains that the juvenile court’s determination was therefore against the weight of the evidence. We agree with Father.

¶21 The court’s first conclusion—that adoption affords a somewhat higher degree of stability than permanent guardianship does—is not, at a general level, a sufficient reason for terminating a parent’s rights. As our supreme court recently clarified, “categorical concerns” about stability are insufficient to warrant termination of parental rights so that an adoption may occur. See In re J.A.L., 2022 UT 12, ¶ 24, 506 P.3d 606. “If these categorical concerns were enough, termination and adoption would be strictly necessary across the board” because a “permanent guardianship by definition does not offer the same degree of permanency as an adoption” and “there is always some risk that the permanent guardianship could come to an end, or be affected by visitation by the parent.” Id.see also In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 23, 532 P.3d 592 (“Categorical concerns about the lack of permanence of an option other than adoption are not enough, otherwise termination and adoption would be strictly necessary across the board.” (quotation simplified)).

¶22 In this vein, we note again that permanent guardianship arrangements are themselves quite stable. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55; see also In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 31 (noting that permanent guardianships “have certain hallmarks of permanency”). “A parent whose child has been placed in a permanent guardianship arrangement in a child welfare proceeding has no independent right to petition to change or dissolve the guardianship.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55; see also Utah Code § 78A-6-357(3)(d). “Only the guardian has that right.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55; see also Utah Code § 78A­6-357(3)(d). And a parent, in this situation, is entitled only to “reasonable parent-time” with the child. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(70)(a)(iv). A guardian who does not think that a parent’s parent-time request is “reasonable” may resist that request, and any disputes between the guardian and the parent about the scope of “reasonable” visitation will be resolved “by the court,” with the best interest of the child in mind. See id. It is simply not the case—as the State implies—that a parent in this situation may demand, and obtain, as much parent-time as the parent desires. There are, of course, meaningful marginal differences in permanence and control between adoption and guardianship, and in some cases, these differences might matter. But after In re J.A.L., courts focused on the virtues of stability and permanence may no longer rely on the categorical differences between the two arrangements, but must instead discuss case-specific reasons why the “added layer of permanency that adoptions offer” matters in the case at hand. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 53.

¶23      In this case, the juvenile court offered a case-specific reason for its focus on stability: it was concerned about Father’s “residual rights,” and specifically about Father’s “commitment for increased and continued visitation,” and it worried that, after Father’s release from prison, he might continue to have some “involvement in [the Children’s] lives.” We acknowledge that, in some cases, fear of a parent’s residual rights might reasonably counsel in favor of terminating that parent’s rights so that an adoption can take place. But this case is not one of those cases.

¶24      For starters, there is no indication that Father’s continuing relationship with the Children is harmful to them, rather than merely perhaps inconvenient. See In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 24 (reversing a court’s termination of parental rights in part because “there was no finding . . . that [the] [f]ather’s presence in [the child’s] life has affirmatively harmed” the child, and “there was no finding detailing how [the child’s] life was negatively affected or disrupted by [the] [f]ather’s attempts to exercise his parental rights”).[4] Indeed, the juvenile court accurately noted that “there were no allegations of abuse or neglect regarding [Father] at the time the [C]hildren were ordered into [DCFS] custody,” and the Children were found only “dependent”—not abused or neglected—as to him. And the court found that Father “was involved in” K.S.’s life “until he was about eight years old” and in D.S.’s life until she “was three”; that he “love[s] these [C]hildren”; and that he “expresses genuine love and affection for” them.

¶25                To be sure, Father’s incarceration has placed a great degree

of stress on the parent-child relationship. Because of his incarceration, Father was unable to care for the Children in their time of need when Mother abandoned them, and he was—as of the time of trial—still unable to assume custody of them. Father has, however, made a credible and determined effort to remain involved in the Children’s lives despite his incarceration. With Grandmother’s initial encouragement and assistance, virtual visits were arranged on a regular basis, and the juvenile court found that, “[a]t first, the [C]hildren were eager” to participate in those visits. Over time, however, the Children have lost their enthusiasm for the visits. But no party pins this loss of enthusiasm on Father’s behavior regarding those visits; he remains excited about the visits, and there is no evidence that Father has ever turned down (or not shown up for) an opportunity for visits, or that he has ever acted inappropriately during any visit. Indeed, the juvenile court specifically found that Father was “a good listener” during the visits, and Grandmother testified that Father was “very good at playing kitchen” with D.S.

¶26      The most anyone can say regarding any downside to these visits is that the Children find them boring or “uncomfortable” because they sometimes see other inmates in the background and because they do “not know what to do” during the visits. Grandmother has had to add some structure to the visits so that the Children have some things to talk about with Father; K.S. has turned to music, and D.S. to “playing kitchen.” On some occasions, the Children find the visits “difficult” and need comfort from Grandmother after the visits conclude, but there is no indication from the record that this difficulty arises from anything Father does or says during the visits; indeed, it seems that the difficulty arises simply from the fact that Father is in prison, a fact that makes communicating and bonding comparatively difficult and often awkward.

¶27 Given Father’s genuine efforts to maintain a meaningful relationship with the Children, as well as the absence of a “harmfulness” component to that relationship, we see no basis for the juvenile court’s view that the Children need “protections against [Father’s] commitment for increased and continued visitation.” As a general matter, we want parents to exhibit a commitment toward a positive and continued relationship with their children. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55 (“Family life should be strengthened and preserved wherever possible, and . . . it is usually in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents.” (quotation simplified)); see also In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 55, 436 P.3d 206 (“In many cases, children will benefit from having more people—rather than fewer—in their lives who love them and care about them . . . .”), aff’d, 2020 UT 60, 472 P.3d 827. All else being equal, there is inherent value and benefit—not only to the parent but to the children—in maintaining familial relationships, a fact that the juvenile court failed to discuss or account for. See In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 31 (noting the “benefit of preserving the familial relationships, as our legislature has commanded courts to do ‘wherever possible’” (quoting Utah Code § 80-4­104(12))). And a parent’s desire to build and maintain—coupled with efforts to actually maintain—a meaningful relationship with a child is a factor that will often weigh in favor of, and not against, a determination that it is in the child’s best interest to keep the relationship intact. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55. As we read this record, Father should be commended—rather than chided—for maintaining love and affection for, and a desire to continue a meaningful relationship with, the Children despite his incarceration. And Father’s wish to have “visitation” with the Children after his release from prison should likewise have been viewed positively—or at least neutrally—rather than negatively in the context of the best-interest inquiry. See id. (“[W]e question whether—in many cases, including this one—a parent’s desire to re-engage in their child’s life should be viewed as negatively as the juvenile court appeared to view it.”).

¶28      All of this is especially true in this case, where the prospective adoptive parent is Father’s own mother. As Grandmother herself acknowledged, no matter the outcome of the case—whether adoption or guardianship—there will very likely be some sort of ongoing relationship between Father and the Children. That is, not even Grandmother believes that Father will (or necessarily should) be completely cut out of the Children’s lives; instead, she testified that, in the event she is allowed to adopt the Children, she would consult with “therapist[s]” and other “people that know more than” she does about appropriate visitation, and come to a decision about the level of Father’s involvement that she believes would be best for the Children. In another similar case, we defined the relevant question as follows: “[B]efore it may terminate [a parent’s] rights, the [juvenile] court must adequately explain why it is better for [the Children] to have [the parent] cut out of [their lives] forever than to have [the parent] remain involved in [their lives], perhaps with limited parent-time, pursuant to a guardianship arrangement.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 36. In cases like this one, where—given the identity of the prospective adoptive parent—nobody thinks Father really is going to be completely cut out of the Children’s lives as a practical matter, it becomes more difficult to establish that it is best for the Children for Father’s rights to be terminated.

