Modification of Alimony in Maryland and When That Modification Can Apply Retroactively

A popular science fiction movie contained an oft-quoted line that admonished against being someone who “deals in absolutes.” This is often good advice when it comes to many types of legal matters, including alimony cases. It is also why the answer you may get from your Maryland divorce attorney to your alimony question is, “It depends.” For example, many cases in which a supporting spouse qualifies for a modification of spousal support also involve the imposition of a retroactive modification, but not always. In one recent case, the husband qualified for a suspension of his spousal support obligation but not for a retroactive modification because his spending habits after his job ended belied an inability to meet his obligations.

Robert and Mary Ann were a Montgomery County couple who had divorced. As part of their divorce case, they had reached a marital settlement agreement in 2014. That agreement stated that the husband would pay the wife alimony for a limited duration of time.

In most situations, you can file a petition with a court to seek a modification of your alimony. In order to be eligible for a modification, you have to show the judge that you’ve experienced a substantial and material change in your circumstances. The law gives you, as two divorcing spouses, the right to include in your marital settlement agreement terms that state when, if ever, a supporting spouse is eligible to go to court and seek a modification.

In Robert and Mary Ann’s case, the agreement said that the husband could seek a modification if he proved that he had suffered a 20% or greater reduction in his gross annual income. That happened to the husband, who lost his job effective Dec. 31, 2014. He went to court, and, several months later, the court issued a ruling agreeing that the husband had suffered the required type of change of circumstances and suspending his future alimony obligation.

The trial judge did not, however, apply that suspension of the husband’s alimony obligation retroactively. The husband appealed the lack of retroactive application but did not succeed. The law gives the courts the discretion to modify alimony retroactively.

This follows the idea that the event that triggered the modification occurred in the past, so the effective date of the modification generally should match the date of that triggering event. The law also allows the courts not to order a retroactive modification if the evidence in the case demonstrated that the supporting spouse maintained the ability to meet his alimony obligation.

That’s what happened in this case. Mary Ann brought forward evidence that, even as the husband was losing his job, he continued to spend extravagantly. He took a trip to Phoenix in December 2014 to play golf, another personal trip to North Carolina over New Year’s, a trip to Tampa in January 2015 that included a $700 dinner, and a trip with his girlfriend to Cancun later in January when the couple stayed at the Ritz-Carlton. During several months in 2015, the husband ran up personal expenditures in excess of $12,000 on his credit card. The appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision that the wife’s proof showed that, even after the end of the husband’s job, he maintained the financial ability to meet his obligations, including alimony. As a result, “circumstances and justice” did not require a retroactive modification.

There are rarely hard-and-fast absolutes in legal matters. That’s why you should never assume what the outcome of your case will be. Always consult first with experienced Maryland counsel. Knowledgeable Maryland alimony attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has been helping clients with their spousal support and other family law cases for many years. To find out how this office can assist you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

When You Can Obtain Indefinite Alimony in Maryland Even After You Are Financially ‘Self-Supporting’, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, July 14, 2017

Maryland Court Rejects Alimony Award When Wife Wasn’t Pursuing Additional Training or Education, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, March 12, 2017

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