Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Gardner v. Gardner

Supreme Court of Utah

June 27, 2019

Christina L. Gardner, Appellant,
v.
Nelson D. Gardner, Appellee.

          On Certification from the Court of Appeals Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Matthew Bates No. 164902102

          Robert W. Hughes, Julie J. Nelson, Erin B. Hull, Salt Lake City, for appellant

          Jill L. Coil, Luke A. Shaw, Kyle O. Maynard, Sandy, David W. Read, Salt Lake City, for appellee

          Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, Justice Pearce, and Justice Petersen joined.

          OPINION

          DURRANT, CHIEF JUSTICE

         Introduction

         ¶ 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.

         Background

         ¶ 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.[1] 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 education.

         ¶ 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 basis.

         ¶ 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 man.[2] 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.[3] 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 marriage."

         ¶ 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.[4] 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, [5] 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 his fault."

         ¶ 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 years.[6]

         ¶ 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).

         Standard of Review

         ¶ 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.'"[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

         Analysis

         ¶ 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 statute.

         ¶ 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."[10] Accordingly, we will reverse only if (1) "there was a misunderstanding or misapplication of the law resulting in substantial and prejudicial error";[11] (2) the factual findings upon which the award was based are "clearly erroneous";[12] or (3) the party challenging the award shows that "such a serious inequity has resulted as to manifest a clear abuse of discretion."[13] 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.[14]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.

         I. We Affirm the District Court's Determination That Ms. Gardner's Affairs Substantially Contributed to the Divorce

         ¶ 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.

         A. 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.[15] 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."[16] 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 law.

         ¶ 23 For example, in Utah we employ a "substantial factor" test when determining causation in negligence actions.[17] 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."[18] So according to Black's Law Dictionary, a substantial cause can be defined as an "important or significant contributor" to a particular harm.

         ¶ 24 And the Restatement (Second) of Torts defines "substantial" similarly:

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 causes.[19]

         ¶ 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."[20] So in almost all divorce cases, it could be argued that each spouse contributed in some way to the breakup of the marriage.[21] 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.

         B. The district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that Ms. Gardner's extramarital affairs substantially contributed to the divorce

         ¶ 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."[22] 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 relationship.

         ¶ 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 disagree.

         ¶ 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."[23] 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.[24]

         ¶ 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 erroneous.

         ¶ 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.[25] So, once again, the evidence Ms. Gardner cites to attack the court's findings actually supports them.

         ¶ 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.[26] 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 marriage.

         II. We 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";[27] (2) the factual findings upon which the award was based are "clearly erroneous";[28] or (3) the party challenging the award shows that "such a serious inequity has resulted as to manifest a clear abuse of discretion."[29]

         ¶ 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 determination.

         A. 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."[30] 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."[31] In other words, a property division and alimony award should "minimize animosities" and help the parties move on with their separate lives after divorce.[32]

         ¶ 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."[33] And we have stressed that "to the extent possible" the court should "equalize the parties' respective standards of living."[34] These rules tend to further the aim of "avoid[ing] perpetuation of the difficulties that brought failure to the marriage"[35] because they put the parties in the best possible position to "reconstruct their [separate] lives on a happy and useful basis."[36]

         ¶ 50 But in some situations the application of the default rules will not lead to the most equitable result.[37] 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.[38] 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.[39] 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.[40] 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."[41]

         ¶ 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.[42] 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."[43] Because of their attitudes, the court believed that "requiring [the husband] to carry the burden of permanent alimony would lead to 'almost [unbearable] bitterness.'"[44] 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 useful basis."[45]

         ¶ 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."[46]For that reason, we reduced the duration of the award by half.[47] 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.[48] 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, "[49] and, "to the extent possible," to "equalize the parties' respective standards of living."[50]

         ¶ 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"[51] because they typically put the parties in the best possible position to "reconstruct their [separate] lives on a happy and useful basis."[52] So the economic factors, and the general aim of placing the parties in the same position they ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.