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Sorensen v. Crossland – 2024 UT App 41 – denial of due process

Sorensen v. Crossland – 2024 UT App 41

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

CANDICE CROSSLAND SORENSEN, Appellant, v. STEVEN G. CROSSLAND AND LORI A. MAY, Appellees.

Opinion No. 20220756-CA Filed March 28, 2024, Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Mark S. Kouris No. 180902903

Ralph C. Petty, Attorney for Appellant

Matthew N. Olsen and M. Tyler Olsen, Attorneys for Appellees

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN, FORSTER concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1 A father and mother stole from their daughter by taking settlement funds of $133,000 awarded to her and buying themselves a house. Fifteen years later, the daughter discovered the theft and sued, obtaining a judgment of nearly $279,000. In the meantime, the parents divorced and the father remarried. The daughter then filed the present action, maintaining that her father fraudulently transferred funds to his new wife for less than equivalent value, all while paying nothing on the judgment and being insolvent. The matter came before the district court for trial. Midway through the examination of the daughter’s first witness, the district court raised a legal issue, suspended the presentation of witnesses and evidence, and ordered supplemental briefing. The district court indicated that a future hearing would be held. But no such hearing occurred, and instead the district court entered a ruling—the effect of which was the dismissal of the daughter’s case. The daughter appeals, claiming legal error and a deprivation of due process. We agree and reverse.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Candice Crossland Sorensen, who was born in 1989, received about $133,000 in a medical malpractice settlement when she was a minor. The funds were placed into accounts managed by her parents, Steven G. Crossland and Cindi R. Crossland. In 1999, Steven and Cindi used these funds to purchase a house.[1] The property was titled in the parents’ names only, and Candice moved into the house with her parents.

¶3        In 2014, when Candice learned of the use of her settlement money, she sued Steven and Cindi. This suit was not resolved until March 2018, at which point a judgment was entered against Steven and Cindi, jointly and severally, in the amount of nearly $279,000, with a judgment interest rate of 3.76%. No payments were ever made to Candice, and Candice did not attempt to collect the judgment.

¶4        Steven and Cindi divorced in January 2015, prior to the entry of the judgment, and in September 2015, Steven met and began living with Lori A. May. Steven moved into a property Lori was renting, and he paid Lori $700 monthly toward rent. Lori and Steven split the remaining expenses for utilities, car payments, and groceries. In July 2016, Steven and Lori ceased renting and purchased a house, for which Steven made the mortgage payment while Lori shouldered other living expenses.[2]

¶5        In May 2018, Candice initiated this action against Steven and Lori for fraudulent transfer,[3] arguing that Steven gave money to Lori (1) without receiving anything of value in exchange, (2) “with the intent to hinder, delay, and defraud” Candice, and (3) while he was insolvent or about to become insolvent shortly after the transfer.

¶6        Extensive discovery was conducted, including the taking of depositions from Candice, Steven, and Lori. Candice also subpoenaed copies of Steven’s and Lori’s bank statements.

¶7        The action was set for a two-day bench trial, but the proceeding lasted only a half day. It began with the testimony of Steven, which was interrupted by the lunch break. Once back in session, the court ordered the parties to prepare briefs addressing the law on fraudulent transfer. Specifically, the court seemed to be concerned that Candice had not made any previous effort to collect the debt, which—in the court’s view—removed her claim from the realm of fraudulent transfer. In reference to the money Steven owed Candice, the court stated,

I don’t believe that there is a legal obligation to pay the debt [from the judgment]. I think there’s probably a moral obligation, but I don’t think there’s a legal obligation.

And the reason I think that is because once the debt is there, the law gives the creditor a number of tools by which to go get that debt. I mean, the creditor literally could seize personal assets and sell them, they could foreclose on homes, they could attach bank accounts, they could garnish wages. Those are all the tools that debt collectors have to go out and get this debt.

Fraudulent transfer is, I think, a whole different chapter in . . . that we’ve got a collector trying to [collect on the debt], but the debtor is playing games with hiding the money or moving the title somewhere else, or doing whatever he can to avoid those methods. But I think the process starts with [debt collection] methods . . . .

I don’t think . . . there have been collection efforts in this case . . . . I don’t know what has brought us to here. But I do believe, I know that the monthly rental payments and so forth that [Steven] is paying [Lori] to live in the house and so forth, I don’t believe those are unlawful transfers.

Given this concern, the court instructed the parties to prepare supplemental briefing on whether Steven “paying half his rent by paying” Lori was “somehow a fraudulent transfer.” The court indicated that once the supplemental briefing was completed, Candice was to file a request to submit and the court would “then go and schedule a hearing.”

¶8        As it turns out, no request to submit was filed, but the court nevertheless issued a ruling—without the benefit of another hearing. Candice never had the opportunity to complete her examination of Steven, call Lori as a witness (as she had indicated she would do in her disclosures), and rest her case.

¶9        The court’s ruling was premised on this point:

There was no evidence that [Candice] had initiated the traditional methods to satisfy [the] judgment. Nor that [Candice] provided evidence of even sending personal demand letters or placing similar phone calls. Instead, [Candice’s] argument is that [Steven and Lori] did not pay the outstanding judgments, but instead continued to live their lives and satisfy their routine expenses.

From the lack of effort to collect the judgment, the court concluded that Candice had proved “no instance” that “any of [Steven and Lori’s] use of money was [done] with ‘actual intent to hinder, delay, or defraud’ [Candice’s] collection efforts” under the Uniform Voidable Transactions Act. See Utah Code § 25-6­202(1)(a) (“A transfer made or obligation incurred by a debtor is voidable as to a creditor, whether the creditor’s claim arose before or after the transfer was made or the obligation was incurred, if the debtor made the transfer or incurred the obligation . . . with actual intent to hinder, delay, or defraud any creditor of the debtor . . . .”). In other words, because Candice had not shown that any “pending collection effort was thwarted” by Steven and Lori’s expenditures, her claim of fraudulent transfer necessarily failed. Another current of the court’s reasoning was that Candice had not shown that any of Steven and Lori’s purchases were “unreasonable,” implying that such a showing was necessary to establish an intent to defraud.

¶10      Candice subsequently filed a motion to amend the findings and a motion for a new trial. Candice’s motions were based on the assertions that (1) Steven’s examination was interrupted by the lunch break and never completed, (2) Lori was never “examined and no evidence was entered in relation to her testimony” even though Candice had intended to call her, and (3) Candice did not “rest [her] case or indicate that [she] had completed [her] presentation of evidence to the court.” Given the “state of the proceeding when the trial was recessed,” Candice argued that many of the court’s factual findings and conclusions of law were “unjustified.” She asserted that “[w]ithout the opportunity to present the remainder of her evidence, the Court [could not] make accurate and comprehensive findings and conclusions” and that she would, accordingly, suffer “the denial of her due process rights.” The court denied both motions. Candice appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶11      Candice argues that the district court violated her right to a fair and meaningful trial under the due process clause of the Utah Constitution. See Utah Const. art. I, § 7. “Constitutional issues, including questions regarding due process, are questions of law that we review for correctness.” Salt Lake City Corp. v. Jordan River Restoration Network, 2012 UT 84, ¶ 47, 299 P.3d 990 (cleaned up).[4]

ANALYSIS

¶12      Truth be told, we are not sure what happened here. But we are sure that something seriously amiss occurred when Candice was not provided with the opportunity to fully present her case.

¶13      We agree with Candice that her due process rights to a fair and meaningful trial were denied. There is no question that Candice never completed her presentation of evidence through the examination of Steven and Lori. Indeed, in its order denying Candice’s two post-trial motions, the district court stated that “[a]fter reviewing the audio recording” of the trial, it found that Candice’s claim that she “presented only a portion of the examination” of Steven “to be true, albeit out of context.” “To provide context,” the court stated that Candice’s examination of Steven consisted entirely of “having [Steven] go line-by-line through his check register and explain each transaction” and that “the balance of this testimony would be to continue the trip through [Steven’s] check register.” It appears that the court concluded that such evidence would not be helpful, and it was at this point that the court instructed the parties to prepare supplemental briefing because the court could “[n]ot understand[]” how these transactions could be the “basis for the fraudulent conveyance claims.” The district court’s explanation fails, however, to address why, despite the court not understanding how the transactions would support Candice’s claims, it did not allow the witness to complete his testimony; nor did the district court explain why no other witnesses or evidence would be allowed.[5] Candice also never rested her case in this trial precipitously terminated by the court. The proceeding was simply suspended, as far as we can tell, but never reconvened.

¶14 “No principle is more fundamental to the integrity of a society that claims allegiance to the rule of law than the principle that a person may not be deprived of his property without first being afforded due process of law.” Brigham Young Univ. v. Tremco Consultants, Inc., 2007 UT 17, ¶ 28, 156 P.3d 782. “Due process of law requires” that a court “hears before it condemns, proceeds upon inquiry, and renders judgment only after trial.” Riggins v. District Court, 51 P.2d 645, 660 (Utah 1935) (cleaned up).

¶15      This principle is repeatedly embodied in the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. “In all actions tried upon the facts without a jury . . . the court must find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law. The findings and conclusions must be made part of the record and may be stated in writing or orally following the close of the evidence.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(1) (emphasis added). And a court is allowed to make a judgment on partial findings only if “a party has been fully heard on an issue during a nonjury trial.” Id. R. 52(e) (emphasis added).

¶16      That did not happen here. Candice was never “fully heard” on her fraudulent transfer claim. Not only was she unable to complete her examination of Steven, but she was never afforded the opportunity even to begin her examination of Lori, who was disclosed as a witness. We are hard pressed to see how Candice was heard in a way that would satisfy her due process rights. Additionally, we note that the district court, shortly after it instructed the parties to submit supplemental briefing, expressly stated that it would “schedule a hearing” upon receiving Candice’s notice to submit. But Candice filed no such request, and the court did not schedule such a hearing. Given the procedural posture of the case, Candice had every reason to believe that she would be afforded the opportunity to complete her presentation of evidence and then rest her case, and it must have come as a surprise to her that the court issued its ruling prematurely.

¶17      Accordingly, we reverse the court’s ruling and remand this matter for further proceedings to allow Candice the opportunity to complete her presentation of evidence.

¶18 Because this matter is being remanded, and where the district court will likely face the same question about the applicability of Utah’s fraudulent transfer law, we provide the following guidance. See In re A. Dean Harding Marital & Family Trust, 2023 UT App 81, ¶ 149, 536 P.3d 38 (offering guidance regarding an issue ancillary to the reason for remand). The court repeatedly mentioned that Candice never made any efforts to collect on the judgment, the implication being that she could not show an intent to defraud, hinder, or delay without having first made such an effort. But we point out that there is no requirement that a person attempt any collection efforts prior to filing a fraudulent transfer action. See Utah Code § 25-6-202(1). The Uniform Voidable Transactions Act expressly states that a creditor can pull back transfers “whether the creditor’s claim arose before or after the transfer was made or the obligation was incurred.” Id. In other words, the debt does not necessarily have to be liquidated to support a fraudulent transfer claim. The only requirement is that the debt exist, even if it’s on an unliquidated or a contingent basis. Here, there is no question that Steven’s debt to Candice existed before the alleged fraudulent transfers were made. The debt arose the moment that Candice was entitled to the medical malpractice settlement money. Indeed, Steven admitted in his deposition that he knew Candice was entitled to the money but due to his and Cindi’s actions, the money was not available:

Counsel: [A]s part of [Candice’s medical malpractice] settlement, there was a sum of approximately $133,000 that went into a trust account that was controlled by her parents, you and Cindi, that was paid for by the doctors; correct?

Steven: Yes.

Counsel: Now, the understanding was, I guess, that

when Candice reached the age of 18 years old, that that money would become hers; is that correct?

Steven: Correct.

.  . .  .

Counsel: Now, at the time Candice turned 18 or thereafter, those funds . . . that you and Cindi controlled . . . were not made available to her, were they?

Steven: No . . . .

Counsel: And the reason was because they had been

utilized for the purchase of the [first house]; is that correct?

Steven: Correct.

And it was well after Steven was aware of his indebtedness to Candice (she turned eighteen in 2007) that he made the alleged fraudulent transactions associated with the purchase of the second house with Lori in 2016. To put it plainly, Candice was under no obligation to engage in collection efforts when, as here, the debtor was well aware of his obligation. Indeed, it seems to us that any expenditures Steven made after Candice was entitled to medical malpractice settlement money could potentially—if supported by evidence that they were made with an intent to hinder, delay, or defraud—be the basis for a fraudulent transfer claim.

CONCLUSION

¶19 We conclude that Candice’s due process rights were abridged when the district court issued a ruling in the context of a trial without affording Candice the opportunity to complete her presentation of evidence. We reverse the district court’s order dismissing her case and remand this matter for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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


[1] Because some of the parties share the same surname, we employ given names for all parties.

[2] The record is unclear as to what happened to the equity in the home purchased by Steven and Cindi.

[3] The Fraudulent Transfer Act as been renamed to the Voidable Transactions Act. See JENCO LC v. SJI LLC, 2023 UT App 151, ¶ 20 n.4, 541 P.3d 321. However, we will use the nomenclature employed by the district court.

[4] Candice also asserts that the district court erred in denying her motions to amend the findings and for a new trial. Because we resolve this appeal on the first issue, we have no need to address these other claims of error.

[5] That is not to say that a district court could never curtail the presentation of evidence that the court found unhelpful. See Utah R. Evid. 611(a) (“The court should exercise reasonable control over the mode and order of examining witnesses and presenting evidence so as to: (1) make those procedures effective for determining the truth; (2) avoid wasting time; and (3) protect witnesses from harassment or undue embarrassment.”). For example, the district court could have solicited a proffer of the remainder of Candice’s case in chief. See State v. Boyd, 2001 UT 30, ¶ 36, 25 P.3d 985 (“A proffer is a mechanism by which a party may create an appellate record of what the evidence would have shown.”). With that record, we might have been able to determine whether Candice’s claims could have entitled her to a judgment.

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2024 UT App 28 – Smith v. Smith

2024 UT App 28 – Smith v. Smith

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

JACQUELINE P. SMITH, Appellee,  v. DANIEL H. SMITH, Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20220697-CA  Filed March 7, 2024  Third District Court, Salt Lake Department  The Honorable Robert P. Faust  No. 194902295

David Pedrazas, Attorney for Appellant

Deborah L. Bulkeley, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE AMY J. OLIVER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred.

OLIVER, Judge:

¶1        This divorce case illustrates why the sequence of determining alimony matters. We recently clarified the three-step procedure for alimony in Fox v. Fox, 2022 UT App 88, 515 P.3d 481, cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022). Here, the district court ordered an alimony award of more than double the receiving spouse’s demonstrated need because it accounted for the marital standard of living at the end of the analysis instead of at the beginning. Because the district court employed a backward version of the three-step procedure for alimony, we vacate and remand.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Daniel H. and Jacqueline P. Smith separated after more than thirty years of marriage. Their divorce case proceeded to a one-day bench trial that mostly addressed alimony. Daniel[1] represented himself at trial. At the trial’s conclusion, the district court took several issues, including the alimony award, under advisement and issued a memorandum decision four days later.

¶3        On her financial declaration used at trial, Jacqueline indicated her monthly net income was $3,274.55 and her monthly expenses were $5,193.79. Jacqueline listed all her line-item expenses in the “current amount” column and left the “marital expenses” column blank. Jacqueline presented no evidence at trial of the parties’ marital standard of living and no evidence that any of her listed expenses were different during the marriage than they were at the time of trial. She testified only to the reasons she sought a divorce. The district court examined the expenses and adjusted some of the amounts, finding that Jacqueline had reasonable monthly expenses of $4,184.61. This left her with an unmet need of $910.06 per month.

¶4        Daniel’s financial declaration admitted at trial indicated his monthly net income was $7,757 and his monthly expenses—all listed in the “current amount” column and none in the “marital expenses” column—were $8,280. The district court similarly examined Daniel’s expenses and made adjustments, finding that Daniel had reasonable monthly expenses of $4,013.90 plus his child support obligation of $703 for a total monthly expense of $4,716.90, leaving him with a “positive income of $3,040.10 a month.”

¶5      The district court stated that it adjusted the parties’ expenses in “an effort to put them on relatively equal footing, recognizing that the parties’ level of expenses at the time of trial are not representative of their marital standard of living.” Rather than award Jacqueline alimony in the amount of her unmet need, the district court calculated alimony by equalizing the difference between Jacqueline’s monthly negative income and Daniel’s monthly positive income. The court reasoned that “it is fair and equitable to equalize the combined disparity of $3,950.16 per month” and awarded Jacqueline $1,975 per month in alimony. The alimony award exceeded Jacqueline’s demonstrated monthly need by $1,064.94.

¶6        The district court instructed Jacqueline’s counsel to draft proposed findings and a proposed decree based on the court’s ruling. Daniel, having obtained counsel since trial, objected to the proposed findings on multiple issues, including the alimony calculation. The district court entered the findings and decree without making any changes to the alimony award.

¶7        Daniel then filed a motion to amend the findings, arguing that the district court did not make sufficient findings to support an alimony award that exceeded Jacqueline’s demonstrated need. The district court held a hearing on the motion, and Daniel asked the court to “recalculate and redetermine the alimony” because a “spouse’s demonstrated need must constitute the maximum permissible alimony award.” The court explained the $1,975 alimony award “equalizes the net income of the parties for both of them. That keeps them akin as we can to the lifestyle to which they were accustomed during the time of the marriage.” Daniel asserted that equalization should occur only “when somebody has an excess need that the other party can’t meet.” And Jacqueline suggested the court make “some additional findings” to support what she viewed as its “appropriate” effort to consider the parties’ needs and “augment those needs with excess income.” The district court denied Daniel’s motion, leaving the alimony award at $1,975 per month.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶8        Daniel challenges the district court’s alimony award.[2] “We review a court’s alimony determination for an abuse of discretion.” Fox v. Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 11, 515 P.3d 481 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022). Although “we will not lightly disturb a trial court’s alimony ruling, we will reverse if the court has not exercised its discretion within the bounds and under the standards we have set.” Knight v. Knight, 2023 UT App 86, ¶ 17, 538 P.3d 601 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

¶9        “Under Utah law, the primary purposes of alimony are: (1) to get the parties as close as possible to the same standard of living that existed during the marriage; (2) to equalize the standards of living of each party; and (3) to prevent the recipient spouse from becoming a public charge.” Fox v. Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 15, 515 P.3d 481 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022). An alimony award need not provide “for only basic needs but should be fashioned” in such a way “to approximate the parties’ standard of living during the marriage as closely as possible.” Id. (cleaned up). “The appropriate amount of any alimony award is governed by a multi-factor inquiry” now found in Utah Code section 30-3-5(10)(a). Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 16, 496 P.3d 242. “[C]ourts must consider the statutory factors,” including “the financial condition and needs of the recipient spouse,” “the recipient’s earning capacity,” and “the ability of the payor spouse to provide support.” Rule v. Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 13, 402 P.3d 153; see also Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 94, 459 P.3d 276.

¶10      Thus, there are three steps to “the established process to be followed by courts considering an award of alimony.” Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 20 (cleaned up); see also Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 19. First, a court must “assess the needs of the parties, in light of their marital standard of living.”[3] Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 20 (cleaned up). Second, a court “must determine the extent to which the receiving spouse is able to meet his or her own needs with his or her own income.” Id. (cleaned up). Third, a court must “assess whether the payor spouse’s income, after meeting his or her needs, is sufficient to make up some or all of the shortfall between the receiving spouse’s needs and income.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶11      Here, the district court abused its discretion when it failed to properly follow this three-step process. Instead of considering the marital standard of living at step one when calculating each spouse’s need, the district court did so at step three, when it equalized the parties’ income. While we do not fault the court for wanting to “equalize the standards of living of each party,” as it is one of the purposes of alimony, see id. ¶ 15 (cleaned up), the court did not do so in accordance with the standards Utah appellate courts have established for an alimony determination.

¶12      In step one, the district court assessed both parties’ needs “at the time of trial” rather than in light of the marital standard of living. See id. ¶ 20. But it was not an abuse of discretion to have done so because neither Jacqueline nor Daniel provided any evidence of the marital standard of living. Indeed, both of their financial declarations listed their monthly expenses in the “current amount” column with nothing listed in the “marital expenses” column, despite the instructions on the form to complete both columns if one of the parties has requested alimony. It is incumbent upon the parties to present evidence of the marital standard of living if they want the district court to consider the expenses during the marriage that differ from the expenses at the time of trial. See Clarke v. Clarke, 2023 UT App 160, ¶ 62 (“If a party offers into evidence only time-of-trial expense amounts, and does not provide the court with any evidence of pre-separation expenses (to the extent they are different), that party has no right to complain when the court awards the time-of-trial amounts.”). And it is important that they provide such evidence, because step one—where the district court determines the parties’ reasonable expenses—is the place for taking the marital standard of living into account in the alimony calculation.

¶13      In step three, the district court then combined Jacqueline’s demonstrated need of $910.06 and David’s excess income of $3,040.10, “equalize[d] the combined disparity of $3,950.16,” and gave Jacqueline an alimony award of half that amount, $1,975. Daniel contends the district court should have capped the alimony award at the $910.06 monthly shortfall the district court calculated as the difference between Jacqueline’s income and her expenses. We agree with Daniel. “Regardless of the payor spouse’s ability to pay more, the recipient spouse’s demonstrated need must constitute the maximum permissible alimony award.” Roberts v. Roberts, 2014 UT App 211, ¶ 14, 335 P.3d 378 (cleaned up); Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 17 (“The receiving spouse’s needs ultimately set the bounds for the maximum permissible alimony award.”); Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 30, 334 P.3d 994 (“An alimony award in excess of the recipient’s need is a basis for remand even when the payor spouse has the ability to pay.”); Bingham v. Bingham, 872 P.2d 1065, 1068 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (“[T]he spouse’s demonstrated need must . . . constitute the maximum permissible alimony award.”). Thus, the district court abused its discretion when it awarded Jacqueline alimony in an amount greater than her demonstrated need.

¶14 We also caution district courts that they “should not calculate alimony by simply dividing the couple’s pre-separation expenses in half,” Clarke, 2023 UT App 160, ¶ 57, or by “presumptively award[ing]” half of the “total money the parties spent each month during the marriage,” Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 25. In other words, the proper way to take the marital standard of living into account is at step one “by assessing a party’s claimed line-item expenses in light of that standard.” Clarke, 2023 UT App 160, ¶ 59.

¶15      Here, the district court abused its discretion at step three when it took the parties’ “combined disparity of $3,950.16” per month and awarded half of that amount to Jacqueline. Regardless of how much income the payor spouse may have, the purpose of alimony is to meet the demonstrated need of the recipient spouse, not to redistribute all the income between the spouses. See Roberts, 2014 UT App 211, ¶ 14 (“[T]he core function of alimony is therefore economic—it should not operate as a penalty against the payor nor a reward to the recipient.”). And although “we accord trial courts broad discretion in dividing the shortfall and apportioning that burden” in the third step, such discretion is premised on the assumption the court “has properly determined that a shortfall exists between the parties’ resources and needs.” Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 21.

¶16 Sequence matters. See id. ¶ 22 (“Once the court has determined that there are insufficient resources to meet the baseline needs established by the marital living standard, the court should then equitably allocate the burden of the shortfall between the parties.” (emphases added)); see also Bakanowski v. Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 12, 80 P.3d 153 (holding that “attempting to equalize the parties’ income rather than going through the traditional needs analysis” constitutes an abuse of discretion). Just as it is an abuse of discretion to “skip[] over the traditional needs analysis and move[] directly to address what it perceives to be insufficient resources,” see Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 23, it was an abuse of discretion here when the district court used the marital standard of living at step three to increase the amount of the alimony award beyond the demonstrated need.

¶17      As a final note, we reiterate that it is proper for a district court to consider the marital standard of living during step one of the alimony analysis, so long as the parties have presented such evidence. We would normally vacate the alimony award and remand the matter to the district court “for the court to reassess its alimony determinations in light of the marital standard of living.” Id. ¶ 32. But here, neither party presented evidence of their expenses during the marriage. Indeed, they both left the “marital expenses” column on their financial declarations blank. As a result, there is no evidence in the record from which the district court can make findings that Jacqueline’s expenses were different from what she listed. Thus, the district court’s finding that her demonstrated need was $910.06 limits “the maximum permissible alimony award” to that amount. See Wellman v. Kawasaki, 2023 UT App 11, ¶ 12, 525 P.3d 139.

CONCLUSION

¶18      The district court abused its discretion when it employed the incorrect analysis in computing Jacqueline’s alimony award. The court did not follow the three-step process required by Utah law. Accordingly, we vacate and remand the case to the district court for entry of an alimony award of $910.06 per month.

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


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

[2] Daniel also challenges the district court’s denial of his motion to amend the findings. But we need not reach this issue because we conclude the district court did not follow “the standards we have set” in its alimony calculation, see Knight v. Knight, 2023 UT App 86, ¶ 17, 538 P.3d 601 (cleaned up), and we remand the case on that basis.

[3] “The marital standard of living is that which the parties shared, and courts consider the parties as a single unit when evaluating that standard.” Knight, 2023 UT App 86, ¶ 32. In terms of alimony, “the marital standard of living analysis is about whether the parties’ proposed points of calculation are consistent with the parties’ manner of living and financial decisions.” Id. (cleaned up).

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

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

L.G.,

Appellant,

v.

R.G. AND R.G.,

Appellees.

Opinion

No. 20220920-CA

Filed November 2, 2023

Seventh District Juvenile Court, Price Department

The Honorable Craig Bunnell

No. 1210014

Steve S. Christensen and Clinton Brimhall,

Attorneys for Appellant

Colleen K. Coebergh, Attorney for Appellees

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

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

MORTENSEN, Judge:

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

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

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

ANALYSIS
I. Neglect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Parent-Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Venue

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Clark v. Clark – 2023 UT App 111 – divorce, exhibits, dissipation

Clark v. Clark – 2023 UT App 111

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

SUSAN JEANNE CLARK,

Appellee,

v.

