What Circumstances Justify a Modification of a Spousal Support Order?


Spousal support – commonly called alimony – is not a given in divorce. Instead, spousal support is intended to help balance a divorce-related financial discrepancy between the divorcing parties. If one spouse experiences a financial downturn upon divorce and the other has the financial ability to help, the court may award alimony to the financially disadvantaged ex.

Spousal support is generally temporary and is intended as a financial bridge that allows the spouse who receives alimony to gain more secure financial footing via additional education, job training, and/or experience. If you pay or receive alimony in California and are seeking a modification, you may face a difficult path forward, and it’s in your best interest to have an experienced California divorce attorney in your corner.

Check Your Court Order

If you want to obtain a modification of your alimony (either to increase the amount you receive or to decrease the amount you pay), the first order of business is checking your alimony agreement and court order. Most orders or marital settlement agreements contain provisions that specifically define the alimony terms, including the amount paid each month and when each payment is due. Alimony agreements (or orders), however, can also contain other highly specific terms, including:

  • When the alimony payments end, which can be a specific date in the future or can be a future event, such as if the person receiving alimony remarries
  • When the alimony payments can be modified (if the person paying alimony becomes unemployed, for example)
  • That the terms of alimony are nonmodifiable, which means that your alimony can’t be decreased or increased for any reason

In other words, some alimony payments are nonmodifiable right out of the gate (unless the payments are predicated on fraud to begin with), and that is the end of that.

Try to Negotiate First

If your settlement agreement or court order does not address the matter of when or if your alimony can be modified, either one of you has the right to ask the court for an alimony modification. Before taking up the matter with the court, however, it might be a good idea to discuss the matter with your ex. If there is any chance that your explanation of why you are requesting either a decrease in the alimony you pay or an increase in the alimony you receive will have the desired effect on your ex, it’s a good idea to start with that. If your explanation, however, is destined to fall on deaf ears, discussing the matter with a dedicated California divorce attorney should be your first order of business.

Demonstrating a Change in Circumstances (for a Decrease in the Amount of Alimony You Pay)

If you are requesting to decrease the alimony payments you make, you’re going to need to demonstrate to the court that either you or your ex has experienced a significant change in your financial circumstances. Such changes can include:

  • That you have involuntarily lost your job or experienced a wage reduction
  • That you have experienced an illness or disability that prevents you from working
  • That your ex-spouse – to whom you pay alimony – has remarried or is living with a new romantic partner
  • That your ex-spouse has experienced an increase in his or her income

The court will not be interested in making an adjustment based on a minor change; you must be able to prove that the change in financial circumstances is significant enough to warrant the court’s attention.

Demonstrating a Change in Circumstances (for an Increase in the Amount of Alimony You Receive)

If, on the other hand, you are seeking an increase in the alimony payments that you receive, you will also need to demonstrate a material change in financial circumstances (as experienced by either you or your ex). Such a change can include:

  • That you have involuntarily lost your job or experienced a wage reduction
  • That your ex-spouse has experienced an increase in income or assets
  • That you are experiencing far greater expenses than anticipated, such as those related to a serious medical issue
  • That your ex is experiencing expenses that are lower than anticipated

If the increase you request is based on your children’s financial needs, it is generally preferable to seek the financial adjustment through a child support modification.

Requesting the Alimony Modification

When you move forward with your request for an alimony modification, you’ll need to file a motion with the same court that granted your divorce and original alimony terms. Along with this motion, you will be required to submit documentation that carefully details your financial information, including all:

  • Income
  • Expenses
  • Assets
  • Debts

Your ex will very likely be required to do the same – along with filing a response to your request for modification. From here, you’ll move forward to the discovery phase in which both parties have the opportunity to request additional financial information and documentation from the other – including items such as pay stubs, financial statements, and tax returns – which are intended to show either the ability to pay more or the need to pay less.

A Few Very Important Notes

It is very important to point out that even if you have undergone a significant decrease in earnings that makes paying your alimony very difficult, you should not take it upon yourself to decrease or stop your alimony payments. Only with a modification from the court is it your legal right to do so, and you could find yourself in contempt of court orders.

Further, even if your ex has stopped paying you alimony altogether – even though it is court-ordered – you don’t have the legal right to reduce the amount of time he or she is allowed to spend with your shared children in retaliation. Your ex’s visitation is considered in the best interests of your shared children and is not contingent on his or her compliance with alimony or child support payment. 

If you have concerns about an alimony modification, an accomplished California divorce attorney can help.