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Tag: trial

Why Your Witness May Not Be As Good As You Think By Braxton Mounteer

I recently went to trial with my boss for a divorce case. One of the things that stuck out to me was that quite often the witnesses people call in support of their claims and defenses aren’t nearly as helpful as they were expected to be. Why?

1)      Proximity of the witness to the parties or to the facts. I don’t mean physical proximity, but I do mean their personal relationships to the parties or to the events witnessed. These witnesses could be a mother, father, brother, sister, best friend, etc. Courts expect these kinds of people to be loyal, even to the point of a) being hopelessly biased and/or b) lying to help their friends/family members. Your mom’s not expected to be the most neutral or objective witness. Your brother droning on about how your spouse is the devil and you are a saint isn’t all that credible. I’m not saying such witnesses are worthless (you don’t want your mom or brother testifying against you, for example), but they aren’t the most helpful of witnesses.

2)      Your witness’s testimony isn’t engaging enough. A witness who testifies that he/she has never seen you treat your kids poorly is a witness who isn’t saying you treat your kids well. Yawn. A compelling witness is someone who witnessed you selflessly coaching the kids’ soccer team for years and who made a great impact for good in the team members’ lives. You want a teacher who can testify that you came to every parent-teacher conference and read with your child 20 minutes every night. You need that police officer who witnessed and arrested your spouse for trying to beat you with a bat. You need the boss who testifies what you are paid.

3)      Your witness didn’t witness anything first-hand. Your witness can’t get on the stand and tell the judge what he heard someone else say. That’s called hearsay, and with few exceptions, it’s not admissible as evidence.

What if you don’t have any witnesses beyond your immediate circle of friends and family? You can still call them as witnesses, and if they are credible people who don’t know a whole lot, you likely should call them as witnesses. No witnesses in your corner looks worse than mediocre witnesses who can testify believably of a few things.

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

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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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Is there a difference between hearings and trials in Utah divorce cases?

Yes. A hearing is not the same as a trial. While there may be some similarities, they are not the same thing and do not accomplish the same objectives.

The primary difference between a trial and a hearing is that a trial disposes of the law suit after the parties present evidence to the judge for a final ruling on the case. The trial is the end of the case (unless there is an appeal after trial, but that’s a different subject for another blog).

Hearings take place before trial, are usually shorter than a trial, and are used to resolve issues that arise during the pendency of the case before trial. You can and likely will have multiple hearings in your case, while there is just one trial.

Hearings usually take minutes or hours. Trials take longer, usually several days or weeks.

Hearings take place before trial.

Your first experience with the courtroom (whether in the courtroom or whether you participate via remote video conference) will almost surely be in a hearing, not trial.

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

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In re K.A.S. – 2023 UT App 138 THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.S., A PERSON OVER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. K.S., Appellant. Opinion No. 20210291-CA Filed November 16, 2023 Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable Mark W. May No. 1108274 Monica Maio, Marina Pena, Sam Pappas, and Hilary Forbush, Attorneys for Appellant Sean D. Reyes and Jeffrey S. Gray, Attorneys for Appellee JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1        K.S., a minor, spent several weeks babysitting the infant child of some family members while they were at work. When the infant’s parents returned home one day, the infant was in pronounced distress. The infant was taken to the hospital, but she died a few days later.

¶2        K.S. was charged in juvenile court with having committed child abuse homicide. At the close of trial, the juvenile court found that K.S. had committed the crime and adjudicated K.S. delinquent as a result. K.S. now appeals that adjudication, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support it. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶3        A.M., a four-month-old infant, died on May 10, 2019. Several medical experts later testified that the cause of death was a brain injury and that the fatal injury was likely inflicted in a non-accidental manner. The question at the heart of this case is who inflicted the fatal injury.

¶4        A.M.’s parents (Mother and Father) both worked and needed someone to watch their two children (A.M. and a two-year-old son) during the day. After an arrangement with a previous babysitter fell through, Mother and Father learned that K.S., the 16-year-old son of Mother’s cousin, was available to babysit. Although K.S. had no prior child-care experience, he began watching the children in April 2019. Because of K.S.’s lack of experience, Father had to teach him the basics of childcare, including how to prepare a bottle, how to change a diaper, and how to calm A.M. down and “hold her correctly.” K.S. frequently stayed overnight to save on gas, sleeping on a couch in the front room.

¶5        On May 2, Mother and Father took A.M. to the emergency room because A.M. had been sick for a few days. On examination, the ER doctor found “nothing worrisome,” and tests indicated that her heart rate, oxygen saturation, and temperature were all “reassuring.” The ER doctor concluded that A.M. “might have a bug” and sent her home. By May 6, A.M. seemed to be “feeling a little better.”

¶6        K.S. slept over at the house on the night of May 6 to 7, and A.M. was “real fussy” that night. According to her parents’ subsequent accounts, though, A.M. was “crying normal[ly]” and even “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” by the next morning. Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m.[1] Father later testified that he left for work between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. (though, as will be discussed below, testimony from an officer suggested that Father didn’t actually leave until 10:55 that morning).

¶7        At some point between 11:36 and 11:56 a.m., K.S. sent Mother a video that showed A.M. experiencing troubling symptoms—specifically, A.M. had a limp arm and labored breathing. K.S. texted, “Is this normal?” After viewing the video, Mother asked her sister (Aunt) to stop by on her lunch break to check on A.M.

¶8        Aunt arrived at about 1:20 that afternoon. A.M. seemed “lethargic” to her, and it seemed like “moving her was upsetting her more, almost like it was causing her pain.” Aunt thought that A.M. might have an ear infection, so she gave her some ibuprofen. After returning to work, Aunt told Mother her concern about the ear infection and encouraged Mother to take A.M. to the hospital after Mother’s shift ended. During her own lunch break an hour later, Mother returned home and checked on A.M., who was “fussy and whiney”; when Mother picked A.M. up, she also observed her legs “dangling down.” Mother was concerned enough to schedule an appointment with a pediatrician, but she made lunch and returned to work without taking further action.

¶9        There was no additional contact between K.S. and the parents until around 7:45 that evening, when K.S. called Mother and reported that A.M still didn’t seem to be feeling better. Mother said she was on her way. After picking Father up from his work, Mother arrived home to find A.M. “pale as a light.” Father performed CPR while Mother called 911. Mother told the 911 dispatcher that A.M. had been “fine throughout the day and stuff.”

¶10 A.M. was first taken to the Intermountain Healthcare hospital, then life-flighted to Primary Children’s Medical Center (Primary Children’s). Doctors at Primary Children’s concluded that A.M. had suffered a severe brain injury.

¶11      Police detained Mother and Father for questioning before allowing them to see A.M. While awaiting the arrival of a detective, Father engaged police officers in light-hearted banter, telling them “a story about getting drunk and . . . dancing on the table,” as well as a story about a woman beating up a man in their apartment complex. Mother and Father eventually met with a detective who questioned them about the events of the day. This detective later testified that, during these interviews, Father told him that he had left for work around 10:55 that morning.

¶12      The following day, K.S. sent Father two text messages. The first said: “im so sorry. . . . if it weren’t for my laziness and wanting to relax [A.M.] wouldn’t be like this and if i had never tossed her up in the air to try and cheer her up.” The second said: “im truly sorry plz tell [Mother] im so so so sorry and i would never intentionally hurt your kids out of anger or frustration.”

¶13      A.M. died two days later. Later that week, Dr. Christensen, the medical examiner, performed an autopsy and determined that the “primary cause” of death was “blunt injuries” to A.M.’s head. Dr. Christensen classified the death as a homicide.

¶14 The State subsequently charged K.S. with child abuse homicide in juvenile court. Over the course of eight days of trial, the court heard testimony from, among others, both parents, several medical experts, and the responding officer.

¶15      Mother and Father testified about the events on May 7 and A.M.’s health in the relevant period. Mother testified that A.M. was “pretty fine” and “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” before she left for work that morning. Father testified that, after a few days of being fussy, A.M. “was feeling a little better” and that there was “nothing out of the ordinary” that morning. Father testified that he remembered leaving home between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. so that he could catch the bus.

¶16 The court also heard testimony from three medical experts—Dr. Thorn, Dr. Hatch, and Dr. Christensen—about the nature of A.M.’s injuries and the timing of those injuries.

¶17 Dr. Thorn. Dr. Thorn was an ER doctor who had “extensive training and expertise specialization in the management of head injury,” and he was the doctor who treated A.M. on May 7 at the Intermountain Healthcare hospital. Dr. Thorn testified that A.M.’s symptoms likely resulted from “non-accidental trauma,” which “is a nice way of saying a child . . . was physically abused.” Dr. Thorn also testified that A.M.’s injuries would have required the application of “[e]xtremely violent” force, though he opined that it might have been “possible” that a person might not have “recognize[d] the severity” of the injury that he or she had inflicted.

¶18      On a CAT scan, Dr. Thorn observed two layers of blood in A.M.’s brain, which suggested to him that A.M. had sustained “at least two” discrete injuries. He estimated that the earlier of the two injuries occurred “within days” to “maybe a week” before May 7. Dr. Thorn speculated that the symptoms that prompted A.M.’s visit to the hospital on May 2 had come from the first brain injury, but he acknowledged that “[w]e’ll never know.” With respect to the injuries that led to A.M.’s death, Dr. Thorn testified that the “most severe injury leading eventually to the death” happened anywhere from “sometime within hours” to “almost right before” the video that was taken on May 7. He further testified that there was “some event soon before arrival [at the ER] that had caused” A.M.’s “respiratory depression.” Dr. Thorn felt unable to narrow the timeframe any further, and he expressed doubt that any doctor “would be able to comment as to a more definitive timeframe.” Dr. Thorn also testified that A.M. “was very, very sick at the time that that video was taken.”[2]

¶19 Dr. Hatch. Dr. Hatch was a recent medical school graduate who was completing a post-residency fellowship in child abuse pediatrics at the University of Utah, and he was part of the team that treated A.M. at Primary Children’s. Dr. Hatch testified that it would have required a significant amount of force to cause A.M.’s symptoms, such as “shaking by itself” or shaking combined “with some form of impact, or impact by itself.” He added that “we don’t observe these kinds of injuries from falls” or even from “significant” car accidents. In Dr. Hatch’s view, A.M.’s symptoms “suggest[ed]” that A.M. had “experienced significant force to her head.” He also opined that anyone who was present when the injuries were inflicted “would know that the force was excessive and that an injury was likely” to follow.

¶20 Dr. Hatch thought there were two potentially plausible explanations for the two layers of blood in A.M.’s brain: he thought it was possible that the blood represented two different injuries that were separated by time, and he also thought it was possible that the blood represented a single injury where some of the blood had changed colors when it mingled with cerebral spinal fluid. Thus, in Dr. Hatch’s opinion, A.M. was definitely injured on May 7, and it was possible that she had suffered an earlier brain injury as well.

¶21      As to the question of timing of the May 7 injury, Dr. Hatch testified that “the head injury immediately preceded the development of any symptoms that [A.M.] had. So in this situation where she became unconscious, the injury would immediately precede that.” Continuing, Dr. Hatch testified that the “medical literature would support that in almost all cases with this severe of an injury,” the resulting symptoms would appear “immediately afterward.”

¶22 Dr. Christensen. Dr. Christensen is the chief medical examiner for the Utah Department of Health and, as noted, performed A.M.’s autopsy. Dr. Christensen testified that A.M. had suffered a “traumatic” “axonal injury” to her brain and that the injury was “not consistent with having occurred accidentally.” In his view, the force involved would have been “noticeably violent.”

¶23      Like Dr. Thorn, Dr. Christensen saw signs of both an earlier and a later injury. Dr. Christensen agreed that “some of [A.M.’s] prior symptoms”—including the nausea that led to her May 2 visit to the hospital—could have been “related to a prior head injury.” On questioning from the State, however, Dr. Christensen seemed to agree that the later injury was “the ultimately fatal” one.

¶24      Dr. Christensen testified that in “some cases,” fatal injuries can be inflicted as many as three to ten days before the child actually dies. But Dr. Christensen explained that doctors look to “other aspects of the case as well” when estimating the time at which the injuries were inflicted, such as “what was the child’s behavior at various points along the way.” He said that in this case, he thought the fatal injury “occurred around the time” that A.M. arrived at the hospital. He also testified that with “traumatic axonal injury, you would expect [A.M.] to be symptomatic essentially immediately. I mean very, very quickly. It’s not going to be the kind of thing where she is going to be normal for a few hours . . . . It’s a global insult to the brain that is going to manifest as . . . abnormal behavior very soon after infliction.”

