Is spousal support really supposed to last forever? Does every order that states support is to be paid “until death, remarriage or further order of court” mean that there will never be a reduction or even a termination in support? Case law tells us that the answer to that is no.
While it is true that this is an area where the court has fairly wide discretion, a number of appellate court cases stand for a rather vague, but still applicable, legal principle: “enough is enough.” Simply put, at a certain point in time, the paying spouse may obtain an order to reduce or stop paying simply because a balancing of the equities finds that payment has gone on long enough.
These cases do not cite to some hard and fast rule, other than there needs to be a showing of “changed circumstances” since the time of the original support order. By the same token, these cases seem to hold that the passage of time alone can be a “changed circumstance.” Even in cases where a marriage has gone beyond the ten-year mark, a termination of spousal support has been affirmed. The cases that stand for the proposition that support can be modified have varying fact patterns. A supported spouse may not have heeded the standard warning that has appeared in divorce judgments for more than twenty years to take steps to become self-supporting; the supported spouse may have taken on work, but what the supported spouse did was not work sufficient to make a real attempt at becoming self-supporting; a supported spouse may not have managed what he or she received at the time of the divorce prudently, thereby creating an ongoing need for support that would otherwise not be present; or enough time has passed that it is no longer equitable to require the paying spouse to continue paying.
These cases run the gamut from situations where the supported spouse is healthy but not taking steps to become self-supporting, to allowing a modification of support even for a spouse who may have mental and physical health problems that might have affected his or her ability to work.
People who are the recipients of long term orders to pay support may want to review the circumstances that have occurred since the order was made to determine if there is a basis to obtain a reduction or an end date. The phrase “death, remarriage, or further order of court” means just that. There may be the possibility of that further order that leads to relief from what otherwise would appear to be a lifetime support obligation.