Step-Down In Spousal Support Orders

Step-Down In Spousal Support Orders

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After a marriage of 18 years and then paying spousal support for 13 years, a California court modified support, but did not eliminate it as the payor requested. The court order was then reversed because the trial court did not give adequate reasons for it’s future automatic reductions (step-down’s). “In reducing spousal support over several months, the court needn’t find changed circumstances at each level, but it must state a reason for the step down”, In re Marriage of Rising, 199 Daily Journal D.A.R. 11941.

At the time of the divorce, the wife was a high school graduate, her income was $577/month as a bookkeeper, her assets totaled $406,000 and she had investment income of $1 per month. She was awarded spousal support of $3750. Eight years later, husband filed a motion to decrease and then eliminate the spousal support based on changed circumstances, his physical and financial condition had dramatically deteriorated. Husband had undergone unsuccessful surgery that left him partially disabled and unable work full time. Wife in the meantime had attained her college degree, had gross income of $2700/month, and her assets nearly quadrupled in value.

The trial court granted the motion to reduce support from $3750 to $1500 over a phased in two and one-half year period of time. Wife objected to the step-down feature of the order because there was no evidence she would have decreased needs in the future. The appellate court ruled that it was not critical that there be evidence to show the supported spouse’s needs will decrease at each step-down rate since the court had the discretion to decrease immediately to the final step-down rate at the time of the order.

Although the appellate court found that the lower court had discretion to decrease support to the ultimate step-down level of $1,500, it reversed the ruling, stating the trial court record was unclear as to why it was ordering a phased in reduction of spousal support. Even if the trial court was trying to ease the impact on the supported spouse, the record must clearly indicate that.