Enforcing Alimony Orders

Learn what you can do to enforce spousal support if you're having trouble collecting what your ex owes you—and the potential consequences for not obeying alimony orders.

By , Retired Judge
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Just because you were awarded alimony (also known as spousal support or maintenance) in your divorce, that doesn't necessarily mean that your ex-spouse will always pay on time. But the law provides ways of enforcing alimony awards, whether they resulted from a judge's decision after trial or were based on a couple's agreement that was approved by a judge.

There isn't a state in the U.S. that will not enforce an alimony order. But enforcement is rarely automatic. Instead, the supported spouse must usually make a request to start the process. Alimony laws vary from state to state, including the requirements and methods for collecting past-due alimony. Still, many methods are fairly universal. And the potential consequences of not paying alimony are pretty much the same, no matter where you live.

When Is Alimony Considered Late?

Typically, alimony orders require periodic payments on a certain date, such as the first of the month. As a general rule, a payment is technically late when it isn't received on that date. But that doesn't necessarily mean enforcement can start right away. For example:

  • Agreements. When couples negotiate divorce settlement agreements (or stand-alone agreements on spousal support), they may include specific provisions about when the payments will be considered late (such as after a five-day grace period) and what will happen when the full amount isn't received on time. Once a judge approves a couple's signed written agreement and makes it part of a court order, the recipient spouse will have to follow those provisions when trying to collect overdue or unpaid alimony.
  • State law. A state's laws might specify when a spouse (or agency) may request certain enforcement methods. For example, Maryland allows requests for wage garnishment after the paying spouse owes more than 30 days' worth of alimony. And Florida's special procedure for money judgments kicks in only after a payment is 15 days late and the total amount of overdue support is more than the amount owed each period—usually each month. (More below on both of these enforcement methods). (Md. Code, Fam. Law § 10-126(a); Fla. Stat. § 61.14(6) (2023).).

Wage Garnishment for Alimony Payments

When judges first award spousal support, they'll often also order income withholding. These orders (also known as wage garnishment or income deduction) require employers to take alimony payments out of the paychecks of spouses who owe the support. Some states, such as Florida, make income deduction mandatory whenever a court issues a final order for alimony. (Fla. Stat. § 61.1301(1)(a) (2023).)

If your ex is behind on alimony payments and you don't already have an income withholding order, you may usually go back to court to request one. You might also be able to have overdue support (called arrearages or arrears) added to an earnings withholding order, in states that allow that (such as Texas). That way, a percentage of the arrearages may be added to each periodic alimony payment going forward, until the past-due amount is paid off. (Tex. Fam. Code § 8.102(a) (2023).)

Security for Alimony From Self-Employed or Unemployed Spouses

Obviously, wage garnishment isn't a viable way to collect alimony if your ex is self-employed or unemployed. (Yes, folks who are unemployed may still be required to pay spousal support.) It also may not work well for those who get their income from multiple sources.

In many states, judges may require spouses to post a bond or provide another form of security for future alimony payments. The recipient spouse may then collect from those assets to cover overdue payments. For instance:

  • If a Washington judge orders a spouse to do this, the bond or other security must equal two years' worth of spousal maintenance. The recipient may then ask to recover overdue amounts from that security, as well as to have the judge increase the amount of the security. (Wash. Rev. Code § 26.18.150(1) (2023).)
  • In New Mexico, a spousal support order automatically becomes a lien on the payor spouse's real estate when the order is filed with the clerk of the county where the real estate is located. That way, the spouse wouldn't be able to sell or refinance the property until paying off any overdue spousal support. (N.M. Stat § 40-4-13 (2023).)

If a judge didn't require security for the original alimony award, you may be able to go back to court to request such a requirement after the payments have been late or simply stopped.

Can You Get Help From Child Support Agencies to Collect Alimony?

All U.S. states (and federally recognized tribes) have agencies that will enforce child support orders. Some of these agencies will also collect spousal support, at least in some cases. For example:

Most state agencies are authorized to use a variety of methods to collect unpaid support, including:

  • intercepting tax refunds
  • intercepting unemployment, workers' compensation, or disability benefits
  • seizing money from bank accounts
  • placing liens on property
  • suspending driver's, business, or professional licenses, and
  • reporting the debt to credit reporting agencies.