¶29 Finally, we put almost no stock in the juvenile court’s finding that the Children “expressed a desire to be adopted by” Grandmother. In this context—termination cases in which the children are not in the physical custody of the parent in question—our law allows the court to consider “the child’s desires regarding the termination,” but only if the court “determines [that] the child is of sufficient capacity to express the child’s desires.” Utah Code § 80-4-303(1)(a). The issue of the capacity of the Children to express their desires was never discussed at trial, and the juvenile court made no determination that either one of the Children had sufficient capacity. At the time of trial, K.S. was eleven years old and D.S. was six years old. While the governing statute puts no absolute age threshold on when a child’s desires may be considered,[5] it is far from obvious that either of the Children—especially the six-year-old—were “of sufficient capacity” to express a meaningful opinion about the ultimate question in this case: whether Father’s rights ought to be terminated to facilitate an adoption or whether Father should retain certain rights through a guardianship arrangement. In parental termination cases, a court wishing to take a child’s desires into account should make a determination regarding the child’s capacity to express those desires; absent such a determination, the requirements of the statute are not met.

¶30 Moreover, even if the Children could be considered capable of offering meaningful testimony about their desires, there are evidentiary problems with the juvenile court’s finding on the subject: the trial testimony did not support any finding on this issue more specific than that the Children—quite understandably—wanted to remain in Grandmother’s care. Caseworker testified that the Children “would like to be adopted by” Grandmother, but she offered no additional details about her conversation with the Children. And Grandmother stated that she had discussed adoption with the Children, but she testified that D.S. responded, “That’s like the commercials on TV about adopting a dog.” And she acknowledged that the Children “have some misconceptions about” what adoption would mean, and that she had “tried to fix” those misconceptions. But no witness offered any testimony that could support a finding that either of the Children actually understood and appreciated the distinction between adoption and guardianship, and that, based on that understanding, they preferred adoption. In particular, no witness offered any testimony that either of the Children understood that, if an adoption were to occur, Father would lose all of his parental rights, and—relatedly—no witness offered any testimony that the Children actually wanted Father to lose all of his parental rights.[6]

¶31      In the end, the facts of this case simply don’t add up to strict necessity. Even though we review the juvenile court’s decision deferentially, we still must reverse when “the evidence presented at trial [does] not constitute clear and convincing evidence that termination of [the parent’s] rights . . . would be in the best interest of those children.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 38; see also In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 34 (reversing the district court’s decision where the “court’s conclusion that termination of [a father’s] parental rights was in [a child’s] best interest goes against the clear weight of the evidence”). With the appropriate “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard in mind, we conclude that the juvenile court’s decision in this case was against the clear weight of the evidence, and that the reasons upon which the court’s analysis relied were insufficient to support termination of Father’s rights.

¶32 We emphasize, however, that our decision is dependent upon the particular circumstances of this case. Those notable circumstances include the following: the juvenile court made no finding that Father’s relationship with the Children was abusive or harmful; the prospective adoptive parent is Father’s own mother; and Father will—in any event—likely have a relationship of some kind with the Children in the future. Moreover, there is no evidence that Father and Grandmother have the sort of relationship where he would be likely to exercise undue control over custody and care decisions in a guardianship arrangement. See In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 31 (noting that guardianship might be a viable option because, among other things, there was “no evidence in the record that would lead us to believe that [the guardians] would be particularly susceptible to undue influence from [the parent] as concerns seeking a change or dissolution of the guardianship”); see also In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55. If the facts of the case were different, termination of Father’s parental rights might well have been justified. For instance, if Father’s relationship with the Children were abusive or detrimental, the situation would certainly be different. And we have previously noted that, where the prospective adoptive placement consists of non-relatives with no pre-existing relationship with the parent whose rights are at issue, a guardianship arrangement may be a poor fit. See In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 11, 502 P.3d 1247 (discussing with approval a lower court’s reasoning that permanent guardianship arrangements work best in situations where the parent and the guardian know each other and are “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,” and that such arrangements may not work as well in non-relative, foster-family placement situations). But on the facts presented at the termination trial in this case, a permanent guardianship arrangement serves the Children’s interest at least as well as adoption does, and therefore termination of Father’s parental rights is not strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 49 (“If the two placements can each equally protect and benefit the child’s best interest, then by definition there does not exist clear and convincing evidence in favor of terminating a parent’s rights.” (quotation simplified)).

CONCLUSION

¶33      We reverse the juvenile court’s order terminating Father’s parental rights and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We note, as we have in similar cases, that “best-interest determinations are to be conducted in present-tense fashion, as of the date of the trial or hearing convened to consider the matter.” Id. ¶ 58. Our holding today is that, based on the evidence presented at trial in August 2022, termination of Father’s rights was not strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest. But the situation may well have changed since August 2022. In particular, we are aware that Father was scheduled to be released from prison in December 2022; the record submitted to us contains no information about whether that occurred as scheduled or, if so, what has happened since his release. If nothing has materially changed since the August 2022 trial, then we expect the court to enter an order establishing a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement, with the Children in Grandmother’s care, and to make appropriate rulings, as necessary, regarding the scope of Father’s reasonable visitation. But if there is evidence that matters have materially changed since the trial, the court may need to consider that evidence in some fashion, see In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 15, 500 P.3d 94, and re-assess best interest, with its strictly necessary component, based on the situation at the time of the remand proceedings.


[1] The trial transcript is composed of just fifty-two pages. And the three witnesses’ testimony, in total, took just over an hour.

[2] The record submitted to us does not indicate whether Father was in fact released from prison on the anticipated date or, if so, whether Father has taken any steps to resolve his employment, housing, or immigration issues.

[3] At no point in its written ruling, or at any other time during the trial, did the court reference the 2014 “supported” allegations of abuse regarding the Children’s sibling. No witness testified about those allegations at trial. And while the protective order violations were mentioned in passing, no witness offered any testimony about the basis upon which the protective order was granted.

[4] As noted already, see supra note 3, no witness at trial mentioned the 2014 “supported” incident of abuse, and the protective order violations were discussed only in passing. Most importantly for present purposes, the juvenile court did not base any of its findings or conclusions on either of these incidents; in particular, it made no finding that either one was of such a nature as to render Father’s relationship with the Children harmful to them.

[5] Utah’s adoption statutes, by contrast, establish a specific age limit regarding when a child’s consent to adoption must be procured. See Utah Code § 78B-6-120(1)(a) (“[C]onsent to adoption of a child . . . is required from . . . the adoptee, if the adoptee is more than 12 years of age, unless the adoptee does not have the mental capacity to consent.”).

[6] In this vein, we note a general concern with evidence about a child’s desires regarding termination coming in through the testimony of a prospective adoptive parent. A much better practice is for such evidence to come in through either a proffer from a guardian ad litem—the attorney specifically hired to represent the interests of the child—or through the testimony of professional witnesses (e.g., mental health counselors) who presumably have training in discussing such topics with minors in a neutral way. By noting the absence of specific foundational evidence about the Children’s desires, we are in no way faulting Grandmother for apparently not asking additional follow-up questions of the Children regarding termination; indeed, this opinion should not be viewed as encouraging prospective adoptive parents to engage in conversations with children about termination of their natural parents’ rights.