RICHARD LEE CLARK,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210713-CA

Filed September 28, 2023

Fourth District Court, Heber Department

The Honorable Jennifer A. Brown

No. 184500153

Karra J. Porter and Kristen C. Kiburtz, Attorneys for Appellant

Julie J. Nelson, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE AMY J. OLIVER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES

MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and RYAN D. TENNEY

concurred.

OLIVER, Judge:

¶1        Richard Lee Clark appeals from the district court’s decision following a two-day divorce trial. Clark challenges several aspects of the court’s ruling, including a discovery sanction for his failure to timely disclose his trial exhibits under rule 26 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure; findings relating to his claim that his ex-wife, Susan Jeanne Clark, dissipated the marital estate; and the court’s division of the marital property. We affirm the district court’s ruling with the exception of one aspect of the district court’s marital property determination, which we vacate and remand for additional findings.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Richard and Susan[1] married in 2002, when Richard was in his sixties and Susan was in her fifties. Richard was retired from military service and from employment as an attorney with the Department of Justice. Susan owned a wallpaper business when she met Richard but quit working shortly after they married. For the next six years, Richard and Susan lived off Richard’s retirement income from both the Army and the Department of Justice.

¶3        In 2008, Richard came out of retirement to work for a government contractor in Afghanistan, where he lived for thirty-eight months. During that time, Richard’s retirement and employment income of $814,627 was deposited into a joint account that Susan controlled. Richard returned home to find “probably about $100,000 . . . had been saved” in the joint bank account—much less than he expected—yet he said nothing to Susan at that time.

¶4        Three years after his return, Richard moved into the basement of the marital home. The following year, in 2016, Susan transferred approximately $78,000 from their joint account into her personal account, prompting Richard to confront her about what he viewed as missing money from his time in Afghanistan. Two years later, in 2018, Susan filed for divorce. Shortly afterward, Richard purchased a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with financing, which he paid off in 2020.

¶5        At the time of their divorce, Richard and Susan owned two real properties—a condo in Norfolk, Virginia (Mooring Drive), and a home in Kamas, Utah (Ross Creek). Richard had purchased Mooring Drive before the marriage for approximately $205,000. In 2003, Richard added Susan to the title of Mooring Drive, which allowed her to vote at the condominium association’s meetings and to join the board. The following year, Richard and Susan used equity loans on Mooring Drive to finance the purchase and construction of Ross Creek. From 2009—when Susan moved to Utah and Richard was in Afghanistan—until June 2019, Richard rented Mooring Drive out to others and the revenues were deposited into his separate account that was designated to pay for the property’s expenses.

¶6        During their marriage, the parties took out an equity loan on Ross Creek that matured, along with one of the equity loans from Mooring Drive, in 2019. With the divorce still pending, Susan agreed to refinance Ross Creek’s mortgage to pay off the two equity loans that were due, but only if Richard would stipulate that Mooring Drive and Ross Creek were marital property and were subject to equitable division in their pending divorce. Richard agreed, and the parties stipulated that “the Ross Creek and Mooring Drive properties shall remain marital property and shall be subject to equitable division in the parties’ divorce notwithstanding that the Ross Creek home and Mooring Drive property will no longer be jointly titled.”

¶7        In April 2019, the Mooring Drive tenants’ lease expired. Richard decided he could only offer the tenants a month-to-month lease until his divorce was over. When the tenants declined to renew and moved out in June, Richard withdrew $30,000 from the joint bank account, claiming that he needed the funds to cover Mooring Drive’s expenses. After a hearing, the court entered temporary orders in December 2019, permitting Richard to access equity in Ross Creek to pay off debt on Mooring Drive but denying his “request for financial relief based on the loss of rental income because [Richard] ha[d] not made any attempt to secure new renters.”

¶8        Trial was originally scheduled for June 2020, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and courts were required to hold bench trials virtually, Richard declined to proceed with a virtual trial, and it was continued without a date. In February 2021, the court held a pretrial scheduling conference and rescheduled the trial for May 2021. The court’s pretrial order stated the parties must produce pretrial disclosures on or before April 26, 2021, pursuant to rule 26(a)(5)(B) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.

¶9        Richard missed the deadline. A week after it passed, he requested a continuance to hire trial counsel. Richard had been representing himself as a pro se litigant despite being eighty-four years old and not having practiced law since 1988. According to Richard, health issues arose that made him “no longer physically and mentally capable of representing” himself. The court granted the motion, rescheduling the trial for June. The new deadline for pretrial disclosures became May 24, but Richard did not submit his pretrial disclosures until June 10—eleven days before trial.

¶10      The two-day trial began with Susan’s objection to Richard’s untimely pretrial disclosures. Susan contended that Richard had “ample opportunity” to produce his pretrial disclosures given the multiple continuances of the trial. In response, Richard claimed his failure to meet the disclosure deadline was harmless because he had previously produced as discovery responses the 339 pages of financial documents—including check registers, paystubs from 2008 to 2009, and bank account information from 2011 to 2012— that he sought to admit as exhibits 2 through 8. Yet Richard did not file certificates of service for those responses, and neither party’s counsel could confirm whether Richard had previously sent the documents in exhibits 2 through 8 to Susan, leaving the district court with only Richard’s testimony to support the claim that he had previously disclosed the exhibits. The district court sustained Susan’s objection as to exhibits 2 through 8, excluding them from trial.

¶11      Both Susan and Richard testified at trial. Susan testified Richard had transferred $30,000 from their joint account to his personal account in June 2019 and contended she was entitled to half of that amount. Susan also testified about her exhibits that provided recent balances in her bank and retirement accounts.

¶12      On cross-examination, Susan admitted she had not looked for work and was unemployed despite the court’s urging in 2020 for her to seek employment. Richard then peppered Susan about numerous expenditures during his time in Afghanistan, to which Susan replied that it “was a number of years ago” and she “ha[d] no recollection at all” of the transactions. Susan did state, however, that when Richard left for Afghanistan, she recalled they “had very large credit card balances” that Richard instructed her “to start paying off” while he was away.

¶13 First testifying as Susan’s witness, Richard answered questions about some of the marital property. He testified about a recent appraisal of Mooring Drive that valued it at $390,000, his three life insurance policies that all list Susan as the beneficiary, and his purchase of the Harley-Davidson in May 2019. Susan then introduced a pleading Richard had filed with the court in November 2019 that stated, in relevant part, he had “owned three motorcycles, selling the last one when [he] moved to Norfolk,” but he has “never ridden a Harley-Davidson.” Richard replied that he had “misstated the fact,” both in that pleading and at a hearing the same month when he told the court he did not own a Harley-Davidson. Richard testified he should receive three-fourths of the equity in Mooring Drive because he purchased it before the marriage. Unable to provide a figure for what the property was worth when he married Susan, Richard claimed that “the[] prices have gone up and gone down a great deal” since their marriage, but his best guess was that Mooring Drive appreciated from $205,000 to $350,000 between 2000 and 2002. Richard continued to do some impromptu math on the stand to clarify how much equity he felt he was owed, asserting that since Mooring Drive was recently appraised at $390,000 and had been worth $350,000 in 2002—by his best guess—there is $40,000 of equity for them to divide, but then he admitted such valuation “is something I’m just not knowledgeable about.”

¶14      As his own witness, Richard testified about Susan’s alleged dissipation during his time in Afghanistan. Richard’s excluded exhibits went to the issue of dissipation, so without the financial documents from that period, Richard sought to prove Susan “dissipated money while [he] was in Afghanistan” through his testimony about his earnings and typical expenses during that time frame. Using the excluded exhibits to refresh his recollection, Richard estimated their monthly expenses before he left were approximately $10,000 to $11,000. Richard also challenged Susan’s testimony about credit card balances, claiming that “there weren’t any large credit card balances before [he] left.”

¶15      At the conclusion of trial, the district court asked both parties to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law in lieu of closing arguments. After issuing an oral ruling, the district court memorialized its decision in written findings of fact and conclusions of law. The court found that Richard’s “testimony was insufficient to establish his [dissipation] claim” and that Richard had “failed to meet his burden of demonstrating dissipation.” The court also found “problems with the credibility of both parties,” specifically finding that Susan’s “credibility was lacking with regards to the dissipation issue” and Richard’s “credibility was lacking with regards to his motorcycle purchase.” Susan was awarded Ross Creek’s equity, and Richard was awarded Mooring Drive’s. The court awarded Susan $2,500 per month in alimony and an offset of $43,474 (from Richard’s purchase of the Harley-Davidson and his $30,000 withdrawal from the joint account) “to achieve an equitable division of the estate.” The court found Richard “withdrew $30,000 from the joint account without [Susan’s] knowledge or consent and deposited it into his own personal account,” but it made no findings as to how Richard spent the $30,000.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶16      Richard raises three main issues for our review. First, Richard challenges the district court’s exclusion of his exhibits for his failure to comply with rule 26(a)(5) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. A district court “has broad discretion regarding the imposition of discovery sanctions,” and when we apply “the abuse of discretion standard to the district court’s imposition of a particular sanction, we give the district court a great deal of latitude.” Bodell Constr. Co. v. Robbins, 2009 UT 52, ¶ 35, 215 P.3d 933 (cleaned up).

¶17 Second, Richard contends the district court erred in its application of the burden of proof on Richard’s dissipation claim. A district court’s “allocation of the burden of proof is . . . a question of law that we review for correctness.” Salt Lake City Corp. v. Jordan River Restoration Network, 2018 UT 62, ¶ 20, 435 P.3d 179.

¶18      Finally, Richard challenges the district court’s division of the property, including the court’s finding that the marital estate included Mooring Drive and the Harley-Davidson, and its decision to deduct from the marital estate the $30,000 Richard withdrew from the parties’ joint account. A district court “has considerable discretion considering property division in a divorce proceeding, thus its actions enjoy a presumption of validity,” and “we will disturb the district court’s division only if there is a misunderstanding or misapplication of the law indicating an abuse of discretion.” Beckham v. Beckham, 2022 UT App 65, ¶ 6, 511 P.3d 1253 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

I. Pretrial Disclosures

¶19      Richard asserts the district court abused its discretion in excluding his exhibits 2 through 8 for failure to comply with rule 26(a)(5) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure because he “produced the documents that comprised the exhibits” during discovery and any “technical non-compliance with that rule” was “harmless.” We disagree.

¶20      Rule 26 governs “disclosure and discovery” in civil matters and requires parties to provide “a copy of each exhibit, including charts, summaries, and demonstrative exhibits, unless solely for impeachment, separately identifying those which the party will offer and those which the party may offer . . . . at least 28 days before trial.” Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(5). A party who fails to timely disclose exhibits “may not use the undisclosed witness, document, or material at . . . trial unless the failure is harmless or the party shows good cause for the failure.” Id. R. 26(d)(4). A district court “has broad discretion in selecting and imposing sanctions for discovery violations under rule 26,” and “appellate courts may not interfere with such discretion unless there is either an erroneous conclusion of law or no evidentiary basis for the district court’s ruling.” Wallace v. Niels Fugal Sons Co., 2022 UT App 111, ¶ 26, 518 P.3d 184 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1267 (Utah 2023).

¶21      Richard does not dispute that he failed to timely disclose exhibits 2 through 8. Instead, Richard argues he produced the documents in those exhibits to Susan in earlier discovery responses, so his failure to timely file pretrial disclosures was harmless, and he further argues that it was Susan’s burden to prove she had not received them. In response, Susan asserts it was Richard’s burden, not hers, to prove that he produced the documents earlier in discovery, and the failure to file his pretrial disclosures pursuant to rule 26(a)(5) was not harmless. We agree with Susan on both fronts.

¶22 First, “the burden to demonstrate harmlessness or good cause is clearly on the party seeking relief from disclosure requirements.” Dierl v. Birkin, 2023 UT App 6, ¶ 32, 525 P.3d 127 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1107 (Utah 2023). Second, Richard failed to carry his burden of demonstrating harmlessness. Although Richard “assured [his counsel] that he [had] produced records related to this 2008-to-2012 timeframe,” he did not file the required certificates of service. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(f) (requiring a party to file “the certificate of service stating that the disclosure, request for discovery, or response has been served on the other parties and the date of service”). Thus, Richard failed to prove that the documents had previously been produced.

¶23 But even if he had proved prior production, excusing pretrial disclosures if the documents were produced earlier in discovery would “eviscerate[] the rule that explicitly requires parties to” serve a copy of the documents they intend to use “in their case-in-chief at trial.” Johansen v. Johansen, 2021 UT App 130, ¶¶ 19, 26, 504 P.3d 152 (rejecting argument to follow the spirit of rule 26 rather than “the plain language of rule 26” regarding pretrial disclosures); see also Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(5)(A)(iv) (requiring pretrial disclosure of “each exhibit” the party will or may offer at trial). And expecting a party to sort through hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of documents that were produced earlier by the other side during discovery and then expecting the party to predict which ones the opposing party might seek to admit at trial would be harmful and would violate the intent of rule 26.

¶24 Ultimately, “a court’s determination with respect to harmlessness . . . . is a discretionary call,” and our review of it “is necessarily deferential.” Johansen, 2021 UT App 130, ¶ 11 (cleaned up). Thus, the district court was well within its “broad discretion” to exclude Richard’s exhibits 2 through 8 under these circumstances. See Wallace, 2022 UT App 111, ¶ 26 (cleaned up).

II. Dissipation

¶25 Richard claims the district court erred in finding that he failed to meet the burden of proof on his dissipation claim. We disagree.

¶26      “The marital estate is generally valued at the time of the divorce decree or trial.” Goggin v. Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶ 49, 299 P.3d 1079 (cleaned up). “But where one party has dissipated an asset,” the “trial court may, in the exercise of its equitable powers,” “hold one party accountable to the other for the dissipation.” Id. (cleaned up). A court’s inquiry into a dissipation claim may consider “a number of factors,” such as “(1) how the money was spent, including whether funds were used to pay legitimate marital expenses or individual expenses; (2) the parties’ historical practices; (3) the magnitude of any depletion; (4) the timing of the challenged actions in relation to the separation and divorce; and (5) any obstructive efforts that hinder the valuation of the assets.” Wadsworth v. Wadsworth, 2022 UT App 28, ¶ 69, 507 P.3d 385 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1259 (Utah 2022).

¶27 The burden of proof for dissipation initially falls on the party alleging it. See Parker v. Parker, 2000 UT App 30, ¶ 15, 996 P.2d 565 (stating that a party seeking to assert dissipation must make an “initial showing of apparent dissipation”). The district court correctly concluded that Richard bore the “burden of demonstrating dissipation.” To meet the “initial showing of apparent dissipation,” the party alleging dissipation must first show evidence of dissipation. Id. ¶¶ 13, 15. Only after “present[ing] the trial court with evidence tending to show that [Susan] had dissipated marital assets” does the burden shift to Susan “to show that the funds were not dissipated, but were used for some legitimate marital purpose.” Id. ¶ 13.

¶28 Richard’s documentary evidence on this issue had been excluded by the court, so the only evidence he presented was his testimony in 2021 that his income while in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2012 exceeded the estimated historical marital expenses from before 2008, some thirteen years earlier. Richard asserts that his testimony alone should suffice for an initial showing of dissipation. In Parker v. Parker, 2000 UT App 30, ¶ 15, 996 P.2d 565, the husband “presented the trial court with evidence” that detailed how the wife had dissipated marital assets—exact beginning and ending balances for eight bank accounts, the marital expenses during the time in question, and specific checks the wife wrote to herself—thus shifting the burden to the wife. Id. ¶ 13. But Richard, like the wife in Parker, only “testified in conclusory and cryptic terms,” and thus “wholly failed to meet [his] burden.” Id. ¶ 14.

¶29      Therefore, the district court was well within its discretion to decide that Richard’s uncorroborated testimony about Susan’s spending that occurred many years before either party contemplated divorce[2] was insufficient evidence to meet his initial burden of proving dissipation. Accordingly, the district court did not err in its finding that Richard failed to meet his burden of proof on the dissipation claim.

III. Marital Property

¶30      Richard presents three challenges to the district court’s division of the marital property. First, Richard asserts he is entitled to his premarital contribution to Mooring Drive. Second, he alleges the Harley-Davidson he purchased during the pendency of the divorce is his separate property. Third, Richard claims the court should not have deducted from the marital estate the $30,000 that he withdrew from the joint account in June 2019.

We affirm the district court’s decision on Richard’s first two challenges and vacate the decision on the third, remanding the matter for additional findings.

A.        Mooring Drive

¶31      Although the district court awarded Richard the equity in Mooring Drive when it divided the marital estate, it did not also award Richard any premarital equity in the property for three reasons. First, it found that Richard “formally stipulated that Ross Creek and Mooring Drive were marital property subject to division in this divorce action.” Second, it found that “through a series of refinances, [Richard] transferred equity from Ross Creek to Mooring Drive, and paid expenses associated with both properties with marital funds.” Third, it found that Richard “formally conveyed the property to himself and [Susan] in 2003” when he added Susan’s name to the title. Because we affirm the district court’s decision not to award Richard any premarital equity on the basis of the parties’ stipulation, we do not address the other two reasons the district court relied upon.

¶32 Richard and Susan stipulated that “the Ross Creek and Mooring Drive properties shall remain marital property and shall be subject to equitable division in the parties’ divorce, notwithstanding that the Ross Creek home and Mooring Drive property will no longer be jointly titled.” Richard now claims that despite the language of the stipulation, he “never agreed that he should not be compensated for his premarital and separate contributions to Mooring Drive before the property became marital.” Furthermore, Richard argues, “nowhere in the stipulation did he agree that he was waiving his premarital equity in that property.”

¶33 Richard’s argument is flawed. “Parties to a divorce are bound by the terms of their stipulated agreement.” McQuarrie v. McQuarrie, 2021 UT 22, ¶ 18, 496 P.3d 44. And according to the “ordinary contract principles” that govern “contracts between spouses,” see Ashby v. Ashby, 2010 UT 7, ¶ 21, 227 P.3d 246 (cleaned up), “if the language within the four corners of the contract is unambiguous, the parties’ intentions are determined from the plain meaning of the contractual language,” Green River Canal Co. v. Thayn, 2003 UT 50, ¶ 17, 84 P.3d 1134 (cleaned up). See also Mind & Motion Utah Invs., LLC v. Celtic Bank Corp., 2016 UT 6, ¶ 24, 367 P.3d 994 (holding that “the best indication of the parties’ intent is the ordinary meaning of the contract’s terms”); Ocean 18 LLC v. Overage Refund Specialists LLC (In re Excess Proceeds from the Foreclosure of 1107 Snowberry St.), 2020 UT App 54, ¶ 22, 474 P.3d 481 (holding that where the “contract is facially unambiguous, the parties’ intentions are determined from the plain meaning of the contractual language . . . without resort to parol evidence” (cleaned up)).

¶34      Richard essentially argues that the district court erred when it refused to go beyond the stipulation’s language and infer his intention from what he omitted. But the district court was correct when it interpreted the parties’ intentions by what the plain language of the stipulation does say and not by what it does not. Therefore, the district court did not abuse its discretion when it abided by the parties’ stipulation and included Mooring Drive as marital property, “subject to equitable division.”

B.        The Harley-Davidson

¶35      “Prior to the entry of a divorce decree, all property acquired by parties to a marriage is marital property, owned equally by each party.” Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 126, 456 P.3d 276. Thus, the presumption is that property acquired during the pendency of a divorce is marital, not separate. Richard failed to rebut this presumption regarding the Harley-Davidson motorcycle he purchased because he failed to present evidence that he used separate funds.

¶36 Richard argued that he purchased the Harley-Davidson from separate, rather than marital, funds in his proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.[3] To be clear, Richard does not assert that the Harley-Davidson is separate property because he purchased it after the parties separated or after Susan filed for divorce. Instead, he argues the only funds available to him to purchase the motorcycle came from his “separate premarital retirement income.” Richard’s argument fails for two reasons. First, Richard did not present evidence to support his argument that the funds he used to purchase the motorcycle came from separate, not marital, funds. Instead, Richard essentially places his burden on the district court by asserting, on appeal, that “[t]here was no marital account identified by the district court from which [Richard] could have made that purchase.” But Richard, not the court, bears the burden of identifying where the funds came from that he used to purchase the motorcycle.

¶37      Second, the district court found credibility problems with Richard’s testimony about the Harley-Davidson, concluding that Richard’s “credibility was lacking with regards to his motorcycle purchase.”[4] A district court “is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony” or “disregard such testimony if it finds the evidence self-serving and not credible.” Ouk v. Ouk, 2015 UT App 104, ¶ 14, 348 P.3d 751 (cleaned up).

¶38      In sum, as “property acquired during [the] marriage,” the Harley-Davidson is presumptively “marital property subject to equitable distribution.” Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 26. Richard bore the burden of proof to rebut the presumption that the funds he used to purchase the Harley-Davidson were not marital, and he presented no credible evidence to the district court to support that position. Thus, the district court did not abuse its discretion by including the motorcycle in the marital estate.

C.        $30,000 Offset

¶39      Finally, Richard challenges the district court’s decision to include in the marital estate the $30,000 he withdrew from the joint account. The district court agreed with Susan that because Richard had made a unilateral withdrawal from the joint account during the pendency of the divorce, he should be held accountable for that withdrawal. Richard, on the other hand, claims he used the money for marital expenses, paying costs associated with Mooring Drive. Susan argues the money could also have been spent on personal items including travel and motorcycle payments and accessories. “How the money was spent, including whether [the] funds were used to pay legitimate marital expenses or individual expenses,” Wadsworth v. Wadsworth, 2022 UT App 28, ¶ 69, 507 P.3d 385 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1259 (Utah 2022), is a critical question that needs to be resolved.

¶40 Divorce cases often require district courts to make numerous findings of fact. And generally speaking, “for findings of fact to be adequate, they must show that the court’s judgment or decree follows logically from, and is supported by, the evidence” and such findings “should be sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.” Armed Forces Ins. Exch. v. Harrison, 2003 UT 14, ¶ 28, 70 P.3d 35 (cleaned up). Moreover, when it comes to the “unequal division of marital property,” a district court must “memorialize[] in . . . detailed findings the exceptional circumstances supporting the distribution.” Bradford v. Bradford, 1999 UT App 373, ¶ 27, 993 P.2d 887 (cleaned up). “Without adequate findings detailing why [one spouse] should be entitled to such an unequal split of the marital estate, we cannot affirm the court’s award.” Fischer v. Fischer, 2021 UT App 145, ¶ 29, 505 P.3d 56; see, e.g.Rothwell v. Rothwell, 2023 UT App 50, ¶ 57, 531 P.3d 225 (concluding that “we simply do not have enough information” to rule on whether the funds were marital or separate, “let alone to conclude that the district court

. . . erred”).

¶41      We face the same dilemma here. The district court made no findings as to how Richard spent the $30,000. The written ruling merely states, “In June 2019, [Richard] withdrew $30,000 from the joint account without [Susan’s] knowledge or consent and deposited it into his own personal account.” “We will not imply any missing finding where there is a matrix of possible factual findings and we cannot ascertain the trial court’s actual findings.” Hall v. Hall, 858 P.2d 1018, 1025–26 (Utah Ct. App. 1993). Without “adequate findings” on whether Richard used the funds for marital expenses or not, “we cannot affirm,” nor properly review, the court’s decision to offset the $30,000 against Richard in its division of the marital estate. See Fischer, 2021 UT App 145, ¶ 29. Therefore, we vacate this portion of the decision and remand the matter to the district court for it to enter findings on how the funds were spent.

CONCLUSION

¶42 The district court did not abuse its discretion when it excluded Richard’s exhibits for failure to comply with rule 26(a)(5) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. The district court also did not err in its conclusion that Richard failed to meet the burden of proof for his dissipation claim nor did it abuse its discretion in how it divided the marital estate with respect to Mooring Drive and the Harley-Davidson. We vacate the district court’s decision to offset the $30,000 against Richard when it divided the marital estate and remand the matter for the district court to enter additional findings and to alter its conclusion as may be necessary.


[1] Because the parties share the same surname, we refer to them by their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] Susan invites us to join some other states in drawing a bright-line rule concerning the timing of a dissipation claim and limit pre-separation dissipation claims to those occurring (1) in contemplation of divorce or separation or (2) when the marriage is in serious jeopardy or undergoing an irretrievable breakdown. Under our caselaw, the district court is empowered to consider the “timing of the challenged actions in relation to the separation and divorce” as one of several factors when determining “whether a party should be held accountable for the dissipation of marital assets.” Marroquin v. Marroquin, 2019 UT App 38, ¶ 33, 440 P.3d 757 (cleaned up). We see no need to alter this approach. Assessing timing as one factor among many provides the greatest flexibility to the district court to consider all the circumstances in a particular case, and we believe the district court is in the best position to evaluate the importance of such evidence on a case-by-case basis.

[3] Because the district court directed the parties to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law in lieu of closing arguments, Richard’s argument was preserved for our review.

[4] Indeed, in its oral ruling, the court stated that Richard “lied to the Court about the purchase of the motorcycle.”

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Knight v. Knight – 2023 UT App 86 – trusts and alimony

Knight v. Knight – 2023 UT App 86

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

JARED M. KNIGHT,

Appellee,

v.

REBECCA B. KNIGHT,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210080-CA

Filed August 10, 2023

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Robert P. Faust

No. 184902185

Julie J. Nelson, Taylor Webb, and Stephen C. Clark,

Attorneys for Appellant

Bart J. Johnsen and Alan S. Mouritsen,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES RYAN D. TENNEY and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        After a trial on cross-petitions, the district court entered

findings of fact and conclusions of law and a final decree divorcing Rebecca and Jared Knight. Rebecca[1] appeals several aspects of the divorce decree, including the court’s determination that she had no interest in a trust Jared’s father established before the marriage and several of the court’s calculations related to alimony. We affirm the district court’s ruling with respect to Jared’s trust, and we affirm in part and reverse in part with respect to the alimony calculations.

