Christina L. Gardner, Appellant,
Nelson D. Gardner, Appellee.
Certification from the Court of Appeals Third District, Salt
Lake The Honorable Matthew Bates No. 164902102
W. Hughes, Julie J. Nelson, Erin B. Hull, Salt Lake City, for
L. Coil, Luke A. Shaw, Kyle O. Maynard, Sandy, David W. Read,
Salt Lake City, for appellee
Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which
Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, Justice Pearce,
and Justice Petersen joined.
DURRANT, CHIEF JUSTICE
1 After a twenty-two year marriage, Nelson Gardner and
Christina Gardner divorced. Before the divorce trial, they
settled issues related to child custody and the distribution
of their marital property. But they could not agree on the
proper terms of Mr. Gardner's alimony obligation to Ms.
Gardner. After a three-day bench trial, the district court
determined that Ms. Gardner was entitled to alimony, but,
because of her extramarital sexual affairs, the court reduced
her alimony award in amount and duration.
2 Specifically, the court calculated the amount of the
alimony award based on Ms. Gardner's expected reasonable
monthly expenses, rather than on the monthly expenses she had
incurred while married to Mr. Gardner. The court also set the
alimony award for a period of ten years rather than the
maximum statutory length of twenty-two years. The court
stated that it was making these reductions because it did not
believe it would be fair, where Ms. Gardner's conduct had
substantially contributed to the demise of the marital
relationship, to obligate Mr. Gardner to maintain Ms. Gardner
at the standard of living she enjoyed during the marriage.
3 Ms. Gardner now appeals the terms of the alimony award,
arguing the court erred in the following respects: (1) in
determining that her infidelities substantially contributed
to the end of the marriage; (2) in setting the specific terms
of the alimony award; (3) in imputing income to her at an
"arbitrary amount"; (4) in failing to consider the
tax burden of the alimony award; and (5) in denying her
request for attorney fees. Because none of the alleged errors
constituted an abuse of the district court's discretion
or were plainly incorrect, we affirm the district court's
alimony determination on all counts.
4 Nelson Gardner and Christina Gardner were married for
twenty-two years before divorcing in 2017. During the course
of the marriage, Mr. Gardner worked full-time, and Ms.
Gardner stayed home with their five children. Although the
couple had agreed to this arrangement, after their youngest
child turned five, Mr. Gardner frequently encouraged Ms.
Gardner to work outside the home or to obtain additional
5 At the time of the divorce, Mr. Gardner worked as a
"global director of business development," making
roughly $200, 000 per year. Ms. Gardner, on the other hand,
did not have consistent employment but "occasionally
worked part-time, earning $11 or $12 per hour." Ms.
Gardner does not have a college degree or any professional
license, but she has earned money teaching swimming, piano,
sewing, and art classes. Also, she has earned sizeable
commissions for her artwork, although not on a consistent
6 The couple's relationship had a lot of "ups and
downs" throughout the marriage. Mr. Gardner testified
that the key factor in the couple's marital discord was
Ms. Gardner's "multiple episodes of
infidelity." In 2007 and 2009, Ms. Gardner had
extramarital sexual affairs. Although the parties appeared to
have "reconciled and moved on" following these
affairs, the court found that Mr. Gardner had suspected Ms.
Gardner of having another affair in 2013. And, according to
Mr. Gardner, the "final nail" was in 2016 when he
discovered that Ms. Gardner had developed an
"inappropriate relationship" with another man. He
made this discovery after Ms. Gardner was injured in an
accident while allegedly spending time with that
Mr. Gardner filed for divorce shortly thereafter.
7 Although both parties also testified to the existence of
other marital problems, including "mutual verbal
abuse" and one act of physical abuse by Ms. Gardner, as
well as to arguments over finances and marital
responsibilities, the district court found that it was Ms.
Gardner's "sexual relationships with persons other
than [Mr. Gardner that] substantially caused the breakup of
the marriage relationship." The district court
determined that this constituted "fault" under Utah
Code section 30-3-5, and so could be considered as part of
the court's alimony determination.
