SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers edged closer Thursday to making Utah a state where fault is considered in setting alimony following a divorce.
"The court struggles with how much commentary to allow or not allow in these cases," Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, told the House Judiciary Committee regarding his bill, HB338.
The committee voted to support the bill, which would amend state law to allow a court to consider fault when awarding alimony. It now heads to the full body of the House for further consideration.
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.
McIff, a former district court judge, said he "inherited the issue" when fellow former lawmaker Fred Cox was not re-elected last year. It stems from the Utah Court of Appeals, which has sought direction from the Legislature on the matter.
Current law doesn't include parameters on finding fault for consideration of alimony.
"Fault is an unpleasant topic, but it allows the parties to have a fair say," McIff said, adding that perceived fairness is what builds respect among the public for the justice system. "It helps people feel like the outcome is based on the actual facts of the case."
Utah is a no-fault divorce state, meaning a divorce can be granted without proving one spouse is guilty. HB338 doesn't propose that fault become a factor in divorce proceedings but that it be a consideration for judges when determining alimony.
Bill Duncan, director of the Sutherland Institute's Center for Family and Society, said the traditional structure of alimony in state law has included fault for more than 100 years but has been often ignored. During the time when it was most often considered, between 1995 and 2009, he said Utah's divorce rate dropped from 4.4 percent to 3.6 percent.
"It's an important step in the right direction," said Laura Bunker, of United Families of Utah.
Bunker said at least 1 million children each year watch their parents go through divorce, which can lead to other problems down the road.
"This bill recognizes the seriousness of divorce, validating marriage in society," she said.
Committee member Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, however, opposes the bill and said the language "opens the door to too much finger-pointing based on personal and intimate behavior during the parties' marriage. I see this as a divorce lawyer's full employment bill."