Back to the Basics: Florida Family Law – Modifying Alimony
Going through a divorce is generally a stressful process, even if both parties agree to a mutual end of the marriage. The legal considerations of a divorce do not end as soon as the court makes a final judgment. Awards of support, among other things, may bring legal effects that impact the parties long after the divorce is granted. Alimony, or spousal support, is one such instance. While the general purpose of alimony is to assist a party in need of support, there are times when the supporting party might be unable to continue making payments. In such cases, the supporting party would seek to obtain an order of modification from the court, decreasing that party’s support obligations. As with most other aspects of the law, however, the outcome of the case depends on the facts.
Under Florida statute 61.14, a party may obtain modification of a support order if there has been a material change in circumstances. This change in circumstances must not only be substantial but must also be permanent and unanticipated. An example of such a change would be a significant loss in income and earning capacity due to serious illness. However, if the court finds that the supporting party has intentionally reduced his income, then the court will not award modification of the alimony obligation, and will require the supporting party to continue making payments as originally ordered. Naturally, this is to prevent disgruntled parties from interfering with the alimony judgment.
Another ground for modifying alimony is when the supported spouse cohabits with, and is in a supportive relationship with a third party. This third party cannot be related to the supported spouse by blood or affinity. Furthermore the nature and the extent of the relationship with the third party is important to such a determination and the court will consider economic support, pooling of assets and sharing of property among other factors.
Parties may waive statutory right to seek modification of alimony. If the waiver is clear and unambiguous, it will be upheld. A recent Florida case, Elbaum v. Elbaum, highlights the difficulties that might arise when the parties agree to restrict the modification of alimony.
The Elbaum Case
In this case, a couple who had filed for divorce, made a provision regarding support in their settlement agreement. In the agreement, they stated that alimony could not be modified absent an unexpected circumstance affecting Mr. Elbaum’s employment or health. Mr. Elbaum attempted to argue that his alimony obligations expired because his wife had been cohabiting with another man, but the court found otherwise. The court found that a Marital Settlement Agreement is a contract subject to interpretation like any other contract and therefore, unless ambiguous, should be interpreted according to its plain meaning. The court looked to the provision in the Elbaum’s support agreement restricting modification, and held that both Mr. and Mrs. Elbaum clearly waived their statutory rights to seek modification unless the grounds were for unforeseen circumstances relating to the former husband’s health or business. Mr. Elbaum therefore could not proceed on statutory grounds for modification.
While one might wonder why anyone would restrict their ability to modify an award of alimony, it is important to keep in mind that a supported party would also be precluded from modifying the award in such a scenario. Absent a provision restricting modification, a supported party may seek modification of the alimony payments if he/she can show that his/her needs have increased and that his/her former spouse has the ability to meet the increased need.
It should however be noted that “bridge the gap” alimony which is awarded to meet short term needs as a result of transitioning to being single, may not be modified.
Contact a Family Law Attorney
While navigating the ins and outs of divorce can be complicated and stressful, you do not have to do it alone. If you are considering divorce, or your spouse has already filed for divorce, then contact a dedicated, experienced attorney at The Law Office of Natalie D. Hall, PA for a case evaluation.