Check with your state agency to find out whether and how it handles alimony enforcement. If you can get this assistance, you most likely won't have to pursue enforcement on your own through the courts. Child support agencies charge a small annual fee for their services (currently $35), unless the recipient is receiving public assistance.

Money Judgments and Writs of Execution to Collect Spousal Support

State laws allow various methods of collecting debts owed under a money judgment—that is, a court order that requires someone to pay you money. In most states, an alimony order isn't automatically a money judgment. Instead, you'll usually have to return to court to request a money judgment for the amount of support arrearages that your ex owes you. But this extra step might not be required, depending on the circumstances and where you live. For example:

  • In Florida, if alimony is being paid through a local depository or the State Disbursement Unit, the recipient won't have to apply for a money judgment to collect unpaid support (as long as the arrearages equal more than one periodic payment). Instead, the court will issue a money judgment unless the spouse who owes support successfully objects because there's been a mistake (such as in the amount that's owed). (Fla. Stat. § 61.14(6) (2023).)
  • The law in Washington, D.C. treats an alimony order as a money judgment, which eliminates any extra steps to request one. (D.C. Code § 46-204(b) (2023).)

Once you have a money judgment, you may ask the court to order any of the allowed methods for collecting what you're owed, including:

  • a writ of execution, which requires the sheriff to take the money from your ex's bank account or to seize other property
  • placing a lien on your ex's property or business, which would require paying off the debt to you before selling it
  • appointment of a receiver to take profits from your ex's property or business in order to pay the debt, and
  • wage garnishment.

Be aware that it may be your responsibility to provide the court with a list of your ex's assets, as best as you can. That could take some sleuthing—perhaps with the help of a forensic accountant.

Contempt of Court for Failing to Pay Alimony

An alimony award is a court order. That means that someone who willfully disobeys that order could be held in contempt of court. So if your ex is refusing to pay spousal support, you have the option of filing a motion (written legal request) asking a judge to find your ex in contempt.

How to Prove Contempt

After you've filed a contempt motion, a judge will hold a hearing and consider your evidence—as well as your ex's response. In general, you'll need to prove that:

  • you had a valid court order for spousal support
  • your ex knew about the order, and
  • your ex willfully disobeyed the order by failing to pay the alimony, despite having the ability to do so.

Usually, it's not difficult to prove that you had a valid order and that your ex knew about it (whether by signing a spousal support agreement, being present in court when the judge issued the order, or receiving a copy through service of process). As to the payments, you should have records of when you did or didn't receive them, from your ex's employer (if there was an income withholding order), the state collection unit, or your own financial records.

Proving willful disobedience could be more difficult, especially when your ex claims an inability to pay. But it will usually by up to your ex to prove that claim. For instance, Texas law specifically allows payor spouses to raise an affirmative defense to contempt charges for failing to pay maintenance if they can prove that they:

  • weren't able to pay the ordered amount of maintenance
  • didn't own property that could be sold, mortgaged, or otherwise pledged to raise the money
  • weren't able to borrow the money despite trying to do so, and
  • didn't know about any other source for borrowing or otherwise getting the money legally.

(Tex. Fam. Code § 8.059(c) (2023).)

Penalties for Contempt of Court

A spouse who's been found in contempt of court for failing to pay alimony could face fines and possibly even jail time. However, judges usually only resort to this when other enforcement methods have failed. Also, a spouse can usually "purge" (erase) the contempt finding by taking certain actions, including paying off the arrearages.

When you're filing a motion for contempt, you may usually include a request that your ex pay your legal fees for the contempt proceeding. In some states, judges have the option of awarding legal fees. In others, like Ohio, judges must order spouses who've been found in contempt to pay their ex-spouses' court costs and attorney's fees for the contempt proceeding. (Ohio Rev. Code § 3105.18(G) (2023).)

Can You Go to Jail for Not Paying Spousal Support?

