Alimony can be a contentious issue in any divorce: whether it is warranted, how much payments should be, how long payments should continue. In some situations, “bridge-the-gap” alimony is awarded for a short time to help the person receiving it make the financial transition from married to single. Rehabilitative alimony might be used to help one spouse become self-supporting again after the divorce. Other circumstances might call for durational alimony or permanent periodic alimony, depending on the length of the marriage. Alimony payments may go on for years. What happens if an alimony award that was appropriate when made needs to change? Can alimony be modified after divorce in Florida?
The answer, as with so many questions about spousal support, is “it depends.” It depends on the type of alimony. It depends on the reason one party is asking for a modification. Last but not least, it depends on the language in your divorce decree, and the strength of the argument your attorney can put forth for your position.
When Alimony Cannot Be Modified
There are a few circumstances in which alimony simply cannot be modified after divorce. One of these is if it was not granted in the divorce in the first place. There are procedural reasons for this; after the divorce is final, the court does not have jurisdiction (authority) to go back and litigate a new issue.
If you think that you might need alimony in the future, but your spouse argues that they can't afford to pay it so there's no point in asking the court for an alimony award, you may still have an option. You might agree to settle for a nominal award of alimony. This means that you are agreeing to a small payment, perhaps only $1 or $5 per month. This might not be enough even for a meal, but it's enough to grant the court continuing jurisdiction over your alimony case. If things change enough to warrant asking the court to modify alimony (such as, your ex gets a big raise, or you lose your job) the court will at least have the power to grant your request.
Alimony also cannot be modified if you have agreed in your divorce settlement to make spousal support non-modifiable. Non-modifiable alimony is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have certainty that the amount will not go up or down, but you lose needed flexibility. If you are negotiating a settlement, talk to your attorney about the pros and cons of non-modifiable alimony. In addition to deciding whether alimony can be modifiable or not, you can also specify circumstances under which alimony might terminate early.
While you and your spouse can agree to non-modifiable alimony, if the court is making the decision whether to grant spousal support, it will never make that support non-modifiable. The court will always give itself continuing jurisdiction when it makes an alimony award.
As mentioned above, Florida has different types of categories of alimony for different situations. Some of these cannot be modified, or can be modified only in limited ways. “Bridge-the-gap” alimony cannot be modified either in amount or duration (though as the name suggests, this type of support is for a limited period anyway). Durational alimony may be modified as to the amount of payments, but the duration of payments is almost never modifiable. However, payments may terminate early if the person requesting the termination can show a good reason it should be granted.
When Alimony Can Be Modified
Just because an award of spousal support is technically modifiable under the law does not mean that it will be easy to do so. In order to request a modification of your alimony award, you must be prepared to show a substantial change in circumstances of either the person paying, the person receiving, or both. What makes a change “substantial?” Here are some of the things Florida courts have considered substantial in modification cases:
- Severe or chronic illness of one party
- Long-term unemployment of one party
- Financial windfall to one party, such as an inheritance or lottery winnings
- A large raise or move to a more lucrative job
- The paying party retires
- The party receiving support remarries, is cohabitating with someone, or is in a “supportive relationship” such that he or she is getting financial support from a romantic partner
Not any increase in expenses or decrease in income will justify a modification of alimony. For instance, if a party voluntarily quits a job and is unemployed or underemployed without a good reason, the court may decline to modify spousal support.
Some cases are more cut-and-dried than others, obviously; if a person paying alimony suffers a serious injury that makes them unable to work and means they suddenly have large medical bills, that is a pretty strong case for modifying alimony. Many cases are less clear, and could go either way. In those situations, it is especially important to have the help of an experienced Florida spousal support attorney. An experienced attorney will be able to evaluate the strength of your case for modification and present your petition in the most favorable light possible for the judge. If you have questions about modification of alimony in South Florida, please contact us at The Florida Divorce Law Group.