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Blake v. Smith – 2023 UT App 78 – child custody, child support

Blake v. Smith – 2023 UT App 78

2023 UT App 78

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

DEJUAN BLAKE,

Appellee,

v.

JILLYN SMITH,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210779-CA

Filed July 20, 2023

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Su Chon

No. 184900112

Julie J. Nelson, Attorney for Appellant

DeJuan Blake, Appellee Pro Se

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

concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

 

¶1        Jillyn Smith appeals the district court’s order regarding custody and child support for her minor son (Child). Because we determine the court abused its discretion by awarding Smith sole physical and legal custody while requiring joint decision-making between Smith and Child’s father, DeJuan Blake, we vacate that part of the court’s custody award. Furthermore, because we conclude the court made a mathematical error in calculating the amount of child support, and that a further examination of the evidence of Blake’s income is warranted, we reverse the court’s child support award and remand for recalculation as appropriate.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Smith met Blake in 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the two entered into a relationship. As a result of the relationship, Smith became pregnant with Child in 2009. At the time Smith learned about the pregnancy, she was no longer living in Las Vegas—she had moved to Utah to escape her relationship with Blake.

¶3        After a tumultuous pregnancy, during which Blake continuously asked Smith to have an abortion, Child was born in Utah in October 2009. Blake traveled to Utah to visit Child twice during the first year of Child’s life, with each visit lasting “maybe an hour or two.” The sporadic visits continued over the next few years, with Child and Smith traveling with Blake on short trips together. Although Smith asked Blake for financial support during this time, Blake did not provide support and instead always offered an “excuse.” Eventually, the communications between the couple became too toxic and Smith elected to “take a break from communication” with Blake.

¶4        Thereafter, Smith decided to “give [Blake] a second chance.” Blake and Child had “maybe a few” “infrequent[]” telephone conversations a year, but the conversations were short due to Child’s speech impediment. Blake was not involved in Child’s schooling or scheduling, he never attended Child’s doctor’s appointments, and he “wouldn’t follow through” or offer any explanation as to why he could not help Smith with financial support for Child’s medical care or educational needs.

¶5        Blake traveled to Utah in 2015 to attend Child’s birthday party. Toward the end of the party, Blake and Smith had a verbal altercation regarding Blake’s failure to honor their agreement for Blake to pay Smith child support. Following this visit, Blake returned to Utah once in 2016 to attend Child’s baseball game. That visit also ended in a verbal altercation.

¶6        In January 2018, Blake petitioned the district court for paternity and custody of Child. At the time, Child was eight years old and living with Smith.

¶7        After initiating custody proceedings, Blake filed a series of three financial declarations with the district court. Blake is self-employed and owns a company managing professional and aspiring boxers. Blake’s stated gross income, monthly expenses, and debt listed on each of the three financial declarations differed significantly. In the first declaration, Blake claimed $0 in gross monthly income, $1,875 in monthly expenses, and a debt of $7,240. In the second, Blake claimed $2,000 in gross monthly income, $17,797 in monthly expenses, and no debt. And in the third, Blake claimed $1,686 in gross monthly income, $3,947 in monthly expenses, and no debt. The bank statements filed with each disclosure were incomplete; however, the bank statements that were submitted showed that between August 2017 and January 2019, Blake made deposits into his personal account totaling $456,669.98, and that during that same time, he made withdrawals totaling nearly $50,000 for investments in cryptocurrency, payments to his mother, payments to the mother of one of his other children, and luxury clothing.

¶8        The case proceeded to a bench trial in October 2020. At trial, Smith detailed the relationship between Child and Blake. She explained that Blake had never been actively involved in Child’s life and that Blake had not seen Child at all since May 2016. Smith testified that she and Blake had reached an “original agreement” for child support where Blake would pay her $1,000 per month. She further testified that this agreement did not start until 2015—when Child was already six years old—and that the payments had lasted for only one month. In total, Smith estimated that Blake had contributed $1,600 in support payments “over the entirety of [Child’s] life.”

¶9        Following trial, the district court adjudicated Blake as Child’s father, awarded Smith sole physical and legal custody of Child, and awarded Blake standard relocation parent-time pursuant to Utah Code section 30-3-37, which is approximately 17% of the year. In reaching its legal custody determination, the court analyzed the statutory factors outlined in Utah Code sections 30-3-10 and 30-3-10.2 and concluded that the presumption favoring joint legal custody had been rebutted and that joint legal custody was not in Child’s best interest. However, the court ordered a joint decision-making arrangement between the parties, requiring that the parties “discuss with each other decisions that should be made regarding [Child].” The arrangement further provides, “If there is a dispute, the parties should attend mediation and each pay half of the mediation fees. If the dispute remains, then [Smith] will have final say. [Blake] can . . . bring the matter to court if he is unsatisfied with the decision.”

¶10      Regarding child support, the district court primarily calculated Blake’s past child support payments based on his 2018 tax record, where he claimed $45,050 in gross receipts and $34,483 in deductions. After reviewing the evidence, the court concluded that several of the deductions—totaling $27,530—were unsupported and accordingly struck those deductions. Based on this, the court found that Blake’s “annual income should be $23,790” through March 2020. However, given the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the court concluded that “Blake’s income has come to a halt,” and it accordingly found it “appropriate . . . to impute minimum wage income of $1,257/month from March 2020 forward.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶11      Smith now appeals the district court’s order regarding custody and child support, raising two issues for our review. First, Smith argues the court abused its discretion when it “issued an internally inconsistent [custody] award” giving Smith “sole legal and physical custody but also order[ing] joint decision-making” between her and Blake. “We review custody determinations under an abuse of discretion standard, giving the district court broad discretion to make custody awards.” K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 24, 414 P.3d 933 (quotation simplified). “But this broad discretion must be guided by the governing law adopted by the Utah Legislature. And on matters of statutory interpretation, we review for correctness.” Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 155, 459 P.3d 276 (quotation simplified). And “[w]here the court’s findings are internally inconsistent on a material point, reversal and remand are appropriate.” Vandermeide v. Young, 2013 UT App 31, ¶ 21, 296 P.3d 787, cert. denied, 308 P.3d 536 (Utah 2013).[1]

¶12      Second, Smith argues the district court abused its discretion when it calculated Blake’s income for purposes of child support. “We review the district court’s decisions regarding child support . . . under the abuse of discretion standard.” Pankhurst v. Pankhurst, 2022 UT App 36, ¶ 13, 508 P.3d 612 (quotation simplified). Where the court’s findings contain mathematical error or conflict with the record, we will remand for recalculation. See Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶¶ 57–60, 496 P.3d 242.

ANALYSIS
I. Custody

¶13      Smith first challenges the district court’s custody award, contending the court abused its discretion in crafting the award because it is “internally inconsistent.” According to Smith, the joint decision-making arrangement “undermines” her award of sole physical and legal custody because it “allows [Blake] to force mediation and litigation whenever he disagrees with a decision made by [Smith], even though she has sole legal and physical custody.” We agree.

