In divorce proceedings, courts often award one of the parties a certain amount of monthly spousal support for a specified period of time. Unfortunately, in some cases, the obligor may fail to make the required payments. If this happens, the other party may bring an action in a California court in an attempt to enforce a judgment for spousal support. There are several “judgment lien” provisions that serve to assist a party who is seeking to enforce a spousal support award. It is important to understand how these laws may affect your right to past due spousal support payments. In order to protect your financial and legal rights in any divorce-related action, you are strongly encouraged to contact an experienced family law attorney from the San Diego area as soon as possible.
Under Section 697.320 of the California Code of Civil Procedure, a judgment lien on real property may be created by the recording of a judgment for marital support obligations that are payable in installments. However, the statute further provides that the judgment lien is for the amount of installments as they mature under the terms of the judgment, but it does not become a lien for any installment until it is due and payable. Essentially, this provision allows a party to enforce a judgment lien for spousal support payments only to the extent that the monies are due and owing, not for any future unpaid support payments.
In a recent case, an ex-wife brought an action seeking a declaration that she still had a spousal support judgment lien against real property formerly owned by her ex-husband (and later purchased by a third party from a bank). The third-party purchaser is also a party to this suit. Here, the divorce judgment entered in 1999 required the ex-husband to pay $12,000 in monthly spousal support, and to maintain and pay all premiums in life insurance as security for the spousal support award. In 2005, the ex-husband executed a Deed of Trust, encumbering the real property (at the heart of this dispute) as security for a loan. Ultimately, the ex-husband defaulted on the loan, and the property was sold in foreclosure to a third party in 2009.
The ex-wife sought a judgment declaring that she had senior priority liens over the Trust Deed and the interests of the Bank, as well as the current owners of the property, based on claims that her former husband had not paid spousal support since 2007 and had not maintained life insurance under the judgment. The defendants filed a summary judgment motion, arguing that under Section 697.390, the ex-wife’s judgment lien for support payments was fixed at the amount of the ex-husband’s unpaid support payments that were due and owing at the 2005 Trust Deed encumbrance (which was zero because the husband had not defaulted until 2007).
The trial court ruled in favor of the defendant regarding the support judgment lien, and it also concluded that the life insurance obligation under the judgment was not a money judgment or a support obligation that could be deemed to create a judgment lien under the statute. The ex-wife appealed. In reviewing the plain meaning of the statute (and the undisputed facts), the court of appeals concluded that the trial court correctly determined that the amount of the ex-wife’s support judgment lien was fixed at the amount of the ex-husband’s unpaid support payments due at the time of the Trust Deed encumbrance in 2005 – which was zero. The court also affirmed the lower court’s conclusion with respect to the life insurance obligation.
This case is a good example of the complicated nature of the laws affecting many aspects of a divorce case. It is essential that you are aware of any and all legal provisions applicable to your particular circumstances. For more than 20 years, Roy M. Doppelt has been representing clients in divorce matters in Linda Vista, Encinitas, Scripps Ranch, San Diego, and throughout Southern California. For a free consultation with a dedicated and experienced family lawyer, contact Doppelt & Forney through the law firm’s website or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).
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