Snyder v. Snyder: Too Cute by Half

Sometimes, even the courts, which are all about technicality, can be too technical.

That's one major takeaway from Snyder v. Snyder, a recent Utah Court of Appeals case. Here are the facts, briefly:

Facts 

1. Parties divorced in 2008, reaching an agreement in mediation.

2. In 2012, mother filed for a modification of child support.

3. Mediation on this issue was unsuccessful, so parties went to a pretrial conference with the judge to get ready for trial.

4. At the pretrial conference, the judge certified for trial the issue of child support. The father wanted the judge to certify parent-time and custody issues, but the judge declined, telling the father he would have to file a new petition to modify custody and parent-time, and that those issues would not be addressed at the upcoming trial.

5. Court ordered parties to try mediation again regarding the child support issue.

6. Parties reached an agreement in mediation addressing only child support. The stipulation contained the following language: "[this stipulation] resolve[s] all matters between the parties that are currently before the Court."

7. Two months after child support was modified, father filed a petition to modify custody and parent-time. Mother objected because there was no substantial change in circumstances because the previous stipulation, signed two months earlier, said all matters between parties had been resolved.

8. The trial court accepted mother's reasoning and dismissed father's petition to modify, saying the stipulation took care of everything, and only two months had passed, so there couldn't have been a substantial change in circumstance in that small a period of time.

Court of Appeal's Decision

The Court of Appeals looked at this case and disagreed with the trial court.

Essentially, the Court of Appeals said the father's request to modify custody and parent-time was not actually an issue before the trial court when the parties signed the stipulation. While the stipulation said everything was taken care of, it was only referring to the things then before the court (i.e., child support). So, the trial court's denial of the father's petition to modify was poorly reasoned and was overturned.

Here's my realistic (i.e., less legalistic) take on what happened here. 

The trial court specifically told the father to go back and ask for a modification of custody and parent-time. Then when he did this, the same court precluded him from doing so. While the Court of Appeals didn't say it this way, it told the trial court it was being too cute by half. If you tell someone what to do, then tell him, "Well, no, you can't do exactly what I told you to do," that's simply not fair.

Good for the Court of Appeals.

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