How and When Do I Change My Divorce Decree?
Change is an inevitable part of life. Even after your divorce and parenting plan is finalized, things happen.
Living expenses change, children get older, and employment opportunities can appear or disappear. Regardless of whether or not you’re satisfied with the initial terms of your divorce, changes in circumstances may prompt you to renegotiate those conditions.
In most states (including Ohio), these changes are called “modifications.”
Child custody arrangements and spousal support agreements are binding. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be changed.
Whatever the amendment you’re seeking—whether it’s to spousal support, child support, or child custody rights—the trick is to be able to prove that some significant event or development has changed the equitability of your preexisting agreement.
The court needs to see proof of a substantial change since the entry of the original order.
The family court system is busy enough and wants to make sure that any modifications made are necessary. The court will avoid putting the divorced couple and their children through the stress of unnecessary judicial procedures.
Ask your attorney to weigh the pros and cons with you before you decide whether or not to proceed with a modification.
Common Reasons for Modification
The most common reasons for modification requests to a divorce decree are spousal support and child custody. Other common reasons include job loss or relocation of one or both parents to somewhere outside of the county, state, or country where the divorce was filed.
Many people interested in modifying their agreements are looking to decrease their financial responsibility to their ex-spouses. In these cases, however, you should be able to prove a significant change in income for the person paying spousal or child support.
If you lost your job or have taken a lower salary, you shouldn’t be expected to pay the same amount as before. Making this case is very straightforward and judges will listen if the change is significant enough.
There’s a big difference, however, between feeling that the original terms of your divorce are unfair and feeling that a major new development has made them unsustainable.
Enough Change to Justify Modification?
It’s important to keep in mind that in determining its significance, the change in income is considered relative to how much you pay in child support. If you are already paying a small amount in comparison to your total income, your chances of lowering it are limited.
If, however, spousal support plays an overwhelming role in determining your finances, you have a good shot at making a suitable modification.
There are other, external reasons for wanting to modify.
For example, if you or your child has become sick, you may be able to demonstrate that medical expenses have become a significant new financial burden. One that did not exist at the time of your divorce.
Or perhaps you or your spouse are moving far away, and transportation costs of visiting your children have skyrocketed. This, too, and other such unforeseeable developments that have come up since your divorce was finalized can all be considered in renegotiating payments.
Spousal support, also sometimes referred to as alimony, is usually modified due to the changes of circumstances in one or the other spouse’s living or financial situation.
These changes can include:
- A decrease or increase in the payer’s income
- An increase or decrease in the recipient's income
- The alimony recipient begins living with another adult
- Either spouse becomes mentally or physically disabled
- The supporting spouse gets remarried
- A financial emergency
- A change in state laws
A cost of living change is another common reason for a change in alimony.
It’s often a good idea to include a cost of living agreement clause in your original divorce agreement. Having this clause will prevent the time and expense it would take to modify the original agreement.
Custody & Support
Child custody is the other major issue people look to revisit in their divorce agreements.
Issues may include both their legal custody rights and their physical custody or visitation rights.
There are endless reasons why you might want to change these arrangements.
Perhaps your spouse’s job interferes with their ability to look after your child, or they’ve lost their job and are failing to provide at home. Maybe they’re staying out late and leaving the kids unattended.
Parenting abilities can deteriorate in any number of ways, especially when they’re on their own for the first time.
While the leniency of the judge and the law will vary, the object is always to find what’s in the child’s best interests.
If your spouse has a new partner, for example, who you fear is abusive or trying to manipulate your child in one way or another, you may be able to use that as grounds for a change in custody rights.
If you are afraid that your spouse is abusive towards your child, this is of course grounds for a modification of custody rights as well.
In some instances, people who are assigned custody of a child themselves feel that the child would be better off with the other parent. That parent perhaps has a better relationship with the child, or is better able to care for him or her.’’
Common Sources of Modification
Child custody, health care, child support, and visitation are all commons sources of post-decree modification. Some of the reasons for parenting and child support modifications are:
- A decrease or increase in the payer’s income
- An increase or decrease in the recipient's income
- A change in state laws
- The child is older and the original plan is no longer relevant
- One or both parents wish to move out of the county, state or country
- Evidence that one of the parents is abusive or addicted has been uncovered
- A parent who was formerly abusive or addicted has made progress in changing their behavior
To modify a shared parenting plan or child support payments in Ohio, it is necessary to prove a change in circumstances. This is especially important when making changes to a custody arrangement.
For a court to approve a modification, the following should be true:
- The change should be in the best interest of the child.
- A substantial change of circumstances must have occurred since the original agreement.
- The benefits of changing the plan and/or support should outweigh any potential harm.