In addition to the possibility going to jail for contempt of court, some states criminalize the failure to pay alimony. For example,:

  • You can be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor in Arizona if you willfully fail to pay court-ordered spousal maintenance without a lawful excuse. (Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 25-511.01 (2023).) The penalty could include up to six months in jail.
  • In California, it's a crime to leave the state in order to avoid paying court-ordered spousal support without a legitimate excuse. The punishment is up to a year in county jail, a fine of up to $2,000, or both. (Cal. Penal Code § 270.6 (2023).)

What If a Spouse Can't Afford to Pay Alimony?

Even if you can't be found in contempt of court because you don't currently have the ability to pay alimony, you might be required to take certain steps to remedy the situation. In Florida, for instance, a judge may order you to look for a job or participate in job training if you are able to do so, are behind in alimony payments, and have no income or are underemployed. (Fla. Stat. § 61.14(5)(b) (2023).)

If you're the one who's supposed to be paying alimony, don't simply stop making the payments when you run into financial problems. Your first step should be to communicate with your ex. The same is true if you're the one who should be receiving the payments. If there's a good reason for the late or missing payments, the two of you might be able to work something out, either on your own or with the help of a mediator. For instance, you might agree to suspend payments temporarily until the payor spouse finds a new job—although you might want to clarify what will happen if that doesn't happen within a certain amount of time. If the two of you agree to change the amount of spousal support, you'll need to submit your signed agreement to the court for approval, along with a modification motion.

Without an agreement, you'll need to file a motion on your own to request a modification of the current order if you can no longer afford to pay alimony because of changed circumstances. The sooner the better, because many states won't cut off the accumulation of arrearages until the modification motion is filed. Be aware that judges in some states may impute income to you based on what you could be earning if they believe you're voluntarily unemployed or underemployed.

Enforcing Alimony When Your Ex Lives in a Different State

All states have adopted some version of a law known as the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), which establishes the rules when more than one state is involved in cases relating to child support and alimony orders. The UIFSA helps to determine jurisdiction (the authority of a particular court to hear and decide a case) and which state's laws will apply.

If your ex lives in a different state than where you were divorced, you'll need to register the support order in that state before you can request enforcement in its courts. The specific requirements vary from state to state, but you'll generally have to submit:

  • a letter of transmittal requesting registration and enforcement
  • two copies, including one certified copy, of the order to be registered, including any modification of the order
  • a sworn or certified statement (by you or the agency keeping records of payments) showing the amount of arrearages
  • certain information about your ex, including name, address, social security number, employer (or other source of income), and description and location of any property your ex owns in the state, and
  • your name and address, unless revealing that information would jeopardize your (or a child's) health, safety, or liberty.

If your ex is supposed to be paying the alimony to your state's child support agency, contact the agency for assistance with the UIFSA registration.

Getting Help With Alimony Enforcement

As mentioned above, you may be able to get help enforcing your spousal support order through your state's child support agency. Otherwise, many state or county court websites (such as the site for Maricopa County) provide DIY forms and instructions for enforcing alimony. And some state courts have self-help centers where you can find information on how to proceed.

But you should know that it can be difficult to navigate the legal system on your own—especially if you're considering filing a motion for contempt of court or you need to enforce spousal support across state lines. You'd be wise to speak with a knowledgeable family law attorney who can explain your options, advise you on the best way forward, and represent you in court if it comes to that.

In some cases, having a lawyer can prevent the need to use the court system at all. Sometimes a letter from a lawyer to delinquent spouses can be all that's needed to get them to start complying, especially if they're made aware of the possible consequences of not paying—particularly the penalties for contempt of court. A lawyer might also be able to negotiate a lump-sum settlement of the arrears. Even if it's less than the full amount owed, it might be worth it to avoid the stress and delay of going to court.

When you're looking for an attorney, however, don't bother looking for an "alimony lawyer." It's virtually unheard of for lawyers to have a practice solely devoted to enforcing spousal support. Even attorneys who are specialists in family law (something you should look for) almost invariably represent clients in many aspects of divorce and post-divorce issues, including alimony. But that's a good thing, because you want an advocate who understands how different issues related to a divorce can intersect and play out in any individual case.

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