¶14      As an initial matter, the Utah Code does not define “sole physical custody” or “sole legal custody.” But in Hansen v. Hansen, 2012 UT 9, 270 P.3d 531, our supreme court provided guidance as to the meaning of those terms. In Hansen, the father and the mother were awarded joint custody of their daughter following their divorce. Id. ¶ 2. The mother was awarded sole physical custody and the father was ordered to pay child support to the mother. Id. Sometime later, the daughter entered a private youth homeless shelter, where she lived through her eighteenth birthday. Id. While the daughter was living at the shelter, the father filed a petition with the district court seeking to redirect his child support payments from the mother to the homeless shelter. Id. ¶¶ 2–3. The court denied the motion, which denial was ultimately upheld by the Utah Supreme Court. Id. ¶¶ 4–5, 30.

¶15      The supreme court’s decision centered on the meaning of custody. Although the daughter had been residing at the shelter, the court determined that the daughter’s physical custody had not changed; rather, the mother still retained physical custody. Id. ¶¶ 15–19, 28. The court explained,

Family law treatises consistently define custody as a bundle of constituent rights and obligations to a child’s possession, care, and control, and explain that the essence of custody is control over all aspects of the child’s life coupled with responsibility for the child’s welfare. Standard dictionary definitions of custody are to the same effect.

Custody is often divided into two subsets: legal and physical custody. Both encompass a duty of control and supervision. While legal custody carries the power and duty to make the most significant decisions about a child’s life and welfare, physical custody involves the right, obligation, and authority to make necessary day-to-day decisions concerning the child’s welfare. Although the latter is limited to the right to control the child’s daily activities, it still involves a right of control. This grant of authority is necessary so that the custodian can control and discipline the child or make emergency medical or surgical decisions for the child.

Id. ¶¶ 16–17 (quotation simplified). Put differently, “the legal duty of control or supervision [is] the essential hallmark of custody.” Id. ¶ 18 (quotation simplified). Legal custody encompasses the ability to make major decisions in a child’s life, while physical custody encompasses the ability to make day-to-day decisions in a child’s life.

¶16      Although the Utah Code does not define sole physical or legal custody, it does define “joint legal custody” and “joint physical custody.”[2] Under the current statutory scheme, a parent may be awarded “joint legal custody,” which is defined as “the sharing of the rights, privileges, duties, and powers of a parent by both parents.” Utah Code § 30-3-10.1(2)(a) (emphasis added). As this court has long recognized, the purpose of joint legal custody is to allow “both parents [to] share the authority and responsibility to make basic decisions regarding their child’s welfare.” See Thronson v. Thronson, 810 P.2d 428, 429–30 (Utah Ct. App. 1991), cert. denied, 826 P.2d 651 (Utah 1991).

¶17      Taken together, it follows that an award of “sole” legal custody does not involve sharing the “rights, privileges, duties, and powers of a parent.” See Utah Code § 30-3-10.1(2)(a). Accordingly, when the district court awarded sole legal and physical custody to Smith, it also awarded her alone the “rights and obligations to [Child’s] possession, care, and control,” see Hansen, 2012 UT 9, ¶ 16 (quotation simplified), including the sole authority to “make the most significant decisions about [Child’s] life and welfare,” see id. ¶ 17 (quotation simplified), and the “authority to make necessary day-to-day decisions concerning [Child’s] welfare,” see id. (quotation simplified). It therefore was inconsistent to simultaneously order a joint decision-making arrangement.

¶18       Moreover, the joint decision-making arrangement is at odds with the district court’s own findings regarding Child’s best interest. “In making a custody determination, a [district] court’s primary focus is what custody arrangement would be in the best interest[] of the child.” Grindstaff v. Grindstaff, 2010 UT App 261, ¶ 4, 241 P.3d 365. Utah law presumes that joint legal custody is in a child’s best interest, but that presumption may be rebutted by showing “by a preponderance of the evidence that it is not in the best interest of the child.” Utah Code § 30-3-10(3)–(4). And under Utah law, there is “neither a preference nor a presumption for or against joint physical custody or sole physical custody.” Id. § 30­3-10(8).

¶19      “In determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by ordering joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both, the court shall consider” a number of statutory factors. See id. § 30-3-10.2(2). Here, the court analyzed the statutory factors and determined that awarding Smith sole legal and physical custody of Child was in Child’s best interest. In particular, the court found that there was “very little evidence provided that either parent could function appropriately with co-parenting skills,” that it was “unclear” whether the parties could work together to reach shared decisions in Child’s best interest, and that there was “very little evidence” the parties “actually discussed and made decisions together.” In light of these findings, it is unclear how the joint decision-making arrangement—which is not limited to major decisions but instead encompasses all decisions—could be properly viewed as advancing Child’s best interest. It does not follow from the evidence of the parties’ ongoing issues making decisions relating to Child that such an arrangement would lead to success in the future. Rather, precisely because of the court’s findings, it seems likely that such an arrangement would cause ongoing issues, result in costly mediation and additional court involvement, and be detrimental to Child’s best interest, which is exactly what Utah law seeks to avoid.

¶20      In sum, the district court abused its discretion when it awarded Smith sole physical and legal custody while also ordering a joint decision-making arrangement between Smith and Blake. Although Utah law does not prohibit a joint decision-making arrangement in cases involving an award of joint physical and legal custody, an examination of the underlying statutory scheme reveals that such an arrangement is not compatible with an award of sole physical and legal custody. Furthermore, these competing provisions belie the court’s own findings regarding Child’s best interest as relates to custody. As such, we vacate the portion of the court’s custody award ordering the joint decision-making arrangement.

II. Child Support

¶21      Smith next argues the district court erred in calculating child support. Specifically, Smith takes issue with the court’s calculation of Blake’s income for purposes of child support, contending the court’s calculation (1) contains a mathematical error and (2) is inconsistent with the evidence in the record. We agree.

¶22      The Utah Child Support Act outlines the process by which a district court must evaluate the income of a parent when calculating child support. See generally Utah Code § 78B-12-202. To begin, the court must consider the “gross income” of a parent, which the Utah Code defines broadly as including

prospective income from any source, including earned and nonearned income sources which may include salaries, wages, commissions, royalties, bonuses, rents, gifts from anyone, prizes, dividends, severance pay, pensions, interest, trust income, alimony from previous marriages, annuities, capital gains, Social Security benefits, workers’ compensation benefits, unemployment compensation, income replacement disability insurance benefits, and payments from “nonmeans-tested” government programs.

Id. § 78B-12-203(1). And when a parent is self-employed—as is the case with Blake—the statute directs how gross income should be handled. It provides that “[g]ross income from self-employment or operation of a business shall be calculated by subtracting necessary expenses required for self-employment or business operation from gross receipts. . . . Gross income . . . may differ from the amount of business income determined for tax purposes.” Id. § 78B-12-203(4).

¶23      The district court determined that Blake’s income had been impacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and accordingly evaluated his income for purposes of child support based on what he had earned pre-pandemic and what he was earning during the pandemic. On the record before us, we see two errors in the court’s calculations. First, the court made a discrete mathematical error in calculating Blake’s pre-pandemic income. Second, and more broadly, the court did not consider all the evidence of Blake’s finances when calculating Blake’s income, both pre-pandemic and at the time of trial.

