When a marriage ends, couples typically obtain court orders that resolve issues like property division, alimony payments, child custody arrangements, and child support obligations. These orders serve as a snapshot of that moment in time. The orders should reflect the financial conditions of each spouse at the time, the spouses’ living situations and needs, and the children’s ages and needs.
These orders typically do not last forever. Often, they are more of a starting point in establishing the parameters of a divorced couple’s separate lives. Because change is constant and life continues to ebb and flow in the years following a divorce, courts allow for parties to seek modifications of certain orders to reflect a new status quo.
Alimony, a type of spousal support, can be modified or vacated by agreement or in a contested hearing. The party bringing forward the request for the modification must make a showing of changed circumstances. One specific circumstance that will support the termination of alimony payments is if the dependent spouse remarries or cohabitates with a new partner. This creates a legal presumption that a dependent spouse has a new source of financial support. Further, a substantial change in income or expenses of either party (the payor or the receiver) can justify a court increasing or decreasing an alimony obligation accordingly.
Because of the long duration of child support orders, it is fairly common to see parties seek modifications several times before a child becomes an adult. Courts are authorized to modify child support orders when there has been a substantial change in circumstances. In the context of child support, North Carolina courts have found the following scenarios to constitute a substantial change:
- The passing of three years since the last order was entered and a 15% change in the supporting parent’s income.
- A significant increase or involuntary decrease in income.
- A change in child custody and the number of overnights a child spends with the supporting parent.
- A change in the child’s medical, physical, emotional, or educational needs that require more financial support.
Courts are well aware that the lives of children and their parents are fluid after a custody order is entered. Kids get older and their needs change; kids become more articulate in expressing their desires; parents get remarried; parents get new jobs; parents want to relocate; parents misbehave, and the parent-child relationship evolves. Courts have seen it all.
Family courts, therefore, have the discretion to modify existing child custody orders if parents agree or if a parent seeking to modify an existing order can demonstrate to the court that there has been a substantial change of circumstances since the last order was entered. The key to any decision to modify custody or visitation arrangements is whether the change is in the child’s best interest.
Defying Court Orders is Ill-Advised
While some people unilaterally choose to stop paying child support or alimony or to defy child custody orders, we can confidently say that this is never a good idea. Taking matters into your own hands and non-compliance with court orders can have serious implications ranging from orders of enforcement, arrearages, fines, and payment attorney’s fees.
In extreme situations of non-compliance or misconduct, people can face criminal charges, protective orders, and jail time for contempt of court. In child custody disputes, violations can result in a restriction of custody and visitation rights.
If your circumstances have changed and you wish to seek a change in your orders, we encourage you to speak with a family lawyer sooner rather than later. A modification is the only proper way to change orders that are no longer appropriate to your circumstances.