Spousal Support Modification

January 31, 2024 | By Doppelt and Forney
Spousal Support Modification

One critical financial arrangement involved in a divorce is spousal support (or alimony)—that is, payments that one ex-spouse is legally obligated to provide periodically to the other ex-spouse following the divorce on an ongoing basis. And although divorce decrees often specify how and when spousal support will or may be terminated, spousal support may also be legally modified or terminated under other circumstances not stated in the decree.

If you are a payer ex-spouse and would like further information about the modification or termination of spousal support, the San Diego spousal support attorneys at Doppelt & Forney can help. We proudly serve people in San Diego, Chula Vista, Oceanside, Carlsbad, Vista, La Jolla, Point Loma, Coronado, Del Mar, Ramona, El Cajon, La Mesa, and other communities in the greater San Diego metropolitan area.

When Can Spousal Support Be Modified?

Today, men and women are regarded by divorce courts as equal economic partners and job market participants, even if during the marriage the couple fulfilled traditional roles. Thus, spousal support orders are intended to provide that the ex-spouses leave their marriage with relative economic parity by requiring, when necessary, that the higher-earning ex-spouse provide spousal support to the lower-earning ex-spouse until such time as that ex-spouse can reasonably be expected to achieve economic parity (or at least independence). This is especially a concern in a high-asset divorce in which one partner earned the vast majority of the couple’s income while the other stayed at home.

To this end, in most cases, courts will not only specify the amount of support but also include a termination date based upon the duration of the marriage (unless the marriage length is over 10 years), the relative earning capacity of the spouses, and other factors.

But California courts also recognize that the economic situation and status of either party can change from the expectations and status that exist at the time of the divorce. Consequently, California courts allow either ex-spouse to seek a modification of an existing support order when the circumstances warrant it. Our divorce attorneys can advocate for your position in these proceedings.

The standard for a modification is a “significant change of circumstances,” and the change must be essentially permanent (for the foreseeable future). Furthermore, a change in circumstances does not, by itself, justify the suspension, modification, or termination of spousal support obligations automatically. The obligation will continue in force until the court formally modifies the order, regardless of when the change occurred.

Some situations in which courts will grant a modification or termination of spousal support include:

  • When the payee ex-spouse is cohabitating with another person in an intimate relationship;
  • When the payer ex-spouse involuntarily loses a job or otherwise suffers a reduction in income that makes it impossible to meet the support obligation;
  • When the payee ex-spouse is not making an honest effort to become self-supporting; or
  • When the payee ex-spouse experiences an increase in income.

Since spousal support automatically terminates in the event of the payee ex-spouse’s remarriage, the cohabitation basis for termination is intended to preclude situations in which a payee ex-spouse engages in an intimate relationship just short of marriage in order to continue to receive support payments.

If the payer ex-spouse suffers a reduction in income, it must be involuntary. The payer ex-spouse cannot quit a job or take a demotion to reduce the support obligation. In addition, the payee ex-spouse is obligated to make some attempt to achieve economic independence. Once the need for support ends, the payer ex-spouse may petition for termination. Finally, while spousal support payments may be modified downward or terminated, the amount cannot normally be modified upward (absent fraud or misrepresentation), even if the income of the payer ex-spouse increases.

Can Spousal Support Be Terminated or Waived?

In San Diego Family Law Court, alimony [spousal support] can be waived and/or terminated. This is a very complex issue in the law and one which is fact-based as well as law code regulated. The first analysis is the discretion of the Court. Judges, in San Diego Superior Court in the Family Law Division for rulings on spousal support have wide discretion on almost all issues except duration in the limited instance of a marriage of more than 10 years. For marriages of length more than 10 years, the Judge does not have the legal authority per California Family Law Code 4336.

Retain a San Diego Lawyer to Protect Your Financial Interests

If you need to seek a modification of a spousal support order, whether due to a change in your own circumstances or a change in your ex-spouse’s circumstances, you should not hesitate to seek legal advice. Until an order is legally modified, whether it involves spousal support or child support or custody, you have no legal right to depart from its terms, regardless of your financial circumstances.

The sooner that you act to initiate the modification process, the better, since the process can take some time. For legal advice and assistance, call one of the San Diego attorneys at Doppelt & Forney, APLC, for a free in-person or virtual consultation at 800.769.4748 or contact us online.