¶24      First, the district court calculated Blake’s past child support payments using his 2018 tax record. On that record, Blake claimed $45,050 in gross receipts. From that, Blake deducted $34,483 as follows: $5,270 for “materials and supplies,” $3,605 for “advertising,” $360 for “legal and professional services,” $500 for “office expense,” $21,760 for “other business property,” and $2,988 for “utilities.” After viewing the evidence, the court found that Blake had failed to adequately explain why he should be entitled to deductions for “materials and supplies” ($5,270), “other business property” ($21,760), or “office expense” ($500), and it accordingly struck those deductions, totaling $27,530. As a result, the court should have concluded that Blake’s income was $38,097, or $3,175 per month rounded. But it did not. Instead, it concluded that Blake’s income was $23,790, or $1,983 per month. This value is mathematically incorrect.

¶25      Second, notwithstanding the mathematical error in the court’s calculation of Blake’s income, the value imputed by the court is inconsistent with the evidence in the record. Utah law is clear that “in contested cases,” a judge is entitled to impute income to a parent so long as the judge “enters findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.” See id. § 78B-12­203(8)(a). “The purpose of such imputation is to prevent parents from reducing their child support or alimony by purposeful unemployment or underemployment.” Connell v. Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 16, 233 P.3d 836 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, when imputing income, “the income shall be based upon employment potential and probable earnings considering,” among other things, “employment opportunities,” “work history,” and “occupation qualifications.” Utah Code § 78B-12­203(8)(b).

¶26      As explained above, the court calculated Blake’s income at $1,983 per month up until the time that the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. And at trial, which was held in October 2020, the court concluded that due to the pandemic, “Blake’s income has come to a halt” and therefore determined it was “appropriate . . . to impute minimum wage income of $1,257/month from March 2020 forward.” But the financial documents submitted by Blake do not support the low amount of income the court chose to impute.

¶27      Blake’s bank records—which were all filed with the court—show that Blake made deposits into his personal account totaling $456,669.98 between August 2017 and January 2019. These deposits included a check for $200,000, which Blake testified “was for my services that was rendered” in connection with a high-publicity boxing match. And in addition to the deposits, Blake’s bank records show significant withdrawals. For example, the records indicate that Blake had regularly invested in cryptocurrency, had transferred over $15,000 to his mother, had transferred over $9,000 to the mother of one of his other children,[3] and had spent over $10,000 on luxury clothing.

¶28      Despite the evidence of Blake’s spending, Blake did not demonstrate how he was funding his lifestyle, and he claimed only one debt of $7,240 in the first of his three financial disclosures. In light of the foregoing, the district court’s determination that Blake was making no money and therefore should be imputed minimum wage is not supported by the evidence. Rather, the evidence suggests that Blake was less than forthcoming with the court as to the actual amount of his income. As such, on remand the court should reevaluate evidence of Blake’s finances, his earning capacity, and whether he is voluntarily underemployed and should make a further determination as to whether greater income should be imputed to him.[4] In so doing, the court should take special care to ensure that the final award is void of mathematical error.

CONCLUSION

¶29      The district court abused its discretion when it awarded Smith sole physical and legal custody of Child while also ordering a joint decision-making arrangement with Blake. We therefore vacate the court’s custody ruling as it relates to the joint decision-making arrangement. The court also abused its discretion when calculating child support. The current award contains a mathematical error and is not supported by record evidence. Accordingly, we reverse the court’s award of child support and remand with instructions that the court reexamine the evidence to determine whether greater income should be imputed to Blake.

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


[1] Blake did not file a brief or otherwise appear in this appeal. Although “an appellee’s failure to file a brief does not amount to an automatic default and consequent reversal of the lower court,” our supreme court has recently recognized that such failure does impact the “typical burden of persuasion on appeal.” See AL-IN Partners, LLC v. LifeVantage Corp., 2021 UT 42, ¶ 19, 496 P.3d 76 (quotation simplified). Because an appellee’s failure to raise any argument leaves the appellant’s claims “unrebutted,” see Broderick v. Apartment Mgmt. Consultants, LLC, 2012 UT 17, ¶¶ 18–21, 279 P.3d 391, “when an appellee fails to present us with any argument, an appellant need only establish a prima facie showing of a plausible basis for reversal,” AL-IN Partners, 2021 UT 42, ¶ 19 (quotation simplified). We question whether the standard articulated in AL-IN Partners should apply the same way in cases such as this where the standard of review on appeal is deferential to the discretionary decisions of the district court. But because this issue was not briefed and our decision on both arguments presented ultimately involves the conclusion that the district court did abuse its discretion and committed other errors, we need not decide the issue today. However, we note the question does warrant additional consideration in a case where it is squarely before the court.

[2] In relevant part, the statute defines “joint physical custody” as when “the child stays with each parent overnight for more than 30% of the year.” Utah Code § 30-3-10.1(3)(a). This particular provision is not applicable here because Blake was awarded standard relocation parent-time which falls below the 30% threshold. See id. § 30-3-37. Nevertheless, Utah law is clear that “[e]ach parent may make decisions regarding the day-to-day care and control of the child while the child is residing with that parent.” Id. § 30-3-10.9(6). Thus, by statute Smith has sole decision-making authority over day-to-day decisions when Child is in her care. Likewise, Blake has decision-making authority over day-to-day decisions when Child is in his care.

[3] This amount does not include child support payments awarded to the mother, which were $1,000 per month. Those support payments were made directly to Nevada’s State Collection and Disbursement Unit.

[4] Smith filed a post-trial motion pursuant to rule 59(e) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure seeking to amend, among other things, the court’s child support award. The district court issued a Memorandum Decision and Order denying the motion. In analyzing the child support issue, the court stated that “[g]ifts are not generally considered income.” This is legally incorrect. As explained above, the Utah Code explicitly defines “gross income” as including “gifts from anyone.” See Utah Code § 78B-12-203(1). To the extent Blake was gifted items, the court must include the value of those gifts when calculating his income.

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Custody order says mother and child can’t leave the state. Is that legal?

If custody order says mother and child are not allowed to leave the state, is there any chance the court would allow them to go on a vacation to another country if the father says no?

I cannot speak for all jurisdictions, but I can answer the question based upon the law where I practice divorce and family law (Utah):

First, if the court were to order a parent not to leave the state (just the parent, not the parent with the child), that would likely be held unconstitutional, as a civil court does not have the authority to infringe upon an individual’s right to travel without a compelling reason.

Second, if the court were to order a parent not to leave the state with the child, that may be within the court’s authority to do so, especially if:

  • there were evidence that you have tried to abscond with the child to a foreign country (whether the foreign country is beyond the reach of the Hague Convention) or are at risk of absconding with the child to a foreign country.
  • the custody award, such as a joint physical custody award, was conditioned upon the parties residing within a certain geographical distance of each other.

That stated, if:

  1. there is no concern about you absconding with the children to a foreign country, never to return;
  2. the foreign country to which you want to travel on vacation is not a dangerous place (i.e., a place where Americans are routinely kidnapped or killed and/or where there are wars, insurrections, and/or dangerous natural disasters occurring);
  3. there is no harm that a child would suffer by traveling with you internationally (such as a certain health or medical or mental health condition that makes international travel a serious danger to the child), I cannot see any reason why a court would deny you the right to travel to a foreign country on vacation; and
  4. there is no other compelling reason to deny you and the child(ren) the opportunity to vacation internationally,

I doubt that any court would bar you from travelling internationally with the child(ren).

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

https://www.quora.com/If-custody-order-says-mother-and-child-are-not-allowed-to-leave-the-state-is-there-any-chance-the-court-would-allow-them-to-go-on-a-vacation-to-another-country-if-the-father-says-no/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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Can I sell or trade in the family car while divorce proceedings are pending?

