A Florida Appeals Court Reverses After a Trial Judge Erroneously Reworked a Finalized Equitable Distribution Plan

Sometimes, success in your case is about the facts, sometimes it’s about the law, sometimes it’s about the rules of court procedure and sometimes it’s a combination of the above. That is one reason among many why it pays to have skillful South Florida family law counsel on your side fighting for you. You know the facts of your case, but you probably don’t know all the details and specifics of Florida law or of Florida’s procedure rules. Your skilled attorney can help you make sure that the case you put on is the strongest one possible.

Your attorney can also help you spot problems that occur in your case. Sometimes, the judge in your case may do something the law doesn’t allow. Even if it was harmful to you, it very possibly was something that you did not know was impermissible. Again, having a knowledgeable advocate helps.

As an example, there’s H.F. and C.R.’s case. They were a couple whose divorce was finalized in late 2007. There was also a supplemental judgment issued in 2010. The judgments stated that certain personal property (that was being shipped from Kuwait) worth $100,000 was to go to the husband. The husband was ordered to pay the wife $111,000 over the course of four years, at $2,320 per month.

In 2016, the wife headed back to court. She asked the court to hold her ex-husband in contempt because he allegedly hadn’t been making his monthly $2,320 equitable distribution payments. The husband made his own contempt request, arguing that the wife hadn’t delivered the personal property from Kuwait.

What an ‘impermissible modification’ is and what it means for your case

The trial court held a hearing and decided both spouses were in contempt. The court’s resolution to the hearing was to change the terms of the couple’s equitable distribution. The judge gave the wife the property from Kuwait, and lowered the husband’s monetary obligation to $11,000, plus interest.

The wife appealed and she was successful. The key to her success was in recognizing that the trial judge created an outcome that the law didn’t allow. Once your divorce is final and that judgment contains provisions detailing the equitable distribution of assets, that is considered to be the end of that case. Once a case has ended, a trial court generally does not continue to have jurisdiction to make rulings unless there was something called a “reservation of jurisdiction.” In other words, without that reservation of jurisdiction, a trial judge generally cannot go back (after your divorce is final) and re-work the terms of you and your spouse’s equitable distribution.

A court filing asking the judge to hold your ex-spouse in contempt and to order enforcement is typically not something that opens the door for the judge to make changes to your equitable distribution. The judge can find one party (or both parties) in contempt and can issue an order of enforcement demanding that one (or both) live up to the terms of the judgment. The judge cannot, however, make changes to the underlying judgment. When she does, that change is what the law calls an “impermissible modification” of a final judgment, and it’s generally not allowed and must be reversed if it is appealed.

What can you take away from all this legal wrangling? You should know that, sometimes, judges make mistakes, too. The best way to protect yourself from mistakes or other things that unfairly impair your rights is to be sure you have the legal representation your case requires. The diligent South Florida family law attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. are here to help. Our knowledgeable attorneys have many years of providing effective representation in a full array of family law cases. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.