Is Failing to Make Mortgage Payments Based on a Marital Settlement Agreement Grounds for Contempt?
In Florida family law, parties are expected to obey court orders pertaining to child and spousal support. If a party disobeys such a court order, the other party may file a motion for contempt that can lead to fines or even incarceration.
When the facts of a marital dispute are complex, however, it can be difficult to discern whether a filed motion for contempt is justified. A recent dissolution of marriage involving mortgage payments and IRS fraud highlights this fact quite well.
A Closer Look at Florida Case Law on Motions for Contempt
In the 2017 appellate case of Dufour v. Damiani, the facts reveal that the spouse appealed the trial court’s denial of a motion for contempt she filed based on the husband’s failure to pay one-half of the mortgage on the former couple’s marital home.
Importantly, the husband was required to pay this share of the mortgage based upon the marital settlement agreement used when the final divorce judgment was issued. The wife claimed on appeal that she exclusively used and possessed the home, adding that the husband’s mortgage payment should be viewed as an element of child support.
The husband, alternatively, argued that his obligation to pay the mortgage ended when the wife claimed her mother as a dependent on a tax return. Interestingly, the facts reveal that the wife’s mother did not, in fact, live with the mother as she claimed. In other words, the wife committed IRS fraud on her tax return.
The trial court found that the wife’s IRS fraud ensured that the husband’s obligation to pay one-half of the mortgage ended. On appeal, the appellate court reversed this ruling based one existing Florida case law.
Appellate Ruling Highlights the Importance of the Marital Settlement Agreement
On appeal, the 4th District highlighted the importance of the former couple’s marital settlement agreement, which read in part that “the wife shall have exclusive use and possession of the home and reside in the home with the two children only.” The agreement went on to say that the husband’s responsibility to pay his share of the mortgage would end if anyone other than the wife and children lived in the home.
Despite the wife’s claim that her mother was a dependent who lived in the home, the mother did not actually reside at the property as a factual matter. Further, the appellate court noted it is well settled that a former spouse’s payments of debts like a mortgage can be construed as child support or spousal support.
In the case of Sency v. Sency, 478 So.2d 432, 432 (Fla. 5th DCA 1985), for example, the 5th District appellate court clearly stated that exclusive possession given to an ex-spouse and children “always” constitutes an aspect of child support in kind and sometimes even an aspect of alimony (spousal support).
The court also noted a 1993 Fifth District case where the court decided that a marital settlement agreement excluding any man from living in the house while a wife maintained exclusive possession should be construed to show that the husband’s mortgage obligations are supportive in nature.
The couple in Dufour v. Damiani also created a marital settlement agreement giving the wife exclusive use and possession of the home. Further, the husband’s obligation to pay the mortgage also would end if a man or anyone else lived in the home. Therefore, the 4th District concluded, the husband’s obligation to pay one-half of the mortgage was a form of support.
As such, the wife’s motion for contempt was a proper remedy, even though she committed fraud against the IRS. Nothing in the marital settlement agreement indicated that the husband’s obligation to pay the mortgage would end if IRS fraud was committed.
This case reveals why clear, concise and unambiguous language in a marital settlement agreement is essential when two parties divorce. Relying on the legal knowledge of a Florida family lawyer is the best way to draft a clear marital settlement agreement that helps both parties avoid unnecessary legal disputes based on settlement language that lacks precision and legal clarity.
If you have any questions about Florida marital settlement agreements, contact The McKinney Law Group for a legal consultation.
If you have questions regarding a divorce attorney (Tampa, Florida), or are unaware as to the terms and conditions in, talk to, and retain, a family law attorney who can help. Contact Damien McKinney of The McKinney Law Group to discuss your case further. He can be reached by phone at 813-428-3400 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org