How to Collect Unpaid Alimony in California

by Tom Streissguth

A divorce case in California may include an order for spousal support, also known as alimony. Although alimony is not required by law, a judge can order it under certain circumstances; state law provides for 13 different considerations when determining the amount and duration of spousal support. As with child support, a spousal support order is legally binding on the individual payor named in the order. If alimony goes unpaid, the other spouse may exercise several enforcement options before turning to the court for more serious action, such as a contempt order.

Enforcement Actions

If you are not receiving alimony payments ordered by the court, you may apply to the child support agency handling any child support payments in your case and request an enforcement action. The agency will calculate the amount past due according to the spousal support order and notify the other party. The payor must be given a reasonable amount of time to rectify the arrearage. Keep a detailed record of all payments received before and after any enforcement action has been opened on your behalf.

Garnishment and Levies

California's child support agencies may enforce spousal support orders by garnishing wages or banking accounts, seizing property, and suspending driver's and professional licenses. California also grants authority in these agencies to divert federal or state tax refunds. Once the paying party has been notified, garnishment can proceed at the discretion of the collection agency, meaning without prior notice to the other party.

Motion for Hearing

If notification and enforcement action fails to bring your alimony payments up to date, you or the child support agency may file a motion for hearing in the civil court that handled your divorce. You will need to file Form FI-195, Income for Withholding Support, available online from the California Courts website. The purpose of the hearing is to bring the arrearage to the attention of the court system, explain the financial situation of the parties and apply for any and all available remedies. You must have the motion served on the other party, either by law enforcement or a private process server. The court will notify the payor of the hearing date and require the payor's presence at the hearing, where all parties will have a chance to explain the status of the support payments.

Contempt Procedings

If enforcement actions have failed, a California court may also grant a motion for contempt in a spousal support proceeding. Contempt of court is a serious charge that carries heavy penalties, including fines and jail time. In support cases, a court can enter a contempt finding for each month of unpaid alimony and order up to five days of jail for each finding. The judge can also order garnishment of wages and any other remedies available to the collection agency. In addition, California imposes 10 percent annual interest on support arrearages, which can also be collected through garnishment or levies.