BACKGROUND

¶2        In October 1994, Jared’s father, L. Randy Knight, created the RKF Jared M. Knight Trust (the Trust), an irrevocable trust. Randy named Jared as the sole beneficiary of the Trust and transferred a significant interest in RKF, LLC—an Arizona limited liability company formed in 1994 by Randy—to the Trust. The trust agreement for the Trust (Trust Agreement) specified that the Trust would be governed by Arizona law. The Trust Agreement also contained a “spendthrift provision” declaring that Jared lacked the “right to assign, transfer, encumber, or hypothecate his . . . interest in the principal or income of the [T]rust in any manner.” Additionally, the Trust Agreement granted Jared a power of withdrawal over the Trust principal such that Jared could withdraw up to one-fourth of the principal at age 30 (June 2002), up to one-third of the principal at age 35 (June 2007), and all the principal at age 40 (June 2012). To exercise this power, Jared would need to make “a request in writing.”

¶3        In October 1995, Jared and Rebecca were married. During their marriage, the parties enjoyed a lavish lifestyle funded, in part, by the wealth of Jared’s family.

¶4        In March 2008, Rebecca and Jared executed a “Property Agreement” (the Property Agreement), which stated, “All property which is now owned by JARED or by REBECCA, individually, . . . is hereby declared to be, and hereby is, the community property of JARED and REBECCA.” The Property Agreement specified that “to the extent necessary, JARED and REBECCA each hereby gives, grants, conveys and assigns to the other an interest in his or her property . . . so as to transmute[2] such property into the community property of JARED and REBECCA.” The Property Agreement further declared, “All property hereafter acquired by JARED and REBECCA, or either of them, . . . shall be deemed to be, and hereby declared to be, the community property of JARED and REBECCA.” However, the Property Agreement carved out an exception: “Notwithstanding the foregoing, any property received by JARED and REBECCA by gift or inheritance after the date of this [Property] Agreement shall be the sole and separate property of the person receiving it, unless that person declares otherwise in writing.” The Property Agreement is, like the Trust, governed by Arizona law.

¶5        In 2016, the Trust was decanted[3] into a new trust. The new trust named Jared as sole initial trustee and therefore permitted Jared to distribute to himself, “upon his written request, up to the balance of the principal of his trust at any time.”

¶6        In April 2018, Jared filed for divorce. Rebecca ultimately filed an amended counterclaim alleging that the principal of the Trust was marital property and therefore subject to equitable distribution under the terms of the Property Agreement.

¶7        Jared filed a motion for partial summary judgment on this point, arguing that the Property Agreement “did not transmute assets held by the [Trust]” into marital property. Jared asserted that the Property Agreement did not apply to the Trust because, at the time he entered into the Property Agreement, he did not own the Trust principal under Arizona law. He pointed to the statute in effect in 2008—the year the parties entered into the Property Agreement—which stated that “if the trust instrument provides that a beneficiary’s interest in principal is not subject to voluntary or involuntary transfer, the beneficiary’s interest in principal shall not be transferred.” Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 14­7702(a) (2008). The statute further specified that a court may not order the satisfaction of a money judgment against a beneficiary until “[a]fter an amount of principal becomes immediately due and payable to the beneficiary.” Id. § 14-7702(b). It explained that “[i]f an amount of principal is due and payable only at a future date, or only on the occurrence of a future event, whether the occurrence of that event is within the control of the beneficiary, the amount of the principal is not immediately due and payable to the beneficiary.” Id. Jared asserted that the Trust’s “disbursement mechanism squarely fit[] within the framework of Arizona Revised Statute Section 14-7702(B) as it was written in 2008” because the Trust’s requirement that Jared submit a written request for disbursement of the Trust principal rendered the principal “not immediately due and payable.” See id. And Jared argued that, because he never submitted a written disbursement request or withdrew any principal of the Trust, “[a]s a matter of Arizona law as it existed at the time that the Property Agreement was executed in 2008, no amount of the Trust principal is ‘now owned’ or ‘hereafter acquired’” by Jared, so the Property Agreement did not apply to the Trust.

¶8        Rebecca opposed Jared’s motion and filed her own motion for partial summary judgment. Rebecca argued that Jared’s beneficial interest in the Trust was a property interest that Jared owned at the time of the Property Agreement. She also asserted that Jared’s power of withdrawal gave him an ownership interest in the Trust principal that he was eligible to withdraw as of the date of the Property Agreement. She said, “Consistent with the common understanding of ‘property’ as comprising a set of rights (a ‘bundle of sticks’ in the law-school formulation), if among those rights a person has the right to control the disposition of an asset, that asset is his property, and he has ownership of the property.” Rebecca further avowed that “[t]he Arizona statute on which Jared relies . . . has nothing to do with the question before this [c]ourt” because it applies to “the rights of ‘creditors’ to access property held in trust for a beneficiary when the trust features a ‘spendthrift’ clause” and Rebecca was not a creditor. Accordingly, Rebecca claimed that the Trust’s spendthrift clause “did not limit Jared’s ability to transmute his property interest in the Trust or its underlying assets into community property, and he plainly did so by signing the Property Agreement.” Rebecca argued that the Restatement (Third) of Trusts instead applied and made it “clear that trust assets subject to an exercisable power of withdrawal are ‘property.’” (Citing Restatement (Third) of Trusts § 56 cmt. b. (Am. L. Inst. 2003) (“Trust property subject to a presently exercisable general power of appointment (a power by which the property may be appointed to the donee, including one in the form of a power of withdrawal), because of the power’s equivalence to ownership, is treated as property of the donee.” (emphasis added))).

¶9        The court denied Rebecca’s motion for partial summary judgment and granted Jared’s. The court reasoned that “the legal position taken in [t]he Restatement (Third) of Trusts § 56 was not the law in Arizona until 2009, when it [was] partially codified as part of the Arizona Trust Code,” and it rejected Rebecca’s argument that “the spendthrift clause specifically disengages for purposes of the exercise of a power of withdrawal [and] expressly allows a trustee to transfer withdrawn property to a beneficiary.” The court determined, instead, that Arizona Revised Statutes section 14-7702 applied because—regardless of whether Rebecca was a “creditor”—“that statute . . . define[d] when an amount is due and payable and separately define[d] the rights of creditors.”

Accordingly, the court concluded that “[n]o amount of the Trust principal is due or payable within the meaning of that statute, and it is therefore protected against . . . the disbursement sought by [Rebecca].” The court thus ruled that because Jared’s interest in the Trust principal was “not subject to voluntary or involuntary transfer,” see Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 14-7702(a) (2008), it could not be transferred through the Property Agreement.

¶10 The parties then proceeded to trial on the other issues involved in their divorce, including distribution of the marital estate and alimony. The district court entered its order, later entering its findings of fact and conclusions of law and issuing the divorce decree. As relevant to this appeal, in its alimony calculations, the court made several reductions to Rebecca’s claimed expenses.

¶11      First, the court made several modifications to the expenses Rebecca submitted related to home maintenance. The court eliminated the snow removal expense of $175 per month, stating, “The parties never paid for snow removal during the marriage[,] and this expense was not part of the marital [lifestyle].” It eliminated the monthly “[p]ool/[s]pa maintenance” expense of $373.33, reasoning that “[t]he parties did not have pool maintenance expense[s] during the marriage as the pool was maintained by the parties” and “[t]his new expense was only incurred after separation and because [Rebecca] is not cleaning the pool despite acknowledging she is capable of doing so.” And it eliminated the monthly landscaping expense of $414.66 because “[t]his was not an expense that was incurred during the marriage as the yard work was done by the parties themselves.” It continued, “[Rebecca] further acknowledged that she is capable of yard work. Also, [Jared] has not requested that he [have] third parties do his yard maintenance.”

¶12      Next, the district court modified several of Rebecca’s expenses related to health and personal care. It reduced Rebecca’s health care insurance expense from $757 per month to $411 per month, explaining,

[Rebecca] is not incurring this expense but is covered under the parties’ current policy. In addition, no written evidence was provided as to the costs for health care coverage for [Rebecca]. [Rebecca] acknowledged the $757 was for a policy with no deductibles[,] which is not the same level of policy the parties currently have in place, which has [an] $8,000 a year deductible. Further, the [c]ourt has received evidence in other cases that health care coverage for a single person can be obtained in the $400 to $500 a month range. Therefore, the [c]ourt adjusts [Rebecca’s] coverage to be consistent with [the] current known expense of health care of the parties and which [Jared] established at $411 a month.

The court also reduced Rebecca’s expense for personal grooming from $949.83 per month to $500 a month. It stated,

[Rebecca’s] evidence of getting a haircut twice a year and having her nails and eye lashes done monthly to every six (6) weeks did not establish this claimed and requested expense of $11,397.96 a year for personal expenses. [Jared] did not ask for any personal grooming as part of his expenses relating to the marital standard of living[,] and he [is] not getting the $500 [Rebecca] is being awarded.

¶13 Finally, the court made several adjustments to Rebecca’s claimed expenses related to savings. The court eliminated Rebecca’s “[s]avings [p]lan contribution” of $2,500 per month. The court explained,

[Rebecca] admitted that this amount was only an estimate on her part in that she thought the parties may have saved $30,000 a year. [Jared’s] testimony was the parties did not contribute to any savings plan for the parties in any amount on a monthly or regular basis. Rather, the parties would save money as they had it in differing amounts and when there were sufficient funds to purchase what they wanted, the parties would spen[d] the money on cars and other purchases. No savings program was done during the marriage. In addition, [Jared] has not requested a savings plan as part of his expenses, and he is entitled to the same marital standard as [Rebecca].

The court eliminated “[r]etirement deposits” of $500 per month, stating,

The evidence adduced at trial established the parties never saved $500 a month for retirement. Further, [Jared] did not ask for retirement as part of his expenses relating to the marital standard of living[,] giving further credibility to this fact. The evidence was any retirement amounts for the parties was only set aside and deposited in three (3) of the twenty-seven (27) years of marriage.

The court eliminated Rebecca’s “additional capital/investment funds” of $7,279 monthly because “[t]he testimony and evidence established there never was any such capital or investment funds like this during the marriage. Further, no testimony was provided as to how this figure was arrived at to be claimed in the first place.” The court declared that “[t]his is simply a request, which is unfounded and which the [c]ourt finds is an attempt to inflate [Rebecca’s] expenses.”

¶14      Rebecca now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶15 Rebecca presents three issues on appeal. First, she asserts that “the district court erred when it determined, on summary judgment, that Rebecca had no interest in [the] Trust.” “When an appellate court reviews a district court’s grant of summary judgment, the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom are viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, while the district court’s legal conclusions and ultimate grant or denial of summary judgment are reviewed for correctness.” Massey v. Griffiths, 2007 UT 10, ¶ 8, 152 P.3d 312 (cleaned up).

¶16 Second, Rebecca argues that even “if the district court’s interpretation and application of Arizona law to the Trust and the Property Agreement were correct, it nonetheless abused its discretion when it refused to divide the Trust on equitable grounds.” “District courts have considerable discretion concerning property distribution in a divorce[,] and we will uphold the decision of the district court unless a clear and prejudicial abuse of discretion is demonstrated.” Gerwe v. Gerwe, 2018 UT App 75, ¶ 8, 424 P.3d 1113 (cleaned up).

¶17      Third, Rebecca contends that “the district court erred in its calculation of alimony.” “A district court’s award of alimony is reviewed for abuse of discretion.” Id. ¶ 9. “Although trial courts have broad latitude in determining whether to award alimony and in setting the amount, and we will not lightly disturb a trial court’s alimony ruling, we will reverse if the court has not exercised its discretion within the bounds and under the standards we have set,” including if the court commits legal error. Bjarnson v. Bjarnson, 2020 UT App 141, ¶ 5, 476 P.3d 145 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

I. Rebecca’s Interest in the Trust

¶18      Rebecca argues that the district court erred in ruling that she was not entitled to an equitable share of the Trust. Rebecca first asserts that the court erred in applying the 2008 Arizona Trust Code (the 2008 Code) because the 2009 Arizona Trust Code (the 2009 Code) applied retroactively and indicated that Jared’s power of withdrawal gave him an ownership interest subject to transmutation under the Property Agreement. She also argues, alternatively, that even if the 2008 Code applies, Jared’s interest in the Trust was marital property. Jared counters that the 2008 Code applies, that his “interest in the Trust principal was bound by a valid spendthrift provision” at the time of the Property Agreement, and that it was therefore not transferrable through the Property Agreement.

¶19 We agree with Jared and uphold the district court’s decision on this issue. First, we conclude that the 2009 Code does not retroactively modify the nature of Jared’s interest in the Trust at the time of the Property Agreement.[4] Even if application of the 2009 Code would have the effect Rebecca claims, we cannot apply that version of the code.

¶20      Arizona law indicates that “beginning on January 1, 2009[,] . . . [the 2009 Code] applies to all trusts created before, on or after January 1, 2009.” Act of Dec. 31, 2008, ch. 247 § 18(A)(1), 2008 Ariz. Sess. Laws 1179, 1179 (2nd Reg. Sess.). The parties entered the Property Agreement in March 2008. Because this date predates January 1, 2009, the 2009 Code had not taken effect at the time the parties signed the Property Agreement and therefore had no application to the Trust. Indeed, the Arizona Legislature did not leave this point ambiguous but rather included a specific provision stating that “[a]n act done before January 1, 2009[,] is not affected by this act.” Id. Arizona caselaw has interpreted this exception to mean that the preexisting law governed until January 1, 2009. See Favour v. Favour, No. 1 CA-CV 13-0196, 2014 WL 546361, ¶ 30 (Ariz. Ct. App. Feb. 11, 2014) (stating that a previous statute “governs actions taken by a trustee prior to implementation of the Arizona Trust Code . . . on January 1, 2009,” and that the earlier statute “recognized the trustee’s investment and management authority,” so “as a matter of law, [the trustee] had the authority to invest, trade, diversify, and manage trust assets prior to January 1, 2009” (cleaned up)); In re Esther Caplan Trust, 265 P.3d 364, 366 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2011) (“The past principal distributions are not governed by [the 2009 Code]. That statute became effective after the challenged distributions were made. The predecessor statute . . . merely required a trustee to keep the beneficiaries of the trust reasonably informed of the trust and its administration. The record establishes that [the appellee] complied with these relatively minimal requirements.” (cleaned up)).

¶21      Accordingly, at the time the parties signed the Property Agreement, the 2008 Code was in effect. If the parties had signed the Property Agreement on, say, January 2, 2009, the 2009 Code could retroactively apply to the Trust—though it was created in 1994—to govern its terms. But because the Property Agreement was signed before the 2009 Code went into effect, the 2009 Code’s retroactivity provision also had no effect. Therefore, Jared’s interest in the Trust for the sake of the Property Agreement was whatever existed under the 2008 Code, and any restrictions of the Trust as of March 2008 had full effect and were not modified by the 2009 Code. Put another way, Jared could not give an interest in property in 2008 that he did not have the right to transfer.

¶22 Under the 2008 Code, the Trust’s spendthrift provision prevented Jared from transmuting his interest in the Trust into marital property.[5] The 2008 Code specified that “if [a] trust instrument provides that a beneficiary’s interest in principal is not subject to voluntary or involuntary transfer, the beneficiary’s interest in principal shall not be transferred.” Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 14-7702(a) (2008). The Trust was subject to a spendthrift provision, declaring that Jared lacked the “right to assign, transfer, encumber, or hypothecate his . . . interest in the principal or income of the [T]rust in any manner.” Consequently, Jared’s interest in the Trust was “not subject to voluntary or involuntary transfer,” so his interest was not eligible for transfer. See id.see also In re Indenture of Trust Dated Jan. 13, 1964, 326 P.3d 307, 312 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2014) (“A valid spendthrift provision makes it impossible for a beneficiary to make a legally binding transfer.” (emphasis added) (cleaned up)).

¶23      In an effort to avoid the restrictive effect of the Trust’s spendthrift provision, Rebecca argues that “[t]ransmuting property is distinct from transferring property” and therefore “Jared did not transfer any interest” when he allegedly transmuted his interest in the Trust through the Property Agreement. Citing State ex rel. Industrial Commission of Arizona v. Wright, 43 P.3d 203 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2002), Jared responds that Arizona caselaw rejects this argument:

[In Wright], the court explained that the term “transfer” “includes any transaction in which a property interest was relinquished.” Because transmuting a property interest from separate property to community property surrenders the transferor’s entitlement to half of his or her separate property, the court reasoned, such a transmutation qualifies as a “transfer” of that property.

(Citations omitted.) Rebecca responds that the holding of Wright applies “only in the specific context of the Uniform Fraudulent Transfers Act.”

¶24 In Wright, the Arizona Court of Appeals considered a premarital agreement that was fraudulently modified after a husband fell subject to a workers’ compensation claim. Id. at 204. The modification stated that separate earnings would be community property, thus attempting to evade a judgment against the husband’s earnings. Id. The court held that the transmutation of the husband’s earnings constituted a transfer under the Uniform Fraudulent Transfers Act:

Before the modification, [the husband] held a sole interest in the entirety of his future earnings. The effect of the modification was to transfer that entire interest to the community. [The wife] would have a right to dispose of those earnings now dedicated to the community that she did not have when they were [the husband’s] separate property. Additionally, upon dissolution of marriage, [the husband] would have surrendered all entitlement to half of those earnings. Hence, [the husband] has transferred an asset within the meaning of [the Uniform Fraudulent Transfers Act].

Id. at 205. While the Wright court did conclude that the parties’ actions satisfied the broad statutory definition of a transfer under the Uniform Fraudulent Transfers Act, see id., and while Rebecca is correct that the Uniform Fraudulent Transfers Act is not at issue here, the court’s analysis is still useful. If we accept Rebecca’s argument that the Property Agreement transmuted Jared’s interest in the Trust, then—like in Wright—before the Property Agreement, Jared’s interest in the Trust was solely his and the Property Agreement served to “transfer that entire interest to the community.” See id. And upon divorce, Jared “would have surrendered all entitlement to half of” his interest in the Trust. See id. Accordingly, while we are not applying the definition of “transfer” from the Uniform Fraudulent Transfers Act, we conclude that a transmutation here would have been a transfer. In terms of the bundle of sticks formulation that Rebecca referenced in her motion for partial summary judgment, Jared would be giving Rebecca access to and an interest in whatever sticks he was holding at the time he signed the Property Agreement—sticks that she did not previously hold.[6]

¶25      Our conclusion that Jared’s purported transmutation of the Trust into marital property would have constituted a transfer is supported by the language of the Property Agreement itself. The Property Agreement indicated that “to the extent necessary, JARED and REBECCA each hereby gives, grants, conveys and assigns to the other an interest in his or her property . . . so as to transmute such property into the community property of JARED and REBECCA.” (Emphasis added.) This language belies Rebecca’s argument that the transmutation only changed the nature of—but did not affect a transfer of—Jared’s interest. And this language also runs up against the language in the Trust’s spendthrift provision forbidding Jared from “assign[ing], transfer[ing], encumber[ing], or hypothecat[ing] his . . . interest in the principal or income of the [T]rust in any manner.” Accordingly, we agree with the district court that the Property Agreement had no effect on the Trust and that, therefore, Rebecca does not have a legally cognizable interest in the Trust.

II. Equitable Grounds for Dividing the Trust

¶26 Rebecca contends, alternatively, that “[r]egardless of whether the Property Agreement granted Rebecca a legally cognizable interest in the Trust itself, the district court was required to consider the Trust as part of the marital property for the sake of equity.” She asserts that “[d]istrict courts must equitably divide the marital estate” and quotes Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, 459 P.3d 276, for the propositions that “Utah law presumes that property acquired during a marriage is marital property subject to equitable distribution” and “[t]o the extent that the Trust corpus contains marital property, Utah has a strong interest in ensuring that such property is equitably divided in the parties’ divorce action.” Id. ¶ 26. Rebecca points us to Endrody v. Endrody, 914 P.2d 1166 (Utah Ct. App. 1996), in which a husband’s parents had established a trust after the parties were married and had named the wife as one of the beneficiaries. Id. at 1167–68. This court affirmed a district court’s ruling that the trust assets were not available for distribution as marital assets but that the husband’s shares in the trust were marital property, an equitable share of which should be placed in a constructive trust for the wife’s benefit. Id. at 1170. Rebecca concludes, “In short, Jared’s interest in the Trust was marital property. And even if the Trust assets were not available for distribution, the court was required to consider the Trust as part of the marital property for equitable purposes.”

¶27      Rebecca’s argument misses the mark. We have concluded, as did the district court, that Jared’s interest in the Trust was not marital property or part of the marital estate subject to distribution. This is a distinct conclusion from one stating that trust funds are marital property but the trust principal is not available for distribution. Therefore, caselaw addressing equitable distribution of trust funds that are marital property is inapposite. And Rebecca provides no support for the position that she should be awarded an equitable portion of the value of the Trust’s principal despite a holding that she is not entitled to any portion of Jared’s interest in the Trust.[7] Accordingly, we uphold the district court’s decision that Rebecca is not entitled to any portion of or equivalent sum for Jared’s interest in the Trust.

III. Alimony

¶28      Rebecca next contends that the court erred in its alimony calculations when it made several deductions to Rebecca’s claimed expenses. Rebecca insists that she “does not raise a factual challenge” but instead “challenges the district court’s method of reduction and justification for doing so.” She asserts that the district court “misconstrued Utah law” when it adjusted her expenses.

¶29 Under Utah law, courts must consider in alimony determinations the factors listed in Utah Code section 30-3-5, including “(i) the financial condition and needs of the recipient spouse; (ii) the recipient’s earning capacity or ability to produce income, including the impact of diminished workplace experience resulting from primarily caring for a child of the payor spouse; [and] (iii) the ability of the payor spouse to provide support.” Utah Code § 30-3-5(10)(a); see also Jones v. Jones, 700 P.2d 1072, 1075 (Utah 1985); English v. English, 565 P.2d 409, 411–12 (Utah 1977). “An alimony award should also advance, as much as possible, the primary purposes of alimony.” Rule v. Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 14, 402 P.3d 153 (cleaned up). Alimony is intended “(1) to get the parties as close as possible to the same standard of living that existed during the marriage; (2) to equalize the standards of living of each party; and (3) to prevent the recipient spouse from becoming a public charge.” Jensen v. Jensen, 2008 UT App 392, ¶ 9, 197 P.3d 117 (cleaned up).

¶30      We have previously explained,

Alimony is not limited to providing for only basic needs but should be fashioned in consideration of the recipient spouse’s station in life in light of the parties’ customary or proper status or circumstances, with the goal being an alimony award calculated to approximate the parties’ standard of living during the marriage as closely as possible.

Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 14 (cleaned up); see also Davis v. Davis, 749 P.2d 647, 649 (Utah 1988) (“The ultimate test of the propriety of an alimony award is whether, given all of these factors, the party receiving alimony will be able to support him- or herself as nearly as possible at the standard of living enjoyed during marriage.” (cleaned up)); Savage v. Savage, 658 P.2d 1201, 1205 (Utah 1983) (“One of the chief functions of an alimony award is to permit the parties to maintain as much as possible the same standards after the dissolution of the marriage as those enjoyed during the marriage.”). And “in terms of alimony, the marital standard of living analysis is about whether the parties’ proposed points of calculation are consistent with the parties’ manner of living and financial decisions (i.e., the historical allocation of their resources).” Mintz v. Mintz, 2023 UT App 17, ¶ 24, 525 P.3d 534, cert. denied, 523 P.3d 730 (Utah 2023).

A.        Home Maintenance

¶31      Rebecca alleges that the district court improperly reduced her claimed expenses related to home maintenance, including expenses for snow removal, pool and spa maintenance, and landscaping. She argues that Jared took care of these tasks during the marriage and she should now be compensated for the cost of hiring other individuals to accomplish these tasks. In her words, “Rebecca’s marital standard of living was that someone else did the pool maintenance, snow removal, and landscaping. Since that person has moved out, she is left without the standard of living to which she was accustomed.”

¶32 Rebecca’s argument on this point is fatally flawed. A court’s inquiry in evaluating historical expenses to determine alimony involves the marital standard of living—not a separate standard of living for each person within the marriage. See Davis, 749 P.2d at 649 (describing “the standard of living enjoyed during marriage” (cleaned up)); Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 14 (considering “the parties’ standard of living during the marriage” (cleaned up)); Jensen, 2008 UT App 392, ¶ 9 (discussing the “standard of living that existed during the marriage” as one but the “the standards of living of each party” after divorce as two (cleaned up)). The marital standard of living is that which the parties shared, and courts consider the parties as a single unit when evaluating that standard. We can only imagine the chaos that would ensue if divorcing partners could expense every task their former spouses previously performed.[8] Instead, we reemphasize that “in terms of alimony, the marital standard of living analysis is about whether the parties’ proposed points of calculation are consistent with the parties’ manner of living and financial decisions (i.e., the historical allocation of their resources).” Mintz, 2023 UT App 17, ¶ 24. Rebecca admits that the couple did not historically allocate funds to these expenses while the parties were married, so they cannot be considered part of the marital standard of living. And the court found as much, stating, “[t]he parties never paid for snow removal during the marriage[,] and this expense was not part of the marital [lifestyle]”; “[t]he parties did not have pool maintenance expense[s] during the marriage as the pool was maintained by the parties”; and landscaping “was not an expense that was incurred during the marriage as the yard work was done by the parties themselves.” Therefore, the court was correct in reducing Rebecca’s claims for these categories when calculating her expenses for the sake of alimony.[9]

¶33 However, Rebecca did provide evidence that the parties had historically paid some amount for bark replacement and lawn aeration. In a financial declaration, she listed a monthly expense of $126.66 for “[b]ark for the year,” and she indicated that “[t]his [was] based on an actual historical expense of $3,040.00 every 2 years.” She also listed a monthly expense of $5 for aerating and stated that “[t]his [was] based on an actual historical expense of $30 paid twice per year.” Additionally, she testified that the parties had historically replaced bark and that doing so was “quite costly.”[10] Jared, in a memorandum submitted to the court, admitted that bark was an expense that the parties had previously paid and did not contest the aerating expense. Therefore, the costs associated with bark replacement and lawn aeration were part of the marital standard of living such that they were not properly excluded from consideration in the court’s alimony calculations. Accordingly, because the facts are otherwise undisputed on this issue, we reverse on this point and instruct the court to enter expenses for Rebecca of $5 per month for lawn aeration and $126.66 per month for bark replacement.

