When the family court judge determines during a dissolution that alimony is appropriate, the court generally intends the order to remain enduring. However, circumstances in the years following a divorce may change. Some awards related to spousal support may no longer reflect the current circumstances. Connecticut law allows the court to terminate, suspend or modify some financial orders related to alimony, when substantial changes render the initial order unjust due to the changes in circumstances.
Connecticut courts are not authorized to modify alimony retroactively to a time prior to any pending motion to modify is filed and properly served upon the opposing litigant. Similarly, initial orders awarding alimony in the form of a lump sum, as well as spousal maintenance obligations involving a decree precluding post-judgment alimony modifications are not subject to adjustment after the order issues. For instance, a stipulated agreement between the litigants may include a provision that precludes subsequent modifications to an alimony agreement.
Note that there is no absolute right to alimony under Connecticut law. Similarly, there are no formal guidelines or specific formula for calculating spousal maintenance. In determining whether alimony is warranted (or whether a modification is warranted), as well as the amount and potential duration of alimony, the court may consider the evidence presented. The findings related to the initial judgment may serve as a backdrop for analyzing the degree to which the circumstances have or have not changed.
Factors To Consider In Connecticut Alimony Disputes
The law generally authorizes the court to weigh the same sorts of criteria when determining whether to modify an order as are provided for the court in evaluating an initial spousal support dispute. The statute does not direct the court to provide more weight, or less weight, to any specified factor. Individual circumstances in any dispute may not necessarily fit neatly within the framework that the factors provide – the court may weigh other relevant evidence that does not fit neatly into the statutory factors. Similarly, the court is not required to clearly identify the findings concerning each factor, as long as the memorandum as a whole exhibits a proper evaluation of the relevant factors. The statutory factors include:
- Length of the marriage;
- Amount and sources of income;
- Earning capacity;
- Vocational skills;
- Needs of each of the parties; and
- Desirability and feasibility of the primary parent of minor children forgoing employment to be available to those children.
The court does not have authority to revisit or modify property division determinations in a post-divorce modification setting, although financial awards are often intertwined in dissolutions of a marriage. Property division awards are relevant in initial alimony determinations. CT Gen Stat § 46b-82.
The court’s authority to modify alimony obligations includes circumstances when the spouse receiving support is cohabitating with another adult. Although the modification statute specifies cohabitation as a relevant change in circumstances, the inquiry may require additional analysis related to the lifestyle changes as well as the financial resources of the litigants at the time of the modification request.
Cohabitation And Alimony
For instance, in Schwartz v. Schwartz, the alimony obligor sought appellate review in light of the fact that the recipient started to cohabitate with another adult post-dissolution, on the argument that the modification state identifies cohabitation as a relevant change in circumstances. The recipient had sought an increase in alimony, based on the financial circumstances at the time. The trial court agreed and increased the alimony obligations. The appellate panel upheld the trial court, determining that the recipient provided sufficient proof that her expenses had increased sufficiently under the factors regarding alimony determinations, despite the fact of cohabitation. 124 Conn.App. 472 (2010).
In other words, before the payment of alimony can be modified or terminated based on cohabitation, the spouse paying support and requesting a modification must be able to demonstrate that the receiving spouse’s altered living arrangements have decreased his or her financial needs.
The Relevance Of The Underlying Purpose Of An Alimony Award
It is also important to note that the purpose of alimony may also arise in modification disputes. Courts may award alimony to ease the transition from being married to being single so that both spouses can maintain a similar lifestyle post-divorce as existed during the marriage. Alimony may also issue to support a spouse with less earning power to continue to have a similar lifestyle to the one he or she had during the marriage.
In Dan v. Dan, the alimony recipient argued that a post-judgment increase in income of the obligor served as a substantial change in circumstances to justify modifying alimony obligations. The Connecticut Supreme Court disagreed, noting that the initial alimony award was to support the lifestyle the recipient-spouse enjoyed while married. 315 Conn. 1 (2014).
The high court notes that if the original purpose of the award is satisfied under the existing alimony payments, there may be little to justify a modification. The court says that there is no logical basis for an argument that the supported ex-spouse is entitled to match the post-divorce increase in the standard of living in the supporting ex-spouse. The recipient is no longer contributing to the supporting litigant’s efforts to earn income.
Moving forward with an alimony modification may require a sophisticated approach that considers all the factors for deciding the appropriate amount of alimony to serve the purpose of an alimony award, in light of the change in circumstances and any potential financial need that exists at the time of the request for the modification.