Unfortunately, enforcing divorce decrees is an ongoing process for some people. From having to take an ex back to court for contempt proceedings, to enlisting the help of child support services, it sometimes seems like the conflict will never end.
By WomansDivorce | Answers by Brette Sember, J.D.
When a divorce decree is finalized by a judge, both spouses are required to comply with the terms of the divorce settlement agreement. So what happens when your spouse fails? In this situation, you can take steps to enforce your settlement agreement. It is important to document any violation, including taking notes, making copies of relevant documents, and creating a timeline of events that detail the violations of your divorce decree.
The next step would be to contact an attorney to discuss your legal options for enforcing the agreement. Usually it is best to contact the attorney that originally handled your divorce. Your attorney will then file a motion to enforce with the court. This motion is a formal request for the court to order the other party to comply with the terms of the agreement. If a motion to enforce does not resolve the issue, it may be necessary to file contempt proceedings against your spouse.
If you find yourself battling your ex to comply with the divorce settlement, the following suggestions on enforcing divorce decrees may help.
Jennifer's Question: My ex-husband & I signed a divorce agreement & he is now threatening to go against our agreement. Our divorce was granted recently, so can he legally change his mind regarding our agreement?
Brette's Answer: No. The court order is enforceable.
Phyllis Asks: We've been divorced for six months. The judge gave my ex-husband 15 days to move, but he is still in the house. I asked him to leave many times and he will not leave. I called my attorney and he stated that there is nothing I can do about this. How do I make him leave?
Brette's Answer: If you have a court order stating you have exclusive residency, you can call the police and have him removed. If not, go back to court and file for a violation and this time get it in writing.
Deborah's Question: In our divorce settlement, my ex was ordered to pay me $400 a month and keep the insurance current. Now I may lose the house because he hasn't paid me. He hasn't done anything that the judge ordered, and our paperwork isn't even back from the lawyers yet. I was told that I should ask to talk to the Judge. What do you suggest?
Brette's Reply: You need to contact your attorney and have him or her file for a violation of the court order. A judge will likely give your ex-husband another chance, but after that will start imposing penalties. If you don't have an attorney, talk to the clerk's office and ask them how to file this paperwork.
Marie's Question: Due to Covid court closures, there are significant gaps of time between the settlement being signed and the judge signing off on the divorce papers (8 months for the settlement, 4 months to get signed papers for attorney, 2 months since papers were submitted to the judge for finalization and it was just recently signed by judge). There have been numerous violations of the settlement agreement, however the 2 last conferences were adjourned and the court was only seeing essential matters. My question is, what date would be considered for a change in circumstance for violation and a modification petition?
Brette's Answer: Your attorney would know what your court considers qualifying for that, but if you don't have an attorney you could always file and see what happens.
Alida's Question: How do I file contempt charges against my ex, he is in violation of court orders? I don't have a lawyer to file the paperwork for me.
Brette's Answer: You can file for enforcement or violation by filing a petition or complaint with the court. Go to the courthouse and ask them for the forms.
Ileana's Question: My ex-husband is in contempt of our divorce settlement agreement. I told him that I was going to court for that and he is telling me that "He could lose his job" and it will be worse for me... What's your advice on this?
Brette's Answer: He can't be fired just because he isn't complying with his divorce decree. Missing work to go to court is another story entirely however.
Diane's Question: I was unaware of decree enforcement and took him to small claims court. It did not go well, and the case was dismissed with prejudice without even being heard. Is enforcement still an option?
Brette's Answer: Yes just file a petition in family court for enforcement or violation or whatever they call it in your state.
Naomi's Question: In the divorce agreement, my ex-spouse agreed to pay me 1/2 of his pension payment. He has been making steady payments for several years. Today, 18 years later, he is refusing to make any further payments, stating that he agreed to pay the amount to help me get on my feet and now he will no longer pay it. Can he do that? What are my options for forcing him to continue with the payments?
Brette's Answer: If there is no time limit or other restriction in the order, he is still required to pay it. You can file a petition for a violation so the court can compel him to pay.
Lisa's Question: After our divorce, my ex promised me $200.00 a week, in addition to $1000 alimony for the rest of my life if I would help him and the kids. What are my options if he hasn't held up to that agreement?
Brette's Answer: The terms of your divorce judgment are what you are entitled to. Agreements you make afterwards are not enforceable.
Linda's Question: When I divorced 5 years ago, the decree stated that he needed to remove my name from the mortgage and certain credit cards. He did not take my name off two of the credit cards and the mortgage. He now has gotten ill and has stopped paying them. He is also behind about 5000.00 in child support. I am being told that I am responsible for these things even though my divorce says otherwise. I appreciate any help I can get.
Brette's Answer: You'll need to go back to court for violations to your order. You can obtain judgments against him, but enforcing them is another thing if he has no money. Talk to an attorney who can look at the entire picture. Good luck.
Deborah's Question: We divorced 2 months ago. After I moved out of the marital home, he moved his girlfriend and kids in. They have been a horrible influence on the ex, contribute nothing to the home, and don't even work. I have not received my settlement yet and these people are residing in the marital home and were residing there even before the divorce went through. Can I in some way appeal the divorce agreement or have them removed from the home or something?
Brette's Answer: If the court has issued a judgment or you have officially signed a settlement which was approved by the court, then your ex is in contempt for failing to meet his financial obligations under that settlement. You need to talk to an attorney and take threaten to take him back to court if he does not comply with the court order. The girlfriend and her family have nothing to do with your settlement or order, unless you've been given possession of the home. Good luck.
M's Question: I was awarded the house in my divorce over 18 years ago. My ex got a substantial down payment on that and signed the deed over to me. He then disappeared and has no work history, no addresses, no recent cars, nothing. He didn’t collect all of the money nor did I collect half of the funds that I was awarded. I am now in my seventies and want my affairs in order. My divorce attorney is now a judge and unable to take my case. Do you have ANY ideas on how to proceed?
Brette's Answer: You should be able to retain an attorney who can make a motion to enforce the judgment. If your ex doesn't appear after service (which would be by publication since you can't find him) the judge would issue a default judgment. Your attorney should then be able to enforce the judgment against any bank accounts or deeds.
Annette's Question: Can anything be done to enforce a divorce after death if the spouse was in contempt to pay the other spouse money on the sale of their portion of a house?
Brette's Answer: The estate of the deceased is then responsible. You can find out more on our page about divorce and death. Good luck.
Updated February 11, 2023