Family Law

Can I Change a Court's Alimony Order?

By Lina Guillen, Attorney
Learn more about how to change alimony payments after your divorce.

During and after a divorce, one spouse may have to pay the other alimony, which is also referred to as spousal support or maintenance. This type of financial support is intended to cover financial needs and help the supported spouse maintain close to the same standard of living that the couple enjoyed during the marriage.

There are differences between temporary alimony, which is designed to maintain the financial status quo until the divorce is final and long-term or “permanent” alimony, which is set for a number of years or indefinitely.

Temporary Alimony

Temporary alimony is generally paid to a lower-earning spouse—or a spouse who's been out of the workforce for many years, raising children or taking care of the family household—during the divorce process. It’s intended to help cover basic financial needs, such as rent or mortgage payments, utilities, groceries, and other living expenses.

As soon as you begin the divorce process, you can go to court and ask for temporary support. A judge will want to see income and expense information from both spouses in order to calculate the correct amount.

Short-Term and Rehabilitative Support

If the marriage was fairly short (less than 10 years) a judge may order short-term support. In some states, including California, this type of support typically lasts about one half of the length of the marriage.

Again, most courts use income and expense information to determine how much support the lower-earning spouse is entitled to, but will also consider a number of other factors, including the spouses’ earning capacities and whether either spouse gave up a career in order to care for the children or support the other spouse’s employment.

In some states, courts can award rehabilitative support, which is also short-term and specifically intended to last only until the lower-earning or unemployed spouse can find appropriate work.

Rehabilitative support is designed to help the supported spouse while he or she searches for a job or receives education or job training to get back into the work force and become self-supporting. Once the supported spouse becomes employed, the payments will stop.

Long-Term or Permanent Alimony

In other cases, where there has been a long marriage (more than 10 years) and/or one spouse has been out of the workforce for many years, long-term or permanent support may be appropriate. If it turns out that the supported spouse can’t realistically reenter the workforce and has a very low or no earning capacity, a judge may decide that alimony should continue indefinitely.

Because the duration of this type of alimony is longer than either temporary or rehabilitative, spouses are more likely to try and modify long-term or permanent support.

Modifying or Terminating Alimony

If you signed a marital settlement agreement which governs alimony, double-check the language to make sure you don’t have a “no change provision” for spousal support. If you do, then you may not be able to reduce or increase the amount of alimony you’re paying or receiving.

If there is no provision that limits either spouse’s ability to change support, and you want to modify alimony, then you can try to resolve the issue directly with your ex. If you can’t reach an agreement, you will have to go to court and file a motion to modify support.

At your hearing, you’ll have to prove to the court there has been a significant change in the financial circumstances that would justify changing the amount of alimony.

State laws differ regarding what constitutes a significant change in circumstances, but the following are some of the most common:

  • The paying spouse received a large salary increase, or took a new job with higher pay, and has more money available for support
  • The paying spouse suffered a medical illness, injury, or has been diagnosed with a disability that prevents the spouse from working and earning an income
  • The recipient spouse found a higher paying job or has reentered the workforce and is now making enough income to justify a reduction in support
  • The supported spouse is living with a new partner and as a result, is not paying rent or utilities and has more income available
  • The supported spouse has not made good faith efforts to search for work or reenter the workforce
  • The supported spouse has remarried.

Of course, alimony will also end when either the paying spouse or supported spouse dies.

If you have questions about changing the amount of alimony you pay or receive, contact an experienced family law attorney in your area.

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