Enforcement of Court Orders
After going through a divorce or family law case, the last thing you want is to end up back in court. Unfortunately, most cases don’t end when the judge signs the initial court order. The unfortunate truth is that reaching an agreement or having a judge enter a court order is only the first step in your family law matter. The second is making sure that your ex abides by the court order by properly enforcing any provisions that are being violated, and thereby sending a clear message that those violations will not be tolerated.
There are numerous types of orders that can be enforced in family law cases, including the following:
Marital Settlement Agreements incorporated into a divorce order;
Orders to sell a marital home, rental properties, timeshares, boats, cars, trucks, motorcycles, furniture, art, gold & silver, etc.;
Qualified Domestic Relations Orders to transfer interests in individual retirement accounts, pensions and brokerage accounts;
Orders to transfer the title to vehicles;
Non-divorce legal and physical custody orders;
Non-divorce child support orders.
It is important to note that there must be an existing court order for your ex to be held in contempt of court. A court order can be the result of a judge’s decision or a settlement agreement that has been incorporated into the order. An incorporated agreement can be enforced through both a breach of contract action and through the court’s contempt powers.
If your ex is violating a settlement agreement, but that agreement has not been incorporated into a court order, then they are not in contempt or court. An unincorporated agreement can be enforced through a breach of contract action, but not through the court’s contempt powers.
Before filing an enforcement action with the court, and pursuing costly and time-consuming litigation, your family law attorney may consider sending a strongly-worded letter to your ex, citing the violation and demanding compliance with your court order either immediately or within a certain time frame. Sometimes that’s all it takes to resolve the issue.
If a letter doesn’t adequately solve the problem, and it makes financial sense, then you will need to take advantage of the court’s process for enforcement. Generally, this involves filing a Petition for Contempt (sometimes called a Petition for a Rule to Show Cause), asking that the court find your ex is in violation of the court order. The court takes contempt very seriously and has broad authority to sanction the violating party, including the power to jail someone for repeated and and willful conduct.
If your ex is found in violation of the court order, and doesn’t have a compelling reason for failing to follow its provisions, then some or all of the following could occur:
Wage Withholding. When a party has failed to pay support due and owing, the court has the authority to order that a payor’s employer withhold income from their paycheck. The amount of the withholding can be the amount of any current child support due, in addition to a specific amount to be applied to arrears.
Suspension of Driver’s, Professional or Recreational License. When a party has failed to pay support for a certain period of time, their license may be suspended. License suspension may include a driver’s license, occupational license, or recreational license, and can remain in effect until a full or substantial payment has been made.
Property Liens. To enforce a support order, the court can use a lien to garnish money that is in the delinquent payor’s bank account, or is received from the sale of property.
Intercepting Federal and State Tax Refunds. Federal and State laws allows support enforcement agencies, such as the Office of Child Support Enforcement, to directly seize any tax refunds which would otherwise go to the delinquent payor, and directly apply those funds to the payor’s back due support obligation.
Passport Restrictions. A party who falls behind in a court-ordered support obligation can encounter significant restrictions on international travel, including denial of a passport application, revocation of an existing passport, or restriction on international travel.
Appointment of a Conservator. In cases where a party fails to dispose of marital property pursuant to a court order, the court can appoint a conservator or a third party to oversee the sale or transfer of property. The conservator can be given broad powers, including signatory and decision-making authority, to make sure the asset gets transferred or sold.
Change of Custody. In some cases, where a party is failing to abide by a custody or visitation order, the court can order a change of custody, including a change of legal or physical custody.
Award of Attorney’s Fees. Legal fees associated with enforcing a court order can easily run into the thousands of dollars and beyond. The court has the authority to order the violating party to pay the other’s attorney’s fees, and will often do so (this is an effective deterrent for anyone thinking about violating a court order). Additionally, when drafting a settlement agreement, it’s helpful to include a provision for payment of attorney’s fees in the event one party is forced to pursue an enforcement action.
Incarceration. In egregious situations, and often as a last resort, the court can order that the violating party go to jail for failure to abide by the court order.
Contact a Wayside Legal Divorce Attorney
Wayside Legal LLC is an award-winning law firm located in North Bethesda, Maryland, with years of experience handling cases involving enforcement of court orders throughout Maryland, D.C., and Virginia. If you are facing a situation where your ex is violating a court order, contact a Wayside Legal attorney today for a consultation to discuss your specific situation.