In most states, spousal support (alimony) awards can be terminated or modified some time after the divorce. In Oregon, this requires a showing of a substantial change of circumstances, and the original purpose of the award should be fulfilled in any modification. A recent case illustrates the importance of determining the original purpose.
In the case in question, the husband and wife divorced in 1999. They agreed that the husband would pay spousal support of $2,500 a month for an indefinite period. Their retirement assets were divided roughly equally. In 2012, the husband retired, and he moved to have the award terminated. The trial court did not terminate support, but it did reduce support to $1,400 a month. Everyone agreed that the retirement was a change of circumstances, but disagreed whether support should be changed. The judge reasoned that the purpose of the award had been to equalize the parties’ income, and after reconsidering their incomes, $1,400 was enough to achieve that purpose.
On appeal, the husband argued that there was no evidence that the purpose of the award was to equalize income. The wife apparently did not contest this argument, and the Court of Appeals took that as a concession of the point. Because the court determined, therefore, that there was no evidence to support the question of the purpose of support, and the trial could had relied significantly on that finding, the Court of Appeals ruled that the entire ruling of the trial court had to be thrown out and the case sent back for a new ruling.
There are several lessons from this case. First, if you are negotiating a settlement of a divorce that includes spousal support, it may be useful include an agreed statement of the purpose of the award – but only if you think that may assist you if either side moves to modify the award in the future. (This is likely to be included, at least in part, as Oregon now has three categories of spousal support, each for a different general purpose.) Second, lawyers should pay attention to their arguments of the purpose of an award and be certain some evidence is available to back them up. Therefore if you are asking for a modification of a spousal support award, be ready to discuss with your lawyer any evidence of the purpose of the award. Third, if you anticipate an event such as a retirement affecting income, it may be worthwhile to negotiate the effect of that retirement on support. All of these question should be considered in discussing strategies with your lawyer if there is a serious possibility of spousal support being awarded or agreed to.