Home » Prenuptial Agreement and Creditors in Arizona
Prenuptial Agreement and Creditors in Arizona
Posted on : April 13, 2016, By: Christopher Hildebrand
Prenuptial Agreement and Creditors
Elia v. Pifer Character Evidence Issues
Generally, one party to a lawsuit in Arizona cannot present evidence of bad things the other party did that are not related to the case. This type of evidence is excluded because it could cause a judge or jury to decide a case based on which party is a better person rather than the facts and evidence of the case.
In Elia v. Pifer, 977 P.2d 796 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1998), the Arizona Court of Appeals reviewed several rulings the trial judge made in a malpractice case brought by a client against his divorce attorney. One of the rulings on appeal was the trial court’s decision to allow the attorney Pifer to tell the jury that the client – Mr. Elia – was found by the Dental Board to have falsified dental records.
Facts of the Case
When James P. Elia and his wife were divorcing, James was represented by attorney Stacy Pifer who entered into a divorce settlement agreement on his behalf. However, Mr. Elia claimed he had not authorized Pifer to settle his case on those terms and brought this case against her for negligence.
At trial in this malpractice action, Mr. Elia said that he had called Pifer’s office and left a message telling her not to agree to certain terms in the settlement. When a written message to that effect was found in her file, Pifer said that she did not believe it was written in her office, but believed that Mr. Elia had entered her office and altered her files.
The judge allowed her to testify at trial that the Dental Board had once found James guilty of altering dental records and that the ruling was upheld on appeal. The jury found in Pifer’s favor and James appealed, citing several rulings as error.
Jennifer, thank you for being my attorney. I could not have been more pleased with the outcome of my family court hearing. Everything you have done for me throughout this case reflects in the final ruling of the judge. You helped me keep my head together and taught me a lot about myself as a person. I learned so much about my life from observing and listening to you. I will take all the advice you gave me to continue taking responsibility for my choices, continue to put the kids' needs first, and always stay truthful. Your diligence, dedication, and persistence in my case made what seemed impossible, possible. You are a wonderful person and an amazing attorney and I am stronger and more confident because of you.
I just want to again thank the Firm for working with me all that it has. I could not have done anything without everyone's assistance. You, Chris and Stacey have been and continue to provide me with compassion and hard work towards my case. Also a very special thanks to Kip for taking my case in the beginning. Also continued support from him and his dedication to providing me with his expertise in this matter.
After interviewing several law firms, I came across Jennifer Shick, and her firm, who I hired to represent me for my Family Court case. Jennifer has extensive knowledge of the law and is determined to bring the truth to every issue involved within the case. Throughout my case, Jennifer was prepared meticulously as well as went above and beyond all of my expectations. Even when the other party tried to differ from the truth, lie to the Judge, and turn situations around, Jennifer remained attentive and provided substantial evidence to show the judge the facts as well as the proof to support what was the best interests of my children. Additionally, Jennifer helped me endure many difficult experiences, situations and inspired me to remain positive throughout the entirety of my case. Her kindness, compassion, and professionalism helped me through very difficult times and made the process feel a thousand times lighter on my shoulders. She truly has my children and my best interest at heart and I trust her perspective as well as her honesty on each and every aspect of my case. She lessened the burden on my shoulders and even when I felt like the case was not going to go in my favor, Jennifer was open-minded and reassured me that the Judge would, in fact, see the truth, which he did and the case went in my favor. After nine months of court, everything finally came together. I cannot declare how much Jennifer has been an outstanding attorney. She addressed each and every issue with diligence, she cares about her clients and their families. Jennifer genuinely cares about her clients and her dedication to the details of the case was remarkable. Overall, I am extremely pleased with Jennifer’s services and I am truly thankful that I was so blessed to have her represent my children and me. I highly recommend Jennifer as one of the best attorneys in Arizona and if the situation ever arises, I will definitely have her represent my children and me again.
