Changing the Amount of Spousal Support

When an alimony (spousal support) order is already in place, can it be changed? It depends.

Spousal support is different from child support in many ways, and perhaps the most important is that while a court can change the terms of a child support order until the child is a legal adult, in most states, you can end or limit the court’s power over spousal support. In other words, you can build in—or preclude—future modification of the support obligation. All you and your spouse need to do is put a provision in your settlement agreement that states how spousal support can be modified. If a judge decides on spousal support for you, the judge will also decide whether and under what circumstances support can be modified later.

If you’re negotiating an agreement about spousal support, you can state that the amount can’t change at all, no matter what happens. (One Missouri man might have regretted making such an agreement when the court ordered him to continue paying support to his ex-wife even though she allegedly tried to have him killed.) The paying spouse might agree to this if the likelihood of a downward reduction seems slim (as where employment is secure or assets are high). The recipient spouse might think it would be easier to persuade the other to pay a higher amount if there’s a no-change provision, and it also means that support should keep coming even if the paying spouse’s employment situation changes.

If you want some future flexibility, you might state that the amount can change only if:

  • both ex-spouses agree
  • the court orders it
  • either spouse’s income changes by a specified percentage, or
  • one spouse becomes disabled.

If you don’t have a modification provision in your settlement agreement, and you can’t agree later to a change, then your state’s law will control the matter. Most courts allow modification if there is a significant change of circumstances. Some states, however, won’t modify spousal support at all—they allow courts to make orders  only about child support after the divorce is final. (And in Texas, the support amount can only be modified downward!) Often, a court will order a temporary modification, just for the period of changed circumstances. For example, if you are paying support and you lose your job, the court might reduce your support obligation for six months or until you find a new job, whichever happens sooner. If at the end of six months you still haven’t found  work, you’d have to return to court and ask for additional time.

Excerpted from Nolo's Essential Guide to Divorce, by Emily Doskow.

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