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What changes in circumstances would justify modifying a spousal support order?

Previously, we began looking at the issue of modifying a spousal support order in the state of Washington. As we noted, a spousal support order may not be modified unless there has been a “substantial change of circumstances.” Obvious examples of this are death, remarriage, and registration of a new domestic partnership—which actually terminate a spousal support order by law—but substantial change of circumstances need not go that far to justify modification.

“Substantial change of circumstances” can include things like a serious medical diagnosis which has a substantial impact on the spousal support obligor’s finances. It could also include things like a serious motor vehicle accident, a house fire, and a death in the family which results in a change in financial circumstances for the spousal support obligor. Loss of employment can also justify modification, depending on the circumstances.  

With respect to loss of employment, one issue courts look out for in determining whether modification is justified is whether any changes in income which have occurred as a result of the loss of employment were made in good faith. A spouse who voluntarily reduces his or her income so that he or she doesn’t have to pay as much to a former spouse would not be acting in good faith. By contrast, a spouse who loses his or her job though no fault of his or her own and who consequently has to take a new job with a pay cut could be found to be acting in good faith. Good faith is a very fact-specific consideration, and it is important to present the facts accurately so the court has an accurate understanding of the spousal support obligor’s financial circumstances.

It is worth mentioning that a substantial change in circumstances does not necessarily have to be a decrease in income or increased financial distress. It can also include situations where a spousal support obligor has a substantial increase in income and/or financial resources.

We’ll pick up on the issue of planning around spousal support issues next time.

Source: Fox v. Fox, 87 Wash.App. 782, Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1 (1997)