In your divorce settlement, you or your spouse may have been granted alimony. But what if circumstances change drastically? The supporting spouse may have gotten a substantial raise, the dependent spouse could have remarried, or there could be a financial emergency, such as large medical bills. In most states, alimony can be changed after divorce if such situations should arise.
Alimony, also known as spousal support, is a husband's or wife's court-ordered provision for a spouse after separation or divorce. Alimony is paid by the “supporting spouse” to the “dependent spouse." The general rule is that a spouse is dependent when he or she makes less money than the other spouse.
In most states, a substantial change in need or a change in the ability to pay may be grounds for a post-judgment modification of spousal support/alimony. Check your state's divorce laws and speak with an attorney if you think you are eligible for a modification of spousal support/alimony that you pay or receive. You may be able to lower what you pay, increase what you receive or have payments terminated altogether.
Common Reasons Why Alimony Can Be Modified
Agreement to Modify Spousal Support/Alimony
Former spouses may come to an agreement with each other to modify the terms of the support agreement. This can be done without the court’s approval, but if a spouse later refuses to follow the agreement, there will be problems. Coming to an agreement on such issues without the court’s approval means not being able to use the court to enforce the new agreement. Being able to work out an agreement with your former spouse is commendable, but make sure to protect yourself by having it signed by a judge.
Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) Clause
A cost of living adjustment clause in your original divorce decree means that spousal support/alimony payments will increase at a rate equal to the annual cost of living. Including a COLA clause in your original decree will keep down the need to have to modify the spousal support/alimony.
An escalator clause can be included in an original divorce decree to ensure that the recipient of spousal support/alimony receives an automatic share of any increase in the payor’s earnings. For instance, if your ex-spouse is a member of the armed forces and receives a yearly cost of living raise, you would automatically receive a pre-determined portion of that raise.
Change of Circumstance
If a spouse receiving alimony has a substantial increase in income, the payor can request a downward modification of support based on the change of circumstance. The spouse receiving support may request an increase in support if his/her ex-spouse has a substantial increase in income. An increase in income is not the only reason one can modify support due to changed circumstances. Examples of a change of circumstance include:
- Change in Law: State laws pertaining to support change periodically. When a divorce law changes, this can constitute the change of circumstance that is needed to file for modification of support.
- Cohabitation: Support may be reduced or terminated if an ex-spouse cohabitates with another person. If a person is living intimately with a partner, they are cohabitating. If the recipient of support feels a decrease in support is unfair, it is his/her obligation to prove there is a need for the support.
- Cost of Living Increase: When inflation reduces the value of support payments, the recipient may request a modification based on an increased cost of living as a changed circumstance and request an increase. A request can also be made when the payor of alimony has a substantial increase in income.
- Decreased Need for Support: When a recipient’s need for support decreases or ceases, the court may reduce or terminate support at the payor's request. This can happen when the recipient gets a job with a higher salary, remarries, or begins to cohabitate with another person.
- Disability: If a payor of alimony becomes unable to support himself/herself due to a physical or mental condition, support may be modified. If the recipient becomes disabled, he/she can request a modification to increase support. If the payor becomes disabled, he/she can request a modification to decrease support.
- Financial Emergency: A financial emergency happens, for instance when a spouse has to pay large medical bills or has to pay out money due to some other unexpected emergency. In such cases, either spouse may request a decrease or increase in the amount of support paid or received.
- New Support Obligation: If an ex-spouse paying support remarries and has a child, the court may reduce the amount of support paid since it would constitute a hardship to pay current support and meet his/her new obligations. This does not apply to an ex-spouse who marries and voluntarily takes on the responsibility of supporting stepchildren.