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Enforcing Your Divorce Decree: Money and Property Issues

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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3234EN - At the end of your dissolution (divorce), the court will issue a final court order. In Washington, we call this final order a Dissolution Decree. Other states may call it something else. This final order may order your former spouse to pay you and award you certain property. This publication explains how to enforce the decree (make sure everyone follows it) and collect the money/property your ex-spouse must pay/give you.

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Introduction

At the end of your divorce, the judge will issue a final order.  In Washington, we call this final order a Final Divorce Order (or Divorce Decree). Other states may call it something else.

This final order may

  • Order your former spouse to pay you.

  • Award you certain property. 

This publication explains how to enforce (make sure everyone follows) the final divorce order and collect the money/property your ex-spouse must pay/give you.

*This information is general.  For more help with your case, talk to a lawyer.

 

How do I make sure I get payments from my ex-spouse every month?

The court will order the other parent to pay you child support if you get custody of the children (become the primary residential parent).  A Washington child support order usually orders a parent to pay through the Washington State Support Registry (WSSR).  In these cases, the Division of Child Support (DCS) automatically opens a child support case for you.

If your court order does not direct your ex-spouse to pay through the WSSR, you can still open a case with DCS by applying for services.  DCS can even open a case if your order comes from another state. You just have to give DCS a copy of the court order.  DCS's services are free.  Call your local DCS office for an application. 

*Our publication called How Can I Collect Child Support? has more information.  

 

What if my ex-spouse owes me back support?

If the debt is not too old, DCS may be able to collect your back child support (also called "arrears"). DCS does not collect unpaid interest.  If there is a lot of back support, you may not want DCS's services.  You may be able to find a lawyer who will consider taking the case on a contingent basis. You do not pay the lawyer a fee.  S/he gets a portion of the back payments as payment for services.  Whether a lawyer will take your case will depend on:

  • the amount owed

  • whether you can find your ex-spouse

  • your ex-spouse's ability to pay 

A lawyer may also be willing to help you get a judgment so you can bring a collection action on your own.

Can I change the child support amount?

You can try. Either parent can file a motion to change how much child support the non-primary residential parent pays if the case meets certain conditions, such as

  • the income of one or both parents changes greatly

  • one or more child turns twelve

Our publication called Changing Your Child Support Court Order has more information.  You might also want to read: 

How do I collect spousal maintenance (alimony)?

If you currently have an open child support case with DCS, they can also collect maintenance for you.  DCS will automatically include maintenance as part of your child support case if your order says spousal maintenance must go to WSSR.  If your order does not mention WSSR, you can ask DCS for this service.  Contact your Support Enforcement Officer for more information.

If the debt is not too old, DCS can also help collect back maintenance payments.  The section above called "How do I make sure my ex-spouse pays me" has more information.

If your final order says your ex-spouse must pay only maintenance, DCS will not open a case.  You must file a motion for contempt to collect back payments.

If you win your contempt motion, the judge will order your ex-spouse to pay the maintenance or make him/her pay a court fine, unless your ex-spouse can show s/he has tried to follow the order but does not have enough money to do so. 

*Example: Your former spouse is unemployed, but looking for work. The court will not hold your ex in contempt. You will not get the maintenance payments.

Our Filing a Motion for Contempt: Family Law Cases packet has forms and instructions for using them.  Some counties have their own packet you should use instead of ours.

How do I make sure I get the property the final divorce order awarded me?

A judge may order your ex-spouse to pay you money or certain property. If your ex does not follow the court order, you have some options. See RCW (Revised Code of Washington) Chapters 6 and 7. These laws are complicated. Talk to a lawyer about your specific case.  What follows is a general description.

Garnishment- You can use garnishment to enforce a money judgment. The judge orders a third party with control of money belonging to the debtor to turn that money over to the creditor (you).  Example: You get an order saying your ex-spouse's employer must turn over part of your ex's wages to you. The employer must garnish your ex's wages.

Execution and lien foreclosure against real estate - This involves getting a court order for the sheriff to 'execute' (collect on) your money judgment.  The sheriff seizes your ex-spouse's property and sells it to pay your judgment. Your ex-spouse should get notice before this happens. The sheriff may not seize certain types of "exempt" property. Our publication called How to Claim Personal Property Exemptions has more information.

*Your child support order and final divorce order should include a judgment for any amount owed at the time of the order.  If you need a new judgment to update what is due you, have a lawyer draft the paperwork. 

Replevin - You use this remedy to get a specific item of property (not real estate). If the judge specifically awarded you a piece of property, you may also be able to file a motion for contempt.

Unlawful Detainer (eviction) - You can use this legal procedure if your ex-spouse refuses to leave (move out from) real property the court awarded you.  This process forces the ex to move. You also may get damages.

Injunction - This court order can stop certain conduct. You can use it to keep an ex-spouse with control of property you own jointly from harming or wasting the property.

