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Should Ex-Wives Be Understanding or Red With Rage After Pink Slips Force Alimony Adjustments?

05/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The other day I was speaking to an ex-wife whose husband had lost his job and asked for what is known in the divorce business as a modification. This means the spouse -- usually the husband -- goes back to court to modify the alimony and custody payments that were based on a previous salary.

In the past, judges would make it tough for a spouse to get a modification. The judge would say that even if the spouse doesn't have cash, he could sell property or other assets to make good on his divorce deal.

Not anymore.

With real estate values plummeting, houses gathering dust on the "For Sale" block or foreclosing, salaries dwindling, 401K values collapsing and jobs disappearing, judges realize that modifications are not only necessary but fair.

The modifications are happening both for child support and alimony. Child support payments are usually a percentage of gross income - approximately 17 percent for a child - and alimony is the wild card in divorce settlements which is decided based on lifestyle, employment eligibility and years of marriage.

This week, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers released a survey which stated that 39% of AAML members have seen an increase in child support payment modifications during the current economic downturn and that 42% of the attorneys cited a rise is alimony modifications.

When I mention to this ex-wife that her ex-husband most likely isn't stashing the cash in a Swiss bank account but genuinely compromised and therefore she should compromise, she becomes enraged. Past hurts flare up. The feeling of being as disposable as Kleenex makes her want to cry.

"Let him figure it out," she fumed. "I already am living on less as a divorced woman. It's not my problem."

But it is.

Some wives I'm speaking to are so preoccupied with fear for their own survival -- and their kids -- that they aren't as sensitive to how difficult it is for current paychecks to possibly stretch and support not one but two families. As my colleague Dr. Mark Banschick says, "It takes a big person to see that their husband is also entitled to a quality of life."

To many ex-wives, they are feeling cheated once again. First, they were cheated of the intact marriage and family that maybe broke up because they were cheated on and now cheated by the system in not making their ex-spouse pay. But divorce blinds people sometimes to being clear-eyed.

I thought about this again after reading the New York Times piece the other day on how judges are managing these modification requests that are flooding courtrooms like a financial Katrina.

As Judge Matthew Troy, who has been a Family Court judge in Manhattan since 1999, explained, it's tough for everyone.

In recent weeks, he told the Times, he had a former Lehman Brothers executive whose $7 million in stock had disappeared, leaving him unable to pay his child support as well as a factory worker who went from a decent-paying factory job to working in food service during Mets games in Queens.

Judge Troy lowered the former factory worker's monthly payment for his three teenagers to $50 per month, from $686. Otherwise, he feared, the father would be unable to meet his obligation and face a more drastic punishment: jail.

"It wasn't his fault he lost his job," Judge Troy told the Times. "I don't want to throw a guy like that in the clink."

For many divorcees, these types of modifications are going to continue until the economy improves. Instead of focusing on frustration and anger, perhaps another alternative would be to go to a mediator and have someone help referee a new settlement to reduce expensive legal fees. What most people are forgetting is that these modifications are not always permanent but temporary.

Not only does a percentage of unemployment benefits go to child support but one can work out an agreement that when finances improve, so will the distribution of funds. When discussions take place with understanding and sensitivity, the results are usually better. It is always beneficial to have these talks before battling in court. And even though you may not be married to this person anymore, you will still have a parental partnership worth maintaining for the sake of your children.

So you can be red with rage that the job market tanked but also mindful that few things are forever whether it's a marriage, a mortgage or a mangled economy.