¶25      After the conclusion of the trial, the court entered a single-sentence ruling determining that the State had met its burden of proving that K.S. committed child abuse homicide. K.S. timely appealed.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶26      K.S. argues there was insufficient evidence to support his adjudication for child abuse homicide. In cases tried without a jury (which include juvenile court proceedings), factual determinations “must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and the reviewing court must give due regard to the trial court’s opportunity to judge the credibility of the witnesses.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(4); cf. In re Z.D., 2006 UT 54, ¶ 29, 147 P.3d 401 (holding that an “appellate court must launch any review of factual findings from rule 52(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure and its ‘clearly erroneous’ test”). “The content of Rule 52(a)’s clearly erroneous standard, imported from the federal rule, requires that if the findings (or the trial court’s verdict in a criminal case) are against the clear weight of the evidence, or if the appellate court otherwise reaches a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made, the findings (or verdict) will be set aside.” State v. Walker, 743 P.2d 191, 193 (Utah 1987) (quotation simplified).

¶27 The parties agree that we should apply the above-cited standard of review to this case. We pause here to note, however, that the parties have disputed whether we should apply an additional layer of deferential gloss in this case as well.

¶28 It’s well-settled that when an appellate court reviews a jury’s verdict, the court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the verdict. See, e.g.State v. Green, 2023 UT 10, n.2, 532 P.3d 930; State v. Bonds, 2023 UT 1, n.3, 524 P.3d 581; State v. Winfield, 2006 UT 4, ¶ 2, 128 P.3d 1171. But there’s a divergence in Utah’s caselaw about whether an appellate court does the same when reviewing a verdict from a bench trial. On this, some Utah cases say no. See, e.g.In re Z.D., 2006 UT 54, ¶ 35 (“An appellate court must indulge findings of fact made by a jury that support the verdict. No such indulgence is required of findings made by a judge.”); Alta Indus. Ltd. v. Hurst, 846 P.2d 1282, 1284 n.2 (Utah 1993) (holding that “an appellate court does not, as a matter of course, resolve all conflicts in the evidence in favor of the appellee” when findings were made by a judge); Walker, 743 P.2d at 193 (noting that “it is not accurate to say that the appellate court takes that view of the evidence that is most favorable to the appellee” when reviewing findings of the court (quotation simplified)). But other Utah cases—including some from our court that reviewed adjudications from juvenile court delinquency proceedings—say yes. See, e.g.State v. Layman, 1999 UT 79, ¶¶ 12–13, 985 P.2d 911 (holding that when “reviewing a conviction, an appellate court should consider the facts in a light most favorable to the verdict,” and then applying that standard to a ruling from “the trial judge, who was the finder of fact” in the bench trial at issue); In re J.R.H., 2020 UT App 155, ¶ 9, 478 P.3d 56 (applying the “light most favorable” standard to a juvenile court adjudication (quotation simplified)); In re V.T., 2000 UT App 189, ¶ 8, 5 P.3d 1234 (relying on Layman for the proposition that “[w]hen reviewing a juvenile court’s decision for sufficiency of the evidence, we must consider all the facts, and all reasonable inferences which may be drawn therefrom, in a light most favorable to the juvenile court’s determination”); see also In re C.C.R., 2011 UT App 228, ¶ 10, 257 P.3d 1106; In re M.B., 2008 UT App 433, ¶ 5, 198 P.3d 1007.

¶29      We need not resolve this conflict here. Again, the parties at least agree that K.S. can only prevail on his sufficiency challenge if he establishes that the verdict was against the clear weight of the evidence, or, instead, if we reach a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. And the parties further agree that we give “due regard” to the juvenile court’s opportunity to “judge the credibility of witnesses.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(4). For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the juvenile court’s adjudication under these agreed-upon standards alone. We accordingly leave for another day (and, more likely, another court) the question of how to resolve the tension in the cases about whether the additional deferential gloss that applies to jury verdicts should apply to juvenile court decisions as well.

ANALYSIS

¶30      K.S. argues there was “insufficient evidence that [he], as opposed to someone else, caused the injuries that resulted in A.M.’s death.” We disagree.

¶31      The State’s case against K.S. relied on the interplay between three propositions: (i) A.M. died from an injury to her brain that was caused by violent force; (ii) A.M.’s symptoms would have manifested very quickly after the injury was inflicted; and (iii) K.S. was alone with A.M. immediately prior to the symptoms’ initial appearance. There was competent testimony to support each of these propositions.

¶32 Injury. All three medical experts agreed that A.M. died from a brain injury that was caused by violent force. Dr. Thorn testified that A.M.’s injury would have been caused by “[e]xtremely violent” force or a “violent, blunt act,” such as the “shaking back and forth of a child’s brain.” In his view, this was “not an accidentally dropped child.” Dr. Hatch similarly testified that a significant amount of force would have been required, either “shaking by itself,” or shaking combined “with some form of impact,” or “impact by itself.” He added that doctors “don’t observe these kinds of injuries from falls” or even from “significant” car accidents. Dr. Hatch believed anyone “who witnessed an incident like this occur would know that the force was excessive and that an injury was likely” to follow. Finally, Dr. Christensen testified that the injury was “not consistent with having occurred accidentally” and that the force involved would have been “noticeably violent.”

¶33 Timing of symptoms. There was also testimony from medical experts that A.M.’s symptoms would have manifested very quickly after the force that caused the fatal injury. Dr. Hatch testified that “the head injury immediately preceded the development of any symptoms that [A.M.] had” and that the “medical literature would support that in almost all cases with this severe of an injury,” the resulting symptoms would appear “immediately afterward.” Dr. Christensen similarly testified that with “traumatic axonal injury, you would expect [A.M.] to be symptomatic essentially immediately.” He added: “It’s not going to be the kind of thing where she is going to be normal for a few hours . . . . It’s a global insult to the brain that is going to manifest as . . . abnormal behavior very soon after infliction.”[3]

¶34 K.S. was alone with A.M. Finally, there was testimony establishing that K.S. was alone with A.M. immediately before the symptoms’ initial appearance. Mother and Father both testified that A.M. was in good health that morning. Father stated that after a few days of being fussy, A.M. was “feeling a little better” and that there was “nothing out of the ordinary.” Mother also testified that A.M. was “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” that morning.

¶35      Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m., and at trial, Father testified that he left for work between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. (though there was some suggestion that he may have left at 10:55 a.m.). At some point between 11:36 and 11:56 that morning, K.S. sent Mother a video showing A.M. with limp limbs and having difficulty breathing.

¶36      The collective import of these propositions is clear. Since K.S. was alone with A.M. for at least a half hour (if not several hours) before A.M.’s symptoms appeared, and since two medical experts testified that A.M.’s symptoms would have appeared very quickly (if not immediately) after the infliction of the injury, it stands to reason that K.S. caused the fatal injury. This would provide a basis to sustain the adjudication.[4]

¶37 K.S. nevertheless argues that there was insufficient evidence to support the adjudication because of various problems with the above evidence and with other aspects of the State’s case. While we certainly agree that there was conflicting evidence on certain points, the problems that K.S. identifies are not so conclusive that we can overturn the adjudication as a result.

¶38      Much of K.S.’s argument is focused on ambiguities in the record about the critical question of timing. K.S. points out that while Dr. Christensen opined that the symptoms likely manifested soon after the injury, Dr. Christensen also acknowledged that “those things”—apparently meaning medical conclusions about the time at which an injury occurred—“are not precise.” K.S. also relies heavily on Dr. Thorn’s testimony that the injury could have occurred anywhere from “almost right before” the symptoms appeared to “hours” earlier. And K.S. further points to Dr. Thorn’s testimony that he didn’t think “you could find anyone else that would be able to comment as to a more definitive timeframe.”

¶39 But when Dr. Thorn opined that he didn’t think that “anyone else” could provide “a more definitive timeframe,” Dr. Thorn was mistaken. As discussed, the State called two medical experts—Dr. Christensen and Dr. Hatch—who each testified under oath that they thought that A.M.’s symptoms would have appeared very quickly (if not immediately) after the fatal injury was inflicted. And to the extent that there was any conflict between the experts’ conclusions on this, the juvenile court was in a better position than we are to determine which version to believe. See, e.g.In re M.M., 2023 UT App 95, ¶ 35 n.9, 536 P.3d 102, petition for cert. filed, October 25, 2023 (No. 20230944) (recognizing that it “is the role of the juvenile court, not this court, to assess the weight and credibility of expert witnesses and to choose among their testimonies” (quotation simplified)); Knowlton v. Knowlton, 2023 UT App 16, ¶ 59 n.13, 525 P.3d 898 (noting that a trial court “is in the superior position to assess the weight of evidence,” including questions about which expert’s testimony to accept), cert. denied, 531 P.3d 730 (Utah 2023); Woodward v. Lafranca, 2016 UT App 141, ¶ 13, 381 P.3d 1125 (noting that a “fact-finder is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony, even if that testimony comes from an expert witness” (quotation simplified)).

¶40      K.S. also points to testimony showing that Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m., as well as testimony that Father told a detective that he didn’t leave until 10:55 that morning. Since K.S. maintains that the window in which the injury could have been inflicted was several hours long, K.S. posits that Mother or Father could have inflicted the injury before they left for work. But again, on the question of timing, Dr. Christensen and Dr. Hatch both spoke of symptoms appearing very quickly after the fatal injury was inflicted. This testimony, alone, undermines this theory, and the juvenile court was entitled to credit it.

¶41 And there are other problems with this theory too. After all, K.S.’s suggestion that Mother or Father caused the injury that morning or overnight is at odds with their sworn testimonies. Again, both of them testified under oath that A.M. was healthy when they left the house. And it also seems possible (if not probable) that K.S. would have noticed something if Mother or Father had used violent force against A.M. that morning—after all, he’d spent the night there and was at the house all morning. But K.S. never claimed to have heard or witnessed either parent injuring A.M. earlier that day. Thus, to have accepted this theory, the court would have had to discredit the injury-to-symptoms chronology testimony of two medical experts, disbelieve the testimonies of Mother and Father, and then infer that Mother or Father had used violent force against A.M. without K.S. noticing or deciding to comment on it.

¶42 K.S. also points to evidence suggesting that A.M. had sustained a prior brain injury sometime before May 7, and he then argues that this prior injury might have been responsible for A.M.’s death. But while Dr. Christensen and Dr. Thorn both believed that A.M. had suffered multiple injuries, Dr. Hatch thought it was possible that there weren’t two injuries at all. Regardless, even assuming that the earlier injury did occur, K.S. could have inflicted that injury too given that he’d been babysitting for weeks. And more to the point, Dr. Christensen testified that the earlier injury wasn’t the cause of death. Dr. Christensen explained that both the earlier injury and the later injury had caused “subdural hemorrhage[s]” but that a subdural hemorrhage “didn’t ultimately lead directly to the child’s death.” Instead, Dr. Christensen testified that “diffuse axonal injury” in the brainstem created “respiratory compromise” that led to “brain swelling and ultimately death.” And when the prosecutor asked Dr. Christensen whether the “fatal” or “ultimately fatal” injury occurred close in time to A.M. arriving at the hospital, Dr. Christensen agreed with the State’s timeline. He reiterated that after the infliction of the “traumatic axonal injury,” which he had previously identified as the ultimate cause of death, symptoms would appear “essentially immediately.”[5]

¶43                Finally, K.S. points to various problems with the version of

events offered by Mother and Father, including Mother’s decision not to take the baby to the hospital that afternoon, Father’s seemingly odd storytelling while waiting for detectives that night, and certain discrepancies between the parents’ initial statements to officers and their testimonies at trial. We’ve reviewed the record and acknowledge the potential problems identified by K.S. But these problems all go to the perceived credibility (or lack thereof) of Mother and Father, particularly as it relates to their sworn testimonies that they did not injure their child. Our supreme court, however, has directly cautioned the appellate courts to avoid second-guessing lower courts about credibility issues like these. As the court explained in In re Z.D.:

Appellate courts are removed temporally and geographically from trial courts. They do not see juries impaneled or oaths administered to witnesses. They do not view first-hand witnesses’ “tells” of posture, inflection, or mood that strengthen or erode credibility. It is the lot of appellate judges to take their sustenance from the printed page; to peer into the facts as deeply as the flat plane of paper will permit. By the time the trial transcript reaches the hands of the appellate judge, the universal adjective describing its condition is “cold.”

