Alimony (Spousal Support) Modification is a court-ordered change in spousal support. It occurs most often if there is a substantial change of circumstances in the supporting spouse's ability to pay, or in the needs of the recipient. Modification can increase or decrease the amount or length of an alimony award. Regulations about alimony modification vary from state to state.

Reasons for alimony modification

A variety of events may call for an alimony modification. These include:

  • An increase or involuntary decrease in the supporting spouse's income
  • An increase or decrease in the recipient's income
  • An increase in the cost of living
  • A disability that affects either spouse
  • A financial emergency (for example, a large medical bill) that affects either spouse
  • The recipient's loss of his or her home
  • The recipient's cohabitation with another person
  • The remarriage of the supporting spouse
  • A change in state laws

Alimony ends at the death of either spouse. In most states, alimony may also end when the recipient remarries or registers as a domestic partner unless terms for continuing alimony are included in the divorce settlement.

The process of alimony modification

Either party can petition the court for alimony modification at any time. In most states, if there was a modification in the past, a new petition can't be filed for a set period of time.

To revise alimony orders, the court first must rule that there has been a change in circumstances. The court looks at the recipient's needs, the recipient's ability to provide for those needs, and the supporting spouse's ability to maintain the recipient's standard of living.

The party that petitions for modification bears the burden of proof in court. That means the petitioner must fully disclose his or her financial situation, including tax records, before the court examines the other spouse's financial situation.

If the parties reach an agreement, a judge can approve a modification without going to trial. Both parties may need legal counsel if the case goes to trial.

Other means of alimony modification

Former spouses may include a provision in their divorce settlement that specifies when and how alimony can be modified. They may attach a cost of living adjustment (COLA) clause that increases alimony payments equal to the increase in cost of living. A less common addition is an escalator clause that increases alimony payments in accordance with an increase in the supporting spouse's earnings.

Alimony can increase or decrease temporarily if either former spouse becomes ill, loses his or her job, or experiences other hardships. Payments revert back to the original amount after a specific period of time.

Additional resources:

About.com: Modifying Spousal Support/Alimony

Washington State Legislature: Modification of Decree for Maintenance or Support

Divorce Source: Termination/Modification of Alimony

Related legal guides:

Paying Alimony

Alimony Pendente Lite