Alimony, also referred to as spousal support or spousal maintenance, is different from child custody. The most significant difference perhaps is that while you could change the terms in a child custody order until a child is legally an adult, most states allow you to limit a court’s powers over alimony and alimony modification.
In your divorce settlement, it’s highly likely that you or your spouse will be awarded alimony. But if circumstances change considerably, an alimony modification may be imminent. Changes like a significant pay rise of the supporting spouse, remarriage of the dependent spouse, or a financial emergency may warrant such a modification.
Luckily, most states allow alimony to be changed after the divorce. You have to put a provision in your settlement agreement that dictates how your alimony can be modified. If spousal support is granted, the judge will also decide whether and under what circumstances the alimony can be changed in the future.
Some spouses prefer to include a clause during the negotiation process and state spousal support is non-modifiable. This means the amount in the settlement can never be changed regardless of changes in the future. The supporting spouse might agree to this if there is no likelihood of a downward reduction in their income – e.g., if assets are high.
However, most spouses prefer some flexibility in their alimony settlement. To achieve this flexibility, state that the amount can be changed if:
- The court orders it
- Both ex-spouses agree to it
- One spouse becomes disabled, or
- Either ex-spouse’s income considerably changes by a specified percentage.
Most U.S. courts will allow a change in alimony if there’s a significant change of circumstances that have impacted the ability to pay. Some states, however, won’t modify spousal support at all and will only give orders about child support after the divorce is finalized. It’s essential to check your state laws and talk to a divorce and spousal support attorney if you think you qualify for an alimony modification that you receive or pay.
Common Reasons for Alimony Modification
1. Escalator Clause
This clause may be included in the final divorce decree to ensure that the dependent ex-spouse receives an automatic share of the payer’s income increase. For instance, if your ex-spouse is a member of the armed service and gets a yearly pay rise, you will automatically receive a specified percentage if that rise.
2. Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) Clause
This adjustment clause in your original divorce decree will inform that alimony/spousal support payments will increase at the same rate as the annual cost of living. This clause also protects the supporting ex-spouse against unnecessary alimony modification and keeps the figure down.
3. An Agreement between Former Spouses on Alimony Modification
Ex-spouses may agree about the terms in their support agreement. The courts will first approve of this, but you may be in trouble if you fail or refuse to follow what is in the agreement. If you fail to get the court’s approval before agreeing, you may face difficulties enforcing this agreement. If you want it enforced, make sure that a judge signs it.
4. A Significant Change of Circumstances
If the ex-spouse receiving alimony receives a substantial pay increase, the alimony payer can request for a downward modification of support. Similarly, the ex-spouse receiving support may request for an alimony increase if his or her ex-spouse just received a substantial pay rise. Other than this rule, other reasons will merit a spousal support modification.
5. Cohabitation or Remarriage
If an ex-spouse remarries or starts cohabiting with another partner, alimony may be reduced or suspended. If the supported ex-spouse feels like the decreased amount is unfair, it is his or her responsibility to prove that they still need the support.
6. An Increase in the Cost of Living
Inflation might reduce the value of support payments. The receiver may request an increase in support payments based on this argument.
If the supporter becomes disabled and cannot support himself/herself due to a mental or physical condition, support payments may be revised. On the other hand, a receiver can request for an increase in support if he/she becomes disabled.
8. Changed Laws
State laws touching on alimony and alimony modification often change periodically. Once divorce laws change, this could also affect how spousal support is paid and the preconditions set for it.
9. New Support Obligations
The ex-spouse making alimony payments may remarry and have a child. The courts can use this reason to lower support payments. However, this doesn’t apply when the supporting party marries and voluntarily takes on the responsibility of caring for stepchildren. The children must be his/hers.
When Alimony Modifications Aren’t Allowed
- If the changes were contemplated when the original order was being formulated
- If the spousal support was included in the reciprocal agreement contained in the couple’s property settlement
- If the supporting ex-spouse intentionally decreased his/her income, e.g., deliberately quitting a job
How to Modify Alimony
The COVID-19 situation has prevented people from moving around except for those offering essential services. Most states have also ordered the closure of non-essential businesses until a contrary notice is issued. Millions of Americans have, therefore, lost their jobs, received pay cuts, and many filing for unemployment.
What can you do if you’re financially affected but still owe alimony? You may qualify for financial relief through local, state, or federal programs. You can find financial relief by searching the details on your state’s government website. Similarly, Congress recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES act) to deal with the economic fallout.
If you want to file a petition to modify an alimony order after divorce or have legal issues around the matter, talk to a local family law attorney. Mediators and family attorneys are currently available for consultations and client meetings.