8 The court factored fault into its alimony determination in
two ways. First, it held that, due to Ms. Gardner's
fault, it need not pursue the typical goal of equalizing the
standards of living between the parties. Second, it
determined that Ms. Gardner was not entitled to alimony
"for the maximum allowed duration." It reasoned
that these reductions were warranted because it would be
"unfair for one of the parties to cause the breakup of
the marriage relationship but to continue to enjoy the
temporal and material benefits of having the (ex-)spouse
support an affluent life-style enjoyed by both during the
9 The court departed from the goal of equalization by
calculating Ms. Gardner's alimony award based on
"reasonable monthly expenses" rather than on the
expected monthly expenses she incurred while living at the
lifestyle she enjoyed before the divorce. This resulted in a
$1, 513 reduction in Ms. Gardner's estimated
"need"-from $6, 950 to $5, 437 per month.
10 The court arrived at this reduced number, in part, by
reducing her expected housing expenses "from $2, 455
[per] month to $1, 600 [per] month." It concluded that
although $1, 600 per month might not be enough to buy a home
in her former neighborhood, it should be enough to rent
"a three bedroom apartment . . . in that area" or
to purchase "a modest home, probably on the west side of
the freeway." The court also reduced other anticipated
living expenses, such as Ms. Gardner's anticipated car
payment and gas and utility expenses, to reflect more
"reasonable" monthly expenses.
11 With Ms. Gardner's adjusted monthly expenses in mind,
the court set out to calculate an alimony payment amount that
would meet her needs. As the first step in this calculation,
the court imputed an income of $1, 300 per month to Ms.
Gardner. Next, the court factored in the $2, 137
per month in child support payments that Ms. Gardner would be
receiving from Mr. Gardner until the two minor children
turned eighteen or graduated from high school, whichever
occurred later. Finally, the court awarded Ms. Gardner $2,
000 per month in alimony payments. Adding the imputed income,
child support, and alimony together, the court calculated
that Ms. Gardner would have an income of $5, 437 ($4, 137 of
which would come from Mr. Gardner) per month to match her
expected reasonable needs of $5, 437.
12 The court also determined that the alimony payment amount
would increase to $2, 368 per month once their second
youngest son turned eighteen or graduated from high school.
And it would increase again to $3, 128 per month once their
youngest son turned eighteen or graduated from high school.
Thereafter, the alimony amount would decrease by $200 per
year until the term for alimony expired or terminated for
another reason. The court explained that this
"step-down" arrangement was designed "to
encourage [Ms. Gardner] to start working, get some
education, or, if she is indeed disabled,  to seek income
from a government or charitable disability program."
13 Although the court acknowledged that under the adjusted
monthly totals, Ms. Gardner would not be able to enjoy
"the same affluent life-style that she had during the
course of the marriage," it explained that such a result
was fair in light of its fault determination because to do
otherwise would have the effect of "penaliz[ing] Mr.
Gardner for something that really did not appear . . . was
14 The court also factored fault into its alimony calculation
by deciding that Ms. Gardner was "not entitled to
receive alimony for the maximum allowed duration under the
statute, which is the length of the marriage." So the
court ordered Mr. Gardner to pay alimony for a ten-year
period, rather than the maximum allowed period of twenty-two
15 Ms. Gardner now appeals the terms and the length of the
alimony award. The appeal was initially filed in the court of
appeals, but that court certified it to us. We have
jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(b).
16 Ms. Gardner raises a number of issues on appeal. First,
she challenges the district court's fault determination,
as well as the terms of her alimony award. We review a
district court's alimony determination "for an abuse
of discretion and 'will not disturb [its] ruling on
alimony as long as the court exercises its discretion within
the bounds and under the standards we have set and has
supported its decision with adequate findings and
conclusions.'" Second, she argues that the district
court plainly erred when it failed to account for the tax
burden imposed by the imputed income and by Ms. Gardner's
alimony award. This issue was not preserved, so we address it
under the plain error doctrine. Finally, Ms. Gardner argues that
the court abused its discretion when it failed to award her
attorney fees under Utah Code section 30-3-3(1). We review a
district court's decision to award attorney fees pursuant
to this statute for an abuse of discretion.
