Credit card debts that represent an expense should not be double counted in the court’s needs analysis.

February 13, 2020

Redden v. Redden, 2020, UT App 22 (Filed February 13, 2020). Husband conceded that some of the expenses underlying the credit card debt included items such as food and gasoline—expenses which had already been accounted for in Spencer’s monthly expenses and fairly excluded from his need and enhanced his ability to pay.

¶38 Finally, Spencer (Husband) argues that the court exceeded its discretion by failing to include his credit card debt in its alimony calculations, claiming that it was reasonably incurred debt “calculated upon the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage.” In this instance, we disagree. As explained below, Spencer’s testimony on this issue was equivocal at best and ultimately failed to provide the court a reasonable basis to conclude the debt should have been included as a separate monthly expense. Accordingly, we affirm the court’s decision on this point.

¶39 In his financial declaration, Spencer listed a monthly expense of $571 for credit card debt. During the hearing, the court questioned Spencer about that debt. Spencer informed the court that he carried a total credit card balance of about $4,700. The court asked Spencer “[w]hat kind of items” he put on his credit card. Spencer responded that he put items like food and gasoline on it, but explained that “a lot of [the debt] was incurred” for replacement household items when the parties separated. The court noted that expenses for food and gasoline were already listed as separate monthly expenses in Spencer’s financial declaration, and it asked Spencer whether his total credit card balance had “continued all the way from the times when you were married to present” or whether his “credit card bills ever reduced down and these amounts were incurred after your separation and you’ve just been carrying the balance.” Spencer responded that he thought he had “maintained a balance for quite a few years” but that his balance had “fluctuated.” When pressed by the court to identify what portion of his present balance he had been carrying since the marriage, rather than provide the court a definite (or an approximate) number, Spencer responded in general terms, stating that “the whole time [the parties] were married [they] struggled to make ends meet.” Ultimately, the court disallowed a monthly expense for the credit card debt because it determined that Spencer had “incurred these debts for family expenses and to include them would double count his expenses.”

¶40 The court did not exceed its discretion in declining to include the credit card debt as a monthly expense in its assessment of Spencer’s needs and ability to provide alimony. While Spencer included the $571 monthly payment as a line-item expense, he did not provide the court with a reasonable basis from which to determine whether the claimed monthly expense (or the debt underlying it) represented needs distinct from those already accounted for (such as food or gasoline), or whether it represented a purely marital debt Spencer had assumed and carried forward. Indeed, when asked at trial to clarify what portion of the balance he had been carrying from the time of the marriage (as opposed to that representing Spencer’s other expenses), Spencer was unable to do so and instead only generally responded that the parties had struggled to make ends meet during the marriage and that the credit card balance had “fluctuated” through the years. See Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶¶ 16–26, 379 P.3d 890 (concluding that the trial court’s determination with respect to the payor spouse’s financial resources was not error where the evidence at trial “largely left [the court] to its own resources to untangle complex financial issues,” explaining that in such circumstances “the presumption of validity we afford to a trial court when it adjusts the financial interests of parties to a divorce is at its most robust”). Further, Spencer himself conceded that some of the expenses underlying the anticipated ongoing debt included items such as food and gasoline—expenses which, as the court noted, had already been accounted for in Spencer’s monthly expenses.

¶41 Stated another way, Spencer’s testimony with respect to the credit card debt fairly suggested to the court that, rather than representing an expense reasonably incurred during the marriage, the debt was instead the product of a mechanism used to pay various expenses both during and after the marriage, including those (as Spencer conceded) already accounted for in the court’s needs analysis. See Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 27, 334 P.3d 994. In these circumstances, where the evidence before the court did not provide a reasonable basis to conclude that the debt was a marital debt apart from needs already factored in, the court acted within its discretion by declining to include the debt as a separate monthly expense in its evaluation of Spencer’s ongoing needs and ability to pay alimony.

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