As the Pennsylvania Superior Court recently made clear in Rosiecki v. Rosiecki, the answer to this question largely depends on whether the obligation arises from an agreement or from a court-order.
In Rosiecki, the parties entered into a Property Settlement Agreement, which required the husband to pay the wife alimony until such time as certain marital real estate sold. The Agreement did not contain any other language regarding the termination or modifiability of the alimony, although it did provide for a reduction in the amount following the sale of specific properties.
The husband filed a Petition to Terminate Alimony ten years later, even though the marital real estate had not sold, arguing he could no longer make the alimony payments per the Agreement.
The trial court denied the husband’s Petition, finding the court lacked the authority to modify or terminate the husband’s alimony obligation because the Agreement clearly set forth the conditions necessary to terminate the alimony (real estate must be sold) and the Agreement did not contain language permitting judicial modification.
The Superior Court affirmed. In doing so, the Court made clear that because property settlement agreements are governed by contract law, the court cannot change the terms of an agreement absent clear language permitting such modification or the consent of both parties. The Court also made a distinction between the modifiability of alimony obligations arising from agreements and those arising from court-orders, as it stated, “alimony agreements are not subject to modification by the court unless the agreement contains a specific provision to the contrary” while “court-ordered alimony awards remain subject to modification to reflect the parties’ changed circumstances.”
This distinction is important, as litigants entering into property settlement agreements must consider whether to include language that gives the court the authority to modify or terminate alimony should circumstances change. This is true whether you are the party receiving or paying the alimony, as modification can go both ways.
It is therefore prudent to consult a family law attorney before entering an agreement or proceeding to court with respect to alimony. The family law attorneys at Shemtob Draganosky Taylor, PC are well equipped to help you weigh your options and to draft language in your agreement to protect your alimony award in your divorce.