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The short answer to this question is a resounding: Maybe? Most states allow a party paying or receiving spousal support (or alimony) to ask the court for a modification based upon changed circumstances. Going back to school is certainly a changed circumstance. But whether or not spousal support will be changed is addressed on a case by case basis, with the court relying on whether it would be reasonable to do so.
The purpose of spousal support is to allow a spouse to maintain the same standard of living they became accustomed to during the marriage for a reasonable period of time and/or until the spouse can become self-sufficient. That reasonable period of time, in California, for example, is half the duration of the marriage, give or take a few units of measurement depending on individualized considerations such as education, earning capacity and child custody.
The Factors Considered by the Courts in Ordering a Modification
It is important to note that the court will usually abide by a settlement agreement entered into by the parties. It is not uncommon for settlement agreements relating to spousal support to have specific provisions regarding when and if the support can be modified.
In the absence of an agreement, the court will look to several different specific factors to decide whether your request for an increase in what you receive, or decrease in what you must pay, is reasonable. Specifically, in California, the courts will want to know:
Based on the answers to the above and additional questions that assess reasonableness, a court will essentially conduct a cost/benefit analysis and consider the long-term implications versus the short-term implications.
What Is Actually Reasonable?
If the school program is tailored to assist a non-self-sufficient spouse in becoming self-sufficient, it is more likely the court will find the request reasonable. A business, professional or paraprofessional program will be seen as more reasonable than an arts program.
If the paying spouse is seeking a decrease in support, the court will look to whether the benefit for both parties and their children (if any) over the long-term outweighs the short-term cost to the receiving spouse and children.
Courts want a long-term solution so that alimony becomes unnecessary, but judges are hesitant to allow modifications if the short-term impact is too severe.