How to Reduce Alimony Payments

Learn more about what courts will consider when making decisions about reducing alimony.

By , Attorney

When a marriage ends, it's not unusual for one spouse to pay alimony (also called "spousal support" or "maintenance") to the other during and after the divorce. Continue reading to learn how to reduce alimony if you can no longer make payments.

COVID-19 Update: The coronavirus outbreak has resulted in millions of people losing their jobs and courts struggling to continue operations. Read on to find out how these changes will affect your ability to pay and modify alimony payments.

Check Your Alimony Agreement and Court Order for Restrictions on Modifying Alimony

The first step you should take is to check your alimony agreement and court order to see if they say anything about changing support. Most marital settlement agreements and/or court divorce judgments contain provisions that define the terms of alimony payments, like how much will be paid each month and when the payments are due.

Alimony agreements and/or orders may contain other specific terms, such as:

  • when alimony ends—this might be a specific date or be connected to an event, like the supported spouse getting remarried
  • when alimony can be modified (changed)—for example, if the paying spouse becomes unemployed, or
  • that alimony is nonmodifiable, which means alimony can't be increased or decreased for any reason.

You will Need to Show a Change In Circumstances and Obtain a New Alimony Order

If your settlement agreement or alimony order doesn't address the issue of when alimony can be modified, then either spouse is free to ask for a change to alimony by filing a request with the court.

Before you head to court, you might try communicating with your ex to see if you can come to an agreement about a reduction in support. Explain your circumstances and see if you can reduce or temporarily postpone support payments.

If you can work this out with your ex, put your agreement in writing and submit it to a court for approval. If a court accepts the reduced amount, a judge will issue a new alimony order.

If you can't agree, then you'll need to ask a court for help. A paying spouse who can no longer afford alimony must prove why the reduction is justified. In order to convince a judge to reduce (or even terminate) alimony, the paying spouse must demonstrate a significant change in the financial circumstances of one or both spouses, such as:

  • the involuntary loss of a job or wage reduction
  • an illness or disability that prevents the paying spouse from working
  • the supported spouse has remarried or is cohabiting with a new partner, or
  • the supported spouse has experienced an increase in income.

The change in circumstances must be significant though—a judge won't grant a reduction based on a minor adjustment to either spouse's income or other financial resources.

Generally, when you file a motion to decrease alimony, you submit documents that detail your financial information, including income (if any), expenses, assets, and debts. Your ex spouse will have to do the same along with the response to your request. You can usually find links to the documents you need to file on your local court's website.

Once a motion to modify alimony has been filed, the court will allow the spouses to conduct "discovery," meaning each will be entitled to ask the other to produce any additional financial documentation required to show the ability to pay support and/or the need for financial support, such as paystubs, tax returns, and financial statements.

Getting Help During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all states have now issued shelter-in-place orders, which require people to stay home, except for essential needs. These orders have also forced nonessential businesses to shut down until further notice. As a result, millions of Americans have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment. Thousands of businesses have been forced to close down, which for many, has resulted in devastating financial losses and permanent closures.

What can you do if you owe alimony and lost your job or have been financially affected by COVID-19? What if you've become ill and can't work? You might qualify for a variety of financial assistance through local, state, and/or federal programs, which in turn, may allow you to continue paying spousal support. If you find that you simply can't afford alimony, and you can't reach an agreement with your ex, you'll need to ask a court for help.

Although many courts are temporarily closed in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, some family law courts are still hearing emergency requests. Modifying alimony is not typically considered an emergency, but your state or local court may have approved some temporary procedural changes to help those affected by COVID-19.

For example, the Judicial Council of the California Courts has approved Emergency Rule 13, which makes it easier for people to request changes to their financial support orders during the statewide COVID-19 health emergency. Search online to see if the judicial branch of your state and/or your local family law court has issued any temporary orders which might be helpful in terms of modifying alimony during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In California, Emergency Rule 13 allows judges to backdate a support order to the date the requesting spouse mailed or served the request on the other spouse, rather than the date the request was filed with the court. This means that even if there is a delay in filing or deciding your request to reduce alimony, a judge can make the reduced support amount retroactive to the date you served your ex. Be sure to keep your proof of service on your ex to show the court.

You should also check your local and/or state court websites for information on filing procedures. Some courts are allowing motions to be left in outdoor drop boxes so that court clerks can retrieve and file them.

If you have questions about changing alimony, you should speak to a local family law attorney for advice. Even during the COVID-19 outbreak, family law attorneys and mediators are working remotely and still available for consultations and new client meetings via phone or virtual meeting services, like Google or Zoom.

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