Ambiguous Alimony Terms in an Arizona Divorce Decree
In the unpublished Arizona Court of Appeals decision in Schott v. Schott, Richard Schott (Husband) appealed the family court’s decision to increase his spousal maintenance payments to Danielle Schott (Wife). Husband argued that the trial court erred when refusing to consider extrinsic evidence of the intent of the parties when interpreting the original spousal maintenance provision in the divorce decree.
A Background of the Case: Schott v. Schott
Husband and Wife divorced in July of 2013. The consent decree included an agreement reached in a settlement conference requiring Husband to pay Wife $3,000 per month in spousal maintenance, minus court ordered child support. The child support calculation resulted in Husband paying Wife $1,100 per month in child support and, thus, $1,900 per month in spousal maintenance. The agreement noted that the spousal maintenance was non-modifiable in duration, but modifiable in amount.
The agreement further provided that Wife was to receive $3,000 per month in combined support for six years starting on the first day of the first month when the marital home was sold. In April of 2014, Husband filed a petition to decrease child support in response to the emancipation of the parties’ oldest child. Wife agreed child support should be decreased but filed a counter-petition requesting an increase in spousal maintenance in order to maintain the agreed upon $3,000 total monthly support payment as stated in the Consent Decree.
Husband argued that was not the intent of the agreement. Based upon the terms of the settlement agreement and after a review of the transcript of the settlement conference, Husband argued the consent decree was ambiguous and sought to use extraneous documentation to establish the intent behind the agreement was not to ensure a fixed sum of spousal maintenance for the full six years. The trial court disagreed, finding the divorce decree unambiguously awarded Wife $3,000 per month in combined support for six years. The court declined to review any parol evidence supporting Husband’s stance. Parol evidence is any evidence, other than the written agreement itself, used to attack the clear language of a written agreement. The family court ordered that Husband’s child support obligation is decreased to $830 per month while his spousal maintenance obligation increased to $2,170 in accordance with the plain language of the divorce decree. Wife was awarded attorney’s fees. Husband appealed.
The Court of Appeals of Arizona on Determining the Applicability of the Parol Rule to Divorce Decrees
Husband argued the trial court erred in declining to consider extrinsic evidence in relation to the intent of the parties when interpreting the spousal maintenance provision of the decree. In situations where contract language is “reasonably susceptible” to the interpretation advanced by the proponent of the evidence, parol evidence is typically admissible to determine the parties intent. However, a divorce decree is not a contract – it is a judgment.
The fact that the parties reached an agreement that resulted in the issuance of a divorce decree does not change the fact that the parties’ agreement is superseded by the subsequent issuance of a divorce decree. The obligations imposed are, therefore, not imposed by contract, but by a court ordered divorce decree. In addition, the Supreme Court has held that the parol evidence rule does not apply to a judgment. The decree exists as an independent resolution by the court of the issues being considered. So, while the court declined to consider parol evidence for the wrong reason, the trial court reached the right conclusion.
The Court of Appeals of Arizona on Determining the Applicability of Ambiguities in Contracts Rule to Decrees
Husband also argued that the trial court abused its discretion in failing to interpret the spousal maintenance provision in the decree against the “drafter” of the divorce decree (in this instance, Husband claims Wife drafted the divorce decree). Under contract law, any ambiguities in a contract are to be viewed, generally, against the position adopted by the party who wrote the contract. Yet as noted previously, the Arizona Court of Appeals indicated the divorce decree is not a contract. It is a judgment of the court. As such, Wife is not deemed to be the drafter of the divorce decree. The trial court may have accepted the language that was originally proposed by the two parties, but when the decree was executed, the drafter of the judgment became the court. This makes the rule that ambiguities in contracts are to be construed against the drafter meaningless and not applicable.