Dear Stacey and Kip, How can I ever thank you enough for helping me through the most difficult time in my life? I couldn't put into words my heartfelt gratefulness. You both were so compassionate and professional at every given moment throughout this process with me. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You helped me to regain my freedom.
I was a client of Attorney Kevin Park for the dissolution of a divorce in 2016. And since I had never had the need to hire an attorney before for any purpose, I was somewhat apprehensive of the process. But the very calm and professional demeanor of Mr. Park eased my fears. He adeptly answered all my questions and I clearly knew the process and what to expect. And the skilled manner he communicated with opposing counsel was perfect. When it came down to negotiating with my spouse’s counsel, I knew I had selected the best attorney for my situation. What I noticed and appreciated was that he was using just the right amount of pressure with opposing counsel as was necessary. If you find yourself in this situation, you will want a seasoned professional like Mr. Park on your side. I'm very grateful that he was my attorney and not the opposition!
Chris is a smart and aggressive attorney for his clients. Chris always tries to reach a fair settlement of his cases. I’ve represented clients when Chris was the opposing counsel and while he is professional and amicable to work with, he does not back off on what he needs to do for his client
Kevin Park of Arizona Estate Planning Attorneys was just what I needed for my divorce. He was very approachable and personable. He was quick to recognize what I needed and provided it quickly and efficiently. I hope to never need a divorce lawyer again, but if I know anyone else who does, I will definitely recommend Kevin.
I feel that Tracey Van Wickler is certainly one of the best family lawyers around. She is logical, intelligent, and truly cares. Tracey always does what is in the clients best interest, does it well, timely and with integrity. She is good at keeping her clients informed as to what is going on and clear in her communication both written and verbally. I have recommended Tracey to other people and will continue to recommend her. I recommended Tracey to someone who was having issues with their ex-wife and his response was, “I know how good she is because I went up against her and she ate me for lunch”. This same person was so impressed with her, he even recommended her to someone else, WOW, that is impressive! I am exceptionally happy with her attention to detail, her ability to explain things in ways that are easy to understand, as well as her ability to keep everyone focused on the most important things. I would recommend Tracey to anyone who may be in need of her services.
I retained Hildebrand Law after interview a number of firms in the valley. Working with Michael C. was incredibly easy and informative. My case progressed in such a organized and thought out way to ensure that my needs were met. Michael was incredibly proactive and was able to see far ahead into my case to steer clear of some roadblocks. I would not hesitate to recommend Michael Clancy, and Hildebrand Law in general, to anyone.
I have worked with Hildebrand law for about 8 years. They are always ready to serve, provide guidance and give you a few options. When they provide you options they also take the time to walk you through the pros and cons of each and give you a recommendation of what is best, but will listen to you and support whatever course you choose after making and educated choice. I’d recommend them to my closest friends and feel Chris Hildebrand is now a friend to me.
Despite the unfortunate situation I found myself in, Chris Hildebrand @ Hildebrand Law helped me maneuver every step with professionalism, expertise, and even a sensitivity that was an added bonus.Chris and his staff helped me even when I didn't know I needed the help. In other words. . . they made sure we did not leave anything undone. And in the rare instance we needed the expertise of another professional, Chris knew exactly who to recommend.Chris also knew, because of his experience, what to anticipate down the road of litigation. That meant we were better prepared to meet the challenges head on, which lead to a more equitable and fair outcome. I appreciated that Chris did his best to meet my every need in a timely fashion, even if I had a simple question that required only a phone call or e-mail or if we needed to talk face-to-face.I highly recommend Chris Hildebrand @ Hildebrand Law, PC.
