Q. Thanks to the spousal support I pay, my ex lives just as well now as when we were married, but I can barely make ends meet. I want to have my support obligation reduced, but I can’t claim a “change in circumstances” – it’s been this way ever since the divorce.
A. Two may not be able to live as cheaply as one, but there are certainly cost savings that come with living together. Splitting one household into two usually means household expenses are doubled, but household income usually isn’t.
When awarding spousal support, the court considers a number of factors such as how long the parties were married, how much each of them earns, what their future earnings may be, and the standard of living established during the marriage.
The standard of living established during the marriage is given great weight, because the court must try to ensure that each party can maintain a standard of living “not overly disproportionate” to that enjoyed during the marriage. This doesn’t necessarily mean each person will each live just as well after the divorce as they did while married, but that the difference in their standards of living should not be any greater than necessary.
It is important to remember that the “not overly disproportionate” standard applies equally to the party paying support and the party receiving support. The Oregon appellate court made this point explicitly in a recent case, Sather and Sather (2010).
In that case, the court reduced the amount of spousal support being paid because although the party receiving the support was able to enjoy a standard of living virtually the same as during the marriage, the party paying the support was left with too little to live as well.
Usually, if one party wants to modify the spousal support that was awarded at the time of the divorce, they must show there has been a change in the financial picture – a loss of income or increase in expenses – making reconsideration necessary.
In Sather, the appellate court did not modify the support ordered by the trial court because there had been a change in circumstances, but because the award was inequitable, or unfair, from the beginning. This shows that even judges can make mistakes, and you can’t take it for granted that spousal support will be calculated fairly.
However, it also means you may have a good chance of reducing your support obligation if you can prove your current standard of living is “overly disproportionate,” in a negative sense, to the one you enjoyed before your divorce. Ask your family law attorney if the decision in Sather might apply to your case.