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Parties May Not Stipulate to the Standard of Review to Be Used When Modifying a Child Support Order

In this Orange County divorce, husband and wife stipulated to their divorce judgment. In the judgment, the parties agreed that any future changes to the agreement relative to child support would be reviewed “de novo” or anew. Also in the agreement there was a section which granted wife continuing spousal support if she remarried to a partner earning significantly less than her high earning husband. In addition, there was a clause which stated that if wife remarried within 24 months, spousal support would be automatically terminated.

Four years later, in the Superior Court, husband’s Orange County divorce lawyer sought a reduction in child support based on a significant decline in his income. Husband’s Orange County divorce attorney requested husband’s child support be reduced to the guideline amount based on the “de novo” clause in the stipulated judgment rather than the usual “change in circumstances” standard. In addition, husband sought termination of wife’s spousal support based on her remarriage.

In considering husband’s Orange County divorce lawyer’s request for a child support reduction, the divorce court found that while husband’s income had dropped during a period between the stipulated judgment and the current request, at the time, husband was actually making more than he did at the time of the original judgment. Based on an amortized amount, the divorce court found there was not a significant change to justify reducing husband’s child support obligation.

As for husband’s Orange County divorce attorney’s second request, termination of spousal support, the divorce court looked to the parties original stipulated judgment which would have terminated spousal support by its terms, as wife was remarrying 18 months since the judgment was entered. However, four days before wife remarried, the parties entered into another stipulation which retroactively changed the 24-month period to an 18-month period. This agreement allowed wife to remarry without losing her spousal support. The divorce court viewed the agreement as binding, which in effect, waived the California rules which would normally terminate spousal support upon remarriage of one of the parties.

Husband’s Orange County divorce attorney appealed the ruling. The Court of Appeal found no error in the lower court’s decision to review husband’s request to reduce child support based on the “change in circumstances” standard which normally applied to post-judgment modifications. The Court of Appeal found that parties cannot contract around this standard as it provides finality for families as well as promotes judicial efficiency.

Lastly, the Court of Appeal found no error in the lower court’s decision to amortize husband’s earnings over several years where they fluctuated in calculating wife’s spousal support amount. In addition, the Court of Appeal agreed with wife’s Orange County divorce attorney and ruled that the divorce court did not err in enforcing the parties’ agreement to continue spousal support as the parties stipulated to an agreement to extend the spousal support days before wife’s remarriage.

In re Marriage of Cohen, 3 Cal. App. 5th 1014 (2016)