Collins v. Collins

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Collins v. Collins. Filed June 17, 1999 IN THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

Robert D. Collins,


Patricia M. Collins,

(Not For Official Publication)

Case No. 971707-CA

June 17, 1999
  1999 UT App 187 -----

Third District, Tooele Department
The Honorable John A. Rokich

Jerome H. Mooney and Wendy Lems, Salt Lake City, for Appellant
D. Bruce Oliver, Salt Lake City, for Appellee


Before Judges Bench, Billings, and Jackson.


Appellant Patricia Collins (wife) appeals the trial court's order based on the parties' stipulations, which permits disability income to satisfy appellee Robert Collins's (husband) child support obligations. She also appeals the trial court's award of $400 to husband for attorney fees. We affirm in part and reverse and remand in part.

On June 11, 1997, the parties appeared before the trial court for trial on husband's divorce complaint. Instead of a trial, the parties negotiated a stipulated agreement regarding property settlement, alimony, child support, and other issues. Both parties were represented by counsel. The parties read the stipulated agreement into the record before the court. After the stipulation was recorded, the trial judge asked the parties whether they concurred with the stipulation as recorded. Both parties stated they did. The parties were to bear their own attorney fees.

Husband's counsel prepared the proposed order and divorce decree. Wife objected to portions of the order. In addition to amendments as instructed by the court, husband's counsel added to the second proposed order a paragraph awarding attorney fees to husband for responding to the objection. The trial court awarded $400 of the $880 in attorney fees requested as part of the signed order. The trial court made no findings to explain the award, nor the rationale for reducing the requested amount. Wife appeals both the order relating to child support, and the court's award of attorney fees to husband.

Order Based on Stipulation

Trial courts may enter orders or decrees based on stipulations only when the stipulations are either reduced to writing or read into the record before the court. See Utah Code of Judicial Admin. 4-504(7). "Further, stipulations are conclusive and binding on the parties." Maxwell v. Maxwell, 796 P.2d 403, 406 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). A party cannot avoid a divorce decree simply by "claiming mistake in entering into the stipulation" on appeal. Id.

In this case, wife was represented by counsel in the negotiations and took an active part herself. Additionally, she listened to the stipulations read into the record and indicated her concurrence to them before the court. The stipulations are binding on wife, as they were read into the record before the court. This court will not disturb a stipulation negotiated and voluntarily entered simply because a party has come to regret the bargain made. We affirm the order of the trial court regarding child support, enforcing the parties' stipulation.

Attorney Fees

After husband's counsel submitted a proposed order reflecting many technical and minor modifications requested by wife, the court instructed husband's counsel to incorporate additional changes proposed by wife. The additional changes included: (1) clarifying language regarding forfeiture of visitation rights if wife reasonably believed husband had been drinking alcohol prior to visiting child, and; (2) language clarifying debt allocation, specifying that the second mortgage on the marital home was a marital debt for which husband was partly responsible. Because wife prevailed on her most substantial objection to the initial order, and her proposed debt allocation was incorporated in the second order, it is not clear why the court awarded attorney fees to husband as the prevailing party.

Moreover, the trial court awarded less than half of the attorney fees requested. The court gave no explanation for its decision to award only partial attorney fees. Utah appellate courts have consistently encouraged trial courts to make findings explaining the rationale and relevant factors which they considered in awarding fees. See Bell v. Bell, 810 P.2d 489, 494 (Utah Ct. App. 1991). It is an abuse of discretion for a trial court to award less than the amount of fees claimed absent any reasonable justification. See id. "[A] trial court must explain its sua sponte reduction in order to permit meaningful review on appeal." Id. Accordingly, we reverse and remand as the trial court's findings are legally insufficient to support the attorney fee award.

In conclusion, we affirm the trial court's order relieving husband of child support obligations as long as wife receives disability income for the child. However, we reverse and remand the award of attorney fees for reconsideration in light of the law we have set out on appeal.

Judith M. Billings, Judge



Russell W. Bench, Judge

Norman H. Jackson, Judge