17 Ms. Gardner challenges several aspects of the district
court's alimony determination. First, she argues the
court abused its discretion when it determined that
"statutorily-defined fault substantially contributed to
the breakup of the marriage." Second, she argues the
court misapplied the law in determining the terms of the
alimony award without achieving "the first two
'primary aims of alimony.'" Third, she argues
the court abused its discretion in imputing income to her.
Fourth, she argues the court plainly erred by failing to
consider her tax burden when determining the alimony amount.
And finally, she argues the court abused its discretion when
it declined to award her attorney fees under the divorce
18 In divorce actions, a district court "is permitted
considerable discretion in adjusting the financial and
property interests of the parties, and its actions are
entitled to a presumption of validity." Accordingly,
we will reverse only if (1) "there was a
misunderstanding or misapplication of the law resulting in
substantial and prejudicial error"; (2) the
factual findings upon which the award was based are
"clearly erroneous"; or (3) the party challenging
the award shows that "such a serious inequity has
resulted as to manifest a clear abuse of
discretion." Because "we can properly find abuse
only if no reasonable person would take the view adopted by
the trial court," appellants have a "heavy
burden" to show that an alleged error falls into any of
these three categories.After reviewing the district
court's alimony determination under this standard, we
conclude that none of the errors Ms. Gardner alleges
constitute reversible error. Accordingly, we affirm.
Affirm the District Court's Determination That Ms.
Gardner's Affairs Substantially Contributed to the
19 First, we consider whether the district court abused its
discretion by determining, under Utah Code section
30-3-5(8)(c), that Ms. Gardner was at fault in causing the
divorce. We hold that it did not.
20 The court found that Ms. Gardner had engaged in wrongful
conduct during the marriage that substantially contributed to
the breakup of the marriage relationship. But in doing so,
the court did not explain how it defined the term
"substantially contributed"-a term that is not
defined in statute or our caselaw. So, as part of our
determination, we must clarify what constitutes conduct that
"substantially contributes" to a divorce. Under
this clarified standard, we conclude that the district court
did not err in making its fault determination.
Under Utah Code section 30-3-5(8)(c), "substantially
contributed" means conduct that was a significant cause
of the divorce
21 Utah Code section 30-3-5(8)(b) authorizes courts to
consider "the fault of the parties in determining
whether to award alimony and the terms of the alimony."
And Section 30-3-5(8)(c) states that a spouse's
participation in an extramarital affair constitutes fault if
it "substantially contributed" to the breakup of
the marriage. No Utah appellate court has defined what
constitutes conduct that "substantially
contributed" to a divorce. Accordingly, we consider the
meaning of the term as a matter of first impression.
22 Under the plain meaning of the term "substantially
contributed," the conduct at issue must be an important
or significant factor in the divorce, but it does not have to
be the first cause, or the only cause.
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines
"substantial" variously as "not imaginary or
illusory," "considerable in quantity," and
"being largely but not wholly that which is
specified." Although none of these definitions are a
perfect fit with the use of "substantial" in
section 30-3-5(8), each definition suggests that
"substantial" means a considerable or important
part of something, but not necessarily the entire part. Under
these definitions, a substantial cause is one that is
sufficient to lead to the breakup of the marriage, but is not
necessarily the only identifiable cause. This is the same way
in which "substantial" is used in other areas of
23 For example, in Utah we employ a "substantial
factor" test when determining causation in negligence
actions. Black's Law Dictionary defines the
"substantial-cause test" as the "principle
that causation exists when the defendant's conduct is an
important or significant contributor to the plaintiff's
injuries." So according to Black's Law
Dictionary, a substantial cause can be defined as an
"important or significant contributor" to a
24 And the Restatement (Second) of Torts defines
The word "substantial" is used to denote the fact
that the defendant's conduct has such an effect in
producing the harm as to lead reasonable men to regard it as
a cause, using that word in the popular sense, in
which there always lurks the idea of responsibility, rather
than in the so-called "philosophic sense," which
includes every one of the great number of events without
which any happening would not have occurred. Each of these
events is a cause in the so-called "philosophic
sense," yet the effect of many of them is so
insignificant that no ordinary mind would think of them as
25 So, like the Black's Law Dictionary definition, the
Restatement describes a substantial cause as a cause that a
reasonable person would consider an important or significant
factor in the bringing about of a specific event. This
definition applies equally well in the divorce context.
