It’s important to remember that a divorce settlement is not just an agreement. During a divorce a judge might make a bunch of different orders on things like temporary child support, temporary maintenance, or having to produce work records.
If you don’t follow the judge’s orders, you are essentially telling the court that you don’t care about its authority and that you think you can do whatever you want. Think about it. “Pay child support? Forget that!” “Get life insurance so my kids can go to college if I kick the bucket? Yeah, right.” “Show you my bank statements? Make me.”
If you act this way, the law looks at you like you are insulting Lady Justice. The technical term is “contempt of court.” There are a few different types of contempt:
1. “Direct” contempt. This is where something occurs in the courtroom. Don’t make the judge mad. They have power and can cause you a lot of grief.
2. “Indirect” contempt. This is something that occurs outside the courtroom and is most common in the divorce context. Basically, you are violating a court order, but you don’t have the brass to do it in front of the judge’s face. You’re going behind his or her back. “So what if I don’t contribute to pay camp expenses? The judge ain’t here!” But if the court finds out, you’ll get in trouble. And if you keep doing it, you can find yourself in jail.
If you messed up, and you want another chance, the court will usually give you a chance to fix it. For example, getting back child support paid up or putting your house on the market, per the order. You’ve really got to do a lot to really make a judge truly angry, but you only get so many chances.
What happens if you’re not such a bad person, and you can’t follow the court’s orders because of something out of your control?
Let’s say your divorce decree says you have to refinance your ex-husband off of the mortgage, but you can’t qualify for a mortgage because your house has no equity or your job doesn’t pay you enough? You can offer that as a defense, and tell the court that you didn’t break the law on purpose, and sometimes these things happen. The court may go easy on you and say that you did not willfully violate the court’s order, and hence no contempt. (Whew!) But, you could get a strict judge and end up facing a fine or other consequences.
If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t uphold part of the settlement agreement because of finances or other valid reasons, the best thing to do is contact your attorney so that he or she can take steps to amend the agreement with your ex’s attorney.
The law says that if you’re not following a court’s order on purpose and without a good reason, your ex spouse can get his or her attorney’s fees from you on top of whatever you might owe, or need to do. This seems like a great idea for hauling your former spouse into court. He’ll have to pay my fees! HAHA! Well, not really.
While some judges follow the law to the letter (and then some), other judges will reduce the fees to something more “reasonable” compared to the violation. And remember, just because the judge didn’t make him or her pay all your lawyer fees, doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay them. Lastly, if your ex can’t pay child support, he won’t have 10 grand for your attorney’s fees, so you’ll end up without the money, anyhow.
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