Collecting Divorce Settlement Money in Pennsylvania

by Beverly Bird

Whether you’re divorced after a trial or because you reached a settlement agreement with your spouse, your decree doesn’t automatically put your share of marital property or settlement money in your hands. It simply gives you the right to make collection efforts against your spouse if he doesn’t comply with the terms of the order. In Pennsylvania, the language contained in your divorce decree determines what you must do to enforce it.

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Motion to Enforce

In some cases, you can file a motion to enforce the terms of your decree if your spouse doesn’t make a required payment to you. Typically, you must do this in the same family court that issued your decree and ordered the payment. The court will schedule a hearing. If your ex uses the argument he cannot afford to make the payment, or he overlooked the payment, the judge will probably give him a little more time to come up with the money before imposing penalties. The judge might reschedule a second hearing in a few weeks to follow up and make sure your spouse has cooperated. If your spouse pays you, your matter is resolved. If he doesn't, the judge can order penalties to persuade your ex it’s easier to give you your settlement money than continue to hold out.

Evidentiary Hearings

A problem might arise under Pennsylvania law if your ex makes a different sort of argument for not paying you your settlement money. If you divorced by settlement agreement, your ex might argue your attorney, or maybe his own, coerced him into signing the agreement. He might claim he didn’t agree to the terms you’re trying to enforce. However, he can only use this defense if you divorced by settlement agreement, not by trial. If a judge ordered your payment after a trial, your spouse had a limited period of time to appeal the decision. Assuming he didn’t do that, the terms of your decree are ironclad and the judge can enforce them. If your ex makes this argument, the judge must order an evidentiary hearing to determine if your settlement agreement is legally viable. He must do this before he can decide whether or not to enforce its terms.

Breach of Contract

If you divorced by settlement agreement rather than by trial, another potential complication exists. In most cases, decrees indicate the agreements are “incorporated by reference.” Your signed settlement agreement should be attached to the decree. If an attorney prepared your decree, it might instead reiterate all the terms of your agreement, paragraph by paragraph. In Pennsylvania, if your decree does not say your agreement is “incorporated by reference,” or your agreement isn’t spelled out in the decree, you usually can’t enforce it in family court. Your settlement is still a legal contract, but family court no longer has jurisdiction over it. Your divorce is over and your cause of action, or grounds, was terminated with the issuance of your decree. Therefore, you would have to file a lawsuit in civil court, charging your spouse with breach of contract.

Penalties and Remedies

If your settlement dispute is resolved in family court, Pennsylvania law allows judges a choice of several “sanctions,” or punitive damages, if your spouse continues to refuse to give you your settlement money. A judge can order seizure of your ex's property equal in value to what he owes you. He can have his wages garnished. If your ex blatantly refuses to pay you, a judge can find him in contempt of court and send him to jail for up to six months.