During a divorce or legal separation, alimony, also known as spousal support, refers to a court ordered payment made by one spouse to the other. It is generally ordered when a judge determines that one spouse should still financially support the other for various reasons. This could be so that the receiving spouse can maintain their lifestyle prior to the divorce, or to allow the receiving spouse sufficient time in order to obtain financial stability and independence. Spousal support is intended to help equalize assets and opportunities when one spouse will clearly be in a better position than the other when the divorce has been finalized.

Spousal support payments are generally issued on a regular and monthly basis. The main types of spousal support include rehabilitative and permanent. Rehabilitative spousal support is most commonly ordered when one spouse left the workforce in order to support the other spouse’s career, or raise their family. Rehabilitative spousal support may be ordered in any circumstance in which one spouse was dependent on the other for living expenses. Rehabilitative support payments are generally terminated once the receiving spouse is financially stable and independent.

Permanent spousal support refers to spousal support payments that are intended to last an indefinite amount of time. These spousal support payments are made until some life changing event. Life changing events could include the death of either spouse, or the remarriage of the receiving spouse.

When determining if to award spousal support, and how much, most states default to the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act. Some factors considered will include:

  • Whether the couple was legally married;
  • How long the marriage lasted;
  • The financial history and earning capacity of each spouse;
  • Whether child custody is involved;
  • Whether the spouse have remarried or are cohabitating with a new partner; and
  • The age and health of each spouse.

Can I Modify My Spousal Support Order?

Once a judge has set an amount for spousal support payments, and has scheduled those payments, the other spouse is legally obligated to abide by those orders. If something happens that dramatically changes the economic position of either spouse involved, either spouse may petition the court for a modification of the spousal support order. Alternatively, they can petition to eliminate the spousal support payments altogether.

It is important to note in any modification request with the court that the circumstances surrounding the original case have undergone a substantial or material change. The person seeking the modification must generally prove that there has been significant change before any increases, decreases, or elimination will be considered. The spouse petitioning for the modification may do this by providing sufficient evidence to the court showing that there has been a significant change in their circumstances. 

The petitioning spouse may also show that there has been a significant change in the other spouse’s economic position, to the point where changing the order would be the only fair option. However, it is imperative that the paying spouse continue to make their scheduled payments, as failure to do so could result in being held in contempt of court.

Some common examples of significant life changes that could lead to a spousal support order being modified include:

  • Loss of employment, or significant decrease in income;
  • Lost of living increase, as courts will often consider inflation as a reason to modify an order;
  • A physical or mental disability manifests that affects the spouse’s ability to work;
  • A significant financial emergency, or sudden financial hardship;
  • A significant increase in one spouse’s income such as a raise, promotion, or change in job; or
  • Medical emergencies, which applies to either a spouse’s ability to pay or increased need of support for the receiving spouse.

Specific changes in living arrangements may also affect spousal support payments. For example, if the receiving spouse moves in with a new partner, the paying spouse may petition the court to lower or eliminate support payments. This is due to the fact that cohabitation typically indicates that the receiving spouse is now combining their income with their new partner, which puts them in a better financial position. 

New support obligations may also constitute a modification. An example of this would be if a new child is involved, and the paying spouse now must also pay child support. Additionally, a support modification may be warranted by a change in alimony laws in your specific jurisdiction.

Would a Prenuptial Agreement or Separation Agreement Affect the Change in Circumstances Rule?

A prenuptial agreement is a legal contract in which both spouses agree to specific terms, should the marriage end, and covers a variety of topics including spousal support. A divorce separation agreement also covers issues that are relevant to the couple’s specific situation, such as spousal support and division of property. Both contracts may limit spousal support modification according to specific terms.

An example of this would be an agreement that states that upon a spouse moving in with a new partner, support is automatically terminated. It is important to note that some states do not allow modification upon disability. Therefore, if both spouses agree to such a clause in their prenup or separation agreement, the support request must be enforced due to contractual obligation. Thus, assuming the prenuptial agreement is mutually agreed upon, and does not specifically contradict any state laws, it will likely be upheld in court.

Do I Need an Attorney to Modify an Alimony Order?

In order to modify or terminate a spousal support order, you will need to file a petition with the family law court that originally issued the order. A skilled and knowledgeable family law attorney can help you file your motion correctly, as well as prove the reasons why you feel the modification is necessary. Additionally, an experienced attorney will be able to represent you in court as needed.