How to Enforce Your Judgment of Divorce

Your marriage is over. You’ve separated from your spouse, and gone through all the court proceedings to finalize your judgment of divorce. But even though the order says one thing, your ex is doing something else. What can you do? How can you enforce your judgment of divorce?

The Judgment of Divorce is the final order in a divorce action. It resolves all of the property issues, custody disputes, and money distributions. It is the end of the case, as far as the court is concerned. But just because something is written in an order doesn’t mean it will happen the way you had planned. Sometimes you need to enforce the judgment of divorce.

Enforcing Child Support and Alimony Orders

Perhaps the most common enforcement problem facing the courts is the collection of child support and spousal support after the judgment. Sometimes the paying spouse changes jobs and doesn’t inform the court. This means the income withholding order becomes ineffective and the money stops coming in from the spouse’s employer.

Parents and former spouses are still responsible for their child support and spousal support payments, though. As the months turn over, these “arrearages” can quickly add up to thousands of dollars, and more legal trouble. Failure to pay child support is a felony. If the paying parent doesn’t make direct payments to bring their obligations current, they may face warrants, additional court hearings, and even jail time.

For the most part, child support enforcement happens through the Friend of the Court. If you are not receiving your payments from the Michigan Disbursement Support Unit, you can file a complaint with you local county office to request enforcement even without an attorney.

Enforcing Custody or Parenting Time

When parties come back to court soon after the entry of the judgment it is usually because someone is not following the custody and parenting time order. Parenting time denials are unfortunately common, particularly when one party is unhappy with the custody order that is entered. These parties will take matters into their own hands and refuse to return their children at the specified times. In the most severe cases, this can even amount to parental kidnapping.

Enforcing a parenting time order starts at the Friend of the Court. If you were refused a weekend, or if a person is regularly hours late returning your child, you can file a parenting time denial form with the Friend of the Court, which will usually negotiate make-up parenting time on your behalf. These initial denial forms may not seem like much, but documenting them is a crucial first step to parenting time enforcement.

When parenting time denials become a pattern, it is time to get a lawyer involved. A family law attorney can file a Motion to Enforce Parenting Time, asking the court to make sure you get the visitation you are entitled to under your Judgment of Divorce. In some cases, particularly when there is a pattern of denials and motions, the court may issue sanctions against the offending party, including requiring the party to pay your attorney fees.

Real Estate Concerns in Enforcement

Even when a judgment of divorce doesn’t include minor children, it can still contain enforcement problems that sometimes take years to resolve. Often, this has to do with the sale of real estate, including the marital home. Depending on the economy and the real estate market it can take months or even years for a piece of property to sell after the entry of the judgment of divorce. In some cases, this is delayed even further if the sale of the home is conditioned on a future event, such as a child’s graduation from high school. When one of the parties remains in the home, or when the property is sold at a loss, there is a significant chance that it will require a Motion to Enforce to ensure that the marital home is sold in a timely manner, for a fair value, and that the funds (or debts) are distributed appropriately.

Retirement Accounts and Qualified Domestic Relations Order

A Judgment of Divorce is the “final order” which ends a marital dissolution. But it often isn’t the last order entered into the case. Where retirement accounts including 401(k), 403(b), pension, or annuity accounts need to be divided, there is a follow-up order called a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO – said “quad-row”) or Equitable Domestic Relations Order (EDRO – said “ed-row”). These orders direct retirement plan administrators on how to divide those retirement assets. Because the plan administrators are involved in the approval of these orders, and they need to review the judgment of divorce to do so, these orders usually are entered a few months after the case is officially closed.

Unfortunately, some attorneys who do not focus on family law will forget about this follow up order. Because the issue involved is retirement, this can go entirely unnoticed until one or both parties actually attempt to retire. At that point, the person receiving funds usually realizes he or she doesn’t have as much as expected, and it requires some investigation to determine why the transfer never occurred. When that happens, you may need to hire a family lawyer to correct the error and enter a QDRO after the fact. Depending on how old the Judgment of Divorce actually is at the time, this could end up being a significant challenge. This is why it is important to work with a family lawyer particularly to handle your divorce.

Parties and lawyers alike often push for the entry of Judgment as though it is the finish line of a race. But whether it has to do with child support, parenting time, or financial concerns, what happens after the case is closed can often require some enforcement of the Judgment of Divorce. Don’t feel like you have to take on these challenges by yourself. An experienced family lawyer can help you ensure that your ex does what he or she was supposed to do under the Judgment of Divorce.

Lisa J. Schmidt is a family law attorney at Schmidt & Long, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. If you need help enforcing your Judgment of Divorce, contact Schmidt & Long for a consultation.