Nia v. Nia (2017)

In Nia v. Nia, the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the family court’s calculation of child support and held that there is no presumption for child support deviation based on previous deviation. 

When the parties divorced, they agreed to an upward deviation of child support to increase Father’s obligation to $3,830 per month. A few years later, the parties stipulated to reduce child support to a still-upwardly-deviated amount of $3,500. 

Eventually, Father filed another petition to modify child support where he requested a monthly obligation of $406.94 based on the Arizona Child Support Guidelines.

After an evidentiary hearing, the family court found Father’s child support obligation to be $623.84 and declined to deviate from the Guidelines. Mother appealed.

On appeal, Mother argued the trial court made five critical errors. She argued that the trial court incorrectly (1) found that substantial and continuing changes existed to justify modification of child support; (2) applied the Guidelines without considering the parties’ previous deviation; (3) determined that it was Mother’s burden to prove upward deviation was in the children’s best interests; (4) applied the modification retroactively without ordering Mother to be reimbursed for expenses paid during the litigation; and (5) excluded Mother’s expert witness from the courtroom during Father’s testimony.

Substantial and Continuing Change

Under Arizona law, a child support order can be modified “only on a showing of changed circumstances that are substantial and continuing.” In this case, Father’s income decreased while Mother’s income increased. 

Mother argued that Father’s income decrease was voluntary and/or that he misrepresented his income to exclude personal expenses reimbursed by his business. She did not dispute the increase to her income.

The Court of Appeals held that the trial court properly determined substantial and continuing change necessary to modify child support.

Presumption of Upward Deviation

The Arizona Child Support Guidelines enable family courts to deviate whenever “[a]pplication of the guidelines is inappropriate or unjust in the particular case.” 

The Court of Appeals held that this requires the trial court to evaluate each child support order independently without presumption of deviation.

Burden of Proof for Upward Deviation

The Guidelines and case law require the parent seeking a sum greater than the presumptive obligation to prove that the greater amount is in the best interests of the children.

Start Date for Modification

Pursuant to A.R.S. § 25-503, a modification is “effective on the first day of the month following notice of the petition for modification.” 

The Court of Appeals acknowledged that the trial court retained discretion to make equitable adjustment for good cause, but affirmed the trial court’s decision not to do so.

Exclusion of Witness

Rule 615 allows the trial court or either party to exclude “nonessential” witnesses “so that they cannot hear other witnesses’ testimony”. This may be informally invoked as “the rule of exclusion” during trial.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to exclude Mother’s expert witness.