Non-Modifiable Spousal Support in Arizona Divorce

Non-Modifiable Spousal Support in Arizona | What You Need to Know

One of the issues that needs to be addressed in a divorce in Arizona is whether one of the spouses need spousal support, referred to as either alimony or spousal maintenance, during and/or after the divorce is finalized. A court has broad discretion in determining whether spousal support in an Arizona divorce case is appropriate and, if so, the amount and duration of the spousal support award. Absent an agreement by the parties to the divorce, a court does not have the authority to make the spousal maintenance award non-modifiable, which allows the court to subsequently modify or terminate the spousal support award if a change in circumstances justify such a modification or termination of the award.

However, Arizona Revised Statute Section 25-319(c) allows the spouses to agree the spousal support provisions in the Decree of Dissolution of Marriage or Degree of Legal Separation to be non-modifiable. There are both pros and cons to agreeing to a non-modifiable award of spousal support. The pros include providing the security to both spouses that their agreement will not be changed by the court in the future. The disadvantage is that circumstances may change for either the spouse paying the spousal support, the spouse receiving the spousal support, or both. The finality of a non-modifiable spousal support order provides a certain amount of finality, but that finality can create problems if the parties’ expectations of the future change in a material way. It is imperative, therefore, to assess, to the extent possible, the probabilities the parties’ expectations regarding the future will occur.

The question becomes whether a non-modifiable award of spousal support in Arizona can be set aside or changed. The Arizona Supreme Court addressed this question in the case of In re the Marriage of Waldren. Jana Waldren filed for divorce seeking to end her marriage to George Waldren. The parties submitted a settlement agreement in which they agreed George would pay Jana non-modifiable spousal support. Unfortunately, George became disabled a year after the parties’ divorce and was not meeting his spousal support obligations. George filed a motion to set aside that portion of the Divorce Decree requiring him to pay spousal support. George’s motion was denied by the trial court and the issue was then appealed.

The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that a court may modify or terminate a non-modifiable award of spousal support when an extraordinary change in circumstances is established. That decision of the Arizona Court of Appeals was appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court. The Arizona Supreme Court, which has discretion to either reject or accept the case on appeal, chose to accept the appeal because the issues addressed in the case presented an issue of “statewide importance”.

Non-Modifiable Spousal Support in Arizona | The Ruling in Waldren v. Waldren

The Arizona Supreme Court began its’ analysis by stating a divorce judge only has the authority granted to the court by statute, pursuant to the precedent set forth in the Weaver v. Weaver case. The Arizona Supreme Court recognized that the spousal support statute allows a trial judge to modify or terminate an award of spousal support if circumstances change substantially after the spousal support award was made. However, the justices also pointed out that the spousal support statute allows the parties to agree that the spousal support provision in their divorce decree be non-modifiable, which was precisely what the parties did in their case.

George argued that the statute technically only indicated a court lacks the jurisdiction to “modify” an award of spousal support, which he contended was different from a court’s authority to “terminate” an award of spousal support. Stated differently, George argued a court may not modify a non-modifiable award of spousal support, but it still retained the authority to “terminate” the award because the legislature chose to leave a trial court with the authority to “terminate” a non-modifiable spousal support award as evidenced by the legislature’s decision to not include the word “terminate” in the applicable statute.

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that a “termination” of a spousal support award constitutes a “modification” of the divorce decree and, therefore, disagreed with George’s argument. The justices also stated their decision helps to ensure finality, certainty, and a level of predictability in divorce settlements.

The Arizona Supreme Court also rejected George’s argument that the trial court had the “equitable” power to relieve him from his spousal support agreement because of the procedural rule that allows a divorce court to provide relief from a divorce decree when it is shown that prospective enforcement of the order is no longer equitable. The Arizona Supreme Court found the ruled cited by George is a procedural rule and, further, that procedural rules are required to succumb to the clear language of and meaning of a statute. In this case, the statute allowing parties to make their spousal support provisions non-modifiable was controlling.

The Arizona Supreme Court, however, issued a very interesting footnote it its’ decision in this case indicating the Supreme Court was not addressing whether fraud or duress could provide a basis to set aside a non-modifiable award of spousal support. As luck would have it, the Arizona Court of Appeals in the case of McNeil v. Hoskyns addressed the issue of whether an alleged fraud on the court provided a basis to modify or terminate a non-modifiable award of spousal support in Arizona. You can click our link to the McNeil v. Hoskyns case here to learn how the Arizona Court of Appeals addressed that issue.