Obtaining a Spousal Support Modification

Divorced woman holding envelope with alimony, savings for single mom, allowance concept

Since it can have a long-term impact on both parties, spousal support is often one of the most contested issues in a North Carolina divorce. Also referred to as alimony or spousal maintenance, spousal support is money paid by the supporting spouse to the financially dependent spouse after the marriage has legally ended. While the amount of support and the duration for which it is awarded can vary from case to case, it can also be modified under certain circumstances after an order has been issued. It’s important to be aware that there are specific legal criteria that must be satisfied to change an existing spousal support order.

Who is Entitled to Spousal Support?

There are two types of spousal support in North Carolina — post-separation support and alimony that is awarded upon the finalization of divorce. A North Carolina court will consider a number of factors when determining whether an award of alimony is appropriate. These include each spouse’s financial needs, resources, and the present income, earnings, and necessary expenses of each spouse. Other considerations can include the standard of living the parties enjoyed during the marriage, any tax ramifications, and each party’s obligation to financially support another person.

Although it is not a required factor, marital fault may be evaluated in determining whether a spouse is entitled to alimony. If the court finds that the financially dependent spouse committed marital misconduct before the couple’s separation date, alimony will be denied regardless of need. In the event the supporting spouse engaged in marital misconduct, alimony will be awarded automatically. If both spouses are guilty of marital misconduct, the court will determine whether alimony is appropriate.

What are the Grounds for a Spousal Support Modification?

Most spousal support orders are based on a specific time frame. However, courts understand that circumstances can change over time and a modification may sometimes be necessary. Depending on the facts of the case, spousal support may either be modified upward or downward — in other words, it may be increased or decreased.

A petition may be submitted to the court by either spouse to modify spousal support. To obtain a modification, the party making the request has the burden of proof to show that there has been a “substantial change in circumstances.” The change may be related to the dependent spouse’s needs, or the supporting spouse’s ability to pay. Some situations that might warrant a modification of spousal support can include the following:

  • Involuntary loss of employment
  • Disability or illness
  • Unexpected financial emergencies
  • Unanticipated cost of living increases
  • The supported spouse experienced a significant salary increase
  • The recipient spouse’s willful failure to become self-supporting

North Carolina courts are not required to modify alimony if either party intentionally decreased their income or if the changes were contemplated at the time the original order was issued. If alimony was included in the couple’s property settlement agreement, a court might also decline to grant a modification. For example, if one spouse agreed to give the other more property in exchange for not having to make alimony payments, the supported spouse cannot later decide that they would prefer spousal support instead. In addition, a lump sum alimony amount cannot be modified.

Do You Need to Obtain a Spousal Support Modification in Court?

It’s not always necessary to litigate a spousal support modification in court. If you and your former spouse are amicable and consent to the change, you may be able to reach an agreement between yourselves. However, even if you settle outside of court, the agreement must be signed by a judge to become a legally enforceable order. Verbal agreements made between former spouses to modify spousal support are not recognized by North Carolina courts — and they cannot be enforced.

If spouses have difficulty reaching an agreement concerning an alimony modification, the matter may be negotiated between the parties’ attorneys. The parties may also find that mediation can be an efficient and cost-effective way to resolve the dispute.

Can Spousal Support be Terminated?

Under North Carolina law, alimony may terminate if certain conditions are met. For instance, if the receiving spouse remarries or is in a cohabitation relationship with another, spousal support payments must end. Additionally, support payments terminate if either party passes away or if a specified date is set forth in the order. Alimony can also end pursuant to the terms of a prenuptial agreement or based upon a party’s motion to the court.

Contact a Knowledgeable North Carolina Spousal Support Attorney

If you are facing a spousal support modification matter, it is essential to have the guidance of an experienced attorney who can ensure your interests are protected. With offices located in Moyock and Elizabeth City, The Twiford Law Firm provides skillful representation for a wide variety of divorce and family law matters throughout Northeastern North Carolina and the Outer Banks. Contact us today to schedule a consultation to learn how we can assist you.