California Family Code Section 3651 - Interpretation
Family Code section 3651, subdivision (a), provides "a support order may be modified or terminated at any time as the court determines to be necessary."
The exception to this rule is contained in section 3651, subdivision (d), which explains, "An order for spousal support may not be modified or terminated to the extent that a written agreement, or, if there is no written agreement, an oral agreement entered into in open court between the parties, specifically provides that the spousal support is not subject to modification or termination." (Italics added.) Similarly, section 3591, subdivision (c), provides, "An agreement for spousal support may not be modified or revoked to the extent that a written agreement, or, if there is no written agreement, an oral agreement entered into in open court between the parties, specifically provides that the spousal support is not subject to modification or termination."
Courts have interpreted the above exception to require explicit language prohibiting judicial modification or termination. For example, one court held a general "release of rights" does not disclose a specific intent against judicial modification in the face of changed circumstances. (In re Marriage of Nielsen (1980) 100 Cal.App.3d 874, 878 (Nielsen).)
In Fukuzaki v. Superior Court (1981) 120 Cal.App.3d 454, the court held:
"The provisions for a 'final and complete' settlement coupled with a release of all obligations and a provision that the agreement is entire and binding on the parties and their heirs do not equate with the requirement of a 'specific' provision for nonmodification such as 'nonmodifiable' , or 'irrevocable' . Although no particular magic words are needed to provide the exception to nonmodifiability contemplated by section 3591, formally section 4811, subdivision (b), some specific unequivocal language directly on the question of modification is required."
In Forgy v. Forgy (1976) 63 Cal.App.3d 767, 770, the court held unmodifiable a pre-divorce separation agreement stating it should be incorporated in any subsequent divorce, but that "'such decree shall in no way affect this agreement or any of the terms, covenants, or conditions thereof, it being understood that this agreement is absolute, unconditional and irrevocable.'"
In In re Marriage of Nielsen (1980) 100 Cal.App.3d 874, concluded an agreement which provided that it should "'not depend for its effectiveness on (court) approval, nor be affected thereby,'" was a specific provision precluding judicial modification. (See also In re Marriage of Bennett (1983) 144 Cal.App.3d 1022, 1024 husband could not terminate support when agreement stated the obligation "shall be nonmodifiable and . . . no court shall have jurisdiction to modify said sum in any way . . . .".)
In In re Marriage of Jones (1990) 222 Cal.App.3d 505, 509, the trial court reviewed a spousal support agreement, incorporated into the final judgment, that provided for specific payments for identified time periods, and also provided the payments would terminate on death, remarriage, or a specific date. The court held a support step down with fixed termination date was not a "specific provision" precluding judicial modification or extension of support. The court in Jones reasoned, "The agreement contained no articulated reference to either a power of court modification or preclusion of court modification." (Ibid.) The court recognized a spousal support step down with a fixed termination date "suggests . . . contemplation of finality and nonmodifiability." However, it concluded the Legislature, "In an effort to improve what had become a very unclear area of law and practice . . . established the principle of continuing jurisdiction to modify spousal support decrees, preserving the parties' power to exclude such jurisdiction only if they were to 'specifically provide to the contrary' in their marital agreement. One can speculate as to the intentions of the husband and wife with their adoption of a precisely declining schedule of support. It is possible, or perhaps even likely, that at least husband assumed his agreement was final and nonmodifiable. He did not, however, comply with the then-effective requirement for achieving this result: that his intention be specifically set forth. We conclude the trial court was justified in finding jurisdiction to change the amount of current support." (Id. at p. 511.)
"Once the spousal support period expires in accordance with a clear and unequivocal termination date or terminating event, the court has no jurisdiction to extend further support unless it retained jurisdiction (expressly or impliedly under section 4336 . . .) in its most recent order. " (Hogoboom & King, Cal. Practice Guide: Family Law, supra, 17:107, p. 17-32.10.)
"There is no jurisdiction to extend support beyond a stipulated termination date where the termination clause clearly and unequivocally evidences the parties' intent to foreclose any judicial modification. E.g., an order stating 'In no event shall (husband) be obligated to pay spousal support to (wife) after (specified termination date)' is 'explicit language of termination' constituting a 'specific provision concerning judicial modification' that effectively precludes any court extension of the support obligation. " (Hogoboom & King, Cal. Practice Guide: Family Law, supra, 17:109, p. 17-32.12.)