Waldren v. Waldren – 12/3/2007

December 11, 2007

Arizona Supreme Court Holds that Statutorily Non-Modifiable Spousal Maintenance Agreements are Not Subject to Modification or Termination, nor Is Relief from Such Agreements Available under Ariz. R. Civ. P. 60(c)(5).

In connection with a petition to dissolve marriage, the Superior Court entered a decree requiring Husband to pay child support, attorneys’ fees, and monthly spousal maintenance. The spousal maintenance provision expressly provided that “spousal maintenance shall not be subject to modification.” After Husband became disabled, he moved under Ariz. R. Civ. P. 60(c)(5) to set aside the spousal maintenance provision. The Superior Court rebuffed this request. On appeal, however, the Arizona Appeals Court vacated the Superior Court’s judgment, holding that Rule 60(c)(5) entitled Mr. Waldren to an evidentiary hearing. This appeal followed.

The Arizona Supreme Court first held that the Arizona legislature stripped the courts of jurisdiction to modify spousal maintenance provisions in a decree, even in the face of substantial changes in circumstances. In so holding, the Supreme Court relied upon A.R.S. § 25-317(G), which provides that an agreement entered into by the parties to make maintenance terms non-modifiable “prevents the court from exercising jurisdiction to modify the decree and the separation agreement regarding maintenance.” The Supreme Court also rejected Husband’s argument that the legislature stripped the courts of jurisdiction only with regard to modifications, and not terminations, of maintenance agreements. The Supreme Court reasoned that terminations have the same effect as modifications, relieving courts of jurisdiction over minor modifications while allowing them to terminate agreements would be counterintuitive, and legislative history supports the conclusion that, at the time of § 25-317(G)’s passage, the term “modify” included termination. Because Husband’s request to terminate a provision of the decree necessarily required the court to modify the decree, it lacked the jurisdiction to do so.

As for whether Ariz. R. Civ. P. 60(c)(5) allows a trial court to provide equitable relief when the court is otherwise lacking in jurisdiction, the Supreme Court explained that Rule 60(c)(5) must yield to statutory provisions on substantive matters where there exists conflict between them. As a result, “once the statutory conditions making a maintenance provision non-modifiable have been met, A.R.S. § 25-317(G) removes jurisdiction from the courts to modify decrees regarding spousal maintenance” and Rule 60(c)(5) does not otherwise provide an avenue for relief. Thus, the Superior Court correctly denied Mr. Waldren’s request to modify the decree containing a non-modifiable spousal maintenance provision.

Vice Chief Justice Berch authored the unanimous opinion.