Can you go to jail if you are unable to pay alimony?

UPDATED: Jun 18, 2011

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Can you go to jail if you are unable to pay alimony?

I lost my job the day after divorce court. Judgement was for $600 a month to ex-wife for 3 years. I do not have to pay child support and and have custody of child. Just have a new job after 2 months of nothing with no unemployment insurance payments given to me. Have 4 children to support total (3 under age 6).

Asked on June 18, 2011 under Family Law, Maryland


M.D., Member, California and New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 11 years ago | Contributor

A failure to pay alimony can be considered civil contempt of court or, in some states, as criminal contempt of court. The rules regarding these contempt cases vary state-to-state. Typically, you can expect to be fined and/or incarcerated if you choose not to obey an order of alimony. In some states, failure to pay alimony may also cause you to lose your driver’s license and have your tax refund garnished. The most severe penalties are reserved for those who can afford but intentionally choose not to pay.

What you need to do is to go back to court and seek a modification of your alimony. Failure to pay alimony or notify the court that you cannot afford your alimony payment indicates that you lack credibility and are attempting to deceive your ex-spouse.  On the other hand, contacting the court on your own demonstrates good faith. 

When requesting a modification of the original ruling, you will need to provide an explanation and supporting documentation as to how your circumstances have changed so that you can no longer comply with your court-ordered alimony payments. Certainly unemployment/reduced income will be crucial to demonstrate. You really should consider having legal counsel represent you on this matter.

Note:  If your alimony judgment is non-modifiable (in other words, it says that it cannot be changed) or if is modifiable but you signed away your right to request a modification after the initial ruling, then the only way to stop payment may be to appeal the ruling.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The Answer(s) provided above are for general information only. The attorney providing the answer was not serving as the attorney for the person submitting the question or in any attorney-client relationship with such person. Laws may vary from state to state, and sometimes change. Tiny variations in the facts, or a fact not set forth in a question, often can change a legal outcome or an attorney's conclusion. Although has verified the attorney was admitted to practice law in at least one jurisdiction, he or she may not be authorized to practice law in the jurisdiction referred to in the question, nor is he or she necessarily experienced in the area of the law involved. Unlike the information in the Answer(s) above, upon which you should NOT rely, for personal advice you can rely upon we suggest you retain an attorney to represent you.

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