2006 UT 54, ¶ 24, 147 P.3d 401. It’s of course possible that the court could have chosen to disbelieve the testimonies of Mother and Father. But given its adjudication, it’s clear that the court did accept their accounts (or, at least, those portions that suggested that it was K.S., not Mother or Father, who inflicted the fatal injury on A.M.). Without something more, it’s not our place to second-guess that determination.

¶44      In short, this evidentiary picture could certainly have been clearer, and we do see this as something of a close case. But the fact that it’s a close case is the reason we shouldn’t overturn this adjudication. In In re Z.D., our supreme court stressed that an “appellate court must be capable of discriminating between discomfort over a trial court’s findings of fact—which it must tolerate—and those that require the court’s intercession. It must forebear disturbing the ‘close call.’” Id. ¶ 33. And again, under even the standard of review that both parties agree on, K.S. must convince us that the verdict was against “the clear weight of the evidence,” or, instead, we must be left with “a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” State v. Walker, 743 P.2d 191, 193 (Utah 1987) (emphases added, quotations otherwise simplified).

¶45      On this record, the juvenile court could have sided with K.S. based on certain evidence about the timing of the injuries and who was around A.M. during a potentially relevant window. But the State’s narrower view of the timing window was backed by two medical experts, and its view of who was where and when was backed by sworn testimony as well. And under the State’s evidence, K.S. was the only person who could have caused the fatal injury.

¶46      Unlike members of this court, the juvenile court observed the relevant testimony firsthand. As a result, it was in a better position than we are to evaluate the credibility of that testimony and make determinations about the key facts. While K.S. has highlighted some problems with the State’s case, we don’t see those problems as being so pronounced that the court’s decision was against the clear weight of the evidence, nor are we left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. We accordingly see no basis for overturning this adjudication.

CONCLUSION

¶47 There was sufficient evidence to support the juvenile court’s adjudication that K.S. committed child abuse homicide. The adjudication is therefore affirmed.

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

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In re H.M. – 2023 UT App 122 – termination of parental rights

In re H.M. – 2023 UT App 122

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF H.M. AND D.M.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.B.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220774-CA

Filed October 13, 2023

First District Juvenile Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Kirk M. Morgan

No. 1187751

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal,

Attorneys for Appellant

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

Jonathan P. Thomas, Attorney for Father

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1 Mother and Father separated in 2015 and were divorced in 2018. They had two children during their marriage—D.M. and H.M. (collectively, the Children). From 2015 until 2020, Mother repeatedly told state authorities that Father had physically and sexually abused the Children. In several instances, Mother prompted the Children to make allegations against Father too.

Although authorities investigated the reports, none of the investigations resulted in a finding that Father had abused the Children. Also, on two occasions in 2020, Mother absconded with the Children during times in which she did not have custody. Both times, law enforcement was involved in locating and returning the Children to Father’s custody.

¶2        After Mother encouraged one of the Children to file a new report of abuse against Father in January 2022, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights. At the close of a several-day trial, the juvenile court issued an order finding that Mother “cannot stop her destructive behavior” of making “false allegations” against Father. The court then terminated Mother’s parental rights.

¶3        Mother now appeals the termination decision. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶4        Mother and Father had two children during their marriage: D.M., who was born in 2012, and H.M., who was born in late 2014. Mother and Father separated in 2015 when H.M. was approximately three months old, and their divorce was finalized in 2018. Mother subsequently married another man (Stepfather).

Allegations of Abuse from 2015 Through 2020[1]

¶5        The reports of abuse began in February 2015, when DCFS received a referral alleging that during the marriage between Mother and Father, Father would “throw things, but not at [Mother], and punch holes in the doors.” DCFS chose not to accept this referral as a basis for action. In June 2015, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father views pornography “including teenaged girls.” This referral was unaccepted because there were no allegations that the Children were being abused or neglected.

¶6 In May 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that after D.M. came back from parent-time with Father, he would not sit down because “his bottom hurt” and his anus was “red and inflamed.” The referral was not accepted because D.M. did not make any disclosure that any abuse had occurred. In September 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children had returned from parent-time with Father with black eyes and that Father commonly yelled at the Children, which allegedly made D.M. fearful to get out of bed to use the bathroom at night. The referral was unaccepted because the Children did not report any injuries from Father or provide specific details about what Father was saying to the Children.

¶7        In early October 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children were being physically abused by Father and that H.M. had been sexually abused by Father. The referral was accompanied by photographs of a bruise on H.M.’s leg. When a DCFS worker interviewed D.M. about these allegations, D.M. reported that Father had pushed him into a “monkey bag,” but D.M. couldn’t explain what a “monkey bag” was. D.M. made no disclosures of sexual abuse.

¶8        In late October 2016, Mother contacted law enforcement and reported that H.M. had complained of his “bum hurting” after returning from parent-time with Father. Mother also said that she changed H.M.’s diaper and that there was blood present and that she had also observed tearing on his anus. Mother told law enforcement that H.M. had said that Father put his finger “in there.” DCFS interviewed H.M. the following day. During that interview, H.M. said that he had been “hurt” at “daddy’s house,” but he made no other disclosures. Shortly thereafter, H.M. underwent a physical examination at the Children’s Justice Center (the CJC), but no evidence of sexual or physical abuse was discovered during this examination.

¶9      In September 2017, DCFS received a referral alleging that D.M. had been physically abused by his paternal grandfather. When DCFS interviewed D.M., D.M. said that “grandpa pushed him backwards and he fell on the rocks, because he didn’t hear grandpa.” When the grandfather was then interviewed, he acknowledged that he had accidentally knocked D.M. over during a recent visit when moving him away from something.

¶10      In June 2018, DCFS received a referral alleging that during a parent-time exchange, Mother had pulled Father’s beard and kicked him and that Father had ripped out one of Mother’s hair extensions. This case was not accepted.

¶11      In November 2018, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father attempted to hit Mother with his car and that Father had threatened to kill Mother by loosening the screws on her car. While investigating this referral, DCFS interviewed both of the Children. H.M. reported that he gets “hurt” at “all of my parents’ houses,” that his parents get frustrated with each other, and that Father punches Mother. D.M. reported that his parents are “always fighting.”

¶12 In December 2018, March 2019, and April 2019, Father made reports against Mother suggesting that she was using illegal drugs and wasn’t taking proper care of the Children. None of the referrals were accepted.

¶13 In April 2019, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children had been “sodomized” by both Father and the paternal grandfather during visits with Father and that the paternal grandmother was aware of the abuse but not intervening. The referral also alleged that Father had punched D.M. in the stomach and testicles. As part of an investigation into these allegations, both of the Children were interviewed at the CJC. Though somewhat unclear, the record suggests that D.M. said nothing about abuse in his interview. H.M., however, said that his “old dad” is “going to be in the car when it explodes” “because he was mean to me.” H.M. also said that Father “put his penis in my bum” and “spanks [my] bum.” H.M. said that Father did the same thing to his cousins and that Mother told him this. When the interviewer spoke to Mother about what the Children had said, Mother asked the interviewer to talk to D.M. again, which the interviewer declined to do. During this investigation, Mother was “jittery and unable to finish sentences.”

¶14      In May 2019, Mother sought a protective order against Father. The protective order request was later denied. Around this same time, Mother informed DCFS that H.M. had bloody stools and that H.M. had reported that Father had “punched and kicked him.” Later that month, DCFS received information that H.M. had allegedly said Father “peed in his butt.” Father denied all allegations when interviewed by a detective from the Smithfield City Police Department.

¶15      In June 2019, DCFS received another referral alleging that the Children were being physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by Father. DCFS visited with the Children and observed no suspicious bruises. DCFS also found the accusations of physical abuse to be without merit. As part of this investigation, a DCFS caseworker and a Smithfield City Police Department detective interviewed Mother. During this interview, Mother alleged that the Children had told her that they “are being raped” and “punched in the crotch” by Father.

¶16      On July 1, 2019, Mother brought the Children to the CJC for an interview. At the outset of H.M.’s interview, and before the DCFS interviewer had even finished explaining the nature of the interview to him, H.M. said, “Well, my dad puts his penis in my bum.” H.M. said that Mother was present when this occurred, and that Father, paternal grandfather, and paternal grandmother “did it.” H.M. further reported that Father punches him with a “real hammer that is metal and black.” H.M. also reported that Father punches him in the penis and “punches me with his butt.” When asked what he saw when Father put his penis in his bottom, H.M. said, “That’s all I needed to tell you. I didn’t see anything.” When asked again what he saw, H.M. responded, “That’s all I have to tell you.” D.M. was also interviewed at the CJC that day. D.M. responded “nothing” and “I don’t know” to the majority of the interviewer’s questions. He also said that “nothing happened” at Father’s house and that “nothing happened to his brother that hurt him.” In addition, D.M. told the interviewer that Mother would talk to H.M. about events that happened at Father’s house. After finishing the interviews with the Children, the interviewer and a Smithfield City Police Department detective interviewed Mother. They encouraged Mother “not to press” the Children “for information and not to question them.”

¶17 Later that month, Mother contacted law enforcement during a parent-time exchange with Father. Mother told law enforcement that the Children wanted to share “their concerns” regarding Father. The Children spoke to law enforcement, and nothing further was reported to DCFS.

¶18      On February 21, 2020, DCFS received another referral alleging that the Children were being physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by Father. This referral alleged that Father had threatened to kill the Children and Mother if the Children reported the abuse. The referral further alleged that, within the past few days, Father had touched the Children’s genitals and “‘go[ne] inside’ their bums.” The referral also alleged that Father would give D.M. medicine to induce vomiting when D.M. would make a mistake on his homework and that Father would not allow the Children to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

¶19      While investigating this latest referral, a DCFS investigator met with Father and the Children at Father’s home. Father denied each allegation. The DCFS investigator also observed that the Children interacted with her appropriately, appeared happy and healthy, and had no marks or bruises. During this investigation, DCFS came to believe that the Children were being emotionally abused by Mother.

¶20      On February 25, 2020, DCFS received a report that Father takes the Children to “drinking parties,” that Father stalks Mother and Stepfather, and that Father “rapes” the Children. The Smithfield City Police Department conducted a welfare check but failed to find any support for the allegations or anything out of the ordinary with the Children. At this point, the Smithfield City Police Department informed DCFS that it would no longer conduct welfare checks on the Children “because of the number of reports made and lack of findings of concern.”

¶21      DCFS interviewed the Children again at the CJC on March 2, 2020. H.M. reported that Father and neighbors put cameras outside his house and that the “cameras are made from poisonous stuff that make[s] people go crazy and rip kids’ heads off.” H.M. said that the cameras have speakers to “do bad stuff to [Mother].” H.M. denied having ever been hurt and denied that anyone told him what to say at the interview. In his interview, D.M. reported that he didn’t “remember if anything has happened to him” and that there was “nothing he needs to talk about” happening at either parent’s house. D.M. also stated that no one told him what to say at the interview.

¶22      On March 20, 2020, Mother obtained an ex parte protective order against Father. A few days later, DCFS received a report alleging that Father had been sexually inappropriate in front of the Children, that Father had raped Mother in the presence of the Children, and that Father had been telling the Children that there are cameras at Mother’s house watching them. Father denied these allegations.

¶23      On March 26, 2020, the court held a hearing on the ex parte protective order. Less than an hour before it began, Mother texted a DCFS employee and alleged that the Children wanted to tell her about abuse from Father. Mother then brought a recording of the Children alleging sexual abuse by Father to the court hearing, so the hearing was continued. At a hearing that was held on April 30, the court ordered that despite Mother’s allegations, Father could resume his previously ordered parent-time.

¶24      A few days later, Mother refused to bring the Children to the exchange point, telling law enforcement that she believed the Children were in danger. That same day, the Children were interviewed at a DCFS office. Without prompting, and without waiting for the interviewer to explain what the interview would be about, H.M. said that Father had “choked him, peed in his mouth, and put his penis in his bum and it bled, and that [H.M.’s] neck was broken.” H.M. said that these things all occurred in the middle of church and that “they” were wearing church clothes when it all happened. When asked for more detail, H.M. said, “that’s all I said, that’s all I needed to tell you about,” and he continued to reply “that’s all” and “that’s all he did” to further questions. H.M. then became emotional and visibly upset, and when asked why, H.M. responded, “[B]ecause that’s what I needed to say to you!” When asked if someone had told him what to say, H.M. said that he and Mother had “talked on the iPad about it.”

