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Can a PA court modify an alimony stipulation reached by the parties?

In a case of first impression, the Pennsylvania Superior Court dealt with an alimony stipulation between Husband and Wife. The stipulation modified a court-ordered alimony award. The question was: May the court then modify that stipulation between the parties or not? To find out, read on.

In 2002, the trial court entered a decision on the divorce between Husband and Wife, granting Wife $4,000 in child support and also $3,000 per month in alimony each year. Child support is always modifiable but alimony is not always modifiable. In fact, alimony is generally modifiable (for a change in circumstances for example) but can be made non-modifiable by language to that effect.

The original order from the court granted Wife indefinite alimony of $3,000 per month. Although of indefinite duration, this court ordered alimony would have been modifiable upon a change in circumstances, such as Husband becoming sick or being laid off.

By 2005, Husband had fallen behind in payments and the parties agreed to modify the support order by a stipulation between themselves. One of.the stipulations was that Husband would pay alimony of $3,000 per month to Wife beginning only in 2012 but that this alimony obligation would not be subject to judicial modification.

In 2013, Husband sought to modify his alimony obligation anyway.

Section 3105 (c) of the divorce code states that an agreement concerning property rights, alimony or counsel fees is not subject to modification by the court, absent a specific provision in the agreement that permits modification.

On the other hand, Section 3701 (e) of the divorce code provides that a court order for alimony is modifiable upon a change of circumstances. So which Section controls here?

The trial court denied Husband's request and found the alimony to be non-modifiable, per the parties stipulation. Husband appealed to the Superior Court. The Superior Court found that the plain meaning of the statutes was that the parties stipulation on alimony was non-modifiable under 3015 (c), since it was an agreement and not a court-ordered decision.

However, even though the court found the alimony to be non-modifiable, Husband was still able to argue that he could not be in contempt of court if he simply could not pay the alimony. The remaining income for Husband was 150% of the poverty rate and so was found to be a modest but livable income. Moreover, Husband has given 3K in charity each year on this income. So, the Court found that Husband could afford to pay the alimony and thus be found in contempt.

In short, the Court found that it could not modify the alimony agreement (despite a change in circumstances) under 3105 (c) and that Husband was in contempt of court. The case site is: Egan v. Egan, 2015 Pa. Super. 213.

Note that even "non-modifiable" alimony generally terminates upon the death of either party, remarriage etc. but that was not at issue here.

To me, the most interesting part of the decision was a side note concerning the parties agreement to increase the alimony obligation of Husband if he obtained a decrease in his child support obligation. Child support is always modifiable no matter what. So, a common "technique" to turn child support into something certain is to provide that every dollar reduced in child support will result in a dollar (or more) increase in alimony. This way, the total support amount stays the same even though child support is always modifiable. Though this type of provision is common, it has not been legally tested. The discussion on this case seems to hint that the court may honor such trade-off arrangements.