B.        Health and Personal Care

1.         Health Insurance

¶34      Rebecca asserts that the district court abused its discretion in reducing her claimed expense for health insurance. At trial, she informed the court that she was still on Jared’s family’s health insurance plan but explained her claimed cost of $757 monthly: “This was a quote that I sought out. . . . It does not have any deductible. . . . [H]istorically our deductible [was] put on an HSA card that was covered by the Knight Group.” Both parties agreed that the historical deductible, which had been paid by the Knight Group, was around $8,000.

¶35 The court reduced Rebecca’s health insurance expense to $411 per month, the number Jared gave as the historical amount the parties paid for health care services through an HSA card. The court explained, “[N]o written evidence was provided as to the costs for health care coverage for [Rebecca]. [Rebecca] acknowledged the $757 was for a policy with no deductibles[,] which is not the same level of policy the parties currently have in place, which has [an] $8,000 a year deductible.” The court indicated that its adjustment was “consistent with current known expense[s] of health care of the parties and which [Jared] established at $411 a month.”

¶36 This conclusion was in keeping with the court’s determination that monetary support from the Knight family qualified as gifts and could not be considered in determining the marital standard of living or the parties’ expenses. It noted, “[I]n this case . . . a large portion of these things the parties were enjoying was the result of the generosity and the benefits of others. When there’s . . . no guarantee or no requirement to have those additional funds come in . . . to have this lifestyle, you know, they’re not going to be able to have it.” The court again said, “You can’t count gifts . . . that were given at the discretion of other individuals to say you’re entitled to continue to receive those gifts and have those funds coming in to you to maintain a standard of living that you may have [had] when you received those gifts . . . .”

¶37 The court’s stance on this issue is correct: the gifts from Jared’s family, despite being a regular feature of the marriage, may not be properly considered in calculating Rebecca’s needs or Jared’s ability to pay alimony. See Utah Code § 30-3-5(10)(a). The alimony factors refer only to the finances of the spouses, not those of outside parties. Id.see also Jones v. Jones, 700 P.2d 1072, 1075 (Utah 1985). Additionally, we have enunciated previously that past gifts are not to be considered in the alimony calculus: “[T]he court could not base its prospective order on past gifts that have no assurance of being continued because [a donor] has no legal obligation to continue providing the monetary support that she has in the past.” Issertell v. Issertell, 2020 UT App 62, ¶ 26, 463 P.3d 698.

¶38      Accordingly, the court did not abuse its discretion when it determined that Rebecca did not provide qualifying evidence of her future health insurance expenses because she submitted only a quote for a plan without a deductible. The parties both testified that they had a deductible during the marriage, and Rebecca is not entitled to a health insurance plan better than the one the parties had during the marriage. The fact that the parties’ deductible was historically paid by the Knight Group does not impact our analysis because those payments were “past gifts that have no assurance of being continued because [the Knight Group] has no legal obligation to continue providing the monetary support that [it] has in the past.” See id. And without evidence from Rebecca on which it could rely, the court did not abuse its discretion in accepting the amount Jared put forth as the parties’ historical health insurance cost.[11] See Sauer v. Sauer, 2017 UT App 114, ¶ 10, 400 P.3d 1204 (“Once the court determined that there was no evidence that was both credible and relevant regarding [the recipient spouse’s] reasonable housing needs, it was appropriate for the court to impute a reasonable amount based on other evidence provided by the parties. . . . We therefore see no impropriety in the trial court’s decision to impute housing needs to [the recipient spouse] in the same amount as [the payor spouse] had claimed was reasonable . . . .”). We affirm on this point.

2.         Personal Grooming

¶39      Rebecca also asserts that the court abused its discretion in reducing Rebecca’s claimed expense for “personal grooming.” The court stated that it was “reduc[ing] personal grooming by $449.83, from $949.83 to $500 a month,” because Rebecca’s “evidence of getting a haircut twice a year and having her nails and eye lashes done monthly to every six (6) weeks did not establish this claimed and requested expense of $11,397.96 a year for personal expenses.” The court also stated that Jared “did not ask for any personal grooming as part of his expenses relating to the marital standard of living[,] and he was not getting the $500 [Rebecca was] being awarded.”

¶40 Rebecca takes issue with the court’s findings and reasoning, asserting,

[T]his was not the evidence. She testified that she gets her eyelashes and nails done every two weeks, not “monthly to every six (6) weeks.” She testified that in addition to getting her hair cut, she also gets a perm. She testified that she gets a full body wax. She also testified that she has costs for “toenails.” She also testified that she has “maintenance” costs. She stated that to reach this number she “went through [her] credit card statements and added up for a year’s worth of” these expenses. She testified that “obviously this is historically . . . what I spent.”

Opposing counsel did not dispute Rebecca’s expenses, but simply opined that he thought “the maximum would be . . . $500 a month. $6000 a year for personal grooming is quite a nice budget.” But what opposing counsel thinks qualifies as “quite a nice budget” is not the test in Utah. Instead, the test is the marital standard of living, and Rebecca’s testimony—unchallenged by contrary evidence— was that she spent $949.83 per month.

Second, the district court reduced Rebecca’s personal grooming expenses because Jared “did not ask for any personal grooming as part of his expenses relating to the marital standard of living and he was not getting the $500 [Rebecca] is being awarded.” That is irrelevant. If Jared spends nothing on personal grooming, or if he has no monthly expenses because the Knight family pays for them all, that does not mean that Rebecca’s estimated expenses are inaccurate.

¶41      We agree with Rebecca on all fronts. The court would have acted within its discretion if it had found Rebecca’s evidence unreliable or had determined that Rebecca’s claimed expenses were unreasonable in light of the couple’s marital standard of living. See Woolums v. Woolums, 2013 UT App 232, ¶ 10, 312 P.3d 939 (“The district court’s evaluation of and reliance on [one spouse’s] testimony, along with its own determinations of the reasonableness of the claimed expenses, fell squarely within its broad discretion to determine an appropriate alimony award.”). But that is not what it did. It disregarded Rebecca’s evidence of historical spending and substituted a figure provided by Jared’s counsel with no evidentiary basis. Jared’s counsel’s thoughts on what makes “quite a nice budget” are irrelevant. The court’s inquiry should have been rooted in Rebecca and Jared’s marital standard of living, as indicated by their historical spending. See Mintz v. Mintz, 2023 UT App 17, ¶ 24, 525 P.3d 534, cert. denied, 523 P.3d 730 (Utah 2023).

¶42      A court’s inquiry into the marital standard of living must evaluate the specific circumstances of that couple, and expenses that are unreasonable in light of one couple’s marital standard of living may be reasonable in light of another couple’s marital standard of living. “Indeed, we have explained that alimony is not limited to providing for only basic needs but should be fashioned in consideration of the recipient spouse’s station in life in light of the parties’ customary or proper status or circumstances.” Rule v. Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 14, 402 P.3d 153 (cleaned up). And “the goal” of the inquiry is “an alimony award calculated to approximate the parties’ standard of living during the marriage as closely as possible.” Id.see also Davis v. Davis, 749 P.2d 647, 649 (Utah 1988) (“The ultimate test of the propriety of an alimony award is whether, given all of these factors, the party receiving alimony will be able to support him- or herself as nearly as possible at the standard of living enjoyed during marriage.” (cleaned up)); Savage v. Savage, 658 P.2d 1201, 1205 (Utah 1983) (“One of the chief functions of an alimony award is to permit the parties to maintain as much as possible the same standards after the dissolution of the marriage as those enjoyed during the marriage.”). Rebecca testified that the marital standard of living included significant spending on her personal grooming. The court acted improperly when it discarded this evidence and substituted another amount without properly concluding that Rebecca’s evidence was inadequate or her expenses were unreasonable in light of the marital standard of living.

¶43      It was also improper for the court to base its determination, in part, on Jared’s lack of submission for this budget line item. There is no need for courts to limit one party’s expenses to those the other party also claims. See Utah Code § 30-3-5(10)(a) (including as a factor in determining alimony “the financial condition and needs of the recipient spouse”). In fact, doing so increases the risk of gamesmanship between the parties. There is already a risk that divorcing spouses may inflate their claimed expenses in an effort to sway the alimony calculation in their favor: payor spouses might attempt to minimize their ability to provide support by claiming high expenses, while recipient spouses might inflate their expenses to claim that their needs are great. See id. But limiting a recipient spouse’s potential expenses to only those categories claimed by the payor spouse dangerously alters this already-thorny calculation. In situations where a payor spouse’s ability to pay is unlikely to be an issue, the payor spouse would face a significant incentive to omit many expenses and thereby drastically reduce the receiving spouse’s needs. But the danger is not just in these situations. In any case, a payor spouse would be incentivized to identify categories for which the recipient spouse would likely have higher expenses and omit those. In other words, payor spouses could significantly undercut alimony awards by strategically omitting expenses. Accordingly, we caution courts not to apply such faulty reasoning when calculating alimony. Instead, courts should base their findings on expenses that are reasonable in light of the couple’s unique marital standard of living. See Mintz, 2023 UT App 17, ¶ 24.

¶44      On this front, we clarify that a couple’s marital standard of living may include disparate spending by the parties on various categories during the marriage. Throughout the marriage, one spouse may spend more—even significantly more—than the other on personal grooming, entertainment, travel, or any number of other expense categories. A partner may embrace the age-old adage’s modernized mantra of “happy spouse, happy house,” may derive independent pleasure from a spouse’s purchases, or may observe a spouse’s spending habits—whether for monthly follicle support treatments or Jazz tickets only one spouse actually uses—through gritted teeth. But for the sake of calculating alimony, we assume that the parties agreed on their household expenditures such that whatever was historically spent by the parties during the marriage constitutes the couple’s marital standard of living, even if the spending was lopsided—or, indeed, one-sided—within a given expense category. See Davis, 749 P.2d at 649; Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 14. Consequently, whether Jared truly spent nothing on personal grooming historically or he simply elected to omit his expenses in that category, the court erred in limiting its acceptance of Rebecca’s personal grooming expenses based on Jared’s lack of submission.

¶45      The court abused its discretion when it applied the wrong legal standard to Rebecca’s claimed expenses for personal grooming. Because the court did not find Rebecca’s evidence unreliable or determine that Rebecca’s claimed expenses were unreasonable in light of the couple’s marital standard of living, we reverse its decision on this point and instruct it to modify its findings to include the $949.83 per month consistent with the parties’ marital standard of living.

C.        Savings and Other Funds

1.         Savings Plan

¶46      Rebecca asserts that the court wrongfully entirely rejected her expense for a “[s]avings [p]lan” of $2,500 per month. First, she points to the court’s statement that “[Jared] has not requested a savings plan as part of his expenses, and he is entitled to the same marital standard as [Rebecca].” As we have discussed, such a consideration has no place in the alimony analysis under Utah law. Additionally, the court summarized the evidence related to a savings plan:

[Rebecca] admitted that this amount was only an estimate on her part in that she thought the parties may have saved $30,000 a year. [Jared’s] testimony was the parties did not contribute to any savings plan for the parties in any amount on a monthly or regular basis. Rather, the parties would save money as they had it in differing amounts and when there were sufficient funds to purchase what they wanted, the parties would spen[d] the money on cars and other purchases.

From this, the court concluded that “[n]o savings program was done during the marriage.” But in so concluding, the court misapplied Utah law on this subject.

¶47      In Mintz v. Mintz, 2023 UT App 17, 525 P.3d 534, cert. denied, 523 P.3d 730 (Utah 2023), we considered a similar question of whether “the district court erred in excluding from the alimony award an amount reflective of historical investment” where a couple had a habit of investing money “essentially as savings.” Id. ¶¶ 2, 16. There, the parties’ testimonies established that “[b]efore 2014, they made deposits into investment accounts ‘when money was left over after normal marital spending,’ and after 2014, they made direct deposits into investment accounts as part of [the husband’s] employment.” Id. ¶ 2. We reiterated that, in situations like these, “[t]he critical question is whether funds for post-divorce savings, investment, and retirement accounts are necessary because contributing to such accounts was standard practice during the marriage and helped to form the couple’s marital standard of living.” Id. ¶ 17 (quoting Bakanowski v. Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 16, 80 P.3d 153). We noted that “when the Bakanowski court provided the test for appropriate consideration of savings, investment, and retirement accounts in alimony calculations, it cited” another case “in which the court reasoned that because the parties had made regular savings deposits, including savings in the alimony award could help maintain the recipient spouse’s marital standard of living.” Id. ¶ 18 (cleaned up). Then we clarified that “an event must certainly be recurring but need not be uniformly systematic to be considered ‘regular.’ Indeed, something can be done ‘regularly’ if done whenever the opportunity arises, though the actual time sequence may be sporadic.” Id. ¶ 19 (cleaned up). So, we explained,

Even if savings deposits and investments do not occur on an exact timetable, such marital expenditures can be considered a standard practice in those infrequent and unusual circumstances where a party can produce sufficiently persuasive evidence that savings deposits and investments were a recurring marital action whenever the opportunity arose, though the actual time sequence may be sporadic.

Id. ¶ 20 (cleaned up). And we concluded that the parties’ testimonies that they made substantial deposits into investment accounts “at least annually” “established that the parties followed a regular pattern, i.e., a standard practice, of investing a portion of their annual income.” Id. ¶ 21 (cleaned up).

¶48 We then considered the question of whether the parties’ standard practice of investing contributed to their marital standard of living, because “to justify an alimony award that includes an amount for investment, the parties’ acts of investing must also contribute to the ‘marital standard of living.’” Id. ¶ 22 (quoting Bukunowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 16). We concluded that the parties’ standard practice of investing did contribute to their marital standard of living, so we remanded “the case to the district court to recalculate alimony based on the amount that the couple’s historical investment contributed to the marital standard of living.” Id. ¶ 28. The same is true for savings: a court must determine whether a couple’s standard practice of saving contributed to their marital standard of living to incorporate savings into an alimony award. See id.

¶49 Here, such a conclusion is less apparent from the district court’s findings than was true in Mintz. The court’s description of Rebecca’s testimony of annual savings and of Jared’s testimony that the parties would save to fund large purchases certainly suggests that savings may have been a standard practice during the marriage that contributed to the marital standard of living. See id. ¶¶ 20–22; Bukunowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 16; Kemp v. Kemp, 2001 UT App 157U, paras. 3–4. But the court’s findings regarding the regularity of the couple’s savings habits are insufficient for us to hold that this standard is clearly met. Still, the court’s conclusion that “[n]o savings program was done during the marriage” does not clearly follow from its other findings, given our caselaw on this topic. The court’s focus strictly on monthly savings habits is myopic and at odds with precedent, and the court provides no explanation for its interpretation of Jared’s testimony that the parties did not save on a “regular basis.” Therefore, we conclude that the court exceeded its discretion on this matter insofar as it applied the incorrect legal standard. See Bjarnson v. Bjarnson, 2020 UT App 141, ¶ 5, 476 P.3d 145 (“We will reverse [an alimony award] if the court has not exercised its discretion within the bounds and under the standards we have set . . . .” (cleaned up)). We remand this matter for the court to make additional findings as to the regularity of the parties’ savings deposits. On remand, “the court should, as a legal matter, ensure it employs the correct legal definitions of standard practice and marital standard of living, apply the facts of [this] case to those definitions, and then determine whether the facts as found meet the criteria for a savings-based alimony award.” Mintz, 2023 UT App 17, ¶ 17.

2.         Retirement

¶50      Rebecca also asserts that the court erred in entirely rejecting her submitted expense for “[r]etirement deposits” of $500 per month. The court explained that “[t]he evidence adduced at trial established the parties never saved $500 a month for retirement. . . . The evidence was any retirement amounts for the parties was only set aside and deposited in three (3) of the twenty-seven (27) years of marriage.” The court again improperly discussed the point that “[Jared] did not ask for retirement as part of his expenses relating to the marital standard of living,” but rather than relying on this point to deny Rebecca’s claim for a retirement savings provision in the alimony award, the court stated that this point gave “further credibility to th[e] fact” that the parties did not regularly save for retirement. More importantly, and unlike for the savings category, the court’s conclusion that there was no standard practice of saving for retirement flows from its findings on the irregularity of the parties saving for retirement while married.

¶51 Furthermore, Rebecca does not argue on appeal that the court applied the wrong legal standard here. She explains that Jared did not submit a retirement expense because he “is worth literally millions of dollars and Rebecca, when she was married, also anticipated having millions of dollars available for retirement.” She argues that “[t]o even come close to approximating the marital standard of living, Rebecca must start to save for retirement.” But this is not in line with our caselaw. Again, we look to the parties’ “historical allocation of their resources” to determine their marital standard of living, id. ¶ 24, and Rebecca does not argue that the parties historically allocated their resources by saving regularly for retirement. Therefore, the court did not abuse its discretion in determining that saving for retirement was not a feature of the marital standard of living and, accordingly, removing that claimed expense when calculating alimony. We affirm on this point.

3.         Additional Capital/Investment Funds

¶52 Finally, Rebecca contends that the court was wrong to reject her expense for “additional capital/investment funds” of $7,279 monthly. The court did so because “[t]he testimony and evidence established there never was any such capital or investment funds like this during the marriage. Further, no testimony was provided as to how this figure was arrived at to be claimed in the first place.” The court declared that “[t]his is simply a request, which is unfounded and which the [c]ourt finds is an attempt to inflate [Rebecca’s] expenses.” Rebecca argues on appeal that this “is incorrect” and that her “[f]inancial [d]eclaration provide[d] a detailed explanation of how the figure was computed: ‘This is an amount based on funds the parties historically had available from [Jared’s] family wealth for discretionary investments . . . .’” This argument does not prevail. As we have explained, past gifts are excluded from the alimony calculus. See Issertell v. Issertell, 2020 UT App 62, ¶ 26, 463 P.3d 698. The funds that were historically available for investment were gifts, and as such, they are not properly considered as a standard practice contributing to the marital standard of living. See id.Mintz, 2023 UT App 17, ¶¶ 20–22. Therefore, the court was acting within its discretion as to this item, and we affirm its decision in this respect.

CONCLUSION

¶53      The district court did not err in determining that Rebecca had no interest in the Trust, and it did not abuse its discretion in deciding against dividing the Trust on equitable grounds. We affirm in this respect.

¶54 As to alimony, the court exceeded its discretion when it applied the wrong legal standard when calculating several of Rebecca’s expenses. Accordingly, we reverse the court’s decision with respect to Rebecca’s personal grooming expenses and the expenses associated with lawn aeration and bark replacement. We also remand the matter for further factual findings as to the regularity of the parties’ savings deposits and a determination of whether, applying the law correctly, the parties’ savings habits constituted a standard practice contributing to the marital standard of living. We affirm the remainder of the court’s alimony determinations.

 

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

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Mintz v. Mintz – 2023 UT App 17

Mintz v. Mintz – 2023 UT App 17

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

RAYNA ELIZABETH MINTZ,

Appellant and Cross-appellee,

v.

GLEN RYAN MINTZ,

Appellee and Cross-appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200507-CA

Filed February 9, 2023

Third District Court, Silver Summit Department

The Honorable Kent R. Holmberg

No. 174500034

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

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

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

MORTENSEN, Judge:

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

BACKGROUND[3]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

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

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

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

ANALYSIS
I. Alimony

A.        Investment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B.         Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

II. Book of Business

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

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

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

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

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

Another read,

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

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

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

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

III. Dissipation

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

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

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

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

IV. Property Distribution Appreciation

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

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

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

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

V. Investment Income

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Erickson v. Erickson – 2022 UT App 27

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

DEAN ERICKSON,

Appellee,

v.

JANICE ERICKSON,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200193-CA

Filed March 3, 2022

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Todd M. Shaughnessy

No. 174901105

Albert N. Pranno, Attorney for Appellant

Jordan M. Putnam, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN

FORSTER concurred. HAGEN, Judge:

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

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

BACKGROUND[2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

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

ANALYSIS

I. The Valuation of Meds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Excluding Janice’s Rebuttal Expert

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

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

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

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

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

III. Sanction of Attorney Fees and Costs

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

—————————————————————-

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

[2] “On appeal from a bench trial, we view the evidence in a light most favorable to the trial court’s findings, and therefore recite the facts consistent with that standard, and we present conflicting evidence to the extent necessary to clarify the issues raised on appeal.” Nakkina v. Mahanthi, 2021 UT App 111, n.2, 496 P.3d 1173 (cleaned up).

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

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

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

Erickson v. Erickson – 2022 UT App 27

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

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Sanders v. Sanders – 2021 UT App 122

2021 UT App 122 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

KRISTINE L. SANDERS, Appellee, 
v.
TRAVIS JAMES SANDERS, Appellant. 

Opinion 

No. 20200618-CA 

Filed November 12, 2021 

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department 
The Honorable Todd M. Shaughnessy 
No. 014901182 

  1. Grace Acosta, Attorney for Appellant

Steven M. Rogers, Nic R. Russell, Kelly J. Baldwin, 
and Wylie C. Thomas, Attorneys for Appellee 

JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and JILL M. POHLMAN concurred. 

ORME, Judge: 

¶1 Travis James Sanders appeals the district court’s order dismissing his motion brought under rule 60(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure to invalidate a “renewed” judgment Kristine L. Sanders obtained against him. We reverse and remand to the district court with instructions to consider the motion on its merits. 

BACKGROUND 

¶2 Travis and Kristine divorced in 2001.1 Soon thereafter, Kristine obtained several judgments against Travis. In 2011, the district court renewed these judgments at Kristine’s request. Kristine was unable to fully collect on these judgments, and in January 2019, she again moved to have them renewed. Travis opposed the renewal and moved under rule 60(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure to set aside the judgments, primarily arguing that he had already satisfied them. The court denied Travis’s 60(b) motion, consolidated the judgments into a single lump-sum judgment, and renewed the judgment for a second time in May 2019. Travis did not appeal this order. 

¶3 Nearly a year later, Travis filed a second 60(b) motion, this time under rule 60(b)(4) seeking to set aside the consolidated judgment as void on the theory that the court lacked jurisdiction under the Renewal of Judgment Act to renew the judgment for a second time. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-1802 (LexisNexis 2018). The district court denied the second motion, ruling that it was “procedurally improper” because “[t]he arguments raised in that motion could and should have been raised in the prior motion.”2 Travis appeals.  

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW 

¶4 Travis argues that the district court erred in denying his motion on procedural grounds.3 Normally, “we review a district court’s denial of a 60(b) motion under an abuse of discretion standard of review.” Menzies v. Galetka, 2006 UT 81, ¶ 54, 150 P.3d 480. But when dealing with a rule 60(b)(4) motion seeking to set aside a judgment as void, we review the district court’s decision for correctness. See Migliore v. Livingston Fin., LLC, 2015 UT 9, ¶ 25, 347 P.3d 394. In addition, we review a district court’s interpretation and application of our rules of civil procedure for correctness. Conner v. Department of Com., 2019 UT App 91, ¶ 15, 443 P.3d 1250. Kristine implores us to review the court’s decision for abuse of discretion. But here, given that the district court’s ruling dealt with a rule 60(b)(4) motion to set aside the judgment as void and because the court was interpreting our rules of civil procedure when it ruled Travis’s motion was procedurally improper, we do not grant the district court any discretion, and we review its decision for correctness. Compare Menzies, 2006 UT 81, ¶ 54, with Conner, 2019 UT App 91, ¶ 15. 

ANALYSIS 

¶5 As relevant here, rule 60 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure provides as follows: 

(b) Mistakes; inadvertence; excusable neglect; newly discovered evidence; fraud, etc. On motion and upon just terms, the court may relieve a party or its legal representative from a judgment, order, or proceeding for the following reasons: 

(1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect; 

(2) newly discovered evidence which by due diligence could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Rule 59(b); 

(3) fraud . . . , misrepresentation or other misconduct of an opposing party; 

(4) the judgment is void; 

(5) the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged, or a prior judgment upon which it is based has been reversed or vacated, or it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application; or 

(6) any other reason that justifies relief. 

(c) Timing and effect of the motion. A motion under paragraph (b) must be filed within a reasonable time and for reasons in paragraph (b)(1), (2), or (3), not more than 90 days after entry of the judgment or order or, if there is no judgment or order, from the date of the proceeding. The motion does not affect the finality of a judgment or suspend its operation. 

(d) Other power to grant relief. This rule does not limit the power of a court to entertain an independent action to relieve a party from a judgment . . . . 

Utah R. Civ. P. 60(b)–(d). 

¶6 The district court dismissed Travis’s second 60(b) motion on the basis that “[t]he arguments raised in that motion could and should have been raised in the prior motion,” thereby rendering the motion “procedurally improper.” Travis argues that the court erred in this ruling because our rules of civil procedure do not prohibit him from bringing a second motion on the ground that the judgment was void due to the court’s lack of subject matter jurisdiction given the terms of the Renewal of Judgment Act. This argument appears to be sound. 

¶7 Kristine disagrees. She defends the district court’s waiver ruling and advances two alternative grounds on which she believes we should uphold the ruling. Her first alternative argument is that Travis’s second motion was simply a motion to reconsider, which is not allowed. Second, she contends that the district court’s ruling can be upheld because Travis failed to file his second motion within ninety days of entry of the judgment as renewed a second time or in a reasonable time as provided in rule 60(c). We first address and reject the court’s ruling that Travis waived his 60(b)(4) argument by not bringing it in his first motion. We then turn to address each of the alternative arguments Kristine believes nonetheless warrant our affirming the district court. 

