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If you are going through a divorce in Arizona you will need to know the laws concerning spousal maintenance in Arizona. Fortunately, the Arizona Court of Appeals in the published decision of Huey v. Huey provided insight into determining whether you or your spouse are entitled to an award of indefinite spousal maintenance.
In Arizona the terms “alimony” and “spousal maintenance” are interchangeable and both terms refer to the same legal principle. So, there is no need to fret over the distinction between the two. In this article however we will use the term “spousal maintenance.”
The Arizona Spousal Maintenance Statute
The relevant law concerning an award of spousal maintenance in Arizona is A.R.S. § 25-319. Part “(A)” of the statute provides instances where an award of spousal maintenance in Arizona is justified. Part “(B)” of the statute provides factors an Arizona court will consider when deciding both the amount and duration of spousal maintenance.
A.R.S. § 25-319(A) states that spousal maintenance shall be awarded when:
- The receiving spouse lacks sufficient property, including property apportioned to the spouse, to provide for that spouse’s reasonable needs.
- The receiving spouse lacks earning ability in the labor market that is adequate to be self-sufficient.
- The receiving spouse is the parent of a child whose age or condition is such that the parent should not be required to seek employment outside the home.
- The receiving spouse has made a significant financial or other contribution to the education, training, vocational skills, career or earning ability of the other spouse or has significantly reduced that spouse’s income or career opportunities for the benefit of the other spouse.
- The receiving spouse had a marriage of long duration and is of an age that may preclude the possibility of gaining employment adequate to be self-sufficient.
A.R.S. § 25-319(B) states Arizona courts may award spousal maintenance for a period of time and in an amount necessary to enable the receiving spouse to become self-sufficient, unless the court finds the guidelines would be inappropriate or unjust. An Arizona court will then “consider together and weigh in conjunction” the following factors:
- The standard of living established during the marriage.
- The duration of the marriage.
- The age, employment history, earning ability and physical and emotional condition of the spouse seeking maintenance.
- The ability of the spouse from whom maintenance is sought to meet that spouse’s needs while meeting those of the spouse seeking maintenance.
- The comparative financial resources of the spouses, including their comparative earning abilities in the labor market.
- The contribution of the spouse seeking maintenance to the earning ability of the other spouse.
- The extent to which the spouse seeking maintenance has reduced that spouse’s income or career opportunities for the benefit of the other spouse.
- The ability of both parties after the dissolution to contribute to the future educational costs of their mutual children.
- The financial resources of the party seeking maintenance, including marital property apportioned to that spouse, and that spouse’s ability to meet that spouse’s own needs independently.
- The time necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party seeking maintenance to find appropriate employment and whether such education and training is readily available.
- Excessive or abnormal expenditures, destruction, concealment or fraudulent disposition of community, joint tenancy and other property held in common.
- The cost for the spouse who is seeking maintenance to obtain health insurance and the reduction in the cost of health insurance for the spouse from whom maintenance is sought if the spouse from whom maintenance is sought is able to convert family health insurance to employee health insurance after the marriage is dissolved.
- All actual damages and judgments from conduct that resulted in criminal conviction of either spouse in which the other spouse or a child was the victim.
Huey v. Huey: Background Facts
Wife and Husband married in 2006. In March 2018 Wife filed for legal separation, which Wife later converted to a divorce. During the pendency of the divorce the Arizona Superior Court entered temporary orders requiring Husband to pay Wife temporary spousal maintenance. The temporary orders also required Husband to pay community expenses on the marital home, pay the costs of the parties’ insurance, and pay the parties’ 2018 quarterly tax payments.
In 2015, before the parties’ divorce, Wife worked in a managerial position earning $90,000 per year. Since that time Wife has been unemployed due to “major depression and an anxiety disorder caused by Husband’s ‘repetitive and severe constant demeaning of her over the course of the marriage.’”
The Arizona Superior Court ultimately determined that Wife was unable to become self-sufficient through appropriate employment, resulting in an award of spousal maintenance to Wife of $2,500 per month for an indefinite duration. The Arizona Superior Court determined that an indefinite award of spousal maintenance was justified because “it was ‘unable to find that Wife has or will have the ability to achieve financial independence.’”
Husband appealed the spousal maintenance award to the Arizona Court of Appeals.
Standard of Review for Arizona Spousal Maintenance Awards
Appeals of spousal maintenance awards in Arizona are reviewed under an “abuse of discretion” standard of review. Helland v. Helland. Historically, an abuse of discretion standard of review is deferential to trial courts, “who had a more immediate grasp of all the facts of the case, an opportunity to see the parties, lawyers and witnesses, and who was in a better position to assess the impact of what occurred before it.” City of Phoenix v. Geyler citing State v. Chapple.