26 As with harm in a negligence case, a "great number of
events" may have contributed to a divorce. In fact, we
have previously recognized "that it is seldom, perhaps
never, that there is any wholly guilty or wholly innocent
party to a divorce action." So in almost all divorce
cases, it could be argued that each spouse contributed in
some way to the breakup of the marriage. But some
causes are clearly more substantial, or significant, than
others. So even though it may be impossible to state with
certainty a sole, or even the first, cause leading to the
breakup of the marriage, it will certainly be possible in
many cases for a court to determine the significant or
important causes of the divorce.
27 Accordingly, we conclude that "substantially
contributed" to the breakup of the marriage is conduct
that was a significant or an important cause of the divorce.
Under this definition, conduct need not be the sole, or even
the most important, cause for it to substantially contribute
to a divorce. So when an important or significant cause falls
into a category of conduct specifically identified in section
30-3-5(8), courts are authorized to consider it in an alimony
determination, even if the at-fault party can point to other
potential causes of the divorce.
The district court did not abuse its discretion in
determining that Ms. Gardner's extramarital
affairs substantially contributed to the
28 In this case, the district court held that Ms.
Gardner's "infidelity substantially contributed to
the breakup of the marriage relationship." As Ms.
Gardner herself acknowledges in her brief, fault in this case
could be established only if the court found that Ms. Gardner
(1) "engag[ed] in sexual relations with a person other
than the party's spouse" and by so doing she (2)
"substantially contributed to the breakup of the
marriage." Ms. Gardner claims that "no conduct
meets both [of these] elements." But the district court
found otherwise. Because the court did not misapply the law,
and its findings are not clearly erroneous, it did not abuse
its discretion in concluding that Ms. Gardner's conduct
substantially contributed to the breakup of the marriage.
29 In the divorce decree, the district court found that Ms.
Gardner "had affairs involving sexual relations with
persons other than her spouse in 2007 and 2009." The
court also found that Mr. Gardner "suspected another
affair in 2013 and [Ms. Gardner] admitted to an inappropriate
relationship in 2016 at the time of the filing of petition
for divorce[, ] [which] had not yet become physical."
Finally, the court found that Mr. Gardner "filed for
divorce because [Ms. Gardner] had previously been unfaithful
and had commenced another inappropriate relationship that
[Mr. Gardner] believed would become a sexual
relationship." Based on these factual findings, the
court determined that "Ms. Gardner's sexual
relationships with persons other than [Mr. Gardner]
substantially caused the breakup of the marriage
relationship." The court did not misapply the law in
making this determination.
30 Ms. Gardner argues the court erred by characterizing her
relationship with another man in 2016 as a sexual
relationship. But she does not point to any place where the
district court suggested that the 2016 relationship
constituted a sexual relationship. Rather, the court
determined that Ms. Gardner had engaged in extramarital
affairs in 2007 and 2009, and then found that "Ms.
Gardner's sexual relationships with persons other than
[Mr. Gardner] caused the breakup of the marriage
relationship." Accordingly, Ms. Gardner fails to show
that the court misapplied the law by incorrectly
characterizing a non-physical relationship as a sexual
31 Ms. Gardner also fails to show that the court's fault
finding was clearly erroneous. Importantly, she does not deny
that she engaged in extramarital affairs in 2007 and 2009, so
the first element of fault is met. Instead, she argues that
the district court clearly erred when it found those affairs
to have substantially caused the breakup of the marriage. We
32 In reviewing a district court's factual findings, we
must keep in mind that the district court "has a
comparative advantage in its firsthand access to factual
evidence, and because there is no particular benefit in
establishing settled appellate precedent on issues of fact,
there is a potential downside and no significant upside to a
fresh reexamination of the facts on
appeal." So, under our clearly erroneous
standard, we will disturb a court's factual findings only
where the court's conclusions do not logically follow
from, or are not supported by, the evidence.
