How to Enforce a Divorce Decree

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Ideally, when your divorce is over, you get to move on smoothly with your life -- with everybody abiding by the terms of the decree. Often, however, ex-spouses end up back in court. They might want to modify the terms of their divorce decree because circumstances changed or one person might need to enforce the terms because the other is ignoring them. States have procedures in place for post-decree motions, but the exact process varies a bit by jurisdiction.

File a Motion for Enforcement

Filing a motion in court for enforcement of your divorce decree is typically your first recourse if your ex won’t do what he’s supposed to do. You can address any issue this way -- child support, custody, visitation or property and debt provisions. The motion asks the court to step in and once again order your ex to comply with the terms of your decree. The court will then schedule a hearing on the matter, during which your ex will have an opportunity to try to explain why he hasn’t performed as he was supposed to. If he has a good reason for not cooperating, the judge may try to work with him. For example, if he was supposed to refinance the marital home and buy out your interest but he can’t qualify for the loan, the judge might give him more time to try again or issue a superseding order, such as that the house be sold instead.

Involve Law Enforcement

If your ex isn’t honoring the child support terms of your decree, you can involve the state without going back to court. Every state has a child support enforcement unit. If you’re already signed up -- and your ex pays support to the state and the state then forwards the money to you -- the unit will be aware of his delinquency and it will take action on its own. If you didn’t sign up with the enforcement unit at the time of your divorce, it’s not too late. You can do so at any time -- and state services will do the heavy lifting for you. But these state child support units can have a backlog of work, so getting the money owed to you might take some time. If you’re not in a position to wait, speak with a local lawyer or legal aid to find out if your state allows you to file a criminal complaint against your ex. In some states, not paying child support is a crime, but usually only if your ex has the ability and income to do so and intentionally refuses.

Ask for a Money Judgment

You can go back to court and ask the judge for a money judgment against your ex if he was supposed to make a payment or payments to you but failed to do so. A judgment gives you the same powers as any other creditor to whom your ex owes money. You can use it to garnish his wages or bank accounts, or to place a lien against his property.

Contempt of Court

If you decide that filing a motion and going back to court is your best recourse, you can ask the judge to hold your ex in contempt of court. If the judge finds him in contempt, your ex could end up in jail, which might bring you some personal satisfaction, but it’s not likely to remedy the situation. Unless he has ample funds at his disposal to pay alimony, child support or a property settlement and he’s just refusing to do so, he’s not going to be able to earn money to comply with the terms of your decree if he’s behind bars. Judges usually reserve jail time for the most egregious situations, such as if you’ve had to take your ex back to court repeatedly over the same issue. If he’s not honoring visitation or custody terms, the most likely result of a contempt charge is usually to award you additional time with your kids to make up for the time you lost -- and the court may order him to pay your legal costs.


About the Author

Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.

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