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Divorce | Family

What Are the Legal Consequences of Not Following a Divorce Decree?

6 min read
Philip Ahn, Attorney

by Philip Ahn, Attorney

Ex-spouses may face legal consequences if they fail to comply with their divorce decree. All court orders, from child support orders to property distribution orders and any other orders a court issues as part of a divorce decree, are legally binding. Depending on the type of order that the former spouse violated and the severity of the violation, a judge may issue sanctions (consequences) like jail time, fines, or wage garnishment. Sometimes, courts can seize a noncompliant spouse’s assets or suspend a driver’s license.

What is a Divorce Decree?

Judges issue a divorce decree after hearing all the evidence in a divorce case. A divorce decree is a court order that officially terminates a marriage and outlines the divorce settlement terms. It explains the rights and obligations of each ex-spouse in the future, including how to handle matters not covered by the decree. 

A divorce decree is also the legal document that will govern any disputes or enforcement actions after the divorce is final. All divorce decrees contain information about property division. They also include any other agreements and orders that apply to the divorced spouses, such as a child support order, a child custody and visitation agreement, and, in some cases, an order for alimony payments.

What Are the Consequences of Not Following a Divorce Decree?

If a divorced person does not obey the terms of their divorce decree, they can expect to be held accountable for their actions. While a failure to abide by a divorce decree may result only in a call from the other party or their attorney as a reminder to obey the divorce decree, enforcement actions and contempt of court proceedings will soon follow if compliance does not occur promptly. 

The longer a divorced person continues to violate the terms of their divorce decree, or the more severe the violations, the bigger the consequences will be for them. Financial resources, driver’s licenses, professional licenses, and personal liberty are at stake.

Can I Go to Jail if I Don’t Pay My Divorce Settlement?

Courts can order a variety of types of payments between divorced spouses as part of a divorce decree. The most common types of payments courts order in divorce cases are property division, child support, and alimony (sometimes referred to as spousal support or maintenance). If a court has ordered payment in any aspect of your divorce case, you must make payments according to the terms of that order. 

If you fail to make any payment that a court ordered you to pay as part of a divorce decree, you could face an enforcement action and even be found in contempt of court. The consequences of contempt may include wage garnishment, property seizure, and, yes, even jail time in some cases.

What to Do if Your Ex Does Not Follow Your Divorce Agreement

If your ex-spouse is not complying with one or more terms of your divorce decree, you could secure their compliance by contacting them and reminding them of their obligation under the divorce decree. You can do this independently if it is safe, or with help from an attorney. 

Sometimes, a reminder is enough to bring a noncompliant former spouse back into compliance with the terms of a divorce decree. At other times, you or your attorney may need to educate your former spouse about the possible consequences of failing to comply with the terms of the divorce decree. 

If your efforts to encourage your former spouse to comply with your divorce decree do not bring your former spouse into compliance with the divorce decree, you or your attorney may need to file a motion for enforcement with the court. A motion for enforcement is the way that you ask the court to enforce the terms of your divorce decree to secure your ex-spouse’s compliance. A court can also modify a divorce decree in severe circumstances.

As you might imagine, some former spouses refuse to obey a divorce decree, even after an enforcement action is taken against them. In those situations, a contempt of court action is necessary. Your ex-spouse may be declared “in contempt of court” if you can prove that they willfully failed to comply with any of the terms of your divorce decree. Contempt of court is a serious offense with potentially severe consequences, such as fines (in addition to being required to pay what was ordered), jail time, loss of driver’s and professional licenses, and seizure of property.

What is Contempt in a Divorce Case?

There are two types of contempt actions: civil contempt and criminal contempt. States define each kind of contempt in their statutes and the possible penalties for each. In a successful civil contempt case, the defendant will be ordered to comply with the divorce decree. They could also have to pay fines and be sent to jail or suffer other consequences if they refuse to comply. The purpose of a contempt of court action is to punish a person who has willfully violated a court order. Criminal contempt cases often result in fines, jail time, or both.

If you file contempt of court charges, be sure you have solid proof that the other party willfully violated the court order because you are responsible for providing that proof. Some pieces of evidence you can use to support your claim of contempt include a copy of your divorce decree, any communications you have received from your ex-spouse indicating they are not following the terms of the divorce decree, photographs, and witness statements. An attorney can help you decide whether filing a motion for contempt is your best option and can assist you if necessary.

Can You Pursue a Contempt of Court Action During Divorce Proceedings?

Courts do not wait until the end of a divorce case to issue binding orders upon the divorcing spouses. During a divorce case, a court can issue any orders that it feels are necessary to protect the rights of each spouse and any children they have during the divorce proceedings. Custody, visitation, and child support orders are two orders that courts commonly issue during divorce proceedings so that divorcing spouses and their children can have some degree of stability in their finances and day-to-day schedule as they work through the divorce process.

If one of the spouses willfully violates the court’s orders during divorce proceedings, the other spouse may take legal action against them. Taking legal action against the other party in your divorce case should be taken seriously because it is expensive and time-consuming. However, if one spouse refuses to obey a court order, a contempt of court action may be the only way to enforce compliance.

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