Contractual Alimony and Jail

Your final decree of divorce is a binding court order. If your spouse fails to comply with his or her obligations in that court order then your Woodlands Divorce Attorney can petition the court to enforce its decree. One of the most persuasive powers a divorce court has is the power to put someone in jail when they are found in contempt of court due to not following the terms of the court order. There are limits to this power however.

In one  case, the divorce court ordered Alvin to county jail for criminal contempt based on seven instances of failure to pay spousal support as provided for in his divorce decree. The sentence was for 180 days. The spousal support Alvin failed to pay was contractual spousal support that he consented to and was not tied to a legal duty based on the Family Code.

Contractual alimony and court imposed spousal maintenance have some significant differences. The Texas Family Code is very specific as to when the divorce court may impose spousal maintenance and the limits of that maintenance. On the other hand, contractual alimony is a private agreement between parties of a divorce. Further, contractual alimony is a private debt governed by the law of contracts, while spousal maintenance is a legal duty governed by the law of judgments. Therefore, the Supreme Court determined that Alvin’s incarceration based on his failure to pay contractual alimony was unconstitutional since contractual alimony is classified as a private debt and not enforceable by contempt.

Alvin also failed to maintain health insurance as part of his child support obligation. Unlike contractual alimony, a failure to adhere to child support obligations is punishable by contempt because it is based on a legal duty. However, in order for a party to be found in contempt there must be a written judgment of contempt along with a written order of commitment. Additionally, the contempt order cannot contain uncertainty nor can it suffer from multiple meanings. In Alvin’s case the contempt order was unclear as to whether the failure to provide health insurance itself served as the basis for contempt; therefore, the Supreme Court found there were no grounds for contempt and released Alvin.

This case is an important reminder to everyone that your divorce decree only achieves your goals to the extent it can be enforced and the options you have for enforcement. Contact us today at (832) 592-7913 if you need legal help to enforce your Montgomery County divorce decree. If you would like additional information, check out our free Woodlands Divorce Guide.