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Premarital Agreement Protects Husband From Wife’s Creditor

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Premarital agreements are increasingly common, particularly in second marriages and between older couples. Do agreements between couples really work? A recent Arizona case provides good evidence that premarital agreements really can protect both husband and wife.

Christopher and Shelley Schlaefer were married in 1994. They had already signed an agreement before the wedding. Like most premarital agreements, the Schlaefers’ provided that neither would have any claim against the other’s separate property, and that neither would be liable for the other’s debts.

While they were married, Shelley Schlaefer became ill and was treated at Paradise Valley Hospital in the Phoenix area. Christopher Schlaefer did not sign his wife’s admission documents, and never agreed to pay her hospital bill.

Sometime later, the Schlaefers divorced. After the divorce was final, Paradise Valley Hospital sought to collect the hospital bill from Mr. Schlaefer.

Arizona, of course, is a community property state. That usually means that each spouse receives an ownership interest in the other spouse’s earnings, and that each spouse is liable for the other spouse’s debts in most situations. Mr. Schlaefer, however, pointed to the prenuptial agreement and insisted that he was not responsible for his wife’s hospital debt.

Paradise Valley Hospital acknowledged that the Schlaefers could agree between themselves about how to divide their debts. But, the hospital argued, they could not bind their creditors to abide by their agreement. To allow the Schlaefers (or any couple) to change the general rules governing community property would be unconscionable, argued the hospital.

The Arizona trial court agreed, and ordered Mr. Schlaefer to pay not only his wife’s hospital bill but also the attorneys’ fees incurred by Paradise Valley Hospital in collecting the debt. Mr. Schlaefer appealed.

The Arizona Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge’s decision. The appellate court pointed out that the premarital agreement changed the nature of the couple’s debts—they no longer were presumed to be community debts but had been “transmuted” into separate debts. Furthermore, the award of attorneys’ fees was reversed, and Paradise Valley Hospital was directed to pay Mr. Schlaefer’s attorney’s fees for the appeal. Schlaefer v. Financial Management, January 27, 2000.

Do prenuptial agreements work in Arizona? Yes, they do—not only to protect spouses from one another in the event of subsequent divorce but also to protect both husband and wife from creditor’s claims against the other spouse.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

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Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.