Laypeople often think they cannot modify an order for alimony after it has been implemented. Once an order is granted, the court can later change or end it, or it will naturally expire. However, the truth is that alimony awards can be modified and often require modification when certain conditions arise. When modifying an existing alimony award, the standard used is a “material change in circumstances.” This standard means that a current order shall remain untouched if there hasn’t been a material change in circumstances since its creation. As readers may imagine, interpreting this standard, in reality, can be challenging; there are plenty of nuances, and the more cases we experience, the more nuances we will see.
In this post, we will examine the case of Thomas v. Thomas (2020) to see how this standard played out in a recent situation.
Quick Overview of the Case
The couple, in this case, reached an alimony agreement that involved the ex-husband paying his ex-wife $1,800 in “rehabilitative alimony” for 72 months. However, just three days after this order was finalized and entered, the ex-husband received a sizable bonus from his company -- $73,195 –and the ex-wife immediately moved to have that amount included in the original alimony calculation. In other words, the ex-wife attempted to argue that the receipt of this sizable bonus constituted a “material change in circumstances” such that it justified an amendment to the alimony order.
In this case, the ex-husband regularly received bonuses from his company. And his ex-wife knew about this state of affairs well before the court granted the award. Hence, because of this awareness and the fact that such bonuses were commonplace, there was no material change in circumstances since the time of the award and the time of the bonus. Accordingly, the court rejected the ex-wife’s argument, and the alimony award remained unchanged.
The Standard of “Material Change in Circumstances”
As mentioned, the standard used to determine whether a modification is warranted requires reference to concrete facts and case-by-case analysis. However, there are general principles that we can state. Firstly, the material changes which occur must be adequate to sustain the proposed modification. In other words, if a spouse moves to increase an award, but the facts support a decrease, then the change won’t be granted. If, on the other hand, there haven’t been substantial changes on their terms, then the change also won’t be granted.
This latter principle was at play in the case of Thomas v. Thomas. In theory, a substantial bonus received after an alimony award may provide a basis for modification. But not in this example because the ex-wife was already aware of her ex-husband’s work situation. The parties involved were fully capable of anticipating the bonus, which caused no real change in circumstances.