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Rule v. Rule

Court of Appeals of Utah

August 3, 2017

Geoffrey S. Rule, Appellee,
Richelle Rule, Appellant.

         Third District Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable Su J. Chon No. 134901588

          Edward J. Stone, Attorney for Appellant

          Suzanne Marelius, Attorney for Appellee

          Judge Stephen L. Roth authored this Opinion, in which Judges Gregory K. Orme and Jill M. Pohlman concurred. [1]

          ROTH, Judge.

         ¶1 Richelle Rule appeals from the district court's final order on its supplemental findings and conclusions regarding her alimony award. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.


         ¶2 Geoffrey S. Rule and Richelle Rule[2] married in March 1997. They divorced by bifurcated decree in March 2014, reserving for trial several issues, including alimony.

         ¶3 Before the May 2014 trial, both parties submitted updated financial declarations to the district court. In her declaration, Richelle included both the expenses incurred during marriage and the actual expenses she was incurring at the time of trial for many of the categories of monthly expenses-essentially providing the court with both a marital standard of living and her reduced living standard during the period after separation and before trial. For example, for her housing expenses, she indicated that the mortgage during her marriage was approximately $1, 300 a month, but that her current rental expense was $950 a month. She also included estimates for certain expenses based on expected homeownership similar to that enjoyed during the marriage. For example, regarding utilities, she noted that she was spending $50 a month on gas in her current circumstances but estimated it would cost an additional $125 a month based upon the "lifestyle established during the marriage." And she included among her expenses voluntary and discretionary items based upon the marital standard of living that she was not currently able to afford, such as an approximately $600 monthly retirement contribution, $50 in donations, $80 in gifts, $300 in travel, and $120 in entertainment. In Geoffrey's declaration, the amounts itemized in a majority of the expense categories were identical to Richelle's declared marital standard of living expenses. For example, Geoffrey also included approximately $1, 300 a month in mortgage expenses and a $600 monthly retirement contribution.

         ¶4 Both parties were employed during the marriage. Geoffrey continued to work full time as a scientist and indicated that he earned a gross income of approximately $5, 900 a month. Richelle had held various jobs during the marriage-most of them part time-but at the time of trial was unemployed and had been since late summer the year before. Richelle indicated in her updated financial declaration that her only income at the time was a temporary alimony and child support award of $1, 500 a month. At trial she presented a report and testimony from a vocational expert regarding her employment potential. The report noted that Richelle had most recently been employed as a customer service agent in the insurance industry with an hourly wage of $17.00, but it also noted that there were ongoing concerns that significantly impacted her ability to be successful at work. Having reviewed Richelle's vocational history, records related to her employability, and the results of the vocational testing, the expert opined that Richelle would not be able to work full time and could "have difficulty in the workplace with even part-time work." Nonetheless, the expert stated that Richelle might be able to perform "lower skilled job tasks . . . in a small, low stress office environment, " and that her earning capacity would be maximized by part-time employment as an insurance processing clerk making $12.00 per hour. The vocational expert recommended that Richelle work with the State Division of Rehabilitation Services to assist her with placement in an appropriate setting.

         ¶5 Following trial, the court entered its first supplemental findings of fact and conclusions of law as well as a supplemental decree of divorce addressing the issues reserved for trial. With respect to alimony, the court made findings addressing the parties' respective incomes, monthly expenses, and needs. The court determined that Geoffrey's gross monthly income was $6, 167, with a net monthly income of $5, 466. Turning to Richelle, the court found that, based on the vocational expert's testimony and report, Richelle required retraining in another field in order to transition from part-time to full-time employment, which it noted may take "approximately two years." Based on this, the court concluded that it was appropriate to impute minimum wage to Richelle in the amount of $1, 257 per month gross income or $1, 005 net income.

         ¶6 As to Richelle's needs and Geoffrey's ability to support her, the court expressly declined to make any finding regarding the standard of living established during the marriage because it found that "neither party [could] maintain the standard of living established during the marriage, given the divorce." Instead, the court determined each party's reasonable monthly expenses by "review[ing] both Financial Declarations of the parties and . . . discount[ing] anything that was voluntary and discretionary." With regard to Richelle's claimed expenses, the court made adjustments to reflect "actual" rather than "estimated" or "projected" expenses. After making its adjustments, the court determined that Richelle had reasonable monthly expenses of $3, 100 and, after subtracting her imputed income and child support, an unmet need of $1, 362. The court found, after making adjustments to some expense categories in Geoffrey's financial declaration, that he could not "provide for all of [Richelle's] unmet financial need" but had "the ability to contribute the sum of $814 . . . to [her]." Ultimately, the court awarded Richelle alimony in the amount of $814, to continue for the term of the marriage-seventeen years.

         ¶7 Following the entry of the court's supplemental decree, Richelle filed a motion under rule 59 and rule 60 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, requesting additional findings and conclusions or relief from judgment. Richelle argued that the court erred by declining to "make a finding of the parties' monthly needs consistent with the standard of living established during the marriage." She asserted that both parties had presented evidence of the "standard of living established during the marriage" through their financial declarations and that Utah precedent required the court to assess her needs in light of the parties' marital standard of living; thus, it was inappropriate for the court to make its needs assessment based only on the parties' reduced circumstances after separation. Richelle contended that, partly as a consequence of this error, the court erred by failing to equitably apportion between the parties the burden of inadequate resources according to established precedent.

         ¶8 In response to Richelle's motion, the court issued a second set of supplemental findings and conclusions and order. The court again refused to address alimony based upon the parties' marital standard of living, stating that it evaluated Richelle's "standard of living at the time of trial to determine her need given that there is not enough money to cover the [marital] standard of living." The court adjusted Geoffrey's net monthly income from its earlier figure of $5, 446 to $4, 810, apparently by applying a higher 22% tax rate to his gross monthly income of $6, 167. It also further adjusted and reduced Richelle's monthly needs based upon "actual amounts stated at trial" and specifically "exclude[d] any amounts" for "voluntary, discretionary expenses, " such as donations, gifts, and retirement contributions. After the adjustments, it determined that Richelle had a "reasonable budgetary need of $2, 702." The court similarly reduced certain of Geoffrey's claimed expenses it labeled as "unnecessary present expenses, " including some it considered to be discretionary, such as donations and retirement contributions. The court then found that Geoffrey had "reasonable monthly expenses" of $3, 198. Ultimately, the court increased Richelle's alimony award from $814 to $874 per ...

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