While an appeal to a divorce decree must be completed within 30 days, a modification to a divorce agreement can be requested at any time after the divorce. It is not uncommon that, after significant time has passed, circumstances have changed enough to warrant an alteration of the divorce agreement.
If both spouses agree to the changes, the process is fairly simple. The agreement must be in writing and submitted to the court in which the divorce decree was issued. Sometimes there is a hearing to ensure that both parties truly agree, then the judge signs off on the agreement and it becomes a court order. Working together with your lawyer to ensure the divorce agreement is written properly is the easiest and best way to make changes to a divorce agreement.
However, sometimes former spouses cannot agree. In this case, the person who wants the modification must file a motion for modification with the court that issued the divorce and serve it on the other spouse. Getting a modification from a court is not easy because you will have to present proof of significant, long-term, or permanent changes that justify the modification.
Courts rarely modify property or debt distributions in the original divorce agreement, but changes to spousal and child support and changes to custody and visitation are not uncommon. Where children are involved, the person seeking modification must prove that the change is in the best interest of the child.
Reasons for modification of support
A significant change in income is often grounds for modification, whether you are the payer or the receiver. If the payer gets a significantly higher paying position, the receiver may request more spousal or child support. Additionally, if the receiver loses a job, more support could be requested.
Conversely, if the payer loses a job or gets a significantly lower-paying job, the payer can request a decrease in the amount of support paid. This is also true if the payer has more children with a new spouse, demonstrating a need to support other children. One caveat: A parent cannot purposely take a lower-paying job in order to request a change in support. This may be difficult to prove, but if suspected, it could be considered contempt of court.
In the case of child support, the receiver may demonstrate a significant change in the child’s health or condition to warrant an increase in support or the payer may demonstrate that the child now needs less support. In these cases, courts will keep in mind the best interests of the child.
Reasons for modification of custody or visitation
A change in the condition of parents or children can justify a request for modification.
If one parent was ill-fit for joint or sole custody at the time of the divorce and can now prove he or she is fit, a case for modification may be made. However, a formerly unfit parent cannot demand sole custody if the parent who currently has sole custody is still a fit parent.
If a parent who has sole or joint custody becomes unfit, or if any child abuse or substance abuse can be demonstrated, custody provisions can be modified, keeping in mind the best interests of the child.
If your child is spending more time with you than is listed in the custody agreement, you may wish to modify the agreement so that you can legally protect this precious time together. The additional time also means an increase in child expenses on your part, suggesting a need to modify support as well.
Your next steps
In any of these situations, you will need to show significant evidence in order to convince the court to change the agreement. Laws that govern the standards to be met in each case vary from state to state, so be sure to talk to a lawyer who is expert in the divorce laws of the state in which your divorce was issued. We here at Ulmer are experts in Pennsylvania law. Reach out to us to see how we can help you.