Retroactive Modifications Add Up to Headaches

by Annette Burns on March 4, 2019

The Court of Appeals decision in Amadore v. Lifgren was partially discussed in this January 7 blog post, but I didn’t mention the court’s other holdings regarding modifications of child support and spousal maintenance.    While the trial court had modified the Father’s spousal maintenance and child support obligations, the retroactive dates the court used in modifying were an issue.   ARS 25-327 provides that modifications are presumptively retroactive to the first day of the month after “notice” of the modification (note that the word in the statute isn’t “service”). That language isn’t always the best measure of where the retroactivity should end up.

From a 2013 Decree awarding maintenance and child support, Father filed a petition to modify his child support in September 2014.   He alleged that the children’s parenting time should be changed, which would also mean his child support would change.   More than a year later, before those issues could be heard, Father also petitioned to modify the spousal maintenance, stating that Mother was now working as a real estate agent and didn’t need maintenance.  Also while the petitions to modify were pending, Mother changed jobs, unrelated to real estate, and starting making $42,000 per year. 

All these issues went to hearing in June 2016 (almost two years after Father had originally filed to modify child support), and the court’s final ruling modified child support and spousal maintenance. The court entered several retroactive dates and new support amounts, based on several CS worksheets. The trial court erred, however, in retroactively assigning to Mother her $42,000/ year salary to periods of time before she started earning it.  Father’s original petition to modify spousal maintenance alleged that she could work as a real estate agent, but the evidence showed she never made more than $387/ month as an agent. The court’s attribution of the (newer) $42,000 salary, prior to the time she actually earned that amount, was error and was reversed by the Court of Appeals.    Father’s argument that Mother should have been earning $42,000/ year (even before she actually did) failed, as it was Father’s burden of proof as the filing party to show what income should be attributed to Mother, and he failed to do so.  It was not Mother’s burden of proof to show that she could not be making $42,000/ year.  Just because she started earning $42,000/ year in November 2015 was not evidence she could have been earning that before that date.

And, regardless of the statutory presumption that the effective date of a modification is the month after the modification is requested, “Nothing in this statutory scheme suggests that a court may properly set an effective date that is not supported by changed circumstances. Thus, a court errs if it applies an effective date that predates when the circumstances in a particular case became substantial and continuing.”    The evidence in Amadore showed that Mother’s $42,000 salary started in November 2015, so any modification based on that amount prior to November 2015 was error. 

The Amadore case evidences several realities of modification actions:  First, the presumptive effective date doesn’t apply unless the changed circumstances have already taken effect by that date. Second, a court’s attempts to do multiple child support worksheets over various different periods of time will often result in inequities or errors.   Third, the overpayments of support that may result from retroactive modifications of support will be complicated, and MAY involve reducing existing child support obligations, but only if the court makes deviation findings showing why the current child support is being reduced to account for overpayments.  And fourth:   Although Father probably thought he prevailed overwhelmingly at the trial court level in this case, the Court of Appeals decision undoubtedly made his life more difficult for several years to come, while the new calculations and issues of effective dates and overpayments are worked out.  

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