Utah law requires only a fair and equitable, not an equal, division of the marital debts

July 14, 2022

Fox v. Fox, 2022 UT App 88 (Filed July 14, 2022)

The parties married in 1997 and wife filed for divorce in 2018. At trial the court made Wife solely responsible for the $181,000 owed by the parties to her father. Wife appealed.

¶31 [Wife] next asserts that the trial court abused its discretion when it divided the marital debt in such a way as to give her full responsibility for the parties’ $181,000 obligation owed to [Wife]’s father, and then included a $2,500 line item for payments servicing that debt in [Wife]’s alimony award (thereby effectively requiring [Husband] to pay that debt as part of his alimony obligation). [Footnote 4 stated: . We note that [Husband] has not filed a cross-appeal in this case, and does not, by that means or any other, challenge the court’s decision to include extracurricular expenses in its computation of [Wife]’s monthly needs for alimony purposes.] We perceive no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s orders regarding the marital debt owed to [Wife]’s father.  ¶32 In issuing a divorce decree, a trial court must include “an order specifying which party is responsible for the payment of joint debts, obligations, or liabilities of the parties contracted or incurred during marriage.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-5(2)(c)(i) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). Importantly, our law requires only “a fair and equitable, not an equal, division of the marital debts.” Sinclair v. Sinclair, 718 P.2d 396, 398 (Utah 1986) (per curiam). And as already mentioned, because trial courts are in the “best position to weigh the evidence, determine credibility and arrive at factual conclusions, they have considerable latitude” in dividing marital debt, and their actions in this regard “are entitled to a presumption of validity.” Mullins v. Mullins, 2016 UT App 77, ¶ 20, 370 P.3d 1283 (quotation simplified).  ¶33 In the present case, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion in assigning the marital debt owed to [Wife]’s father to [Wife]. By way of counterbalance, the court assigned [Husband] full responsibility for his medical school debts (totaling some $145,000), and made each party responsible for the debts on their respective vehicles. This division makes practical sense, because it relieves [Wife] of any responsibility for debts associated with [Husband]’s medical education, and it relieves [Husband] of any direct responsibility (aside from alimony) for debts owed to [Wife]’s father. The court recognized, however, that this distribution of debts gave [Wife] “approximately $24,000 more in debts” than it gave [Husband], but the court stated that it would “use its distribution of property to equalize this imbalance of debts.” [Wife] makes no argument that the court failed to remedy this imbalance. Indeed, the court awarded the parties’ timeshare 202009492022 UT App 88 CA 14Fox v. Fox condominium in Hawaii to [Wife] alone, and it also awarded [Wife] three of the four cars owned by the parties. Additionally, the court awarded [Wife] an offset of $10,000 “to compensate her for any dissipation of the marital estate” on the part of [Husband], and also awarded her $50,000 for attorney fees from any proceeds made from the sale of the marital house prior to the parties evenly splitting any remaining proceeds. Under the circumstances presented here, [Wife] has not demonstrated any inequity or abuse of discretion in the manner in which the court divided the parties’ marital debts.  ¶34 Furthermore, while [Wife] was indeed assigned responsibility for the entire debt owed to her father, a line item for the $2,500 monthly payment of that debt was included in her alimony award. Thus, while the court made [Wife] responsible for that debt, it is [Husband], and not [Wife], who is (at least indirectly) paying for it. [Wife] nevertheless complains about this seemingly favorable arrangement, again expressing concern that, if she were to remarry, [Husband]’s obligation to front her the money to service the debt owed to her father would evaporate along with the other alimony line items. Perhaps a trial court, within the scope of its discretion, could have done what [Wife] envisions. But under the specific facts of this case, it is not an abuse of discretion for the court to have equitably divided the debt, and then to have required [Husband] to pay [Wife] an alimony amount that includes the debt service payments on the obligation owed to [Wife]’s father. Given the circumstances as they existed at the time of trial, [Wife] has not demonstrated that the court’s orders regarding the parties’ debt to [Wife]’s father exceeded the court’s wide discretion in such matters.

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