Each state’s courts have different rules and polices regarding the discretion of judges to award alimony. Usually this question is brought up during the initial divorce proceedings. But, it is sometimes possible to address this issue again at a later date. Typically, this requires a showing of a change in circumstances by the spouse requesting alimony.
By way of background, alimony is a form of spousal support one former spouse makes to the other after divorce. The point of alimony was to keep one spouse from a sudden negative change of life quality as a result of the divorce, such as the stay at home mother who sacrificed a career to care for the children and now has little means of providing for herself. As the saying goes, it is intended to keep one of the former spouses from going from “the penthouse to the gutter.” During the initial divorce, spouses can agree upon alimony payments and judges rarely adjust these agreements when entering a final ruling on the divorce. If there is no agreement, the court is able to look at the financial evidence of each spouse – their ability to pay, earn, and their respective need – and then make a determination on its own as to who gets what. In the modern setting, where both men and women commonly pursue lifelong careers and have increasingly equal earning opportunities, most courts will only award alimony payments on a “rehabilitative” (i.e., temporary) basis. Rehabilitative alimony payments stop either by a set time or when the spouse receiving the rehabilitative alimony is able to become self-sufficient or remarries. In some jurisdictions, even “no fault” ones, courts can consider factors such as relative fault in the dissolution, education, and other factors relative to earning ability and whether a party deserves the support.
If, however, one does not ask for or receive alimony during the initial divorce proceedings, but subsequently finds additional need for support, it is possible to revisit the issue. To do this, most jurisdictions require the former spouse in need of the new alimony to show “changed circumstances.” If the original divorce came about as the result of an agreement between the parties, it will take a fairly significant showing of cause as to why the court should set aside what amounts to a contract between the former spouses. This would be a substantial change in personal and financial circumstances, and probably not of the requesting spouse’s creation. For example, being laid off from a job might qualify, but choosing not to work would probably not. The requesting spouse should show that the alimony must be modified because of new and unforeseeable circumstances that arose after the divorce and were not foreseen prior to the final ruling. If the alimony determination was made by the court, and not as a result of an agreement, the threshold will often be a little lower, but the evidence which must be offered will be the same. Unlike in the instance of an amendment after an agreement, a party will usually not have to show that the change in circumstances was unforeseeable at the time of the divorce in the case of a court ordered alimony determination.