Huey v. Huey, 1 CA-CV 20-0547 FC

CourtCourt of Appeals of Arizona
Writing for the CourtCATTANI, Chief Judge
PartiesIn re the Matter of: ANNE HUEY, Petitioner/Appellee, v. BRYAN B. HUEY, Respondent/Appellant.
Docket Number1 CA-CV 20-0547 FC
Decision Date26 July 2022

In re the Matter of: ANNE HUEY, Petitioner/Appellee,
v.

BRYAN B. HUEY, Respondent/Appellant.

No. 1 CA-CV 20-0547 FC

Court of Appeals of Arizona, First Division

July 26, 2022


Appeal from the Superior Court in Maricopa County No. FC2018-001203 The Honorable Justin Beresky, Judge

Hallier Stearns PLC, Phoenix By Angela K. Hallier, Jason David Brierley Co-Counsel for Petitioner/Appellee

Jones Skelton & Hochuli PLC, Phoenix By Eileen Dennis GilBride Co-Counsel for Petitioner/Appellee

Jaburg & Wilk PC, Phoenix By David P. Uffens Counsel for Respondent/Appellant

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Chief Judge Kent E. Cattani delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Judge Samuel A. Thumma joined. Judge Brian Y. Furuya concurred in part and dissented in part.

OPINION

CATTANI, Chief Judge

¶1 Bryan Huey ("Father") appeals the decree of dissolution ending his marriage to Anne Huey ("Mother"). In this opinion, we vacate the superior court's award of indefinite spousal maintenance and the court's implicit denial of Father's request for reimbursement of taxes paid on behalf of the community. In a contemporaneously filed memorandum decision, we address and reject Father's remaining arguments, including those raising parenting time and child support issues.

¶2 The superior court awarded Mother spousal maintenance for an indefinite term based on mental health concerns that, at least as of the time of trial, prevented her from obtaining adequate employment to be self-sufficient. We hold that in this context, absent evidence of a permanently disabling mental health condition, an award of indefinite spousal maintenance is not an available option. Here, because the only evidence was that Mother's disabling mental health condition was not considered permanent, the court erred by awarding spousal maintenance for an indefinite term. We thus vacate the award and remand for the superior court to determine an appropriate, discrete period of maintenance.

¶3 Although we affirm the superior court's denial of Father's reimbursement request for payment of certain post-petition community expenses, we vacate the court's denial of Father's request for reimbursement of 2018 state and federal tax payments made on behalf of the community while the case was pending in superior court, directing the court on remand to specifically address whether and to what extent Father's payment of Mother's share of post-petition taxes is subject to reallocation.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶4 Father and Mother married in 2006 and have two minor children. In March 2018, Mother filed a petition for legal separation, which was later converted to a petition for dissolution. After a two-day trial, the

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court entered the dissolution decree now at issue. As relevant here, the court found Mother was eligible for spousal maintenance and awarded her $2,500 per month, with an indefinite duration. Additionally, the court expressly denied Father's request for reimbursement of certain community expenses he paid while the dissolution proceedings were pending, and the court implicitly rejected Father's request for reimbursement of any portion of the 2018 tax payments he made on the community's behalf.

¶5 Father timely appealed, and we have jurisdiction under A.R.S. § 12-2101(A)(1).

DISCUSSION

I. Spousal Maintenance.

¶6 We review a spousal maintenance award for an abuse of discretion, which includes an error of law. See Helland v. Helland, 236 Ariz. 197, 202-03, ¶¶ 22 -30 (App. 2014) (reviewing challenge of the underlying award to determine if it is supported by reasonable evidence); Fuentes v. Fuentes, 209 Ariz. 51, 56, ¶ 23 (App. 2004) (noting that an abuse of discretion can result from an error of law in the process of exercising discretion).

¶7 More than 30 years ago, the Arizona Supreme Court observed that the aim of spousal maintenance "is to achieve independence for both parties and to require an effort toward independence by the party requesting maintenance." Schroeder v. Schroeder, 161 Ariz. 316, 321 (1989). That directive has been followed, and amplified, in subsequent years. See, e.g., Ames v. Ames, 239 Ariz. 246, 251, ¶ 23 (App. 2016); Gutierrez v. Gutierrez, 193 Ariz. 343, 349, ¶ 24 (App. 1998); Hughes v. Hughes, 177 Ariz. 522, 523 (App. 1993); Rainwater v. Rainwater, 177 Ariz. 500, 503 (App. 1993). And although after Schroeder, courts have continued to award indefinite spousal maintenance, such awards appear to be less common, and they have been closely scrutinized in appellate opinions.[1]

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¶8 In this context, we address an issue of first impression: whether, post-Schroeder, the superior court is authorized to award indefinite spousal maintenance when the receiving spouse's inability to be self-sufficient is based on a non-permanent mental health condition. Under the circumstances presented here, we conclude that such an indefinite spousal maintenance award is improper.

