Post judgment motions to modify support orders can be tricky. Less so with child support orders; which are often as easy as putting numbers in a program (income, child sharing percentage, statutory deductions, etc) and pressing the return button. However modifying permanent spousal support is another story.
In order to justify a modification of permanent spousal support, you must be able to show “changed circumstances” since the prior order was made. There are many reasons for this requirement, such as the respect for prior court orders, the assumption that the court “got it right” when they made the prior order or simply to avoid parties coming to court every few months to try to get a new spousal support order. (This goes for both the payor wanting a lower support order and the payee wanting more monthly support) In terms of stipulated spousal support orders, the Court gives great deference and respect to the contracts of the parties, and will not disrupt those agreements without substantial justification. The reasons why a party must establish changed circumstances is not nearly as important as understanding the concept itself.
The concept of changed circumstances was summed up particularly well by the Court of Appeal in a case called Marriage of West. The facts of the case are unimportant. What is important is a quote from the decision which said:
“Change of circumstances means a reduction or increase in the supporting spouse’s ability to pay and/or an increase or decrease in the supported spouse’s needs. It includes all factors affecting need and the ability to pay.”
The focus of this blog is a discussion of the various ways a “payor spouse”, that is the spouse ordered to pay support, can move to modify or terminate spousal support post judgment.
Often times, years after a Judgment of Dissolution is entered the payor spouse will suffer a decrease in their income. This could be the result of losing their job, retiring, or loss of investment/passive income. Whatever the reason, the payor is no longer able to afford to pay support at the previous level. Based on the quote from Marriage of West (above), this is a fairly clear cut change of circumstances. [Note: If you voluntarily quit or depress your income, it can be a very different story. See my previous blog on this issue.]
Another situation is when the supported spouse’s needs have decreased. Examples of this are an increase in the supported spouse’s income, a reduction in their monthly expenses, or co-habitation with a non-marital partner. All of these situations result in a reduction in the supported party’s need for support, and are the basis for a motion to modify spousal support post judgment.
Termination of spousal support (not just reducing spousal support to $0), is a whole other animal altogether. Unless otherwise agreed to by the parties, spousal support generally terminates upon the death of either party or the remarriage of the supported party. Any other termination of support will require a showing that the supported spouse has become self-supporting and no longer has a need for support.
Whether a court will terminate spousal support will depend, in large part, on how long your marriage lasted. For marriages lasting less than 10 years the general rule of thumb is a payor spouse will pay spousal support for one-half the length of the marriage. For example if you were married for 8 years, you can expect to pay spousal support for 4 years. Of course, like most things in Family Law, none of this is set stone, so it is important that you discuss the specifics of your case with an experienced family law attorney.
If your marriage lasted more than 10 years, the Court will not terminate spousal support unless you can clearly show that the supported party can meet their financial needs without support. Even if the moving party can make this showing, the court will sometimes set spousal support to $0 per month, but retain the ability to modify the amount in the future should circumstances change.
Another option available to a payor spouse is to request the court make a “Richmond Order.” As you have probably already guessed, this comes from the case Marriage of Richmond. (We are not very creative). Richmond Orders, sometimes called “step-down” orders, are usually made in long term marriages, and have the effect of putting the supported spouse on notice that they will receive support for a specified period of time. At the end of that period of time, support will either be terminated or reduced to $0 unless the supported spouse can prove they have the need for additional support or additional time. These types of orders are favored by the courts and are usually upheld on appeal.
Post Judgment spousal support modifications are a unique issue in family law, so it is important that you consult with a qualified family law attorney who is experienced with these types of cases.