It is well-settled law in New Jersey that child support and alimony awards are always modifiable. While there is an abundance of case law in the area of post-judgment modifications of support obligations, particularly in this economic climate, the most often cited case for modification is the seminal New Jersey case of Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139 (1980). Indeed, the Lepis Court was the first in holding that when changed circumstances substantially impinge upon the supporting spouse’s ability to pay support at the level ordered, a modification of the support order might be necessary. The burden to prove this change in circumstances falls upon the supporting spouse when such a downward modification is sought.
A reduction in the supporting spouse’s income has long been recognized as a changed circumstance warranting a support modification, so long as it is not temporary in nature. In addition, the recent Appellate Division case of Angelastro v. Angelastro, recently solidified the notion that a support modification may be sought when the supported spouse’s economic circumstances change for the better.
In Angelastro, the parties’ property settlement agreement, executed in September of 2008, awarded the wife alimony as follows:
The [h]usband shall pay to the [w]ife[,] starting at the sale of the marital home[,] the sum of $350 a week in [a]limony commencing for a period of six (6) years. Upon the completion of aforementioned six (6) years[,] the [h]usband’s [a]limony obligation shall reduce to that of $200 and continue for a period of eight (8) years thereafter representing a total payment period of fourteen (14) years.
In addition, child support in the amount of $200 per week was provided for. The parties’ property settlement agreement specifically predicated the above support awards upon the wife’s imputed income of approximately $25,000.
About a year and a half following the parties’ divorce, in April of 2010, the husband filed an application seeking to modify his alimony obligation downward based upon the fact that his former wife was now earning well over the $25,000 imputed to her at the time of the divorce, and was in fact earning approximately $40,000 per year. While these facts apparently went undisputed by the wife at the trial level, the trial court nonetheless denied the husband’s application concluded that it did not "think that [plaintiff’s] showing that his ex-wife. . . is now making $40,000 more than what they anticipated[d] at the time they signed the agreement is enough for him to convince me that a modification would be necessary." The husband appealed.
On appeal, the Court began by noting that the mere fact that an alimony award was incorporated into a property settlement agreement does not render it indefinitely unmodifiable. Thus, "[c]ourts have continuing power to oversee divorce agreements and the discretion to modify them on a showing of changed circumstances that render their continued enforcement unfair, unjust, and inequitable."
The Court next turned to the substance of the trial court’s denial of the husband’s application – namely, that the wife’s increase in income did not constitute a change in circumstances sufficient to warrant a downward modification of the husband’s alimony obligation. In doing so, the Court specifically noted:
modification of agreements based on changed circumstances applies not only to a significant diminution of resources of the supporting spouse that impairs that spouse’s ability to meet his or her support obligations, but to a significant change for the better in the circumstances of the dependent spouse, that may obviate the need for continued support.
Based on the above principles, the Appellate Division concluded that the husband presented sufficient facts to warrant a change in circumstances – at least sufficient enough to warrant an order of discovery, and maybe even plenary hearing on the matter.
Not only does this case illustrate the importance of keeping tabs on a former spouse’s financial circumstances post-divorce, regardless of whether you are the supporting spouse or the supported spouse, but it also recognizes the necessity of including in any agreement – both at the time of divorce and beyond – the level of income which formed basis of the support award. Without this information, it becomes increasingly difficult for a court to determine whether circumstances have indeed changed from the time of the agreement, and may cost either party many thousands of dollars in the process.