The Binding Effect of a Divorce Decree on Third Parties

by Beverly Bird

To some extent, whether a divorce decree binds entities or individuals other than the spouses depends on individual state laws and how the third parties got involved. However, the laws regarding some third parties are common to all states when they involve the jurisdiction of two separate courts.

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Joined Parties

Sometimes, a complaint for divorce will name third parties as co-plaintiffs or co-defendants. For example, a lawyer representing the plaintiff wife might want to make a case that the wife worked in the husband’s family-owned business for years and contributed to its growth. He might say that the wife is entitled to monetary compensation for her effort. Because the husband does not solely own the business, the lawyer would have to join the husband’s family in the divorce lawsuit by naming them as co-defendants. If the court awards the wife a monetary reward in the decree, and if the husband’s family then refuses to cooperate, the wife is entitled to file an enforcement lawsuit in family court. In 2011, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled that, due to the specific details of a similar case, such a decree was enforceable upon the third parties. However, this ultimately comes down to the interpretation and opinion of the court on a case-by-case basis.

Intervenors

Third parties can also petition the court during a divorce action, asking to be included. In legal terms, this is “intervening.” This might occur when a wife’s parents buy the couple a home. The deed to the home might be in names of both spouses. Ordinarily, this would mean the home is marital property and the court would divide its value in a divorce. To prevent the husband from receiving a share of the home, the wife’s parents might file a petition, asking that the court allow them to intervene. This would permit them to dispute the husband's right to a portion of the property. Most states, including New Jersey, will bind the parents to the court’s ultimate decision regarding the home, because they voluntarily entered the lawsuit.

Creditors

Divorce decrees usually incorporate creditors’ interests in the text and terms of the order. When a judge assigns marital debts to each spouse for payment, these terms are not binding upon the creditors. The decree terms can conflict with consumer laws, especially when both spouses have jointly signed for a debt. Creditors are not precluded from pursuing one spouse for payment even though the decree states that the other spouse is responsible. However, if the innocent spouse is forced to actually pay the debt, she can take her ex back to family court. She can ask a judge to order her ex to compensate her for the money she had to pay. If the court agrees, its decision is binding upon the non-paying spouse, even if the original decree did not bind the creditor.

Paramours

In some states, such as Vermont, a paramour is automatically joined to a divorce lawsuit when one spouse files for divorce on grounds of adultery. The accusing spouse must serve the paramour, as well as her husband, with a copy of the divorce complaint and with notice that she’s included the paramour in the legal action. However, there’s generally no monetary liability to the paramour because of this. There’s nothing to which the court might bind the paramour.