A spousal support or alimony agreement is not necessarily set in stone, even if it's been in operation for years. Significant changes in the lives of one or both parties can necessitate a modification of the agreement. However, the former spouses must take specific steps to validate the changes. Here's what you need to know.
Alimony in Pennsylvania
No one is automatically entitled to alimony in Pennsylvania. Either the parties come to an agreement on a support arrangement during divorce mediation proceedings, or the court will decide to award a spouse alimony after examining the facts.
Three categories of alimony exist under Pennsylvania law. The first is “spousal support.” This form of support refers to the money one spouse pays to the other during a separation but before formally filing for divorce. Spousal support can last indefinitely if the parties never file for divorce or one party remarries, cohabitates, or dies. If a party files for divorce, a spousal support award can be converted into the second form of alimony, “alimony pendent lite.”
Alimony pendent lite (APL) is the form of support a court may award to a dependent spouse after a divorce petition has been filed. An APL's purpose is to help the recipient spouse with their expenses throughout the divorce process. ALP can be limited to a specific period or may terminate if the independent spouse can show the court that the recipient spouse is intentionally delaying the divorce process to keep receiving alimony payments. ALP generally ends if the recipient spouse cohabitates or remarries.
The final form of support is the traditional post-divorce “alimony” familiar to most people. Pennsylvania courts must consider a long list of factors when determining whether to grant an alimony award. However, the four most critical areas the court examines are the length of the marriage, the size of the marital estate, the division of the assets, and whether the recipient spouse has significant assets separate from the marital estate.
As with ALP, post-divorce alimony terminates if the receiving spouse remarries or cohabitates or if the contributing spouse dies. Otherwise, the court decides how long alimony continues. It's often said that there's an unwritten “rule of thumb” in Pennsylvania that a spouse entitled to alimony will receive one year of alimony for every three years of marriage. However, this is no bright-line rule, and the court may decide that a spouse is entitled to alimony for more years or less.
How to Modify an Alimony Agreement in Pennsylvania
Either party may seek a modification, suspension, or termination of a court-ordered alimony agreement. The person seeking the change must be prepared to show that a substantial difference in the circumstances requires the modification. Such circumstances may be the remarriage or cohabitation of the recipient. But often, the substantial difference relates to an unanticipated change in the financial situation of one of the parties.
For example, if the contributing ex-spouse involuntarily loses their job or becomes gravely ill and cannot afford the current alimony payments, they may petition for a modification. On the other hand, if a contributing spouse has received a substantial boost in income, the recipient spouse may seek a modification to increase the amount of the support payments. In most cases, the court will only grant a modification if the change is not only substantial but a long-term or permanent situation.
To request an alimony modification, a party must file a motion to modify or terminate alimony with their local county court clerk. Once the motion is filed, the court will schedule a hearing, during which the judge will listen to both parties. The ex-spouse who brought the motion must show proof of the substantial changes that necessitate a modification. The opposing spouse must be ready to argue why no change is necessary. If the evidence persuades the court of a material change, the judge will modify the order retroactively from the motion's filing date.
If both parties agree on the modifications, you do not have to file a motion or make a court appearance. You can write down the agreed-upon changes and submit the document to the court for approval. The court will only accept the agreement if it clearly states what terms are being modified, the new amount agreed upon, and the net income of both parties. The document must also be signed by both parties and notarized.
Modifying a Non-Court-Ordered Alimony Agreement
If you and your former spouse reached an alimony agreement that was not court-ordered, modifying it might be more complicated. If you both fully agree on the changes, you can simply proceed with the new terms without notifying the court. However, if you and your ex disagree on a proposed modification, the court may not be able to intervene.
Under section 3105(c) of the Pennsylvania divorce code, when the parties have reached a non-court ordered agreement concerning “property rights… alimony, alimony pendente lite…[the agreement] shall not be subject to modification by the court.”
That said, if the agreement specifically states that a court may modify it in the event of a disagreement, a party may file a modification petition, and the court can make a determination.
What Counts as Cohabitation?
As a contributing spouse can terminate the alimony agreement if the receiving spouse is cohabitating, it's important to understand how Pennsylvania law defines cohabitation. Section 3706 of the Pennsylvania divorce code states that cohabitation refers to two people of the opposite sex living together in a romantic relationship and sharing finances.
As the law does not apply to a same-sex couple living together, alimony would not necessarily terminate in such a situation. If you are a contributing spouse and your ex is receiving alimony but is cohabitating with a person of the same sex, you should speak to a Pennsylvania family law attorney as soon as possible.
Pennsylvania Family Law Attorney
Modifying an alimony agreement can be complicated, especially if you and your ex disagree on the terms of or the need for a change. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has helped numerous couples modify, terminate, or otherwise satisfactorily resolve disagreements over alimony. To get more information about how Attorney Lento can help you, contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or schedule an appointment online.