How to Lower Alimony
by Francesca Toledo, J.D.
Many marriages end with an order for alimony payments from one spouse to another that last a specific amount of time after the divorce. In some cases, alimony payments can be permanent. When your life diverges from the circumstances in which alimony was first determined, you may need to lower spousal support.
You can potentially lower alimony payments, especially if your alimony agreement doesn’t say otherwise. In most cases you need to go to court to show how new circumstances should change your alimony, although sometimes this can be done by consent with your ex.
If your ex agrees to changes, then a judge will likely approve them. If not, you will have the chance to prove why reduced alimony is warranted. Getting your alimony lowered can be a difficult endeavor, but it is possible.
Steps to Reducing or Modifying Alimony
Paying alimony to your ex-spouse can become more draining each year. It can make matters worse if you have gotten remarried and are trying to balance your new responsibilities with alimony payments.
Regardless of why you want to lower alimony payments, it is recommended that you first check your alimony agreement. If it can be modified, you will need to come to an agreement with your ex or prepare to prove to a judge that there has been a substantial change in circumstance.
Check Your Alimony Agreement
Most alimony agreements specifically address these three important topics:
- When Payments End: Payments can end on a specific date, go on indefinitely, or coincide with an event such as the remarriage of either spouse.
- When Changes Are Allowed: Alimony can sometimes be changed after a specific date or after certain events like the loss of a job or serious injury.
- If Non-Modifiable: Some divorce agreements stipulate that alimony cannot be increased or decreased for any reason. This is common for time-limited alimony.
Show a Change in Circumstances
If your divorce settlement agreement or alimony order doesn’t specify a specific date that alimony can be modified, then ex-spouses can generally ask for a modification of alimony payments at any time. Some spouses can reach an agreement on their own and then have their plan approved by a judge.
If you cannot agree with your spouse, most family courts require that you show a significant change in the financial circumstances of you or your spouse before they will grant a reduction in alimony payments. During the discovery phase of the trial, you and your spouse can request financial information such as pay stubs and bank account information.
Can Non-Modifiable Alimony Be Terminated?
Many times, the court lacks the authority to change a non-modifiable agreement no matter how indigent your circumstances become. However, a spouse who is owed alimony can choose to accept changes to the agreement. A family lawyer will have experience in making the situation clear.
Common Reasons to Request Modification of Alimony
Not all reasons for modification of alimony are considered “good reasons”. Requesting changes is half the battle, but approval is not guaranteed. While the particulars differ in each state, there are a few common reasons which ex-spouses use to request a reduction in alimony payments:
Unemployment is one of the most commonly cited reasons for changed alimony payments. Alimony orders were likely based on the amount of money you would have made at your job. If your ability to make the same payments has been compromised, a court will understand your request.
It is imperative to remember that the courts will require that you show an “unanticipated change” in financial circumstances to justify a modification of payments. Most courts do not consider quitting your job as a reason to justify reduced payments.
Courts will sometimes grant a temporary reduction in alimony until you have been able to find comparable employment. If your new job pays you less, you can petition the courts to temporarily or permanently reduce alimony payments to reflect your new income levels.
Losing your job is not the only way that your income can be significantly lowered. A family court judge can potentially agree to lower alimony payments if you’re no longer earning your “normal income”. This can occur for reasons like:
- You work in sales and your income has dropped as a result of market forces.
- You are no longer physically able to work in the same capacity that you did before.
- Your sources of recurring revenue, like investments in stocks or properties, have decreased
Your Ex-Spouse Is Making More Money Than You
A common theme with requests for modification of alimony is the spouse that was initially receiving alimony is now making more money than the spouse making the payments. This could be due to them starting a business, getting a promotion, entering into a new field, or receiving an inheritance.
Regardless of the reasons for your spouse’s increased income, if you request a modification under such circumstances, it is possible that it will be approved. If your income has gone up at the same time as your spouse’s income has, it can be more difficult to justify a modification of alimony payments.
Your Spouse Gets Remarried or is Cohabiting With Another Person
Many alimony agreements and orders stipulate that alimony payments end if the ex-spouse receiving alimony gets remarried. Some people attempt to get around that rule by cohabitating with a romantic partner for years at a time. Fortunately, the court is allowed to see through this situation.
Some states allow alimony payments to be reduced or terminated if there is proof that the spouse receiving alimony payments is cohabitating with another person like they are married.
Most states recognize age 65 as an expected time for retirement. Once you are ready to retire, you can request that your alimony payments be reduced or ended. Some alimony agreements stipulate what happens at retirement. If not, courts do take into consideration your pension, 401k, and other sources of retirement income before deciding on your request.
Other Reasons To Reduce Alimony Payments
There are dozens of reasons why a judge would potentially approve your modification of an alimony request. Some less common reasons include:
- Payee spouse receiving a significant gift, reward, or award
- Developing a disability that significantly affects your ability to earn income
- You lost your job while participating in a strike
- There has been a change in tax laws that have negatively affected your income
- You have been sent to jail or prison
- Your ex-spouse has passed away
- The overall living expenses of your ex-spouse has decreased
Why Would a Judge Deny a Request to Lower Alimony?
Just because you request to have your alimony reduced, it doesn’t mean that a judge is obligated to approve it. If you cannot show a significant change in circumstances to justify a reduction, a judge will likely deny your request.
In many cases, if it is proven that there is a voluntary component to lowering your alimony (like purposefully reducing your salary by quitting your job) then it’s unlikely that your alimony obligation will be reduced. Even if you lost your job but have not seriously looked for new employment, a judge may deny your request.
Stopping spousal support payments on your own can also have negative consequences. You could be penalized by the court for doing so. A lawyer can give you guidance on how to do this with the least amount of impact on your rights.
If your ex agrees to any change, you’ll need to get it in writing from them. Remember that anything you’ve discussed can go to court in the future, and you’ll want to have proof.
It’s important to speak with a divorce lawyer before requesting a modification of alimony, early on in the process, so that you can best position yourself to meet any local requirements.
How Long Does Alimony Typically Last?
The amount of time a spouse is ordered to pay alimony will depend on how long you were married to your ex and other factors. In general, short-term marriages (less than 10 years) can lead to alimony payments of 2 – 5 years.
In long-term marriages (i.e. more than 20 years) a family court judge could order alimony payments until the death of either spouse or a remarriage. If you have been ordered to pay alimony indefinitely, you may still be able to modify the payments. However, you will be required to justify your reason for requesting lowered payments.
You are not required to hire a divorce lawyer to help you lower alimony payments. However, doing so can significantly increase your chances of a favorable ruling. A divorce lawyer with experience in alimony modifications can help you draft a new agreement, negotiate with your ex-spouse, and represent you in court (if needed).