Effect of Sharing Living Expenses on Alimony in Arizona
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. Wife obtained a divorce from her husband. Wife subsequently met a love interest with whom she was cohabiting.
Husband filed a petition to modify the spousal maintenance he was paying Wife; 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 Wife’s cohabitation was a basis to terminate her spousal maintenance award. The Arizona Court of Appeals found that the record did not support terminating Wife’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 Wife 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 terminated Wife’s spousal maintenance for several reasons. Specifically, the trial court determined that the court found that Wife 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 that existed at the time the divorce decree was entered.
The trial court also found that Wife’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.
Wife 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 Husband met his burden of proving Wife’s cohabitation supported a termination of her spousal maintenance, but did conclude the trial court could consider whether Wife’s cohabitation provided a basis for the trial court to decrease her spousal maintenance.
The 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 Wife’s new cohabitant “should” be contributing to Wife’s household expenses, as opposed to how much Wife’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 Wife’s living expenses were being reduced, not what Husband 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 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 Wife’s spousal maintenance but found the trial court did not consider Husbands’ alternative request to modify Wife’s spousal maintenance. The Arizona Court of Appeals, therefore, remanded the case back to the Arizona trial court to address whether Wife’s spousal maintenance should be reduced.
Interestingly, it appears the Arizona Court of Appeals was sympathetic with Husbands’ 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.