  1. Waiver

¶8 Travis asserts that rule 60(b) did not prohibit him from bringing his second 60(b) motion in May 2020, which motion was premised on the judgment being void under rule 60(b)(4). Kristine counters by pointing to Utah v. 736 North Colorado Street, 2005 UT 90, 127 P.3d 693, which states that “a party waives the right to bring [additional defenses] if the party does not raise that defense in his initial rule 60(b) motion.” Id. ¶ 11. But 736 North Colorado Street is distinguishable from the case at hand. 

¶9 In 736 North Colorado Street, the State initiated forfeiture proceedings against the petitioner to seize his property. Id. ¶ 2. After unsuccessful attempts to serve the petitioner by mail, the State moved for, and was granted, default judgment. Id. After learning of the default judgment, the petitioner filed a 60(b) motion to set aside the judgment. Id. ¶ 3. As part of his motion, the petitioner argued that the Utah Code “mandated that a notice of seizure be personally served and that the service by mail was improper under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 4.” Id. In so doing, the petitioner “did not directly refer to or specifically raise a defense based on insufficient service of the complaint.” Id. The district court denied the motion, id. ¶ 4, and the petitioner later filed a second rule 60(b) motion on the ground “that the district court lacked jurisdiction to enter a default judgment against him because he was not personally served with the complaint,” id. ¶ 5. The court denied the second motion, “concluding that [the petitioner] had waived that defense by not raising it in his initial rule 60(b) motion.” Id. 

¶10 Our Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s denial of the second motion. Id. ¶ 14. It noted that while the petitioner “did not articulate which prong of rule 60(b) he brought his motions under, it appears that the motions were rule 60(b)(4) motions to set aside a default judgment because ‘the judgment is void.’” Id. ¶ 3 n.3. It then held that rule 12(h) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure “applies to rule 60(b) motions.” Id. ¶ 7. Rule 12(h), in turn, provides, 

A party waives all defenses and objections not presented either by motion or by answer or reply, except (1) that the defense of failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the defense of failure to join an indispensable party, and the objection of failure to state a legal defense to a claim may also be made by a later pleading, if one is permitted, or by motion for judgment on the pleadings or at the trial on the merits, and except (2) that, whenever it appears by suggestion of the parties or otherwise that the court lacks jurisdiction of the subject matter, the court must dismiss the action. . . . 

Accordingly, the Court held that the petitioner waived his 60(b)(4) argument that the judgment was void due to lack of personal jurisdiction, and therefore he could not bring it in a second motion because “[h]e could have asserted his complaint defense in [the first] motion but did not.” 736 N. Colo. St., 2005 UT 90, ¶ 9. 

¶11 This precedent is readily distinguishable from the case before us. For one thing, the motions in 736 North Colorado Street targeted precisely the same judgment while, in this case, Travis’s motions attacked two separate renewed judgments. His first motion targeted the judgment as initially renewed and was filed before the judgment was renewed for a second time. In this motion, he sought to prevent its second renewal primarily on the basis that it had been satisfied. But his second motion was squarely directed at the judgment as renewed for a second time, on the ground that the applicable statute does not authorize multiple renewals of the original judgment. Thus, Travis could not have waived the arguments he made in his second rule 60(b) motion because Travis’s first motion was brought before the judgment was renewed for a second time, and his second motion came after it had been renewed for that second time and because it was again renewed.4 

¶12 Be all that as it may, 736 North Colorado Street is ultimately distinguishable here because the petitioner in that case attempted to bring a personal jurisdiction argument under rule 60(b)(4) in his second motion, an argument the Court determined the petitioner had waived under rule 12(h) by not bringing it in his initial 60(b) motion. Here, Travis’s second 60(b) motion asserted that the judgment was void under rule 60(b)(4) because the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction given the terms of the Renewal of Judgment Act, which is an argument that Travis could not have waived under the plain terms of rule 12(h). See Utah R. Civ. P. 12(h) (stating that parties do not waive arguments “that the court lacks jurisdiction of the subject matter”). Given this important difference, we hold that Travis did not waive his subject matter jurisdiction argument and could bring it in a second 60(b) motion because waiver under rule 12(h) does not bar subject matter jurisdiction arguments. 

¶13 The district court therefore erred in ruling that because Travis could have argued in his first motion that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to renew the judgment for a second time, it was procedurally improper for him to raise that argument in a second motion. Rule 12(h) did not bar such an argument in a second motion, and the court should have addressed Travis’s motion on the merits. 

  1. Motion to Reconsider

¶14 We now turn to Kristine’s first alternative ground. She asserts that we should affirm the district court on the basis that Travis’s second motion was essentially a post-judgment motion to reconsider, which is not permitted in Utah. See Gillett v. Price, 2006 UT 24, ¶¶ 1, 10, 135 P.3d 861. Occasionally, we will affirm a district court’s order on an alternative ground that is apparent from the record, “[b]ut we ha[ve] no obligation to do so.” Scott v. Scott, 2020 UT 54, ¶ 31, 472 P.3d 897. Kristine asserts that Travis’s motion was a motion to reconsider simply because his “second Rule 60 motion asserted the same grounds and no additional facts” and because even though “[t]he analysis of the law was slightly different[,] . . . the substantive grounds of the motion[s] were identical.” Travis responds that his motion was not a motion to reconsider because he raised new and distinct legal arguments. We agree with Travis. 

¶15 Kristine’s “slightly different” characterization of the second motion is incorrect. In Travis’s first motion, he primarily argued that, pursuant to rule 60(b)(5), the judgment as first renewed should not be renewed a second time because he had already satisfied the underlying judgment. He further argued that the district court should use its equitable powers under rule 60(d) to release him from the judgment. In his second motion, filed a year after the judgment was renewed for a second time, he focused on a new legal theory, namely that the judgment as renewed a second time was void under rule 60(b)(4) because, under the Renewal of Judgment Act, the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to renew it for a second time. Our review of the record shows that this argument never appeared in Travis’s first motion, where he sought relief from the judgment as first renewed and opposed further renewal of the judgment. Thus, we decline to affirm the court’s ruling on this alternative ground because Travis’s second motion was not functionally a motion to reconsider but asserted a new theory for why a subsequently entered judgment, i.e., the judgment as renewed for a second time by the court, should be set aside pursuant to rule 60(b)(4). 

III. Timeliness 

¶16 Kristine argues a second alternative basis on which we can affirm the district court notwithstanding any error in its waiver ruling. Kristine points out that Travis’s second motion came after rule 60(c)’s ninety-day deadline or, in the alternative, that it came so late as to have exceeded a reasonable time. As previously stated, we will occasionally affirm a district court’s order on an alternative ground that is apparent from the record, “[b]ut we ha[ve] no obligation to do so.” Scott v. Scott, 2020 UT 54, ¶ 31, 472 P.3d 897. Although we consider this argument, we ultimately decline to exercise our discretion to affirm on this alternative ground. 

¶17 Rule 60(c) requires that motions to set aside a judgment pursuant to rules 60(b)(1), (2), and (3) must be filed within ninety days “after entry of the judgment or order.” Utah R. Civ. P. 60(c). The rule also prescribes that motions filed pursuant to 60(b)(4), while not subject to the ninety-day rule, “must be filed within a reasonable time.” Id. See In re Estate of Willey, 2016 UT 53, ¶¶ 7, 12, 16, 391 P.3d 171. Thus, because Travis premised his second motion on the ground that the judgment was void under 60(b)(4), it was not subject to the ninety-day limit. But due to the somewhat inconsistent nature of the applicable caselaw on this issue, it is not entirely clear whether even the “reasonable time” limit applies to motions brought under 60(b)(4). 

¶18 In January 2015, our Supreme Court held in Migliore v. Livingston Financial, LLC, 2015 UT 9, 347 P.3d 394, that a defendant’s rule 60(b)(4) motion asserting the judgment was void on the ground that “he was denied due process of law,” which motion was “brought nearly two years after entry of summary judgment, [was] not time barred” because “‘where the judgment is void . . . the time limitations of [former5] [r]ule 60(b) have no application.’” Id. ¶¶ 23–24 (quoting Garcia v. Garcia, 712 P.2d 288, 290 (Utah 1986)). Under this rationale, Travis’s motion would be timely. 

¶19 But less than two years later, in November 2016, the Court issued In re Estate of Willey, 2016 UT 53, 391 P.3d 171, in which it noted that “[i]t is an unsettled question in Utah whether all claims that judgments are void under rule 60(b)(4) are subject to the reasonable time limit imposed by rule 60(c).” Id. ¶ 16. The Court continued: 

Although the language of rule 60(c) states that all motions under paragraph (b) must be filed within a reasonable time, this court has held that “where the judgment is void because of a fatally defective service of process, the time limitations of [r]ule 60(b) have no application.” Garcia v. Garcia, 712 P.2d 288, 290 (Utah 1986). While Garcia and a prior case, Woody v. Rhodes, 23 Utah 2d 249, 461 P.2d 465, 466 (1969), limited their holdings to motions based on a “fatally defective service of process,” we recognize that Garcia continued to state, “there is no time limit on an attack on a judgment as void.” 712 P.2d at 291 (citation omitted). But the language in Garcia advancing the notion that “the requirement that the motion be made within a ‘reasonable time,’ . . . cannot be enforced with regard to [a rule 60(b)(4)] motion” is dicta given the clear holding of the case. Id. (citation omitted). Garcia held only that “where the judgment is void because of a fatally defective service of process, the time limitations of [r]ule 60(b) have no application.” Id. at 290 (emphasis added). Therefore, apart from the dicta in Garcia, this court has not extended the exemption from the reasonable time requirement in rule 60(c) to claims other than those based on “fatally defective service of process.” Id. 

In re Estate of Willey, 2016 UT 53, ¶ 17 (alterations in original) (footnote omitted). The Court then determined that it was “unnecessary for [it] to resolve whether the reasonable time limit applies to all motions made under rule 60(b)(4)” and proceeded to address and reject the motion before it on the merits. Id. ¶¶ 19, 42. 

¶20 In In re Estate of Willey, the Court did not acknowledge or explain Migliore’s seemingly strong embrace of the language in Garcia and its apparent application to all motions brought pursuant to rule 60(b)(4). Therefore, it must be regarded as an unsettled issue whether all motions brought under rule 60(b)(4), aside from those turning on defective service of process, see Garcia, 712 P.2d at 290, are subject to the reasonable time requirement of 60(c), and we cannot rely on the language in Migliore to conclude that Travis’s second motion was not subject to the reasonable time limit imposed by rule 60(c). 

¶21 But just as our Supreme Court did in In re Estate of Willey, we determine that it is unnecessary to resolve this question in this case,6 and we decline to exercise our discretion to rule on this alternative ground. See Scott, 2020 UT 54, ¶ 31. We do so because it is undisputed that the district court did not dismiss Travis’s second motion on the ground that it was filed beyond a reasonable time under rule 60(c) but rather on the erroneous ground that Travis had waived his voidness argument because he could and should have raised it in his first motion. Because this reasoning was incorrect, we believe it best at this juncture that the district court first address the merits of Travis’s second motion free of any concern that his arguments should have been raised in his earlier motion. 

CONCLUSION 

¶22 The district court erred in dismissing Travis’s second motion on procedural grounds because rule 12(h) did not bar Travis from bringing his subject matter jurisdiction argument under rule 60(b)(4) in that motion. We also decline to affirm the district court’s ruling on Kristine’s alternative arguments that Travis’s motion was essentially a motion to reconsider or that it was untimely under rule 60(c). Therefore, we remand the case to the district court for it to consider on the merits the motion to set aside the second renewed judgment on the theory that the judgment was void based on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to the terms of the Renewal of Judgment Act. 

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

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

2021 UT App 77  THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS  

  

LISA P. MINER, Appellee,  

JOHN E. MINER, Appellant.  

  

Opinion  

No. 20200098-CA  

Filed July 15, 2021  

  

Fifth District Court, St. George Department  

The Honorable Jeffrey C. Wilcox No. 174500373  

  

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

  1. Adam Caldwell, Attorney for Appellee 

  

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

JILL M. POHLMAN and SENIOR JUDGE KATE APPLEBY concurred.1   

  

HARRIS, Judge:  

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

BACKGROUND  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW  

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

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

ANALYSIS  

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

  1. Alimony 

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

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

  1. Amount of Alimony  

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

¶17 “A party seeking alimony bears the burden of demonstrating to the court that the Jones factors support an award of alimony.” Id. ¶ 95. “To satisfy this burden, a party seeking alimony must provide the court with a credible financial declaration and financial documentation to demonstrate that the Jones factors support an award of alimony.” Id. ¶ 96. “And in all cases” the trial court “must support its [alimony] determinations with adequate findings,” Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 22, “on all material issues,” Howell v. Howell, 806 P.2d 1209, 1213 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (quotation simplified). “Failure to do so constitutes reversible error, unless pertinent facts in the record are clear, uncontroverted, and capable of supporting only a finding in favor of the judgment.” Id. (quotation simplified).  

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

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

  1. Lisa’s Needs 

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

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

  1. Tennis Expenses  

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

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

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

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

  1. Entertainment  

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

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

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

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

  1. Legal and Accounting Expenses  

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

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

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

  1. Out-of-Pocket Health Expenses  

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

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

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

  1. Car Payment  

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

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

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

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

  1. Student Loan Payments  

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

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

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

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

  1. Farm and Horse Expenses  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Mortgage and House-Related Expenses  

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

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

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

  1. i.  Parenting Expenses 

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

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

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

  1. Retirement Savings and Asserted Mathematical Error  

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

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

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

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

  1. Tax-Related Expenses  

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

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

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

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

  1. Lisa’s Earning Capacity 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. John’s Ability to Provide Support 

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

  1. Farm Income  

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

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

  1. John’s Business Expenses  

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

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

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

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

  1. John’s Medical Income and Work Expectations  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Duration of Alimony  

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Retroactive Alimony  

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

  1. Stipulation 

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Reductions in Retroactive Award 

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

(…continued)  

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

  

  1. Attorney Fees 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION  

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

 

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

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2019 UT App 204 – In re H.F. incorrect analysis terminating parental rights

2019 UT App 204 – THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF H.F., A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.
J.F., Appellant,
v.
E.F., Appellee.

Opinion
No. 20180348-CA
Filed December 12, 2019

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable Julie V. Lund
No. 1100472

Scott L. Wiggins and Lisa Lokken, Attorneys for Appellant
Joshua P. Eldredge, Attorney for Appellee
Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES JILL M. POHLMAN and DIANA HAGEN concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1           J.F. (Mother) appeals from the juvenile court’s termination of her parental rights to H.F. (Child). We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

¶2           Child was born in December 2012. Soon after Child’s birth, Mother discovered that her husband, E.F. (Father), had been using drugs. Suffering from postpartum depression, Mother also began using drugs with Father as a means of self-medicating.

¶3           In March 2014, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) removed Child from Mother and Father’s home as a result of their drug use. Upon removal, DCFS placed Child with Mother’s parents (Grandparents). During this time, Grandparents facilitated visitation between Child and Father, as well as Father’s extended family.

¶4           Soon after Child was removed from the parents’ home, Mother began a relationship with “a really bad guy.” She left Utah with him, and they began committing crimes together. Eventually, the pair were arrested, convicted of multiple crimes, and incarcerated.

¶5           Conversely, Father began participating in drug treatment in June 2014. After completing treatment, he became involved in various peer support groups to help others with drug addiction and even obtained a full-time job as a peer recovery coach for a nonprofit addiction-recovery agency. In March 2015, Father filed for divorce from Mother and was granted a default divorce awarding him full legal and physical custody of Child. In May 2015, upon the State’s motion, the juvenile court terminated its jurisdiction and DCFS involvement. After Father regained custody of Child, Grandparents continued to provide regular daycare for Child.

¶6           In July 2016, Father moved the juvenile court to terminate Mother’s parental rights. Father was engaged to be married, and his fiancée (Fiancée) wanted to adopt Child, but they had not yet set a wedding date and were not yet living together.[1] Grandparents “had a heated conversation with” Father about his termination petition, and subsequently, he put Child in full-time daycare and did not permit Grandparents to see Child as often.

¶7           At Mother’s termination trial in December 2017, her former criminal attorney expressed his belief that Mother’s criminal actions had been “very much influenced by” her co­defendant but that she “was a model defendant”; continually showed concern for her family and a desire to take care of her children;[2] had come to understand, through participation in counseling, her responsibilities and the detrimental effects of her co-dependent relationship with her co-defendant; and ultimately told the truth about the criminal incidents even though her co­defendant was damaged by her admissions. Mother was still incarcerated at the time of the termination trial but was due to be released in April 2019. She had been participating in a voluntary drug-treatment program. She testified that prior to Child’s removal, she was his “sole care provider.” She testified that she has a bond with Child, that she has had regular telephone and video calls with him since losing custody and sends him letters, that Child had expressed his desire to be reunited with Mother, and that she wants to have “visitation as much as possible” and to “be in [Child’s] life as much as [she] can.” She testified that she regrets her past decisions and their effect on her children, but she also could not rule out the possibility of a relationship with her co-defendant when he is released from prison in eight or nine years.

¶8        Father testified that he was willing to support a continuing relationship between Child and Mother following termination of her rights so long as it was “safe” for Child. Although Father did not discourage Child’s contact with Mother, he did not directly facilitate Mother and Child’s contact; rather, this contact took place when Child visited Grandparents. Both Father and Fiancée testified that Child has a very good relationship with Fiancée, that she treats him like her own child, and that Child sees her as his mom. Father testified that he believed Child’s relationship with Mother’s family was “beneficial.” He claimed that Child’s relationship with Mother’s family would not change if Mother’s rights were terminated. He admitted that he “could make a better effort in . . . communicating to set” up time between Child and Mother’s extended family but explained that he had felt a need to set “boundaries” because the termination petition had “put a strain” on his relationship with Mother’s family.

¶9        Grandparents expressed fear that termination would “have a very negative impact on [their] relationship with [Child]” and that Father “would move on” and “find a way to take [Child] away from” Grandparents. Mother’s brother, who also had a close relationship with Father, expressed his belief that Father had become uninterested in Mother’s side of the family and that Father would not let Mother’s family see Child anymore if Mother’s rights were terminated. Another of Mother’s brothers likewise testified that the family’s contact with Child had been less frequent during the preceding year and that he believed Father would cut off contact between Child and Mother’s family if the court terminated Mother’s rights.

¶10 Following trial, the juvenile court found two grounds for termination: (1) that Mother was an unfit parent because she was unable to care for Child as a result of her incarceration and (2) that she had neglected child through her habitual and excessive use of controlled substances. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1)(b), (c) (LexisNexis 2018); id. § 78A-6-508(2)(c), (e) (Supp. 2019). The court further found that termination was in Child’s best interest.

¶11 In reaching its conclusion regarding Child’s best interest, the juvenile court limited its analysis to three factors—Child’s “bond with his caregivers,” his “need for permanence and stability,” and “the potential risk of harm if returned to [Mother’s] care.” The court found that there was not an intact parental relationship between Mother and Child because she had not acted as his caregiver for an extended period of time. It observed that although Child recognizes that Mother is his mom, he has developed a mother–child bond with Fiancée as well. The court also found that Fiancée intended “to adopt [Child] should he be legally free.” The court concluded that “[t]hese facts support the need for permanence and stability and that [Child] does have a bond with his caregivers.” The court further found that there was “a potential risk of harm to” Child from Mother because she could not rule out the possibility of a future relationship with her co-defendant, who had been described as a “really bad guy.” Finally, the court found that termination of Mother’s rights was “strictly necessary for [Child] to achieve permanency and stability.” Based on these findings, the court determined that it was in Child’s best interest that Mother’s parental rights be terminated. Mother now appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶12 Mother argues that the juvenile court exceeded its discretion in terminating her parental rights. “The ultimate decision about whether to terminate a parent’s rights presents a mixed question of law and fact.” In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 8, 436 P.3d 206 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 440 P.3d 692 (Utah 2019). We review the court’s factual findings for clear error and its legal conclusions for correctness, “affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts.” Id. (quotation simplified). Nevertheless, “the proper interpretation and application of a statute is a question of law which we review for correctness.” In re A.M., 2009 UT App 118, ¶ 6, 208 P.3d 1058 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

¶13 In assessing whether termination of parental rights is appropriate, a court must employ a “two-part test.” In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 13, 436 P.3d 206, cert. granted, 440 P.3d 692 (Utah 2019). “First, a trial court must find that one or more of the statutory grounds for termination are present,” and second, “a trial court must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interests of the child.” Id. (quotation simplified). Mother does not contest the juvenile court’s determination that grounds existed to support termination, but she maintains that termination was not in Child’s best interest and that the court did not adequately consider all factors relevant to that determination.

¶14 “The ‘best interest’ test is broad, and is intended as a holistic examination of all the relevant circumstances that might affect a child’s situation.” Id. ¶ 47; see also In re G.J.C, 2016 UT App 147, ¶ 24, 379 P.3d 58 (“Determining a child’s best interest in termination of parental rights proceedings is a subjective assessment based on the totality of the circumstances.”). Utah courts have identified numerous factors that may be relevant to this determination. For example, a court may consider “the physical, mental, or emotional condition and needs of the child”; “the effort the parent has made to adjust their circumstances, conduct, or conditions to make restoring the parent–child relationship in the child’s best interest”; “the child’s bond with caregivers”; the child’s “need for permanency and stability”; and “the potential risk of harm if returned to the parents’ care.” See In re G.J.C., 2016 UT App 147, ¶ 24 (quotation simplified). It may consider the parent’s “demeanor,” “attitude toward his or her child,” and “attitude in fulfilling parental obligations,” see In re T.E., 2011 UT 51, ¶ 44, 266 P.3d 739, and it may weigh the benefits of the child continuing a relationship with an unfit parent even where reunification is not an option, examine the child’s prospects for adoption, and even consider the child’s preferences in some circumstances, In re D.R.A., 2011 UT App 397, ¶¶ 19, 21, 266 P.3d 844; see also In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 56. Moreover, as part of the best interest analysis, Utah law requires courts to “analyze whether termination of a child’s parent’s rights is ‘strictly necessary,’” that is, the court must “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., 2018 UT App 157, ¶¶ 50, 55; see also Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1) (LexisNexis 2018) (“Subject to the protections and requirements of Section 78A-6-503, and if the court finds strictly necessary, the court may terminate all parental rights with respect to a parent if the court finds any one of the following [statutory factors] . . . .” (emphasis added)).

¶15 In conducting its best interest analysis, the juvenile court did not take the holistic approach that has been prescribed by this court. Rather than examining the totality of all circumstances affecting Child’s best interest, the court erroneously interpreted In re G.J.C., 2016 UT App 147, 379 P.3d 58, as articulating a best interest test composed of only three specific factors: (1) “bond with caregivers,” (2) “need for permanence and stability,” and (3) “the potential risk of harm if returned to the parent’s care.” See id. ¶ 24. Further, the court’s finding that termination was “strictly necessary” was conclusory and did not include an examination of feasible alternatives to termination, as required by In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, 436 P.3d 206.[3]

¶16 The court’s reliance on only the three specific factors gleaned from In re G.J.C. unduly narrowed the “broad,” “holistic” best interest test, see In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 47, and its order did not accurately represent the direction given by this court in In re G.J.C.[4] The three factors identified in In re G.J.C. were not given as a definitive list of factors; rather the court stated that those three factors were “proper” factors to consider “in the context of a best-interest determination.” 2016 UT App 147, ¶ 24. Indeed, the court explicitly instructed that a best interest determination must be “based on the totality of the circumstances.” Id. This court reaffirmed and elaborated on this “holistic” approach in In re B.T.B., when it instructed “courts to examine all of the relevant facts and circumstances surrounding the child’s situation” and, in particular, “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 order to satisfy the legislature’s requirement that termination be limited to circumstances where it is “strictly necessary.” 2018 UT App 157, ¶¶ 47, 54–55.

¶17 Because of the court’s narrow focus on only three factors pertaining to the best interest analysis, its findings do not reveal whether the court considered a number of additional factors relevant to determining if termination of Mother’s rights was in Child’s best interest, including the fact that Child’s prospects for adoption by Fiancée were speculative, Child’s bond with Mother and any benefits of him continuing a relationship with Mother, and the effect of termination on Child’s relationship with his extended family, including his half-sister.[5] Further, while the court’s analysis emphasized Child’s need for stability, it is unclear how terminating Mother’s parental rights would achieve that goal. Child was not in DCFS custody or a short-term placement with a foster family with an unsettled future. Rather, Father had permanent sole legal and physical custody of Child. Child would continue to be raised primarily by Father and Fiancée, regardless of whether Mother’s parental rights were terminated. And while termination would free Child for adoption by Fiancée, Fiancée was not in an immediate position to adopt Child, and it was not certain that she would ever be in such a position, as she and Father were not actually married. Even the danger anticipated by the juvenile court if Mother eventually resumed her relationship with her co-defendant was mostly speculative, as the co-defendant would not be released from prison for many years. See In re D.R.A., 2011 UT App 397, ¶ 21 (determining that the State had failed to establish that termination was in a child’s best interest in part because “the benefits of severing” the parent–child relationship were “too speculative”). Finally, the court’s determination that termination was strictly necessary was not supported by an appropriate exploration of feasible alternatives to termination. See In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 55. Therefore, the juvenile court’s findings do not support its determination that termination was in Child’s best interest.

CONCLUSION

¶18 Because the juvenile court did not employ the correct holistic analysis in assessing whether termination of Mother’s parental rights was in Child’s best interest and its findings do not support such a determination, we vacate the court’s order terminating Mother’s parental rights and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.[6]

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

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[1] Utah law requires a prospective adoptive stepparent to be married to the child’s custodial parent and to have lived with the custodial parent and the stepchild for at least one year prior to entry of the final decree of adoption. Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6¬ 117(2)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2019); id. § 78B-6-136.5(2)(a) (2018). Thus, as of the termination trial, Fiancée was at least one year away from being able to adopt Child.