¶9 The record showed that Mother earned over $90,000 per year in a managerial position as recently as 2015. But based on evidence that Mother was currently unemployed due to major depression and an anxiety disorder caused by Father's "repetitive and severe constant demeaning of her over the course of the marriage," the superior court found that Mother was "unable to be self-sufficient through appropriate employment." See A.R.S. § 25-319(A)(2). The court elected an indefinite duration because it was "unable to find that Mother has or will have the ability to achieve financial independence." Cf. A.R.S. § 25-319(B)(9).

¶10 We accept the superior court's discretionary determination that Mother is currently unable to be self-sufficient. But the expert testimony on which the court relied in imposing an indefinite award did not establish that Mother's disabling condition would permanently prevent her from meeting her own needs. To the contrary, when the court asked whether the expert "considered] [Mother's condition] to be a permanent disability," the expert responded, "No." Although the expert agreed that the duration of Mother's inability to work remained uncertain, he stated clearly that Mother's disability was not considered permanent. Accordingly, and given evidence of Mother's prior earning capacity, the

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record does not support an indefinite spousal maintenance award based on her current mental health diagnosis.

¶11 We acknowledge that spousal maintenance awards are presumptively modifiable, and that if we were to affirm the indefinite award, Father could seek a modification if Mother's condition improves. See A.R.S. § 25-327(A); see also Rainwater, 177 Ariz. at 504 (citing Schroeder, 161 Ariz. at 323). But an indefinite spousal maintenance award places the burden on the paying spouse to show a change in circumstances sufficient to warrant ending or modifying the award. Rainwater, 177 Ariz. at 504. And although Father would in theory be able to seek modification of an indefinite award if Mother's mental health improved, in practice, it would place Father in the untenable position of having to decide whether to challenge Mother's subsequent mental health condition without ready access to mental health records and with a relatively limited basis from which to assess a change in circumstances. Moreover, placing the burden on Father would create a likelihood of multiple challenges based on perceived changes in Mother's mental health condition, even if an initial challenge is unsuccessful.

¶12 In contrast, a fixed-term award places the burden on the receiving spouse to show a change in circumstances warranting extending the award as the fixed term comes to an end. Id. And here, if Mother's mental health condition does not improve- even after being removed from the situation that arguably caused the condition-she will be much better situated to offer evidence (or to decide in the first instance whether to proffer updated mental health evidence) to establish a basis for extending a fixed-term award. See id. Thus, after the court imposes a fixed-term award on remand, the subsequent burden properly falls on Mother to demonstrate circumstances showing why a transition toward financial independence should be further delayed to justify future modification.[2]

¶13 Our dissenting colleague acknowledges the Schroeder framework under which spousal maintenance claims are analyzed but

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reaches a different conclusion here in large part based on the holding in Rainwater, in which this court rejected a paying spouse's argument that indefinite maintenance could only be awarded "to a spouse who is 'permanently unable to be self-sustaining.'" 177 Ariz. at 503. But the decision to affirm an indefinite award in Rainwater turned not on the permanence of a particular condition, but instead on the receiving spouse's ultimate earning potential in relation to the standard of living established during the marriage. Id. Rainwater in fact confirmed that "the transition toward independence [is] a principal objective of maintenance under 25-319(B)," and that "maintenance orders, whenever possible, should promote a transition toward financial independence." Id.; see also id. at 502 (further noting that the maintenance award at issue was to be reduced from payments totaling $22,800 to $14,400 per year after no more than three years or when the receiving spouse received her B.A. degree, whichever came first).

¶14 Of particular significance, in Rainwater there was no suggestion that the receiving spouse could realistically achieve independence, even if employed. The court noted that at the time of dissolution, the receiving spouse was a 41-year-old secretary who was working to earn a college degree. Id. at 501. The evidence showed that she was only capable of earning $20,000 per year, id. at 502, which was insufficient to sustain her in the standard of living the couple had enjoyed during the marriage. Id. at 504. And the court found that, even after completing...

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