Wife Waited too Long to Enforce AZ Spousal Maintenance Order
Arizona spousal maintenance enforcement case summary.
This case concerns a former wife’s delayed attempts at collecting spousal maintenance arrearages under Arizona law. (Spousal maintenance is similar to alimony.) Waiting too long to seek court enforcement of a spousal maintenance order could result in being forever barred under the statute of limitations.
The question is this: How long is too long?
3-Year Limitation on Lawsuits to Enforce Orders for Spousal Maintenance
Statutes that restrict the period within which a lawsuit may be brought are called “statutes of limitation.” In Arizona law, there is a statute of limitations on when a spouse can enforce an order for spousal maintenance. The clock starts running when the support order terminates.
The controlling statute is ARS § 25-553(A) which allows three years within which a party may seek a judgment on the spousal support order that is in arrears. Once that order is reduced to a money judgment, the judgment creditor may begin collecting the amount owed (plus interest, fees, and costs), from the debtor’s bank account, earnings, and so on. For example, by wage garnishment.
To reduce the order to a money judgment, the party must file a request for judgment of spousal maintenance arrearages. That is precisely what the wife in this case did, albeit late. What follows are the basic facts of the case.
Divorce, Excuses, Delays, and Unpaid Spousal Support
In June 2003, the spouses were divorced. They had a consent judgment, meaning they reached agreement on the important issues raised in their divorce, including spousal maintenance. Specifically, the husband was ordered to pay the wife $1,000.00 per month for a period of four years (48 months). The decree did not provide a precise date of termination, but the day the decree was entered (June 2003) began the four-year payment period.
In May 2014, the wife petitioned to enforce the June 2003 spousal maintenance order. She sought $46,000.00 for missed payments from July 2003 through April 2014, plus interest.
Her supporting evidence indicated monthly payments were erratic and inadequate. The husband paid 18 of 48 required payments. Of those 18 payments, only two were for the correct amount of $1,000.00 while the other 16 were insufficient. Her proofs included email correspondence between them with admissions, renewed promises to pay, and attempts to settle.
At the hearing, the parties agreed to a total past due amount of $29,673.26. After which the husband orally moved to dismiss the petition on grounds the three-year statute of limitations on spousal maintenance enforcement had expired. The trial court agreed with him and dismissed the case. The wife filed a timely appeal.
The Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One, affirmed the trial court’s decision. Essentially, the wife was authorized to seek a money judgment up until July 2010, but not thereafter.
On appeal, the court held that:
— Although no time was given wife to file a written response to husband’s oral motion to dismiss, she was not denied due process.
— A maintenance order need not provide exact commencement and termination dates for the payment period to be sufficiently ascertainable: “[A]bsent express language delaying the commencement of a spousal maintenance order, the obligation to pay begins when the decree is entered. … In this case, the spousal maintenance terminated, by operation of law, when the four-year period specified in the decree ended.”
— The parties’ email exchange did not amount to a written agreement extending the operative period of the support order. (See Rule 69(A)(1).)
— Husband did not agree to waive the 3-year statute of limitations period.
— A party’s evidentiary burden in an action to collect child support arrearages does not apply to a lawsuit on spousal maintenance arrearages. (See ARS § 25-503(J).)
Unpaid Spousal Maintenance Was Not Recoverable
This case was dismissed only because the wife waited too long to bring her lawsuit. The three-year statute of limitations period expired leaving her with no remedy at law or in equity. Additionally, the court denied both parties’ requests for attorneys’ fees.
Many equitable maxims explain common legal principles of fairness, truth, and reasonableness. These legal principles arise frequently in civil lawsuits, including divorce and family law matters. To this case, the maxim “equity aids the vigilant, not those who slumber on their rights” seems most appropriate.
When attempting to collect spousal maintenance arrearages, be vigilant in asserting your right to payment according to the terms in the court’s order.
Ames v. Ames, 1 CA-CV 15-0013 FC (March 10, 2016)
For precise language, read the court’s original opinion. Legal citations omitted.
To learn more, see our discussion on spousal support in Arizona law.