Can I pay less alimony after job change?

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Q. I’m confused about how alimony payments work. Suppose one agrees on a certain amount based on their current salary of roughly 50 percent, but then changes their career at a much lower salary for more enjoyable work or a new career. What happens to the alimony amount?
— Unsure

A. Issues of alimony, child support, custody and parenting time are subject to review and modification.

To qualify for such a review and perhaps a modification, a divorced individual must establish that a “significant, permanent change of circumstances” has occurred since the order that set the alimony obligations, said Kenneth White, a divorce attorney with Shane and White in Edison.

White said when an order is entered by the court setting an alimony obligation, it doesn’t matter whether the terms were set by consent or by a judge as a result of a trial. The terms carry the same significance, he said.

“Specifically, the terms are binding as if a full trial was concluded and the judge made findings of fact and conclusions of law,” he said. “Any alleged `change of circumstance’ a party may wish to rely upon must have occurred after the last order having been entered, setting or addressing the alimony obligation.”

White said you should understand that becoming voluntarily under-employed will not constitute a “change of circumstance” that the court will consider worthy of a review or modification of an alimony obligation.

“When the alimony obligation was set, it was based upon your ability to pay compared against your ex’s financial need so as to allow your ex to maintain your previously enjoyed marital lifestyle,” he said.

If you are deemed to have voluntarily changed careers for a career that provides a much lower annual salary, a judge would probably find that you made a choice, but that your ex should not suffer the consequences of your choice.
You might ask the judge how one can pay more than they earn, and the judge would probably say that you made a voluntarily choice, accordingly, you must find a way, White said.

If you lost your job and made a good faith effort to find comparable employment over a substantial period of time, perhaps over a one- to two-year period, and because of no fault of your own you were compelled to take a job outside of your historical field at a lower rate of pay, a judge could rule in your favor.

“But the burden of proof would be on you to establish that you have done everything above board, that you made `good faith’ efforts to find comparable work, and that to no fault of your own this new job is the best you could do, taking into consideration your work history, level of education and other abilities,” White said.

But he cautions you that this is a high hurdle to overcome as the court has heard similar tales of woe from other individuals over many years and has become a bit cynical.

“If you take your case to court and indicate that you changed fields of employment for `more enjoyable work,’ you will not be granted any relief,” White said.

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This post was originally published in September 2017. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.