Enforcement of Family Law Orders in California: All You Need to Know About Failure to Pay Spousal Support

by | May 14, 2024 | Support

Divorce can be a complex and emotionally charged experience, and financial considerations can become a significant source of stress before and after a divorce. In California, spousal support, also known as alimony, is a financial arrangement established in the divorce decree to help one spouse maintain the marital standard of living after the separation. When a spouse does not obey a court order, such as by making late alimony payments, skipping payments, or refusing to pay court-ordered spousal support, the non-paying spouse can be held in contempt of court and will face serious legal consequences.

Understanding Spousal Support Orders

Permanent spousal support is governed by Family Code §§ 4300 to 4360. Section 4330 authorizes the California family court to order a party to pay spousal support in an amount, and for a period of time, the court determines is just and reasonable based on the standard of living established during the marriage, taking into consideration the circumstances set forth in Family Code § 4320. California courts consider various factors when ordering spousal support, including:

  • The length of the marriage
  • The age and health of the parties
  • The income and earning capacity of each spouse
  • The needs of each party based on the standard of living established during the marriage
  • The obligations and assets of each party, including any separation property
  • The contributions of each spouse to the marriage, including homemaker services
  • The tax consequences to each party
  • The balance of hardships to each party
  • All documented evidence of any history of domestic violence

The court order will specify the amount of spousal support, the duration of payments, and the frequency (e.g., monthly). Both spouses are legally bound to comply with the court order.

Consequences of Non-Payment

Failure to pay court-ordered spousal support can have serious legal and financial repercussions for the non-paying spouse. If you have been ordered to pay alimony by a California court, you cannot unilaterally stop making payments. You must continue to pay spousal support for the duration defined in the divorce decree, or until a court order terminates, suspends, or modifies your spousal support obligation. If your circumstances have changed, you must go through the court system to request to modify the order before you unilaterally adjust the amount you pay or stop paying entirely. Below are some potential consequences of failing to pay alimony, including the penalties upon a contempt adjudication as prescribed by the California Code of Civil Procedure §§ 1218 and 1219:

  • Accruing Interest: Unpaid spousal support accumulates interest, increasing the total debt owed.
  • Wage Garnishment: The court may order the employer of the non-paying spouse to withhold a portion of their wages and send it directly to the receiving spouse.
  • Levy Bank Accounts and Liens on Assets: The court may order a bank levy, which is a collection tool to freeze the non-paying spouse’s bank accounts and remove money from their bank accounts for outstanding support arrears. The court may also order a lien on the non-paying spouse’s assets, such as real estate, bank accounts, or automobiles, to secure future support payments.
  • Intercepting Tax Refunds for Failure to Pay Alimony: The court can notify the Treasury Department that you’re late on your support payments. The IRS can giv the money you were supposed to get as a tax refund to the state (the amount you owe in arrears), and the state will send the money as an alimony payment to your ex-spouse.
  • Contempt of Court: The court may find the non-paying spouse in contempt of court, resulting in mandatory community service, fines of up to $1,000 per act of contempt, or up to as many as five days in jail. Punishment for contempt of court is mandatory, and with each convicted contempt offense, penalties increase.
  • Driver’s License Suspension: In extreme cases, California may suspend your driver’s license until the support arrears are paid.
  • Mandatory Community Service: Upon a contempt adjudication for failure to comply with a court order made under the family code, the court “shall order” community service and/or imprisonment as prescribed by CCP § 1218(c).
  • Attorney Fees and Costs: In addition to the fines, community service and imprisonment penalties, a party found in contempt for violating a court order may be ordered to pay the prevailing party’s reasonable attorney fees and costs in connection with the contempt proceeding. CCP § 1218(a).

Steps for the Recipient Spouse if Your Spousal Support Is Not Paid Timely

If your ex-spouse is late making alimony payments or failing to pay court-ordered spousal support, here is what you can do:

  • Document Everything: Keep copies of all court orders, record payment history (or lack thereof), including dates and amounts, and save any communication attempts made regarding missed payments and your attempts to collect or demand the support.
  • Contact Your Attorney: Consult an experienced attorney at Laughlin Legal to advise you on the best course of action based on your specific situation.
  • File a Motion to Enforce or an Order to Show Cause: Your attorney may recommend filing a motion to enforce the court order. This motion requests the court to compel your ex-spouse to resume payments and potentially assess penalties for non-payment.
  • Consider Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR): Mediation or arbitration can be a less expensive and time-consuming option to resolve the issue outside of Court.
  • Open Communication: Sometimes, there may be a legitimate reason for missing payments. If your ex-spouse is genuinely facing a temporary financial hardship, consider attempting open communication to find a temporary solution. This could involve modifying the payment amount or schedule until their situation improves. However, it’s crucial to have any agreed-upon changes documented through the court.

Proving Contempt of California Family Court Order

If you are unable to mitigate and resolve the issue outside of court, you may file an Order to Show Cause and Affidavit for Contempt. To prove contempt, you must be able to prove with evidence that there is a valid and clear court order, the spouse accused of contempt possesses knowledge of the court order, and the spouse accused of contempt intentionally violated the court order. Consult with a qualified and experienced family law attorney at Laughlin Legal, PC to assist you in petitioning and proving your contempt action today.

California Family Court Orders Enforceable by Contempt

  • Child Custody and Visitation Orders
  • Child Support Orders and Spousal Support Orders
  • Protective Orders and Restraining Orders
  • Property Division
  • Declaration of Financial Disclosure Orders
  • Marital Settlement Agreement Obligations
  • Liability for Marital Debt
  • Orders to Seek Employment
  • Attorney Fees and Costs

Support violations carry a three-year statute of limitations, so any action brought to enforce a support order must be made within three years after the first missed payment. All other contempt actions carry a two-year statute of limitations and must be brought within two years of the date that the alleged contempt took place.

If you or someone you love is struggling to collect their court-ordered support, Laughlin Legal is here to help. Please contact us today to schedule a consultation.