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When you divorce your spouse in California, the judge in your case might order one of you to pay the other spousal support. Spousal support – commonly called alimony – is a fixed sum of money that one spouse pays the other so that the recipient can get back on his or her feet. Courts don’t always order this type of support, but when they do, it’s binding; that means failure to pay alimony in California can come with serious consequences.

Here’s what you need to know.

Failure to Pay Alimony: The Consequences

If you’ve been ordered to pay alimony by a California court, you cannot simply stop making payments. You must pay spousal support until your order says you can stop. You can’t even stop paying if your circumstances have changed. You must go through the court system to change the order before you adjust the amount you pay or stop paying entirely. 

Failure to pay alimony is a violation of a court order, and it can result in serious trouble. The court can compel a person to pay alimony – and if that fails, the judge in your case can hold you in contempt of court. In some cases, judges can even order jail time. 

As long as your local child support agency isn’t involved (which means you haven’t failed to pay your child support), you can reach an agreement about how payments need to be made.

What it Means if the Court Compels You to Pay Alimony

Because you’re required by law to pay alimony, the court can force you to pay it through a variety of methods. For example, the court can:

  • Order wage garnishment
  • Levy bank accounts
  • Intercept tax refunds

When the Court Orders Wage Garnishment for Failure to Pay Alimony

If you fail to pay alimony, the judge can order wage garnishment. A garnishment order tells an employer to withhold part of your pay so it can go toward your debt. When you get your paycheck, that money will be absent from your check – it’ll go directly to your ex-spouse to fulfill your alimony obligation.

When the Court Levies Bank Accounts for Failure to Pay Alimony

A bank levy is a collection tool for court systems to use against people who fail to pay alimony. A levy is a legal action that allows the state to remove money from your bank account. If the court orders a levy, your financial institution will freeze your account and evaluate the situation. The bank then sends the money to the state of California, which disburses your debt; that means your ex-spouse receives the money you owe according to your spousal support order. 

When the Court Intercepts Tax Refunds for Failure to Pay Alimony

In the state of California, the court can notify the Treasury Department that you’re behind on your payments. The IRS can then give the money you were supposed to get as a tax refund to the state (in the amount that you owe), and the state will send it as an alimony payment to your ex-spouse. Likewise, if the government sends out stimulus payments or other, similar payments, the issuing agency can withhold the amount you owe from your payments.

None of these are desirable outcomes. It’s best not to skip alimony payments at all. If you can’t afford to make your alimony payments, you should petition the court to lower them or cancel them altogether.

What if You’ve Missed Alimony Payments?

Missing alimony payments can be serious – but you may be able to talk to your ex about your circumstances and work out an agreement for repayment. 

What if You Can’t Pay Alimony?

If you’re unable to pay alimony, you should ask your attorney to file a motion with the court. Your lawyer can ask the court to reevaluate your payments and explain why you want to lower – or even stop – your alimony payments. If your circumstances have changed significantly and you’re unable to afford your payments, the judge in your case may decide to modify his or her order.

What if Your Ex Moved in With Someone? Do You Still Have to Pay Alimony?

You may not have to continue to make the same alimony payments if your spouse begins living with someone else. That’s because he or she doesn’t have the same living expenses. Your spouse and the person he or she lives with are likely sharing the cost of rent or a mortgage, groceries, utilities and other bills. You can petition the court to change the amount of your alimony payments if your ex-spouse is cohabitating with someone (whether it’s a roommate or a romantic partner).

What to Do if Your Ex-Spouse Refuses to Pay Alimony

If your ex-spouse refuses to pay spousal support, your best bet is to talk to him or her and find out why. Sometimes there’s a valid reason, such as the loss of a job or an unforeseen expense. However, sometimes people simply decide to stop paying – and that’s not okay. 

Failure to pay alimony can land your ex in jail, but if you’re not receiving the money you need, that’s probably not your first concern. You should let your attorney know how many payments your ex has missed and explain what you know about the situation (such as whether your ex has lost his or her job). Your lawyer can file a motion with the court to ask the judge to step in.

Do You Need to Talk to an Attorney About Failure to Pay Alimony?

If you need to talk to a lawyer about your ex’s failure to pay alimony – or if you’re a payer and need a judge to change your spousal support order – we may be able to help you. Call us at 310-683-4623 to schedule a free consultation with a Beverly Hills divorce attorney today.