When You Can — and Can’t — Be Held in Contempt in Florida for Failing to Comply With the Terms of an Old Marital Settlement Agreement

Many years ago, Frank Sinatra sang that “Love is lovelier the second time around.” For some, though, that isn’t true. There’s a reason that the couple broke up the first time – and those problems eventually doom the relationship the second time around. Some couples may divorce and remarry and divorce again. Others may make it to the brink of divorce, perhaps even going so far as for one spouse to file a divorce petition and for both spouses to agree to the terms of a marital settlement agreement before backing off and deciding to remain married.

If you’re in a situation like the second scenario and you eventually decide to divorce years later, what, you may wonder, should you do in terms of dealing with that old settlement agreement? The first thing you should definitely do is consult an experienced Fort Lauderdale divorce attorney to get the customized answers you need for your specific situation.

A recent case from Miami-Dade County looked into exactly that scenario of a near divorce followed by an actual divorce years later. V.T., the husband filed for divorce in 2009. In 2012, both spouses agreed to terms on a marital settlement agreement. However, the husband never pursued finalizing the divorce and the court threw out the case in 2013 after neither spouse showed up for a scheduled hearing.

Fast forward to 2017 and the husband, without a lawyer, once again filed for divorce. The wife did hire an attorney, and her counsel promptly asked the judge to enforce the terms of the 2012 settlement agreement. A month later, she asked the judge to hold the husband in contempt for failure to comply with the terms of the agreement.

The husband belatedly, but wisely (because it’s always better late than never) hired an attorney, who opposed any ruling finding the husband in contempt.

So… who was right? According to the appeals court, the husband was. Even though the appeals court agreed with the trial judge’s determination that the husband “willfully disregarded his contractual undertakings in the 2012” settlement agreement, the husband still couldn’t be held in contempt.

No ‘disobedience of a court order’ means no civil contempt

The reason was that contempt of court requires the wrongdoer’s “disobedience of a court order,” which wasn’t the case here. The 2012 settlement agreement had never been ratified or confirmed by any judge and it had never been incorporated into any final judgment of divorce. When that is the situation, the wrongdoer may potentially face a verdict that he breached a binding contract and owes his spouse money damages, but he cannot be held in contempt of court for not complying with the agreement under those circumstances.

Obviously, this husband’s situation was a fairly uncommon one. But there is still a lot that anyone can learn from his case. One of the most important things is that any case may have potential pitfalls, so don’t put yourself at risk by trying to handle your divorce on your own. Whether it is fighting against an improper finding or contempt of some other issue, trust the seasoned South Florida family law attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. to protect your rights and help you get a fair outcome from in your divorce. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.