When a divorce court orders alimony, the order is made part of the original divorce decree. Even when the spouses have reached a marital settlement agreement that includes an alimony amount, that agreement is made enforceable in court when the judge signs off on it. Divorce and alimony are governed by state law, and laws vary across the country, but all states allow a spouse who is entitled to alimony but is not receiving it to return to court to enforce the original alimony order.
Various types of alimony are recognized by different states. "Pendente lite" alimony is ordered at the beginning of the couple's separation and continues during the divorce litigation. Lump sum alimony is one sum, usually payable over a certain number of months, that ends when the payment total is reached. Rehabilitative alimony is payment over a certain number of months to support the receiving spouse while she pursues education or training in order to rehabilitate her career. Permanent alimony is ordered in the final divorce decree for payment indefinitely into the future.
Any type of alimony ordered by a court is enforceable by that court. Enforcement begins with the receiving spouse filing a motion with the family court that issued the original order. Some states require a motion to enforce; others require a motion for contempt. Either way, the options available to the court for enforcement of alimony orders are fairly uniform. Once the motion is filed, it must be served on the delinquent spouse, who then has a certain number of days to file a response. After the time for filing a response has passed, the enforcing spouse contacts the family court and requests a hearing date.
Courts have several enforcement options available to them. Courts may choose to order the paying spouse to pay all past due support payments and become current; order the arrears to be paid with an additional monthly amount; order interest on the total arrears amount; order the sale of property belonging to the delinquent spouse to satisfy arrears; make the delinquent spouse pay attorney's fees and costs associated with the enforcement action; order both the regular and arrears monthly payments to be automatically deducted from the delinquent spouse's paycheck through an income deduction order; and even order the arrest of the delinquent spouse for contempt of court.
Either former spouse can go back to court and request a modification of alimony if there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the original order was entered. States differ only slightly as to what constitutes a substantial change. Generally, job loss or a serious illness that eliminates the payor's ability to earn a living are both substantial changes that might convince a court to lower the monthly payment. Some spouses can even agree on a modification if it means the payor can continue to pay part of the original amount rather than stopping payments altogether or relying on the court to craft a modification that neither party may like.
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