If you'd like to estimate the support obligations in Ohio, visit the calculator provided by the Department of Job and Family Services. https://ohiochildsupportcalculator.ohio.gov/home.html
What's the Best Way to Modify my Divorce Agreement?
The easiest and best way to modify your current arrangement is to talk it over with your ex-spouse.
Even if your original divorce was a contentious one, the passage of time can often make things easier because couples are more emotionally removed from the situation.
If you and your spouse are still having problems communicating, make the effort anyway. If it does end up resulting in another court battle, your actions will show that you attempted to be the bigger person.
Convey to your ex--in an email or letter if you want to have it in writing--why you would like to change your agreement. Maybe you’ve switched jobs and aren’t making as much money. Perhaps you are going back to college and are now taking classes on the weekends.
It might be that your parenting plan was implemented when your child was in elementary school but doesn’t work as well now that they are a teenager.
Although changes in your divorce decree or parenting agreement require submitting official documents through the court system, like a divorce, you will save time and money if you can work out as much of your situation beforehand instead of fighting it out in court.
So present your situation to your ex first. If they aren’t up to negotiation, then you can take the next step and get your attorney involved.
Gaming the System Can Backfire
Some people deliberately misrepresent their circumstances to change the terms of their divorce. Be warned: judges are on the lookout for this kind of strategy.
If you deliberately took a pay cut or a lower-paying job to renegotiate the terms of your divorce, a judge will most likely find that out.
While such a tactic may not sound like the smartest course of action, this and similar such approaches are not unheard of in people seeking to modify their divorce. Judges take a dim view of attempts to game the system.
This kind of strategy can backfire and hurt your case.
Be sure that you’re doing your best to meet your obligations, and navigating your circumstances as best you can. If that’s apparent, then the court will be more sympathetic to your request to modify your agreements.
How to Behave While Awaiting Post Decree Modification
You should be on your best behavior no matter what part of your divorce agreement you want to modify.
Especially when it comes to changing your shared parenting plan, your behavior can determine whether or not the court will rule in your favor.
If you’re finding that difficult or impossible, which is certainly not rare, that’s alright—but try nonetheless to maintain a positive, written correspondence. Measured, reasonable communications can be used as evidence of your good intentions.
Ad hominem (personal) attacks in divorce cases are common and frustrating. Unsavory behavior can hurt your case, so do your best to steer clear of any unnecessary disputes.
It’s important to stay on top of your responsibilities and to try to maintain a positive relationship with your spouse. The goal is to demonstrate the quality of your relationship and the suitability of your legal or physical custody over your child or children.
Specific Guidelines You Should Follow
Think before you act. Some things you say or do could be detrimental to your case.
Follow these specific guidelines to ensure you get the best possible outcome in your case:
- Good behavior includes a sincere attempt to resolve issues out of court. Our already overtaxed court system doesn’t want to be bothered with minor complaints and issues. Use a mediator or attorney to hammer out as many details as possible before filing.
- It should go without saying but don’t insult your ex. Especially not in front of your children. It can force your children to feel that they have to take sides and can appear to the court that you are trying to manipulate them.
- If you still have a bad relationship with your ex, don’t engage with them--in person, over the phone or by emails or through social media--except through legal channels such as your attorney.
- Make sure you comply with the current terms of the agreement. If you show that you are responsible and are sticking to the current schedule, it will help your case and make the court more favorable toward making the requested changes.
- Even if you are attempting to lessen child support or alimony payments, continue to pay the amount and pay it on time while you are awaiting judgment. Otherwise, you have a chance of damaging your case.
Why would a divorce decree or shared parenting agreement need to be temporarily changed?
Common circumstances include job loss or change in financial situation or a long term but temporary illness or disability.
Temporary modifications to a divorce decree are treated by the court the same as permanent modifications, paperwork needs to be filled out and filed and a judge or magistrate will make a final decision on whether the change is needed.
There are naturally some fluctuations in both parent’s lives. But sometimes changes that occur are more permanent and can have a long-term, wide-ranging impact on all of the parties involved.
Long-term changes in circumstances may provide even stronger grounds for modifications.
Let’s say one parent is seeing much less of their child, whether it’s because of distance, schedule, or a breakdown in their relationship. Or perhaps a family member of yours becomes ill and suddenly you have a new dependent on your hands.
There are all kinds of big life changes that can occur in the years after a divorce, and many of them can motivate—or in some cases force—you to look to modify your divorce agreements.
Whether your reasons for modification are financial or otherwise, however, it’s important to know that the standards for changing legal custody are much higher than those for changing physical custody or visitation agreements.
Establishing legal custody over your child is often an important part of financial negotiations during a divorce and is more difficult to modify in the future. In such cases, it’s important to outline a significant event in your spouse’s life that hinders them in their responsibility to your child.