Receivership –The judge can appoint a receiver to manage or get rid of certain property. The receiver does not act for either spouse. S/he acts as an officer of the court. The receiver does not become the property's owner, merely its manager.

Contempt – You cannot use contempt to force payment of a general money judgment. You can use it to get child support or maintenance payment. In a very few cases, you can use the contempt procedure if your ex-spouse does not do what the judge ordered him/her to do.

Commissioner Signature - A court commissioner may execute a document when a party refuses to follow a court order to do something. Example: you can use this process if the judge ordered your house sold but your ex-spouse refuses to sign the necessary documents.

How do we divide the retirement benefits after the court enters the Final Divorce Order?

The Legal Voice's publication called Retirement, Divorce, and You has information on dividing retirement benefits in a divorce and collecting your share after the entry of a Final Divorce Order.

What if my ex has not paid debts s/he was ordered to in the Final Divorce Order?

Read our publication called Community Debts and Bankruptcy Issues.  

What if my Final Divorce Order is from an out-of-state court?

You can still enforce it in Washington against a party living here. You must first file it in Washington. Once correctly filed, it becomes "registered" in Washington. Then you can use the options above. 

Our publication called How Do I Register an Out-of-State Order in Washington has more information. Your county may have its own packet with forms you should use.

How do I enforce the final parenting plan?

Contact the family law facilitator, if your county has one, or talk to a lawyer.

When should I get a lawyer?

You may want one if:

  • DCS cannot handle your case OR

  • your county has no family law facilitator

*You do not have a right to a lawyer in divorce cases. You must pay for one. 

If you cannot afford a lawyer, you can look for one who will take your case on a contingent basis or who offers "limited legal services" (also called "unbundled legal services" or "pro se assistance").  A lawyer who takes your case on a contingent basis will only charge you a fee if you win. In that case, s/he gets part of the award.  A lawyer will take the case on a contingent basis depending on:

  • How much is at stake

  • Whether you can find your ex-spouse

  • Whether your ex-spouse can pay 

Under a limited legal services arrangement, the lawyer will

  • give you legal advice 

  • look over or help with paperwork

The lawyer will not represent you. 

The Legal Voice's publication called Working with a Lawyer has more information about how to find and work with a lawyer.

Do you have other tips?

An Ounce of Prevention. Start thinking about potential collection problems before the entry of your Final Divorce Order. Your spouse may have the best intentions, but things can change. Educate yourself about your marital property.  As you take part in the drafting of your final order, remember: a person who had trouble with paying bills before your divorce may have just as much trouble or more afterwards.

Make sure you have the information you may need to take collection action if your ex does not pay.   Here is what you may need:

  • your spouse's social security number

  • your spouse's birthdate  

  • your spouse's address

  • your spouse's work address

  • your spouse's work phone

  • your spouse's bank names and account numbers

  • your spouse's vehicle numbers

  • a recent clear photo of your spouse 

  • a copy of the original order (a judge must have signed the order and it must have a file stamp on it)

You may need a certified copy. That is a copy made by the clerk's office and verified as accurate.

If the judge awards you a money judgment, you must next get the judgment recorded as a judgment lien.  A judgment lien attaches to real property the debtor (your ex) currently owns or gets later.   Talk to a lawyer about how to file a judgment lien.

Do not sit on your rights. Many of your options are only possible during "the life of the judgment." You can usually enforce a judgment for ten years. Talk to a lawyer about how long you have in your case. 

Washington has a procedure for renewing the judgment for another ten years. You must do this before the first ten-year period ends.  Once that statute of limitations has run, you cannot collect. 

Get legal advice right away if:

  • Your ex-spouse does not follow the Final Divorce Order.

  • You learn your ex-spouse has filed for bankruptcy.  You can challenge the dischargeability of a property judgment your ex owes you.

What if I need legal help?

CLEAR is Washington's toll-free, centralized intake, advice and referral service for low-income people seeking free legal assistance with civil legal problems. 

  • Outside King County: Call 1-888-201-1014 weekdays from 9:15 a.m. until 12:15 p.m. 

  • King County: Call 211 for information and referral to an appropriate legal services provider Monday through Friday from 8:00 am – 6:00 pm. You may also call (206) 461-3200, or the toll-free number, 1-877-211-WASH (9274). You can also get information on legal service providers in King County through 211's website at www.resourcehouse.com/win211/.

  • Persons 60 and Over: Persons 60 or over may call CLEAR*Sr at 1-888-387-7111, regardless of income.

Deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired callers can call CLEAR or 211 using the relay service of their choice.

211 and CLEAR will conference in interpreters when needed at no cost to callers. 

Free legal education publications, videos and self-help packets covering many legal issues are available at www.washingtonlawhelp.org.

 

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This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice.
This information is current as of July 2016.

© 2016 Northwest Justice Project — 1-888-201-1014

(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and to individuals for non-commercial purposes only.)
Last Review and Update: Jul 26, 2016
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