Post-Divorce Agreement Cut Spousal Maintenance in Arizona Arrears Enforcement Case

Categories: Spousal Maintenance

Superior Court must consider parties’ post-divorce agreement to cut spousal maintenance and husband’s equitable defenses to nonpayment. After terms of agreement were satisfied, the wife petitioned to enforce maintenance awarded in the consent decree, seeking arrearages with interest. Spousal support was made non-modifiable by consent decree. Husband had complied with and relied upon the post-decree written agreement, offering several equitable defenses to arrears. The trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to modify spousal maintenance made non-modifiable by decree, but enforcing the parties’ post-decree written agreement was not a modification.

Laurin Coburn v. Michael Rhodig (2017)

photo ex-spouses talking and signing papers

Shortly after divorce, he fell behind with spousal support. They negotiated and entered into a written agreement reducing the amount and duration of spousal maintenance.

Spousal Maintenance Made Non-Modifiable in Consent Decree

Wife was awarded spousal maintenance by consent decree in their 2010 divorce which was expressly made non-modifiable as to duration and amount. She was to receive $3,000 per month for 60 months, terminating December 15, 2014.

Shortly after the divorce, the husband fell behind with his spousal support obligation and they negotiated a new payment agreement. In December 2010, the parties entered into a written agreement reducing both amount and duration of spousal maintenance. Under their new payment terms, he was to pay her $5,000 in a lump sum along with $1,000 per month for 12 months ending December 15, 2011. By signed, written waiver, she “waive[d] any other unpaid support owed” by her husband.

The husband complied with the post-decree agreement, which meant he paid less than what was ordered in the divorce. The wife petitioned the Superior Court in Maricopa County in December 2014 to enforce the consent decree, requesting a judgment for spousal maintenance arrears with interest.

Offering equitable defenses of waiver, estoppel, and laches to justify non-compliance with the divorce decree, the husband also argued the post-decree agreement was enforceable pursuant to Rule 69(A) Arizona Rules of Family Law Procedure. The wife countered, claiming she signed under duress and, therefore, the agreement was unenforceable. However, the spouses agreed to let the court decide as a matter of law whether the agreement was enforceable. The trial court declined to do so on grounds it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to modify the spousal maintenance order, citing ARS § 25-317(G). Although no testimony was heard, the court did consider the spouses’ arguments and briefs.

The trial court entered an arrearage judgment against the husband for $126,000 plus $37,259 in interest, denying his motion for new trial or amended judgment. Neither validity of the written agreement nor husband’s equitable defenses were considered. Husband appealed.

Equitable Defenses to Non-Payment of Arizona Spousal Maintenance

Reversed and remanded with instructions. In its analysis, the Arizona Court of Appeals compared scope and application of the statutory provision ARS § 25-317(G) and Rule 60(c)(5) Arizona Rules of Civil Procedure. First, ARS § 25-317(G) eliminated the trial court’s jurisdiction to modify spousal maintenance when the separation agreement incorporated into the decree expressly made it non-modifiable. Importantly, ARS § 25-317(G) does not prevent the trial court from considering a spouse’s equitable defenses to violating the support order set forth in the decree.

Second, under ARCP Rule 60(c)(5) the court may grant a party “relief from a ‘final judgment, order or proceeding [if] it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application,’” citing In re Marriage of Waldren, 217 Ariz. 173, 171 P3d 1214 (2007), which the appeals court distinguished from the case at bar.

In re Marriage of Waldren

In Waldren, the husband became disabled after the divorce and defaulted on his non-modifiable spousal maintenance obligation. Mr. Waldren did not offer an equitable defense under the statute. Instead, he argued the trial court should use Rule 60(c)(5) to “invade the content of the decree” on his behalf and modify or terminate support despite non-modification ordered in the divorce decree. Mr. Waldren did not prevail. Waldren stands for the proposition that Rule 60(c)(5) “could not operate to ‘abridge, enlarge or modify substantive rights of a litigant.” Waldren sought to modify a non-modifiable maintenance order, but the trial court lacked jurisdiction to do so under ARS § 25-317(G). Procedural rules always yield to statute on substantive matters, including the trial court’s subject matter jurisdiction.

By contrast, this wife agreed not to collect maintenance from the husband. The Court of Appeals held that “[a]pplication of equitable defenses in response to a petition to collect arrearages does not require the court to modify or terminate the decree and thus would not violate ARS § 25-317(G).” The husband’s equitable defenses to enforcement must be established by “clear and compelling evidence.” Citing Ray v. Mangum, 163 Ariz. 329, 788 P2d 62 (1989). If the husband fails to carry the burden of proof, then an arrearage judgment may be entered against him. In considering equitable defenses to non-payment of spousal maintenance in an enforcement action, the trial court does not exceed its subject matter jurisdiction because doing so does not modify the decree of dissolution of marriage.

Reversed and remanded. On remand, the trial court is to conduct an evidentiary hearing and consider the enforceability of the parties’ agreement along with husband’s equitable defenses.

Coburn v. Rhodig, FN2009-052965 (Ariz. Ct. App. Aug. 3, 2017)

For precise language, please read the court’s original opinion. Legal citations omitted.

Do you need more information about post-decree modifications? Take a look at our discussion on Arizona’s spousal maintenance law.