[2] Mother has another child who was not included in the termination proceedings.

[3] Father argues that the juvenile court was not required to engage in the “strictly necessary” analysis prescribed by In re B.T.B. because that case was decided after the court issued its oral ruling in this case. However, Father makes no effort to explain why we should not apply this analysis. The “strictly necessary” language has been part of the statute since 2012, Act of March 7, 2012, ch. 281, § 6, 2012 Utah Laws 1331, 1334; In re B.T.B. merely interpreted that statutory language. And upon interpreting the language, the In re B.T.B. court sent that case back to the trial court for reconsideration: “Because we clarify and partially reformulate the test for termination of parental rights, we remand this case to the juvenile court for reconsideration in light of this opinion.” 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 2, 436 P.3d 206, cert. granted, 440 P.3d 692 (Utah 2019). Father also fails to acknowledge that the juvenile court’s final written order was actually signed one month after In re B.T.B. was issued. We therefore reject Father’s assertion that the court’s failure to engage in a more thorough “strictly necessary” analysis should be ignored on appeal.

[4] In re G.J.C. has limited utility in any event because it employed the now-disavowed principle that “where grounds for termination are established, the conclusion that termination will be in a child’s best interest follows almost automatically.” 2016 UT App 147, ¶ 25, 379 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified); see also In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶¶ 22–44 (disavowing the “almost automatically” line of cases).

[5] Our analysis should not be construed as prohibiting courts from focusing on those factors that it finds to be most probative in a particular case; not every factor will be relevant in every case, and even where evidence of a particular factor is present, a court may reasonably discount the factor and decline to discuss it in detail in its findings. The court’s ruling in this case is problematic not because it focused on limited relevant factors but because it misconstrued the best interest test as being limited to those factors and because it did not examine the feasibility of less-drastic alternatives to termination.

[6] Our decision should not be read as dictating any particular result on remand. Indeed, any number of circumstances may have changed since trial, and the court should take such changes into account in reconsidering its decision. On remand, the court should expand its analysis of best interest to consider the totality of the circumstances, examine the feasibility of alternatives to termination, supplement its findings, and assess whether termination is in Child’s best interest in light of any such supplemental findings.

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2019 UT App 206 – State v. Alires – ineffective assistance of counsel

2019 UT App 206 – THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, Appellee,
v.
PHILBERT EUGENE ALIRES, Appellant.

Opinion
No. 20181033-CA
Filed December 19, 2019

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable Adam T. Mow
No. 171908080

Ann M. Taliaferro and Staci Visser, Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes and William M. Hains, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and JILL M. POHLMAN concurred.

HAGEN, Judge:

¶1        Philbert Eugene Alires was charged with six counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child—two counts for conduct toward his youngest daughter and four counts for conduct toward one of his daughter’s friends (the friend). A jury convicted Alires on two counts, one for each alleged victim, and acquitted him of the remaining four counts. We agree with Alires that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective in failing to request an instruction requiring the jury to reach a unanimous verdict with respect to each act for which he was convicted. Accordingly, we vacate his convictions and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2           One afternoon, Alires and his wife (the mother) hosted a party for their youngest daughter’s eleventh birthday. The daughter invited two of her guests—the friend and another friend (the other friend)—to a sleepover that night. As the evening progressed, the daughter, the friend, and the other friend joined others in the living room to play a video game called “Just Dance.”

¶3           Later that night, after everyone else had left, Alires and the mother got into a loud argument that the daughter, the friend, and the other friend overheard. The daughter appeared visibly upset and “started tearing up because her parents were fighting.” Both Alires and the mother could tell that the girls overheard and were affected by the argument.

¶4           Alires and the mother went to their bedroom and discussed how they could “try and make [the daughter] happy.” They decided that Alires would join the girls in the living room and “try to lighten the mood.” Alires testified that he can generally make the daughter happy by “wrestling” with her and her friends or other family members because it “usually ends up being a dog pile” on Alires and it “usually brings the kids together and usually changes the mood.” While Alires went to the living room, the mother stayed behind to change into her pajamas.

¶5           According to the friend, Alires went into the living room after the argument and “started trying to dance with [them]” and “lighten the mood” because “the fight wasn’t very fun for anybody.” While they were dancing, Alires “put his hand on [the friend’s] waist and kind of like slid it down, so [she] just sat down because [she] felt really uncomfortable.” Alires then “tried dancing with [her] again and he . . . touched around [her] butt,” though he “was kind of sneaky about it” as if he was “trying to make it look like it wasn’t happening.” On direct examination, the State asked the friend, “[H]ow does that get accomplished?” She responded, “I’m not sure. He just did it.”

¶6           Feeling uncomfortable, the friend sat down on the couch next to the daughter. Alires sat down between the two and “started tickling [the daughter].” The friend testified that, while Alires tickled the daughter, “it looked like he was touching like in her inner thigh, and like moved up to her crotch area.” According to the friend, “it was really not tickling, it was more like grabbing and grosping [sic].” This lasted “probably 15 to 30 seconds.” Then, Alires turned to the friend and said, “I’m going to tickle you now.” The friend told Alires she did not feel well and said, “[P]lease don’t.” But Alires started tickling near her “ribcage and then touched [her] breast area” and then he “started tickling [her] inner thighs and did the same thing that he did to [the daughter].” The friend testified, “[H]e slid his hand up to my vagina and started like grabbing, and like grosping [sic], I guess” for “[p]robably about seven to 10 seconds.”

¶7           According to the friend, when Alires got up from the couch, the daughter asked, “[D]id he touch you?” The friend said, “[Y]eah. And he touched you, because I kind of saw it.” The daughter “was like, yeah, can we just go to my room?”

¶8           According to the mother, she entered the living room about sixty seconds after Alires and told everyone that it was time to go to bed. The friend testified that it had been “probably about three minutes,” during which time Alires touched her buttocks “twice,” her breasts “twice,” and her vagina “[a]bout four times,” in addition to touching the daughter’s thigh and vagina.

¶9           Both the daughter and the other friend testified at trial that Alires did not touch anyone inappropriately and that they were only wrestling and tickling.

¶10 A few days after the birthday party, the daughter decided to report the friend’s claim to a school counselor. The daughter went to the counselor’s office in tears and when the counselor asked her if “something happen[ed] over the weekend” she “nodded her head yes.” The daughter “wouldn’t speak to [the counselor]” but told him that she was “going to go get a friend.” The daughter then left and returned to the counselor’s office with the friend. According to the counselor, the friend told him that Alires had touched both the daughter and the friend on “[t]he lower area and the breasts,” although “they first described it as tickling . . . whatever that means.” He also testified that the daughter “agreed to where the touching happened.” At trial, the daughter testified that she told the counselor only what the friend had told her.

¶11 The State charged Alires with six counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child without distinguishing the counts. At trial, the jury was instructed that four of those counts were for conduct perpetrated against the friend and two of those counts were for conduct perpetrated against the daughter. During closing argument, the prosecutor explained that, based on the friend’s testimony, the jury could “ascertain six counts of touching of [the friend]” and that the State was “charging four” of those touches. The prosecutor also cited the friend’s testimony that she saw Alires touch the daughter on her “inner thigh” and “on her vagina.” The prosecutor further explained that “any one of those touchings qualifies for each of the counts. One for one. One touch for one count. And . . . it has to be just on the vagina, just on the butt, or just on the breast. It can be any combination.”

¶12 Although both parties submitted proposed jury instructions, neither side asked the court to instruct the jury that it must be unanimous as to the specific act underlying each count of conviction. During its deliberations, the jury sent a question to the court asking, “Can we please have a clarification on how the counts work? We don’t understand how to weigh each count when they are all the same. Not sure what they mean.” Alires’s trial counsel still did not request a specific unanimity instruction. Instead, with consent from both parties, the court referred the jury to instructions it had already received. The jury convicted Alires on one count of aggravated sexual abuse of a child involving the friend and one count involving the daughter.

¶13 After the jury returned its verdict and prior to sentencing, Alires filed a motion to arrest judgment and for a new trial due to, among other things, “fatal errors in the jury instructions and verdict forms.” Trial counsel argued that the jury instructions were “fatally erroneous in failing to require the jury to find a unanimous verdict.” The district court denied the motion and imposed two indeterminate terms of six-years-to-life in prison to run concurrently.

¶14 Alires appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶15 Alires argues that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective for failing to request a jury instruction that required the jurors to unanimously agree to the specific act at issue for each count of aggravated sexual abuse of a child.[2] Alires further argues that, due to the lack of such an instruction, we “cannot be assured the jury was unanimous” as to which specific acts formed the basis for his conviction. “When a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is raised for the first time on appeal, there is no lower court ruling to review and we must decide whether the defendant was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” State v. Bonds, 2019 UT App 156, ¶ 20, 450 P.3d 120 (cleaned up).[3]

ANALYSIS

¶16 Alires argues that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request an instruction requiring the jury to unanimously agree on the specific act committed for each count of conviction. “To demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel, [a defendant] must show that his counsel’s performance was deficient and that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” State v. Squires, 2019 UT App 113, ¶ 25, 446 P.3d 581 (cleaned up); see also Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). We agree with Alires that his trial counsel performed deficiently and that counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced his defense.

A. Deficient Performance

¶17 To overcome the high level of deference we give to trial counsel’s performance, Alires “must show that counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness when measured against prevailing professional norms.” See State v. Popp, 2019 UT App 173, ¶ 26 (cleaned up); see also Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687–88. Under the circumstances of this case, it was objectively unreasonable for trial counsel to propose instructions that did not require the jury to be unanimous as to the specific acts supporting each count of conviction.

¶18 The right to a unanimous verdict in criminal cases is guaranteed by Article 1, Section 10 of the Utah Constitution (the Unanimous Verdict Clause). “The Article I, section 10 requirement that a jury be unanimous is not met if a jury unanimously finds only that a defendant is guilty of a crime.” State v. Saunders, 1999 UT 59, ¶ 60, 992 P.2d 951. Instead, “[t]he Unanimous Verdict Clause requires unanimity as to each count of each distinct crime charged by the prosecution and submitted to the jury for decision.” State v. Hummel, 2017 UT 19, ¶ 26, 393 P.3d 314 (emphasis in original). For example, a verdict would not be valid “if some jurors found a defendant guilty of a robbery committed on December 25, 1990, in Salt Lake City, but other jurors found him guilty of a robbery committed January 15, 1991, in Denver, Colorado, even though all jurors found him guilty of the elements of the crime of robbery and all the jurors together agreed that he was guilty of some robbery.” Saunders, 1999 UT 59, ¶ 60. “These are distinct counts or separate instances of the crime of robbery, which would have to be charged as such.” Hummel, 2017 UT 19, ¶ 26.

¶19 The constitutional requirement that a jury must be unanimous as to distinct counts or separate instances of a particular crime “is well-established in our law.” Id. ¶ 30. Indeed, this requirement was applied in the closely analogous Saunders case in 1999. In Saunders, the Utah Supreme Court considered whether jurors must be unanimous as to the particular act or acts that form the basis for a sexual abuse conviction. 1999 UT 59, ¶¶ 9–11. The jury had been instructed that there was “no requirement that the jurors be unanimous about precisely which act occurred or when or where the act or acts occurred.” Id. ¶ 58 (cleaned up). The court held that, “notwithstanding a clear constitutional command and applicable case law, the instruction does not set out any unanimity requirement at all.” Id. ¶ 62. The alleged child victim had testified that at least fifteen different acts of touching occurred—some in which the defendant had been applying Desitin ointment to her buttocks and vaginal area and some in which he had not. Id. ¶ 5. Without a proper unanimity instruction, “some jurors could have found touchings without the use of Desitin to have been criminal; others could have found the touchings with Desitin to have been criminal; and the jurors could have completely disagreed on when the acts occurred that they found to have been illegal.”[4] Id. ¶ 65. Because the “jury could have returned a guilty verdict with each juror deciding guilt on the basis of a different act by [the] defendant,” the court held that “it was manifest error under Article I, section 10 of the Utah Constitution not to give a unanimity instruction.” Id. ¶ 62.

¶20 Our supreme court recently reinforced these principles in Hummel. In that case, the court distinguished between alternative factual theories (or methods or modes) of committing a crime for which a jury need not be unanimous and alternative elements of a crime for which unanimity is required. Hummel, 2017 UT 19, ¶ 53. Hummel was charged with the crime of theft. Id. ¶ 1. Under Utah law, a person commits theft if he “obtains or exercises unauthorized control over the property of another with a purpose to deprive him thereof.” Utah Code Ann. § 76-6-404 (LexisNexis 2017). Subsequent sections of the Utah Code explain that a person is guilty of theft if he obtains or exercises control over the property “by deception,” id. § 76-6-405, or “by extortion,” id. § 76-6-406. But the Utah Supreme Court explained that “[t]heft by deception and theft by extortion are not and cannot logically be separate offenses.” Hummel, 2017 UT 19, ¶ 21. “If they were, Hummel could be charged in separate counts and be convicted on both.” Id. Because the method of obtaining or exercising control over the property is not an alternative actus reus element of the crime, jury unanimity at that level is not required. Id. ¶ 61.

¶21 In contrast to Hummel, where deception and extortion are merely “exemplary means” of satisfying the obtaining or exercising control element of the single crime of theft, id., each unlawful touch of an enumerated body part (or each unlawful taking of indecent liberties) constitutes a separate offense of sexual abuse of a child under Utah Code section 76-5­ 404.1(2). This is illustrated by the fact that a defendant can be charged in separate counts and be convicted for each act that violates the statute. See State v. Suarez, 736 P.2d 1040, 1042 (Utah Ct. App. 1987) (holding that the defendant’s acts of placing his mouth on the victim’s breasts and then placing his hand on her vagina were “separate acts requiring proof of different elements and constitute separate offenses”). Unlike the theft statute in Hummel, the sexual abuse of a child statute “contains alternative actus reus elements by which a person could be found” guilty of sexual abuse. See Hummel, 2017 UT 19, ¶ 61. Those alternative elements are touching “the anus, buttocks, pubic area, or genitalia of any child, the breast of a female child, or otherwise tak[ing] indecent liberties with a child,” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-404.1(2), each of which constitutes a distinct criminal offense.

¶22 Here, Alires was charged with six counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child based on distinct touches prohibited by the statute. The information charged Alires with six identically-worded counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child without distinguishing the counts by act or alleged victim. At trial, the friend testified that Alires unlawfully touched her at least six times and unlawfully touched the daughter twice. In closing, the State argued that the jury could convict Alires on four counts based on any of the six alleged touches of the friend in “any combination.” Similarly, the State did not identify which alleged touch of the daughter related to which count. Once the State failed to elect which act supported each charge, the jury should have been instructed to agree on a specific criminal act for each charge in order to convict. See State v. Santos-Vega, 321 P.3d 1, 18 (Kan. 2014) (holding that “either the State must have informed the jury which act to rely upon for each charge during its deliberations or the district court must have instructed the jury to agree on the specific criminal act for each charge in order to convict”); see also State v. Vander Houwen, 177 P.3d 93, 99 (Wash. 2008) (en banc) (noting that “[t]o ensure jury unanimity in multiple acts cases, we require that either the State elect the particular criminal act upon which it will rely for conviction, or that the trial court instruct the jury that all of them must agree that the same underlying criminal act has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt” (cleaned up)).

¶23 Despite the State’s failure to elect which acts it relied upon for each charge, trial counsel failed to request a proper instruction. As a result, the jury was never instructed that it must unanimously agree that Alires committed the same unlawful act to convict on any given count. Without such an instruction, some jurors might have found that Alires touched the friend’s buttocks when dancing, while others might have found that he touched the friend’s breast while tickling. Or the jury might have unanimously agreed that all of the touches occurred, but some might have found that Alires had the required intent to gratify or arouse sexual desires only while trying to dance with the friend, while others might have found that he only had sexual intent when he tickled the friend. In other words, the jurors could have completely disagreed on which acts occurred or which acts were illegal. See Saunders, 1999 UT 59, ¶ 65. Where neither the charges nor the elements instructions link each count to a particular act, instructing the jury that it must agree as to which criminal acts occurred is critical to ensuring unanimity on each element of each crime.[5]

¶24 It was objectively unreasonable for Alires’s trial counsel to propose jury instructions that did not require unanimity as to the specific act that formed the basis of each count resulting in conviction. Although no prior Utah appellate decisions have applied the Unanimous Verdict Clause to a case where a defendant is charged with multiple counts of the same crime, trial counsel is not “categorically excused from failure to raise an argument not supported by existing legal precedent.” State v. Silva, 2019 UT 36, ¶ 19. In any event, it should have been readily apparent that, although Saunders involved a prosecution in which the defendant was charged with and convicted of a single count of sexual abuse that could have been based on any one of a number of separate acts, its holding applies with equal force to a case such as this where a defendant is charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse, each of which could have been based on any one of a number of separate acts.

¶25 The State suggests that a reasonable trial counsel may have had strategic reasons for not requesting a proper unanimity instruction. While it is true that “strategic choices made after thorough investigation of law and facts relevant to plausible options are virtually unchallengeable,” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 690 (1984), here trial counsel candidly admitted that the failure to request a proper unanimity instruction was “not due to tactical reasons, but mistaken oversight.” Had trial counsel properly investigated the governing law, it would have been apparent that Saunders required the court to instruct the jury that it must agree on the specific criminal act for each charge in order to convict. Moreover, we disagree with the State’s theory that a reasonable defense attorney could have concluded that “further clarification would have increased the likelihood of conviction.” By failing to require juror unanimity as to each underlying act, the instructions—coupled with the prosecutor’s closing argument—effectively lowered the State’s burden of proof. See State v. Grunwald, 2018 UT App 46, J[ 42, 424 P.3d 990, (holding that “no reasonable trial strategy would justify trial counsel’s failure to object to instructions misstating the elements of accomplice liability in a way that reduced the State’s burden of proof”), cert. granted, 429 P.3d 460 (Utah 2018). Under these circumstances, failure to request such an instruction fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.

B. Prejudice

¶26 Having established that trial counsel performed deficiently by failing to request a proper unanimity instruction, Alires must show that he was prejudiced by that deficient performance. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. To establish prejudice, a “defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Id. at 694. “A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Id. Therefore, we consider whether Alires has shown a reasonable likelihood that a juror unanimity instruction would have led to a more favorable result.[6] See State v. Evans, 2001 UT 22, ¶ 16, 20 P.3d 888 (reviewing for plain error a defendant’s challenge to the trial court’s failure to provide a juror unanimity instruction and explaining that a “defendant must demonstrate . . . that the error should have been obvious to the trial court, and that the error was of such a magnitude that there is a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome for the defendant”); State v. Saunders, 1999 UT 59, ¶¶ 57, 65, 992 P.2d 951 (same); see also State v. McNeil, 2016 UT 3, ¶ 29, 365 P.3d 699 (explaining that “the prejudice test is the same whether under the claim of ineffective assistance or plain error”).

¶27 To determine whether the defendant has shown a reasonable probability of a more favorable outcome, “a court hearing an ineffectiveness claim must consider the totality of the evidence before the judge or jury.” Strickland, 466 U.S. 668, 695. “[A] verdict or conclusion only weakly supported by the record is more likely to have been affected by errors than one with overwhelming record support.” Id.; see also Saunders, 1999 UT 59, ¶¶ 5, 13, 57, 65 (holding that “factual issues in the case”— including the “conflicting, confused,” and “obviously . . . coached” testimony of the alleged victim and the absence of other witnesses—created a reasonable likelihood that a proper unanimity instruction would have resulted in “a more favorable outcome for the defendant”).

¶28 Here, the evidence supporting Alires’s guilt was not overwhelming. The evidence was conflicting both as to which acts occurred and as to Alires’s intent. The friend testified to eight separate touchings that allegedly occurred during a sixty-second to three-minute period in full view of all three girls in the room. The friend was the only person to testify that Alires unlawfully touched her and the daughter. Both the daughter and the other friend testified that no inappropriate touching occurred. Given the conflicting evidence, there is a reasonable probability that the jury did not unanimously agree that the same two acts occurred.

¶29 In addition, even if the jury fully accepted the friend’s testimony that all eight touches occurred, the surrounding circumstances were sufficiently ambiguous that members of the jury could have easily reached different conclusions as to which acts were done with the required sexual intent. Although direct evidence of the intent to gratify or arouse a sexual desire is not required, see In re G.D.B., 2019 UT App 29, ¶ 21, 440 P.3d 706, Alires, the mother, and even the friend testified that Alires went to the living room to “tickle” and “wrestle” with the girls with the intent to “lighten the mood.” Given this evidence, some jurors may have found that the touches while tickling were innocent or inadvertent and that Alires had the intent to gratify or arouse sexual desires only when he slid his hand down to the friend’s buttocks in a “sneaky” way while dancing. Others may have concluded touching one particular body part while tickling the friend or the daughter evidenced sexual intent, although they may have disagreed as to which body part that was. Where the evidence is so readily subject to different interpretations, “we are not persuaded that the jury would have unanimously convicted had the error not existed.” See Saunders, 1999 UT 59, ¶ 65.

¶30 This is particularly true given the prosecutor’s statements in closing argument and the jury’s note expressing confusion over how to treat the various counts. The State told the jury in closing argument that any of the alleged acts against a particular victim could support any of the charges relating to that victim. Further, the elements instructions were identical for each of the six counts, with the exception of substituting the friend’s initials for counts one through four and the daughter’s initials for counts five and six. And during its deliberations, the jury expressed confusion over how to deal with the various counts, asking the court, “Can we please have a clarification on how the counts work? We don’t understand how to weigh each count when they are all the same. Not sure what they mean.” The jury’s question shows that the absence of a proper unanimity instruction had a palpable impact on the jury deliberations and undermines our confidence in the jury’s verdict. McNeil, 2016 UT 3, ¶ 30. We therefore conclude that Alires was prejudiced by trial counsel’s failure to request a juror unanimity instruction.

CONCLUSION

¶31 We conclude that trial counsel performed deficiently when he did not request an instruction regarding juror unanimity and that this deficient performance was prejudicial to Alires’s defense. Accordingly, we vacate Alires’s convictions and remand for further proceedings.[7]

[1] “On appeal, we review the record facts in a light most favorable to the jury’s verdict and recite the facts accordingly. We present conflicting evidence only as necessary to understand issues raised on appeal.” State v. Reigelsperger, 2017 UT App 101, ¶ 2 n.1, 400 P.3d 1127 (cleaned up).

[2] Alires did not preserve the underlying jury instruction issue for appeal, because he raised it for the first time in a post-trial motion. State v. Fullerton, 2018 UT 49, ¶ 49 n.15, 428 P.3d 1052 (reaffirming that “an objection that could have been raised at trial cannot be preserved in a post-trial motion”). Therefore, he must establish one of the three exceptions to the preservation requirement: plain error, ineffective assistance of counsel, or exceptional circumstances. See State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 19, 416 P.3d 443. In addition to arguing ineffective assistance of counsel, Alires also asks us to review this issue under plain error. But because Alires’s trial counsel proposed jury instructions that contained the same alleged infirmity, trial counsel invited the error and we are precluded from reviewing it under the plain error exception to the preservation requirement. State v. Moa, 2012 UT 28, ¶¶ 23–27, 282 P.3d 985 (explaining that the invited error doctrine precludes plain error review).

[3] Alires also raises issues concerning the sufficiency of the evidence of sexual intent and the absence of a jury instruction defining “indecent liberties.” Because we vacate Alires’s convictions on other grounds and it is uncertain whether these issues will arise again on remand, see infra note 7, we do not “exercise our discretion to address those issues for purposes of providing guidance on remand.” State v. Low, 2008 UT 58, ¶ 61, 192 P.3d 867; see also State v. Barela, 2015 UT 22, ¶ 35, 349 P.3d 676 (concluding that “[w]e need not and do not reach the factual question of the sufficiency of the evidence” when reversing on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel relating to the jury instructions).

[4] “[B]ecause time itself is not an element of an offense, it is not necessary that the jurors unanimously agree as to just when the criminal act occurred.” State v. Saunders, 1999 UT 59, ¶ 60, 992 P.2d 951. “Thus, a jury can unanimously agree that a defendant was guilty of a particular act or acts that constituted a crime even though some jurors believed the crime occurred on one day while the other jurors believed it occurred on another day.” Id. In other words, if all jurors agree that a defendant committed a particular act, it is immaterial if some jurors think that the act occurred on a Saturday and others believe it occurred on a Monday.

[5] The instructions informed the jury that, “[b]ecause this is a criminal case, every single juror must agree with the verdict before the defendant can be found ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty.’” This instruction is plainly insufficient. The constitutional requirement of unanimity “is not met if a jury unanimously finds only that the defendant is guilty of a crime.” Saunders, 1999 UT 59, ¶ 60.

[6] Citing State v. Hummel, 2017 UT 19, 393 P.3d 314, the State argues that “defendants challenging a verdict under the Unanimous Verdict Clause must affirmatively prove that the jury was not unanimous.” In Hummel, the court stated that “a lack of certainty in the record does not lead to a reversal and new trial; it leads to an affirmance on the ground that the appellant cannot carry his burden of proof.” Id. ¶ 82. But the Hummel court was addressing how to assess the prejudicial effect of “a superfluous jury instruction,” that is, a jury instruction that includes an alternative theory that was not supported by sufficient evidence at trial. Id. ¶¶ 81–84. It does not speak to the standard for showing prejudice where the jury is not properly instructed on the unanimity requirement.

[7] Ordinarily, a defendant who prevails on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim is entitled to a new trial. See State v. Hales, 2007 UT 14, ¶ 68, 152 P.3d 321. But where the counts of conviction cannot be distinguished from the counts on which the defendant was acquitted, a retrial may be prohibited by the Double Jeopardy Clause. See, e.g., Dunn v. Maze, 485 S.W.3d 735, 748–49 (Ky. 2016) (collecting state and federal cases holding that a mixed verdict on identically-worded counts forecloses a retrial). We express no opinion on the merits of the double-jeopardy issue, which will not be ripe unless and until the State seeks a retrial.

