Enforcement of Divorce Judgements
By David Walker, Attorney at Law
After divorce, formerly married parties often have continuing rights and obligations between each other under their Final Judgment and Decree. These can include turning over marital property, payment of marital debts, support obligations, and custody and visitation matters. These matters are sometimes known as “domestic relations” issues.
Because the divorce decree is a court order, violation of the order constitutes contempt of court, and such a violation may be enforced by a proceeding for contempt. This is a commonly used procedure, and its advantages include a fairly quick hearing, and the power of the judge to award attorney fees to the aggrieved party. The court has the power to incarcerate a party who is in contempt of court, to be held until compliance with the decree occurs. Often the court will give a party a chance to purge themselves from contempt, and tell them exactly what they have to do to correct the violation. In that event, it may be necessary to file another motion for contempt if the party fails to purge the contempt.
The proceeding for contempt may be used to collect child support arrearages. It is not the only way to proceed, however. The final decree, as a court judgment, allows the party seeking payment to also file a garnishment, or to levy on property in order to satisfy a support obligation. More than one method of enforcement can be pursued at the same time for child support arrearages. The party also may seek assistance through The Child Support Enforcement Office of the Georgia Department of Human Resources. The enforcement powers of this agency can be very helpful, but to describe this is beyond the scope of this article, and that information may be obtained from that agency.
In some circumstances support obligations may be collected from the obligated party’s retirement plan in an IRA or 401k plan through a Qualified Domestic Relations Order.
When the obligations under a decree are in doubt, or the decree is not clear, a party may pursue a declaratory judgment from the court to make the obligations clear. This remedy is available when there is an "actual case or controversy", and where a party may be in doubt about the extent of his or her obligations.
A recent case that we handled is a good example. A married couple had agreed to pay college expenses for their minor children and this settlement agreement was made a part of the divorce decree. Generally, the divorce courts in Georgia will not order parties to pay their children's college expenses, but if the parties agreed to do so, this becomes an enforceable order. These parties were to pay stated college expenses as long as the children were full-time students until they graduated or reached age 25.
The terms of the agreement were not completely clear as to a definition of full-time student, what constituted tuition, and other terms. For a couple of years the parties filed contempt motions against each other, but new questions kept coming up. Finally, one of them filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a ruling on every outstanding issue. The court entered a comprehensive order which covered virtually all of the outstanding issues, and gave the parties guidance as to what their rights and obligations were going forward.
It is a good guess that the superior courts of Georgia spend more time on divorce cases and enforcement of divorce decrees than anything else. An experienced domestic relations attorney can best explain your options in a situation requiring the enforcement of your court order.
David Sinclair Walker, Jr. P.C.
-Admitted in GA and D.C. -UGA Law ’76 -Certified Mediator -Georgia Bar No. 731725
Published in the Gwinnett Citizen - October 2014