Can I Sue My Ex-wife for Breaking the Divorce Decree?
By Heather Frances J.D.
Divorce decrees often contain details about property division, child custody, child support payments and alimony, but ex-spouses don’t always fully comply with the terms of the decree. Since a divorce decree is a court order, your ex-spouse may be guilty of contempt of court if she violates it. Therefore, you can go to court and ask for help with its enforcement.
The terms of a divorce decree are binding on both spouses, whether a judge orders the terms of the decree after a trial or the spouses agreed to the terms in a settlement agreement. Your decree may contain terms that require immediate compliance – such as turning over possession of a vehicle – and terms that require continual compliance – such as child support, alimony or custody arrangements.
Enforcing the Decree
Divorce is governed by state law, so if you want to sue your ex-spouse for not complying with your divorce decree, you must use state court procedures for alleging contempt of court. Contempt of court usually means that your ex-spouse knew about the court order but willingly failed to comply. Typically, you would file this action in the court that issued the divorce decree since it’s that court whose orders are being violated. You may have to file a motion with the court, serve your ex-spouse with that motion and appear at a court hearing.
At the hearing, the judge may find your ex-spouse in contempt of court if you can show she violated the divorce decree. Penalties for contempt of court can include jail time, but depending on the type of violation, other penalties are often available, including seizing tax returns and denying or seizing passports, professional licenses and driver's licenses.
Your ex-spouse can’t simply ignore terms of the decree with which she disagrees. The only way to change the terms of a divorce decree is by seeking a formal modification through the court. This would involve returning to court and showing that a substantial change in circumstances has occurred since the decree was issued. For example, if your divorce decree establishes a child support amount but you or your ex-spouse have since received a significant raise in wages, the court may adjust the amount of the child support order.
Heather Frances has been writing professionally since 2005. Her work has been published in law reviews, local newspapers and online. Frances holds a Bachelor of Arts in social studies education from the University of Wyoming and a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School.