Only a Court Can Modify the Decree
Even after a divorce is final and the decree has been entered, life doesn't stop. Circumstances change. If you lose your job, do you still have to pay the same amount of spousal and child support? What if your ex-spouse wants to move to another city with your children? Washington family law allows for modifications of the final divorce decree for child custody, visitation, child support, and spousal support, but not property and debt division.
Child custody, visitation and support remain under the control of the court until the children are legally emancipated. Either party may request the court to modify custody, visitation, or support at any time before the child is emancipated by reaching the age of 18 years and graduating high school.
Modification of the decree is done by filing a Petition to Modify the Decree and supporting documents demonstrating a substantial change of circumstance with the court, and serving those documents on the opposing party before the child is emancipated. Once the child is emancipated, the court loses subject matter jurisdiction over these issues forever, and those terms of the decree can no longer be modified.
The party receiving or paying spousal support can petition the court to modify the amount or duration of the support obligation. The petition to modify must be filed and served while the obligation to pay still exists. Once the obligation to pay spousal support has expired, the court loses subject matter jurisdiction over spousal support and cannot resurrect it.
The moving party must clearly demonstrate a substantial change in the circumstance of the parties from the time the decree was entered. What constitutes a substantial change of circumstance is a subjective decision to be made by each individual judge. During the divorce proceeding the issue before the judge is what is in the best interest of the parties and children, and what is fair. Once the decree is entered, that is no longer the deciding factor. Even if it would be in the best interest of the party or children, the court cannot modify the terms of the decree without the clear demonstration of a substantial change of circumstance.
The parties’ informal agreed changes in support, visitation or even custody are not binding on the court, and do not relieve either party from the exact terms spelled out in the decree. Informal agreements to modify the decree without court approval can cause significant problems for the party trusting their former spouse to honor the informal agreement. You must abide by the decree until it is properly modified by court order.
At the time of the divorce, child and spousal support are calculated based on the incomes of both parents and the needs of the children and other spouse. Custody and visitation were set based upon the facts existing at the time of divorce. If the circumstances, incomes or needs of the parties change after divorce, the effective party can move for modification, but the change will have to be significant. The party wanting the modification has the burden of proving the change in circumstance. Have you now lost that high paying job or had your hours cut? Has your former spouse obtained a higher paying job or gotten remarried? Do your children want a change in custody? The calculations which set the original support, or determined the original parenting plan, may no longer make sense. Visitation and custody arrangements are complex schedules of times and dates. If your work schedule has changed, you may no longer be able to keep the same visitation days.
The court will not quickly or easily modify the decree, but if shown a substantial change, the court will grant a modification. Be aware: the number one source of information a former spouse can use to seek an increase in child or spousal support is information from you bragging about your new raise or promotion. Think before you brag!