Utah Supreme Court discusses impact of infidelity on alimony award

While some other states do not allow consideration of marital fault when fashioning an alimony award, Utah factors it heavily.

States vary in which factors courts may consider when they make decisions about alimony. One factor - infidelity - is something states disagree about when it comes to alimony. Some states forbid consideration of marital fault, but Utah statute says that it is relevant to the decision whether to grant alimony at all and in deciding the terms of alimony like amount and duration.

The court lists four kinds of marital fault relevant to alimony of which infidelity is one kind of fault.

Utah Supreme Court has spoken at length and in detail about the role of fault in alimony awards

In October 2019, the Utah Supreme Court issued an opinion in Gardner v. Gardner about a Utah divorce in which the couple was able to negotiate all issues in their divorce except alimony. The court, then, had to make decisions about alimony, which it did after a three-day trial.

The judge awarded alimony to the wife, but lowered the amount and shortened the duration of the award because the court found that her repeated infidelity "had substantially contributed to the demise of the marital relationship," so it would be unfair to require the ex-husband to pay an amount that would allow the ex-wife to enjoy the same standard of living they had when they were married.

In addition, the court set duration at 10 years even though he could have allowed alimony payments for up to 22 years (the length of the marriage) or longer for good reason. In addition, the judge calculated the wife's future monthly expenses at a "reasonable" level instead of at the higher level that would have allowed her to live at the marital standard of living.

The wife appealed the terms of the alimony award to the Supreme Court, which agreed with the trial court's reasoning.

Did infidelity substantially contribute to the divorce?

First, the Supreme Court agreed that the wife's extramarital affairs substantially contributed to the divorce because substantial contribution means "an important or significant factor" that does not need to be the first reason for the breakup or the only one.

Marital fault allows departure from usual rules for determining level of alimony

Second, the Supreme Court said that the lower court did not have to comply with the rule that the alimony award should try to "equalize the parties' respective standards of living" and continue the marital standard of living. The Supreme Court reasoned that the wife's marital fault allowed the court to depart from these rules based on fairness and equity between the parties after considering the impact of the wife's infidelity.

Specifically, the court said that the marital fault allows a court to lower the at-fault spouse's standard of living going forward from the marital level to a reasonable level, as the trial court had done. The Supreme Court explained that when the judge makes a finding that fault was present, the judge should only use it "to balance the equities" and when infidelity has harmed the other spouse and the marriage, adjusting the alimony award "re-balance[s] the equities."

The impact of marital fault - here infidelity - varies from divorce to divorce based on the particular circumstances.

The experienced family lawyers at Kristopher K. Greenwood & Associates with offices in Ogden, Salt Lake City, Park City and Lehi represent clients in alimony issues and other divorce matters across the state of Utah. Call us today at 801-475-8800.

(As of the date of this writing on Nov. 22, 2019, the Gardner case has not been released for publication and is still subject to revision or withdrawal, according to Westlaw. The case is available on Westlaw at 2019 WL 5287968.)