When does someone owe alimony (spousal maintenance or spousal support) in Arizona?

family law services, divorce

In Arizona, Judges weigh factors to determine whether a party owes alimony. It’s important to discuss some basic terminology. Arizona refers to alimony as spousal maintenance or spousal support. However, these three terms are used interchangeably, but keep in mind that Arizona prefers the latter as you search the internet, particularly in the statutes.

Why would a court order alimony?

There is no single, unified purpose why a court orders spousal maintenance. See Schroeder v. Schroeder at page 12. Historically, alimony had more to do with marital misconduct and who was more at fault. Over the years, Arizona became a “no fault divorce” state. In that arena, it’s not that misconduct is irrelevant, as we will discuss. It’s more that the conduct is perceived within the financial context and being able to persuade a judge on fairness.

That brings us to emphasize an important point. Know that it is within a judge’s discretion whether to award spousal maintenance. Although it’s somewhat predictable whether it is at issue, it is not automatic. There is room for debate and creative argument, and good lawyers are able to argue the factors in either direction (for or against).

Before getting into the spousal maintenance factors and the specific questions for each, let’s address your position. You’re either asking for or defending against spousal maintenance. We can represent you if you want to argue the factors for or against spousal maintenance.

In general, we rarely persuade a party to hire us. One of our values is affordability and resourcefulness, so we’ll advise you in a way that reduces your cost or helping you avoid hiring a lawyer. That is to say, we like working for you, but we also like saving our client’s fees by working for a more affordable scope of work. That said, spousal maintenance is an area where it is likely worth the investment to hire a lawyer. If there is room for spousal maintenance (either for or against), you probably want to hire a lawyer because the eventual payout or reduction of payout offsets the investment.

What is the best approach if I am defending against spousal maintenance?

If you’re seeking spousal maintenance, feel free to skip down to that section or read this section to better understand a perspective of what you’re up against.

We’ve been successful eliminating a plea for spousal maintenance when the other side failed to argue the factors. This only happens when a party chooses to represent themselves, as lawyers have a legal duty to argue the factors. We can tread carefully when the other side chooses to go without an attorney, supporting their choice to do so, and then come to court well prepared and ready to argue the factors in a way that reduces or eliminates spousal maintenance. I know this might sound shady to those seeking spousal maintenance, but good lawyers represent their clients, and clients usually say they want to reduce spousal maintenance in order to have more to allocate to their kids.

In addition to arguing the factors, there are other ways to reduce spousal maintenance. For example, we can look to creative property and character arguments. Arizona is a no fault divorce state when it comes to the grounds for divorce, but the “fault” can often come into the discussion of how to allocate resources going forward.

Also, we have a background in real estate and property law, so discussing marital resources often guides the discussion of how to develop the facts at trial or the settlement discussions, particularly when it comes to a spouse’s spending habits possibly triggering a marital waste argument. Disclosures often reveal things that parties don’t want exposed, but this can bend both directions and it helps being aware and careful how to use information.

What is the best approach if I am seeking spousal maintenance?

We’ve also been successful getting spousal support. When we have favorable facts to get spousal maintenance, we find it helpful to write them into a demand letter in order to produce a favorable peaceful settlement, which is always preferred when children are involved. The opposing party usually knows they will likely pay some spousal maintenance. They’re not looking forward to that because it’s an even more dreaded residual than child support. We can leverage that fact up front to bring a peaceful settlement.

We recommend starting with a legal consultation with a lawyer that is particularly focused on developing the factors one way or the other. We hope that this article at least triggers whether you should seek that particular consultation.

Does an Arizona court take federal disability benefits into account when assessing Spousal Maintenance (Alimony)?

No.

The law literally says, “the court shall not consider any federal disability benefits awarded to the other spouse for service-connected disabilities…” See https://www.azleg.gov/viewDocument/?docName=http://www.azleg.gov/ars/25/00530.htm

What factors do Arizona family court judges use to determine spousal maintenance (alimony)?

Judges use the A.R.S. § 25-319 factors, referenced here: https://www.azleg.gov/viewDocument/?docName=http://www.azleg.gov/ars/25/00319.htm. We’ll break down each factor for you, but it is helpful to summarize them here real quick.

Judges weigh whether the party seeking support:

1.Lacks sufficient property, including property apportioned to the spouse, to provide for that spouse’s reasonable needs.

2.Is unable to be self-sufficient through appropriate employment or is the custodian of a child whose age or condition is such that the custodian should not be required to seek employment outside the home or lacks earning ability in the labor market adequate to be self-sufficient.

3.Has made a significant financial or other contribution to the education, training, vocational skills, career or earning ability of the other spouse.

4.Had a marriage of long duration and is of an age that may preclude the possibility of gaining employment adequate to be self-sufficient.

5.Has significantly reduced that spouse’s income or career opportunities for the benefit of the other spouse.

(1) First factor to consider is whether the marriage is of long enough duration and/or whether the party is of an age that may preclude the possibility of gaining employment adequate to be self-sufficient?

Although this factor is not listed as first in the statute, it is best to start the analysis here because courts often weigh this factor first as to prevent the injustice of people capitalizing on marrying someone for their money and divorcing rather quickly after marriage. That may sound overly simplified. This isn’t to say the other factors are not as important. It is just that the length of marriage is generally the first thought when we think of spousal support.

