HOW TO ENFORCE A DIVORCE DECREE
While your divorce decree is a court order you and your spouse must act in accordance with, violations can occur that will require steps to enforce.
Have you or someone you know recently been through a divorce? If so, you know that things can get ugly – quick.
Even for couples with the best intentions, legal separations are both emotionally and financially draining.
But when the dust settles and all the matrimonial baggage is decided, you’re left with what’s known as a divorce decree.
A divorce decree is the court’s final ruling that officially and legally terminates the marriage. The decree summarizes what both parties have agreed to and what they’re entitled to.
You can finally breathe a sigh of relief. Or can you?
What happens when your ex refuses to abide by the judgments listed in the divorce decree? What are your legal rights and what action can you take?
Keep reading to learn how to enforce a divorce decree when your ex-partner won’t comply.
A Divorce Decree is a Legal Document
Not adhering to the guidelines of a divorce decree is a crime. Whether or not you wanted to agree to it, you did. And you’re now legally bound to uphold whatever ruling’s it states.
The same goes for your ex. If he/she chooses not to comply with the divorce decree arrangements, you can take legal action. The decree is enforceable in court, which means your ex will be held liable for noncompliance.
The problem is, getting justice can be a lengthy, expensive process.
The Steps You Need to Take
Before you call your ex in a rage or show up at their front door, take a deep breath. If you want to stay in the good graces of the judge and courts, it’s best you take the right legal pathway to justice.
That means following the below steps, in order.
Contact the Court System
The first order of business when enforcing a divorce decree is to contact the justice system. Be sure to notify the courthouse in the county where you received the divorce decree.
The best point of contact is the judge’s clerk since you can’t speak directly to the judge. If the judge’s clerk is unavailable, the next best person to speak with is the court clerk or an office member.
Be specific about which part of the decree your spouse is violating. The type of divorce decree violation will determine your next legal recourse.
Common violations include refusal to pay a debt, child support or alimony, and refusal to sell marital property, including real estate.
File a Motion of Contempt
You’ve probably heard the term “contempt of court” before but do you know what it means?
The most basic definition is failing to satisfy a court order. Since a divorce decree is a court order, your ex’s refusal to comply places them in contempt of court.
It’s now your job to file a motion of contempt. This is also known as a motion for enforcement. The court officer you speak to will guide you on which avenue to take. They might also provide you with the necessary forms.
Be sure to include all pertinent information on the documents including a copy of the divorce decree and a docket or case number. This will help expedite the process.
Show Up to Court on the Scheduled Day and Time
The quickest way to lose a case is not showing up for court on your scheduled day and time. Once you receive your scheduled court date, make sure you’re present and prepared for the court proceedings. This is your chance to present your case to the judge.
One thing to keep in mind on your court date is that you may not get exactly what you’re asking for. Don’t get your hopes up.
In most cases, the judge will issue a warning to your ex-spouse – giving them the opportunity to make right on their end of the agreement. The judge will also set a deadline that your spouse needs to meet. He/She is required to perform what the decree orders them to do by a specific date.
Start the Process All Over Again
In a perfect world, a warning from the judge and extended timeframe is enough to convince your ex-partner to do the right thing. But that’s not always the case.
If your ex still refuses to comply with the divorce decree – even after being ordered by the judge – you’ll be forced to start the process all over again by filing another motion.
You already know the right steps to take. After filling out the motion paperwork, be sure to attach not only a copy of the divorce decree but also the most recent court order that your spouse has violated.
If you end up back in court, chances are the judge will now rule in your favor and show your noncompliant ex much less sympathy. The judge may even order sanctions, requiring your ex to pay your court costs. In more serious cases, your ex might even face jail time for contempt of court.
Depending on the violations, the judge can use several different methods to help make you whole again. If your ex owes you money, the judge can issue a lien against their property or force them to use their tax refunds to pay their debts.
If children and visitation are involved, visitation may be restricted or granted based on who’s in contempt.
Reasons to Contact the Courts
Before you get the court system involved, make sure that your ex is actually committing a crime. Carefully look over the divorce decree to determine the rules and guidelines your ex is bound to.
Here are a few common ways that people violate divorce decrees.
Refusal to Pay Debts
Money, money, money. In most cases, divorce decree violations are connected to money and one party refusing to pay the agreed-upon debt.
Some judges show special leniency to those who recently lost their jobs. As long as the individual shows an effort to find employment, the judge will rarely enforce jail time.
But that doesn’t help you if your ex’s inability to pay debt puts you in your own financial pickle.
There are a few techniques in place to protect your rights and ensure that your ex makes good on their financial obligations. Some especially stubborn and vindictive individuals would rather face jail time than pay their ex a single dime.
In these cases, the judge may decide to seize your ex’s property as collateral. This is a slightly more complicated legal battle and might require an experienced attorney.
This process involves a writ of attachment issued by the court. This permits that any property owned by the noncompliant party can be seized and used to pay off outstanding debts.
Property can be anything from personal items to physical property like a home or piece of land. In this situation, the court will appoint a third-party recipient and that person will take custody of the land. They’re responsible for selling it and then paying you the owed amount.
Selling the family home is another point of contention in many divorces. If both you and your ex are listed on the title and/or mortgage, you both need to agree to list the home for sale.
In some cases, one party is too emotionally attached to comply with this part of the decree. But if both parties are financially dependent on the sale of the house, it must be done.
Similar to paying off debt, the judge will issue an agent or receiver to handle the sale of the home and divvy up the money accordingly.
These proceedings don’t happen without a little leg-work on your end. You’re responsible for proving that you tried, on numerous occasions, to convince your ex to pay their debts or sell the home prior to filing a motion of contempt. This could include proof of communication in the form of letters, emails, or text messages.
The court wants to see that you made an effort to resolve the issue on your own before asking them to intervene.
Failure to Properly Divide Retirement Accounts
Another common item listed in many divorce decrees is retirement accounts belonging to both parties.
Retirement accounts, including 401k plans, are often divided in the divorce decree. If your ex-spouse fails to give you half of the retirement funds, you can take legal action.
One reason why a traditional motion of contempt might not be the best approach is that if your ex spends all the money before you get a court date, they’re no longer obligated to pay. After all, half of zero is zero.
When dealing with retirement and other savings accounts, you need to prepare a QDRO or Qualified Domestic Relations Order. This will protect your rights to the money and prevent your ex from spending it. The QDRO informs the plan administrator how the retirement fund should be divided as outlined in the divorce decree.
What to Do When Your Ex Won’t Play Nice
Divorces rarely proceed without any complications or hurdles. Even after the divorce decree is drafted, trouble can still lurk.
If your ex-partner decides not to follow the rules and judgments of the court, you can enforce a motion of contempt and have your case heard. Just be sure to make a valid attempt to solve the issue directly with your ex before involving the courts.
Document any exchanges between you and your ex as proof of your efforts.
Divorce can be ugly – but it doesn’t have to be when you have a qualified attorney on your side.
Contact one of our professionals today and let us help your legal case run smoothly.