Things happen. Circumstances change. This is the general premise that guides the legal review of spousal support awards in California divorce cases. Specifically, a spouse can seek to modify an award by claiming that his or her financial situation has changed since the award was issued. Reduced income, for example, may limit a spouse’s ability to pay support or may increase the spouse’s need for support. As the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeals recently explained in In re Marriage of Baysinger, however, the person seeking the modification has to prove that things have changed.
After years of judicial wrangling and an attempt at reconciliation, a California trial court ordered that Husband and Wife’s marriage be dissolved in a judgment issued in July 2005. The judge didn’t order any spousal support awards at the time, but the court retained jurisdiction to order such an award if necessary in the future. Wife eventually filed a motion in 2010 asking the court to award her $600 a month in spousal support, arguing her income had changed in the nearly five years since the couple had been divorced.
Although Wife claimed that she no longer had any income, the trial judge observed that she was scheduled to begin receiving about $1,200 per month in Social Security payments beginning in 2012. As a result, he ordered Husband to pay Wife $200 per month until she began receiving the Social Security money. At that point, the court said the payments would no longer be warranted because Husband’s and Wife’s incomes would be roughly equal. The payments were set to stop – and the trial court’s jurisdiction terminate – on Jan. 1, 2013.
One day before the payments were to end – Dec. 31, 2014 – Wife filed a motion for modification of the spousal support. She asked that the amount be raised to $600 per month, that the award be extended, and that she be paid $1,000 in retroactive benefits. In a hearing that occurred after the termination date, the trial judge said that his hands were tied. “The Court’s jurisdiction has now terminated and I do not believe that the Court has jurisdiction to terminate – or to modify this judgment any longer,” the judge said. The court also found that, even if it had jurisdiction, there had been no change of circumstances sufficient to warrant altering the previous support award.
Affirming the decision on appeal, the Fourth District said that the trial court didn’t abuse its discretion in finding no basis for increasing the support award. “[T]he record supports the trial court’s conclusion that [Wife] provided no material change of circumstances warranting continued spousal support.” Indeed, the court said, she provided a very similar evidentiary record to that submitted in the previous hearing when the trial court originally made the award order. The only change, according to the Fourth District, was that she had bought a car on which she was making payments. Importantly, there had been no change to her income.
If you’re considering seeking a divorce in California, contact San Jose divorce lawyer John S. Yohanan. With more than 30 years of experience, Mr. Yohanan is an accomplished family law attorney who has helped a number of clients resolve spousal support and other issues on optimal terms. Call our office at (408)297-0700 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.
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