Non-Modifiable Spousal Support in Arizona Divorce
You Can Agree Spousal Support Will Not be Modifiable
One of the issues that need 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 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 nonmodifiable, which allows the court to subsequently modify or terminate the spousal support award if a change in circumstances justifies such modification or termination of the award.
However, Arizona Revised Statute Section 25-319(c) allows the spouses to agree to the spousal support provisions of 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 advantages include providing the security to both spouses that the court will not change their agreement 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 nonmodifiable spousal support order provides a degree 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 of 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 issue 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. The trial court denied George’s motion 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 the 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.”
The Ruling in Waldren vs. Waldren Confirmed Spousal Maintenance Can be Non-Modifiable
The Arizona Supreme Court began its’ analysis by stating a divorce judge only has the authority granted to the court by statute, according to the precedent outlined in the Weaver v. Weaver case. The Arizona Supreme Court recognized that the spousal support law 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 nonmodifiable 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 law allowing parties to make their spousal support provisions non-modifiable was controlling.
The Arizona Supreme Court, however, issued a fascinating footnote in 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.
Chris Hildebrand wrote this article about non-modifiable spousal support in Arizona to ensure everyone has access to information about spousal support laws in Arizona. Chris is a 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 spousal support case should all be guided by the principles of honesty, integrity, and actually caring about what his clients are going through.