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Oldroyd v. Oldroyd – 2019 UT App 155 – premarital property interest, unjust enrichment

Oldroyd v. Oldroyd – 2019 UT App 155 – THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

ROBBEN ANN OLDROYD,
Appellant,
v.
FARRELL LYNN OLDROYD,
Appellee.

Opinion
No. 20180257-CA
Filed September 26, 2019
Second District Court, Morgan Department
The Honorable Noel S. Hyde
No. 134500028

Brent D. Wride and Bryant McConkie, Attorneys
for Appellant

Brian E. Arnold and Lauren Schultz, Attorneys
for Appellee

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

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1        Robben Ann Oldroyd (Wife) appeals the district court’s determination that Farrell Lynn Oldroyd (Husband) was entitled to an equitable interest in property she acquired prior to the parties’ marriage. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

¶2        This case previously came before us in Oldroyd v. Oldroyd (Oldroyd I), 2017 UT App 45, 397 P.3d 645. At that time, Wife challenged the district court’s determination that Husband had acquired a premarital interest in a home constructed prior to their marriage and titled in her name. Id. ¶¶ 2, 5.

¶3        We vacated the award and remanded for the district court to make additional findings disclosing “the steps by which the district court reached its ultimate conclusion.” Id. ¶¶ 5, 11. Although courts have discretion to grant one spouse an equitable portion of premarital property belonging to another spouse in certain circumstances, see Lindsey v. Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 33, 392 P.3d 968, the district court had not made findings regarding any of those circumstances. Instead, it concluded that Husband had “acquired a separate premarital interest in the improvements on the property.” Oldroyd I, 2017 UT App 45, ¶ 4 (quotation simplified). Yet the court did not articulate “what legal theory gave” Husband a premarital interest in the property as opposed to an equitable interest in a portion of a premarital asset belonging to Wife. Id. ¶ 8. Thus, we were “unable to trace with accuracy the steps by which the district court reached its ultimate conclusion that [Husband] had obtained a premarital interest in the house.” Id. ¶ 11 (emphasis added).

¶4        On remand, the court made additional findings regarding Husband’s contribution to the value of the home. The court found that Wife had contributed $350,000 toward the out-of-pocket costs of constructing the home and that “[t]he value of the specialized expertise and labor provided” by Husband, which included providing “the vast majority of supervision and conceptual direction for the construction of the home,” “was equivalent to the value of [Wife’s] financial contributions to the home’s construction,” i.e., $350,000.[1] The court further found that Husband “conferred upon [Wife] the benefit of his unique and specialized knowledge and skills in constructing the . . . home,” that Wife “was aware of and appreciated the unique and substantial benefit being conferred upon her,” and that permitting Wife “to retain the benefit of [Husband’s] knowledge and skills without granting [Husband] equal value in the home would unjustly enrich” Wife. Based on these findings, the court determined that the parties “should each be awarded a 50% premarital interest” in the home based on a theory of unjust enrichment. Wife again appeals the district court’s decision.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶5        Wife asserts that the district court erred in recognizing a 50% premarital interest for Husband based on unjust enrichment. “We review the district court’s legal conclusions for correctness, and will reverse its factual findings only if they are clearly erroneous.” 438 Main St. v. Easy Heat, Inc., 2004 UT 72, ¶ 49, 99 P.3d 801.

ANALYSIS

¶6        Wife asserts that the district court erred in awarding Husband a premarital interest based on unjust enrichment, because that theory was neither pleaded nor tried by consent. Husband maintains that his pleadings adequately asserted an unjust enrichment claim and that, even if they did not do so explicitly, Wife was aware of the claim and defended against it at trial, thereby impliedly consenting to its consideration. We agree with Wife.

¶7        First, Husband’s pleadings cannot be construed as asserting an unjust enrichment claim. The pleadings alleged that Husband “has exerted hours and money into the home, including trade work,” and that he “should be awarded a sum certain from [Wife’s] equity in the home for all the work he has completed on the home, and for value of his trade work that he has performed for investment on the marital home.” This is not a claim for a premarital interest in property based on unjust enrichment or any other theory but a claim for an equitable award of a portion of Wife’s premarital asset.[2] See Lindsey v. Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 33, 392 P.3d 968.

¶8        Second, Husband has not pointed us to anything in the

trial record suggesting that the issue was tried by implied consent. “When an issue not raised in the pleadings is tried by the parties’ express or implied consent, it must be treated in all respects as if raised in the pleadings.” Utah R. Civ. P. 15(b)(1). “Implied consent to try an issue may be found where one party raises an issue material to the other party’s case or where evidence is introduced without objection, where it appears that the parties understood the evidence is to be aimed at the unpleaded issue.” Hill v. Estate of Allred, 2009 UT 28, ¶ 48, 216 P.3d 929 (quotation simplified). But “when evidence is introduced that is relevant to a pleaded issue and the party against whom the amendment is urged has no reason to believe a new issue is being injected into the case, that party cannot be said to have impliedly consented to trial of that issue.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶9        Husband’s contribution to the value of the home was a major issue at trial, and much evidence was presented by both parties on this point. However, all of this evidence was relevant to Husband’s equitable claim that his efforts on the home entitled him to a portion of Wife’s premarital asset. There is nothing inherent in this evidence that would have suggested to Wife that the evidence was introduced to prove an unpleaded unjust enrichment claim. And in fact, Husband represented the opposite, explicitly acknowledging at trial that his opportunity to assert unjust enrichment had passed, since more than eighteen years had elapsed since the completion of the home. The fact that any unjust enrichment claim was several years too late is the reason Husband sought an equitable award of a portion of Wife’s property as part of the divorce action. It was the court that ultimately construed Husband’s claim as an assertion of a premarital interest in Wife’s separate property and articulated it as such in its order.

¶10 In Oldroyd I, we concluded that the district court had failed to “explain what legal theory gave rise” to Husband’s premarital interest in the property and clarified, “[T]he court did not discuss whether unjust enrichment, promissory estoppel, quasi-contract, or some other theory applied.” Oldroyd I, 2017 UT App 45, ¶ 8. While acknowledging that it also did not appear that Husband had “identified to the court a particular theory under which he was entitled to a premarital interest,” we left open the possibility that there could be some legal theory under which the court could reach such a conclusion. Id. Upon further review, however, it is apparent that this is not the case. Husband raised no contract, quasi-contract, or equitable claim that he had acquired a premarital interest in the home, and no such claim was tried by consent. Further, by Husband’s own admission, it does not appear that any such claim was available to him within the statute of limitations. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-2-307(1) (LexisNexis 2018). Thus, the district court erred in determining that Husband had established a premarital interest in the property.

¶11 Because the district court premised its ruling on the conclusion that Husband had acquired a premarital interest in the home, it did not rule on his equitable argument. On remand, the court is not precluded from evaluating this argument, which was specifically pleaded and tried.[3]

CONCLUSION

¶12      Because a claim of unjust enrichment was neither pleaded nor tried by consent, the district court erred in determining that Husband had acquired a premarital interest in the home. We therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings.

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

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[1] At trial, a general contractor called as an expert witness for Wife estimated that he would have charged approximately $804,000 to build the home in 1997.

[2] In Oldroyd I, we declined Husband’s invitation to construe the district court’s decision as granting him an equitable interest in Wife’s premarital property because the court’s findings did not support such a determination: “[T]he district court did not rule that the house was marital property that should be divided unequally” and “did not purport to award an interest in [Wife’s] separate property to [Husband] to achieve an equitable result.” Oldroyd I, 2017 UT App 45, ¶ 9 & n.5, 397 P.3d 645. “Rather, the court determined that [Husband] had ‘acquired a separate premarital interest’ in the house.” Id. ¶ 9.

[3] Previous cases addressing equitable division of premarital assets have involved contributions made to those assets during the course of the marriage. See, e.g., Lindsey v. Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶¶ 6–7, 13, 392 P.3d 968; Elman v. Elman, 2002 UT App 83, ¶ 20, 45 P.3d 176. Thus, Utah courts have not had the opportunity to assess the extent to which one spouse’s premarital contributions to another spouse’s premarital assets may be considered in the context of a divorce court’s equitable division of property. However, Wife does not appear to have asserted that the court was precluded from considering Husband’s premarital contributions, and the parties’ presentation of evidence at trial indicates that both were acting on the assumption that Husband’s premarital contributions were relevant to his equitable claim for a portion of Wife’s premarital asset. We therefore assume, without deciding, that premarital contributions may be relevant in assessing whether equity requires division of a premarital asset.

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Eberhard v. Eberhard – 2019 UT App 114 – modification of alimony

2019 UT App 114
THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS
TODD EBERHARD,
Appellant,
v.
LORI ANN EBERHARD,
Appellee.
Opinion
No. 20170721-CA
Filed June 27, 2019
Third District Court, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable Paige Petersen
No. 024906303
David Pedrazas, Attorney for Appellant Suzanne Marelius, Attorney for Appellee
JUDGE JILL M. POHLMAN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred.
POHLMAN, Judge:

¶1        Todd Eberhard and Lori Ann Eberhard divorced in 2003 after twenty-nine years of marriage. The stipulated divorce decree provided that Todd[1] would pay $4,200 in monthly alimony to Lori and that upon Todd’s retirement at age 65, “spousal support shall be reviewed and modified as provided by law.” After the divorce, Todd continued to work as a physician, while Lori, who had no prior work experience, obtained a job in customer service four years later, in 2007.

¶2        In anticipation of his planned retirement in 2016, Todd filed a petition to modify the decree, seeking to terminate or reduce alimony once he and Lori began receiving funds from his pension. After a bench trial, the district court denied Todd’s request to modify alimony at that time, ordering Todd to continue paying $4,200 in alimony. But the court ordered that when Lori “reaches her full retirement age of 66 and is eligible to receive a social security retirement payment,” Todd’s alimony payment would be reduced by that amount. The court further ordered Todd to pay half of Lori’s attorney fees and costs incurred defending against his petition to modify. Todd appeals, challenging the court’s alimony and attorney fees decisions. We affirm in part and remand for the entry of additional findings of fact, without restriction to any modifications the court deems appropriate.

STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶3 District courts have “considerable discretion in determining alimony.” Boyer v. Boyer, 2011 UT App 141, ¶ 9, 259 P.3d 1063 (cleaned up). This court reviews “a district court’s alimony determination for an abuse of discretion and will not disturb its ruling on alimony as long as the court exercises its discretion within the bounds and under the standards [Utah appellate courts] have set and has supported its decision with adequate findings and conclusions.” Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 84 (cleaned up). Similarly, we “generally review a district court’s determination to modify or not to modify a divorce decree for an abuse of discretion.”[2] Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 5, 379 P.3d 882.

¶4        When considering a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, “we will not set aside findings of fact, whether based on oral or documentary evidence, unless they are clearly erroneous.” Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 121; see also Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 3, 406 P.3d 258. A district court’s “factual determinations are clearly erroneous only if they are in conflict with the clear weight of the evidence, or if [we have] a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶ 16, 379 P.3d 890 (cleaned up).

¶5        The district court must “make adequate findings on all material issues of alimony to reveal the reasoning followed in making the award.” Id. ¶ 14 (cleaned up). “Findings are adequate only if they are sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.” Id. (cleaned up). Whether the district court’s findings are adequate presents a question of law. Dole v. Dole, 2018 UT App 195, ¶ 3, 437 P.3d 464; Jacobsen v. Jacobsen, 2011 UT App 161, ¶ 15, 257 P.3d 478.

¶6        We review the district court’s award of attorney fees under Utah Code section 30-3-3, including the amount of the award, for abuse of discretion. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 168; Davis v. Davis, 2003 UT App 282, ¶ 14, 76 P.3d 716.

ANALYSIS
I. Alimony

¶7        Relevant to this appeal, the Utah Code instructs district courts to consider certain factors—known as the Jones factors— when determining alimony, including “the recipient’s earning capacity or ability to produce income,” “the financial condition and needs of the recipient spouse,” and “the ability of the payor spouse to provide support.”[3] Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(8)(a)(i)– (iii) (LexisNexis 2013); see also Jones v. Jones, 700 P.2d 1072, 1075 (Utah 1985) (listing these factors later codified in Utah Code section 30-3-5). The court’s findings on each statutory factor must be sufficiently detailed “to enable a reviewing court to ensure that the [district] court’s discretionary determination was rationally based upon these factors.” Keyes v. Keyes, 2015 UT App 114, ¶ 33, 351 P.3d 90 (cleaned up).

¶8        The Utah Code also instructs that district courts should generally “look to the standard of living, existing at the time of separation, in determining alimony.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(8)(e). “However, the court shall consider all relevant facts and equitable principles and may, in its discretion, base alimony on the standard of living that existed at the time of trial.”[4] Id.; see also Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 111 (“[W]hile an alimony award would ideally allow both spouses to maintain the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage, the court is nevertheless obligated to support any alimony award with specific factual findings as to each statutory factor and is permitted to deviate from the general rule in light of the relevant facts and equities.”). “Furthermore, the award should advance, as much as possible, the purposes of alimony by assisting the parties in achieving the same standard of living they enjoyed during the marriage, equalizing the parties’ respective standards of living, and preventing either spouse from becoming a public charge.” Hansen v. Hansen, 2014 UT App 96, ¶ 6, 325 P.3d 864 (cleaned up). These same considerations apply in later modification proceedings. Nicholson v. Nicholson, 2017 UT App 155, ¶ 17, 405 P.3d 749.

¶9        Here, the district court relied on the parties’ testimony at the trial on the petition to modify to determine their standard of living at the time of their separation. Specifically, the court found that “during the marriage these parties enjoyed a good lifestyle with a nice home for their five-person family, a paid-for car, regular vacations, and they paid their bills in full every month.”

¶10      The court then considered the Jones factors. It found that every month Lori, who was age 63 at the time of trial, earned $1,621.88 from her customer service job, received $4,200 in alimony, and received $1,533.74 as her share of Todd’s pension. After deducting taxes, Lori was left with a net monthly income of $6,141. Lori also had $330,000 in retirement accounts, which was her share of the divorce settlement. Lori had incurred loans and debt after the divorce, and her reasonable monthly expenses amounted to $5,309—an amount that the court found was “less than what [Lori] requires to live commensurate with the marital standard of living.”

¶11      As for Todd, who was 66 years old and remarried, the court found that every month he received $3,827.71 from his pension and $2,326 from Social Security, and drew $3,500 from various retirement accounts. After deducting taxes, Todd had a net monthly income of $7,654. In addition, the court found that Todd had $1.5 million in retirement accounts from which he could draw “variable” amounts “at his discretion.” Todd testified that he was supporting his current spouse who was not employed. The court found Todd’s reasonable monthly expenses to be $8,041—a figure that did not include the alimony payment. The court also found that he had “a very secure and comfortable lifestyle” and “no debt.” As a result, the court found that Todd “has the ability to pay $4,200 [in] monthly alimony.”

¶12      In arriving at its decision, the district court deemed two other statutory factors “significant.” In particular, the court considered “whether the recipient spouse directly contributed to any increase in the payor spouse’s skill by paying for education received by the payor spouse or enabling the payor spouse to attend school during the marriage,” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(8)(a)(vii), and whether “one spouse’s earning capacity has been greatly enhanced through the efforts of both spouses during the marriage,” id. § 30-3-5(8)(g). The court determined that both of these factors were “applicable and support no reduction of alimony in this case.”

¶13      Based on these findings, the court denied Todd’s request to terminate or reduce alimony at that time.[5] It determined that Todd will continue to pay $4,200 in monthly alimony for three years—until Lori reaches age 66 and qualifies for Social Security. At that point, Lori will receive about $1,319 per month from Social Security, and the court ordered that Todd will then be allowed to reduce the alimony payment by the amount Lori receives from Social Security. In so doing, the court stated that Lori’s income from her job, alimony, and Todd’s pension are presently “needed to meet her reasonable expenses,” but even then “she will still not have the standard of living of the marriage.” It noted that Lori’s needs “include the shortfall she has accumulated over the years since the divorce” and that Lori was “presently only barely meeting her needs for that debt service and reasonable monthly expenses.” Given these considerations, the court stated its “intent to move [Lori] closer to being able to pay off her debt and better achieve a standard of living commensurate with the marital standard of living in this alimony award.” However, the court made no specific finding as to what Lori’s reasonable total monthly needs would be, observing only that her needs were greater than her current monthly expenses of $5,309.

¶14      We address Todd’s challenges to the alimony award as follows: (A) the marital standard of living, (B) Lori’s earning capacity, (C) Lori’s needs, (D) Todd’s ability to provide support, and (E) the parties’ line-item expenses. We affirm the district court in most respects, but we remand for the court to provide additional findings on the issues of Lori’s needs and Todd’s ability to pay.

A. The Marital Standard of Living

¶15      Todd contends that the district court’s findings about the parties’ standard of living at the time of divorce—particularly regarding whether the cars were paid off and whether the parties paid their bills in full—were not supported by sufficient evidence. Todd also contends, in a conclusory manner, that the district court’s findings were inadequate.

¶16      As stated, the court found that “[t]he trial testimony confirmed that during the marriage these parties enjoyed a good lifestyle with a nice home for their five-person family, a paid-for car, regular vacations, and they paid their bills in full each month.” The court noted that the parties’ testimonies in this regard were “quite consistent” and were sufficient to support its findings regarding the standard of living at the time of the divorce.

¶17      Todd has not shown clear error in the district court’s findings on this score. First, Todd overlooks the fact that Lori testified that during the marriage she always had a car and they “paid for [their] cars outright[].” Second, Todd ignores Lori’s testimony that, except for the house, they had no debt, “paid off [their] credit cards,” and had funds available for unexpected expenses like replacing tires on a car. We conclude that Lori’s testimony in this regard is sufficient evidence to support the district court’s findings. See Bond v. Bond, 2018 UT App 38, ¶ 10, 420 P.3d 53 (reasoning that “[b]ecause the trial court’s factual findings are clearly supported by [a witness’s] testimony, we cannot conclude that they lack general evidentiary support”); see also Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 24, 334 P.3d 994 (“[A]n appellate court’s role is not to reweigh the evidence presented at trial but only to determine whether the court’s decision is supported by the evidence, leaving questions of credibility and weight to the trial court.”).

¶18      Todd’s general challenge to the adequacy of the district court’s findings also fails. The court explicitly stated that in considering the parties’ standard of living existing at the time of divorce, it was relying on the parties’ trial testimony, and Todd has not established that the court failed to show “the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.” See Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶ 14, 379 P.3d 890 (cleaned up). We therefore reject Todd’s arguments about the sufficiency of the evidence and adequacy of the district court’s findings regarding the parties’ standard of living.

B. Lori’s Earning Capacity

¶19      Todd contends that in considering Lori’s earning capacity and ability to produce income, the district court “should have included [Lori’s] income from Social Security and the unearned income from her retirement [accounts].”

¶20      District courts generally have “broad discretion in selecting an appropriate method of assessing a spouse’s income.” Griffith v. Griffith, 1999 UT 78, ¶ 19, 985 P.2d 255; see also, e.g., Davis v. Davis, 2003 UT App 282, ¶ 10 n.3, 76 P.3d 716 (concluding that “while the trial court could have considered [a portion of the wife’s monthly paycheck that she saved for retirement] as income, the court did not exceed its permitted range of discretion in choosing not to do so” (cleaned up)). Indeed, Utah law specifically grants district courts “flexibility to consider all sources of income” without mandating that the court treat all sources as income for purposes of calculating alimony. See Busche v. Busche, 2012 UT App 16, ¶ 31, 272 P.3d 748; see also Crompton v. Crompton, 888 P.2d 686, 689 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (explaining that “it would be inappropriate for an appellate court to tie the hands of a [district] court” by requiring it in every case to confine its consideration of income in a certain way). Such matters are “left to the [district] court’s judgment,” Busche, 2012 UT App 16, ¶ 31, and will not be set aside absent “a clear and prejudicial abuse of discretion,” Griffith v. Griffith, 959 P.2d 1015, 1019 (Utah Ct. App. 1998), aff’d, 1999 UT 78, 985 P.2d 255.

¶21      In support of his position, Todd relies on Utah caselaw stating that “when determining an alimony award, it is appropriate and necessary for [district] courts to consider all sources of income.” Hansen v. Hansen, 2014 UT App 96, ¶ 14, 325 P.3d 864 (cleaned up). It is correct that district courts “must be able to consider all sources of income that were used by the parties during their marriage to meet their self-defined needs, from whatever source—overtime, second job, self-employment, etc., as well as unearned income.” Crompton, 888 P.2d at 689. But while this caselaw directs district courts to consider all sources of income when determining alimony, it does not dictate that all sources of income be counted as income received by a spouse for that purpose. Rather, we read this caselaw as preserving a district court’s broad discretion to treat sources of income as the court sees fit under the circumstances. See Griffith, 1999 UT 78, ¶ 19; Busche, 2012 UT App 16, ¶ 31.

¶22      In calculating Lori’s earning capacity and ability to produce income, the district court considered and declined to include as income any funds that Lori could potentially draw from her retirement accounts or that she could receive by electing to collect Social Security benefits early. The court found that if Lori began receiving Social Security benefits at her then-current age of 63, she would receive less than she would if she waited until age 66. As the court stated, “[t]he parties did not dispute that at [Lori’s] current age she would receive 37.8% of the 50% retirement benefit she could claim on [Todd’s] earnings record” and it was “undisputed that if she waited until age 66, her full retirement age, she could claim the full 50% on that earning record.”[6] Lori would “suffer a financial penalty” if she began drawing on Social Security benefits before age 66. As a result, the court was unwilling “to require [Lori] to make an unwise financial decision” and declined to include these sources in its calculation of Lori’s income.

¶23      Todd has not shown an abuse of discretion under these circumstances. Lori was not receiving Social Security benefits and would have faced reduced benefits if she began receiving them early. Given the fact that the court was concerned that Lori’s “needs have not been met by the alimony order made at the divorce,” the court considered Lori’s potential Social Security benefits and reasonably decided not to impose an “unwise financial decision” on Lori by requiring her to start receiving a smaller amount of Social Security benefits than she otherwise would be entitled to take three years later.[7]

¶24      Todd also has not shown that the district court abused its discretion by choosing not to include in Lori’s income any unearned income generated from her retirement accounts. Though Todd urged the court to assume “a modest 6% interest” rate on Lori’s retirement accounts, he did not provide evidence in support of his request, and Lori did not agree with that figure. At trial, Lori testified that two-thirds of her retirement account was tied up in annuities from which she would not receive income until she reaches age 70. She testified that she had not yet drawn on the other one-third of her retirement, and when asked whether she was earning interest, she responded that her account “fluctuates up and down” and could not say whether she had realized an increase. In light of the record and the district court’s “broad discretion in selecting an appropriate method of assessing a spouse’s income,” Griffith, 1999 UT 78, ¶ 19, the court did not exceed the bounds of its discretion in declining to treat any unearned income on Lori’s retirement accounts as income for purposes of determining alimony.

¶25      Moreover, Todd has cited no authority for the proposition that a court must require a spouse to claim early Social Security benefits or begin withdrawals from retirement accounts. We have located no such Utah authority. But we note that authority from other jurisdictions counters Todd’s position. See, e.g., Huertas Del Pino v. Huertas Del Pino, 229 So. 3d 838, 839–42 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2017) (holding that, for purposes of awarding alimony, income should not be imputed to an ex-spouse “based on her eligibility for Social Security retirement benefits she had not yet applied to receive” when “there was no evidence of any bad faith” on the ex-spouse’s part and when “she articulated a rational reason for delaying her application for Social Security benefits—namely, that she would receive greater benefits by postponing her receipt of benefits”); McKernan v. McKernan, 135 A.3d 1116, 1117–18 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016) (locating “no authority empowering a trial court to order [the wife] to apply for and obtain Social Security Retirement benefits prior to reaching full retirement age,” or requiring the inclusion as part of the wife’s income the benefit amount for which she is eligible); see also, e.g., Gutierrez v. Gutierrez, 972 P.2d 676, 681 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1998) (stating that a receiving spouse “should not be compelled to withdraw the money in [a] retirement account to supplement her modest income” and that the “spouse should not be expected to live off both the principal, and interest, exhausting whatever financial reserves she possesses to the extent that when she no longer had any earning capacity there would be nothing left upon which she could draw” (cleaned up)); In re Marriage of Novak, 83 S.W.3d 597, 601 (Mo. Ct. App. 2002) (explaining that income from retirement accounts “must be considered in calculating benefits” but that “trial courts are not required to impute income [from] retirement and IRA accounts in every case” given their broad discretion in this area).

¶26      For these reasons, we conclude that the district court acted within its discretion when it declined to include Social Security and unearned income on Lori’s retirement accounts as part of her current income. Given our conclusion in this regard, we likewise conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Todd’s motion for a new trial based on these same issues.

C. Lori’s Needs

¶27      Next, Todd contends that the district court erred in finding that Lori’s needs were unmet when evaluating her financial condition and needs. Todd’s argument has three parts. First, he relies on Utah Code section 30-3-5(8)(i)(ii) to argue that the district court erroneously considered Lori’s needs that did not exist at the time of the divorce. Second, he argues that the evidence was insufficient to support the court’s finding that Lori’s needs were not being met at the time the decree was entered. Third, he contends that the court’s findings regarding Lori’s needs are not adequate.

1. Utah Code Section 30-3-5(8)(i)(ii)

¶28      Todd first claims that the district court “improperly addressed [Lori’s] needs . . . that did not exist at the time the decree was entered.” Todd bases this argument on Lori’s purchase of a furnace and air conditioner, her periodic visits to a chiropractor, her car loan for a new vehicle, and her “debt incurred after voluntarily being unemployed for 4 years after the divorce.” Citing Utah Code section 30-3-5(8)(i)(ii), Todd then concludes that Lori “failed to cite any extenuating circumstances that would allow the court to address [her] needs . . . that didn’t exist at the time of divorce.”

