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Sandusky v. Sandusky

Court of Appeals of Utah

February 23, 2018

Kylee J. Sandusky, Appellee,
George A. Sandusky, Appellant.

         Third District Court, Silver Summit Department The Honorable Kara L. Pettit No. 114500103

          Elizabeth A. Shaffer, Attorney for Appellant

          Paul J. Morken and Frank D. Mylar, Attorneys for Appellee

          Judge Jill M. Pohlman authored this Opinion, in which Judges Gregory K. Orme and David N. Mortensen concurred.



         ¶1 George A. Sandusky and Kylee J. Sandusky had been married for more than twenty-three years when they entered into a separation agreement in early 2010 (the Separation Agreement). After approximately sixteen months during which the parties complied with the terms of that agreement, Kylee petitioned for divorce.[1] Following a trial, the court entered a decree of divorce that largely adopted and enforced the terms of the Separation Agreement. But the court determined that the agreement's term regarding the division of checking and savings accounts was not specific enough to be enforced and ordered an equal distribution of the financial accounts between the parties. In addition, the court awarded alimony to Kylee. George appeals, arguing that the trial court should have bifurcated the trial and that the court's property distribution and alimony award exceeded its discretion in light of the Separation Agreement. He further argues that the court should have granted his motion for a new trial and awarded him attorney fees. We affirm.

         I. Motion to Bifurcate

         ¶2 George first contends that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to bifurcate the trial. In particular, he asserts that the issue of "the validity of the Separation Agreement was clearly separable" and should have been tried first and apart from the issues regarding "the asset determination and distribution of marital and separate property."

         ¶3 Rule 42(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure allows a court, "in furtherance of convenience or to avoid prejudice, " to "order a separate trial of any claim . . . or of any separate issue." Because this rule "gives the trial court considerable discretion to administer the business of its docket and determine how a trial should be conducted, " this court "will not disturb the trial court's bifurcation order unless the trial court abused its discretion." Walker Drug Co. v. La Sal Oil Co., 972 P.2d 1238, 1244 (Utah 1998) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); accord Tobler v. Tobler, 2014 UT App 239, ¶ 11, 337 P.3d 296. Generally, a trial court abuses its discretion if its decision "exceeds the limits of reasonability." Shinkoskey v. Shinkoskey, 2001 UT App 44, ¶ 15, 19 P.3d 1005 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

          ¶4 George moved for bifurcation before trial, asking the court to "bifurcate proceedings related to the validity and enforceability" of the Separation Agreement and requesting that all other issues, including alimony and property distribution, be reserved for trial. In support, George asserted that "[o]nce the issue of the validity of the [Separation] Agreement is decided, there is a greater likelihood the other issues . . . would be able to be mediated without the need for litigation" and that therefore bifurcation "would serve both the interests of convenience and judicial economy and impose no prejudice to either party." Kylee opposed bifurcation, arguing that all the issues in the case, including the validity of the Separation Agreement, were "completely intertwined." She asserted that "[b]ifurcation would not help" the parties mediate their dispute and that, instead of avoiding prejudice, bifurcation "would be highly inconvenient and prejudicial." The trial court denied George's motion.

         ¶5 On appeal, George has not shown that the trial court's decision fell outside the bounds of its discretion. In the arguments before the trial court, George and Kylee sharply disagreed both about whether the issue of the Separation Agreement's validity was "a separate issue" and whether bifurcation would be convenient and avoid prejudice. See Utah R. Civ. P. 42(b). Moreover, George's most significant reason for bifurcation was improving the odds of settlement, but Kylee did not share this belief. Under these circumstances, we cannot say that the trial court exceeded its considerable discretion in weighing these competing viewpoints and choosing not to bifurcate the proceedings.[2]

          II. Property Distribution and Alimony

         ¶6 George raises a number of arguments on appeal regarding property distribution and alimony. He asserts that "the decision of the trial court does not conform with the Separation Agreement, prior Utah precedent or any notion of equity."

