Merger or Incorporation of Settlement Agreement in an Arizona Divorce Decree
You may have wondered if you can change the orders in an Arizona divorce decree and, if so, how you change the orders in an Arizona divorce decree. The answer depends upon whether the court has the authority to modify the final decree of dissolution of marriage and how you go about changing those orders if the court lacks the authority to modify the decree of legal separation. Fortunately, the Arizona Supreme Court answered these questions in the case of LaPrade v. Laprade.
Sarah LaPrade and her husband, Arthur LaPrade, signed a post nuptial agreement dividing their personal property and awarding spousal maintenance to Sarah in the event the parties were to ever divorce.
Arthur subsequently filed for divorce and the parties presented their post nuptial agreement to the Court. The trial court found the post nuptial agreement was fair as to both the division of property and provisions pertaining to alimony and, therefore, issued a decree of dissolution of the parties’ marriage and incorporated the terms of the parties’ post nuptial agreement as the orders of the court.
After the marriages was dissolved, Sarah and Arthur submitted two separate amended agreements to the court, which the court also adopted as orders of the court. Arthur subsequently married another woman, but maintained a cordial relationship with his former wife, Sarah.
After Arthur’s remarriage, he and Sarah submitted two additional modifications to their prior agreements, which were both adopted as orders of the court. Arthur subsequently passed away and the administrator of his estate argued the trial court lacked the authority to order any modifications to the divorce decree because the parties failed to reopen the divorce decree to change its provisions, as opposed to modifying the original provisions in the divorce decree by subsequent orders as was done in the case.
Merger or Incorporation of a Settlement Agreement | The Ruling
The Arizona Supreme Court determined the issue of whether the agreements reached by the parties after their divorce decree was issued and the orders purporting to modify the divorce decree based upon those subsequent agreements were enforceable hinged on whether the agreements merged into the post decree orders or were simply incorporated by reference.
The Arizona Supreme Court held that agreements that are merged into orders are not enforceable as separate independent contracts and the court’s orders enforcing some provisions of those agreements may have been deemed unenforceable.
The reason for such an outcome is that an agreement that merges into a decree is deemed to no longer exist because it is superseded by the decree. Furthermore, if the court lacked jurisdiction to issue the orders set forth in the merged agreement, the decree or order may be set aside; hence, leaving the parties with no agreement or order to enforce.
However, if the agreement, order, and/or the parties actions demonstrate an intent that the agreements remain separately enforceable contracts that are merely incorporated, but not merged, into the decree, the agreements themselves may be enforced as contracts regardless if the court did or did not have jurisdiction to ratify those agreements as the orders of the court.
The Arizona Supreme Court found the trial court had jurisdiction to modify the provisions of the agreements pertaining to spousal maintenance because Arizona Revised Statute Section 25-319 specifically extends the jurisdiction of the trial court to modify spousal maintenance after the issuance of the decree until such time the term of the award expires.
The Arizona Supreme Court, however, found that the trial court is precluded from modifying provisions in a decree pertaining to the division of the parties’ property and debts because Arizona Revised Statute Section 25-317 provides that a final division of property and debts in a divorce decree are not modifiable.
This is not to say parties cannot file a motion to reopen the divorce decree to change the terms of that decree, but they cannot simply file subsequent agreements purporting to modify the existing language in the divorce decree pertaining to the division of property and/or debts.
The justices rejected the argument that the court was bound by the language in the order to determine if the agreements were intended to merge or, rather, only be incorporated into the orders. The justices indicated a trial court should determine the intent of the parties and the court by looking at the language in the agreement, the language in the trial court’s order, and the conduct of the parties.
The Arizona Supreme Court concluded that the evidence presented established the parties did not intend to merge their agreements into the orders issued subsequently to the initial decree of dissolution of marriage and those agreements, therefore, could be enforced as separate independent contracts despite the trial court lacking jurisdiction to modify the terms of the final decree of dissolution of marriage pertaining to the division of the parties’ personal property.
The take away from this case is that parties in an Arizona divorce should give careful consideration into the legal implications of merging their settlement agreements into their final decree of dissolution of marriage or whether they should simply incorporate the terms of their agreement into the final decree of dissolution of marriage to enable the parties to enforce that agreement as a separate contract independent of using remedies to enforce the orders issued by the court based upon that agreement; particularly if the agreement contains provisions a trial judge otherwise lacks the authority to order.