Can I sell or trade in the family car while divorce proceedings are pending?

How would a spouse in process of divorce go about trading her van that is in both spouses name, if the other spouse is uncooperative? Would surrendering her van to the bank be an alternative?

If you owe more on the van than it is worth and don’t depend upon the van for essential transportation needs, then if you were to sell the van such that you’d be left with just the loan deficiency (the difference between the amount the van was worth or sold for and the remaining balance of the loan), you’d probably not be punished. It would be hard for anyone to argue or for a court to conclude that by getting rid of a van worth less than the loan encumbering it you destroyed, dissipated, or diminished an “asset” that had a negative value. And if your spouse agrees (get it in writing!) you can sell the van, you’re fully in the clear.

Bear in mind, however, that many states have an “ATRO” rule (automatic temporary restraining order) that provides that in every divorce action that concerns the division of property then neither party may transfer, encumber, conceal, or dispose of any property of either party without the written consent of the other party or an order of the court, except in the usual course of business or to provide for the necessities of life. Violation of this rule can result in you being sanctioned for contempt of court. Other states that don’t have ATROs in divorce cases can still provide for the judge to enter a restraining order at the outset of a divorce case that, among other things, restrains you and your spouse from transferring or disposing of any marital property without the written consent of the other party or an order of the court.

Also bear in mind that if your credit is already bad and you won’t be able to qualify for a new loan for a replacement vehicle, you may be better off paying the loan for a vehicle you have in hand. And if 1) your spouse depended on using that van to get to work or the doctor or the store, etc., 2) your spouse does not want the van sold, and 3) by selling the van you would deprive your spouse of his/her only means of transportation, the court would likely frown on that and order you to provide or pay for a replacement vehicle.

The safest way to sell off the van or trade the van in for a different vehicle is to move the court (file a motion with the court) for permission to sell the van or trade the van in for a different vehicle. Now just because you filed the motion does not necessarily mean the court will grant that motion.

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

https://www.quora.com/How-would-a-spouse-in-process-of-divorce-go-about-trading-her-van-that-is-in-both-spouses-name-if-the-other-spouse-is-uncooperative-Would-surrendering-her-van-to-the-bank-be-an-alternative/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Should I accept money from my ex for the kids, even if I’ve already filed in court for child support?

Should I accept money my ex sent for his kids (not enough to support), even if I already decided to take him to court for child support?

I don’t see any reason why you can’t do both: keep the money already given and pursue a long-term child support order (you’re entitled to it, you need it for the kids). Just be sure to give him credit for the child support he’s voluntarily paid you to this point.

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

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Do opposing attorneys ever make bets on how a judge will rule?

Do opposing attorneys ever make bets on how a judge will rule?

Yes, but usually in the sense of, “I’ll bet you Judge Brown won’t allow that in,” or something like that. Not a “formal” bet, but as an expression of confidence in their own client and case.

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

https://www.quora.com/Do-opposing-attorneys-ever-make-bets-on-how-a-judge-will-rule/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Why not reduce child support when the supporting parent loses his/her job?

Should child support be ordered reduced as soon as (automatically when) the supporting parent loses his/her job through no fault of his/her own?

Of course.

The only reason we don’t have such a law in place is because of greedy people who don’t want child support payments to stop or decrease under any circumstances.

Any politician who would have the guts to stand up for a law that would condition the payment of child support upon the obligor having employment (or some other reliable source of un-earned income) would not be re-elected.

Now clearly the law should not be that one pays child support only if one has a job or steady income because we know that there are many child support payors who would simply quit their jobs or be underemployed to avoid paying child support.

But your question was why don’t we have a law that provides you don’t have to pay child support in the event you lose a job through no fault of your own. Clearly such a law should exist. You don’t have the ability to pay child support if you don’t earn money through your job. And you can earn money through your job if you don’t have that job due to no fault of your own.

If Mom and Dad are married and Dad loses his job, the family’s lifestyle naturally and inexorably decreases in response to the resulting loss of income. This is unfortunate, but nobody can say this is unfair. What’s so perverse is that if Mom and Dad get divorced, and then Dad loses his job, he can (and almost always is) ordered to maintain the lifestyle of his ex-wife and children, even though he has no ability to do so. This is clearly not just unfair, but immoral, and it is not the purpose of the law to impose such impossible burdens.

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

https://www.quora.com/Should-US-child-support-orders-reduce-support-if-their-supporting-parent-loses-their-job-through-no-fault-of-their-own/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Can a court force a parent to exercise visitation, even if that parent doesn’t want to?

If a divorced parent doesn’t want visitation rights (i.e. doesn’t want to see his/her child), is that legal, or would the court order the unwilling parent to have visits?

This a great question because it’s a bold, honest question that many parents (more than you’d think) want to ask, but are afraid to ask for fear of being branded scum of the earth.

To those of you who think that only the scum of the earth would ask such a question, I can assure you that there are times when a loving parent may nevertheless not want visitation rights. One of those instances is when a parent knows that the other parent is hell-bent on making the children suffer unless and until they break all ties physical and emotional with the other parent.

So a good question like yours deserves a good answer, and I will do my best to provide you with one:

Can a court order a parent to spend time with his/her children, even if that parent does not want to spend time with his/her children? Yes. I have never seen it happen in a case I’ve handled, and I do not know of any instances of it happening in other cases. But yes, the court has the power to order a parent to spend time with his/her child.

Would a court order a parent to spend time with his/her children, even if that parent does not want to spend time with his/her children? Probably not. Courts know it’s virtually impossible to enforce such an order, and even if it could be enforced, the enforcement of the order would probably do the children more harm than good.

Warning: if a parent took the position of “I don’t want visitation now, but maybe later, and if and when I do want visitation, I’ll just go back to court to get visitation ordered” the court would likely tell such a parent, “You had your chance, you forfeited visitation then, and so you can’t get it now,” unless somehow that absentee parent could prove that the children will suffer irreparable harm if they were denied visitation going forward.

Finally, unless you are a parent in one of those weird (and tragic) situations where visitation between you and your child(ren) would do them more harm then good, abandoning your children is one of the most cruel things you could do to them; it leaves scars and cripples all but the strongest of children emotionally and psychologically for life. Your kids need to see and be involved with you, even if you don’t want to be involved with them. Other than in exceptional circumstances, you owe it to them.

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

https://www.quora.com/If-a-divorced-parent-doesn-t-want-visitation-rights-i-e-doesn-t-want-to-see-his-her-child-is-that-legal-or-would-the-court-order-the-unwilling-parent-to-have-visits/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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What is OSC?

QUESTION:

I hear about holding an ex who is not complying with the provisions of the Decree of Divorce or other court orders held accountable with an “OSC” What is an “OSC”?

ANSWER: “OSC” means order to show cause.

When a party is not complying with the provisions of a court order, the other party can move to have the non-compliant party sanctioned through a “motion for order to show cause” as to why he/she should not be found to be in contempt and sanctioned accordingly.

Briefly, if your ex violates a provision of the decree or other court order, you can file a motion asking the court to order your ex to come to court and explain (if your ex can) why your ex should not be punished by the court for non-compliance (or “encouraged to comply”) with the court’s orders. If your ex doesn’t have a valid excuse, the court will sanction your ex and/or compensate you for your trouble.

