The parties were married in 2015 after Mother immigrated to Arizona from Eastern Europe. A few months after their marriage, Father purchased a residential property with a down payment that consisted of funds earned before the marriage, a gift from his Mother, and funds earned during the marriage. Father presented Mother with a disclaimer deed written only in English and she signed it despite being unable to read or understand its contents.
Shortly thereafter, Mother gave birth to the parties’ child and functioned as the child’s primary caregiver.
During their marriage, Father maintained complete control over the parties’ finances. Mother was unable to access any accounts and depended on Father to provide her with cash periodically. The trial court found that Father kept Mother socially isolated and prevented her from obtaining a driver’s license or English education.
Eventually, Mother obtained employment. When Father found out, he and his mother “yell[ed] at Mother” and tried to take away her telephone. This incident caused Mother to obtain an order of protection against Father’s mother.
After Mother filed for divorce, Father moved out of the marital residence. A few weeks later, Mother discovered electronic surveillance devices throughout the home that Father had placed before he left. This caused Mother to obtain an order of protection against Father.
The family court entered temporary orders that awarded Mother exclusive use of the marital home, final say legal decision-making authority, equal parenting time, and interim attorney’s fees in the amount of $3,500.
When the case ultimately proceeded to trial, Mother requested that the temporary orders be affirmed as final orders. She supported her request for final say legal decision-making with allegations that the parents were unable to agree to medical and childcare decisions for their child and that Father committed acts of domestic violence. Father sought sole legal decision-making authority.
Although the family court found that Father had committed acts of domestic violence, it awarded joint legal decision-making and reasoned that sole legal decision-making was “not in the child’s best interests.”
The court awarded spousal maintenance to Mother for a period of 36 months, the amount of time she argued she needed to complete English and nursing courses necessary to become financially self-sufficient. It ordered Father to pay to Mother community funds he used to make a lump sum payment toward his student loans during the marriage. And, despite finding a “substantial disparity of financial resources,” the court denied both parties’ claims for attorneys’ fees.
Mother filed a motion for reconsideration to address the community lien maintained against Husband’s separate property — the marital residence. The court granted the motion and awarded one half of the community funds Father used for the down payment but declined to award any portion of the funds Father used to pay the mortgage during the marriage. It also declined to reconsider its denial of Mother’s request for attorney’s fees.
Presumptions Against Joint Legal Decision-Making
Mother appealed and argued first that the family court misapplied A.R.S. § 25-403.03 when it awarded joint legal decision-making despite its finding that Father committed acts of domestic violence.
In its ruling, the family court referred to the statute and recited its presumption against joint legal decision-making as, “joint custody shall not be awarded if the court makes a finding of the existence of significant domestic violence pursuant to § 13-3601 or if the court finds by a preponderance of evidence that there has been significant domestic violence.”
The Court of Appeals determined that the ruling conflated two separate provisions of the statute and imposed a materially different standard for its application.
The section of the statute the family court referred to states that “joint legal decision-making shall not be awarded if the court makes a finding of the existence of significant domestic violence pursuant to 13-3601 or if the court finds by a preponderance of evidence that there has been a significant history of domestic violence.” (emphasis added).
We bolded the last section to distinguish how a “significant history of domestic violence” is different than “significant [acts] of domestic violence.” Only the history must be significant, not the severity of the domestic violence.
This probably sounds incredibly pedantic and stereotypically lawyerly, but the distinction is critical because statutory interpretation requires the reader to give intended meaning to each word, phrase, and clause.
Because the Court of Appeals was unable to tell how this apparent misstatement influenced the ruling, it vacated the award of joint legal decision-making and remanded for the family court to determine whether Father’s behavior constituted a significant history of domestic violence.
The next issue on appeal was Mother’s entitlement to reimbursement of community funds used to pay the monthly mortgage on Father’s separate property and Father’s student loan payments.
Under Arizona law, a spouse generally is entitled to an equitable interest, often called a community lien, when community funds (including ordinary income) are used to pay for the other spouse’s separate property.
In this case, the record indicated that community funds were used to reduce the mortgage principal from $334,800 to $321,195.06. Mother also testified that a real estate agent told her the home appreciated to approximately $450,000.
The family court declined to award Mother a share of the equity gained during the marriage. The Court of Appeals vacated this order and remanded for the family court to calculate the community’s interest.
The Court of Appeals also found that Father used community funds to make monthly payments toward his student loans. Though the family court ordered Father to reimburse Mother for a portion of the community funds he used to make a lump sum payment toward the loans, it declined to reimburse Mother for the monthly payments. The Court of Appeals vacated this order and remanded for the family court to calculate Mother’s interest in those payments as well.
The last issue was the denial of Mother’s request for attorney’s fees. Under A.R.S. § 25-324, family courts may order a party to pay a reasonable amount of the other party’s attorney’s fees after consideration fo the parties’ respective financial resources and the reasonableness of each party’s positions.
Here, the family court found that Father enjoyed considerably more resources, but found that both parties acted unreasonably during the litigation.
The Court of Appeals determined this finding was unsupported by the record. From its review of the case history, Mother assumed reasonable positions throughout the litigation and the family court’s determination constituted a reversible abuse of discretion.
Based on this significant financial disparity, the Court of Appeals awarded Mother a portion of her attorney’s fees incurred for the appeal.