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Reducing Spousal Support Obligations: What Reasons Are Valid?

On Behalf of | Jun 26, 2021 | Family Law

In some Tennessee divorces, the topic of alimony is important. An award of alimony can severely impact the financial health of either party for many years to come. Consequently, one spouse may consider alimony a necessity that is worth fighting for, just as the other spouse may view alimony as a curse that must be defended against. But alimony award orders are not necessarily written in stone. Some types of alimony are modifiable in Tennessee, but you must have a valid reason. An experienced attorney can help you assess whether your circumstances warrant a modification. But in the meantime, let’s explore some reasons a court might consider valid when one party requests a reduction in spousal support obligation payments.

Tennessee Alimony Basics

One of the first things to know about alimony is that it is discretionary. In other words, a judge has the option to award alimony or not. According to Tennessee law, there are four types of alimony:

  • Alimony in solido,
  • Alimony in futuro,
  • Rehabilitative alimony, and
  • Transitional alimony.

We begin our discussion with the types of alimony available because the award type determines whether the award is modifiable.

Alimony in Solido

Alimony in solido is often called “lump sum” alimony. This is because it can be paid off in one lump sum by one spouse to the other. Courts can use it as an equitable distribution tool. For instance, a judge may give the house to the husband but order him to pay the wife her share in a lump sum. The payee can also pay off the amount through installments over a specific period of time.

Alimony in Futuro

Alternatively, alimony in futuro is about the closest thing there is to permanent alimony. When a judge orders this form of support, they intend it to continue until death or the recipient’s remarriage. It is used in situations where the payee spouse is unlikely to become self-sufficient.

Rehabilitative Alimony

The law intends rehabilitative alimony to be a short-term solution that helps support a spouse while they obtain the training or education needed to become self-sufficient. This form of alimony is the preferred form in Tennessee.

Transitional Alimony

And lastly, transitional alimony is just what it sounds like. It is short-term alimony that helps an otherwise self-sufficient spouse make a successful transition from married to single life. When one household must split into two single households, it costs money. The purpose of transitional alimony is to help the economically disadvantaged spouse make this transition smoothly.

Which Types of Alimony Are Modifiable?

Generally speaking, a reduction in spousal support can only happen if your initial award was alimony in futuro or rehabilitative.

Modification of Alimony in Futuro

Alimony in futuro is modifiable as long as the petitioner can show that a substantial and material change of circumstances has occurred since a judge issued the initial award. For instance, if the payor spouse’s boss fires them or forces them to take a lower-paying position, this would likely qualify as a material change in circumstances. A judge could reduce or even terminate alimony payments if the payor experiences a significant decrease in income. However, keep in mind that if the court determines that the payor spouse intentionally took a lower-paying position for the purpose of getting out of alimony payments, the judge may refuse to reduce the award.

Likewise, if the payee moves in with a third party, the payor may request a reduction of spousal support. If the court finds that this third party is contributing to the payee’s financial support or that the third party is actually receiving benefits from the alimony, the judge can reduce or even terminate the alimony award. Each case is unique and must be assessed by a judge when either party requests an alteration.

Modification of Rehabilitative Alimony

If the payee spouse has not become self-sustaining after a suitable period of time, either party can petition for modification. For instance, if the payee spouse has worked very hard to re-enter the workforce but has not succeeded for whatever reason, they may petition the court for either an extension of alimony or an increase in the amount received. The court would require evidence that the payee has made diligent efforts to warrant such a modification.

Likewise, if the payor is providing rehabilitative alimony payments and sees that the payee has gotten a good job, they may request termination or a reduction in payments. Again, the judge will consider all factors when addressing a request for the reduction of payments. Has the payee spouse truly settled into their new career? Do they need more time to adjust, or have they fully acclimated to their new career? Essentially, if the purpose of the alimony has been served, a court may terminate the award early.

Transitional Alimony: A Special Case

Typically, transitional alimony is not modifiable. However, in the rare case where the couple agrees in the initial order of divorce that a judge can reduce or alter transitional alimony, modifications can be requested. However, there are certain requirements that apply, so as always, consult a lawyer .

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Keep in mind that for any modification, a judge must find that there has been a substantial and material change of circumstances. Under state law, a change is substantial if it significantly affects either the payor’s ability to pay or the payee’s financial need for support. And to qualify as a material change, it must be determined that the parties did not contemplate the change at the time of the initial award and that the change was unforeseeable or unpredictable. The knowledgeable family law legal team at Batson Nolan PLC have decades of experience helping couples navigate the tumultuous waters of divorce. Modifications and reductions of spousal support can be complicated, but we can help. Give us a call today or contact us online to set up your initial consultation in our Clarksville or Springfield office.