¶25      When Mother was asked about H.M.’s statements later that day, Mother claimed that H.M. must have been referring to the recorded disclosure he had previously made and which Mother had previously brought to court. Following the interview, Mother asked DCFS if she still needed to send the Children to Father for parent-time the following day. DCFS informed Mother that there was not enough information to support the allegations and that it was not recommending any adjustment to parent-time.

¶26      On May 3, 2020, law enforcement was called to conduct a welfare check at Mother’s home after she reported that she was afraid Father was going to come shoot her and the Children. A week later, DCFS received a report that Father had been unable to retrieve the Children for his parent-time. Law enforcement soon learned from the maternal grandfather that Mother and the Children were staying at a local hotel, but he would not disclose its location. On May 9, 2020, Mother brought the Children to the Bountiful City Police Department to demonstrate to law enforcement that the Children were physically safe.

¶27      On May 11, 2020, Mother called law enforcement in Tooele to report that the Children’s paternal aunt and uncle were sexually and physically abusing the Children. The next day, DCFS received an additional report that Mother had told law enforcement in Layton that the Children had been sexually abused by Father and were being victimized by a sex trafficking ring. Law enforcement stated that Mother was speaking rapidly and that the conversation “went in circles.” Law enforcement was concerned that Mother was under the influence of a substance or was suffering from a mental illness. H.M. also called law enforcement that day and reported that he had been abused.

¶28 On May 14, 2020, Father obtained a writ of assistance, authorizing the help of law enforcement to retrieve the Children from Mother. Mother refused to cooperate with this order, so Father received a second writ of assistance on May 21, 2020, authorizing law enforcement to locate Mother through cell phone tracking. The Children were eventually recovered from a hotel by law enforcement.

Protective Supervision Services Case

¶29      On May 26, 2020, the State filed an expedited verified petition for protective supervision with the juvenile court. The State requested that the Children remain in Father’s custody, with DCFS providing protective supervision services. In June 2020, the juvenile court ordered DCFS to supervise the Children’s visits with Mother moving forward.

¶30      During a supervised visit at a DCFS office on July 2, 2020, Mother, Stepfather, and a step-grandfather took the Children and left the building. H.M. cried, yelled, and became upset when the step-grandfather picked him up and carried him out. Mother and the others left with the Children despite DCFS employees telling Mother that law enforcement would be called. Law enforcement soon located Mother, Stepfather, the step-grandfather, and the Children in a nearby canyon and, pursuant to a warrant, returned the Children to Father.

¶31      On July 13, 2020, the juvenile court found that Mother had neglected the Children by attempting to alienate them from Father and by making repeated reports that Father had abused the Children. The court ordered the Children to remain in Father’s custody, and it further ordered that Mother’s visits must be supervised by a professional visit supervisor and a security guard. The court also ordered Mother and Stepfather to participate in psychological evaluations and receive treatment. Mother and Stepfather subsequently participated in the ordered psychological evaluations and participated in follow-up treatment with a psychologist specializing in high-conflict custody cases. The evaluating psychologist concluded that Mother “is stuck in her narrative about what has transpired with the Children” and that she “lacks insight into her own behaviors.”

¶32      The Children began receiving therapy from a trauma therapist (Therapist). Therapist initially diagnosed both of the Children with an acute stress disorder, though she later modified the diagnoses to post-traumatic stress disorder. Therapist opined that the Children had suffered cumulative and complex trauma because of Mother’s actions, and Therapist noted that their symptoms included intrusive thoughts, negative moods, sleep disturbances, irritable behavior, angry outbursts, and physical aggression. In an August 2020 letter to the court, Therapist said that both Children, and more particularly H.M., had expressed fear of being “stole[n]” by Mother again and of having the police “chase [them] down.” Therapist also described D.M.’s stress related to the May 2020 hotel stay.

¶33      As noted, Mother began having supervised visits with Children in July 2020. DCFS’s progress notes indicate that Mother asked “some inappropriate questions during the visits,” e.g., that she had asked the Children “multiple times if they are ok or if there is anything wrong” and that Mother also questioned the Children about “where they live, who lives with them, and if anyone is telling them not to tell her things.” Although Mother had been told several times not to talk to the Children about the case, Mother asked the Children in September 2020 “if they could tell someone about the things they told her and the things she said were not crazy,” and that if they did, “they could go home with her because ‘they think that I’m lying.’” When the supervising DCFS caseworker (Lead Caseworker) told Mother not to talk about these things with the Children, Mother became defensive and told Lead Caseworker to “back off.”

¶34      Mother’s supervised visits began proceeding without serious incident, though, and in March 2021, the juvenile court removed the requirement that a security guard be present. The court also ruled that the Children could have visits in Mother’s home if Mother provided a minimum of three negative drug tests and was in compliance with all other provisions from a Child and Family Plan. In April 2021, Therapist noted that D.M. had said that he had “mixed up feelings” about the possibility of staying at Mother’s home. D.M. said that he wanted to “stay overnight at [his] mom’s house,” but he was “scared” that she would “ask questions about [him] getting hurt” and felt like he had “to answer those things she asks.” Therapist also noted that D.M. felt pressured by Mother to say that “bad things” had happened at Father’s house. Therapist noted that D.M. feels like he “disappoint[ed]” Mother if he told her that he was safe at Father’s house.

¶35 In May 2021 and again in July 2021, the juvenile court increased the length of Mother’s visits with the Children. In September 2021, the court began allowing unsupervised visits at Mother’s home. In October 2021, however, the Children told DCFS that Mother “was starting to ask questions” about Father’s “house like before and they [didn’t] like it when” she did that. In November 2021, the Children reported to DCFS that “the visits have been going well” and that Mother “hasn’t asked them questions about [Father’s] house anymore.”

¶36      At a December 8, 2021, review hearing, the Guardian Ad Litem (the GAL) recommended closing the protective supervision services case due to the substantial completion of services provided to Mother and Stepfather. At the close of the hearing, Father was awarded primary custody of the Children, and the juvenile court ordered the Children to be released from the protective supervision of DCFS. The case was then closed.

Mother’s Allegations Against Father Resume

¶37      Less than a month after the protective supervision case was closed, a series of events occurred in rapid succession that again involved Mother implicating Father in alleged abuse.

¶38 On January 3, 2022, D.M. reported to a school counselor that Father was hitting him. D.M. was unable to provide any further context or detail about the alleged abuse. On January 4, DCFS received a referral that Mother was acting erratically and had perhaps used methamphetamine. That same day, Mother refused to return the Children to Father following a mid-week visit. On January 5, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father “may have” physically abused D.M. On January 6, Mother attempted to take the Children from their school, even though that day was not hers under the parent-time schedule. Law enforcement was called, and in the presence of both the Children and other school children, Mother accused Father of attempting to kidnap the Children. The Children went home with Father.

¶39      On January 10, D.M. was interviewed at the CJC. During the interview, DCFS received an additional report that Father was physically abusing D.M. and sexually abusing him by putting “his private parts in [D.M.’s] private parts.” When the interviewer asked D.M. about this information, D.M. stated that Father “hits [him], spanks [him], chokes [him], and hurts [him],” but he denied that Father had done anything else to his body. When D.M. was asked why he decided to talk about these things that day, D.M. stated he “wanted to get it out” and was “too scared to talk about it before.” H.M. was also interviewed at the CJC that day, but he said nothing about any abuse.

¶40      That same day, DCFS learned that the Cache County Sheriff’s Office had just received a letter that was written by D.M. in which D.M. alleged that Father had physically and sexually abused D.M. and H.M. When a detective spoke with Mother that day, Mother told him that she had “no idea” that D.M. had written the letter. On January 11, D.M. was interviewed at his school regarding the letter by a detective (Detective). D.M. said that “nobody knows about the letter” and that he had ridden his bike to drop it off in a mailbox. When asked for further details, D.M. responded, “I don’t know” and “I don’t remember.” D.M. also said that he “knew” the address for the sheriff’s office and that he had run a Google search and used YouTube on his tablet to learn how to send a letter.

¶41      Detective obtained a search warrant allowing him to examine the tablets used in Mother and Stepfather’s home. Pursuant to this search, Detective found no evidence of any searches like those described by D.M. But Detective did learn that Mother had searched “when does Sheriff read the mail” on January 10, 2022.

¶42      After obtaining this evidence, Detective interviewed Mother again at the sheriff’s office. Mother now acknowledged that she had taught D.M. how to “write this letter.” She also admitted to having looked up the address of the sheriff’s office and having taken D.M. to the post office to mail the letter. Mother then said that D.M. had told her that Father has “hit, choked, and sodomized” him and that H.M. had said that the first time Father “sodomized him” was when he was three years old. Mother said that H.M. couldn’t sit down because it hurt and that “something came out of his butt when he went to the bathroom.” Mother said she was having his underwear “tested for DNA” “in Florida,” but she refused to give Detective any more information about the alleged DNA testing. Mother said that she “knows this stuff is true” and that the Children were being “put back with” a “pedophile.”

¶43      On January 12, D.M. was again interviewed at school, this time by Lead Caseworker. D.M. began crying and stated that Mother “made me write that letter.” D.M. said that the “choking, the spanking and the hitting” “didn’t really happen” and that Mother had instructed him to write a letter about “something bad about” Father and “all the mean stuff she thinks has happened” to D.M. He said that he did not ride his bike to the post office but that Mother had helped him address the envelope and had then driven him there. Lead Caseworker also interviewed H.M. at school that day. H.M. reported that Mother “forced” D.M. to write a letter to the police because Mother “is trying to get dad arrested” “so they can live with her forever.” At trial, Therapist testified that both Children told her the same things about the events surrounding this letter and that both Children had also told her that as they were mailing the letter, Mother exclaimed, “This is a day we will celebrate every year.”

Termination Proceedings

¶44      DCFS sought protective supervision services for the Children on January 19, 2022. In February 2022, DCFS filed a petition for the termination of Mother’s parental rights.

¶45      The Children soon resumed regular therapy with Therapist. Therapist later testified that “D.M. came in very tearful, very confused. He had been through four to five interviews” in one week and was “wrestling with himself because he had lied during some of them because he felt like that was the right thing to do for” Mother. Therapist testified that D.M. was “having a lot of shame towards himself” and that D.M. told her that he felt like he had “to say that these things have happened in order to make [Mother] happy.” Therapist said that H.M. told her that he was “tired of all the asking stuff with [Mother].”

¶46      From January 2022 through the termination trial in July 2022, Mother was only allowed to have supervised visits with the Children. Therapist later testified that H.M. was initially “very, very vocal about not wanting to do the visits.” H.M. told Therapist that Mother “just—she comes at me and comes at me. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to deal with it.” After a March 2022 visit, H.M. reported to Therapist that he “didn’t like it and it didn’t feel safe.” H.M. said that “it sort of made [his] stomach hurt and like maybe she was going to take [him] again.”

¶47      Lead Caseworker later affirmed Therapist’s view that H.M. was initially hesitant to have visits with Mother after the January 2022 incidents. She subsequently testified that H.M. refused to attend one visit with Mother and that when he had visits with Mother early on, he was “emotionally dysregulated.” But Lead Caseworker also testified that H.M. eventually warmed up to the visits and that by the time of trial, he would sit in Mother’s lap and hug her. Lead Caseworker testified that D.M. was “very good” with Mother and that they “like to play together.”

¶48      The GAL was still concerned, though, and requested that Mother’s supervised visits be suspended. The court held a hearing in May 2022 to consider this request. At the close of the hearing, the juvenile court found that there was “no evidence whatsoever of any harm or trauma being caused to D.M. from the visits with [Mother] that have occurred subsequent” to January 2022 and that “[s]upervised visitation is in the best interest of the Children.” The court emphasized that it intended “for the visits between the Children and [Mother] to occur, regardless of whether the Children want to go or not.” Shortly before trial, D.M. indicated that he wanted visits with Mother to “last longer,” and H.M. indicated that he wanted the visits to be at Mother’s house.

Trial

¶49 In July 2022, the juvenile court held a four-day trial on DCFS’s petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights. The court heard testimony from 17 witnesses, including numerous professionals.

¶50      The State called Mother as a witness on the first day of trial. During her testimony, Mother claimed that she hadn’t personally seen the letter that D.M. wrote to the sheriff in January 2022 and that she was now seeing it in court for “the first time”; Mother also claimed that she didn’t know what its contents were. But the State introduced evidence showing that Mother’s assertions about the letter were not true. For example, the State introduced a video of Mother’s interview at the sheriff’s office, and this video showed Mother reading the letter. The State also introduced an email that Mother had written to her father (the Children’s maternal grandfather) after the incident that showed that she was aware of the letter’s contents.