There are some specific contempt of course provisions that apply only to divorce and other domestic relations cases:

78B-6-315.  Noncompliance with child support order.

(1) When a court of competent jurisdiction, or the Office of Recovery Services pursuant to an action under Title 63G, Chapter 4, Administrative Procedures Act, makes an order requiring a parent to furnish support or necessary food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or other remedial care for his child, and the parent fails to do so, proof of noncompliance shall be prima facie evidence of contempt of court.

(2) Proof of noncompliance may be demonstrated by showing that:

(a) the order was made, and filed with the district court; and

(b) the parent knew of the order because:

(i) the order was mailed to the parent at his last-known address as shown on the court records;

(ii) the parent was present in court at the time the order was pronounced;

(iii) the parent entered into a written stipulation and the parent or counsel for the parent was sent a copy of the order;

(iv) counsel was present in court and entered into a stipulation which was accepted and the order based upon the stipulation was then sent to counsel for the parent; or

(v) the parent was properly served and failed to answer.

(3) Upon establishment of a prima facie case of contempt under Subsection (2), the obligor under the child support order has the burden of proving inability to comply with the child support order.

(4) A court may, in addition to other available sanctions, withhold, suspend, or restrict the use of driver’s licenses, professional and occupational licenses, and recreational licenses and impose conditions for reinstatement upon a finding that:

(a) an obligor has:

(i) made no payment for 60 days on a current obligation of support as set forth in an administrative or court order and, thereafter, has failed to make a good faith effort under the circumstances to make payment on the support obligation in accordance with the order; or

(ii) made no payment for 60 days on an arrearage obligation of support as set forth in a payment schedule, written agreement with the Office of Recovery Services, or an administrative or judicial order and, thereafter, has failed to make a good faith effort under the circumstances to make payment on the arrearage obligation in accordance with the payment schedule, agreement, or order; and

(iii) not obtained a judicial order staying enforcement of the support or arrearage obligation for which the obligor would be otherwise delinquent;

(b) a custodial parent has:

(i) violated a parent-time order by denying contact for 60 days between a noncustodial parent and a child and, thereafter, has failed to make a good faith effort under the circumstances to comply with a parent-time order; and

(ii) not obtained a judicial order staying enforcement of the parent-time order; or

(c) an obligor or obligee, after receiving appropriate notice, has failed to comply with a subpoena or order relating to a paternity or child support proceeding.

 

78B-6-316.  Compensatory service for violation of parent-time order or failure to pay child support.

(1)        If a court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that a parent has refused to comply with the minimum amount of parent-time ordered in a decree of divorce, the court shall order the parent to:

(a) perform a minimum of 10 hours of compensatory service; and

(b) participate in workshops, classes, or individual counseling to educate the parent about the importance of complying with the court order and providing a child a continuing relationship with both parents.

(2) If a custodial parent is ordered to perform compensatory service or undergo court-ordered education, there is a rebuttable presumption that the noncustodial parent be granted parent-time by the court to provide child care during the time the custodial parent is complying with compensatory service or education in order to recompense him for parent-time wrongfully denied by the custodial parent under the divorce decree.

(3) If a noncustodial parent is ordered to perform compensatory service or undergo court-ordered education, the court shall attempt to schedule the compensatory service or education at times that will not interfere with the noncustodial parent’s parent-time with the child.

(4) The person ordered to participate in court-ordered education is responsible for expenses of workshops, classes, and individual counseling.

(5) If a court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that an obligor, as defined in Section 78B-12-102, has refused to pay child support as ordered by a court in accordance with Title 78B, Chapter 12, Utah Child Support Act, the court shall order the obligor to:

(a) perform a minimum of 10 hours of compensatory service; and

(b) participate in workshops, classes, or individual counseling to educate the obligor about the importance of complying with the court order and providing the children with a regular and stable source of support.

(6) The obligor is responsible for the expenses of workshops, classes, and individual counseling ordered by the court.

(7) If a court orders an obligor to perform compensatory service or undergo court-ordered education, the court shall attempt to schedule the compensatory service or education at times that will not interfere with the obligor’s parent-time with the child.

(8) The sanctions that the court shall impose under this section do not prevent the court from imposing other sanctions or prevent any person from bringing a cause of action allowed under state or federal law.

(9) The Legislature shall allocate the money from the Children’s Legal Defense Account to the judiciary to defray the cost of enforcing and administering this section.

___________________

Now let’s learn about what contempt is and how it is punished (the courts don’t like to use the word “punish,” instead they like the word “sanction,” which is, of course, a synonym for “punish,” but the courts prefer to think of sanctions only as “ways to encourage compliance,” not punishment for non-compliance, but I digress):

78B-6-301.  Acts and omissions constituting contempt.

The following acts or omissions in respect to a court or its proceedings are contempts of the authority of the court:

(1) disorderly, contemptuous, or insolent behavior toward the judge while holding the court, tending to interrupt the course of a trial or other judicial proceeding;

(2) breach of the peace, boisterous conduct or violent disturbance, tending to interrupt the due course of a trial or other judicial proceeding;

(3) misbehavior in office, or other willful neglect or violation of duty by an attorney, counsel, clerk, sheriff, or other person appointed or elected to perform a judicial or ministerial service;

(4) deceit, or abuse of the process or proceedings of the court, by a party to an action or special proceeding;

(5) disobedience of any lawful judgment, order or process of the court;

(6) acting as an officer, attorney or counselor, of a court without authority;

(7) rescuing any person or property that is in the custody of an officer by virtue of an order or process of the court;

(8) unlawfully detaining a witness or party to an action while going to, remaining at, or returning from, the court where the action is on the calendar for trial;

(9) any other unlawful interference with the process or proceedings of a court;

(10) disobedience of a subpoena duly served, or refusing to be sworn or to answer as a witness;

(11) when summoned as a juror in a court, neglecting to attend or serve, or improperly conversing with a party to an action to be tried at the court, or with any other person, concerning the merits of an action, or receiving a communication from a party or other person in respect to it, without immediately disclosing the communication to the court; and

(12) disobedience by an inferior tribunal, magistrate or officer of the lawful judgment, order or process of a superior court, or proceeding in an action or special proceeding contrary to law, after the action or special proceeding is removed from the jurisdiction of the inferior tribunal, magistrate or officer. Disobedience of the lawful orders or process of a judicial officer is also a contempt of the authority of the officer.

78B-6-302.  Contempt in immediate presence of court — Summary action — Outside presence of court — procedure.

(1) When a contempt is committed in the immediate view and presence of the court, or judge at chambers, it may be punished summarily. An order shall be made, reciting the facts occurring in the immediate view and presence of the court. The order shall state that the person proceeded against is guilty of a contempt and shall be punished as prescribed in Section 78B-6-310.

(2) When the contempt is not committed in the immediate view and presence of the court or judge, an affidavit or statement of the facts by a judicial officer shall be presented to the court or judge of the facts constituting the contempt.

78B-6-303.  Warrant of attachment or commitment order to show cause.

If the contempt is not committed in the immediate view and presence of the court or judge, a warrant of attachment may be issued to bring the person charged to answer. If there is no previous arrest, a warrant of commitment may, upon notice, or upon an order to show cause, be granted. A warrant of commitment may not be issued without a previous attachment to answer, or a notice or order to show cause.

78B-6-310.  Contempt — Action by court.