Marriage is perceived as a societal good, especially when children are involved. Since it is a societal good, as the rationale goes, we should be cautious awarding alimony for someone seeking to marry for spousal support. We’re suspicious of that individual. We call them a gold digger. Judges see that person more than most realize and they will take the same suspicion into trial.

Note that we’re not promising that a judge would never see the need to award some support for shorter marriages. It is the exception and judges take pride in their performance evaluations. It takes exceptional justification to award spousal support in shorter marriages. It’s just generally frowned upon in law because it looks like the judge is awarding someone for taking advantage of someone else, and it is more likely that spousal support is for longer marriages.

However, where history made it mandatory, the statute was “liberalized” (as an Arizona Supreme Court stated in the Schroeder case) to open up spousal maintenance for additional reasons besides the fact that a one of the spouses was worse off and less capable to support him or herself, but the length of marriage is still a very significant factor to those reasons we discuss below.

(1)(a) What constitutes a long enough marriage to warrant spousal support?

This gets into the core of the issue, as there’s no set guide. We generally know that ten (10) plus year marriages influence life situations more than two (2) year marriages. That is to say, the other factors make more sense with longer marriages. For example, one spouse may have been a stay at home parent while the other developed his or her career. Development of career takes time and to what extent can factor in the discussion, so the length matters to draw out the other factors.

Age of the party is not a factor, but length of the marriage and the next factor implies the consideration of age. It’s a lot more difficult to start a career when you’re older than when you’re younger. For those reasons, the amount and duration will take into account whether the party is in their 30s or in their 50s.

(2) The second factor is whether the person seeking spousal support lacks sufficient property, including property apportioned to the spouse, in order to provide for his or her reasonable needs?

This factor considers the relative socioeconomics of the marriage. It is also a comparison between spouses. We don’t expect one spouse to go from Scottsdale to the slums simply because of a divorce. Where one spouse is significantly better off, spousal support is used to create a reasonably fair balance between parties.

But for how long? While spousal support is fairly disbursed to create balance as parties start living separately, it can seem unfair the longer it goes, depending on the ability of the parties. This factor might justify short term support, but it doesn’t justify long term support, unless other factors combine to show the spouse is older and incapable of getting on the level of the other spouse. This is especially true in historical marriages, where one spouse develops his career and the wife is a stay at home mother for twenty years. Which is especially enhanced when he also secured separate property. The fairness tilts substantially in favor of the wife getting long term spousal support.

This is an example of where the factors are enhanced or diminished when weighed together. For example, this factor is enhanced by whether the receiving spouse sacrificed earning potential for the other.

(3) The third factor is whether the spouse seeking support is able to be self-sufficient through appropriate employment or is the custodian of a child whose age or condition is such that the custodian should not be required to seek employment outside the home or lacks earning ability in the labor market adequate to be self-sufficient?

This factor deals with self sufficiency, which is fairly easy to prove or disprove, and the greater issue is that Arizona courts have favored “fixed-term spousal maintenance awards…to encourage the party receiving the award to become self-sustaining by using diligence in procuring training and skills “must be balanced with some realistic appraisal of the probabilities that the receiving spouse will in fact subsequently be able to support herself in some reasonable approximation of the standard of living established during the marriage.” 115 Ariz. at 328, 565 P.2d at 205. Sommerfield v. Sommerfield, 121 Ariz. 575, 578, 592 P.2d 771, 774 (1979). The rule is that the state does not favor indefinite alimony, but the rule is not that a judge is forced to end it.

The rule is that there is no hard rule to end it. Where the Arizona Supreme Court stated the policy rationale for a fixed term, it also stated that a court abuses its discretion when cutting off the maintenance when the circumstances showed fairness demanded otherwise. This was true in the Mori case, where a husband developed his law practice for 23 years while the wife was a stay at home mother who did not develop her career and it was unfair to rigidly apply a fix a term and not reassess to continue spousal support when she reasonably tried to attain self sufficiency after the divorce.

(4) The fourth factor is whether the spouse seeking support made a significant financial or other contribution to the education, training, vocational skills, career or earning ability of the other spouse?

This factor was added when Arizona “liberalized” and opened up the factors to no longer require the spouse to lack resources. If the spouse has relatively the same amount of resources but he or she contributed significantly to the other’s development, then he or she may still get spousal maintenance. I think this factor speaks for itself. It’s clearly a matter of fairness. Again, there are creative arguments, but it’s especially relevant when one has a degree or license because of the sacrifices of the other. Like the other factors, it is enhanced by having a lengthy marriage. Both parties might be employable, but one is clearly better off professionally due to the efforts of the other.

We won a case defending against spousal maintenance primarily because the other party had a phlebotomy license. Both parties worked and developed their careers. We argued that the wife wasn’t a stay at home mother when she decided not to work. Rather, she was getting her license while the husband worked on oil dangerous rigs away from home. Unfortunately, she was also having an affair, which would not have been an issue (in a no fault state) but for the wife representing herself and asking the wrong question of my client.

(5) The fifth factor is whether the spouse seeking spousal support has significantly reduced his or her income or career opportunities for the benefit of the other spouse?

This factor goes in conjunction with the preceding. It’s considered separately because you might be well off and it is still fair to receive compensation for the contributions you made to the other, but this is a way to measure the extent of those contributions. The sacrificing spouse might still have a good job, but she might have doubled or tripled her salary in the timeframe that she was making those sacrifices. Because we cannot get time back, this significantly diminishes her net worth.

In conclusion, we can argue the factors in either direction and so please call us for a free consultation on this issue: clients.heinslaw.com/freeconsultation.

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