Statute of Limitations on Alimony in Arizona
The Ames Rule: Timing of Action for Unpaid Spousal
In Arizona, spousal support begins on a specific day and continues for the time specified in the divorce decree. Under the law, a spouse may bring a petition to enforce the order at any time up to three years after the time the spousal support terminates. What happens when a spouse repeatedly promises to pay, but remains in arrears for years after the support was supposed to be paid? Can the other spouse still bring a petition? In Ames vs. Ames No. 1 CA-CV 15-0013 FC, filed March 10, 2016, the Arizona Court of Appeals discussed whether these kinds of assurances alter the three-year period in which to bring an enforcement action.
Facts of the Case
Julie and Gene Ames ended their marriage in 2003. The decree of dissolution ordered Gene to pay Julie $1,000 each month for four years. Gene did not keep up with those payments, but repeatedly promised to make up the payments when he was able. In 2014, Julie filed a petition to enforce the support order. About $30,000 had not been paid. Gene made an oral motion to dismiss the petition. He claimed that it was barred by the three-year statute of limitations for enforcing support orders. The court took the matter under advisement. When it issued its ruling, it agreed with Gene that the petition was filed too late, and dismissed it. Julie appealed.
Julie claimed that she was denied due process because she was not given a chance to present written briefing to the court. The Court of Appeals noted that Julie told the divorce court she had anticipated and addressed Gene’s statute of limitations argument in her briefing after consulting an attorney. It further noted that she had not identified any other evidence she wanted to present. Therefore, the Court found that Julie’s due process rights were not violated.
The Application of the Statute of Limitations
The written law setting out a three-year time period to bring an action to enforce spousal support payments is found at A.R.S. § 25-553A: The person to whom the spousal maintenance obligation is owed may file a request for judgment for spousal maintenance arrearages not later than three years after the date the spousal maintenance order terminates. Julie argued that this statute did not apply to her case, because, she claimed, no time was set in the divorce decree for the spousal payment order to terminate.
She says that Gene owed her $48,000 and that the spousal would not terminate until he paid it. The Court did not agree with this position. It said that the clear language of the Ames’ decree set spousal payments for four years. The period began as soon as the decree was entered, and it terminated four years later, that is, in 2007. Julie then had three years – until 2010 – to file a petition to enforce the decree. She did not file until 2014, so the petition was too late. It was barred by the statute of limitations.
Extension by Agreement
Julie argued that Gene’s communications with her promising to pay when he found another job essentially extended the three-year statute of limitations. However, the Court did not agree. Although the emails from Gene that Julie submitted to the Court showed that Gene regretted not being able to pay and hoped he would be able to pay in the future, there was no discussion of extending the statute of limitations for her to bring an action.
Julie argues that enforcement of spousal maintenance should be treated the same as child support collections actions, since the policy arguments for the two are the same. She points to the law governing the collection of back child support following the termination of a child support order. Under the law, the paying parent must prove that the other parent “unreasonably delayed” in attempting to collect the back support before the statute of limitations is imposed.
The Court of Appeals noted that the legislature could have put this language in the spousal support statute but did not do so. The Court also said that the shorter time frame is consistent with the purpose of spousal support in Arizona — to encourage a transition to independence. The Court of Appeals ruled against Julie. It affirmed the divorce court’s dismissal of her petition because it was barred by the three-year statute of limitations.