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Family Law Case Update - October 2019

October 31, 2019

Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61

Supreme Court of Utah

Attorneys: Robert W. Hughes, Julie J. Nelson, Erin B. Hull, Jill L. Coil, Luke A. Shaw, Kyle O. Maynard, David W. Read

Summary: The marriage was 22 years. The court gave wife alimony based on a reasonable need, rather than her actual need based on the standard of living. It also only gave her 10 years of alimony instead of the length of marriage. Both decisions were based on an equitable result since it found that her alleged affairs substantially contributed to the demise of the marriage. Affirmed.

Holding (Substantial Contribution to Demise): U.C.A. § 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. U.C.A. § 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. This issue has not been defined by the Utah courts, so this court does it as a matter of first impression. In defining substantial contribution, the court says: “the conduct at issue must be an important or significant factor in the divorce, but it does not have to be their first cause, or only cause.” “[A] great number of events may have contributed to a divorce…it is seldom, perhaps never, that there is any wholly guilty or wholly innocent party to a divorce action…but some causes are clearly more substantial, or significant, than others.” The court goes into great detail on other viable and similar definitions. The court was allowed to make equitable and fair deviations from the standard alimony analysis to make an equitable award that took into account the affairs. Therefore, the court did not abuse its discretion in lowering the standard of living, nor shortening the duration. In doing this, the court explained why it was equitable. The court cites to Riley v. Riley, 2006 UT App 214, where the court went well above the wife’s need because of the husband’s fault. Also, in Wilson v. Willson, 296 P.2d at 980, the court was within its discretion to shorten the duration of alimony because of the “attitudes of the parties.” The goal and findings should demonstrate fairness and equity rather than punishment.

Holding (Step Down): The appellate court affirmed the district court’s step down on alimony so that the wife received a $200 deduction each year for several years. “There is evidence on record that the terms of the alimony award will allow Ms. Gardner to become self-sufficient before the alimony period expires.”

Holding (Attorney Fees):  Under U.C.A. § 30-3-3, the district court was within its discretion to not award wife attorney fees because she could pay them from the property distribution that she was receiving.

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