33 Ms. Gardner argues the court clearly erred for two
reasons. First, she asserts the court clearly erred in
concluding that other causes "did not substantially
contribute to the breakup of the marriage relationship,"
because "'irreconcilable differences' provided
not only '[an]other reasonable explanation,' but the
most 'reasonable explanation' for the divorce."
Second, she asserts the court clearly erred because the
extramarital affairs played a "relatively minor role in
the divorce." But neither argument convinces us that the
court's findings were clearly erroneous.
34 As evidence of irreconcilable differences, Ms. Gardner
points to "multiple disputes unrelated to the
infidelity," including disputes over their level of
religious involvement, their division of labor in the home,
and finances, as well as to episodes of mutual verbal abuse,
and one episode in which she hit Mr. Gardner. But, as we have
already discussed, conduct need not be the first, or only,
cause of the breakup of the marriage for it to substantially
contribute to the divorce. Instead, it need only be an
important or significant cause. So the evidence of other
sources of contention does not foreclose the possibility that
Ms. Gardner's multiple episodes of infidelity
substantially contributed to the divorce. And when the other
evidence presented at trial is considered, we conclude that
the district court's fault determination is not clearly
35 In fact, the record evidence suggests that Ms.
Gardner's extramarital affairs were a significant, if not
the primary, impetus for the demise of the marriage. At
trial, Mr. Gardner was asked what fueled the breakup of the
parties' marriage, and he replied as follows:
It goes back a long ways. There's been lots of ups and
downs in the marriage, lots of ups and downs. There's
been infidelity that took place back in 2005, '6, '7,
I don't know the actual time periods. I know that it was
real to me in 2007. There was additional infidelity that took
place in February of 2009 and on and on. The date of her
accident, I believe she was with someone who was probably an
inappropriate friend as well.
36 Mr. Gardner was then asked to confirm whether "these
infidelities . . . led to the demise of the marriage,"
to which he replied that it "was clearly a very big
impetus for where [they] went." And it was only after
explaining how Ms. Gardner's infidelities affected their
marriage that he explained that there were other sources of
"discontent" between them, such as disputes
regarding their religion, income, and the division of
responsibility within the marriage. This testimony suggests
that the extramarital affairs were a significant cause of the
divorce, even though there were other areas of contention in
their marriage. Accordingly, the evidence supports the
district court's conclusion that Ms. Gardner's
extramarital affairs substantially contributed to the breakup
of the marriage. And Ms. Gardner does not point to any other
evidence that would contradict this.
37 The closest Ms. Gardner comes to contradicting Mr.
Gardner's testimony is when she discusses his attempts to
stay in the marriage from the time he learned of the
infidelities until 2016. She argues that the evidence
suggests that her extramarital affairs played a
"relatively minor role in the divorce" because Mr.
Gardner stayed in the marriage for as long as he did.
38 In support, she points to the fact that Mr. Gardner had
initially told their children that they were getting a
divorce in 2007 after the first episode of infidelity, but
that he "reconsidered" because Ms. Gardner
"agreed to go through the repentance process at their
church." She also points to the fact that, despite her
affair, "he tried to help her, 'absolutely,'
[by] seeking help from a psychiatrist and staging an
intervention with the help of friends [and] by sending her
from Arizona to Park City for a few days 'to collect
herself.'" But rather than contradict Mr.
Gardner's testimony that the extramarital affairs harmed
the marriage, this additional testimony further corroborates
it. The fact that he considered divorce after the first
affair in 2007 and sought to find her "help"
indicates that Mr. Gardner viewed his wife's infidelity
as having significantly damaged their marriage. And this
conclusion is not undermined by the fact that he agreed to
remain in the marriage once she agreed to go through a formal
repentance process through their church.
39 In fact, other comments he made regarding his decision to
remain in the marriage confirm how damaging her extramarital
affairs were. He testified that his decision was a
"tough" one in light of her "multiple episodes
of infidelity," and that even though he "really
tr[ied] to hang on" he "sort of knew that it was
probably the end." So Mr. Gardner's decision to not
get divorced immediately upon learning of her extramarital
affairs does not suggest that the affairs were an
insubstantial factor in the marriage's eventual breakup.
