Your divorce decree, at least one judge has said, is the "private law of your divorce." These are the rules that you and your ex have agreed (or a judge has decided) are going to govern every aspect of your dealings post-divorce. Your divorce decree covers when and how each of you spends time with the kids, who gets what property, what support will be paid, by whom, and for how long. It can feel good to have everything in black and white, signed by a judge, official. But just because the rules are plain doesn't mean that they will always be followed. Here's what to do if your ex isn't following your divorce decree.
Depending on the type of violation of the decree, different remedies are available through the court. Going back to court can be time-consuming and expensive, and it can further erode your relationship with your ex, something you may not want to do if you have to raise children together. What you want (hopefully) is for your ex to be complying with your divorce decree, not for him or her to be punished by the court. While court action may sometimes be necessary, it can be more effective to address issues outside of court first. Resolving problems in the least contentious way possible will save you money and help foster a decent working relationship.
That may seem like an odd way to put it, but a working relationship is what you and your ex now have. If you are parents, you are partners in the business of co-parenting, so you must navigate issues like custody and child support. Even if there are no children involved, you may be dealing with the exchange of money (spousal support) and goods (property division). Therefore, it is in your best interests to remain as cordial as possible for as long as you must deal with each other. But that doesn't mean that you have to turn the other cheek when your ex isn't following the rules.
To paraphrase Patrick Swayze's character in the movie Roadhouse, "Be nice until it's time not to be nice." Don't go to court unless you have to. But when you go, be ready.
Over time, the individual events that make up your dealings with your ex can merge into one overarching impression. He or she becomes someone who is "always late with support" or "never picks up the kids when he or she is supposed to."
Unfortunately, even if those assertions are true, they will not gain much traction in court. Family law judges spend their days listening to people talk about how awful their spouses or ex-spouses are. They may even sympathize, but they cannot grant relief based on generalities. You need to be able to show or testify exactly how your ex violated your divorce decree, and what actions you took.
Fortunately, this is easier today than ever. If you are using an online co-parenting tool or app such as Our Family Wizard, that will provide reliable evidence of your interactions. Many divorced parents do the bulk of communicating through these tools, which do not allow editing or deletion of messages. The knowledge that you can't later take back a nasty comment tends to keep communications more civil. If someone still chooses to say something inappropriate, it is preserved and can be used as evidence in court. By the same token, if you have requested a payment, say, for a child's piano lessons, through the app, your ex cannot easily claim that you never told him or her that you needed the money. Keep your own tone civil, and communicate facts. Before you write anything, imagine the judge in your case reading it.
Even if you aren't using co-parenting technology, you can take screenshots of e-mails and texts to capture your ex's own words as well as your own. These typically show the date and time of interactions.Of course, old school note-taking works, too; keep a notebook in which you document, as close in time and as thoroughly as possible, the ways in which your ex is violating the decree. This can cover things such as refusing to allow the kids to have scheduled phone calls with you, to your ex calling you names in front of the kids.
All of this documentation can paint a picture of your ex's overall behavior and your attempts to get him or her to do the right thing. By documenting specifics, you give the judge something on which to base a decision in your favor.
Documenting your ex's actions and your attempts to help him or her comply with court orders will also help your attorney advise you. As family law attorneys, we are inclined to sympathize with our clients, but also know that our clients count on us for solid legal advice, not just sympathy. When you present your attorney with specific facts about how your ex has failed to comply with your divorce decree, she can evaluate what a judge is likely to do based on the facts, and take action accordingly.
If it is necessary to go back to court and the judge sides with you, he or she may give your ex a specific time to comply with an obligation. If the failure to comply is serious or repeated enough, your ex may be held in contempt of court. If the failure to comply is a financial one, the judge might allow your ex's pay to be garnished. Your attorney can best advise you on what is likely to happen in your particular case.
If you have questions about what to do if your ex isn't following your divorce decree, we invite you to contact our law office to schedule a consultation.