Understanding Spousal Support
Spousal support, often called alimony, is when one party is court-ordered to pay a certain amount of money to another spouse during or after a divorce proceeding. This spousal support payment usually comes in one of two forms: one larger lump-sum payment or regular monthly payments for a certain length of time.
A Decree of Divorce outlines what a spousal support payment looks like: how much is being paid, how often it is being paid, and when it ends. However, changes may also happen after a Decree of Divorce is entered that may create a need to change the terms of the spousal support award. Because of these changes, rules are set out to govern if and when a party can increase, decrease, or stop an award of spousal support.
Generally, there are 4 main ways to modify alimony:
- the receiving spouse either remarries or dies;
- there has been a substantial chance in circumstances that was not anticipated at the time of divorce;
- the court is shown proof that the receiving spouse is cohabitating; and
- both parties agree to change or terminate spousal support.
Below, we’ll look at the first three ways in greater depth.
Key Reasons for Changing Alimony
Modifications for Remarriage or Death
Unless the parties’ Decree of Divorce states otherwise, the general rule in Utah is that the party receiving spousal support loses their right to receive spousal support if they remarry or pass away. If the paying spouse learns that the other party has remarried or passed away, they can automatically discontinue paying spousal support without further court intervention. This spousal support termination begins the day the receiving party remarries or dies. If a paying party only recently learned of a previous remarriage or death, but has continued paying, the paying party may need to file a request with the court to recuperate some or all of the spousal support that was paid after the remarriage or death but before the paying party knew to stop paying. If this is the case, you will want to consult with an attorney early on to discuss your options.
Modifications for a Substantial Change in Circumstances
If there has been a “substantial change in circumstances” on the part of one or both parties that has a direct effect on a spousal support order, the party wanting a change must file a Petition to Modify and proceed with the full litigation process in order to pursue the modification. This is an intensive process and requires a fairly high threshold of change in order to be effective (primarily to keep parties from trying to change their support too frequently.)
When considering a change in alimony, a substantial change will generally fall into the category of a change in income or employment of either or both of the parties. If the paying party has a change that makes the payment of support impossible or unequitable, or if the recipient spouse has a change that lowers or eliminates their need to receive alimony, a change in support may be allowed.
There are many nuances to keep in mind when you want to modify spousal support because of a change in circumstances:
- First, any change must not have been anticipated at the time of the divorce. If you anticipated that the spouse receiving support would have an increase in income over a few years, you may not be able to change alimony that extends past that increase, given that it was anticipated at the time the spousal support order was entered.
- Second, the changes cannot be temporary. If you are experiencing a temporary reduction in income or a temporary job change, you likely will not be allowed to modify your support order. There may be exceptions to this – such as times when you are not sure if your reduction will be temporary or long-term – so you will want to consult an attorney to discuss the details of your circumstances.
- Finally, the Court will also look at whether the change is voluntary. If a party is voluntarily unemployed or voluntarily underemployed, the Court can determine that the party could go earn the previously earned income and will continue ordering spousal support based on that previous income rate.
These are all considerations you may wish to take into account before making any significant changes to your employment situation.
Modifications for Cohabitation with a Romantic Partner
Unlike automatic termination of spousal support for a party who remarries, a party cannot automatically stop paying spousal support if they believe the receiving party is cohabitating. First, the paying party must prove to the Court that the receiving party is cohabitating and receive permission to terminate the payments. This is often a very fact-intensive inquiry and often involves the help of a personal investigator. You will want to consult with an attorney to determine the likelihood of being successful on terminating spousal support based on cohabitation.
If you would like to pursue a modification to your spousal support, or if you would like to discuss whether you qualify to modify your support order, please contact our experienced family law attorneys at Pearson Butler. With decades of experience and the resources of a full-service law firm, our Utah lawyers can give you the hands-on, personalized, and compassionate legal assistance that you need during these proceedings.
Give us a call at (800) 265-2314 today or contact us online for more information.