Arizona spousal maintenance: Discretion versus a guidelines approach

An award of spousal maintenance depends on judicial discretion and a weighing of many factors unlike child support, which depends on a guidelines approach.

Spousal maintenance, also known as alimony, provides a spouse with financial support after divorce. Arizona family courts use many statutory factors to measure economic inequality and often award alimony to rectify it. A family court judge generally has wide discretion in determining the amount and duration.

When a long-term marriage ends, the issue can become contentious. A final dissolution may not always be the end of the dispute. It is common for an ex-spouse to request a modification of alimony at some point especially with a permanent award.

There must be a substantial change in circumstances to request a modification. When a court modifies an award, it is generally retroactive to the first day of the month that the petition for modification or termination was filed.

If a couple divorces in their 50s, it is possible that the higher earning spouse will take an early retirement and request a modification or termination. Another issue comes up when an ex-spouse decides to change careers to a field with a much lower salary. In either case, an award reduction can occur, which was not anticipated at the time of the divorce.

Factors that impact whether spousal maintenance is appropriate

In order for the court to award spousal maintenance, the court must find that certain conditions exist. For instance, a spouse may lack enough property, even after the divorce property settlement, to cover reasonable needs. Contributions made so that the other spouse could attain educational goals or a long-term marriage and advanced age that affect the ability to become self-sufficient are other factors that might necessitate maintenance.

An Arizona family court judge will review the 13 statutory factors when deciding if spousal maintenance is appropriate. Some of the factors include the standard of living and length of the marriage, comparative financial resources, ability of one spouse to pay maintenance along with the age, earnings ability and employment history of the spouse seeking maintenance. Time necessary to retrain or complete an education program may also factor in. The court also considers the costs to obtain health insurance. Excessive, abnormal or fraudulent spending from joint accounts could affect an award as well.

Duration of an award

One spouse may have given up educational and professional opportunities to stay home with the children. After years out of the workplace, it often requires additional education or training to reinstate a license and get back into a field. In these cases, maintenance may be limited to the time it takes to become self-sufficient.

For some, a spouse's age and experience may make it impossible for that spouse to find employment that would cover expenses. A permanent alimony award might be appropriate in these circumstances.

The award of maintenance is much different from the child support model that relies on guidelines. Because of the discretion allowed by a multi-factor analysis, it is important to seek the representation of an experienced family law attorney. Failing to uncover all income available or provide necessary documentation can easily affect a maintenance award.

Keywords: Alimony, judicial discretion, weighing of factors