¶51      As for the long-term allegations of abuse that had been made against Father, Mother testified twice that she didn’t know if Father had actually abused the Children. And with respect to the allegations she’d made against Father, Mother testified that she had “followed the rules” and that she had “made sure” she didn’t talk to the Children about their disclosures to authorities.

¶52      Lead Caseworker testified at trial. She testified that the Children had been traumatized by “the fear of them being taken,” noting that H.M. has “dreams about a commander coming into a hotel room,” which Lead Caseworker linked to the incident in 2020 in which law enforcement retrieved the Children from the hotel. Lead Caseworker also testified that DCFS sought termination of parental rights instead of another round of protective supervised services because DCFS had “exhausted all options.” She said that while Mother “in her own testimony has said that she learned a lot [from the protective supervision services case] and that she . . . knew at the time what to do in that situation,” Lead Caseworker didn’t “know what more we could provide.”

¶53      Therapist testified at trial too. According to Therapist, when she began seeing the Children in January 2022, the Children “expressed a fear” about “what possibly may happen again,” wondered if Mother “would take [them] again,” and asked whether they would “have to go to the hotel again.” When Therapist was asked whether she thought there was “anything less significant than the complete termination of [Mother’s] rights that can adequately protect these Children,” she responded, “if we look at adequate protection coupled with normalcy, the answer to that is no.” Therapist further testified that her recommendation for terminating Mother’s parental rights “was based on the cumulative therapy [she] had done with the [Children] in the last few years” and that she thought that termination was in “their emotional best interest.” Therapist testified that H.M.’s “exact words” to her were, “How would you feel if this were always happening to you? I just want a normal life.” When she was asked how Mother could be stopped from continuing to traumatize the Children, Therapist testified, “We stop the interaction.” She also testified that although DCFS “may have talked about the possibility of supervised visitation,” “that’s not really along the normal, natural developmental means, and so I didn’t feel like that was the best option.”

¶54      In the GAL’s closing argument, she emphasized that “[c]ontact that isn’t highly structured and supervised, holding [Mother] accountable, results in trauma to these Children. They’ve expressed discomfort about the idea of being in [Mother’s] presence without a protective third party present.” The GAL further asserted that Mother “cannot be trusted to follow a court order. She cannot be trusted to act in the best interest of her children. Supervising visits for the rest of these Children’s childhood is not feasible, it’s not in their best interest, it’s not appropriate. Nothing less than termination of this relationship can adequately protect these Children now and into the long term.”

¶55      After the GAL’s closing argument concluded, Mother’s counsel asserted in her own closing argument that “[t]o presume that—first of all, that there’s no other choice but termination in this case, I don’t think it’s a reasonable position.” Mother’s counsel argued that

there were no specific reasons given during trial as to why these other options were not possible. Some of these less—you know, short of termination options would be to reopen the [protective supervision services] case and to implement . . . a reliable source for the kids to contact directly as to eliminate . . . the possibility of them making reports to either parent, to implementing a high-conflict therapist/family counselor . . . . Or start a new [protective supervision services] case . . . . Or permanent legal custody and guardianship with the dad, but which would allow the mom to remain in the kids’ lives and continue playing an active role in that. There are other options that would—that are short of termination that would preserve—that would enable the kids to continue having a relationship with their mother.

Mother’s counsel asserted that Mother had “worked hard and earnestly” to “be a better mom” and “did everything she was asked to do.” Mother’s counsel admitted that after the close of the protected supervision services case, “not all of the recommendations made by the therapist were followed,” but counsel suggested that if there had been “an assigned family therapist in place . . . we wouldn’t be here today.” Counsel concluded her argument by requesting that the court reopen the prior protective supervised services case and “require the parties to comply with the recommendations as given by the service providers.”

Termination Decision

¶56      The juvenile court subsequently issued a written decision terminating Mother’s parental rights to the Children.

¶57      Early in this ruling, the court found the testimony of Therapist to be “both credible and helpful in provid[ing] understanding of the harm done to the Children due to the actions of [Mother].” By contrast, the court found that Mother’s testimony at trial “was not credible and at times was simply untruthful.” Specifically, the court contrasted Mother’s testimony that she had never seen D.M.’s January 2022 letter and that she was unaware of its contents with the video showing her reading the letter at the sheriff’s office. The court also found that Mother had given “different versions of her story of how [D.M.] wrote the letter and how the letter was then mailed to the sheriff’s office.”

¶58      Addressing the January 2022 letter, the court found that D.M. “first lied to the sheriff deputy and stated that he wrote the letter without the help of his mother and rode himself to the post office to mail the letter,” and the court opined that it “cannot find any other reason for [D.M.] to lie about how the letter was written and delivered to the post office other than [Mother] telling him to do so.” The court found that “the allegations stated in the letter were false and were contrived by [Mother] to cause harm to and further alienate [Father] with his Children.”

¶59      The court then found that six grounds for termination had been established: abuse, neglect, unfitness, failure to provide care, token efforts, and “other.” As part of its unfitness analysis, the court found that “[a]fter years of unsubstantiated allegations of abuse against Father,” Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the Children. She simply testified that she ‘doesn’t know’ whether or not the Children have been or are being abused by” Father. The court found that “[a]fter years of therapy and services by DCFS, [Mother] refuses to take any responsibility for her behavior.” The court concluded that Mother “has shown that she cannot stop her destructive behavior regarding false allegations and refuses to take any responsibility regarding the Children’s statements to DCFS and law enforcement.”

¶60      The court then determined it was in the Children’s best interest to terminate Mother’s rights and that it was also strictly necessary to do so. In its best interest determination, the court found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” The court found that Mother

has not demonstrated the ability to sustain progress in treatment that shows that the Children would be safe in her care. Her actions taken less than a month after the protective supervision services case closed demonstrates that she has not responded to the extensive services provided to her. [Mother] has shown that when she is not subject to the strict oversight of DCFS and this Court, she reverts to allegations of abuse against [Father].

¶61      Under a separate subheading devoted to the strictly necessary determination, the court found it had “considered less-restrictive alternatives than termination of [Mother’s] parental rights” and that a “permanent custody and guardianship arrangement is unworkable and not in the best interest of the Children.” The court found that Mother “has made or caused to be made a multitude of false allegations of physical and sexual abuse against [Father] throughout a period [of] seven years, causing the Children to be interviewed repeatedly and examined and having their lives investigated.” The court further found that “[a]ny contact” that Mother has with the Children “is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment of the Children.” Finally, the court found that even when it “ordered [Mother] to be restricted to supervised visits by DCFS with the children, [Mother] absconded with the children. The Court cannot perceive a less-restrictive alternative which would protect the Children from further trauma without terminating [Mother’s] parental rights.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶62    Mother challenges the termination order on two primary grounds. First, she argues that in its best interest analysis, the juvenile court “failed to consider all the facts” and improperly relied on past events rather than engaging in a present-tense inquiry. Second, she argues that the court “did not make findings as to why supervised visitation was not feasible.”

¶63      This court applies “differing standards of review to findings of fact, conclusions of law, and determinations of mixed questions of law and fact.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 14, 496 P.3d 58. “A best interest determination involves neither a pure finding of fact nor an abstract conclusion of law. This is a mixed determination of law and fact—in which the abstract law is applied to a given set of facts.” Id. ¶ 17. “The juvenile court’s decision can be overturned only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 31 (quotation simplified).[2]

ANALYSIS

¶64      The Utah legislature has determined that “[a] child’s need for a normal family life in a permanent home, and for positive, nurturing family relationships is usually best met by the child’s natural parents.” Utah Code § 80-4-104(8). In light of this, a “juvenile court should only transfer custody of a child from the child’s natural parent for compelling reasons and when there is a jurisdictional basis to do so.” Id. “When the [juvenile] court considers a child’s welfare and best interest, the court’s focus should be firmly fixed on finding the outcome that best secures the child’s well-being.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 64, 472 P.3d 827.

¶65      To terminate a parent’s rights, a court must find that (1) a statutory ground for termination exists and (2) termination is in the child’s best interest. See id. ¶¶ 19–20. With one minor exception that we address below in Part III, Mother’s appeal does not challenge the court’s determination that there were grounds to terminate her parental rights. Rather, Mother’s appeal is focused on the best interest portion of the court’s ruling.

¶66      “The best-interest inquiry is wide-ranging and asks a court to weigh the entirety of the circumstances of a child’s situation, including the physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness of the child.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 26, 520 P.3d 38 (quotation simplified). By statute, a court can only find that termination is in the best interest of a child if it also finds that “termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1); accord In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66. The “statutory language uses the verb ‘is,’ indicating that the best-interest inquiry is to be undertaken in a present-tense fashion.” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 13, 500 P.3d 94. Moreover, Utah law presumes that “Lilt is in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents.” Utah Code § 80-4-104(8). In light of this, a juvenile court “must determine whether a feasible option short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights exists, and if it does, the court must choose it.” In re K.Y., 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 34, 523 P.3d 1159 (quotation simplified).

¶67      As noted, Mother advances two main challenges to the court’s ruling. First, Mother argues that the court did not properly account for the present-tense best interest of the Children, but that it instead improperly relied “on outdated information.” And second, Mother argues that the court erred by not determining on the record whether an order of ongoing supervised visitation was a feasible non-termination option. We reject both challenges.

  1. Present-Tense Best Interest of the Children

¶68      Mother argues that the court’s conclusion that it was in the best interest of the Children to terminate her parental rights was “based on outdated information.” In Mother’s view, the court failed to properly account for the fact “that between January 2022 and July 2022, Mother had supervised visits without incident.” We disagree.

¶69    Again, it’s settled that “the best-interest inquiry is to be undertaken in a present-tense fashion.” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 13. “Because children inhabit dynamic environments in which their needs and circumstances are constantly evolving,” the best interest inquiry must “be undertaken in a present-tense fashion, as of the date of the trial or hearing held to decide the question.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 34, 518 P.3d 993 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1279 (Utah 2023). “In a best-interest inquiry, the relevant question is almost always this one: what outcome is in the child’s best interest now?” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 12 (emphasis in original).

¶70      The juvenile court’s order in this case was properly couched in present-tense terms. In its findings on unfitness, for example, the court found that Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the children.” (Emphasis added.) The court also found that Mother “has shown that she cannot stop her destructive behavior regarding false allegations and refuses to take any responsibility regarding the children’s statements to DCFS and law enforcement.” (Emphases added.) Then, in a subsection that was specifically directed at the best interest determination, the court found that Mother’s “intent and the effect of her actions is to disrupt any semblance of stability the children might enjoy regarding [Father] while in his care,” and it further found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” (Emphases added.) And in another subsection that was specifically devoted to the strictly necessary determination, the court found that “any contact [Mother] has with the children is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment of the children,” that “Mother has not shown that she can stop the false allegations” against Father, and that Mother “fails to even acknowledge that the allegations are false or that she is in any way responsible for them.” (Emphases added.) In these and other instances in the ruling, the court made it clear that it was making a determination about the present-tense best interest of the Children.

¶71      Given this, Mother’s argument is ultimately focused on the alleged lack of evidentiary support for that conclusion. Mother asserts that although the court’s ruling may have been written in the present tense, the information that it relied on was so old or stale that the court had no valid basis for concluding that termination was in the Children’s present-tense best interest. We disagree.

¶72      In virtually any decision that’s made in law or life, questions about the present must in some measure be answered through consideration of relevant events from the past. As famously put by Faulkner, the “past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun 92 (1951).

¶73      Our cases have recognized as much in this very particular legal context. Although it’s true that the best interest determination is made in the present-tense, it’s also true that “considering what a child’s best interest is at the time of trial does not require ignoring historical patterns.” In re A.K., 2022 UT App 148, ¶ 8 n.3, 523 P.3d 1156 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023). Rather, “a juvenile court judge conducting a best interests analysis must weigh evidence forecasting future events in order to predict what course of action will best protect and nurture the child.” In re C.L., 2007 UT 51, ¶ 22, 166 P.3d 608 (quotation simplified). Since neither judges nor expert witnesses are soothsayers, the evidence that a court would rely on to “forecast[] future events” would naturally include evidence of things that had happened in the past between the parent and the children. In this sense, a court is tasked with “weigh[ing] a parent’s past conduct with her present abilities” in order to make the statutorily required determination. In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 13, 171 P.3d 435.

¶74    Mother recognizes this, but she nevertheless argues that there must be some point at which the evidence is too distant to support a determination about a child’s present-tense best interest. In concept, we agree. But in application, we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that the evidence in this case was so remote that it could not be relied on.