Any of these modifications of your original divorce are plausible and common. A good attorney will help to advise you on the likelihood of your desired outcome.
The Importance of a Timely and Well-Prepared Modification
Once you’ve established that you have a case to modify your divorce, it’s important for both of you to act quickly and to prepare well.
Delaying the modification can have several ramifications. Undue delays can be used as evidence against you and demonstrate your ability to cope with the change in circumstances.
Divorces usually involved a long and grueling process, as you probably know. Revisiting them later can be a nightmare for everyone involved.
The most important reason to be prepared is so that your case can be argued quickly and smoothly.
For the court to decide to modify your divorce or shared parenting plan, you’ll want to make sure that you have evidence to support your request. This requires being organized and prepared before you even start the process.
Ask yourself why you want to modify your decree. Is there a legitimate reason or are you still harboring bad feelings about your ex and are looking to get back at them?
Are you moving to a new residence?
Did you recently lose your job?
Are you getting remarried?
Is there a major change in your work schedule?
If your income has decreased, but you’re still successfully managing to make spousal support payments, a judge could see that as an ability to pay and rule against a modification.
When it comes to a shared parenting plan, you need to take a long, hard look at why you want to modify your child’s schedule.
Children--especially young children--function better when their lives are stable. That’s why getting an initial parenting plan worked out can be so difficult--because it’s intended to last.
If you have decided to go ahead with your petition to change the original agreement, you must document everything in writing. This is one of the most crucial things you can do to build your case.
Even if you and your spouse can come to a friendly agreement, it is best to get the terms in writing.
What’s more, you’re going to want to collect whatever evidence you might need now, rather than go searching for it in the future. Medical bills, for example, should be kept to be used as proof in court.
This brings me to my next point: be completely prepared.
After you have gathered everything together, you will need to fill out legal documents and file them with the court. Filing these documents will also require a fee to be paid.
You can do this yourself, but may want a lawyer or paralegal to look over your documents before you file. If they are filled out or filed incorrectly the court will not bother to hear your case.
Like your divorce, filing of post-decree documents will require the other party to be served with court papers.
Once the paperwork is filled out and filed properly and the other party has been served, a motion will be set for a hearing before the court judge or magistrate. (In Ohio, this person is usually a magistrate).
If both parties are in agreement on the terms of a post-decree modification, then a trial won’t need to be scheduled. The motion an entry will simply be “rubber-stamped” by the court after the magistrate asks a few questions to make sure that both parties understand and agree.
Couples that are unable to agree with their hearing date will have to have a trial.
Like an adversarial divorce proceeding, this will take time and money. Eventually, the judge will decide for the couple if they are unable to agree.
There are other reasons to be prepared too, however. Being denied your desired modification may limit you from filing again later on.
If your financial situation deteriorates even further in the future. For example, you don’t want your failed first attempt at a modification to hinder your efforts when you file a new one.
Changing your agreement as soon as the problem manifests itself is almost always the smartest idea.
Quick action means gathering everything together and hiring a responsible attorney. You want to get your case right the first time, as any request for modification may be a one-shot opportunity.
There are some exceptions to the quick action guideline.
Filing too soon after your divorce, for example, can be difficult and problematic. You have to properly weigh and balance your options, and that’s where an experienced attorney can help.
It is generally a good idea to wait at least a year after your divorce is finalized. Some states have predesignated periods during which you can’t file for a modification.
Spousal support, child support, and shared parenting plans can all be modified--even after the divorce is considered final by both parties and the court.
Achieving a successful modification is no walk in the park.
You need to get everything prepared. You must be ready for what might be a one-time opportunity.
This includes contacting your lawyer as soon as you recognize a change in circumstances. He or she should get started right away.
While it’s true that anything within the first year after your divorce might be more difficult to push through, that’s not necessarily a reason to wait.
If you’ve lost your job, or fear for the safety and welfare of your child, now’s the time to file.
Take action before enough time passes to disqualify your concerns. And don’t worry: a good attorney will tell you if you have a case.
Even if it’s just a suspicion, fleshing it out with someone who understands the process can go a long way.
Do your homework and consider alternate resolution like mediation before heading to court if at all possible and be prepared to work with your ex on other options or middle ground.
Be mindful of how this change may affect any children involved and consult an attorney to help guide you through the process.
If you’re divorced, ask yourself this question: Are you satisfied with your divorce settlement? Or do you think some modifications would make things better for you?
VIDEO: I Need to Change My Divorce Papers. What Should I Do?
Have questions relating to modifying your divorce settlement? Call Jack at (740) 369-7567.
Worried about how much it will cost to settle your case?
Take the guesswork out of divorce fees. Click here to learn more.