The court shall determine whether the person proceeded against is guilty of the contempt charged. If the court finds the person is guilty of the contempt, the court may impose a fine not exceeding $1,000, order the person incarcerated in the county jail not exceeding 30 days, or both. However, a justice court judge or court commissioner may punish for contempt by a fine not to exceed $500 or by incarceration for five days or both.

78B-6-311.  Damages to party aggrieved.

(1) If an actual loss or injury to a party in an action or special proceeding is caused by the contempt, the court, in lieu of or in addition to the fine or imprisonment imposed for the contempt, may order the person proceeded against to pay the party aggrieved a sum of money sufficient to indemnify and satisfy the aggrieved party’s costs and expenses. The court may order that any bail posted by the person proceeded against be used to satisfy all or part of the money ordered to be paid to the aggrieved party. The order and the acceptance of money under it is a bar to an action by the aggrieved party for the loss and injury.

(2) A judgment creditor may request that the court pay bail posted by a judgment debtor to the judgment creditor if:

(a) the judgment debtor owes the judgment creditor funds pursuant to a court-ordered judgment;

(b) the judgment creditor provides the court with a copy of the valid judgment; and

(c) bail was posted in cash, or by credit or debit card.

(3)        Upon receipt of a request by a judgment creditor, the court shall require the judgment debtor to provide either proof of payment or good cause why the court should not order the forfeiture of bail to then be paid to the judgment creditor. The court shall find that good cause exists if the judgment debtor provides admissible evidence that the bail was paid by a third party.

(4)        The court may, in its discretion, order all or a portion of the funds deposited with the court as bail to be paid to the judgment creditor towards the amount of the judgment. If the amount paid to the court exceeds the amount of the judgment, the court shall refund the excess to the judgment debtor.

(5)        Within seven days of the receipt of funds, the judgment creditor shall provide to the judgment debtor an accounting of amounts received and the balance still due, if any.

78B-6-312.  Imprisonment to compel performance.

When the contempt consists of the omission to perform an act enjoined by law, which is yet in the power of the person to perform, the person may be imprisoned until the act is performed, or until released by the court. The act shall be specified in the warrant of commitment.

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

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What happens when the child violates the custody or parent-time order?

What happens when the child violates the custody or parent-time order?

The best examples I can give you of this experience that I have had as a lawyer are as follows:

My guess is that you are referring to teenagers who will not comply with the child custody or visitation orders of the court. In Utah, visitation is now known as “parent-time,” and so I will refer to it as parent-time.

Teenagers are more or less ungovernable in these situations, meaning that while they are subject to the jurisdiction of the court when it comes to enforcement of child custody and parent time orders, very few domestic relations commissioners and judges are willing to use their judicial powers to punish a noncompliant child, even though they certainly could.

Instead, many commissioners and judges frequently (and unfairly) blame the parent with whom the child claims to want to spend more time, finding (without any evidence) that such a parent “unduly influenced” or “coached” the child (even if the allegations are that the child is complaining about mistreatment at the custodial parent’s home or simply a desire to spend more time with the noncustodial parent).

Then the court punishes the parent that the child claims to want to spend more time with. Courts will defend this policy by claiming it discourages parents from manipulating their children’s feelings and from competing for their children’s affections. And there is a measure of truth to this: punishing everyone does tend to discourage the wrongdoers from wrongdoing; however, it also gives innocent and sincere people no reason to stay innocent and sincere, if innocence and sincerity is no protection from punishment. It also never addresses the question of whether the child might actually benefit from a change in the child custody or parent-time schedule.

You might think at this point that the court would want to inquire with the child as to his or her reasons for wanting to change custody or parent time. Virtually none of the commissioners or judges are willing to do this. They give as their reasons the claims that children’s testimony is too easily influenced to be believed and that inquiring with children as to their desires “puts them in the middle” of their parents’ divorce and thus “traumatizes” the children. While there is also an element of truth to these concerns, too often courts fall back on these excuses without trying to assuage the underlying concerns to get to the compelling facts (i.e., the evidence) the children may have to share.

It makes no sense to ignore the experiences, observations, feelings, opinions, and preferences of the child when the child—and his/her best interest—is the focus of the child custody award. There are plenty of inexpensive, feasible, and sufficiently reliable ways to elicit the truth from a child without scarring the child for life.

For example, Utah Code § 30-3-10(1)(e), which provides:

(e) The court may inquire of the children and take into consideration the children’s desires regarding future custody or parent-time schedules, but the expressed desires are not controlling and the court may determine the children’s custody or parent-time otherwise. The desires of a child 14 years of age or older shall be given added weight, but is not the single controlling factor.

A judge interviewing a child costs the litigating parties nothing. A judge interviewing a child is  expeditious and results in the court obtaining information from the child directly, unfiltered, unadulterated by second- (or even third-) hand hearsay accounts. But when I cite this code section as a basis for interviewing a child I get the lamest excuses, including claims from multiple judges that they are “not qualified to interview children.” Really? So judges, who derive their power to do everything they do from what is codified in the law and in court rules, who are clearly acknowledged by a statute to be qualified to interview children, will refuse to interview children by claiming they are not qualified. If that is true, then the judge needs either 1) to get qualified; or 2) to resign from office as unqualified to perform all of his/her duties as a judge, not refuse to do what he or she is authorized to do and that he or she must do when circumstances so dictate.

Another option is for children to be appointed a “guardian ad litem,” meaning that the child is appointed his/her own lawyer to “represent the interests of the child.” ‘Sounds great, right? But my experience with guardians ad litem is that they are by and large at best overworked and thus ineffective, or (as is more often the case) they are incompetent, biased, or too afraid of looking stupid to admit it when their interviews of the children were inconclusive. Oh, and one or both of the parents has to pay for the guardian ad litem (also referred to as a “GAL”). Still, if a skilled, neutral, humble, and affordable guardian ad litem were available, the court should utilize that resource and interview the child, rather than refusing to learn of a child’s experiences and desires on the basis that inquiring with the child might (might!) traumatize him.

Yet another option is for the court to appoint a psychologist or social worker to serve as a custody or parent-time “evaluator” to interview the children and then report to the court. That sounds great too, right? Maybe, were it not for the fact that custody evaluations in Utah are obscenely (there is no other appropriate word to describe it) expensive (we’re talking between $3,000 to $10,000—and if you think you’ll be the “lucky” one who gets a [good] custody evaluation done for a “mere” $3,000, you yourself need a psychologist) and custody evaluators are far, far too often too afraid of being reported to their licensing boards or sued by disgruntled parents to speak their minds. And so, many custody evaluators end up producing an equivocal, please-everyone (and thus a please-no-one) recommendation.

Many (not all) courts don’t refuse to inquire with children because of concern for the children, they refuse to inquire because they don’t want to do it. Adding knowledge of the child’s experiences and desires to the mix make such court’s jobs more complex (i.e., harder) and make it harder for some judges and commissioners to manipulate the facts to suit their personal biases and preferences. And so such courts will, ironically, exert great effort to avoid this kind of hard work.

When I deal with the case of a teenage child who will not comply with the court’s parent time and/or custody orders, I insist that the court get to the root of the problem. If the teenager is just being a spoiled brat, no modification of custody or parent-time is warranted. I can live with that. Any rational and fair-minded person must. No one, however, can knowledgeably or efficaciously get to the root of a problem that concerns a child without–sensitively, but resolutely–involving the child in the investigation, the analysis, and the formulation of a solution.

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

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