Can a Judge Reject a Divorce Settlement In Arizona?
Wick Incorporating Settlement into Divorce
Couples in Arizona who are contemplating divorce can enter into marital settlement agreements regarding their property and financial obligations. But is the divorce court required to accept them? In Wick v. Wick, 489 P.2d 19, 107 Ariz. 382 (1971), the Arizona Supreme Court discussed the divorce court’s duty and authority in entering a property division order when the spouses themselves have reached a settlement.
Facts of the Case
Henry Wick filed for divorce in Arizona from Jane Wick in 1965. About one year later, Henry and Jane settled their divorce case by signing a contract called “Separation and Property Settlement Agreement.” Henry almost immediately broke the contract and Jane filed a contract case against him. He admitted having signed the settlement but he then claimed it was an invalid contract.
The divorce and contract actions proceeded to trial together and the court entered separate rulings on each of them. It ruled for Jane in the contract action and denied Henry’s claims that the settlement was illegal or should be rewritten. However, the court declined to incorporate the property division set out in the settlement agreement into the divorce.
The court said that it wasn’t a fair and equitable division of community property. Instead, the court incorporated some parts of it and modified other parts. Jane appealed the divorce court’s failure to incorporate the entire settlement agreement into the divorce decree. Henry appealed the judgment entered for Jane in the contract action.
The Arizona Supreme Court agreed completely with the divorce court that the contract between the spouses was valid and enforceable. It denied Jane’s claim for attorney fees under the contract action since she was awarded one attorney fee amount for both actions combined.
The sole issue in the divorce action was whether the trial court should have incorporated the entire property settlement agreement into the divorce decree. Jane argued that the divorce court could not disregard or modify the property distribution provisions of the settlement agreement merely because it felt the division agreed to was not fair and equitable. It was obliged to accept them. The Court disagreed, saying this was a misstatement of the law in Arizona. The Court said that nothing the spouses might agree to would limit the power given the divorce court to effect a fair and equitable settlement.
The Court discussed Arizona law about divorce settlements. It noted that spouses can, by a valid agreement between them, settle all of the property issues arising in a divorce. Normally, a divorce court will approve a valid agreement and incorporate it into the divorce decree, provided the settlement is free from any taint of fraud, coercion or undue influence, that the spouses acted with full knowledge of the property and their rights, and that the settlement was fair and equitable.
However, the Supreme Court stated that an Arizona divorce court is not bound to accept a property settlement agreement between spouses. The court’s duty is to enter a division of community property that is “just and right.” Therefore, the trial court here was not required to adopt Jane and Henry’s property settlement agreement.
Rather, the court’s duty was to figure out a property division that the court felt was fair, just and equitable, regardless of the agreement which had been entered into by the parties. The court could not be kept from this duty just because Jane and Henry entered into a property settlement agreement.