Limitations Period for Enforcing Divorce Decree in Arizona
If someone borrows money from you, you only have a certain amount of time to bring a lawsuit to collect it. This is called a statute of limitations. Once that limitations period is passed, you cannot bring a lawsuit. Do statute of limitations apply to enforcing divorce decree provisions? In Jensen v. Beirne CA-CV 15-0802 FC (Ariz. Ct. App. Dec. 6, 2016) the Arizona Court of Appeals discussed this issue.
Facts of the Case
Mr. Beirne and Mrs. Jensen divorced in June 2005. The divorce decree distributed several real properties between the two spouses. These were properties held by the couple as community property. The court awarded Mr. Bernie “Unit 1103” in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the “Hadley Highstone Property” in England.
The court ordered Mr. Bernie to refinance the mortgages on the two properties in his name only within 90 days. He failed to do this. At that point, the court gave Mrs. Jensen the right to sell the property. It also gave her the first right of refusal to purchase the property at fair market value. The proceeds from the sale of both properties would go to Mr. Bernie. First, Mrs. Jensen would be reimbursed for mortgage and maintenance payments.
At a March 2007 hearing on other matters, the parties told the court that various reasons prevented the two properties from being sold. The court appointed a special real estate commissioner to sell Unit 1103. The special real estate commissioner told the court at a hearing in April 2008 that he was unable to list Unit 1103 for sale.
In May, 2008, the court ordered that the property be sold to Mrs. Jensen, that the clerk sign the papers on Mr. Bernie’s behalf, and that Mrs. Jensen be reimbursed for the mortgage amounts she paid.
Mr. Bernie filed a petition in July 2015 stating that Mrs. Jensen hadn’t listed the Hadley Highstone Property for sale. He requested that the court order her to pay him the current equity in the property. He agreed to then deed his interest to her. He also told the court that he couldn’t refinance Unit 1103 because Mrs. Jensen refused to sign over her interest. He requested that the court order Mrs. Jensen to quitclaim him her interest in Unit 1103 to him. Only then could he refinance the property in his name only.
The court held a hearing on October 7, 2015. It ordered Mrs. Jensen to quitclaim Unit 1103 to Mr. Bernie. It also ordered Mr. Bernie to refinance it by January 15, 2016.
At the hearing, Mrs. Jensen said she wanted to buy the Hadley Highstone Property. The court took the matter under advisement. On October 13, 2015, the court issued a minute entry. It vacated the relief it granted to Mr. Bernie and dismissed his petition with prejudice. The court found that it did not have authority to enforce the decree and related orders because the petition was time-barred. Mr. Bernie appealed.
The Statute Cited Does Not Apply Here
The lower court found that it did not have power to enforce its order because over five years had passed since their entry. Neither party had renewed them under A.R.S. § 12-1551 (2016). Section 12-1551(B) states:
“An execution or other process shall not be issued on a judgment after the expiration of five years from the date of its entry unless the judgment is renewed by affidavit or process pursuant to § 12-1612 or an action is brought on it within five years from the date of the entry of the judgment or of its renewal.”
The Court of Appeals ruled that Section 12-1551 is inapplicable to this divorce matter. That law is a statute of limitations that applies to judgments for payments of specific amounts of money. It is inapplicable to the equitable dissolution decree entered in this case.
The purpose of enacting a statute of limitations is to fix a time limit within which an action must be brought. A.R.S. § 12-1551 is intended to limit the time for a creditor to collect debts embodied in money judgments.
The statute applies to judgments that creditors can execute on. The enforcement of dissolution decrees is based on the equitable power of the family court to do justice between the parties. The court keeps jurisdiction to enforce the decree until justice is achieved.
The Court of Appeals reversed the court’s ruling that it lacked the power to enforce the dissolution decree and related orders.
The Limitations Period Was Not Triggered
Even if Mr. Bernie and Mrs. Jensen’s divorce decree were a judgment to which A.R.S. § 12-1551 applies, the limitations period has never been triggered. Mr. Bernie argues that the statute of limitations did not run against the decree or any of the subsequent orders. None of the orders dictated the date by which the properties had to be sold. The limitations period would be triggered only upon the occurrence of specific subsequent events.
Mr. Bernie could not sue to enforce the court’s order until Mrs. Jensen decided to sell or buy the property. The Court of Appeals held that A.R.S. § 12-1551 was not applicable to this case. However, it also held that if it were, it would not have been triggered until Mrs. Jensen took one of the actions outlined above.
The Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling and remanded for further proceedings.