Sudden Riches or Sudden Rags:
What happens if you or your ex’s income changes after divorce?
Say you get divorced at a time when you and your then-partner are both earning similar amounts. Maybe you’re actually earning more than your partner while she goes back to school and works part-time, or maybe he’s on a temporarily undermployed while looking for something better. Any child
support or spousal support (also called maintenance or alimony) awarded in your divorce judgment is going to be based on your income, so what happens if that income subsequently changes? Isn’t it fair to also expect the amount of support to change?
Let’s assume you’re the person NOT paying the support. That still leaves four possible ways this issue can come up:
- your own income decreases
- your own income increases
- your ex’s income decreases
- your ex’s income increases
Since you probably aren’t going to be too worried about what happens if your own income increases (though your ex might be!), we’ll focus on the other three.
Substantial Change in Income
Minnesota law allows for a support order to be modified if either the person paying support or the person receiving support has “substantially” increased or decreased gross income, and that substantial change makes the terms of the support order unfair.
What’s “substantial”? For a start, a change in income will be assumed to have created an unfair support arrangement if applying the Minnesota child support guidelines to the current circumstances of the parties, with their new incomes, would result in a support order that is at least 20 percent and at least $75 per month higher or lower than the current support order or, if the current support order is less than $75, it results in a calculated court order that is at least 20 percent per month higher or lower
That’s only the threshold for a presumption of unfairness. A court can still decide, based on the individual circumstances of the (ex-) couple, that the change in income was substantial enough to cause the situation to become unfair. For example, one decrease in income that a court found to be big enough to warrant modification of a spousal support order was an ex-husband being laid off, deciding to retire, and going from an annual income of about $120,000 to about $19,000. In other words, it might not have to be quite as extreme as a $100,000 change, but we’re not talking about a slight pay cut or a regular yearly raise.
So What Do I Do?
If your ex’s income has changed so much as to require a modification of a child support or spousal support order, you (and hopefully an attorney) will need to file a motion to modify the order. The court may hold a hearing and will determine whether your ex’s income has changed enough to warrant modification of the order. If the court does order modification, it may even make the modification retroactive to the date you filed your motion.
Keep in mind that a change in income is only one of the types of changes that can trigger the need to modify a support order. If your ex’s change in income is only minor but there are other big life changes, such as a change in your child’s needs, extraordinary medical care or unexpected educational expenses, talk to your attorney about whether these alternate reasons would be a basis for a support modification.