Modifying Spousal Maintenance Awards
Transitioning from a two-income household down to one, following divorce, is a large adjustment for most individuals. In most instances, though, each party is able to financially support himself or herself, excluding child support, without contribution from the former spouse. However, maintenance, or spousal support, is sometimes necessary to sustain a former spouse while he or she, for example, gains new skills or training to make him or her more employable.
Illinois amended the laws on spousal maintenance in 2015 to make these awards more predictable by removing any subjectivity on the amount and duration of the maintenance obligation — although, a Court's obligation to first determine if maintenance is appropriate remains the same. A set formula now determines how much and for how long maintenance awards will be, and only marriages of 20 years or more are eligible for permanent maintenance, which is left to the Court's discretion to decide.
However, even though maintenance awards are easier to predict under the new provisions, changes may occur once the Court order is in place that justify a modification or cancellation. Someone subject to pay maintenance should not be locked into this obligation if circumstances make this arrangement untenable or unfair.
When Maintenance May Be Modified or Terminated
In order to modify a maintenance order, one or both parties must experience a "substantial change in circumstances." The law does not provide an explanation for what constitutes a substantial change, leaving Courts to use their discretion on this issue.
An example of a situation that could justify modification would be a high-earning spouse quitting his or her job to pursue a lifelong passion that pays very little. However, despite the absence of a definition on what counts as a substantial change, the law does direct the Court to consider certain factors as part of the decision-making process, including a reconsideration of the factors initially used to decide if maintenance was necessary and appropriate. Additional factors specifically relevant to modifications include:
- A change in employment for either party, and whether the change was made in good faith, i.e., did the person quit his or her job to avoid paying support obligations;
- Whether the party receiving support made reasonable efforts to become self-supporting;
- Present and future impairment to either party's earning capacity;
- Any increases or decreases in income for either party since the last time the Court considered the maintenance award; and
- Any property purchased and currently owned by both parties since the divorce decree was issued.
By considering the factors noted above, the Court can form a picture of the financial resources of each party, and use that information to decide if the maintenance award in its present form makes sense from both a financial and fairness point-of-view.
When Maintenance Automatically Ends
The person ordered to pay maintenance rarely feels the Court's decision is entirely fair, but the law does recognize that a continued obligation to pay support would be obviously unjust under certain circumstances, and automatically terminates the maintenance award as a result. First, for obvious reasons, if either party dies, the support obligation ends. Further, in the interest of fairness, a maintenance award is automatically terminated if the party receiving the support remarries, or lives with another person as if married. As with many issues related to divorce and family, the standard provisions are there as a guide, but the parties are free to agree on a different outcome and maintenance awards are no different.
Get Legal Advice
Modifying a maintenance award is not a cut and dry issue, so an experienced Barrington family law attorney is needed to determine if a particular set of circumstances is likely to convince a Judge to make a change. The Law Office of Nicholas W. Richardson, P.C. understands how important this issue is to both parties, and is there to help demystify the legal progress. If you have a family law issue, and live in northwest Chicagoland, contact the office today for a free consultation.