Guidelines for Utah Courts in Dividing Marital Assets

Often we have clients and potential clients who ask us how their martial and separate property is going to be divided in their Utah divorce action.  The simple answer we give them is that all marital property will be divided “equitably,” which means fairly/justly.  When it comes down to it though, the Court has broad discretion to divide marital property in just about any way the court deems appropriate.  A trial court’s discretion, however, is limited and is governed by various standards.  Those standards were recently summarized by the Utah Supreme Court in Coggins v. Coggins, 2013 UT 16 (2013):

  • The trial court in a divorce action is permitted considerable discretion in adjusting the financial and property interests of the parties, and its actions are entitled to a presumption of validity.  The discretion of a trial court is so broad that a party challenging the trial court’s ruling on the division of property has to show that the ruling was clearly unjust or a clear abuse of discretion.  In order to do that the challenging party has to show one of three things:  1)“there was a misunderstanding or misapplication of the law resulting in substantial and prejudicial error”; (2) “the evidence clearly preponderated against the finding”;or (3) “such a serious inequity has resulted as to manifest a clear abuse of discretion.”
  • But the court is “not expected to view each item of marital property in isolation and divide each separately.” Instead, the court “is permitted to look at the marital property in its entirety and to apportion it in a manner that best facilitates ‘a clean break’ between the parties and achieves a result that equitably divides the marital property as a whole.” The appropriate distribution of property “var[ies] from case to case,” and “[t]he overriding consideration is that the ultimate division be equitable—that property be fairly divided between the parties, given their contributions during the marriage and their circumstances at the time of the divorce. its equitable distribution of property, the court should generally consider a variety of factors, including “whether the property was acquired before or during the marriage; the source of the property; . . . the parties’ standard of living;” and their “respective financial conditions.” Generally, “[e]ach party is presumed to be entitled to all of his or her separate property and fifty percent of the marital property.” And “in appropriate circumstances[,] equity requires that each party recover the separate property brought into or received during the marriage.”  The Court should also consider whether there are exceptional circumstances that overcome the general presumption that marital property [should] be divided equally between the parties.
  • Further, “the marital estate is [generally] valued at the time of the divorce decree or trial.”  But “where one party has dissipated an asset, hidden its value or otherwise acted obstructively, the trial court may, in the exercise of its equitable powers, value a marital asset at some time other than the time the decree is entered, such as at separation,” “or may otherwise hold one party accountable to the other for the dissipation of marital assets.” Thus, when a court finds that a spouse has dissipated marital assets, the court should calculate the value of the marital property as though the assets remained. As a result, when the court conducts its equitable distribution of the marital property, the other spouse should receive a credit for his or her share of the assets that were dissipated.

Call us at 801.618.1331 for a free consultation with an experienced divorce lawyer who can help you better understand how your marital assets may be divided.

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