¶75 Mother first points out that much of the court’s ruling was based on events that had occurred years before trial. And she’s right—the court did make repeated reference to events that had occurred years earlier. But even so, we think it significant that the court was not focused on an isolated event or two that had occurred in the far distant past. Rather, the court was focused on a pattern of events that had unfolded over the course of several years. As recounted at some length above, Mother began making allegations of sexual and physical abuse against Father in 2015, and she kept making such allegations over the course of the next five years. Mother kept doing so despite the apparent lack of any corroborating evidence. And she repeatedly encouraged her young children to make allegations against Father as well, even though this resulted in the Children being subject to repeated interviews and even physical examinations, and she also did so despite the transparently imaginative nature of some of the allegations.[3] Given that the juvenile court’s inquiry in this case was in some measure predictive, its focus on a pattern of behavior that had extended over several years would of course have probative value.

¶76    Even so, Mother points out that her behavior had improved enough by the later months of 2021 to prompt the juvenile court to close the protective supervision services case in December 2021. But as the juvenile court stressed in its termination order, within just a few weeks of that case being closed, Mother encouraged D.M. to write a letter to law enforcement with yet another allegation of abuse, Mother lied to authorities when questioned about her involvement in that letter, and Mother publicly accused Father of attempting to kidnap the Children during a confrontation at a school (and she did so in front of other children, no less). These events certainly gave the court some basis for reassessing its conclusion from December 2021 that Mother’s pattern of troubling behavior had come to an end.

¶77      This leads to Mother’s final assertion, which is that the January 2022 events could not support the termination order that was entered in July 2022 because no further incidents occurred during the January-to-July interim. As an initial matter, we have some skepticism about Mother’s suggestion that events that occurred five months before trial are indeed so remote that they could not inform the court’s present-tense best interest determination. And our skepticism of this argument is particularly warranted here, where the events that occurred in January 2022 are consistent with a prior pattern of events that had stretched out over the course of several years. After all, even during the 2015 through 2020 period, there were several stretches of several months in which Mother didn’t make any allegations. Yet each time, the period of dormancy was later interrupted by new allegations of abuse.

¶78      But more importantly, we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that nothing of note had occurred in the January-to-July interim. In reviewing the juvenile court’s termination decision, two things stand out.

¶79      First, at the time of the July trial, the court now had access to new information (primarily from Therapist) about the harm that Mother’s long-term behavior had inflicted on the Children. On January 24, 2022, Therapist wrote that D.M. reported “feeling very confused because [Father] never did that stuff” but that D.M. did not want to disappoint Mother. Therapist said D.M. felt “sort of unsafe” because of the events surrounding the January 2022 letter and “all the question asking.” And Therapist also said that H.M. reported feeling “tired of all the asking stuff” with Mother and that H.M. thought that life felt “sad and mad and scary” as a result. In a June 2022 letter, Therapist then informed the court that after a March 2022 visit with Mother, H.M. told her that he “didn’t like it and it didn’t feel safe.” She said that H.M. told her that “it sort of made [his] stomach hurt and like maybe she was going to take [him] again.”

¶80      Therapist’s testimony at trial gave the court even more insight into these harms. Therapist testified that D.M. was tearful in his January 2022 session and that he was “wrestling with himself because he had lied during some of [the interviews] because he felt like that was the right thing to do for [Mother].” Therapist testified that D.M. was “having a lot of shame towards himself” and that D.M. had told her he felt like he had “to say that these things have happened in order to make [Mother] happy.” Therapist also testified that after the January 2022 incidents, H.M. was “very, very vocal about not wanting to do the visits” with Mother. She testified that H.M. told her that “[m]y mom just—she comes at me and comes at me. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to deal with it.” She further testified that H.M.’s “exact words” to her were, “How would you feel if this were always happening to you? I just want a normal life.”

¶81      The court didn’t have this information when it closed the case in December 2021, but it did have this information at trial. And this information could properly inform any decision about what was in the best interest of the Children moving forward.

¶82      Second, the court also had new information about Mother’s mindset. In its order, the court found that Mother’s trial testimony “was not credible and at times was simply untruthful.” For example, the court noted that Mother testified twice that she was seeing D.M.’s January 2022 letter for the first time in the courtroom, even though a video of an earlier interview with law enforcement showed Mother reading that letter then. The court also highlighted Mother’s contrasting stories about how D.M. had written the letter. And the court further determined that Mother’s “statements that she has no opinion on whether she believes” that Father abused the Children were “not credible[,] taking into account the history of her actions in this matter.”

¶83      Based in part on Mother’s July 2022 trial testimony, the court found that Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the Children.” And the court found that although Mother “believes it improves her standing to now say that she ‘doesn’t know’ or has no opinion on whether or not the Children have been abused,” she “continues to deny responsibility for the continuous harm of false allegations.” Mother’s testimony and the court’s observations of her mindset were, of course, new information. And this new information would have some proper bearing on the court’s assessment of whether it was presently in the Children’s best interest to terminate Mother’s parental rights.

¶84      Pushing back, Mother points to some contrary evidence showing that there had been some improvement in her relationship with the Children. For example, Lead Caseworker testified that while H.M. initially showed some hesitancy at the visits, by the time of trial he would “sit in mom’s lap now where he wouldn’t do that before. You know, he’ll hug her. Things like that.” Lead Caseworker also testified that “D.M. is very good with his mom. I mean, it seems like they like to play together. And they just have fun when he’s there.” And at trial, Lead Caseworker said that she could not remember any time since January 2022 that the Children expressed to her “any concerns or anxiety about contact with their mom.” Also, minutes from a March 2022 hearing indicate that Mother had “been appropriate on her visits.” And in a DCFS Progress Report written a month before trial, D.M. “report[ed] that he wants the visits to last longer and [H.M.] asked to have the visits in [Mother’s] house.”

¶85      But again, a “juvenile court’s decision can be overturned only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 31, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified). Here:

  • The events that occurred from 2015 through 2020 gave the court ample reason to find that Mother had a long-term and persistent desire to make allegations of abuse against Father, that she was willing to directly involve the Children in those efforts, and that she was willing to ignore court orders (such as those she ignored when absconding with the Children on two occasions in 2020).
  • The events of January 2022 and Mother’s non-remorseful testimony at trial gave the court reason to believe that Mother’s good behavior in late 2021 had been temporary, rather than permanent, and that Mother still persisted in her beliefs about Father and her willingness to manipulate the Children or court processes to support her views.
  • And the new evidence that the court received leading up to trial and then at trial gave it additional information about the harm that was being done to the Children by Mother’s behavior.

¶86      In short, the court was tasked with making a present-tense determination, and its decision reflects that it did. In making that determination, the court could properly consider past and present events together. Although the court had concluded in December 2021 that the protective supervision case should be closed, more recent events had given the court reason to reassess its conclusions about Mother’s ongoing danger to the Children. Given the evidence that was before the court at trial, we see no basis for concluding that the court’s decision was improperly based on stale evidence. We therefore reject this argument.

  1. Supervised Visitation

¶87      A court may only terminate a parent’s rights if it finds that termination is in the child’s best interest and that “termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1). “The strictly necessary language is designed to ensure that the court pause long enough to thoughtfully consider the range of available options that could promote the child’s welfare and best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 69. “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary” and “the court cannot order the parent’s rights terminated.” Id. ¶ 66. Moreover, when a juvenile court is presented with a readily apparent non-termination option, the court must “state, on the record, its reasons for rejecting feasible alternatives.” In re K.Y., 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 43 (quotation simplified). This “leaves no room for implicit rejection.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶88      As noted, the court heard both evidence and argument suggesting that supervised visitation was not a viable solution moving forward. Therapist testified that although DCFS “may have talked about the possibility of supervised visitation,” “that’s not really along the normal, natural developmental means, and so I didn’t feel like that was the best option.” And in closing argument, the GAL argued that “[s]upervising visits for the rest of these children’s childhood is not feasible, it’s not in their best interest, it’s not appropriate.” As also noted, the juvenile court then made a series of findings about why it was strictly necessary to terminate Mother’s parental rights. Despite these findings, Mother argues that the juvenile court “erred as a matter of law when it did not make findings as to why supervised visitation” was not a feasible alternative to termination. We disagree with Mother’s claim that the ruling was lacking in this respect.

¶89      The cases in which we’ve found that a court erred by not addressing a feasible alternative have involved termination orders that were far less clear than the one at issue here. In In re K.Y., for example, the court’s best interest analysis was just two paragraphs long. See 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 28. After the State asserted on appeal that the juvenile court had at least “implicitly” rejected a potential guardianship within those two paragraphs, id. ¶ 42, we rejected that assertion, explaining that it was unclear to us “which conclusion” the court would have even reached about a potential guardianship, id. ¶ 44. The order at issue in In re J.J.W. had similar infirmities. There, “the court’s best-interest analysis consisted of a single paragraph.” 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 16. And while we agreed that the court had “by necessity” implicitly rejected guardianship as an option, id. ¶ 32, we still reversed because we still saw no explanation for why the court thought that guardianship was not a viable option, id. ¶ 35.

¶90      The ruling at issue in this case is decidedly different. The court devoted nearly three pages of analysis to the best interest inquiry alone, and it then devoted an additional page and a half to the strictly necessary determination. In addition, the ruling as a whole spans over 40 pages, and many of the court’s findings and conclusions from the other sections were interconnected and had obvious bearing on the best interest and strictly necessary determinations. Thus, unlike the orders at issue in prior cases where we’ve found this kind of error, the court here issued a detailed order that gave clear insight into its thinking about the relevant questions.

¶91      This leads to the question of whether the court’s ruling left any room for ongoing supervised visits as a non-termination option. Here, the subsection on the strictly necessary determination began with the court’s declaration that it “ha[d] considered less-restrictive alternatives than termination of [Mother’s] parental rights” and its conclusion that a “permanent custody and guardianship arrangement is unworkable and not in the best interest of the Children.” Under the same subheading, the court recounted the incidents in which Mother had previously absconded with the Children. The court specifically highlighted the fact that the second absconding incident had occurred when Mother “abducted the children from a division-supervised visit at the Division’s offices in July 2020.” The court then stressed that “[e]ven when the Court ordered the mother to be restricted to supervised visits by DCFS with the children, mother absconded with the children.” With this as something of a springboard, the very next sentence read, “The Court cannot perceive a less-restrictive alternative which would protect the children from further trauma without terminating mother’s parental rights.” The court’s focus was thus explicit and clear: the court had concluded that the only way to protect the Children from Mother inflicting “further trauma” on them by absconding with them again was to terminate her parental rights.

¶92      Mother nevertheless stresses that she had not absconded with the Children recently, and in light of this, she suggests that it’s unclear why, or perhaps even whether, the court was ruling out supervised visits as a viable option moving forward. But in cases such as In re K.Y. or In re J.J.W., we were left guessing at the court’s ruling or rationale. Here, however, it requires no guesswork to see that the court had indeed rejected ongoing visitation as an option, nor is there any question about why the court had done so. Again, in the subsection of its ruling that addressed the best interest determination, the court found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” And in the subsection that more particularly addressed the strictly necessary inquiry, the court found that “Mother has not shown that she can stop the false allegations against” Father and that “[a]ny contact the mother has with the children is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment to the children.”

¶93      This ruling thus foreclosed the possibility of ongoing supervised visits as a viable alternative to termination. Taking the court at its word, the court’s express finding that “any contact” carried the risk of causing potential harm to the Children by definition ruled out ongoing supervised visits. And the court’s focus on the prior absconding events, coupled with its findings about Mother’s current lack of remorse, collectively explained why the court thought that even supervised visits would still present an unacceptable risk—whether it be of Mother absconding with the Children again or of using any visits (even supervised ones) to raise new allegations of abuse against Father. All of this is drawn directly from the court’s ruling.

¶94      In short, the juvenile court was sufficiently clear about its finding that termination was in the best interest of the Children and that termination was also strictly necessary, and the rationales given by the court directly foreclosed ongoing supervision as a feasible option. We see no basis for reversing the decision.

III. Mother’s Additional Arguments

¶95      Mother briefly raises three additional issues on appeal. But none of them warrant reversal.

  1. Adoption

¶96      At the back end of the best interest section of its ruling, the juvenile court found, “It is in the children’s best interests to terminate the parental rights of [Mother] so they may be free from abuse and neglect, so they may receive the proper safety, parenting, bonding, love, affection and stability they need, and so they may be adopted where they are safe, secure and stable.” Mother now argues that the court should not have relied on adoption in its best interest analysis because “adoption by a stepparent is wholly unnecessary” since “Father has sole custody.”

