Enforcing a Promise Between Spouses in a Divorce in Arizona
Arizona spouses make promises to each other all the time, but can a wife enforce her husband’s pledge in a divorce proceeding? In the case of Pyeatte v. Pyeatte, 135 Ariz. 346,661 P.2d 196 (1982), the Arizona Court of Appeals considered many theories for enforcing the husband’s promise.
H. Charles and Margrethe May Pyeatte married in Tucson in 1972. At the time, Margrethe was the coordinator of the surgical technology program at Pima College and Charles was her student.
Both of them had bachelor degrees and dreams of getting more education. The couple reached an agreement that Margrethe would support Charles for three years while he got his law degree, then he would support her while she earned her masters.
Charles, in fact, went to law school. For the first two years, Margrethe’s job supported both of them. The third year she lost her job and they used savings – largely from Margrethe’s work – to support themselves. Charles got his degree in 1977. Before Margrethe was able to go back to school for her master’s degree, Charles decided he wanted a divorce.
Margrethe did not qualify for spousal support but she asked for the divorce court to make Charles pay her the value of his promise – the amount it would cost to support her while she got her masters – which her expert calculated at $23,000.00. The divorce court awarded Margrethe $23,000.00, to be paid in installments. Charles appealed.
The Court of Appeals first considered whether the oral agreement between Margrethe and Charles was an enforceable contract. Under Arizona law, for an agreement to be binding it must be definite enough to be enforced and include specifics like when and where the contract obligations must be performed.
Margrethe and Charles’ verbal agreement was uncertain about when she would return to school, where she would go or how long it would take. The Court ruled that the contract was not specific enough to be enforced. Charles’ promise was too indefinite and uncertain for the Court to determine exactly the obligations involved.
The Basis to Enforce a Promise in an Arizona Divorce
Margrethe also claimed that she should be reimbursed under Arizona law A.R.S. § 25-318 for the amounts she spent on Charles’ legal education. That law says that a divorce judge can consider one spouse’s “excessive or abnormal expenditures” of money owned by both spouses.
Margrethe claimed that Charles’ legal degree was an asset that he obtained by spending all the money belonging to both of them and that she should be reimbursed. But the Court did not agree. The settled law in Arizona rejects the notion that education and professional degrees are marital property.
Margrethe argued that Charles was unjustly enriched by her paying for him during law school. She asked for reimbursement for what she invested in his career.
If you provide services to someone as part of an agreement you think is valid, but turns out not to be, the other person is said to be “unjustly enriched.” The person rendering the service has a right to be reimbursed if the circumstances are such that in good conscience the person should pay compensation.
Another way to put it is that a court can award restitution if it just isn’t fair for the person to keep what they got without paying for it. The Court of Appeals noted that, even though the couple’s agreement was not definite enough to be enforced, it proves Margrethe’s claim for unjust enrichment.
The oral agreement shows that Margrethe expected compensation for what she did; that is, she expected that Charles would pay for her schooling after she paid for his. It also shows circumstances that make it unjust to let Charles keep the benefits of her efforts. The Court considered whether restitution is appropriate between spouses.
In discussing the issue, it differentiated cases where a wife performed homemaking duties while her husband was attending professional school. Homemaking, it noted, was important in a marriage, but could not be the basis for a request for compensation for unjust enrichment when the couple divorced. Margrethe’s case, the Court said, was different in that she actively worked to pay for Charles’ education. It distinguished her case because:
- The community money, earned largely by her, was used up paying for the education of her husband;
- Margrethe can’t get spousal support a homemaking spouse could since she proved that she could support herself and her husband; and
- Charles asked for a divorce quickly after he finished his education before the couple saw any benefit from his legal education.
Therefore, the Court ruled that it would be unfair not to require Charles to reimburse Margrethe. The Court said that Margrethe should be awarded either the actual amount she paid for Charles’ education and living expenses, or else the amount she would have received had he paid for her to get her master’s degree, whichever was less. It sent the case back to the lower court to determine the amount of the award.
Chris Hildebrand wrote this article to ensure everyone has access to information about family law in Arizona. Chris is a divorce and 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. He believes the policies and procedures he uses to get his clients through a divorce should all be guided by the principles of honesty, integrity, and, quite frankly, actually caring about what his clients are going through in a divorce or family law case. In short, his practice is defined by the success of his clients. He also manages all of the other attorneys at his firm to make sure the outcomes in their clients’ cases are successful as well.