Where there is a Change in Circumstances a Divorce Court May Order an Incremental Decrease in the Amount of Spousal Support Obligations Paid by One Spouse to the Other

After divorce proceedings of an eighteen-year marriage, the divorce court ordered husband to pay wife spousal support in the amount of $3,750 per month. At the time of the initial spousal support order, wife had been earning $397 per month, as a bookkeeper. Husband’s divorce attorney moved to modify the spousal support order, requesting either reduction or termination. At the time of husband’s divorce attorney’s motion, wife’s financial situation had improved considerably. Wife had graduated from college and was earning $2,000 per month, in additional to $700 per month in investment income. In contrast, husband’s financial condition and health had deteriorated.

The divorce court modified the spousal support order based on finding changed circumstances. The divorce court ordered wife’s spousal support award to be immediately reduced from $3,750 to $3000 per month. In addition, the divorce court ordered that 11 months from the initial order, there would be an automatic “step-down” to $2,000 and then an additional decrease to $1,500 per month. Wife’s divorce attorney filed an appeal of the automatic reductions (“step-downs”) in spousal support based on the fact that there was no evidence that her needs would decrease by the date the step down was to occur.

The court agreed with wife’s divorce attorney and reversed the divorce court’s order because the divorce court failed to adequately explain the reasoning behind the step-down order. The court explained that it would have been permissible for the divorce court to immediately adjust the support order to $1,500 without ordering an incremental decrease. The court stated, had the divorce court stated the incremental decrease was to allow the wife an adjustment period, the court would have upheld the divorce court’s decision. However, because the divorce court failed to explain the reasoning behind the incremental step-down order the court reversed the divorce court’s decision.

The court explained that the divorce court found “changed circumstances” which served as the basis for reducing the spousal support award. The court determined that when a divorce court finds a change of circumstances, there need not be evidence that the wife’s needs will decrease by a certain date to order a “step-down” spousal support award. The court found that such a spousal support order involving an automatic reduction is proper provided the divorce court had the discretion to order the ultimate step-down amount of $1,500 and the court stated that it is implementing the step-down to ease the impact of the decrease on the supported spouse. Thus, the court held where there is a change of circumstances that justifies a decrease in spousal support the divorce court may order the decrease to be phased in over time.

In re Marriage of Rising (1999) 76 Cal. App. 4th 472