¶97      Our best interest cases have suggested that a court should not terminate a parent’s rights based on the “categorical concern” that adoption provides more stability to children than some other non-termination option. See, e.g.In re J.A.L.2022 UT 12, ¶ 25, 506 P.3d 606. But we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that the ruling here was categorical in nature. The court’s ruling was not only extensive, but it was focused on particular findings of the harm inflicted on the Children by Mother. We see no basis for overturning the decision based on the court’s stray reference to adoption in a single portion of the ruling.

  1. “Piling On”

¶98 Mother also argues that the court “piled on its grounds rulings by basing all six of its grounds-related findings on the same ‘emotional abuse.’” Mother argues that this practice violated “the spirit of the ‘grounds’ statutes, if not the letter,” because “[p]iling on multiple grounds based on the same subset of facts simply renders the additional ‘grounds’ superfluous.”

¶99      But Mother concedes that this practice “do[es] not provide independent grounds for relief on appeal.” And while Mother points to some caselaw from the attorney discipline context that might suggest that it’s problematic to “pile on” multiple overlapping charges, Mother provides no authority that supports her view that a juvenile court cannot base a termination decision on multiple grounds if the statutorily defined elements of those multiple grounds have some or even substantial overlap. We’re aware of no such authority either, and we therefore see no basis for overturning this ruling as a result of this alleged problem.

  1. Mandatory Reporting

¶100    Finally, Mother argues that “the court’s findings of emotional abuse are not supported by Utah law, where parents have both a right and a responsibility to report perceived abuse to authorities.” In Mother’s view, the “court’s decision sets up a scenario that fails to protect” children from “physical abuse and instead deems them ‘emotionally abused’ if one parent reports repeated, suspected abuse by the other.” Mother thus argues that the “court’s decision faults” her “for protecting [the] Children as she thought best.”

¶101    But the juvenile court’s extensive findings in this case leave no room for the conclusion that Mother’s rights have been terminated for anything like a good faith effort to protect the Children. The juvenile court found, with ample support, that Mother has engaged in a years-long campaign of filing unsupported or false reports of abuse against Father, that Mother has co-opted her children into being participants in this campaign (despite the fact that doing so caused them to be subjected to multiple police interviews and even physical examinations), that Mother has defied court orders and absconded with her children on two occasions, and that Mother lied to law enforcement and the court during the course of official interviews and proceedings.

¶102    We thus emphasize that a parent’s rights should not be terminated for making a good faith report of suspected abuse. But we likewise emphasize that nothing like that happened here. Rather, under the terms of the court’s order, Mother’s rights were terminated because of her years-long pattern of abusive behavior toward her children, not because of a good faith attempt to protect them.

CONCLUSION

¶103 The juvenile court did not err in relying on past events to support its present-tense best interest analysis, nor did it fail to account for the possibility of ordering ongoing supervised visits in its strictly necessary determination. Its decision to terminate Mother’s parental rights is accordingly affirmed.

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


[1] It’s appropriate at the outset to explain some of the word choices and information gaps in our recitation of the history of this case. As indicated in the introductory paragraphs of this opinion, this case centers on a years-long history of reports of abuse that were made against Father. The reports themselves are not in the record, so the record is limited to descriptions of those reports that came from others (most commonly the juvenile court in its various rulings).

In many instances, the passive voice was used when describing who had made an individual report—i.e., the record would say something like, “a referral was made.” To be faithful to the record, we’ve proceeded similarly. Also, the record sometimes says that a report was made but doesn’t then say what DCFS or law enforcement did with that report. And in some instances, the record makes passing reference to a reason a report was unaccepted without then providing much (or even any) explanatory detail. Our silence reflects those omissions too.

While acknowledging these caveats upfront, we note that the clear implications of the record generally and of the juvenile court’s termination decision more particularly are that (1) with the exception of the reports that were made by the Children themselves, it was Mother who was making most (if not all) of the reports of abuse against Father and (2) none of the reports of physical or sexual abuse that were made against Father were corroborated or accepted by DCFS or law enforcement.

[2] Mother also advances a few additional arguments relating to the grounds for termination and the broader scope of the allegations against her. These arguments are subject to this same standard of review, and we address them together in Part III.

[3] 3. As noted, the allegations included such things as an exploding car, Father allegedly punching a child in the bottom with a hammer, and Father somehow assaulting and even breaking a child’s neck in the middle of a church service.

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What affects the outcome of court cases more?

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.quora.com/What-affects-the-outcome-of-court-cases-more-the-relative-strengths-and-experience-of-the-opposing-lawyers-actual-facts-relevant-law-or-some-other-factor/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1  

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What are some ways to not appear judgmental as a lay witness?

What are some examples of how to not appear judgmental as a lay witness in court?

  1. Tell the !@#$% truth, not stories you hope will dupe the court into doing what you want or what the party who called you as a witness wants. Tell the truth. It’s your legal obligation (and if that’s not enough to persuade you, perjury is a crime). 
  2. Meaning: state what you know, not what you were told, not what you believe, not your opinions, not lies. Just what you personally witnessed. 
  3. Listen to the questions posed to you, so that you know what information is being elicited from you. 
  4. Simply answer questions, and answer questions simply. 
    • Most questions are yes/no questions, which means that the only proper possible answers to a yes/no question are: “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t know.” 
    • Do not, do not, do not try to answer yes/no questions with rambling stories. 
    • Do not, do not, do not try to answer with rambling stories questions that ask you to describe a thing or event. As Sgt. Joe Friday said (constantly) on Dragnet: “Just the facts, ma’am.” 
  5. Study in advance what it’s like to testify in court (you won’t, but you’ve been warned just the same). I don’t use the word “prepare” as a synonym for “contrive”. Don’t “prepare” to lie. Do prepare by understanding the process and the dynamics of being questioned, under oath, on the witness stand, in court (or in a deposition), by an attorney. The more prepared you are to testify as a witness, the less surprised, confused, nervous, and jittery you’ll be. The better testimony you will give. Read articles and books about testifying in court. Watch YouTube videos of people being questioned in court and in depositions. Understand this process. If you think you’re ready to testify without preparing in advance, you’re a fool. 

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

https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-examples-of-how-to-not-appear-judgmental-as-a-lay-witness-in-court/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

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What is the biggest mistake lawyers make during closing arguments?

What is the biggest mistake a lawyer makes when making closing arguments? 

  1. Being long-winded and/or obnoxious, repetitive, rambling, imprecise, boring.
    • But here’s the kicker: if you are clear and concise, then what you think are “in the bag” issues may not be, what you think are minor points may be major points in the court’s opinion. And so if you ignore the “in the bag” or “minor” points, then the court might hold that against you. In other words, it’s impossible to know if you’ve said too much or too little. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Closing arguments can drive you mad, sometimes.
  2. Believing the court didn’t make up its mind long before closing argument. 
    • But here’s the kicker: if the court really hasn’t made up its mind already (it has been known to happen), then you can’t in good conscience “phone in” your closing argument because i) that’s unprofessional and unethical; and ii) you don’t want to wonder what might have been had you tried your best. 

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

https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-biggest-mistake-a-lawyer-makes-when-making-closing-arguments/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

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What are the biggest mistakes lawyers make when presenting their case?

What are some of the biggest mistakes lawyers make when presenting their case to a jury?

  1. Being long-winded, repetitive, rambling, imprecise, boring.

But here’s the kicker: if you are clear and concise, then what you think are “in the bag” issues may not be, what you think are minor points may be major points in the court’s opinion. And so if you ignore the “in the bag” or “minor” points, then the court might hold that against you. In other words, it’s impossible to know if you’ve said too much or too little. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Closing arguments can drive you mad, sometimes.

  1. Believing the court didn’t make up its mind long before closing argument.

But here’s the kicker: if the court really hasn’t made up its mind already (it has been known to happen), then you can’t in good conscience “phone in” your closing argument because i) that’s unprofessional and unethical; and ii) you don’t want to wonder what might have been had you tried your best.

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

https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-of-the-biggest-mistakes-lawyers-make-when-presenting-their-case-to-a-jury/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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Law from a legal assistant’s point of view, week 15: Objections.

By Quinton Lister, legal assistant

I think one of the least understood facets of the legal system by lay people (like myself, a new legal assistant) is the concept of an objection in a trial. I have been to a couple trials now since I started this job, and I am still unsure about all the different ways someone can object. Sometimes I think lawyers object even when they themselves are unsure on what grounds they are objecting. They just go off of a gut feeling (and my boss tells me my impressions are accurate). As someone who is preparing to go to law school, I have been trying to pay attention to objections when they are raised and why they are important. I believe it’s a good thing that there are rules for what evidence is presented in court and how it is presented. That is the best way to ensure we separate facts from mere allegations, how we generate good arguments, and all of it—when done right—enables the judge to make an impartial decision. Now the judge will not always rule impartially just because the rules of evidence have been observed, but following the rules of evidence helps keep everyone honest, including the judge. Knowing the rules of evidence and their purposes, including objections, is vital.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.quora.com/Does-saying-after-an-answer-I-truly-believe-that-it-truly-is-damage-your-credibility-as-a-lay-witness-in-court-or-is-it-better-to-dont-add-this-type-of-qualifiers/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

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Law from a legal assistant’s point of view, week 4: Trial by fire

By Quinton Lister, Legal Assistant 

I attended my first trial this past week. I did not question any witnesses or argue the case at the trial or anything like that because I am not a lawyer (I’m a legal assistant), and it was fascinating to experience. The trial was a “bench” trial which means that the parties present their case before the judge, but there is no jury. I have learned that divorce and child custody trials in Utah never have juries. One can’t have one’s divorce case tried to a jury even if one wanted a jury trial. Fun fact, according to the attorney I work for (Eric Johnson), the only state that allows juries in divorce cases is Texas.  

One surprising thing about this trial was that it took all day even though there were only two witnesses that were questioned the entire trial, the mom and the dad. Each attorney had a long set of questions that each asked his/her client on the witness stand. The other attorney would then have the opportunity to cross-examine with his/her own set of questions. I did not envy these witnesses. It was an emotionally taxing thing for me just to observe, so I can imagine how much harder it is to be on the hotseat. 

The trial was for a child custody case. It would, in my opinion, be difficult to be a judge in this case because the only witnesses were the two parties in question. There was not much physical evidence (like documents, photos, etc.) and the two parties gave seemingly contradictory testimonies. It would be hard to be a judge in that type of situation because the judge must decide who she believes and who she thinks is lying (whether by telling flat out falsehoods or not telling the whole truth).  

I learned during this trial how important it is to stay focused because it could be easy to lose track of the line of questioning, and each side had to be prepared to counter when something unexpected happened or if there was an objection that needed to be made.  

Speaking of objections, one thing that I did not expect was that the judge could even acknowledge that a question was objectionable yet not be required to sustain the objection when an attorney pointed this out. That is a lot of power for one person to have. In this case, it was clear to me that the judge was set on finishing the trial in one day, and so there were certain objections and claims made that she wouldn’t bother with. Whether this was the right thing to do I am not certain, but that has been perhaps one of the most eye-opening things I witnessed at this trial.  

What did I learn from experiencing a trial for the first time that I can pass on? If you are preparing for a trial make sure you do your homework, understand what the purpose of the trial is and what the court needs to know, and be grateful if you have experienced legal counsel (I can’t imagine how a pro se litigant could expect to do well in trial when it’s a close call kind of case). At least, that is my point of view on the subject.  

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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As an attorney, what did you learn during your first case in front of a judge and jury that is forever etched in your brain?

As an attorney, what did you learn during your first case in front of a judge and jury that is forever etched in your brain?

Interestingly enough, in 24 years of practice I’ve never tried a case to a jury. There are two reasons for this:

1) Of the few of cases that would have been jury trials had they gone to trial, each case was either dismissed before trial or settled before trial. I wanted the experience of handling a jury trial, it’s just never happened for me yet.

2) I’m a divorce lawyer and divorce trials are conducted without juries (they are tried to the judge only and are known as “bench trials” because the judge “on the bench” decides the case, not a jury).