I cannot express enough how thankful I am that I found Hildrebrand Law. Chris Hildebrand is an excellent attorney who has my best interests in mind and always encourages me to do the right thing regardless of what the opposing party is doing. Chris knows family law very well and relies on that knowledge to format options and solutions for each situation that may arise. He knows what the Court expects and what will and will not be tolerated. He has attempted to settle this case quickly and as inexpensively as possible from the start. His paralegal, Laura, is remarkable. She is organized, quick to respond, and compassionate. Chris is well prepared with a binder full of detailed and organized information and that is likely due to her thorough skills and expertise. While getting a divorce that was unexpected is a painful and difficult process, Chris and Laura treat my family and I like friends rather than another just "client." I am hopeful that I do not need to recommend divorce lawyers to anyone in the future but if I do, Hildebrand Law will be a recommendation I would give hands down.
Testimony of Prior Bad Conduct Should Is Not Permitted
The Court of Appeal first discussed whether Pifer should have been allowed to bring up the Dental Board finding at trial. Generally, one party cannot introduce evidence that the other party committed “bad” acts on an earlier occasion. This type of “character” evidence is usually forbidden. In some cases, however, the party “opens the door” to allow into evidence by arguing a position that makes the evidence relevant.
Here, Pifer argued that Mr. Elia had made the information relevant by mentioning the dispute about whether the telephone message was authentic. However, the Court of Appeals ruled that the only evidence to which Mr. Elia’s remarks opened the door in rebuttal was evidence that pertained to the issue of the authenticity of the telephone message slip.
Prenuptial Agreement and Creditors in Arizona.
Pifer’s state of mind—her speculation that Mr. Elia might have falsified the message because he had been found by the Board to have falsified other documents— was irrelevant to this issue. The Court ruled that it was an error for the judge to allow the character evidence to be presented to the jury, as well as Pifer’s personal conclusion that James had falsified the telephone slip. The error required the Court of Appeals to send the case back for retrial.
Other Issues in the Appeal
Since the case had to be retried, the Court of Appeals addressed the other issues on appeal to help guide the trial court. Two of them involved collateral estoppel and the effect of the attorney’s prenuptial agreement.
The legal doctrine called collateral estoppel means that if something has been finally decided once in the court, the losing party cannot reargue it in another proceeding. A decision is final if it is affirmed on appeal or if the time for appeal is passed.
In the divorce case, Mr. Elia was found in contempt of court for not paying court-ordered family support. In the malpractice case, the trial court ruled that Mr. Elia was collaterally estopped from re-arguing matters decided in that contempt proceeding. James argues on appeal that because a contempt order cannot be appealed, it is not a “final” decision for collateral estoppel purposes.
The Court reviewed the law and ruled that nothing in the law requires that an order be appealable in order to be final for collateral estoppel purposes. Because contempt rulings can be reviewed in a Special Action appeal, they are sufficiently firm to serve as a basis for collateral estoppel.
Pifer’s Prenuptial Agreement
Another issue that Mr. Elia appealed was the trial court’s decision that he could seek to collect any judgment against Pifer in the malpractice action against Pifer’s husband. Generally, when a couple marries in Arizona, the income each earn during the marriage belongs to both and the debts incurred in one’s business operation are the debts of both.
However, a couple can agree to a different way of dividing their property during marriage. Here, Pifer and her husband signed a prenuptial agreement before they were married that the earnings and debts of each party would be separate, not community. Pifer’s husband claimed that James could not try to recover any judgment against Pifer from his earnings.
Mr. Elia argued that even a valid prenuptial agreement is not binding upon a tort creditor of the community. However, the Court of Appeal ruled that it was binding since the Arizona statute provides that the separate property of one spouse “shall not be liable for the separate debts or obligations of the other spouse, absent agreement of the property owner to the contrary.”
The law does not distinguish between contract debts or tort debts. A later Court of Appeals decision distinguished this ruling. In the case of Industrial Commission of Arizona v. Wright, 43 P.3d 203 (2002), the Court of Appeals mentioned this prenuptial agreement part of the Elia v. Pifer ruling and distinguished it. It cited this case for the proposition that “marital agreements are generally binding on creditors.” However, the court went on to rule that when a marital agreement is executed after a debt is incurred, it is not binding on the creditor.