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When can I modify my spousal support?

Surging or exploding stock portfolios can have a huge impact on your financial outlook. During a boom, you may feel your pockets swelling. And when the markets bust, they can leave you feeling hollowed out. But can any of these changes to your assets lead to changes in your spousal support?

The short answer is “maybe.” It won’t be enough for you to feel differently. But if the appreciation or depreciation of your assets leads to a real change in circumstances, you might have reason to petition for a modification.

The burden of proof

Michigan law allows for either party to seek an alimony modification and to do so at pretty much any time. However, that does not mean the court will immediately grant the request. Instead, it will first look for a significant change in circumstances. If you’re the one seeking the modification, it's your responsibility to show how circumstances have changed.

This was a point the Michigan Court of Appeals reinforced in the case of Graybiel v. Graybiel. It also noted that alimony modifications needed to meet other standards as well. According to the court:

  • The person seeking the modification must show proof of a meaningful change in circumstances
  • The court must consider all the factors relevant to the petition, not just the changed circumstances
  • The court must record the evidence of the changed circumstances

Specifically, in Graybiel v. Graybiel, the Court of Appeals found the trial court had mistaken a new formula for the husband’s wealth as a real change in circumstances. The husband’s income had changed due to a raise, but not so much as the modification suggested. Instead, the modification relied on a new figure for the husband’s “real income” that was based on the same sources of income as the original judgment. It was just a new interpretation, and it didn’t reflect a real change in circumstances. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s modification.

What counts as a real change?

Any significant change to the factors the court considered in its original judgment could serve as grounds for modification. But the court only looks at things that have changed since the judgment, not new interpretations.

Many important factors—such as the length of your marriage, your prior standard of living and your ages—won’t change after the judgment. This means most modifications are based off changes to either party’s:

  • Income
  • Health
  • Ability to provide support
  • Need for support

Courts often consider alimony modification, for example, when either party remarries. But a large downturn in the stock market might also serve as cause for modification if it impacts your ability to provide support. Especially if the court made its original judgment with an eye toward your disposable income and your child’s college tuition. Even though the depreciation of your stocks may not lead to a reduction in your immediate income, it might change the larger calculus.

Things change

Michigan law recognizes that things change. That’s why it allows you to modify your judgment when changing circumstances would render it unfair.

Have recent changes made your alimony judgment untenable or unfair? If so, you may have reason to seek modification. But filing your petition is only the first step. You still need to prove your case to the court. An experienced attorney can help you show how the changes to your circumstances may have rearranged your whole alimony picture.

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