Disappointing and frustrating things that I have learned from the divorce and child custody cases I have tried are, among other things:

  • After he retired (name withheld to protect and reward his candor) I asked one judge before whom I had appeared several times, “How much of what was presented to you during trial went in one ear and out the other?” He said (I quote verbatim), “Oh, about 50%.” I’m not saying all judges are that way, but there’s a lot they miss or simply ignore.
  • Telling lurid tales of physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional abuse are believed (or said to be believed) a shockingly high percentage regardless of whether they are known to be, in fact, true.
    • Consequently, in my experience most courts like to take a “better safe than sorry” and “abundance of caution” approach to allegations of physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional abuse, rather than have the guts to say (as they should), “Look, all I have allegations but no proof of them. When that happens I don’t have a preponderance of the evidence to conclude these tales are in fact true. They might be, but that also means they might not be. I won’t penalize the accused merely on the basis of the accusation alone.”
  • Some judges often treated statutes and court rules as optional instead of mandatory and sometimes knowingly violate the statutes rules to get to the trial outcome they desire rather than the outcome the statutes and court rules dictate.
  • “Let the witness finish answering your question” is often said in response to an objection to the witness either failing to answer a polar question (i.e., a question that requires a “yes or no” answer) with a “yes” or “no” or answering “yes” or “no” but then editorializing for several minutes thereafter.
  • “Objection, argumentative” followed by, “Sustained” are two of the most common errors in questioning a witness.
  • “It’s not hearsay because it’s not being offered for the truth of the matter asserted” is a “great” way to get hearsay admitted into evidence, whether the excuse is valid or not.

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

https://www.quora.com/As-an-attorney-what-did-you-learn-during-your-first-case-in-front-of-a-judge-and-jury-that-is-forever-etched-in-your-brain/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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How do lawyers drag out court cases?

How do lawyers drag out court cases?

In some respects, the ways are limited only by the power of one’s imagination, but the most common ways I have experienced in my field of practice (divorce and family law) are:

  • falsely and repeatedly claiming and/or contriving scheduling conflicts, thus causing deadlines and hearings and trial preparation activities to be delayed; and
  • teasing the opposing party with the prospect of or potential for settlement as a means of preventing or protracting/delaying discovery and/or delaying a trial.

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

https://www.quora.com/How-do-lawyers-drag-out-court-cases/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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Lawyers, why do some cases drag for years without a conclusive decision? Does it help to get a favorable outcome or not? Does delay help one to get a favorable outcome for oneself?

Lawyers, why do some cases drag for years without a conclusive decision? Does it help to get a favorable outcome or not? Does delay help one to get a favorable outcome for oneself?

It certainly can.

It depends upon the participants and which one(s) believe(s) the delay benefits him/her/them. I can tell you many reasons why divorce and family law cases can (and often do) drag on (not usually for years, but it does happen), and in no particular order:

  1. Clients who don’t pay their lawyers. When the lawyer is not paid, he/she does not work. When the lawyer(s) do(es) not work, the case does not progress.
  2. Attorneys who are terrified of going to trial. Most divorce cases settle. There are many reasons for this. One of the dirty little secret reasons many divorce cases settle is because many divorce lawyers don’t want the case to go to trial. Some reasons for this include: the lawyer is an incompetent trial lawyer; the lawyer is afraid the client won’t pay for all the work involved with preparing for and going to trial; and the lawyer has been lying to the client about what a “great case” the client has and is afraid that the lie will be exposed when the client has his/her head handed to him/her at trial.
  3. Opposing parties and/or lawyers who revel in delay. Delays are frustrating (maddening) and costly. Knowing this, some spouses and their attorneys cause and exacerbate delays.
  4. Attorneys and/or parties who just don’t care about the case. The case stagnates because getting the case resolved, whether by settlement or trial, just isn’t important to them.
  5. Courts that believe/hope that by dragging out the pretrial phase of the case the parties will eventually settle out of sheer exhaustion and impatience.

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

https://www.quora.com/Lawyers-why-do-some-cases-drag-for-years-without-a-conclusive-decision-Does-it-help-to-get-a-favourable-outcome-or-not/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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What are the Steps for Getting Divorced in Utah?

What are the Steps for Getting Divorced in Utah?

To start the divorce process, you must begin by filing what is called a complaint or a petition for divorce with the court. This means you are suing your spouse for a divorce. Don’t let the term “suing” frighten you or your spouse. “To sue” means to institute legal proceedings against your spouse. That’s all.

Then your complaint or petition for divorce is served on (or officially delivered to) your spouse, usually by a law enforcement officer or a private process server. You can also waive personal service by a law enforcement officer or process server and just accept service by signing a simply accepting the documents without the need for personal service.

If you and your spouse agree to the terms of your divorce, also known as an “uncontested divorce,” the issue of “service of process” doesn’t come up because you submit voluntarily to the jurisdiction of the court by signing and filing with the court your divorce settlement agreement and other documents that indicate you recognize you are subject to the to the jurisdiction of the court.

If you’re the one seeking a divorce and the one who filed for divorce, your spouse has 21 days to respond to the complaint for divorce or 30 days to respond if your spouse is served outside of the state of Utah.

The name for the response to a complaint for divorce is an “answer”. If you wish to countersue your spouse for divorce after you get served with a petition or complaint for divorce, you can file an “answer and counterclaim”.

How the case proceeds from this point could take various routes:

  • At any point during the pendency of the case, as long as the trial has not concluded and the court issued its decree and orders, you and your spouse can reach a settlement agreement.
  • After the complaint and answer or answer and counterclaim are filed, the parties have to exchange some initial financial information and information about the evidence each party has and what witnesses the parties might call to testify at trial.
  • Then the parties have 180 days to conduct discovery. The purpose of discovery is to obtain facts and information that will reveal the truth in a matter and help both parties and the court determine what’s truly in dispute and what is not. After discovery closes, then the case is almost ready to take to trial, but not quite.
  • Before a divorce case can go to trial in Utah the parties must first to go mediation and try to settle the case (if the parties don’t want to go to mediation they can ask the court to waive the mediation requirement “for good cause,” but it’s not easy to get the court to find good cause to waive mediation. Most couples go to mediation, even if they think it won’t work, if for no other reason than to check the “we went to mediation” box, so that they can get to trial.
  • After discovery closes and mediation is completed, either party can certify the case as read for trial.
  • Then the court schedules one or more pretrial conferences to prepare for trial, set a trial date, the number of day the trial will take, and other matters.
  • After trial, the court can take up to 60 days to issue its decision on the case, after which one of the parties’ respective attorneys is ordered to prepare the Decree of Divorce for the court’s signature.

That’s the Utah divorce process in a nutshell.

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

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Utah Divorce Case Timeline Summary

Utah Divorce Case Timeline Summary

The greatest influence on how long a divorce case takes is usually how much and how severely the parties fight over the issues. The more they fight and the more things they fight over, the longer and more expensive the divorce process is. But here is a general timeline for a Utah divorce, step by step.

Bottom line: Generally speaking, a contested divorce will likely take between 15 months to 24 months. Bitterly contested divorce cases can take many years. An uncontested divorce can take as little as 45-60 days to complete from the date of filing, if the parties agree on everything.

Timeline

What happens first?

  1. Complaint or petition for divorce is filed (“complaint for divorce” and “petition for divorce” are interchangeable terms). The person who files is the “petitioner”.

What happens next?

  1. Your spouse is served with the summons and a copy of the complaint/petition for divorce. Your spouse is the “respondent”.

When?: The respondent has 21 days to file an “answer” to your complaint. Your spouse will likely not only answer your divorce complaint but also counters through you which is known as a counterclaim.

You will then have 21 days to respond to the counterclaim after it is served on you (and if you have an attorney the counterclaim will be sent to your attorney, and your attorney should provide you with a copy of it).

What happens next?

  1. Financial declaration and initial disclosures. After the complaint have been filed with the court and served on your spouse and after the parties have responded to each other’s respective complaint and counterclaim for divorce they have to exchange what are known as financial declarations and initial disclosures.

Financial declaration. The financial declaration requires you to identify

      • Whether you are employed and if so, by whom and what you earn from employment.
      • Other forms of income other than income from a job (unearned income).
      • Monthly expenses
      • Business interests, if you have any
      • Financial Assets. A description of your financial assets
      • Real Estate. Identifying any interests in real estate that you own
      • Personal Property. A description of your personal property, such as vehicles, boats, trailers, major equipment, furniture, jewelry, and collectibles
      • Debts Owed. A list of your debts and obligations, what you owe, and who your creditors are.

Initial Disclosures. Your initial disclosures require you to disclose:

      • each individual likely to have discoverable information supporting your claims or defenses
      • each fact witness you may call at trial
      • a copy of all documents, data compilations, electronically stored information, and tangible things in your possession or control that you may offer at trial
      • a copy of all documents to which you refer in your pleadings

When?: The petitioner must serve her financial declaration and initial disclosures 14 days after the answer is filed (that’s a lot of work in a fairly short time, so don’t dillydally if you’re the petitioner). The respondent is required to serve his financial declaration and initial disclosures 28 days after the answer is filed.

What happens next?

  1. Temporary orders. After the answer and counterclaim have been filed with the court, it is typical for the parties to request what are known as “temporary orders” from the court. Temporary orders are put in place to ensure that the leaves and affairs of the family are maintained during the pendency of the divorce action. So temporary orders can include things like responsibility for the mortgage and other expenses associated with the house and family. They can include temporary orders of child custody and parent time and child support and spousal support. Temporary orders can include other provisions as well, depending upon the circumstances and needs of your family.

When?: You soonest you could file for temporary orders is when you file your petition/complaint for divorce. Most people file after the petition/complaint for divorce is filed.

After the motions are file the court usually schedules a hearing within 1 to 3 months of the date the motion was filed.

What happens next?

  1. Discovery. Discovery is the process By which the parties request documents and other evidence from each other to help them get a better understanding of the issues, and to determine what issues are really disputed and which ones aren’t or can’t be disputed. Discovery is used to help the parties gain a better understanding of the issues and to help each party build its strongest case against the other party.

When?: You are allowed 180 days for discovery. The discovery period starts the day after the last day that initial disclosures and financial declarations are due from the respondent.

If you have children and you and your spouse are fighting over child custody: a custody evaluation may be ordered. A custody evaluation is supposed to take 4 months. They almost always take longer. Sometimes the custody evaluation won’t be completed by the time discovery closes. Be prepared for this possibility.

What happens next?

  1. Divorce Orientation and Education Courses. If the divorcing couple has minor children then divorce orientation and education courses are mandatory for both parties. You can learn about and sign up for those courses using this link: https://www.utcourts.gov/specproj/dived/

When?: You can take the divorce orientation and education courses any time, even before you file for divorce. Most people sign up for and complete the courses around the time after the answer and the reply to counterclaim have been filed and served.

You cannot obtain a decree of divorce without completing the divorce orientation and education courses or having the requirement to attend them waived (and for most people it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth to try to get the courses waived).

What happens next?

  1. Mediation. You must go to mediation before the case can go trial. Most divorce actions settle and most settle in mediation. If neither party wants to go to mediation or there are circumstances (such as domestic violence) that would not make mediation feasible or worthwhile, the parties can move to waive the mediation requirement.

When?: You can go to mediation any time, even before you file for divorce, although if you go to mediation before you or your spouse file(s) for divorce the court may make you go to mediation again before you will be allowed to go to trial.

So bear in mind that you can go to mediation at any point in the case.

You cannot obtain a decree of divorce without engaging in mediation or having the mediation requirement waived (and for most people it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth to try to get the courses waived).

What happens next?

  1. Trial. If the parties do not settle their case (whether in mediation or on their own), then the case goes to trial.

When?: After discovery has closed (after 180-day discovery period has elapsed), then the case can be certified for trial.

It usually takes at least 2 or 3 months from the time a party requests a trial date to get a trial date. All told, it takes about a year to a year and a half to go from filing for divorce to trial.

It usually takes at least 2 or 3 months from the time a party requests a trial date to get a trial date.

All told, it takes about a year to a year and a half to go from filing for divorce to trial.

What happens next?

  1. After trial, the court will make its decisions as to the issues that were argued over and “tried” in court and then the Decree of Divorce is prepared and the court signs it.

When?: Usually 30 to 60 days after trial.

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

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Why does a parent asking questions turn into a trial?

Why does a parent asking questions turn into a trial?

A parent questioning a child often turns into “a trial” when either

1) the child questioned is guilty of wrongdoing and does not want to be exposed or

2) the child questioned is innocent of any wrongdoing and feels as though the questions call his/her good character into doubt, which leads to the child resenting the questioning.

Keep that in mind if you are a divorcing or separated parent.

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

https://www.quora.com/Why-does-a-parent-asking-questions-turn-into-a-trial/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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