A couple gets divorced and one is ordered to pay spousal support to the other. But then the one getting support hits the lottery, inherits a lot of money, or has some other financial windfall. Is the support payer off the hook?
Here’s the short answer: If the payee hits the jackpot, the payer should head to court and seek to modify the spousal support order, assuming the parties didn’t make support nonmodifiable by agreement (see Fam C §3651(d)). It’s on the payer to show that a material change in circumstances has occurred since the support order was made. See, e.g., Marriage of West (2007) 152 CA4th 240, 246.
There are several factors used to show a change of circumstances for spousal support, one of which is whether the support order was based on certain assumptions about what will occur in the future. Of course it’s impossible to predict a lottery win, but the parties may have anticipated an inheritance and, if that assumption went into the original spousal support determination, it’s more likely there wouldn’t be a change of circumstances for purposes of modifying the support order when the lottery money came through.
Another factor the court may look at for establishing changed circumstances is whether the windfall assets are enough to provide the payee with support at the marital standard of living, taking into account the Fam C §4320 factors. Is the windfall in the form of a rental property or annual lottery payments that would provide ongoing income? How big of a windfall are we talking about? And how does the size of the windfall compare to the level of the marital standard of living?
In any event, getting the court to find a change of circumstances only gets the payer part of the way there—a court must then exercise discretion to determine whether a modification is warranted and in what amount.
So if the ex hits its big, the court may either let the spousal support payer off the hook or it may just shrug it off. But if the court’s jurisdiction has been reserved over spousal support indefinitely, there may be an opportunity to revisit the support issue another day.
Get guidance on all the grounds and procedures for modifying or terminating spousal support in CEB’s California Child and Spousal Support: Establishing, Modifying, and Enforcing, chap 8. If you’ve been practicing in the family law area and want to become a Certified Family Law Specialist, check out CEB’s new Family Law Intensive Course, the test prep course you need to pass the Certified Specialist Exam.
Other CEBblog™ posts you may find interesting:
- Shacking Up May Shake Up Support
- Are Parents Required to Pay for College?
- In the Divorce Wars, Who Pays the Attorney Fees?
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