Utah lawmakers clarify role of fault in divorce alimony awards

In many marriages, one partner makes more significant financial contributions to the relationship. When the marriage ends in divorce, this partner may be required to pay spousal support, otherwise known as alimony, so that the other partner can maintain a standard of living more similar to that enjoyed during the marriage.

In Utah, courts may consider many factors in deciding whether to award spousal support, such as the recipient's earning capacity and current financial situation, the individual paying alimony's ability to provide spousal support, the length of the marriage, and whether the recipient helped increase the individual paying alimony's earning capacity during the marriage by supporting him or her through higher education.

Interestingly, while Utah is a no-fault divorce state (meaning that neither party has to show wrongdoing to dissolve the marriage), Utah courts can consider fault when setting alimony. However, courts had long struggled with how to properly define fault in making a spousal support award.

Now, thanks to a new law passed in the Utah legislature, judges will have an easier time determining what qualifies as wrongdoing when setting an alimony award.

Wrongful conduct that may be considered in spousal support awards spelled out in statute

The initiative to define fault in setting alimony started as House Bill 338, and after approval in the state House and Senate, became law in Title 30, Chapter 3, Section 5 of the Utah Code. The fault determination is two-part: first, one or more acts of specifically listed wrongful conduct must have been engaged in during the marriage, and second, the act or acts must have "substantially contributed to the breakup of the marriage relationship" (In other words, the wrongful conduct must have played an important role in causing the divorce).

The wrongful conduct listed in the statute includes:

• Having sex with anyone other than the person's spouse

• Physically harming, or attempting to cause harm, to the other spouse or to children who were still minors

• Causing the other spouse or the minor children to fear life threatening harm (this fear must be reasonable under the circumstances, meaning that in the same situation a normally prudent person would have feared life threatening harm)

• Undermining, in a significant manner, the financial stability of the spouse or of the children

Generally, conduct must have been knowing and intentional to come into play in an alimony decision. For example, a spouse who accidentally caused his or her spouse and children to reasonably fear life threatening harm by being involved in an auto accident while driving the family car would likely not have to worry about such an incident being used as leverage in a spousal support determination.

If fault is at issue, the court may, in its discretion, close the proceedings, and may also seal the records when the proceedings are complete.

Find out how the change in the law will affect you by contacting a Utah alimony lawyer

The change to Utah's alimony law is a big deal for divorce cases in the state. It will guide judges' decisions and modify the strategic elements of a divorce case.

If you are getting divorced, or if you think your marriage might be ending soon, you need to find out how the new fault-based alimony standards could affect you. Get in touch with a Utah divorce attorney today to begin building your case.