Can I Modify My Spousal Support Payments?

Wedding rings on a stack of money - modify spousal support concept

Michigan spousal support payments are supposed to be fair and equitable, allowing both spouses to transition to living independently. But changes in circumstances after your Judgment of Divorce is entered can leave you paying too much, or receiving too little. When that happens, you may need to modify your spousal support payments to make ends meet. However, if you and your spouse agreed to make the amount and/or duration of your spousal support payments non-modifiable, this may not be possible: check with your attorney.

Can You Modify Spousal Support After a Judgment of Divorce is Entered?

Like child custody and child support orders, spousal support (sometimes called alimony) can generally be changed even after the Judgment of Divorce is final. In most cases the Michigan family court “retains jurisdiction” over your spousal support award after it is entered, and can sign a new Uniform Spousal Support Order modifying:

  • Adjusting how much is paid
  • Changing how long the payments continue
  • Adding or removing payments made directly to third parties (such as paying the other party’s health insurance, landlord or mortgage lender)
  • Terminating spousal support altogether

A post-judgment motion to modify spousal support needs to be based on some change in circumstances since the judgment happened. You and your divorce attorney need to be prepared to show what has changed and why it is necessary to change the support order. And just because your circumstances have changed does not mean your ex-spouse’s circumstances have stayed the same: beware, as you may end up worse off than you were before if you go down this path due to an even more exigent change in your ex-spouse’s circumstances.

Temporary Spousal Support vs “Permanent” Spousal Support

If you need help paying your bills while your Michigan divorce case is pending, your divorce attorney may file a motion for temporary spousal support early in the divorce process. When entered, a temporary spousal support order requires your spouse to pay a certain amount per month until your Judgment of Divorce is entered. It automatically ends at the end of your divorce case. Be sure to specify whether these interim payments will count towards the ultimate spousal support obligation, otherwise, you could end up paying or receiving more or less than you anticipated.

That’s when your final spousal support kicks in. This is a part of your final Judgment of Divorce. If there is no end date, or if your spousal support is labeled “permanent”, , spousal support doesn’t always last until a party dies, although it can if properly specified. If it is “permanent” alimony, it continues after the case is over until the Court modifies or terminates the award unless you and your spouse agree using the proper legal language that the award will be non-modifiable by lasting until the death of one of the parties. However, your final alimony payment may be awarded for a certain period of time (generally measured in months), or until certain events happen:

  • Death of the person paying support
  • Death of the person receiving support
  • Remarriage of the person receiving support
  • Cohabitation (which should be defined) of the person receiving support (in some orders, not all)
  • Completion of a college degree (with an end date in case the endeavor drags on longer than anticipated)
  • Full-time enrollment of young children in school

Even permanent spousal support can be modified if there has been a change of circumstances and the Court believes making the change is equitable unless you have properly agreed to non-modifiable spousal support

Alimony in Gross: Not Really Spousal Support at All

If you are considering trying to modify an “alimony” award that you have been ordered to pay all at once, or in a set number of monthly payments, be sure to read your Judgment very carefully. Some attorneys and judges call cash payments from one spouse to another – such as buying out one spouse’s interest in the equity of the marital home – “alimony in gross.” However, that name is deceptive. When these payments are made to balance the property interests of the parties rather than provide assistance to the recipient spouse, “alimony in gross” isn’t actually alimony at all. Instead, it is a part of the property division, and generally not something that can be modified after the fact. Your attorney may recommend this because, generally speaking, alimony is not dischargeable in bankruptcy and this is a way to secure installment property payments.

Special Considerations When You Change an Alimony Agreement

Most divorce cases don’t go to trial. More than 90% of divorce actions end in settlement. There are lots of good reasons to agree to a Consent Judgment of Divorce. One of them is that it gives you more control when and how your spousal support payments can be changed. Michigan family court judges are not allowed to award non-modifiable spousal support. However, because settlement agreements are contracts, there is nothing stopping two parties from agreeing to a set monthly payment with no conditions for change. If your alimony agreement specifically says that the award is non-modifiable and that you are waiving your right to modify spousal support despite the statutory right to modify the term and amount of alimony upon a qualifying change in circumstances, then the Court will enforce the payments, even if you can’t afford it. In short, a deal’s a deal and the Court won’t likely bail you out if you predicted your needs, income or other variables incorrectly when agreeing to non-modifiable support.

When to File a Motion to Modify Spousal Support

If you need to reduce your spousal support payment or increase the amount you receive, you must file a post-judgment motion to modify spousal support. You should consider filing a motion to modify support if you:

  • Retire and no longer receive wage income
  • Lose your job
  • Find out your ex-spouse’s income has increased significantly
  • Become disabled
  • Learn the recipient spouse has remarried or is living with a romantic partner
  • Are facing additional mandatory expenses (i.e. union dues)

In general, judges will not reduce your spousal support payments (or increase the amount you receive) if you voluntarily reduce your income (the exception being that few courts will require you to continue working past retirement age). If you are “voluntarily underemployed” the court can assume you would otherwise be able to find a job in your field at the going market rate. At a minimum, courts will assume most people can get a minimum-wage job unless you have evidence that you are medically disabled.

One mistake many clients make is waiting too long to file their motion. Generally, the Court will not extend any payment modifications back before your motion is filed. If you wait hoping, for example, that you’ll get a new job quickly, you could end up with an arrearage and interest based on the higher alimony award. Instead, you should file your motion to modify alimony as soon as the life change is final. Even if you and your former spouse take the time to negotiate an adjustment, that amount can be effective as of the date of your motion, which will prevent unpaid balances from adding up.

Contact an Experienced Family Law Attorney

At NSSSB, our divorce attorneys know how hard it can be to pay too much for spousal support, or receive too little in alimony. Our Southeast Michigan family law attorneys help our clients reach fair and equitable alimony agreements, and are happy to file motions to modify spousal support when life changes. We want to make sure you are supported, even after the divorce is over. Click here to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.

Categories: Family Law Blog