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The Consequences of Not Paying Alimony


The ending of a marriage can often result in spousal support–or alimony as these payments are often called–being ordered by the court or negotiated by the spouses in a settlement. The purpose is to ensure the spouse who is placed at a financial disadvantage by the divorce can continue to live in the manner they were accustomed, or at least in a manner reasonably equivalent to the wealthier spouse. But what happens when payments are not made? Are there steps the spouse being denied the money can take? Will there be consequences to not paying alimony? The answer to both questions is yes.

How to Collect Unpaid Alimony in Texas

Was your alimony payment agreed to in a private settlement or ordered by the court? You have enforcement options in either case, but there will be differences depending on the nature of the settlement.

If a judge issued the order for your alimony plan and your ex is found to be willfully refusing to make the payments, they can be held in contempt of court. The consequences can include jail. This doesn’t mean the simple act of you reporting the delinquency is going to put your ex behind bars. It’s always considered preferable for the ex to simply acknowledge being in arrears and work to make you financially whole again. But, if all else fails, jail is on the table.

Furthermore, the Office of the Attorney General has a host of legal tools that might not put your ex in jail but can make their life quite difficult. The OAG can have all licenses–from driving to anything professional to hunting or fishing–suspended. They can deny a passport. The OAG can put liens on most any financial asset. And, after all this, your ex’s credit rating will take a severe hit.

A court’s enforcement actions in a private settlement are more limited in scope. Contempt is not an option because your ex is not violating a formal court order. Now, that doesn’t mean they can get away with stiffing you on what is rightfully yours–the basics of contract law in Texas still govern the agreement–but the actions are not, in the strict legal sense, contempt of the court.

Furthermore, Texas law places limits on the alimony that a judge can order. If a divorce case goes to court, your ex cannot be ordered to pay more than 20 percent of their gross income or $5,000 per month, whichever figure is less. If the final settlement is worked out between the spouses, you can agree on whatever you want.

Maybe at the time your ex was willing to pay more in alimony in exchange for favorable terms elsewhere in the settlement. Now they’re reneging. It’s a legal problem, but the Family Court system can only enforce up to the $5,000/20 percent threshold figure.

Your recourse for any amount above that will need to come through a civil lawsuit, filed through breach of contract. A judge in a civil case cannot order any sort of criminal penalties for breaking the contract, but they can order your spouse to make payments and bring their “account” with you current.

Can Alimony Be Garnished?

If you have custody of any children from the marriage, the court will order automatic income withholding for child support. Keep in mind, though, that child support and alimony, while often thought of together, are two very different things in the eyes of the law. Child support is, as the name indicates, for the support of the kids. Alimony is for the ex-spouse. You can still get a court order for wage garnishment for alimony, especially if your ex falls behind in their obligations to you.

Your ex will have options to try and protect their wages from being garnished, but they aren’t particularly good options. They can file an exemption claim with the court or otherwise raise a legal objection to the garnishment. But domestic support payments are among the hardest obligations for which to gain a court’s exemption.

My Ex Lost Their Job

Maybe the alimony payments were structured based on your ex’s 15-year career as a Chief Accounting Officer. A wave of corporate restructuring saw them get laid off. Their immediate future is likely as a CPA, or maybe starting their own tax accounting shop. Either way, they have a lot less money than they used to.

The first thing you need to know is that this, at least for now, is not your problem. Your ex’s alimony obligations are a matter of either court order or contract law. If they call you and ask for lower payments, your answer should be to get lawyers involved.

We don’t suggest this because we want you to play hardball or to try and squeeze your ex for every cent. In fact, your ex will have very reasonable options within the legal system to negotiate a lower alimony payment based on changed circumstances. What we are suggesting is that the spouse who is receiving the payments not attempt to negotiate this outside the system.

It’s not uncommon for ex-spouses to develop an amicable relationship after the divorce, so it’s understandable that you may want to help them after some bad luck. But the right way for the ex to get help is to report their new circumstances to the court. You may end up sharing in a part of the unemployment benefits rather than getting the typical monthly payment. But until a court settles that, the ex should keep paying the designated alimony amount.

It’s also not uncommon for ex-spouses to have an antagonistic relationship with each other, one where the ex harbors deep resentment over having to pay the alimony. What if they file for bankruptcy? Can they skirt their alimony obligations this way?

The answer is no. While many debts can be lifted by filing for either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, alimony (along with child support) is not one of them. In fact, before your ex can be formally discharged from bankruptcy, they must show they are current on all domestic support obligations.

If you’re not getting the alimony payments that are rightfully due to you, Coker, Robb & Cannon, Family Lawyers can help. We have over 110 years of combined experience working on cases just like yours. We know that people in your situation want to be understanding of their ex. We also know that when money is involved, it can be easier to let the lawyers deal with it. That’s what we do. We seek to negotiate a peaceful arrangement on behalf of our clients. We fight zealously on their behalf if the ex resists. Call us today at (940) 293-2313 or contact us online for help in getting your alimony payments back on schedule.

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