Obligations to pay maintenance or spousal support are set forth in settlement agreements and/or court orders and judgments. If an obligation is in a settlement agreement only, it can only be enforced by a separate court action for a money judgment that is time consuming and costly. Money judgments require a further step, called execution, that may require the services of a collection attorney.
It is far better to have a maintenance obligation that is court ordered. Numerous methods of enforcement are available for court ordered obligations, including garnishment and contempt of court. Garnishment involves service of an income withholding order upon the payor’s employer, resulting in payment of both the current amount due and a portion of the arrears. A contempt proceeding is more expensive, but often very effective in getting the entire amount of arears paid, since it carries the threat of fines and/or incarceration. It can also can be coupled with a demand for attorney’s fees that will pay for the cost of bringing the proceeding. You can also seek a money judgment for the arrears in the same application in which contempt is sought. An often overlooked but very effective remedy is a domestic relations order (commonly referred to as a QDRO) that can be used if the payor has a 401k or pension.
When a divorce judgment is granted after the parties have signed a marital settlement agreement, often called a stipulation of settlement, the agreement is “incorporated by reference” into the judgment of divorce. If the settlement agreement contains a maintenance payment provision, that provision gains the power of a court order once the judgment is signed, entitling the maintenance recipient to use the faster and better enforcement remedies that court orders provide.