Florida Husband’s Failure to Pay Wife Did Not Amount to Contempt of Court

An ex-husband who failed to make payments to his ex-wife, even though he was financially able, was nevertheless able to escape being slammed with contempt of court. The 5th District Court of Appeal overturned a trial court decision that found the man in contempt, ruling that the payments were part of the equitable distribution in the couple’s divorce and that contempt cannot be used to enforce equitable distribution payments.

When J.L. (husband) and A.L. (wife) decided to divorce, the trial court divided up several assets, including the retirement benefits of the husband, who was a state employee. The trial court awarded the wife 50% of the marital portion of the husband’s state retirement. Unfortunately for everyone, however, things did not go as planned. Before the husband could retire, he suffered an injury at work. Instead of receiving retirement benefits, the husband began collecting permanent disability benefits.

The wife did not discover this turn of events until she took her Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) to the administration of the Florida Retirement System. A QDRO is a court order that is issued post-divorce that orders the administrator of a pension plan to pay a part of the employee’s retirement benefits to his or her ex-spouse. When the wife presented the QDRO to the administrator, the administrator notified the wife that the QDRO could not be processed because the husband was on permanent disability and, as a result, was not eligible to receive state pension benefits. The QDRO also could not be attached to the husband’s disability benefits.

Having met that impasse, the wife returned to court. The judge then ordered the husband to pay the wife directly the amount of money she would have received from his pension. Although the husband had the financial ability to pay the wife, he didn’t. He also didn’t appeal the ruling. The wife went back to court again, this time asking the judge to hold the husband in contempt. The trial judge agreed.

The husband appealed and won. The reason the appeals court overturned the trial judge’s contempt ruling had nothing to do with whether or not the husband’s conduct in ignoring the payment order was sufficiently egregious to warrant a contempt finding. The reason the appeals court reversed the lower court was because, under Florida law, nonpayment of obligations like the one this husband owed his ex-wife can never be the basis for contempt. The court order demanding that the husband pay the wife was part of the equitable distribution of the couple’s assets as part of their divorce. Equitable distribution payments are never enforceable through the use of the courts’ contempt powers.

Since contempt can be punishable by imprisonment, using contempt to enforce equitable distribution payments runs afoul of the Florida Constitution, which generally bars imprisonment for nonpayment of a debt. There are exceptions to this. The constitution, and Florida law in general, allow courts to find parties in contempt if the debt in question is one of support. As a result, you can be found in contempt, and potentially can face jail, for not paying your child support or alimony.

For strong advice and determined advocacy regarding your divorce or other family law issues, reach out to the South Florida property division attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. Our attorneys are well-equipped to help you defend your interests. Contact our diligent attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.

More blog posts:

Florida Supreme Court Decides Prenuptial Agreement Blocks Wife’s Claim to Increase in Value of Non-marital Assets, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Sept. 29, 2013

Court Says Wife Had No Claim to South Florida Home that Lost Value During Couple’s Marriage, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Aug. 19, 2013