Your financial situation at the time of a divorce isn’t likely to stay the same forever, and may drastically change over time. Arrangements with your ex that made sense months or years ago may no longer work now. From pandemics disrupting the economy to unexpected health changes, there are plenty of reasons why you might need to update spousal maintenance (also known as alimony or spousal support). Modifying existing alimony isn’t always easy, however, and a court may deny the change if you can’t prove it is financially required.
When and How to Change an Alimony Agreement
Changes to spousal maintenance, either by decreasing or increasing payments, don’t typically occur automatically. That’s true even if you or your former spouse experience extreme changes to income or other life circumstances. Modifying a spousal maintenance agreement requires going through the process of officially petitioning a court for approval.
That petition must be submitted regardless of whether the current spousal maintenance amount was set by an agreement between the two of you or ordered by the court in a contested divorce. New York only allows you to file petitions for alimony changes at specific times, however. Under normal circumstances, either the paying or receiving ex-spouse can request a change to an existing spousal support order once every three years.
There are other times in-between that three-year minimum when a modification can be successfully made based on extenuating circumstances like:
- Disability or significant illness
- Complete job loss
- Significant reduction in pay (typically 15% or more)
- Former spouse remarries or is in a long-term cohabitating relationship
- Former spouse becomes financially independent and no longer needs support
Essentially, you can ask for a change any time there is a financial hardship or a substantial change to overall circumstances for either the paying spouse or the receiving spouse.
Why You Need to Consult an Attorney Before Requesting a Change
There are several stipulations and potential pitfalls to keep in mind that you should discuss with an attorney before requesting a change. Keep in mind that spousal maintenance changes solely affect ongoing monetary payments. They have no effect on the distribution of property or other non-cash assets that were decided on at the time of the divorce or ordered by the court.
No matter why the spousal support change is needed, don’t ever take it on yourself to stop paying or to pay a smaller amount in anticipation of the court accepting the petition. You must continue paying the current maintenance amount until the modification is approved or there could be serious consequences. You don’t want to put yourself in legal or financial jeopardy by breaking the terms of an existing agreement.
It’s important to understand that not all petitions for changes are successful, which is another important reason to consult a legal professional ahead of time. Retiring from your job, for instance, doesn’t always guarantee you can reduce or eliminate the amount you pay in spousal maintenance. If you receive a large pension payout or some or other retirement benefit, a judge may decide you still have the financial capability to continue the current payments.
Cohabitation rather than remarriage is also a special circumstance decided on a case-by-case basis. If your former spouse is living with a new partner for an extended period and behaving as though they were married, regardless of whether a marriage certificate is actually involved, you can still petition to terminate spousal maintenance. In those cases, the court may decide your ex is effectively “remarried” and financially self-sufficient.
Talk to an Experienced Divorce Lawyer First
Whether you are paying or receiving spousal support, you need legal help anytime life circumstances force a change to your financial situation. Having an attorney on your side who understands the ins and outs of spousal maintenance is critical to protecting yourself and your family. Call to set up a consultation with Theodore Alatsas today so we can learn about your situation and find out how to meet your needs.