Spousal support is a hot topic in divorce not only during the divorce process but also after the parties’ divorce judgment has been processed and finalized. We often meet with clients who are currently paying spousal support pursuant to court order and, based on a substantial change in circumstances, would like to request a downward modification of spousal support so they don’t have to fork out so much money each month to their ex-spouse. However, we sometimes also get requests from clients who are the recipients of a spousal support award and would like assistance with getting an upward modification of spousal support so that their ex-spouse actually pays them more each month.
A person currently receiving spousal support pursuant to the initial court order may be inclined to seek an upward spousal support modification if, for example, at the time of divorce the spouse receiving spousal support was making a decent living (and thus the need for spousal support was minimal) but post-judgment that spouse lost their job or has health issues that result in an increased need for spousal support to meet that person’s reasonable needs. Another potential reason that might pique a person’s interest for seeking an upward modification of spousal support includes situations (although quite rare) where the person paying spousal support hits the jackpot on the lottery and arguably now has a much higher ability to pay.
A request for a spousal support modification requires the party seeking the modification to show that there has been a material change of circumstances since the most recent order. The Court will consider whether there has been a significant change in any of the factors set forth in Family Code Section 4320 (the same criteria considered for initial order) when making the subsequent modification order, if any. These factors include, among others, the supporting party’s ability to pay, balance of hardships to each party, and the needs of each party based on the Marital Standard of Living (“MSOL”). The MSOL is the lifestyle enjoyed by the parties during marriage and is typically measured by the parties’ expenditures during marriage, including any funds put towards savings.
While the Court has broad discretion to modify spousal support so long as there has been a material change of circumstances, the Court does not always have jurisdiction to do so. In many cases, spousal support is subject to subsequent modification (or even termination) so long as the spousal support order has not already expired and the court still has jurisdiction over spousal support. However, in accordance with Family Code section 3591(c), if the parties’ judgment has a provision that expressly states that the parties agreed to make the spousal support award non-modifiable, then spousal support cannot be modified post-judgment. In the absence of such an agreement, the court retains jurisdiction to make a decision to increase, decrease or terminate support in a later proceeding (post-judgment) pursuant to a request by one of the parties.
It is also important to note that a post-judgment increase in spousal support being granted by the Court is highly unlikely. While there is nothing that prevents the Court from increasing support, it is simply not very common in California Family Law Courts. And even if the Court is willing to entertain the idea of an upward modification of spousal support, the spousal support award would still be capped at an amount that meets the MSOL. Even if you have an experienced attorney on your side it’s important to have realistic expectations and understand that getting a significant increase in spousal support, or any increase for that matter, is not very common.