Under an abuse of discretion standard of review trial courts “in exercising their discretion, are not authorized to act arbitrarily or inequitably nor to make decisions unsupported by facts or sound legal policy.” Bowman v. Hall. “Neither does discretion leave a court free to misapply law or legal principles.” Johnson v. Howard. “Something is discretionary because it is based on an assessment of conflicting procedural, factual or equitable considerations.” “Where, however, the facts or inferences from them are not in dispute and where there are few or no conflicting considerations, the resolution of the question is one of law or logic.” “A discretionary act which reaches an end or purpose not justified by, and clearly against, reason and evidence ‘is an abuse.’” An abuse of discretion can also “result from an error of law in the process of exercising discretion.” Fuentes v. Fuentes.
In sum, if the discretion exercised by the trial court is not reasonably justified by evidence or law, then the trial court has abused its discretion.
Non-Permanent Disabilities And Indefinite Spousal Maintenance
The Arizona Court of Appeals commenced their review of the case by evaluating historical Arizona case law on spousal maintenance.
The Arizona Court of Appeals began with the foundational case of Schroeder v. Schroeder, where the Arizona Supreme Court pronounced the goal of spousal maintenance “is to achieve independence for both parties and to require an effort towards independence by the party requesting maintenance.”
The Arizona Court of Appeals noted that Arizona courts have previously awarded spousal maintenance of indefinite duration, but such awards “appear to be less common, and have been closely scrutinized in appellate opinions.”
However, the Arizona Court of Appeals recognized that although Schroeder contained the guiding principle of spousal maintenance awards in Arizona, Schroeder did not specifically address the question at hand in the current case.
The issue of first impression presented in the immediate case is whether an Arizona Court can award indefinite spousal maintenance when the receiving spouse’s inability to be self-sufficient is based solely on a non-permanent mental health condition.
The Arizona Court of Appeals accepted the Arizona Superior Court’s finding that Wife was unable to currently achieve self-sufficiency.
At the trial held by the Arizona Superior Court, Wife presented expert testimony regarding her depression and anxiety disorders. “But, the expert testimony on which the Arizona Superior Court relied in imposing an indefinite award did not establish that Wife’s disabling condition would permanently prevent her from meeting her own needs.” “To the contrary, when the Arizona Superior Court asked whether the expert ‘considered Wife’s condition to be a permanent disability,’ the expert responded, ‘no.’” Wife’s expert stated that the duration of Wife’s disability remained uncertain and the permanency of Wife’s disability was uncertain.
The Arizona Court of Appeals held, based on the evidence provided (Wife’s prior earnings, Wife’s earning capacity, the financial disparity between the spouses, and Wife’s mental health diagnosis), the record did not support an indefinite award of spousal maintenance to Wife.
In sum, Wife failed to prove self-sufficiency could not be achieved such that Wife’s reasonable needs could be met.
Burden of Proof When Modifying Spousal Maintenance in Arizona
The Arizona Court of Appeals declared spousal maintenance awards “are presumptively modifiable, and that if the indefinite spousal maintenance award were affirmed, Husband could seek a modification if Wife’s condition improved.” “But an indefinite spousal maintenance award places the burden on the paying spouse to show a change in circumstances sufficient to warrant ending or modifying the award.”
The Arizona Court of Appeals noted, under these circumstances, if Wife were awarded spousal maintenance indefinitely then Husband would be put in an “untenable position.”
Husband would have to decide to challenge Wife’s mental health condition without having immediate access to Wife’s mental health records and “with a relatively limited basis from which to assess a change in circumstances.”
By placing the burden of proof on Husband, Husband would be put in a position where Husband would have to challenge Wife’s condition, possibly multiple times, based only on Husband’s limited perceived changes in Wife’s condition.
By awarding Wife spousal maintenance for a fixed-term, the burden of proof is placed on Wife to show that circumstances warrant an extension of spousal maintenance when the fixed-term expires.
Additionally, “if Wife’s mental health condition does not improve – even after being removed from the situation that arguably caused the condition – Wife will be much better situated to offer evidence (or to decide in the first instance whether to proffer updated mental health evidence) to establish a basis for extending a fixed-term award.”
The Arizona Court of Appeals proceeded to remand the Arizona Superior Court’s indefinite spousal maintenance award to Wife.
The Arizona Court of Appeals stated that the Arizona Superior Court should award Wife spousal maintenance over a fixed-term and that after the award, the burden of proof will properly fall on Wife for future extensions or modifications of spousal maintenance.
The burden of proof will fall on Wife “to demonstrate circumstances showing why a transition toward financial independence should be further delayed.”
Perpetual Inability to Meet Reasonable Needs
The Arizona Court of Appeals then went on to discuss the dissenting opinion of one of its own, Judge Furuya. Judge Furuya agreed with the “framework” of Schroeder but reached a different conclusion to the case at hand based on the holding in Rainwater.