40 Ms. Gardner also points to Mr. Gardner's testimony
that he "was very committed to [the] relationship
forever except for some of the egregious things that took
place" to suggest that her affairs were not significant.
But the most reasonable interpretation of this comment is
that Mr. Gardner was very committed until Ms.
Gardner made the "egregious" decision to engage in
an extramarital affair. So, once again, the evidence Ms.
Gardner cites to attack the court's findings actually
41 Finally, Ms. Gardner points to the events surrounding an
accident she suffered in 2016 to suggest that this incident,
and not the previous affairs, was the true cause of the
divorce. She claims that the parties "had a pretty good
blowup," and that this was the true end of their
marriage. But the events surrounding the accident are
significant only when viewed in the context of Ms.
Gardner's extramarital sexual affairs in 2007 and 2009.
42 The evidence on record reasonably supports the conclusion
that Ms. Gardner's affairs in 2007 and 2009 triggered the
"blowup" in 2016. After the affairs, Mr. Gardner
agreed to remain in the marriage for a time. But in 2016,
Mr. Gardner discovered that Ms. Gardner had entered into an
"inappropriate relationship" with the man with whom
she had been on the day of her accident. Although Mr. Gardner
admitted that this relationship had not yet become physical,
he testified that Ms. Gardner had said that the man
"wanted to take it further."
43 Mr. Gardner testified that this discovery was "the
final nail" and "the end." And it was around
this time that the parties had their "blowup"-the
event that Ms. Gardner suggests was the true cause of the
divorce. Several months later Mr. Gardner formally filed for
divorce. So even though Ms. Gardner's affairs in 2007 and
2009 did not immediately end the divorce, the evidence
supports the district court's conclusion that they were
significant factors in the eventual "blowup" that
precipitated the ultimate end of the marriage.
44 In sum, the phrase "substantially contributed"
in section 30-3-5(8) should be interpreted as referring to
conduct that was a significant or important cause of the
breakup of the marriage. Under this interpretation, the
conduct need not be the only significant cause, or the first
significant cause; instead, it need only be significant
enough that a reasonable person would conclude that it was an
important factor in the divorce. Because evidence supports
the conclusion that Ms. Gardner's extramarital sexual
relationships in 2007 and 2009 were significant factors in
the ultimate demise of the couple's marriage, we cannot
say that the district court clearly erred when it found that
the affairs substantially contributed to the breakup of the
Affirm the District Court's Determination of the Terms of
the Alimony Award
45 Next we must consider whether the district court committed
reversible error in establishing the terms of the alimony
award. As we have explained, we will disturb a district
court's determination in a divorce proceeding only if (1)
"there was a misunderstanding or misapplication of the
law resulting in substantial and prejudicial
error"; (2) the factual findings upon which the
award was based are "clearly
erroneous"; or (3) the party challenging the award
shows that "such a serious inequity has resulted as to
manifest a clear abuse of discretion."
46 In this case, Ms. Gardner does not challenge the factual
findings underlying the terms of the district court's
alimony award. Instead, she argues that the court misapplied
the law in establishing the terms of the alimony award
because it did not seek to achieve "the first two
'primary aims of alimony'": (1) to get the
parties as close as possible to the same standard of living
that existed during the marriage and (2) to equalize the
standards of living of each party. Additionally, she argues
that the alimony award, when the totality of its terms are
considered, constitutes an abuse of discretion because it
resulted in "harsh punishment." Because the plain
language of the alimony statute authorized the district court
to depart from the default aims of alimony, and because the
resulting alimony award did not create such a serious
inequity as to manifest a clear abuse of discretion, we
decline to disturb the district court's alimony
The district court was not required to base Ms. Gardner's
alimony award on the standard of living she enjoyed
while married, nor to equalize her and Mr.
Gardner's standards of living
47 The district court was not required to base Ms.
Gardner's alimony award on the standard of living she
enjoyed while married, nor to equalize her and Mr.
Gardner's standards of living. Although courts should
begin each alimony determination by considering the
parties' respective economic circumstances with the aim
of equalizing their post-divorce standards of living as
nearly as possible to the standard of living they enjoyed
while married, both our caselaw and the language of the
alimony statute demonstrate that courts may depart from these
default rules where necessary to achieve a fair and equitable
result between the parties.