         ¶7 "Generally, district courts have considerable discretion concerning property distribution in a divorce proceeding and their determinations enjoy a presumption of validity." Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 119 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). We therefore will uphold the trial court's decision on appeal "unless a clear and prejudicial abuse of discretion is demonstrated." Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). We similarly "review a district court's alimony determination for an abuse of discretion" and will not disturb its alimony ruling "as long as the court exercises its discretion within the bounds and under the standards [set by Utah appellate courts] and has supported its decision with adequate findings and conclusions." Id. ¶ 84 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). In reviewing the trial court's decisions, "we will not set aside findings of fact, whether based on oral or documentary evidence, unless they are clearly erroneous, and we give due regard to the district court's superior position from which to judge the credibility of witnesses." See id. ¶ 121.

          ¶8 To provide context for George's arguments, we begin with a brief summary of the terms of the Separation Agreement and the trial court's findings regarding its enforceability. We then turn to George's specific contentions regarding property division and alimony. Last, we consider his contention that the trial court's divorce decree produced an inequitable result.

         A. The Separation Agreement

         ¶9 George and Kylee executed the Separation Agreement in February 2010 when they were living apart and approximately sixteen months before Kylee filed for divorce. The parties entered the Separation Agreement "to confirm their separation" and to settle "their property rights and other rights, responsibilities, and obligations growing out of their marital relationship." The parties agreed that division of marital property as set forth in the Separation Agreement's provisions was "fair, reasonable and equitable, " and they agreed that the Separation Agreement would "be binding on the parties." The parties also agreed that the Separation Agreement would be incorporated into any court order or divorce decree.

         ¶10 The trial court determined that the Separation Agreement was a valid and binding contract-a determination neither party contests on appeal. Because the Separation Agreement was enforceable, the trial court gave it "great weight, " but the court also "assess[ed] whether its terms [were] fair and equitable." See Pearson v. Pearson, 561 P.2d 1080, 1082 (Utah 1977) ("The court need not necessarily abide by the terms of the [litigants'] stipulations, and, although such should be respected and given great weight, the court is not duty bound to carry over the terms thereof." (footnote omitted)); see also Reese v. Reese, 1999 UT 75, ¶ 25, 984 P.2d 987 ("[T]he general principle derived from our case law is that spouses . . . may make binding contracts with each other and arrange their affairs as they see fit, insofar as the negotiations are conducted in good faith . . . and do not unreasonably constrain the court's equitable and statutory duties."). In so doing, the trial court interpreted the terms of the Separation Agreement, identified certain of the parties' assets as either marital or separate property, and entered findings supporting its division of property and its alimony award.

         B. Property Division

         ¶11 George now contends that the property "distribution made by the Court was not consistent with the Separation Agreement and was inequitable." Although he acknowledges that, in his words, "a property settlement agreement is not binding upon the trial court in a divorce action, " he asserts that "the property division agreed to by the parties should not have been disturbed."

         ¶12 "[T]he overarching aim of a property division, and of the decree of which it and the alimony award are subsidiary parts, is to achieve a fair, just, and equitable result between the parties." Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 25 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2017) (permitting courts to issue "equitable orders relating to" property in divorce cases). "Utah law presumes that property acquired during a marriage is marital property subject to equitable distribution." Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 26. "[M]arital property is ordinarily divided equally between the divorcing spouses . . . ." Stonehocker v. Stonehocker, 2008 UT App 11, ¶ 13, 176 P.3d 476 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). In contrast, separate property is generally composed of "premarital property, gifts, and inheritances, " and ordinarily the "spouse bringing such . . . property into the marriage may retain it in the event of a divorce." Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 143 (omission in original) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Yet separate property "is not totally beyond a court's reach" and may be included as part of the marital estate in three circumstances: "when separate property has been commingled; when the other spouse has augmented, maintained, or protected the separate property; and in extraordinary situations when equity so demands." Lindsey v. Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 33, 392 P.3d 968 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Having set forth these guiding principles for the distribution of property upon divorce, we now address George's specific contentions regarding the trial court's treatment of the financial accounts, certain real property, and loans.

         1. The Financial Accounts

         ¶13 George challenges the trial court's distribution of the couple's financial accounts, attacking the court's interpretation of the Separation Agreement and asserting that the court "erred in determining that the bank accounts were not sufficiently identified to justify . . . deeming them marital property." In George's view, the Separation Agreement "was not sufficiently ambiguous as to warrant the court's re-disposition of property already agreed-upon by the parties." In the alternative, he contends that even if the Separation Agreement's provision regarding the checking and savings accounts was unenforceable, the trial court ...

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