Quick info: How can alimony be enforced in Florida?
The primary way to enforce alimony in Florida cases is to file a Motion for Contempt in the same case and court where alimony was originally established. You must be prepared to prove the payor of alimony has the ability to pay the ordered amount. A possible defense would be to show the court how an involuntary change prevented any ability to pay the ordered amount.
About Spousal Support / Alimony in the State of Florida
There are some who consider the alimony laws in the state of Florida somewhat antiquated, at least when compared to other states in the United States. While the state of Florida has embraced no-fault divorce—as have most all other states—the laws still do not reflect the economic realities of our present-day society. As an example, it is not all that uncommon for a woman in her 30’s or 40’s, who is both in good health and is currently employed (or who has the skills and education to be employed) to be awarded permanent alimony.
Unfortunately, such an arrangement forces couples to remain in constant financial entanglement and could prevent the paying spouse from being able to retire at some point. A bill was vetoed in 2013, which would have ended awards of permanent alimony. At the time, Governor Scott felt such legislation, particularly when applied retroactively, would seriously interfere with the economic expectations of too many Floridians.
Types of Alimony in Florida
Current Florida laws provide for five types of alimony, which are:
- Rehabilitative alimony is paid to the lower-earning spouse for a specified period of time, at a fixed amount. Rehabilitative alimony is meant to help in the redevelopment of skills and financial independence of the spouse receiving alimony.
- Bridge-the-Gap alimony allows the receiving spouse to transition from married to single life, and can be used for such things as finding a new home or purchasing a vehicle. Bridge-the-Gap alimony can be paid in one lump sum, or for a short amount of time.
- Lump-sum alimony is sometimes ordered, however negative tax consequences can result.
- Durational alimony is awarded for a certain period of time and is usually paid monthly or semi-monthly.
- If alimony is ordered for an indefinite period of time, it is known as permanent alimony. To alter permanent alimony, the paying spouse must petition the courts for such a change and must have a compelling reason for the change.
If a couple has been married for only a short time, the court is less likely to award any type of alimony, particularly when both spouses are able to support themselves in the same way they did prior to the marriage. Marriages that have lasted longer than five years will be subject to the following factors when a determination of alimony is pending:
- Each spouse’s earning capacity;
- How long the marriage has lasted;
- What contributions each spouse has made to the marriage—including homemaker contributions;
- Whether there is a significant disparity between the earning capacity of the spouses (As an example if one spouse has a Master’s degree and a thriving career and the other has a high school diploma and has not worked outside the home since the marriage began);
- The physical health of the spouse asking for alimony;
- The mental health of the spouse asking for alimony;
- The property received by each spouse in the divorce;
- The debts held by each spouse following the divorce;
- The standard of living of each spouse during the marriage;
- The age of each spouse;
- The time it will take the lower-earning spouse to acquire education or training for appropriate employment, and
- All services rendered by the lower-earning spouse such as child-rearing, homemaking, and building the career and/or education of the other spouse.
The court is required to determine that there is no other form of alimony (than the one decided on) that is fair and reasonable, given the circumstances. It is worth noting that “permanent” alimony will end immediately if the spouse receiving the support remarries. Also, while Florida is a no-fault divorce state, the fault may be assessed and factored into the court’s decision regarding alimony.
Modification or Ending Alimony
While it is not all that easy to do, alimony in Florida can be modified or ended. The only time alimony cannot be modified is when both parties agreed, at the time of the divorce, to non-modifiable, permanent alimony. Otherwise, should the paying spouse retire, be laid off, or otherwise experience a significant drop in income, the permanent alimony may be modified.
In the same vein, should the receiving spouse experience a significant increase in income, the paying spouse can petition for a reduction in alimony. To end alimony, entirely, the same rules apply. The court must be petitioned, and the paying spouse must be able to show a significant drop in income or that the receiving spouse is earning significantly more than he or she was at the time of the divorce.
Enforcing Alimony in Florida
So, now that you understand the basic rules of Florida alimony, what if you are awarded alimony, then your ex refuses to pay, or cannot pay? Maybe your ex simply decided he or she was tired of paying alimony, or maybe there is a legitimate reason for the lack of payments, including the loss of a job, or medical issues which interfere with the ability to make a living.
