SALT LAKE CITY — A person who intentionally destroys their marriage, expecting to get favorable alimony, may have another thing coming, according to Utah lawmakers.
"Marriage is different than ordinary contracts. You have children, and you make commitments," said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.
Holding a man or woman financially responsible to support a family following the emotional stress of an unfaithful spouse is unfair, he said.
Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, has proposed a draft bill, titled Alimony Amendments, that would expand the circumstances under which a court may order alimony, allowing a judge to consider fault when determining the amount of an award.
The bill defines fault as "wrongful conduct during the marriage that substantially contributed to the breakup of the marriage relationship," including an extramarital affair, intent to cause physical harm or cause a spouse or children to reasonably fear life-threatening harm, or activity that undermines the financial stability of the other party or minor children.
"I have heard of individuals who are asked, unfairly, to pay alimony based on circumstances leading up to the divorce," Cox said. "I'm not the judge. I'm trying to give the option to a judge to take into account the circumstances of the case."
But Utah Family Law author and divorce attorney Eric Johnson said the proposed law, as it is written, could easily be abused.
"Everybody asks for alimony if they can get away with it," he said, adding that people will try to get away with various claims that put their spouse at fault. "People might use it to punish their spouse or just to fuel greed."
Johnson said the amendment will cause more litigation and trouble than it seeks to resolve and likely will not deter bad behavior or lead to a lower divorce rate. Instead, it could drive the illicit activities surrounding divorce deeper underground, he said.
"People will work harder to cover their tracks," Johnson said.
Utah is a no-fault divorce state, meaning that divorce can be granted without proving one spouse is guilty, and Cox said his bill doesn't aim to change that.
"If the divorce is caused by one spouse cheating, violating covenants, or spouse or child abuse, I believe the judge should have the ability of adjusting the alimony in that case, or, in some cases, not awarding alimony at all," he said.
The rule would serve as a guidance to the court, Cox said, and is not intended to be a penalty for individuals who exhibit inappropriate moral conduct.
"Alimony should be tied to economic financial need, not used as punishment," Johnson said, citing Utah case law from 1977, in which alimony was determined to "provide support for the wife and not to inflict punitive damages on the husband. Alimony is not intended as a penalty against the husband nor a reward to the wife," and vice versa.
Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, said the clarification would help to "eliminate a reward that is out there for bad behavior too often."
"It is appropriate to say that if you have engaged in behavior that scuttles a marriage and a family, there is not a reward on a the table," he said.
Madsen serves as a chairman of the Legislative Judiciary Interim Committee, where the draft bill was first heard Wednesday.
"You can't walk away and get bank," he said.
The committee voted to accept the bill, focusing on the timely issue that divorce is in society today, said Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper.
"The moral values of people are reflected in their laws," Christensen said, adding that he is proud to live in a state that has not followed trends that marriage is "just a piece of paper or a bundle of rights."
"We have not backed down," he said, "We still have public morality and virtue embodied in our laws."