What General Principles Govern Divorce Property Distribution In Utah?
One of the first things that the court will do is try to categorize the property as being either marital property or separate property before engaging in that division analysis.
The appellate court case law in Utah is scattered on the subject of property distribution. For example, there is a 1993 case that says there is no fixed formula to determine property division in the divorce proceeding. However, there are other cases that seem to give a sort of formula to it, which will be discussed below. Although the court will begin with the presumption of an equal division of the marital property, the court does have broad discretion and doesn’t have to maintain a rigid 50/50 split. Exact mathematical equality is not required.
Overall, marital property is typically awarded so that each spouse receives a roughly equal share. The court will begin with the presumption that it should be divided equally, and will usually divide property before conducting its alimony analysis. That is so that the judge can determine if one side has income producing property or the ability to sell property that may impact whether or not a party will receive alimony.
Another principle that the court will follow is that rather than splitting assets in a way that keeps the parties tied together, the court will try to split the party such that the parties have a clean break from one another. Long-term and deferred sharing of financial assets would likely continue overall hostility and conflict, so the court is going to try to avoid long-term sharing of financial interests.
Also, even if one party is considered to be a bad actor, the courts in Utah will not use property division as a way of punishing one side or the other.
What Is Considered Marital Versus Non-Marital Or A Separate Property In Utah In A Divorce Proceedings?
Generally, if somebody owns something before the marriage, that is typically going to be considered separate property, and not part of the marital estate. Therefore, it is generally not subject to division during divorce proceedings. Gifts that one party receives during the course of the marriage will generally be considered a separate property, as will inheritances.
The main exception to whether or not this kind of separate property can become part of a marital estate is if the property has been commingled with the marital property to the point that it loses its “separate” character.
For example, one party owns stock, and sells that stock in order to purchase a different financial asset jointly with their spouse. Now suppose each of them has put money into the new financial asset, then that financial asset grows, and part of it is sold. Sometimes one spouse continues to contribute certain amounts and then stops contributing, and then the other spouse begins contributing. It becomes difficult to trace how much of the growth of the new financial asset is a result of the investment of the pre-marital asset, how much was the result of market forces after the new asset was purchased, and how much was the result of contribution of the other spouse.
Under that kind of a circumstance, the court will likely consider the pre-marital funds used to help purchase the new financial assets to be considered “co-mingled” and now part of the marital estate.
Additionally, if the other spouse has augmented, maintained, or protected that separate property, or in some way made valuable contributions to preserving that separate property, then the court may also consider it to be co-mingled and no longer “separate.”
What Analysis Does A Trial Court Conduct To Determine An Equitable Property Distribution In A Divorce?
There is no fixed formula to determine equitable property distribution, but in 2011 Court of Appeals case called Boyer v. Boyer, the Utah Court of Appeals indicated that a trial court should engage in a 4-step process. This process should produce findings of facts that are detailed enough allow others to trace how the court reached its conclusions. In the first step, the trial court should distinguish between separate and marital property. Next, it should consider whether there were exceptional circumstances that would overcome the general presumption that marital property should be divided equally. Third, it should assign values to each item of marital property, and then fourth, it should distribute the property in a manner consistent with allowing each party to go forward with his or her separate life without keeping them tied together. In assigning values, the court will take into account any debt on the property involved.
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