Modify Divorce Decree in Arizona| Separation Agreement Modification Issues


In Arizona, spouses planning to separate or file for divorce are free to agree between themselves about property and support issues in a private contract. Generally, private agreements can be modified in writing if both spouses sign off. Courts affirm these agreements in a divorce as long as the property division and spousal support arrangement seems fair.
In the recent case of LaPrade v. LaPrade, 189 Ariz. 243 (Ariz. 1997), the Arizona Supreme Court discussed whether a couple can make modifications to a settlement agreement after the court has affirmed the agreement in a divorce case. Before we begin our discussion, we want you to know either party may file to modify the Arizona divorce decree provisions for child support, child custody, parenting time, and alimony upon a sufficient showing of a change in circumstances since the decree was entered. The Arizona Supreme Court in the LaPrade v. Laprade case, however, addressed modifications of other orders in the decree.
Sarah Jane LaPrade and A.T. LaPrade, Jr. were a married couple who decided to divorce. They agreed on a property division and spousal support arrangement that A.T.’s attorneys put into writing and the couple signed. A week later, the Maricopa County Superior Court entered a divorce judgment. In it, the court confirmed and approved of the agreement, and made it a part of the divorce decree.
The agreement stated that Sarah and A.T. could change its terms if they both agreed to the changes in writing. Over the course of the next 20 years, they changed the agreement four times. Each of the modifications was in writing, signed by both of them, and filed with and approved by the court.
In 1994, A.T. died. He had remarried before he died and Roy A. Brown was named executor of his estate. Brown filed a motion to reopen the divorce proceedings between Sarah and A.T. that happened 20 years before, claiming that the four modifications were void.

He argued that they were too vague to be enforced and that the divorce court did not have the authority to make them because – he claimed – the written settlement agreement had merged into the divorce judgment. Under Arizona law, the property division set out in a divorce decree cannot be modified once the decree is entered.
The superior court denied the motion, ruling that the modifications were not void, but the court of appeals reversed. It ruled that the modifications were void because the divorce court did not have authority to modify the property division set out in a final divorce judgment.
On appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the modifications were not void. It determined that they were not vague and that they did not merge into the divorce judgment.