When Can You Modify Spousal Support in California?


In some divorce cases, the final judgment of dissolution will include a court order for spousal support. This involves one spouse making payments to the other for a period of time, often to allow the recipient the sufficient time to find gainful employment to support themselves.

Spousal support awards take into account the need of one spouse, as well as the other spouse’s ability to pay support. An order will be based on the circumstances of each spouse at the time of the divorce and, as we all know, circumstances often change over time. One common question that divorce lawyers hear is: when can you modify your spousal support order in California?

Modifying Temporary Spousal Support Orders

California law allows for two types of spousal support, one of which is temporary support that is paid while the divorce case is pending. The amount of temporary support payments is often based on formulas set out by each court or county. Once you receive an order for temporary support, you can seek to have the order modified if your circumstances change during the divorce case. If you experienced job loss or another event that impacts your ability to continue support at the amount ordered, your attorney can petition the court to modify its order.

Modifying Permanent Spousal Support Orders

When your divorce is final, you might be ordered to pay spousal support for a longer period of time. In some situations, you and your spouse might agree in your settlement that a spousal support order is not modifiable. This means that you will be expected to pay the amount agreed upon for the specified period of time, no matter what time of financial changes you or your former spouse experienced. The only situation in which you might modify this type of support order is if a drastic change happens. Always discuss the implications of a non-modifiable spousal support order with your attorney before you agree to this arrangement.

If you have a modifiable spousal support order, and you experience changes that make it difficult to pay support as ordered, you should discuss the matter with an experienced California spousal support attorney. Sometimes, you can discuss the matter with your former spouse, and they might understand how your circumstances prevent you from continuing payments. If you can agree to reduce payment amounts or stop payments early, you can submit this agreement to the court, which can modify your order accordingly.

In other situations, your former spouse might refuse to agree to change the support amount or duration. This means that you will need to petition the court to modify your spousal support order. This requires demonstrating that you experienced a material change in circumstances that justifies a support modification. The court will not reduce support without a sufficient showing of such a change in circumstances since the initial order.

What Qualifies as a Material Change of Circumstances?

There are many situations that can qualify as a material change of circumstances for the purposes of spousal support modifications. These include – but are not limited to – the following:

  • Involuntary unemployment or reduction of income
  • Disability, illness, or injury that prevents you from working
  • Loss of assets or increase in debt-to-income ratio
  • Retirement from employment
  • Failure of a business
  • Cohabitation or remarriage of the support recipient
  • Gainful employment or increase of income of the support recipient
  • Inheritance of the supported spouse

In some cases, remarriage or similar events will automatically terminate spousal support orders. However, outside of terminating events, you will need to prove to the court that your material change in circumstances warrants the reduction of spousal support payments.

Evidence Proving Your Material Change of Circumstances

The family court will not simply take your word that your financial circumstances or your spouse’s situation have changed. Your attorney will identify what evidence is needed to prove your claims to the court and will work to gather and present that evidence in the most persuasive manner possible.

Proving a reduction of income can be relatively straightforward, as you will need to present income statements to be compared with your earnings at the time of the divorce order. The same goes for a loss of assets or other circumstances that impact your financial situation.

If your former spouse is remarried or cohabitating with someone outside of marriage, your attorney can help to obtain their marriage license or other proof of their relationship. Exactly what evidence is needed to show cohabitation will depend on your specific case. If you are asserting that your former spouse now earns enough income to support themselves without spousal support, it can be more challenging to obtain evidence. Often, people are not very willing to provide documents that will result in the reduction or termination of their support payments. Your attorney can properly request that your former spouse completes a declaration of their income, expenses, and other relevant information. If your spouse refuses to cooperate, the court might even sanction them and demand the information.

Having the right lawyer on your side means they can take steps to subpoena evidence of your spouse’s changed circumstances to help you prove that you deserve a modification of your spousal support order. This can be a complicated matter, and family law firms have the resources to obtain the information and evidence you need.

Properly Requesting a Modification

Too many people begin to struggle financially and simply stop making spousal support payments. This is a mistake, as not complying with your support order without permission from the court can have serious consequences, including being held in contempt of court and facing other penalties.

Instead, as soon as you believe that your or your spouse’s changed circumstances might warrant a downward modification of your support payments, you should contact a California divorce attorney. A lawyer will evaluate whether you have a strong case for a modification, work to help with out-of-court negotiations, as well as petition the court and present a persuasive case on your behalf when needed.