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What Happens if Alimony is Not Paid?

Alimony—known as spousal support under California law—is a sensitive subject. Former spouses ordered to pay alimony often resent the depletion of the income they work so hard to earn. Those awarded alimony can feel unfairly pressured to make tremendous changes in a short period of time. And on top of everything else, they often have to fight to get a former spouse to honor the legal obligation to pay support.

So what happens to you if you fail to pay alimony? What options do you have if you’re supposed to receive alimony but payments are late or never made at all? It is not a unique situation, so the law provides numerous ways to address the problem. Whether you are owed missing support or facing consequences for failure to pay support, an experienced attorney can help protect your rights and help you resolve the matter quickly and effectively.

Spousal Support is a Court-Ordered Obligation

Both the person expected to pay alimony and the person who anticipates receiving support need to understand that even if they developed their own agreement about alimony, once that agreement has been incorporated in the divorce settlement, alimony becomes a court-ordered obligation. That means refusing to pay can lead to more consequences than failing to make payments owed under a contract.

That also gives the intended recipient more options for enforcement than they would have if they were enforcing a contractual obligation. However, often it will be necessary to apply to the court to seek remedies, and this can be a complicated process.

When spousal support is unpaid, interest accrues at a rate of 10%. So the debt for unpaid alimony can mount quickly unless steps are taken to reduce legal obligations.

The Logistics of Alimony

When the spouse who is obligated to pay alimony has a traditional job with a regular employer, the court will often include an earnings assignment order which tells an employer to deduct support payments from the employee’s pay automatically. This is often called wage garnishment.

If an earnings assignment is in place and payments are missing, it might be necessary to check with the employer to see if there has been an administrative mistake. If you receive child support as well as alimony, the employer will send money to the California State Disbursement Unit who is then supposed to send it to you. It may be helpful to follow up with the agency to ensure they have the correct information for you.

A former spouse can agree to accept payments directly instead of through wage garnishment. It is often a good idea to request earnings assignment from the court regardless but to ask the court to stay the assignment, effectively putting it on hold. Then, if the spouse stops paying, it is then very easy to ask the court to end the stay so the assignment order will be sent to the employer.

If there is no earnings assignment, it may be possible to request one if the spouse has a regular employer. When a paying spouse is behind on payments, the receiving spouse can ask the court to adjust the earnings assignment to include past due amounts along with interest.

Options for Enforcement of Alimony Obligations

When alimony payments aren’t fulfilled through wage garnishment/earnings assignment, then a spouse who is supposed to be receiving payments can ask the court to enforce the obligations in other ways. This might include:

  • Intercepting tax refunds
  • Using a bank levy to remove funds from the supporting spouse’s bank account
  • Holding a spouse in contempt of court, which can lead to jail time

However, it is often more effective to start with negotiations through an attorney. Knowing that you have the power to take serious legal action can often be persuasive for a spouse who has been withholding payments out of pride or reluctance. If the payments aren’t being made because your former spouse lost their job and has no money, then putting them in jail for contempt will not help you gain support payments. Instead, you might negotiate an extended schedule for repayment. If you plan to make changes in the alimony obligations going forward, it is important to obtain court approval of the change because the original order will remain legally binding until it expires or is replaced by a new order.

Get Experienced Assistance with Alimony in California

When there is a problem with alimony, it is best to address the issue as soon as possible. The longer obligations go unmet, the more difficult it will be to make up the missed payments, and this can be a problem for both the paying spouse and the intended recipient.

The dedicated team at Holstrom, Block & Parke APLC has over 300 years of combined experience helping clients overcome challenges during and after divorce. Contact us for a confidential discussion of the ways we can work to resolve your difficulties with alimony.

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