If you're paying alimony (also known as "spousal support" or "maintenance") to an ex, what happens if you can't afford to pay anymore? Can you lower your court-ordered spousal support payments? The answer to that question depends on the laws in your state and your particular circumstances. Read on to learn when and how you can reduce alimony after your divorce.
If you're required to pay spousal support under a court order or a written, signed agreement with your former spouse, it's never a good idea to simply stop making those payments. Even if you're having serious financial difficulties, you should act as soon as possible to get a revised agreement or order from the court. Otherwise, you could be in legal trouble when your ex or the court takes steps to enforce alimony.
If you're hoping to get your alimony payments lowered, the first step you should take is to check your existing court order (and agreement, if you had one) to see if there's anything about future changes. Divorce settlement agreements, as well as spousal support orders, often include provisions about what may or may not happen with alimony in the future. For example, there might be language stating:
Usually, you're allowed to request a reduction in your spousal support obligation unless your existing order (or agreement) specifically says alimony is nonmodifiable. However, you should also check your state's alimony laws. Most states allow post-divorce changes to spousal support in at least some situations, but there might be restrictions. Under Ohio law, for instance, judges may not modify spousal support unless the divorce decree or the couple's separation decree authorizes a future modification.
When you're looking to see if alimony can be changed in the future, be on the lookout for legalese stating that the court "reserves jurisdiction" over spousal support. That means the court will have the legal authority to revisit the order in the future, and a judge may decide whether to make any changes that are warranted under the law and the circumstances (more on that below).
As long as any future changes to the support payments aren't ruled out, your next step should be to talk with your ex. Explain what's going on, and see if you can work out an agreement for lower spousal support. If you expect that your current financial troubles won't last, your ex might agree to temporarily postpone or lower the payments. And if you're having trouble working out an agreement, ask if your ex would agree to mediation.
Don't rely on an informal agreement to reduce or postpone alimony payments. Otherwise, your ex might still come after you for the original, full amount. To be safe, submit your signed, written agreement to the court along with the proper form to request a spousal support modification. Judges will usually approve these agreements (unless they appear unfair) and make them part of an official court order.
It's almost always less expensive, less stressful, and quicker to reach an agreement about lowering spousal support. But when that's not possible, you'll need to have a judge decide for you.
When you file a motion or petition to decrease alimony, you'll usually have to submit documents that detail your financial information, including income (if any), expenses, assets, and debts. Your ex will have to do the same along with the response to your request. You can often find links to the documents you need to file on your local court's website.
It's important to know that alimony doesn't always change just because your income changes. Typically, you won't be able to get a reduction in your current spousal support payments unless you can prove that you or your ex has experienced a substantial change in circumstances, such as:
In some states, the judge may dismiss your request if your initial paperwork doesn't show that you've met the changed-circumstances requirement. And usually, the change in circumstances must be ongoing as well as significant. That means, for instance, that the judge might not grant you a reduction in spousal maintenance right after you've lost your job, unless you can show that you've tried to get other work but haven't been successful.
After you've filed the motion and initial financial statements, you and your ex will generally go through the process known as "discovery," meaning that each of you will be able to ask the other to produce any additional documention to support or oppose the modification request. Then the judge will conduct a hearing to review all of your evidence and make a decision.
If your ex is opposing your modification request—or you're the one fighting a motion to reduce alimony—you should strongly consider speaking with an experienced family lawyer who can evaluate your situation, explain the best way forward, and help you gather the right kind of evidence you'll need to convince the judge to rule in your favor.