Setting Aside Divorce Decree to Correct a Mistake
Under prior Arizona law, spouses could hold property in joint tenancy or as community property. These two types of property were treated differently in a divorce. If one spouse identifies joint tenancy property as community property in a divorce, the other spouse can dispute that characterization. The law after this case was changed to require a court to treat joint tenancy property the same as community property in a divorce.
What happens if the other spouse does not appear and dispute it? In Gardner v. Gardner 596 P. 2d 711 (1979) the Arizona Court of Appeals looked at this issue.
Facts of the Case
Mrs. Gardner filed a petition for divorce from her husband, Mr. Gardner. She claimed that the marital house was community property. She asked the court to award it to her. Husband did not file a reply. The family law court then awarded wife the house.
After the court entered the judgment, husband filed a motion to modify the decree charging that the couple bought the property in 1969, taking the title in joint tenancy, not as community property.
The court denied husband’s motion and he appealed.
Joint Tenancy Property Issue Must Be Raised at Divorce Hearing
Mr. Gardner presented sufficient evidence to establish that the couple held the property in joint tenancy. He argues that that joint tenancy property acquired in 1969 cannot be treated by the court as community property. The Court of Appeals agreed with this position.
However, the Court also noted that the court pleadings said that the property was community property. Mr. Gardner did not answer the pleadings nor raise the issue of joint tenancy. In that case, the lower court could properly treat the property as community property.
Rule 60(c)(1) Motion
In this situation, Mr. Gardner should have filed a Rule 60(c)(1) motion. He would have had to show that the ruling was the result of “mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect”. A person making a Rule 60(c) (1) motion must explain why they didn’t bring the mistake to the court’s attention earlier. They must offer a valid excuse for this failure. Husband did not make this showing.
Husband’s Claim of Lack of Jurisdiction
Mr. Gardner argues that the court should have granted his motion under Rule 60(c)(1). He claims that the award was void for lack of jurisdiction. He bases this argument on language in the case of Williams v. Williams, 509 P.2d 237 (1973). That court said that the trial court “lacked jurisdiction” to make an equitable division of joint tenancy property. However, the facts of the case were entirely different.
In Williams, the spouses labeled the property as joint tenancy property during the entire proceeding. It is not applicable here, where the pleadings labeled the property as community property.
The Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court refused to grant husband’s motion.