While questions and cases about courts modifying alimony payments arise frequently, the Pennsylvania Superior Court found a never-before-answered issue in a case that was decided late last year. The question before the court in Egan v. Egan, 125 A.3d 792 (Pa. Super. 2015) was if the court is permitted to make a change to the terms of an alimony agreement between the parties, when the parties’ stipulated agreement was itself a modification of an earlier court-ordered alimony award.
In an opinion discussing statutory construction in such depth that only a law professor could love it, the Superior Court eventually set forth a clean, clear, and crisp ruling, which is that the court is prohibited from modifying the terms of an alimony agreement between the parties, while the court is permitted to modify a court-ordered alimony award, that is to say, an award of alimony that was not agreed-upon by the parties.
The underlying rationale for the court’s decision is as compelling to counsel as it is instructive to both the individuals involved and the attorneys handling divorce, equitable distribution, and alimony cases and situations. The very simple lesson is that is that, unless you include language specifically allowing the court to modify your alimony agreement, you will be bound to the terms of alimony you agreed to, and you cannot expect a modification of the alimony terms, even if your circumstances change. On the other hand, if you never reached an agreement on alimony, and the divorce court made an award of alimony based on the statutory factors that it is required to consider (See 23 Pa.C.S. §3701(b), that court-ordered alimony award will be subject to modification based on a change of circumstances. Moreover, and what made the Egan case one of first impression for the Superior Court, even if the initial alimony award was made by court-order, and therefore it would have been subject to modification based on a change in circumstances, but the parties subsequently agreed to a change in the court-ordered alimony terms, unless that new agreement expressly provided that the terms of the new agreement may be modified, you will not be able to modify that new agreement at a later date.
When considering a marital settlement agreement, and specifically the question of alimony, it is imperative to consider not only the specific terms of the award, but whether or not the agreement expressly permits subsequent modification of those terms by a court.
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