48 Our caselaw makes clear that the "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." To that end, we have stated that courts
should seek to divide property and award alimony in a way
that avoids "perpetuation of the difficulties that
brought failure to the marriage." In other
words, a property division and alimony award should
"minimize animosities" and help the parties move on
with their separate lives after divorce.
49 To achieve these general aims, we have adopted a number of
default rules to guide district courts. For example, we have
held that alimony awards should be made with the purpose of
"provid[ing] support for the [receiving spouse] as
nearly as possible at the standard of living [he or] she
enjoyed during marriage, and to prevent the [spouse] from
becoming a public charge." And we have stressed that
"to the extent possible" the court should
"equalize the parties' respective standards of
living." These rules tend to further the aim of
"avoid[ing] perpetuation of the difficulties that
brought failure to the marriage" because they
put the parties in the best possible position to
"reconstruct their [separate] lives on a happy and
50 But in some situations the application of the default
rules will not lead to the most equitable
result. When this is the case, courts have the
discretion to deviate from them. For example, in Riley v.
Riley, the Utah Court of Appeals upheld an alimony award
to the wife that was "well above" her demonstrated
monthly need. In that case, a husband challenged the
alimony award amount because it exceeded the amount needed to
sustain the wife at the appropriate standard of living. But
the court rejected this argument in light of the
husband's fault in causing the divorce. It explained
that "even though such an award would be too high if
only economic factors were considered," in light of the
husband's fault, fairness to the wife could be achieved
only by considering the husband's fault as a factor in
setting the amount of the alimony award. Thus the
decision in Riley helps underscore the principle
that where one party's fault harmed the other party, the
court may consider that fault as it attempts to balance the
equities in order to achieve the ultimate aim in an alimony
determination-to achieve "a fair, just, and equitable
result between the parties."
51 Similarly, in Wilson v. Wilson, we considered a
district court's decision to award alimony for a period
of eight and one-third years after a fifteen-year
marriage. In that case, the district court
concluded that even though the wife's lack of work
experience caused the court to be "apprehensive"
for her "welfare," it determined that alimony for
the full length of the marriage was not appropriate due to
"the attitudes of the parties." Because of
their attitudes, the court believed that "requiring [the
husband] to carry the burden of permanent alimony would lead
to 'almost [unbearable]
bitterness.'" In other words, the district court
determined that a lengthy alimony award would not further the
aim of putting the parties in the best possible position to
"reconstruct their [separate] lives on a happy and
52 But the husband in Wilson appealed the district
court's alimony award. According to the husband, the
shortened duration of the alimony award was not short enough.
We agreed. Although we recognized that the district court has
considerable latitude in setting the terms of alimony, we
held that the award did "not conform to the design the
trial judge was avowedly trying to fashion of imposing an
obligation upon [the husband] to pay a modest amount of
alimony for a definite period of time and with a termination
date in sight."For that reason, we reduced the duration
of the award by half. So the decision in Wilson,
like the decision in Riley, stands for the principle
that where strict application of the normal alimony
guidelines would not further the court's aim of achieving
a fair, just, and equitable result between the parties it is
appropriate to deviate therefrom.
53 These principles were codified in Utah Code section
30-3-5(8). Section 30-3-5(8)(a) requires district courts to
consider the financial situations of both spouses as part of
its alimony determination. Additionally, section
30-3-5(8)(e) urges district courts to "look to the
standard of living, existing at the time of separation, in
determining alimony in accordance with Subsection
(8)(a)," and section 30-3-5(8)(f) provides that the
"court may . . . attempt to equalize the parties'
respective standards of living." Together these
provisions codify the default rules that an alimony award
should be crafted to "provide support for the [receiving
spouse] as nearly as possible at the standard of living [he
or] she enjoyed during marriage, " and, "to
the extent possible," to "equalize the parties'
respective standards of living."
54 As we have explained, these default rules tend to further
the court's aim of achieving "a fair, just, and
equitable result between the parties" because they
typically put the parties in the best possible position to
"reconstruct their [separate] lives on a happy and
useful basis." So the economic factors, and the general
aim of placing the parties in the same position they ...