Changing the Amount of Spousal Support

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

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
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Alimony—also referred to as spousal support or spousal maintenance—is different from child support in many ways. Perhaps the most important difference is that while a judge may change a child support order until the child is a legal adult, in most states, you and your spouse may agree to end or limit the court's power over spousal support. In other words, you can build in—or preclude—future modifications (changes) to the support obligation.

Agreements and Orders on Future Spousal Support Modifications

If you and your spouse are able to agree about alimony when you're getting divorced, you can include a provision in your settlement agreement that states whether and how spousal support can be modified in the future.

For instance, your agreement can state that spousal support is "nonmodifiable," which means the amount cannot be changed at all—no matter what happens. The paying spouse might agree to this if the likelihood of a downward reduction seems slim (such as when employment is secure or assets are high). For the recipient spouse, it might be easier to negotiate a higher amount if there's a no-change provision. Also, the recipient can be assured that support will continue even if the paying spouse's employment situation changes.

If you want some future flexibility, you might prefer to state that the amount may change only under certain circumstances, such any or all of the following:

  • when both ex-spouses agree to a change
  • when a judge orders a modification
  • if either spouse's income changes by a specified percentage, or
  • if one spouse becomes disabled.

If you haven't been able to reach a settlement on the issue of alimony, you'll need to go to trial and have a judge make a decision for you. The judge will decide not only the amount and duration of alimony payments, but also whether and when spousal support may be modified in the future. In some circumstances, state law will set limits as well. In most states, for instance, the law requires that alimony payments end when either spouse dies or the recipient spouse remarries.

Post-Divorce Agreements to Change Alimony

If you want to change alimony at some point after your divorce is final, you can try reaching out to your ex to see if you can come to an agreement—unless your original settlement agreement or divorce judgment ruled out any future modifications.

You'll need to submit your signed agreement to the court (typically along with a form requesting a modification), so that a judge can review it and make it part of a new, official court order.

Requesting a Change to Alimony Without an Agreement

If you and your spouse aren't able to agree on a change to your current spousal support, you'll need to file a modification request to have a judge hold a hearing and make a decision based on your state's alimony laws.

Most states allow judges to modify alimony if there's been a significant change of circumstances that warrants the change or makes it necessary. But some states don't allow judges to modify spousal support after the divorce is final.

Sometimes, a judge will order a temporary modification, just for the period of changed circumstances. For example, if you're 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.

Contested proceedings to modify alimony can be complicated and difficult for lay people to navigate. They can also be expensive (think attorney's fees). That's why it's always a good idea to try mediation. But if that doesn't work or isn't feasible, you should strongly consider speaking with an experienced family law attorney who can evaluate your case and help you gather the kind of evidence you need to support (or oppose) a modification request.

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