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Post-Divorce: Ensuring that Spousal Payments Arrive

After your divorce is final, your ex-spouse may not make the spousal support payments he or she agreed to make. This may occur because your ex is angry about the divorce, resents having to send you money, experiences financially tough times, or maybe even remarries and is pressured by his or her new spouse not to make them. Whatever the reason, not receiving the money you anticipate can have a devastating effect on your life.

Here are some steps you can take before your divorce is final to help ensure that the support arrives:

  • Get a court order for spousal support. If you're not working with a divorce attorney, you need one to file your spousal support agreement with the court and argue its reasonableness to the judge so that he or she will approve it and make it an official part of your divorce. If you're the one who's entitled to spousal support and you don't go through this process, and if your ex reneges on your agreement, you will have no legal recourse for collecting the spousal support you are entitled to.
  • Try to enforce the court order by asking the court to hold your spouse in contempt of court. Assuming that your state allows you to take this step when your ex doesn't pay your spousal support, a court order puts legal pressure on your ex to pay your support. In fact, your ex-spouse can go to jail for ignoring his or her support obligation.
    In states where you cannot accuse your spouse of contempt for failing to pay you spousal support, you're in the same position as any other creditor that your former spouse hasn't paid. In this situation, whether or not you can collect from him or her depends on the debtor protection laws of your state, which may make all, or most, of your ex-spouse's property exempt from the debt-collection process. If that's the case, your past-due spousal support is uncollectible.
  • Secure your payments by placing a lien on one or more of the assets that your spouse will exit the marriage with. (A lien is a legal right to someone else's property until the owner of that property fulfills his/her legal obligation to the lien holder. For example, if you have a mortgage on your home, your mortgage lender has a lien on your home, which means that it can take the home if you don't make your mortgage payments according to your mortgage agreement.) If your ex fails to live up to your spousal support agreement, you can ask the court for permission to take the asset with a lien on it as payment for what you're owed. However, if the asset is your ex-spouse's home, you may not be able to get your money until the home is sold. Also, if you have a lien on your ex's retirement account, you may not be able to collect the money you're entitled to until he or she retires or your ex quits or gets fired.
  • Use disability insurance to ensure an unbroken stream of spousal support in the event that your ex becomes ill or injured and is unable to work for a period of time. The court is likely to let your former spouse pay you less during the period of his or her disability, so the disability insurance provides you with a financial safety net.
  • Get your spouse to have your spousal support payments automatically deducted from his or her paychecks. That way, after your divorce is final, you don't have to wonder whether your ex remembered to mail you a support check each month, whether your ex will send you some but not all of what you are entitled to, or whether your ex isn't going to send you any money at all. With automatic deductions, the court issues an order telling your former spouse's employer to deduct a certain amount of money from his or her paychecks and send it to the court, which sends you a check. In other words, your former spouse never sees that money.
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