Child support and alimony are fairly common issues in divorce that continue to affect the parties for years, or even decades, after the divorce is finalized. These obligations often place enormous financial strain on the payor when they must continue to cut their ex a check, particularly with such a fluid economy.
Fortunately, there are statutes that allow for a reduction or even termination of child support or alimony based on an individual’s circumstances.
These laws will vary by state, so it is important to consult a local family law attorney to determine whether you qualify to modify your obligation, but there are several factors that are commonly used by courts when looking to see if a reduction or end to the payments is needed.
Modifying child support
Having to pay child support is pretty much a given for any non-custodial parent, and it may even be awarded when there is equal parenting time as well. Since fathers are overwhelmingly the non-custodial parent, men who have divorced will more often than not be obligated to pay child support.
Each state will have a fairly strict formula used to determine the amount of child support that is needed, which generally factors in the number of children, the income of both parties, the number of overnights each parent has, as well as other relevant information. This formula will come up with a figure based off the data available at the time of divorce.
However, all of these factors can clearly change over time. To allow for variation in situation, most courts allow for you to file a petition for modification if there has been “a continuing and significant change of circumstances” since the original order was filed.
Common examples that most states take into consideration would be losing your job or having a significant decrease in earnings with little prospect of the situation changing, your ex receiving a significant increase in earnings, a change in your custody arrangement, etc. If you meet your state’s criteria, you may be eligible for a temporary or even permanent reduction in your support obligation.
It is very important to file immediately following a change in your financial circumstances, as you generally cannot receive any sort of reprieve in child support payments until the date of filing. That means if you lost your job in January and didn’t file for a modification until May, you will still be on the hook for full payments for those 5 months.
Terminating child support obligation
Child support is different from alimony in that there is almost always a specific end date – generally when the child reaches the age of majority and is no longer considered a minor. This age will vary by state between the ages of 18-21, though most use the standard of 18 years old and/or graduated from high school.
It is also important to note that courts can order support to continue past the age of majority and often will under special circumstances, such as your child having a mental or physical disability or if your child continues to pursue higher education.
Additionally, children can be considered emancipated before they reach the age of majority for your state. Some of these reasons include marriage, military service or the child becoming financially independent, though you will need to prove the child is truly emancipated to end the obligation.
Finally, you need to realize that when your child meets the criteria to be considered emancipated that your support obligation will not necessarily end automatically. While that may be the case for some states, others will require that you file a motion with the courts to formally end the obligation.
You must be sure to research how your state handles terminating child support to confirm that you follow the proper procedure.
Although you cannot assume alimony will be a factor in the majority of divorces, it likely will become an issue if there is a significant income gap between both parties.
Unlike the strict formulas that govern child support calculations, the judge is often left with far more leeway in determining alimony amount and duration. Most states include guidelines that include factors like the length of marriage, each spouse’s income potential, role in marriage and standard of living. However, predicting the type, amount and length of obligation can be difficult.
If you are required to pay alimony, it is often possible to modify your obligation to account for a change in your situation — similar to the process for modifying child support — by showing there has been a significant change in circumstances. This becomes much easier if your decree includes language specifying reasons that may necessitate a reduction.
You should also be aware that where you live, the type of alimony you have been ordered to pay and how the order is worded may affect whether you can modify the obligation, so it is recommended that you meet with a local attorney to determine whether you meet your state’s qualifications for modification.
Terminating alimony obligation
While terminating child support generally means just waiting until your child is emancipated, it is sometimes far less clear-cut when your alimony obligation will come to an end.
Again, much depends on where you live and the whether you are paying temporary, rehabilitative, lump sum, permanent or some other variation of alimony required by your state.
The grounds for terminating alimony will depend on the laws of your jurisdiction, but most states include remarriage of the receiving spouse as grounds to terminate the obligation. You may also be able to end the obligation if your ex becomes financially self-supportive. Additionally, many states will also consider cohabitation as a grounds for ending the award to prevent the third party from benefiting.
Ending alimony early due to cohabitation is often more difficult to prove than remarriage, as you will need to demonstrate that a change of circumstances has occurred and then display proof of financial co-dependency. This can include shared bank accounts, filing joint taxes, bills and everyday living expenses are shared, sharing a residence, etc.
While proving your ex is living in a marriage-like relationship is harder if she tries to hide the fact, it is not impossible and is often worth consulting with an attorney to see if there is enough evidence to move forward with a petition to end the obligation.
It is extremely important to include very explicit language in the section of your decree defining the details of your alimony agreement with specific examples of when and how the obligation will end.
You will generally be given a stated amount of time you are required to pay based on your circumstances — whether it is one year, three years or 30 years — but it is important to include clear stipulations that will end the obligation early.
Child support and alimony are two aspects of divorce that can continue to be a burden payors down the line if their financial situation changes, so it is important that you know under what circumstances it is possible to modify the agreement and how your state handles lowering or terminating these payments.
Always seek the advice of an experienced family law attorney from your jurisdiction to determine whether it is possible to lower your payments or end the obligation altogether. It may end up saving you a ton in the long run, as you can be certain your ex will not initiate a change that will end a monthly check in the mail.
Mat Camp is a former Lexicon Services Online Editor, who focused on providing a comprehensive look into all aspects of the divorce experience. On MensDivorce.com, he concentrated on issues, such as parenting time, custodial rights, mediation, the division of assets, and so much more.
Mr. Camp used the wealth of experience of Cordell & Cordell attorneys to bring tangible answers to reader questions in Ask a Lawyer articles, as well as offer a step by step process through the divorce experience with Cordell & Cordell Co-Founder and Principal Partner Joseph E. Cordell in Divorce 101: A Guide for Men.
Mr. Camp used thorough research to highlight the challenging reality that those who go through divorce or child custody issues face. He helped foster the continued success of the Men’s Divorce Survival Guide, the Men’s Divorce Podcast, and the Men’s Divorce YouTube series “Attorney Bites.”