“Self help” is a phrase often used in legal cases involving landlords and tenants. It generally refers to a landlord who decides to throw out a tenant on his own, without going through the proper legal procedures required for an eviction. Serious negative consequences can befall a landlord who engages in self help. While the phrase “self help” doesn’t exist in Florida family law cases, a similar truth exists. If you think your ex-spouse has violated the terms of your marital settlement agreement, and you decide to respond by taking matters into your own hands and acting on your own without going through the proper legal channels, it can create significant problems for you. It is a much better plan, instead, to retain an experienced attorney to help you protect your interests.
One common situation in which this type of problem crops up, and was at issue again in a very recent Fourth District Court of Appeal case that originated in Palm Beach County, relates to the marital residence. Many marital settlement agreements may give the exclusive use and possession of the home to one spouse but require that the spouses share the responsibility for paying the mortgage on the home. These agreements may impose certain restrictions on what the spouse who takes the home can and cannot do. For example, an agreement might give the home to the wife but prohibit any unrelated males from living in the home while the wife has sole possession.
So let’s say a couple has an agreement like the one described above, but the wife moves her boyfriend into the house. What can the husband do? Can he simply stop paying his half of the mortgage? No, he generally cannot. Furthermore, if the home is the residence of not just the ex-wife but also the couple’s children, the consequences facing the husband if he doesn’t pay can be especially serious. That’s because, in the scenario outlined above, that husband’s payment of 50% of the mortgage is considered to be a type of spousal support and child support. Not paying the mortgage can subject the husband to contempt of court penalties, potentially up to and including jail, the same as any other parent who is not paying their child support.
The problem in the Palm Beach County case was similar but didn’t involve an unrelated male. The wife received possession of the home, where she and the couple’s children lived. Some time later, she began claiming her mother as a dependant on her federal income taxes. The mother, however, didn’t live with the daughter; she lived with a third party who didn’t charge the woman any rent. The husband, asserting that the wife was defrauding the IRS, stopped paying on the mortgage. The wife took him to court, asking the court to impose contempt penalties, but the magistrate sided with the husband. The magistrate wrote that, even if the husband was in violation, the wife was only entitled to seek monetary damages, rather than penalties under the court’s contempt powers.
The appeals court explained that this was not correct. Going back many decades, Florida courts have ruled that sole “possession given an ex-spouse and children of a marriage always constitutes an aspect of child support.” This husband’s marital settlement agreement clearly gave sole possession to the wife for use by her and the couple’s children. That meant that the husband’s payment of 50% of the mortgage was, in part, a type of child support. The agreement did not give the husband the right to stop paying simply because the wife was allegedly “perpetrating a fraud on the IRS.” By ceasing paying, the husband potentially placed himself at risk of contempt penalties for non-payment of support.
If you find yourself in a dispute over your marital settlement agreement (and your ex-spouse’s compliance with it), don’t act on your own. Reach out to the knowledgeable South Florida contempt proceeding attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. Our team has the skills and resources to help with your marital settlement agreement dispute. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.
More blog posts:
Florida Ex-Wife, as an Alimony Creditor, Was Allowed to Pursue Ex-Husband’s Insurance Assets, Homestead Property if Fraud Was Involved, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, May 26, 2017
Sandy T. Fox, P.A. Law Offices Wins Appeal for Florida Man Wrongfully Jailed for Contempt, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Aug. 18, 2016