If Your Alimony is Not Court-Ordered
If you and your ex simply agreed between yourselves on the amount and duration of alimony—rather than having a judge make those determinations—what do you do if the payments suddenly stop? Your first step should be to contact your ex and ask why he or she stopped paying the alimony the two of you agreed on. Perhaps there was an illness, injury, or the loss of a job. If you can clearly see your ex is incapable of making the payments the two of you agreed on, you might consider an agreement that would reduce or suspend the alimony payments until your ex is back at work, or has recovered from the illness or injury.
If, however, your ex is simply dodging his or her agreed-upon obligations, it is likely you will be forced to return to court to enforce the original agreement. Your family law attorney will file a motion with the court, asking the judge to order your ex to make the past-due payments and to continue with future payments. When presented with such a motion, your ex may decide to pay you the money owed rather than go to court, or he or she may feel there is a good reason to discontinue or reduce the alimony and may welcome the chance to present those reasons to the judge.
If Your Alimony is Court-Ordered
If your alimony is court-ordered, then not only are you not getting paid if your ex stops sending checks, he or she has also violated a court order, which judges tend not to take lightly. Florida courts have fairly wide latitude in determining what punishments and fines they can impose on spouses who refuse to pay court-ordered alimony. The judge can order the paying spouse’s personal financial estate—even including rent and profits from real estate—to be confiscated and applied toward your alimony. Additional remedies for unpaid alimony include:
- If it is determined by the court that the paying spouse has the ability to pay and that the non-payment is both willful and intentional, then a criminal contempt order may be entered. The non-paying spouse will have the right to be legally represented in the criminal proceedings, and, if convicted of the offense could face up to 180 days in jail. If the non-paying spouse pays all the alimony owed, then the criminal contempt order will be purged.
- If the non-payment is not willful and intentional, then a civil contempt order may be filed, which only requires proof there is a prior court order which directed your ex to pay alimony, and he or she has failed to pay. The paying spouse will then have to show the non-payment was due to circumstances beyond his or her control, and that he or she no longer has the ability to make the alimony payments ordered by the court. Jail time is not an option in a civil contempt order.
- A judge can order garnishment of your ex’s wages if it is determined he or she has the ability to pay, or, if the lack of payment is due to the loss of a job, your ex may be ordered to seek employment through the Florida State Employment Services.
What if You are the Spouse Who is Not Paying Court-Ordered Alimony
Get to know us: Robert Napper, Legal JournalistIf you happen to be the spouse ordered to pay Florida alimony, you may feel the ruling is unfair, and simply stop paying. Don’t do this! You can appeal the judgment through your Florida divorce attorney, but if your appeal has not been decided in your favor, and you stop paying, you could face civil or criminal contempt of court charges. If you are facing criminal contempt charges, you could find yourself spending time behind bars. If you are facing civil contempt charges, you could be fined for continued failure to pay court-ordered alimony.
The act of failure to pay court-ordered alimony will be considered in light of the facts surrounding your particular situation. The harshest penalties are generally reserved for those who could pay their alimony obligations but simply choose not to. Therefore, if you can afford your alimony payments, but have missed one or two payments because you forgot, you are much more likely to be forgiven than if you willfully chose not to pay the alimony. If you fail to make your court-ordered alimony payments, and you don’t bother to contact the court and your ex about your inability to pay, the court may decide you lack credibility and are doing nothing more than attempting to deceive your ex.
If you want to avoid penalties, and you want to stop paying alimony, first look at your divorce ruling regarding that alimony. Was your judgment for non-modifiable alimony (meaning it cannot be changed)? Or, if the judgment was for modifiable alimony did you, at a later time, sign away your right to request a modification? If either of these things happens to be true, you have the right to appeal those decisions, whether to be granted a lower amount of alimony you are required to pay, a shorter duration you are required to pay the alimony, or, in some cases, a suspension of your alimony obligations altogether.
Obviously, if you are requesting any of the above modifications to your court-ordered alimony, you will need an extremely good explanation, as well as supporting documentation to back up that explanation. In other words, if you are basing your request on the fact that you lost your job, you will need a good explanation and documentation to show why you lost your job when you expect to be re-employed and what steps you are taking to gain employment. If you quit your job, the judge may not be particularly sympathetic. If you are having health issues, you will need to have your medical expenses to show why you cannot pay your alimony, as well as a note from your doctor that details your illness or injury, the treatment(s) you are undergoing, and how long you are expected to continue those treatment(s).