Family Law

Changing and Terminating Alimony or Spousal Support

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Divorce attorneys report an increase in clients seeking to modify their alimony. In a tough economy, clients try to make ends meet by changing the amount of alimony they pay out or receive.

You might want to modify your alimony if you face hard financial times of your own. The following shows situations in which a change in alimony might be allowed.

Types of Alimony

Your ability to have alimony changed depends on what type of alimony was awarded in the first place. In some states, alimony is called spousal maintenance or spousal support. There are four basic kinds of alimony:

  • Temporary alimony. This is meant to provide support during the divorce action. It may include the payment of attorney fees and other litigation costs. This award is for a short duration anyway, so it's not easy to change. But in some states, temporary alimony can be ended if the receiving spouse remarries
  • Rehabilitative alimony. This is given to help a dependent spouse become self-supporting. It might last long enough for the spouse to get a job, learn a new job skill, or complete their education. It's possible to change this alimony if the needs of the receiving spouse change. For example, payments could end when the spouse finds a job or be extended if the spouse can't find work. Also, courts can cut off this alimony if the receiving spouse fails to make a good-faith effort to become self-supporting
  • Reimbursement alimony. This is to pay a spouse back for contributions to the marriage. For example, if one spouse worked to support the family while the other spouse attended law school, alimony could allow the first spouse to share the other spouse's law practice earnings. This alimony might be increased if the paying spouse's earnings increase due to efforts or sacrifices made by the receiving spouse during their marriage. On the other hand, a court might order this alimony to end or decrease once the receiving spouse is sufficiently compensated
  • Permanent alimony. Two main goals of permanent alimony are support and fairness. Alimony is meant to support the receiving spouse according to the needs and earning abilities of the parties. It's also intended to fairly compensate the spouse for contributions made to the marriage. This alimony can typically be modified if there's a big change in the needs, earning abilities, or other circumstances of the parties

Property Distributions

Sometimes a spouse receives payments after a divorce to compensate them for their ownership in marital property. This isn't really alimony. It's part of the distribution of marital property. For example, one spouse might receive payments from the other spouse's work retirement benefits because the benefits were marital property earned during the marriage.

Generally, awards that are a distribution of marital property can't be modified. And that is so regardless of how the parties label it in their divorce. Even if you call it "maintenance," payments probably can't be changed if they are for the ex-spouse's property rights.

How to Change Alimony

Courts look at a variety of factors when deciding whether to modify alimony. Most importantly, you must show a significant change in circumstances to justify a change in alimony payments. Here are some factors considered:

  • State law. State law may indicate when a change in alimony is allowed. For example, Arizona's law says that maintenance (alimony) can be modified if there is a substantial change of circumstances. The law also says the obligation to pay alimony ends when either spouse dies or the receiving spouse remarries, unless the parties made a contrary agreement shown in writing or their divorce decree
  • The divorce agreement or decree. The parties' divorce agreement or decree may specify whether alimony can be changed or the situations in which a change is allowed. For example, the divorce settlement might require alimony payments to increase with the cost of living
  • Illness. A chronic illness can justify an increase in alimony to the sick spouse. Likewise, alimony might be decreased if the paying spouse becomes ill
  • Unemployment. Alimony may be decreased if the paying spouse loses a job. It might be increased if the receiving spouse can't find work
  • Change in financial position. Alimony might be adjusted if either spouse suffers an involuntary business loss or other significant financial setback. Likewise, a change might be justified when a spouse's financial condition improves 
  • Remarriage. The laws in many states specify that alimony ends when the receiving spouse remarries. Courts in other states say remarriage by itself doesn't justify ending alimony, but it's a factor that's considered. Remarriage by the paying spouse typically does not justify a decrease in an obligation to pay alimony. But some courts take it into consideration
  • Cohabitation. In some states, an ex-spouse loses the right to alimony if they live as husband and wife with a member of the opposite sex. In most states, cohabitation is considered with other factors to determine an ex-spouse's need to continue to receive alimony
  • Retirement. The paying spouse's retirement is considered with other factors to determine a reduction in alimony

Your ability to have alimony modified depends upon the particular circumstances of your situation. Talk with a divorce lawyer in your area to find out if a change in alimony is possible in your case.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My ex-wife started living with another man. Can I stop paying her alimony?
  • My divorce decree is based upon a separation agreement. It doesn't say anything about changing alimony. Can I have my alimony payments lowered?
  • My ex-husband said he's going to quit his job so that he can't pay alimony. Can he do that?
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