Going through a divorce or dissolution can be a difficult and emotional process. Receiving that final decree signed by a Judge can feel like a huge weight has been lifted. But your life doesn’t stop changing just because of a decree. In my experience, as the years go on, and the children get older, and schedules change, most parents find themselves adjusting the terms of their decree to accommodate their changing lives. This is called a post-decree matter.
While it’s common and perfectly alright to change the arrangement made between you and your ex-spouse, it is critical to get the agreement in writing and approved by a judge.
Here is the rub- if you don’t reduce your new agreement to writing and file it with the court, there are two problems that can occur: 1. You open yourself up to “contempt of court” and 2. You lose the ability to enforce any post-decree agreements.
Contempt means you have done something to disobey an order given by the court. Agreeing to different parenting time or property division when things are calm is one thing, but if something happens and tensions flare, your ex-spouse can go to the court and file for a contempt against you! If the only document that the Judge has to compare your actions to is the original divorce decree, you can be held in contempt for doing something different.
One way your attorney can help you to avoid contempt motions down the road is to include in your original decree a “flexibility clause” or use the phrase “unless the parties otherwise agree”. This allows you and your ex-spouse to make certain changes without the fear of a contempt motion.
Finally, if you are the one wanting to enforce the modified agreement against your ex-spouse, you have no legal grounds to do so if you don’t have a modification in writing. The court will only check to see that your ex-spouse is following the order in the divorce decree, and if they are, then there is nothing you can do to enforce your personal unwritten agreements.
Divorce and post-decree matters can be tricky, so it’s best to work with an attorney to make sure you understand all of the implications involved. If you have been acting in a way that is different than your orders and want to protect yourself moving forward, give me a call! I will be happy to discuss your unique situation and work with you to create a strategy that is both economical and effective in the long run.
Written By: Hannah Botkin-Doty, Attorney at Law