Post-Decree Issues – Modifying a Spousal Maintenance Award
Spousal maintenance, also known as “alimony,” is an award of financial support one party (“obligor”) temporarily or permanently provides to the other party (“obligee”) for a mutually agreed-upon or court-ordered amount. A Minnesota court may grant an award upon finding that the obligee is without enough property or financial resources to sustain the marital standard of living. (Minn. Stat. § 518.552 subd. 1.)
Courts consider several factors when deciding the length of an award: the obligee’s financial resources and property, time required to obtain additional training or education for employment, marital duration and standard of living, homemaking, ages, and health. Courts also consider both parties’ contribution to marital assets and the obligor’s ability to meet both parties’ needs (Minn. Stat. § 518.552 subd 2.)
Modifications of Current Spousal Maintenance Awards
Divorce decrees may contain language that limits or eliminates parties’ ability to modify or terminate spousal maintenance. Decrees containing Karon waivers, for example, eliminate parties’ abilities to re-open maintenance awards upon divorce. Karon v. Karon, 435 N.W.2d (1989). If you are unsure whether your decree limits or eliminates your ability to modify, please contact our office and our staff will assist you.
There are many reasons for seeking modification, including but not limited to, changes to income, retirement, and other significant life changes. Clients wishing to increase, decrease, or terminate payments for any reason, must motion the court with a motion to modify spousal maintenance. Successful modifications exhibit a substantial change in life circumstances, including one or more of the following: increase or decrease in income, obtaining assistance under Aid to Families of Dependent Children, change in cost of living, change in health coverage or costs, a child turning 18 years of age, or an addition or change in work-related or education-related child care expenses. (Minn. Stat. § 518A.39 subd. 2.) Unless parties have agreed otherwise in their decrees, modifications cannot be sought for at least one year after the date of the divorce decree. (Minn. Stat. § 518.552 subd. 6).
Special Considerations for Obligees’ Cohabiting with New Partner
Obligors may seek modification upon learning that the obligee is living with another adult, such as when the obligee moves in with a new partner. (Minn. Stat. 518.552 Subd. 6). In addition to the obligee’s cohabitation with another adult, the obligor must prove one of the following: whether the obligee would marry the cohabitant if the maintenance award was terminated, the living arrangement’s resulting economic benefits to obligee, length and likelihood of future cohabitation, and impact upon obligee’s life if cohabitation ended. Helms v. Helms, No. A17-0854, 2017 WL 5661591 (Minn. Ct. App. Nov. 27, 2017).
Although Minnesota law provides obligors the ability to seek modification when an obligee moves in with another adult, cohabitation alone isn’t a sufficient reason for an award to be terminated or reduced. Unfortunately, the statute doesn’t explicitly define “cohabitation” or provide clues as to its meaning. Although one might think “cohabitation” means living with another person, particularly an adult, obligors typically must prove that obligees are living with the other adult in a sexual and/or romantic relationship. In other words, if your ex-spouse moves in with a roommate to improve his or her financial situation upon divorce, the new living arrangement may not equate to “cohabitation”, making modification or termination unlikely. Upon a showing of cohabitation, the obligor must also prove one of the factors provided above.
Special Considerations for Retirement
Retirement is a significant life event for both parties post-divorce and can involve a substantial change in either party’s ability to meet their living needs. However, retirement alone isn’t guaranteed to change or terminate a spousal maintenance award. The party seeking modification must prove that retirement has caused a substantial change in circumstances. Early retirement can be problematic for an obligor hoping to modify to terminate payments, as is retirement done with the intent of reducing personal income. Hemmingsen v. Hemmingsen, 767 N.W.2d 711 2009. Distribution of marital assets allotting for future income upon retirement can also affect a party’s gross income, which affects one’s ability to modify spousal maintenance. Lee v. Lee, 775 N.W.2d 631 (2009).
Additional Difficulties for Attorneys and Judges
Minnesota law on initial awards and modification is extremely flexible, making spousal maintenance one of the most highly litigated issues in family law. Flexibility allows attorneys and their clients more negotiation room, but fewer rules often means litigation is longer, costly, and uncertain. The modification statute does not explicitly define “substantial change,” nor does it provide mathematical formulas or charts to aid judges in deciding what constitutes a reasonable maintenance award. As a result, obligors seeking to modify or terminate payments must persuade judges that any requested change in an award is reasonable in light of a substantial life change.
If you are interested in modifying spousal maintenance as an obligor or obligee, please contact our office.
At Lake Harriet Law Office, we provide strong legal representation for our clients who are going through divorce and other family law matters. Please contact us to schedule a consultation at 612-750-4843.
Managing Attorney – Randall A. Smith
Student Attorney – Taylor Blatchford
Student Attorney – Katie Schwandt-LaRoche
Student Attorney – McKenzie Harter
 Michael Boulette and Theresa Bea. The Cohabitation Conundrum. Bench and Bar of Minnesota. 2017. At 17-21.  Id.