In Rainwater the receiving spouse was a 41-year-old secretary who was working towards a college degree.
Evidence provided in Rainwater showed that the receiving spouse was only capable of earning $20,000 per year, “which was insufficient to sustain her in the standard of living the couple had enjoyed during the marriage.”
Even if the receiving spouse in Rainwater obtained a college degree, “her earning potential would only increase to approximately $27,000 – still far short of meeting her reasonable needs” which were calculated to be $41,000 per year.
In Rainwater the court rejected the argument of a paying spouse “that indefinite spousal maintenance could only be awarded ‘to a spouse who is permanently unable to be self-sustaining.’”
However, the majority opinion of Arizona Court of Appeals stated, “the decision to affirm an indefinite award in Rainwater turned not on the permanence of a particular condition, but instead on the receiving spouse’s ultimate earning potential in relation to the standard of living established during the marriage.”
“Rainwater in fact confirmed that ‘the transition toward independence is a principal objective of maintenance under A.R.S. § 25-319(B),’ and that ‘maintenance orders, whenever possible, should promote a transition toward financial independence.’”
The majority of the Arizona Court of Appeals also noted the spousal maintenance award in Rainwater “was to be reduced from $22,800 to $14,400 per year after no more than three years or when the receiving spouse received her B.A. degree, whichever came first.”
Most importantly, the receiving spouse in Rainwater had no indications independence could realistically be achieved, even if the receiving spouse became employed.
The majority of the Arizona Court of Appeals stated, in contrast to the case at hand, the evidence presented by Wife does not support a finding that Wife’s condition will forever prevent Wife’s financial independency and self-sufficiency.
Furthermore, Wife had previously earned $90,000 a year before the onset of Wife’s mental condition, which is more than sufficient to cover Wife’s reasonable needs, which were calculated by the Arizona Superior Court to be $60,000 per year. “Thus, unlike the spouse receiving maintenance in Rainwater, Wife can potentially earn a significant income (if her mental health improves).”
The Arizona Court of Appeals Did Not Infringe Upon the Superior Court’s Discretion
Judge Furuya also found influential the standard of review to be applied in the immediate case between Husband and Wife, stating the Arizona Superior Court “retains significant discretion in determining the parameters of a spousal maintenance award.”
Judge Furuya went on to state the majority of the Arizona Court of Appeals was infringing upon the Arizona Superior Court’s discretion by substituting its “judgment for the Arizona Superior Court.”
In the immediate case the Arizona Superior Court lacked the authority to award indefinite spousal maintenance under the facts presented to it. Wife never proved the permanence of her condition.
Without proving the permanence of Wife’s condition, it cannot be said that Wife’s condition will forever prevent Wife from becoming self-sustaining such that Wife can never meet her reasonable needs independently.
Therefore, the Arizona Court of Appeals was not infringing upon the discretion granted to the Arizona Superior Court because under the facts presented the Arizona Superior Court never retained any discretion to award indefinite spousal maintenance in the first place.
Lastly, Judge Furuya proclaimed that “no case law or statute requires the conclusion the majority reached here.” But, the majority disagreed stating “our decision is consistent with the guiding principles announced in Schroeder, which is the relevant controlling authority from the Arizona Supreme Court, and nothing precludes us, as a matter of first impression, from clarifying that an indefinite spousal maintenance award cannot be based on a non-permanent mental health condition.”
The principal purpose of spousal maintenance in Arizona is to achieve independence for both parties and to require an effort towards independence by the party requesting maintenance.
To receive spousal maintenance in Arizona, a spouse must fit into at least one of the five classes listed in A.R.S. § 25-319(A).
The amount and duration of an Arizona spousal maintenance award will be unique to each individual case but can be somewhat envisioned using the factors listed in A.R.S. § 25-319(B).
An award of indefinite spousal maintenance in Arizona cannot be predicated solely on a non-permanent disability. Instead, a receiving spouse must show that they cannot meet their reasonable needs independently.
Post-petition payment of community expenses with separate property funds are entitled to reimbursement in Arizona, which can be reallocated when appropriate.
Reallocation can be achieved in numerous ways, such as applying the funds retroactively to spousal maintenance, or through a more equitable division of property.
Arizona Divorce Attorneys
If you have questions about spousal maintenance laws in Arizona, you should seriously consider contacting the attorneys ate Hildebrand Law, PC. Our Arizona divorce and family law attorneys have over 100 years of combined experience successfully representing clients in divorce and family law cases.
Our family law firm has earned numerous awards such as US News and World Report Best Arizona Family Law Firm, US News and World Report Best Divorce Attorneys, “Best of the Valley” by Arizona Foothills readers, and “Best Arizona Divorce Law Firms” by North Scottsdale Magazine.
Call us today at (480) 305-8300 or reach out to use through our appointment scheduling form to schedule your personalized consultation and turn your child custody or family law case around today.
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