Depending on your state’s laws, disregarding the terms of a divorce judgment might either put you in jail or out a lot of money. Any order, judgment or decree issued by a family court judge is legally binding. The law obligates you to do whatever the order tells you to do. However, that does not necessarily mean that you’re stuck with it forever.
If you violate a family court order, it’s not likely that the police will show up at your door, with one exception. If you’re significantly behind in child support, and the order allows a bench warrant for your arrest if you fall too far behind, you may be arrested. However, this is generally only the case when a parent has historically refused to pay support. More likely, your ex-spouse will inform the court that you haven’t done what the court ordered you to do. In some states, this is called an “enforcement motion.” Connecticut calls it a “motion for contempt.” By any name, your ex-spouse can petition the court and ask a judge to force you to follow whatever part of the order you’ve disregarded. You’ll receive notice of the motion and a date to appear in court.
If you are honestly unable to do what you were ordered to do, you can present something called an “affirmative defense” when you appear in court. For example, if the court based your child support order on an income of $75,000 a year at the time of your divorce, and if you’ve been out of work for a year, you can show proof that you’re strenuously looking for a new job and have been unable to borrow the money to keep your payments current. This is an affirmative defense. If your order states that you must give your ex-spouse $30,000 for her equity in your home by a certain date, and if you don’t make the payment because you can't get approved to refinance the mortgage, this is an affirmative defense. If you argue that the court order wasn’t fair in the first place, this is not affirmative, and it probably won’t help matters much.
Depending on the nature of your offense, the court will most likely order you to do what you were supposed to do in the first place and to possibly make reparation to your ex-spouse for disobeying the order. This might include paying her attorney’s fees and court costs for having to take you back to court. The court might order a wage garnishment if the issue is that you owe her money, either for support or a property settlement payment. If you’ve interfered with visitation or parenting time, a judge might compensate by giving your child’s other parent more visitation to make up for the time lost. If she has to take you back to court more than once on the same issue, you risk contempt of court charges. When the situation deteriorates to this level, you could face possible jail time.
Almost all court orders are modifiable if you go back to court first, rather than waiting for your ex to take you to court to enforce an order you didn't comply with. Custody, visitation, child support and alimony can usually all be adjusted by the court if you’ve suffered a change of circumstance that makes the old order no longer workable. However, property settlement orders are usually more difficult to change. Always consult an attorney if you are unsure of your options.
References & Resources
- DivorceNet.com: Post-Decree Issues
- Robin Roshkind: What Happens if You Disobey Court Orders
- DivorceOnline.com; Disobeying Court Orders Leads to More Trouble; Judge Anne Klass
- Connecticut Network for Legal Aid; How to Get a Contempt Order (When Family Court Orders are Not Being Obeyed); March 2011
- Law Office of Willie & Dasher: Enforcement of Orders
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images