Modification of Spousal Maintenance After a Divorce in Missouri

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In a Missouri divorce, a court may award spousal maintenance — formerly known as alimony — to one of the spouses when they would otherwise be unable to support themselves with their own income or other resources. Courts can order the payment of maintenance indefinitely, or for a specified period of time. They can also order that an award of maintenance can be modified in the future, such as by increasing or decreasing the amount to be paid, or that it is not subject to modification. If a maintenance award can be modified, courts must follow certain procedures to determine whether or not to grant a requested modification. Missouri law requires proof, at minimum, of changes in the parties’ circumstances that are both “substantial and continuing” in order for a court to modify a maintenance obligation. A 2019 decision by the Missouri Court of Appeals explores this requirement.

How Is Spousal Maintenance Calculated?

The parties to a divorce can agree to spousal maintenance payments, or the court can order one spouse to pay maintenance to the other. A court must determine that the spouse requesting maintenance meets two criteria:

  1. They do not have enough assets, by themselves, to meet their own “reasonable needs”; and
  2. They either do not have enough potential income to support themselves, or they have custody of a child with needs that are likely to prevent them from working outside of the home.

A typical situation where a court orders maintenance payments might involve a couple in which only one spouse worked outside the home, and the other spouse does not have the education or experience to earn a comparable income for themselves after the divorce. Maintenance is intended to prevent the shock of suddenly losing the support they had received from their spouse. It is a separate obligation from child support, which is intended to benefit the spouses’ children.

Missouri law directs courts to determine the amount and duration of a maintenance award based on numerous factors, including:

  • Each spouse’s available financial resources, and their ability to support themselves;
  • Each spouse’s earning capacity, and the amount of time one spouse would need to find employment;
  • The length of the marriage;
  • The age and health of the spouse requesting maintenance;
  • The ability of the spouse who would be paying maintenance to support themselves after deducting maintenance payments; and
  • Misconduct by either spouse.

To Modify, or Not to Modify?

The factors that influence a court’s decision about maintenance, or an agreement to pay maintenance, can change over time. This is why Missouri allows modification of maintenance orders. Before a court can consider a motion to modify an order, however, it must determine whether the order can be modified.

Missouri law allows a divorcing couple who sign a separation agreement to “expressly preclude or limit modification” of almost anything in the agreement. The only exceptions are child support, child custody, and visitation rights, which must remain subject to modification in the best interest of the child or children. A court can also order that a maintenance order is not subject to modification.

Additionally, a court can set a termination date for a maintenance award. The court might not allow certain modifications if the obligation to pay maintenance is set to expire soon anyway. A maintenance award may also terminate automatically if the ex-spouse receiving maintenance remarries.

When Can a Court Modify Spousal Maintenance?

If a maintenance order is modifiable, the party that wants to modify it must show substantially changed circumstances. Missouri law describes the standard in two somewhat different ways. The statute that describes the eligibility criteria for maintenance states that a court can modify an order “based upon a substantial and continuing change of circumstances” that has occurred while the order has been in effect. The statute that addresses modification of maintenance and support, however, states that it requires “a showing of changed circumstances so substantial and continuing as to make the terms unreasonable.”

The modification statute identifies two factors for the court to consider:

  1. Each party’s available resources, including whether either of them share household expenses with a spouse or partner; and
  2. “The earning capacity of a party who is not employed.”

If the person requesting modification of the maintenance order can prove substantially changed circumstances, the court can order an increase or decrease in the amount of maintenance, extension or termination of the obligation, or other changes.

The court that originally ordered the maintenance, or that approved the parties’ agreement regarding maintenance, retains jurisdiction over modification proceedings. Both parties must notify the court if their address changes. An order modifying maintenance only affects payments that are due after the date of personal service. This means that modification can only be retroactive to the date the party who is not seeking modification was served with the court papers.

What Are “Changed Circumstances”?

Unfortunately, there is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to the question of when modification is appropriate. Courts tend to look at the unique facts of each specific case when considering a motion to modify. A recent decision by the Missouri Court of Appeals, Severn v. Severn, offers some guidance by demonstrating when circumstances have not changed substantially enough for the court.

The parties in Severn divorced in 2008 after almost sixteen years of marriage. They agreed at that time that the husband would pay the wife $1,500 per month in maintenance, with no specified end date. At that time, the wife had recently begun working after about a decade as a stay-at-home parent, and had gross monthly income of about $2,000. The husband’s gross monthly income was just over $16,000.

Eight years later, in 2016, the husband filed a motion to modify several parts of their judgment of divorce. This included a request to terminate his maintenance obligation. The wife’s income was about $3,600 per month, which the husband noted was a 75% increase over her 2008 income. The court found that “this increase was foreseeable at the time of the dissolution,” and therefore was not a “substantial” change. The increase was due to an “increase in clients over time” as she gained experience in her field. The court also pointed out that the husband’s 2016 income was almost $21,000 per month, and that this still showed “disparity” in the parties’ income.

Mark A. Wortman is a Kansas City, Missouri family law attorney whose practice focuses exclusively on divorce, child custody, disputes over property division, and other family law matters. To schedule a confidential consultation with a skilled and experienced legal advocate, please contact us today online or at (816) 523-6100.