How to Reduce or Even Eliminate Alimony

By Jennifer Williams

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As the economy declines and jobs are cut across the country, many individuals who pay alimony to their former spouses are finding it harder and harder to meet their court-ordered obligations. In such cases, it may be time to seek a reduction in the amount owed, or even to eliminate the spousal support payments altogether. Most states will consider reduction or elimination of alimony based on a substantial change in the circumstances of one or both former spouses.

Procedure to Modify or Terminate Alimony

A modification or termination of alimony starts with a petition to the court that issued the original divorce decree. In addition to personal information about both former spouses, the petition must ask the court to modify the original decree by either reducing or eliminating the monthly alimony payment. The petition must also detail a substantial change in financial circumstances of either party making the modification or termination necessary. The petition must be served on the other spouse. While courts can order a reduction or elimination of alimony retroactively to the date the petition was filed, the regular amounts must be paid pending the final court order reducing or eliminating payments.

Substantial Change in Payor's Circumstances

States are fairly uniform in what they consider a substantial change in circumstances for purposes of modifying or eliminating alimony. Generally, a substantial change includes job loss, inability to find work, reduction in pay, failing health affecting an ability to earn a living and excessive debt. A former spouse seeking reduction or elimination of alimony must prove the substantial change that justifies the modification. Attached to the motion should be copies of documents that prove the substantial change. For example, termination or lay-off papers as proof of job loss; pay stubs to prove a pay reduction; emails, letters and copies of resume submissions to prove a consistent attempt to find work; medical bills and doctor reports to prove illness or injury; and credit card statements and any creditor law suits to prove an excessive debt load.

Remarriage and Cohabitation

Remarriage of the spouse who receives spousal support usually terminates alimony altogether. However, many courts across the country have started reducing or eliminating alimony even without remarriage when the receiving spouse begins a live-in relationship. When a former spouse who is receiving alimony payments begins a live-in relationship with an individual who contributes to the household, and thus to the support of the former spouse, courts consider this a supportive relationship. They will consider the monetary support derived from this relationship when entertaining a motion by the paying spouse to reduce or eliminate alimony.

Settlement Agreements

When alimony is originally established in a marital settlement agreement, the agreement must reserve the court's jurisdiction to later modify alimony in order for the court to maintain jurisdiction. Otherwise, the settlement agreement stands as the final alimony agreement. If the settlement agreement does reserve jurisdiction to the family court for later modifications, the court is free to entertain a petition for modification at any time. It is best in these situations for the former spouses to modify the settlement agreement themselves and submit a mutually agreed-upon modification to the court. This eliminates any need for a hearing or trial on the facts proving a substantial change of circumstances and expedites the modification process.