Motions for Modification Based on Increased Income
Once a marriage is dissolved, that does not necessarily mean that the court case is over. After a final dissolution, the parties can find themselves in court numerous times for what are referred to as post judgment motions. As stated above, one type of post judgment motions occurs when a party fails to comply with one of the court's orders. However, another common type of post judgment involves a motion to modify one of the court's original orders from the dissolution of marriage judgment.
At first blush, it might seem counterproductive to allow a party to come to court to modify what was supposed to be a final judgment. Most judgments in other areas of civil trials are not modifiable as are family dissolution judgments. Family judgments are different because our legislature has chosen to enact a statute to make such modifications possible. I believe that the legislature wisely understood that family relationships are more important than other types of relationships such as business relationships, and therefore more benefits for them are justified.
Suppose you had a case where the family breadwinner had just lost his job at the time of divorce, but then later on got a job and was making more money. The support order in this case would have been based on the lower level of income when the breadwinner was out of work. In this situation, the party who pays the support, the payor spouse, would have better income after he got a new job, but would only pay support based on his previously lower income. This would seem very unfair to leave the payee spouse with less just because her spouse had lost his job right around the time of divorce.
Also, suppose the payor spouse had been trying for years to get a business off the ground, and at the time of divorce it still hadn't gotten off the ground. The support amount that was ordered in the final dissolution would have been based on a lower amount of income. If the payor spouse became successful in his business shortly after the divorce, it would seem unfair to leave the payee spouse with a smaller amount of support. After all the payee spouse probably supported the payor spouse in many ways such as caring for the home and the children which allowed the other spouse to go out and build his or her business. In many marriages the wife stays at home to have children and care for the children while the husband goes out and makes the money. One of the main reasons for alimony is that the wife not be penalized for having taken time out of her career to raise children. For while the wife was raising the children, she gave up career opportunities, and her job skills probably fell behind which would leave her less able to earn a comparable living on her own after a divorce. The wife would have supported the husband and made his success possible by staying home and taking care of the house and the children. In this light, it seems all the more unfair to not allow a modification of alimony or child support if the payor spouse starts making more money after the divorce than at the time of the divorce.
Of course there are other factors to be considered also. How long after a divorce do you allow a motion for modification to go forward. After all, at some point the receiving spouse should be expected to go out and start making his or her own living. Also, how much of an increase is necessary to justify a motion for modification. We don't want our courts being clogged up with these motions over small amounts money. To answer this question courts have required that a party show that there has been a substantial change in circumstances to justify a motion for modification of support.
Previously, most attorneys in Connecticut would have gone forward with a motion for modification with nothing more than an increase in income by the payor spouse. The Appellate Court and Supreme Court do not give guidance as to how much of a change is a substantial change when they issue their decisions. In their decisions, they leave it up to the Superior Court judges to determine what is substantial on a case by case basis. All families are different. An increase of $100 a week may not be substantial to some affluent families, but to many families in Connecticut, it can be very substantial.
In 2014, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued an important decision concerning when an increase in income will justify a motion to modify support. In the case of Dan v. Dan, 315 Conn. 1 (2014), the court found that a substantial increase in income was not enough to justify a motion for modification. In this case, the motion for modification had been filed ten years after the original dissolution. The payor spouse had been earning a salary of $696,000 a year at the time of dissolution, but was earning over $3,000,000 a year at the time of the motion for modification. The lower court had found that the only reason to justify the motion for modification in this case was payor's increased income. The receiving spouse had been awarded alimony of $15,000 a month in the original divorce and was earning an additional $8,000 to $12,000 per year on her own. The lower court awarded the receiving spouse an increase in alimony to $40,000 a year, and the payor spouse appealed.
The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that a party must show more than just a substantial increase in income by the payor spouse to justify a motion for modification. The Court ordered that the moving party must show that the purpose of the original support order is no longer served in addition to a showing that there has been a substantial increase in income. Very often, a court will order support to insure that the receiving spouse is able to continue to live in the standard of living that he or she became accustomed to during the marriage. Other times the court will see alimony as rehabilitative, and allow support only long enough for the receiving spouse to revive his or her career. In Dan v Dan, the Court seemed to be saying that the purpose was to allow the receiving spouse to maintain a certain standard of living. In addition it said that the lower court should have inquired if that purpose was still being met, and should have modified alimony only if it wasn't.
Unfortunately, most lower court decisions concerning support awards do not necessarily state what was the purpose of the support award. Perhaps now in light of Dan v. Dan the lower courts will have to specifically state the purpose. But that will not help most of us practicing attorneys who have to deal with the many judgments that have been handed down over the years without any statement of the purpose of the support award.