By Alan Freed
With most kinds of lawsuits, you go to court, your case is tried, a judgment is entered and, other than trying to collect your judgment, that’s pretty much the end of the story. So, if the judge orders the driver who ran into your car to pay you $15,000 for your damage, that driver can’t come back to court a year later and try to change the amount to $10,000, and you can’t ask the court to increase it to $20,000. You only get one bite of that apple.
In divorce cases, however, some different rules apply. Some kinds of judgments can be changed, and it’s important to know which ones can and under what circumstances.
What Does the Term “Modifiable” Mean: When a term in a judgment is called “modifiable,” it means that the court that entered the judgment has the authority to change that term in the future in appropriate situations. Courts will not modify judgments on their own; one side or the other has to ask the court to make the change (by a “motion to modify”) and the change has to be based upon a “change in circumstances.” Certain divorce terms are always modifiable, regardless of any agreements the parties have made. Other terms may or may not be modifiable, depending upon how they are written.
Child Support: Child support judgments are always modifiable. This is because courts are required to protect children’s best interests. Since neither the judge nor the parents can predict changes that may occur in the family’s future, the court has to have the ability to review the situation from time to time and make sure that the children’s financial circumstances are as secure as is possible. Child support can only be modified if a “substantial and continuing change of circumstances” has occurred. For example, getting fired from your job is “substantial” (because you have lost that income) but it might not be “continuing,” (since you may be able to get a job the day after you lost the first one.)
Child Custody: Child custody (which is set out in Missouri using a “parenting plan”) is always modifiable for the same reason child support is—the court is always looking at what is in a child’s best interest. Child custody can be modified when there has been a change in circumstances (it doesn’t have to be “substantial” as with child support) and the court determines that a change in the parenting plan is in the children’s best interests.
Maintenance (Alimony): This one is tricky. Maintenance judgments can be either modifiable or non-modifiable, depending upon how the judgment is written. If the judgment states that the maintenance is non-modifiable, it means that, regardless of the reason, the court has no ability to change the judgment of maintenance (either for the length of time or the amount of maintenance awarded). If, on the other hand, the maintenance is termed “modifiable,” then the court does have the ability to modify the amount if there has been a substantial and continuing change of circumstances.
Navigating the issues surrounding modifiability of a divorce or paternity judgment requires guidance from an experienced family law attorney. The attorneys of Paule, Camazine & Blumenthal, P.C., are ready to help.