When Alimony Goes Unpaid In California, What Happens?

Whether you are paying alimony or receiving it, you should know what happens in California when the spouse who is supposed to pay does not fulfill their legal obligations. There might be very good reasons for missing payments, but the spouse who failed to pay can still run into serious legal troubles if they don’t take the right steps to protect their interests quickly.

If you are owed alimony and haven’t received it, you also will probably need to take legal action to enforce the obligations. So regardless of which side of the issue you’re on, it makes sense to start by consulting a knowledgeable attorney who can give you advice tailored to your specific situation. Here are some general guidelines for reference.

Alimony is a Court-Ordered Obligation

Like child support, alimony—which is officially referred to in California as spousal support—is an obligation set by the court. That means it is more powerful than a mere contract. If you violate a court order, you can be held in contempt of court, which is a separate offense.

So, even if you created your own agreement with your former spouse about who would pay alimony and for how much and for how long, once your arrangement was incorporated into your divorce decree, it became a super obligation, just as if a judge had developed the plan. You cannot modify the terms between the two of you, even though you set them originally. Any changes must be approved by the court or they have no legal effect. That means that if the recipient spouse told the paying spouse it was “okay” to miss a few payments, it is not actually okay. Those payments remain a legal obligation. The recipient can seek them—with interest—regardless of whether they said it was “okay” to skip them. Alimony is set by court order, and it can only be changed by a court order. And interest unpaid spousal support accrues at 10%.

Ways You Can Try to Get Your Spouse to Pay

Because alimony is incorporated into a court order and not just an ordinary contract between two people, a spouse who is owed alimony has some additional options for seeking payment. While you can even threaten your spouse with jail time, however, it is often most effective to have your attorney schedule a simple discussion to find out the reason for the lack of payment. When your former spouse is not put on the defensive, they may be more honest and willing to work toward a helpful solution. Just the knowledge that you have an attorney and that you are prepared to go to court if necessary can often be enough to persuade a former spouse who is trying to make a point but who is not willing to go to jail for it.

When a spouse can’t pay because of a lost job or emergency expense, your attorney might negotiate an extended repayment schedule, bearing in mind that they may need to seek approval from the court.

If a spouse has the ability to pay but simply won’t, then it is time to move from talk to action. Alimony is often set up through assigned earnings or garnishment of wages, but if not, this can be implemented. Other options for obtaining delinquent payments include:

  • Obtaining a bank levy to remove funds from the payor’s bank account
  • Intercepting the payor’s tax refunds
  • Seeking a finding of contempt of court

Remember that if you plan to change alimony obligations, such as reducing payment amounts if your spouse is having long-term money problems, then you need to get a court order approving the change.

Help If You are Unable to Pay

If financial problems are going to prevent you from paying alimony on time, the sooner you can address the issue, the more you may be able to save yourself from unpleasant consequences. If you approach the court, instead of waiting for someone to come looking for you, judges tend to be more understanding. However, you will need proof of a legitimate inability to pay if you want the court to reduce your obligations. Talk to an attorney as soon as possible to get started working toward a resolution.

We Understand Alimony at Holstrom, Block & Parke, APLC

Alimony is a challenging issue both financially and emotionally. The Certified Family Law Specialists and associates at Holstrom, Block & Parke, APLC understand how to help clients achieve their goals for alimony, whether the terms are being set initially, you want to make a modification, or you are having issues with enforcement. Don’t let lapsed payments continue without taking legal action. Talk to our team today to learn how we can get you back on track.


Professional Legal Help

Our attorneys are waiting to help you

Our Locations

*We do not receive postal correspondence at this address. Please send any desired material to our Corona office for review and distribution.


The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.