Coburn v. Rhodig (Arizona Court of Appeals Case No. 1 CA-CV 16-0399 FC, filed Aug. 3, 2017)

When a divorce decree says its spousal maintenance terms shall not be modified, Arizona law prohibits a court from exercising jurisdiction to modify or terminate the decree’s spousal maintenance terms. See A.R.S. § 25-317(G). In this case, the Arizona Court of Appeals held A.R.S. § 25-317(G)’s jurisdictional bar does not prevent a party to a divorce decree containing a non-modifiable spousal maintenance provision from asserting equitable defenses (such as waiver, estoppel, and laches) to an action by the other former spouse to enforce spousal maintenance arrearages.

The husband and wife in this case divorced in 2010 pursuant to a consent decree that ordered the husband to pay spousal maintenance of $3,000 a month for sixty months to his former wife. The decree also stated the duration and amount of spousal maintenance could not be modified. After the former husband fell behind on his spousal maintenance payments, the parties agreed in December 2010 to settle the resulting arrearage in spousal maintenance payments as follows: The former husband would pay his former wife a lump sum of $5,000 and then make monthly payments of $1,000 for twelve months. As part of this deal, the former wife agreed to waive any other unpaid support owed by her former husband.

Although the former husband made all of the payments required under the parties’ settlement agreement, the former wife filed a petition in December 2014 to enforce spousal maintenance arrearages. The former wife claimed she had been unable to locate her former husband to request payment of the arrearages from the 2010 consent decree and had signed the December 2010 settlement agreement under duress. The former husband defended the enforcement action by arguing the December 2010 settlement agreement was valid and established the equitable defenses of waiver, estoppel, and laches, which precluded wife from enforcing the spousal maintenance arrearages from the 2010 consent decree.

The family court ruled it lacked jurisdiction to consider the former husband’s defenses because it believed they constituted a request on the part of the former husband that the court modify or terminate the non-modifiable spousal maintenance terms in the consent decree. The court of appeals disagreed with that conclusion, holding that A.R.S. § 25-317(G) only prevents the family court from exercising jurisdiction to modify the divorce decree’s or a separation agreement’s spousal maintenance provisions; the statute does not preclude the application of equitable defenses to a petition to enforce spousal maintenance arrearages (as opposed to a petition to modify the obligation itself). If the former husband successfully established an equitable defense to the enforcement action by clear and convincing evidence, the court could deny the former’s wife petition to enforce the arrearages without any need to modify or terminate the parties’ divorce decree. And if the former husband failed to establish an equitable defense to the enforcement action, the family court would grant the petition and enter an arrearage judgment without any need to terminate or modify the divorce decree.

To read the full opinion of the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One, click here.