Living Together and Spousal Maintenance

Living Together and Spousal Maintenance | Van Dyke v. Steinle

The Arizona Court of Appeals issued a decision regarding living together and spousal maintenance in Van Dyke v. Steinle regarding whether a former spouse’s cohabitation with another person provides a basis to modify or terminate an Arizona spousal maintenance award. The facts of the case were very straightforward. Aimee obtained a divorce from her husband, Charles. Aimee subsequently met a love interest with whom she was cohabitating.

Charles filed a petition to modify the spousal maintenance he was paying Aimee; primarily based upon his former wife’s cohabitation with her new love interest. Wife actually had plans to marry her love interest, but admittedly canceled the wedding when she discovered her marriage would terminate her Arizona spousal maintenance award as a matter of law.

The Arizona trial court found Aimee’s cohabitation was a basis to terminate Aimee’s spousal maintenance award. The Arizona Court of Appeals found that the record did not support terminating Aimee’s spousal maintenance, but did remand the case back to the trial court to determine whether the evidence supported decreasing the amount of spousal maintenance Aimee should receive from her former husband.

The former husband argued his former wife’s spousal maintenance should be terminated under the legal theory of a “marriage by estoppel”; arguing he justifiably relied upon his former wife’s intention to remarry to his financial detriment.

The Arizona trial court court terminated Aimee’s spousal maintenance for several reasons. Specifically, the trial court determined that the court found that Aimee lived with her love interest in the home that had been awarded to her in the parties’ divorce and found that their relationship was sufficiently similar to a marriage.

The trial court found that the original divorce decree anticipated the home being sold and found Wife had not resold the home. The trial court also found that if the home had been sold, Wife would have received a significantly greater amount of equity from the home than existed at the time the divorce decree was entered.

The trial court also found that Aimee’s cohabitation with her love interest, as well as his contribution to her living expenses, created a new “family” that justified terminating her spousal maintenance.


Living Together As A Basis to Modify or Termination Alimony in Arizona

The Arizona court of appeals ruled that a modification of spousal maintenance may be granted whenever it is shown a substantial and continuing change in circumstances has occurred since the entry of the initial award of spousal maintenance.

Aimee argued that her cohabitation with her love interest did not constitute a substantial and continuing change in financial circumstances justifying a modification of her spousal maintenance. Her former husband argued her cohabitation and her love interests contribution to her living expenses did not justify either a termination or reduction in her spousal maintenance.

The Arizona Court of Appeals recognized Arizona does not have a statute dealing with the repercussions of cohabitation on spousal maintenance, despite other states with statutes specifically addressing the issue.

To the contrary, the Arizona Supreme Court previously ruled in Smith v. Mangum that cohabitation did not create a “de facto marriage”, but concluded such a relationship could create a change in circumstances justifying a modification of spousal maintenance if the situation decreased a former spouse’s living expenses. The Smith court concluded it was Husband’s burden of proving a decrease in a former wife’s living expenses as a direct result of her cohabitation.

The Arizona Court of Appeals concluded that the record did not establish Charles met his burden of proving Aimee’s cohabitation supported a termination of Aimee’s spousal maintenance, but did conclude the trial court could consider whether Aimee’s cohabitation provided a basis for the trial court to decrease her spousal maintenance. T

he court specifically denounced the existence of a “marriage by estoppel” legal theory in Arizona. The Arizona Court of Appeals pointed to the Arizona Supreme Court’ s ruling in Schroeder v. Schroeder, which held the purpose of spousal maintenance is to help both former spouses achieve financial independence by providing support from one spouse to the other spouse in such amount and as for as such time as reasonably needed to enable the other spouse to obtain the education, training, and experience to support themselves.

The Arizona Court of Appeals addressed Husband’s argument that the court should consider what Aimee’s new cohabitant “should” be contributing to Aimee’s household expenses, as opposed to how much Aimee’s new love interest was actually contributing to the household expenses (because he was contributing very little to those household expenses).

The Arizona Court of Appeals expressly rejected this argument and held that Husband had the burden of proving the extent to which Aimee’s living expenses were being reduced, not what Charles believes her new love interest “should” be contributing to the household expenses.

The appellate court, however, did point out the holding in the Schroeder case providing that a former spouse receiving spousal maintenance cannot avoid a decrease or termination of spousal maintenance by accepting purported “gifts” from a a person with whom he or she resides in lieu of receiving contributions towards household expenses.

In the end, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s ruling terminating Aimee’s spousal maintenance, but found the trial court did not consider Charles’ alternative request to modify Aimee’s spousal maintenance. The Arizona Court of Appeals, therefore, remanded the case back to the Arizona trial court to address whether Aimee’s spousal maintenance should be reduced.

Interestingly, it appears the Arizona Court of Appeals was sympathetic with Charles’ position by declaring it realized its decision may result in inequities in some situations when a spouse receiving spousal maintenance obtains an unfair advantage by living with someone and putting off marriage until the term of spousal maintenance is reached.

The appellate court, however, indicated that any such change in the law affecting this situation must be passed by the Arizona legislature, which could be argued as a call to action for the Arizona legislature to remedy this situation. The Arizona Court of Appeals went so far as to point out that the legislatures of California, Illinois, and New York have passed laws pertaining to the effect of cohabitation on a spousal maintenance award.