Continuing Spousal Maintenance After the Death of a Former Spouse in Arizona
If you need to know about continuing spousal maintenance after the death of a former spouse in Arizona, you have come to the right place. We are going to discuss the line of decisions from the Arizona Court of Appeals in the cases of In re Estelle’s Estate, Diefenbach vs. Holmberg and the most recent decision in Garlan vs. Garlan that answers the question whether spousal maintenance can continue to be paid after the death of a former spouse.
There is no question that Arizona Revised Statute Section 25-327(B) provides as follows:
Unless otherwise agreed in writing or expressly provided in the decree, the obligation to pay future maintenance is terminated on the death of either party or the remarriage of the party receiving maintenance.
The statute, therefore, appears to be very clear. Specifically, that spousal maintenance terminates upon the death of either spouse. However, it is not that easy because the beginning portion of that statute says “unless otherwise agreed in writing or expressly provided in the decree . . .”
Theoretically, a spousal maintenance obligation could continue to be paid after the death of the spouse making those payments or to the spouse receiving those payments if there is a written agreement or clear court order continuing those payments beyond the death of either spouse.
In such cases, a claim could be made by the spouse receiving those spousal maintenance payments against the estate of the deceased former spouse. Likewise, a claim could be made by the estate of the spouse receiving spousal maintenance after his or her death against the spouse paying spousal maintenance to continue paying spousal maintenance to the estate.
Well, this all sounds pretty clear, but let’s look at the three Arizona Court of Appeals’ decisions on these issues to see how unclear this all can be in real life.
Spousal Maintenance Provisions Making the Terms of a Divorce Binding Upon the Heirs of the Spouses
The Arizona Court of Appeals first addressed these issues in the case of In re Estelle’s estate. In that case, the husband and the wife reached an agreement in their divorce that the husband would pay the wife spousal maintenance until the wife reached the age to be eligible to begin receiving social security income.
One of the terms of the parties’ agreement indicated it would be binding upon the heirs of both spouses, which the wife argued was the equivalent of a written agreement that spousal maintenance would continue even after the husband’s death.
She argued there was no other interpretation to justify why that language was a part of their settlement agreement other than spousal maintenance was intended by both parties to be paid even if the husband were to die.
Well, the Arizona Court of Appeals disagreed.
Specifically, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that the language making the terms of the parties’ marital settlement agreement binding on their heirs could only, at best, be an implication the parties intended spousal maintenance to continue to be paid beyond the death of the husband.
The Court of Appeals indicated that such an implication alone was not enough to establish the existence of an actual agreement for spousal maintenance to continue upon the death of the husband. Instead, the clear language indicating the parties actually intended to allow spousal maintenance to continue upon the husband’s death was not clearly stated in the marital settlement agreement.
As a result, spousal maintenance automatically terminated upon the husband’s death, pursuant to A.R.S. 25-327(B).
Provisions Making Spousal Maintenance Non-Modifiable
The next case hitting the Arizona Court of Appeals on this issue was the case of Diefenbach v. Holmberg. In that case, the parties entered into a marital settlement agreement that included spousal maintenance and a provision that the terms of the spousal maintenance were non-modifiable.
In that case, the husband was paying the wife spousal maintenance. The wife died at which time the husband stopped paying the spousal maintenance.
The wife’s estate sued the husband based upon the claim that, since the spousal maintenance provisions were non-modifiable, the death of the wife did not terminate his spousal maintenance obligation.
The Arizona Court of Appeals indicated that, generally, the spousal maintenance obligation would terminate automatically upon the wife’s death, pursuant to A.R.S. 25-327(B). However, parties can agree for spousal maintenance to continue beyond the death of the spouse receiving the spousal maintenance if there is a written agreement or court order indicating the spousal maintenance payments will not terminate upon the recipient spouse’s death.
The person representing the wife’s estate claimed that the provision making the spousal maintenance obligation non-modifiable meant spousal maintenance payments were still required to be paid even though the person receiving those payments, the former wife, died.
The Arizona Court of Appeals rejected that argument by indicating the term “non-modifiable” was not synonymous with the term “non-terminable”. The court concluded that the parties did not clearly express that spousal maintenance would not be terminated upon the wife’s death.
As a result, the husband’s obligation to pay spousal maintenance to the wife automatically terminated upon the wife’s death, pursuant to A.R.S. 25-327(B).
Express Language in a Court Order That Spousal Maintenance Will Continue After the Death of a Spouse
Fast forward a few years to 2020 and you will see the Arizona Court of Appeals deciding whether the husband’s spousal maintenance payments to his former wife would continue after the former husband dies in the case of Garlan vs. Garlan.
In that case, the husband died after being ordered to pay the wife spousal maintenance. The orders in their divorce decree indicated “monthly [spousal maintenance] payments shall be paid directly from [Husband’s] monthly income or from his estate in the event of his death”.
The Court of Appeals indicated that language was specific enough to prove that the intention of the divorce court judge was to require spousal maintenance payments to be paid from the husband’s estate to the wife even though the husband had died.
However, they then had to decide whether a divorce court judge has the authority to order the payment of spousal maintenance beyond the husband’s death when there was no agreement between the parties themselves that spousal maintenance should continue after the husband’s death.
In interpreting Arizona Revised Statute Section 25-327(N), the Court of Appeals concluded that the statute granted a divorce judge the power to order spousal maintenance payments to continue even after the spouse paying spousal maintenance dies. A divorce court judge has this power regardless of whether either or both spouses agree or disagree on whether spousal maintenance should continue to be paid after the spouse paying spousal maintenance dies.
If you have questions about continuing spousal maintenance after the death of a former spouse in Arizona, you should seriously consider contacting the attorneys at Hildebrand Law, PC. Our Arizona spousal maintenance and family law attorneys have experience successfully representing clients in spousal maintenance and family law cases.
Our family law firm has earned numerous awards such as US News and World Reports Best Arizona Family Law Firm, US News and World Report Best Divorce Attorneys, “Best of the Valley” by Arizona Foothills readers, and “Best Arizona Divorce Law Firms” by North Scottsdale Magazine.
Call us today at (480)305-8300 or reach out to us through our appointment scheduling form to schedule your personalized consultation and turn your Arizona spousal maintenance or family law case around today.
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Chris Hildebrand wrote the information on this page about continuing spousal maintenance after the death of a former spouse in Arizona to ensure everyone has access to information about the divorce process in Arizona. Chris is a family law attorney at Hildebrand Law, PC. He has over 24 years of Arizona family law experience and has received multiple awards, including US News and World Report “Top Arizona Divorce Attorneys”, Phoenix Magazine “Top Divorce Law Firms”, and Arizona Foothills Magazine “Best of the Valley” award.