¶29      Utah Code section 30-3-5(8)(i)(ii) provides that “[t]he court may not modify alimony or issue a new order for alimony to address needs of the recipient that did not exist at the time the decree was entered, unless the court finds extenuating circumstances that justify that action.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(8)(i)(ii) (LexisNexis 2013). In other words, absent extenuating circumstances, the statute “generally prevents a district court from modifying an alimony award to account for new needs.”[8] Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 6, 379 P.3d 882.

¶30      In a pretrial motion in limine, Todd asserted that, under section 30-3-5(8)(i)(ii), the court was “prohibited from addressing [Lori’s] increased needs . . . without finding extenuating circumstances.” According to the motion, the district court “should only review whether [Todd] has the ability to pay the current amount of ordered alimony and whether [Lori’s] need for $4,200 per month has been reduced based upon the pension benefits received from [Todd’s] retirement and [Lori’s] Social Security.” Before the presentation of evidence at trial, the court ruled that it would not exclude any evidence and that it would figure out later “how the law should apply to whatever facts” were adduced at trial.

¶31      On appeal, Todd asserts that the district court did not find extenuating circumstances under section 30-3-5(8)(i)(ii) and that the court erroneously addressed Lori’s needs that did not exist at the time of divorce. We reject this argument because it rests on a false premise, namely, that the district court accounted for Lori’s needs that did not exist at the time of the divorce. In fact, the district court explained, in a post-trial order, with regard to section 30-3-5(8)(i)(ii) that “[n]ot knowing before trial what evidence of increased needs might be submitted, the Court agreed that any increased needs not existing at the time of the divorce would not be used to increase the alimony award unless it was justified by extenuating circumstances.” The court further explained that “[n]one of [Lori’s] current expenses were new, increased needs that did not exist at the time of the divorce,” given that “[t]hey were basic needs that existed at the time of the divorce,” including the needs for “a home, heating and air conditioning in the home, a car, food, and basic medical care.”[9]

¶32      The court’s decision was “not based on any new needs, but based on exactly the same kind of needs that [Lori] had in 2003.” Because Lori had been “forced to take out a second mortgage” and incur credit card debt to meet basic needs, the court found that Lori’s standard of living had “fallen” from the lifestyle she enjoyed at the time of the divorce and that Lori’s needs “have not been adequately provided for at the marital standard since the time of the divorce.” Thus, instead of addressing needs that did not exist at the time of the divorce, the court found on Todd’s petition to modify that the stipulated alimony had never met Lori’s needs because it still did not “bring[] her up to [the marital] standard of living.”[10] Ultimately, new or “increased needs did not factor into” or underlie the court’s decision. Because we disagree with Todd’s characterization of the district court’s decision, Todd has not shown that it ran afoul of section 30-3-5(8)(i)(ii).

¶33      Relatedly, Todd contends that the district court erred in denying his motion for a new trial, which raised three grounds related to section 30-3-5(8)(i)(ii). He argued that a new trial was justified due to “an irregularity in the proceeding,” insufficient evidence, and an error in law.[11] Todd’s motion was largely based on his understanding that evidence of Lori’s increased needs would be considered only upon a finding of extenuating circumstances. According to Todd, he “shifted [his] strategy” in response to the district court’s ruling on his motion in limine, and he “focuse[d] on disproving extenuating circumstances” instead of submitting evidence of his ability to pay alimony and contesting more of Lori’s expenses. In attacking the court’s denial of his motion for a new trial, Todd again rests his arguments on the premise that the court addressed increased needs.

¶34      But Todd again misreads the district court’s decision. The court did not agree to exclude any evidence when it ruled on Todd’s motion in limine, and it ultimately did not address Lori’s needs that did not exist at the time of divorce. Under these circumstances, Todd has not shown that the court abused its discretion in denying him a new trial under any of his proposed justifications or theories.

2. Sufficiency of the Evidence

¶35      Second, Todd argues that the evidence was insufficient to support the court’s finding that Lori’s needs were not being met at the time of the decree. The court found that although Lori’s needs at the time of divorce were not expressly determined in 2003, the decree’s alimony award of $4,200 “ended up not being enough to keep [Lori]” living at the marital standard. The court stated that it drew this finding from the evidence that Lori had a second mortgage on her house; she “kept the same car for 12 years, she bought a used car, [and] she’s got a loan on [it]”; she had credit card debt;[12] and she has a “more modest standard of living” compared to that of the marriage. Given that the marital standard of living included paid-for cars and bills paid in full each month, and that Lori had been “borrowing to fill the gap in her needs created by the divorce,” the district court did not clearly err in finding that Lori’s needs at the time of the divorce had not been met by the $4,200 alimony award.

3. Adequacy of the Findings

¶36      Third, Todd claims that the district court’s findings regarding Lori’s needs are inadequate to show that her needs were not being met. In considering this issue, we bear in mind that this court has stated that a district court “may not merely restate the recipient spouse’s testimony regarding her monthly expenses”; instead, “the court must state that the calculation of monthly expenses is reasonable and must explain how it arrived at the monthly amount, or at least from the record, allow us to make this determination ourselves.” Rehn v. Rehn, 1999 UT App 41, ¶ 7, 974 P.2d 306 (cleaned up). Further, we are mindful that “regardless of the payor spouse’s ability to pay more, the recipient spouse’s demonstrated need must constitute the maximum permissible alimony award.” Jensen v. Jensen, 2008 UT App 392, ¶ 13, 197 P.3d 117 (cleaned up). Indeed, “[a]n alimony award in excess of the recipient’s need is a basis for remand even when the payor spouse has the ability to pay.” Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 30, 334 P.3d 994.

¶37      Todd focuses his attack on Paragraph 18 of the court’s findings, which states:

The Court finds that in many ways [Lori’s] needs have not been met by the alimony order made at the divorce, and that her standard of living has fallen below the quality of life and standard of living of the marriage to which she is entitled. Her Financial Declaration shows significant debt consisting of a first and second mortgage on her residence, a vehicle loan with a balance of $17,229, credit card debt of $16,296, and her attorney fees have been put on a credit card. Her Financial Declaration showed a gap between her net income of $4,608, before receipt of pension, and expenses of $5,309 showing a monthly shortfall. Her listing of current expenses shows $220 per month as the minimum payment on her credit cards which will not realistically pay the debt. The Court finds [Lori] has been borrowing to fill the gap in her needs created by the divorce. It appears that she has a shrunken standard of living compared to the marital standard of living as she has incurred loans and debt, which was not part of the marital standard. [Lori] has not been extravagant. Her stated needs on the Declaration of $5,309 are very reasonable and, in fact, less than what she requires to live commensurate with the marital standard of living and the Court finds a historic gap and income shortfall since the divorce which has created debt. It is evident that [Lori’s] debt will not be paid off at the minimal contribution level, that any future emergency such as a flat tire, medical expense, replacement of a furnace or attorney fees requires her to add to her debt as she does not have resources to pay for such events.

Under the district court’s math, Lori had a monthly shortfall of $701 before she started receiving her portion of Todd’s pension.

And after she started receiving money from the pension, she had a surplus of $832—a result that appears in conflict with the principle that alimony may not exceed the recipient spouse’s needs. See id.; Jensen, 2008 UT App 392, ¶ 13.

¶38      Nevertheless, we do not understand the court to have intended to award Lori more than her needs. Although there appears to be a surplus, awarding her more than her stated monthly expenses appears to be consistent with the court’s overall intention to award sufficient alimony to help Lori retire debts and achieve the marital standard of living. Indeed, the court expressed its intention “to move [Lori] closer to being able to pay off her debt and better achieve a standard of living commensurate with the marital standard of living in this alimony award.”

¶39      Yet the district court’s findings regarding Lori’s needs are not sufficiently detailed to “disclose the steps” the court took to reach its ultimate conclusion that the $4,200 in alimony was required to meet those needs. See Rayner v. Rayner, 2013 UT App 269, ¶ 11, 316 P.3d 455 (cleaned up). The court relied on Lori’s financial declaration to find that her existing reasonable monthly expenses were $5,309, but the court found that this amount was “less than what she requires to live commensurate with the marital standard of living.” The court also found that Lori’s $220 monthly payment on her credit cards “will not realistically pay the debt” and that Lori was “only barely meeting her needs for [her] debt service.” But the court’s findings do not specify how much more Lori actually needs each month to pay down her debt and elevate herself to the marital standard of living, which includes living without debt.

¶40      It may be that the court concluded that the $832 surplus was enough for Lori to reach those goals. It also may be that the court concluded that the additional $832 still did not achieve those goals. Without the district court more precisely spelling out the amount that Lori realistically requires to pay off the debt and to enjoy the marital standard of living, we are unable to discern whether the alimony award, in fact, exceeds her needs. We thus cannot conduct meaningful appellate review and cannot ensure that the district court’s discretionary determination on alimony was “rationally based.” See Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 22, 379 P.3d 882. Accordingly, we remand for the district court to enter more detailed findings on this issue and to alter its conclusions as may be necessary. See Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 30; Rayner, 2013 UT App 269, ¶ 12.

D. Todd’s Ability to Provide Support

¶41      Todd complains that the district court “failed to properly consider [his] needs and expenses.” He asserts that the court’s decision left him with a $4,587 total shortfall, while Lori’s “alimony award exceeds her needs.” He also asserts that the court’s findings regarding his ability to provide support were inadequate.

¶42      Paragraphs 22 and 23 of the district court’s findings of fact address Todd’s ability to pay alimony. In particular, the court found that after adjustments, Todd’s expenses were $8,041 per month. It also found that

[Todd’s] stated net [income] is $7,654 which creates a shortfall; however, he has discretion over a large part of his income. [Todd] has accumulated retirement assets consisting of bond funds, IRAs, [a] 401(k), and annuities, which total $1.5 million in principal. [Todd] testified that he takes a monthly draw of 3% ($3,500) per month, and that the amount of the draw is entirely at his discretion. The Court notes that if his draw increased 1%–2% he is still not likely to run out of his principal over the remaining alimony term or his lifetime.

¶43      An alimony award “must be within the payor spouse’s ability to pay.” McPherson v. McPherson, 2011 UT App 382, ¶ 15, 265 P.3d 839. Here, in finding that Todd could pay alimony, the court acknowledged that Todd had a shortfall. In so doing, it did not account for the $4,200 alimony payment that he was making to Lori, and it suggested that Todd had enough money in his retirement accounts to cover his shortfall. But the court did not explain in enough detail how, given the shortfall, the alimony award was within Todd’s ability to pay. The court also did not provide specific calculations to show that Todd could draw sufficient funds from his retirement accounts to cover the shortfall while not unreasonably depleting the principal.

¶44      As with its findings about Lori’s needs, we conclude that the court’s findings about Todd’s ability to pay do not “disclose the steps” it took to reach its ultimate conclusion that the alimony award was within Todd’s ability to pay. See Rayner v. Rayner, 2013 UT App 269, ¶ 11, 316 P.3d 455 (cleaned up). We therefore remand for the district court to enter more detailed findings on this issue as well. To the extent the court on remand modifies Lori’s needs and Todd’s ability to pay, the court should also reconsider its alimony determination in light of any altered figures. See Dobson v. Dobson, 2012 UT App 373, ¶ 29, 294 P.3d 591; see also Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 30, 334 P.3d 994 (explaining that “where the recipient’s needs appear to exceed the payor’s ability to pay and the alimony award seems to exceed the recipient’s needs, we must remand to give the trial court an opportunity to address the apparent discrepancies in the alimony calculation and to conduct an appropriate reanalysis . . . . [to] ensure that the alimony award exceeds neither [the recipient’s] demonstrated need nor [the payor’s] ability to pay”).

E. The Parties’ Line-Item Monthly Expenses

¶45 Lastly, Todd challenges the district court’s decisions regarding several of the parties’ line-item expenses: (1) Lori’s food and household expenses; (2) Lori’s extracurricular activities, which included airfares to visit the parties’ adult children; (3) Lori’s expenses on donations and gifts; (4) Todd’s dental expenses; and (5) the parties’ real property maintenance expenses.

¶46      First, Todd contends that the district court erred when it allowed Lori to have $500 in food and household expenses, when she had claimed only $300 for such expenses in 2014 and when “there was no justification for the increase of $200 per month.” The district court found that Lori’s “stated needs” on her 2016 financial declaration were “very reasonable.” The court thus accepted Lori’s figure of $500 for her monthly food and household supplies and thereby found that $500 accurately represented such expenses. Regardless of whether Lori stated a lower figure for such needs in 2014, Todd has not shown that the district court’s finding of her needs on this point lacked sufficient evidentiary support or required more detailed findings. See Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 28, 379 P.3d 882 (“Failure to rule in favor of one party neither renders the evidence insufficient to support the findings nor the findings inadequate to support the ruling.”).

¶47      Second, Todd challenges the court’s decision to allow Lori $200 per month for extracurricular activities, which included air flights to visit their adult children. When Todd examined Lori about these expenses at trial, Lori testified that those expenses were for her travel to visit the parties’ children and “often include[d] the food at the destination” for herself and the children when she was treating them for dinner in exchange for their hospitality. The court accepted Lori’s declared expenses and allocated her $200 per month for these expenses. It also gave her $100 per month for entertainment. It bears noting that Todd listed $1,000 for his monthly travel and entertainment costs, which he attributed to “traveling all over the west.” The court allowed him to claim these monthly expenses. Under these circumstances and when the court also found that the marital standard of living included regular vacations, we cannot say that the district court abused its discretion in assessing Lori’s monthly expenses related to extracurricular activities.

¶48      Third, Todd challenges Lori’s expenses for donations and gifts. The district court found that Lori’s reasonable monthly expenses included $100 for donations and $200 in gifts, accepting Lori’s figures in her financial declaration. Likewise, the court accepted Todd’s figures of $100 for donations and $200 in gifts. In light of the fact that the court allocated the same amount for each party to spend on donations and gifts, Todd has not shown that the district court abused its discretion. Cf. Rule v. Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 26, 402 P.3d 153 (inferring that the parties’ current expenses were based on the marital standard of living when “the majority of the expenses in [the husband’s current] financial declaration are identical in amount to those identified as marital expenses in [the wife’s current] financial declaration”); Sauer v. Sauer, 2017 UT App 114, ¶ 10, 400 P.3d 1204 (seeing “no impropriety in the trial court’s decision to impute housing needs to [the wife] in the same amount as [the husband] had claimed was reasonable for him”).

¶49      Fourth, Todd complains that the district court adjusted his monthly dental expenses down from $900 to $50. Todd’s financial declaration listed $900 per month in dental expenses, noting that he spent $14,000 on such expenses in 2016. The court relied on Todd’s testimony to find that these expenses were “fully paid and not recurring.”[13] On that basis, the court adjusted Todd’s dental expenses down to $50 per month. Though Todd disagrees with this decision, he has not shown that the district court exceeded the bounds of its discretion. [14]

¶50      Fifth, Todd complains that the district court improperly reduced his claimed real property maintenance expenses from $1,000 to $100 per month.[15] Todd listed $1,000 as his monthly real estate maintenance expenses on his financial declaration. In the court’s findings on Todd’s expenses, it adjusted this expense to $100 per month given Todd’s testimony about “numerous completed and paid-for projects such as a new deck, new windows, a new roof, [and] replacement of furnace and appliances.” Yet when the court totaled Todd’s monthly expenses, it did not make that downward adjustment, effectively accepting Todd’s claimed real estate maintenance expenses at $1,000. Despite the court’s stated intention to adjust Todd’s expenses downward, the court did not make the adjustment, and thus Todd has not shown how he was prejudiced by any alleged error regarding real estate maintenance expenses. See Utah R. Civ. P. 61 (“The court at every stage of the proceeding must disregard any error or defect in the proceeding which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties.”).

II. Attorney Fees

¶51      We first address Todd’s challenge to the district court’s award of attorney fees to Lori. We then consider Lori’s request for her attorney fees incurred on appeal.

A. The District Court’s Award of Attorney Fees

¶52      Utah Code section 30-3-3(1) permits a court to award attorney fees to a party in certain divorce proceedings “to enable [a] party to prosecute or defend the action.”[16] Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(1) (LexisNexis 2013). “Such an award must be based on evidence of the receiving spouse’s financial need, the payor spouse’s ability to pay, and the reasonableness of the requested fees.” Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 168 (cleaned up). The decision to award attorney fees under Utah Code section 30-3-3 and the amount thereof “rests in the sound discretion of the district court.” Id.; Davis v. Davis, 2003 UT App 282, ¶ 14, 76 P.3d 716. We also require that such attorney fees awards be “based on sufficient findings.” Davis, 2003 UT App 282, ¶ 14 (cleaned up).

¶53      The district court ordered Todd to pay half of Lori’s attorney fees under Utah Code section 30-3-3(1). In support, the court cited the parties’ financial declarations, their assets, Todd’s ability to pay, and Lori’s needs. The court found that Lori paid her attorney fees with her credit card, was living “on a month-to-month basis,” had not accumulated additional savings since the divorce, and had a budget that did “not allow for any extraordinary expenses such as litigation fees.” In contrast, the court found that Todd paid his attorney fees in full, had no debt, had accumulated substantial savings since the divorce, had $1.5 million from which to draw for expenses and other needs, and had the ability to pay some of Lori’s attorney fees.

¶54      The district court also determined that Lori’s reasonable attorney fees and costs totaled $19,025. In so doing, the court noted that it had directed Lori’s counsel to compile an updated fee affidavit after trial and that the updated affidavit contained a larger fee amount than that originally submitted. Todd objected to the larger amount, accusing Lori’s counsel of bad faith and lying. The court found that these accusations were both uncivil and inaccurate. It compared the initial affidavit and the updated affidavit, and it found that the only difference is that the initial affidavit “contains only an estimate of the time necessary to prepare for trial, while the [updated] affidavit contains the actual time billed” for the three months around the time of trial. The court found “no inflation of fees or dishonesty” on the part of Lori’s counsel; it instead found that Lori’s counsel “did high-quality work quite efficiently, with respect to the limited resources of her client.” Having rejected Todd’s objection, the court ordered Todd to pay $9,512.50 to Lori, representing half of her total fees.

¶55      Todd makes three arguments challenging the attorney fees award. First, he asserts that Lori’s counsel “should have identified how much [Lori] has paid her and whether she has an outstanding balance,” suggesting that Lori had “already paid” her attorney and thus had no actual financial need for assistance paying those fees. This argument misses the mark. The court found that Lori used her credit card to pay her attorney fees and that she still owed her credit card company. Thus, we are not persuaded that the court erred in finding that Lori had a need for attorney fees.

¶56      Second, Todd complains that $19,025 in fees was unreasonable in light of Lori’s counsel’s initial representation that her fees totaled around $10,892. The district court found that this difference was explained by the fact that the initial figure was “only an estimate” of Lori’s counsel’s time preparing for trial, whereas the updated figure was “the actual time billed.” The court also found that Lori’s counsel’s updated figure represented her reasonable fees and, contrary to Todd’s assertions, contained no inflated fees or dishonesty. Todd disagrees with the court’s assessment, but he has not established any abuse of discretion in its decision.

¶57      Third, Todd complains that ordering him to pay half of Lori’s attorney fees is “inherently unfair” when he has a shortfall while Lori has a surplus. The district court’s findings in connection with its attorney fees decision rely on its alimony findings regarding Lori’s needs and Todd’s ability to pay— findings that we have concluded do not adequately show the steps the court took to reach its decision. Supra ¶¶ 39–40, 43–44. Thus, although we reject two of Todd’s arguments challenging the award of attorney fees, we remand for the district court to enter more detailed findings on Lori’s financial need and Todd’s ability to pay and, if necessary, for the court to reconsider the attorney fees award in light of any altered figures. See Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶¶ 88–89, 379 P.3d 890; Andrus v. Andrus, 2007 UT App 291, ¶ 19, 169 P.3d 754.

B. Attorney Fees on Appeal

¶58      Lori requests an award of attorney fees incurred on appeal. “Generally, when the trial court awards fees in a domestic action to the party who then substantially prevails on appeal, fees will also be awarded to that party on appeal.” Wollsieffer v. Wollsieffer, 2019 UT App 99, ¶ 31 (cleaned up). Given the mixed result on appeal, we decline to award Lori attorney fees on appeal. See Andrus, 2007 UT App 291, ¶ 19.

CONCLUSION

¶59      We affirm the district court’s alimony decision in many respects. But we conclude that the district court’s findings regarding Lori’s needs and Todd’s ability to pay are not adequately detailed to permit meaningful appellate review. Accordingly, we remand to the district court with instructions to enter more detailed findings on those issues. After making those findings, the court may modify its award of attorney fees and alimony if warranted.

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

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[1] Because the parties share a surname, we refer to each party by his or her first name, as is our practice in such situations. We intend no disrespect by the apparent informality.

[2] Todd also contends that the district court erred in denying his motion for a new trial and his motion to amend the findings and judgment, both of which raised issues with the district court’s alimony decision. As with the court’s alimony decision, we review its denial of both post-trial motions for abuse of discretion. See Eskelsen v. Theta Inv. Co., 2019 UT App 1, ¶ 22, 437 P.3d 1274 (motions to amend findings and judgment); Hartvigsen v. Hartvigsen, 2018 UT App 238, ¶ 5, 437 P.3d 1257 (motions for a new trial).

[3] The other factors that the court must consider include the following: “(iv) the length of the marriage; (v) whether the recipient spouse has custody of minor children requiring support; (vi) whether the recipient spouse worked in a business owned or operated by the payor spouse; and (vii) whether the recipient spouse directly contributed to any increase in the payor spouse’s skill by paying for education received by the payor spouse or enabling the payor spouse to attend school during the marriage.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(8)(a)(iv)–(vii) (LexisNexis 2013).

[4] This court has understood this statute “to allow a court the discretion to consider the standard of living at the time the modification petition is tried” and noted that “[s]uch a reading comports with the rationale underlying alimony modification proceedings: adjustment to reflect changed financial circumstances.” Nicholson v. Nicholson, 2017 UT App 155, ¶ 20, 405 P.3d 749.

[5] Given the language in the decree stating that “spousal support shall be reviewed and modified” upon Todd’s retirement, the parties appear to assume that Todd’s retirement opened the door for the district court to modify alimony. We have no occasion to question that assumption in this case.

[6] Under Social Security Administration rules, a person may retire at any time between age 62 and full retirement age, but if a person begins collecting benefits early, those benefits are reduced. See Benefits Planner: Retirement, Social Security Administration, https://www.ssa.gov/planners/retire/agereducti on.html [https://perma.cc/B5RT-SUQY]. See generally 20 C.F.R. § 404.409 (2018); id. § 404.410.

[7] The court further observed that Lori was trying to work as long as she could and that when she retires and takes Social Security, those benefits will “cancel” or “replace” her salary from her customer service job.

[8] This court has previously noted that this statute “does not appear to forbid a court from considering the recipient spouse’s new needs in its decision not to modify.” Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 8 n.3, 379 P.3d 882.

[9] Because the parties stipulated to the divorce decree, the district court entered the decree in 2003 without making findings regarding Lori’s needs at the time of the divorce. As a result, in ruling on Todd’s petition to modify, the court effectively found that Lori’s current needs existed at the time of the divorce, and it analyzed whether Lori could meet her needs.

[10] Before the district court, Todd argued that the $4,200 of alimony awarded in the decree defined or equated to Lori’s needs at the time of the divorce and that Lori’s receipt of $1,533.74 from his pension meant that she had an increase in needs since that time. The court rejected these arguments, explaining that the stipulated amount of alimony “ended up not being enough to keep her in the lifestyle that she was accustomed to” and that, even with the pension, Lori had “exactly the same kind of needs that she had in 2003.”

[11] Under rule 59 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, a new trial may be granted due to “irregularity in the proceedings of the court, jury or opposing party, or any order of the court, or abuse of discretion by which a party was prevented from having a fair trial”; due to “insufficiency of the evidence to justify the verdict or other decision”; or when “the verdict or decision is contrary to law or based on an error in law.” Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1), (6), (7).

[12] Todd makes much of the fact that Lori’s credit card debt increased substantially between 2014 and 2016, suggesting that her debt did not increase between 2003 and 2014 and that her needs were met in 2003. But Todd overlooks that Lori incurred other debts—the second mortgage and the car loan—between 2003 and 2014.

[13]  On appeal, Todd implies that “[i]t is very likely he will continue to have ongoing Dental Expenses” given his age. Yet when asked at trial whether he expected his dental expenses to be ongoing, he testified, “No, I don’t think so.” He also testified that his “dental [expenses] will probably go down.”

[14] In connection with his complaint about his dental expenses, Todd also briefly claims that the court’s decision allocating $450 per month to Lori for health care expenses is unsupported by the evidence. But Lori’s financial declaration provided evidentiary support for this figure, and Todd has not explained why it is insufficient to support the court’s finding. See Sauer v. Sauer, 2017 UT App 114, ¶ 12, 400 P.3d 1204 (concluding that the district court did not clearly err in finding that a spouse had unmet needs when her financial declaration supported that finding).

[15] Todd also suggests that Lori’s competing expenses for real property maintenance lack evidentiary support. But Lori’s financial declaration listed $550 per month for real property maintenance, and Lori testified about that figure at trial. Todd has not demonstrated on appeal that this evidence was legally insufficient to support the district court’s finding.

[16] Section 30-3-3(1) allows for an award of attorney fees, as relevant here, in actions “to establish . . . alimony.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(1) (LexisNexis 2013). This court has considered actions to modify alimony to fall within this provision. See, e.g., Gore v. Grant, 2015 UT App 113, ¶¶ 25, 31, 349 P.3d 779 (“The modification proceedings . . . involved a request to modify child support, in other words, to establish a different support obligation.”). However, the statute “does not provide for attorney fees to defend an action to terminate alimony.” Scott v. Scott, 2017 UT 66, ¶ 32, 423 P.3d 1275. Todd’s petition to modify sought to terminate or reduce alimony, but Todd makes no argument that section 30-3-3(1) could not support an award here. Thus, we assume the provision applies.

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