When parents of minor children obtain a divorce in Minnesota, the final judgment must include provisions for custody and support of the children. This usually includes an obligation by one parent to pay child support to the other parent. Minnesota law also allows courts to order one spouse to make payments for the benefit of the other spouse, known as spousal maintenance. Either party can move to modify the amount of child support or spousal maintenance because of a change in circumstances, such as a significant increase or decrease in income. If the court approves the modification, the new amount of child support or spousal maintenance applies to all future payments. Can a court retroactively modify a support or maintenance obligation, though?
The short answer is that yes, Minnesota law allows courts to apply a modification retroactively, but it strictly limits how far back the court can go. If you need to modify a child support or spousal maintenance obligation, it is important to seek legal assistance as soon as possible in order to maximize the amount of time a court can reach back.
Child support is intended to ensure that both parents provide for the support and care of a minor child. Every divorce involving minor children will probably involve child support obligations.
Spousal maintenance is not as common as child support. Minnesota courts can only award spousal maintenance in certain situations. This might occur when one spouse has substantially more earning capacity than the other, such as when one spouse worked while the other cared for the children.
Minnesota law applies a formula for determining each parent’s “basic support” obligation, based largely on their income. From that, a court will consider the parents’ custody arrangement. If a child lives with one parent most of the time, the other parent might make regular payments to help with expenses like education and healthcare. If the parents split custody 50/50, or as close to that as possible, a court may order child support in a way that provides each parent with enough resources for expenses while the child is in their custody.
Courts do not have a specific formula for spousal maintenance payments. The amount is based on factors like the length of the marriage, each spouse’s income and earning capacity, and the standard of living established during the marriage.
In a divorce case, the final judgment of divorce must resolve all outstanding issues, including child support and spousal maintenance. This means that the amount of support or maintenance will reflect the parties’ financial condition as of the date they were divorced. If circumstances change later, they must move for modification.
Minnesota law allows courts to modify child support or spousal maintenance obligations, usually by increasing or decreasing the amount owed, if a party can show that certain circumstances have changed. This might include:
Suppose that, under a final judgment of divorce between Sam and Pat, Sam is obligated to pay $1,000 per month in child support, based on Sam’s income. Sam makes all of their required payments to Pat on time for several years, but loses their job when their employer shuts down operations in the town where Sam, Pat, and their children live. The only jobs available to Sam in the area pay half what they made at their old job. Sam could move to modify child support, asking the court to reduce their child support obligation.
As another example, suppose Sam pays $1,000 per month to Pat, but then gets a major promotion that doubles their salary. Either parent could move for a modification to increase the child support obligation, so that Sam pays more in child support.
In the examples mentioned above, the person seeking modification must file a motion in court, and then wait for the court to sign an order granting the modification. If the other party contests the modification, the case can stretch out for some time, but the need for modification already exists. For the parent whose income was reduced by half, that means time when their support obligation might take up a substantial portion of their paycheck. They probably want the modification to apply as early as possible.
A court order modifying a support or maintenance obligation can apply retroactively, but only to the date that the non-moving party — meaning the party who is not seeking the modification — was served with the motion. Suppose Sam from the first example learns that they lost their job on March 1. By March 15, it is clear to them that their employment prospects are not good, but they do not try to modify their child support obligation right away. Instead, they wait until May 1 to file a motion with the court. Pat is served with the motion on May 2.
In this scenario, Sam might want the modification of their child support obligation to begin on March 1, the day their income decreased. The earliest that the court can order a modification, however, is May 2. An earlier modification date is possible if both parents agree, but if that does not happen, Sam would still be on the hook for the original child support amount for all of March and April.
Anthony Toepfer is a family law attorney in St. Cloud, Minnesota who represents people during especially difficult times, such as divorces and disputes over child custody or child support. As a client at Toepfer at Law, you will always have access to up-to-date information about your case, and we are available when you need us to answer your questions and address your concerns. Please contact us through our website, or give us a call at (320) 497-4416 today to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can assist you.
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