Before discussing some of the special circumstances that may lead to altering spousal support payments, it is important to have an understanding of what spousal support is first.

Spousal support, commonly known as alimony, are periodic financial payments that are made to one spouse by the other in the event of a legal separation or a divorce. 

In general, spousal support payments are typically ordered by the court. The court will first determine whether one of the spouses should receive support payments. Once this initial decision is made, the court will then decide what type of alimony should be provided to the spouse and the amount that should be paid each month. 

The court determines the amount of alimony based on a number of factors, such as:

  • The couple’s lifestyle prior to getting a divorce;
  • How much a spouse contributed to raising a family or supporting the other spouse’s career choices; and 
  • The ability of the spouses to be able to support themselves and their children financially without the help of the other spouse.

If certain circumstances arise that require adjusting or terminating the amount of the spousal support payments, a party may petition the court to have their spousal support order modified.

What are Some Special Circumstances that Alter Spousal Support?

As mentioned above, a court can alter a spousal support award if certain changes have taken place in either of the spouse’s economic or family situation. Some of these changes include when:

  • One of the spouses becomes deceased;
  • The spouse receiving support gets remarried or in some states, co-habitates with another individual;
  • The spouse receiving support suddenly has a large increase in their income;
  • The spouse paying support encounters extreme financial hardship; or
  • The spouse paying support stops working (note that this cannot be due to a spouse’s voluntary actions, e.g., a spouse cannot quit their job simply to avoid paying spousal support).

These are some of the more common situations that may lead a court to alter a spousal support order. 

Other less common examples might include when there is a serious medical emergency that affects either the amount that a spouse can pay due to the injury or disability, or an increased need of support to pay the associated medical costs; or when the cost of living increases (e.g., a court will consider inflation as a possible reason to alter spousal support payments).

How Do Each of These Scenarios Affect Spousal Support?

In regard to some of the more common scenarios listed above, these circumstances can affect spousal support payments in the following ways:

  • Either spouse becomes deceased: In this case, spousal support will be automatically terminated. Support payments will also cease if the spouse receiving support gets remarried.
  • The spouse receiving support co-habitates with a new partner: A court may reduce or stop spousal support payments in this situation, but it will depend on how much income the new partner brings in and whether the cohabitation is more similar to a remarriage. Additionally, it may also depend on the laws of the state.
  • The spouse receiving support gets a large increase in income: In the event that the receiving spouse’s income has increased, the court may permit the spouse who is paying support to reduce or terminate their mandated support payments.
  • The paying spouse encounters extreme financial hardship: The court may reduce how much support is paid when the paying spouse encounters some type of serious financial difficulty. This is especially true in cases where the paying spouse has financial obligations that must come before spousal support, such as child support.
  • The spouse paying support stops working: As aforementioned, the court will often consider whether the changes in their work situation were made voluntarily or forced, before deciding to reduce the spousal support payments or not.
    • For example, if the paying spouse takes an early retirement or decides to quit their job, the court may refuse to reduce the amount of spousal support because the paying spouse has the ability to pay the original amount, but intentionally put themselves in such a position where they could no longer pay.

When Can a Spousal Support Order Not Be Altered?

A court cannot reduce or terminate spousal support

This includes scenarios where either of the spouse’s life circumstances change in a way that would make reduction in the amount of support paid appropriate. If the order says, “not modifiable,” then the spousal support order cannot be altered. 

Other instances may include when the spouse co-habitates with a new partner. If the paying spouse cannot provide enough evidence to prove that the other spouse is actually cohabiting or that the new partner is helping to support them, then the court may not grant the petition to modify the spousal support order.

Should I Hire a Family Law Attorney for Help with Modifying Spousal Support?

If you have any questions or concerns regarding changes to your financial or family situation, and how it may affect the amount of child support that you either pay or receive, then you should contact a local family law attorney immediately.  

An experienced family law attorney can help you to prepare the proper documents that are necessary for petitioning the court in order to modify your spousal support in accordance with your changed circumstances. 

An attorney can also potentially determine whether or not the court will likely reduce or terminate spousal support, as well as provide legal counsel about what your next steps should be if such an event occurs.