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Enforcement of a Divorce Property Disposition

The superior court has broad equitable authority to enforce a property disposition set forth in a dissolution decree. The courts in Washington have noted that it is not conceivable that a court in a divorce proceeding can divide the property between the parties and yet have no power to make that division effective if the parties are recalcitrant.

In Robinson v. Robinson, 37 Wn.2d 511, 516, 225 P.2d 411 (1950), the court quoted NELSON ON DIVORCE AND ANNULMENT Vol. II, 285, § 16.01 (2d ed.) when it found that:

“To the extent that the court has the power to adjust the property rights of the parties, it can require that its mandates be carried out, either by act of the party or by directing the making of a conveyance by a representative of the court if the party fails or refuses to make it. This is a generally recognized power of a court invested with authority to deal with property rights and interests. It is commonly exercised to effectuate transfer of interests if the parties are recalcitrant; hence there is nothing peculiar to divorce litigation in its application, where necessary, to carry out what the court is empowered to do by way of adjustment of rights and interests.

Related to this broad authority, the superior court can enforce a decree of dissolution so long as it does not modify the decree. A decree is modified when the rights given to one party are either extended beyond or reduced from the scope originally intended by the decree.

The court in Decker v. Decker, 52 Wn.2d 456, 326 P.2d 332 (1958) indicated that the court can use contempt to compel distribution of property pursuant to a decree, so long as that distribution is reasonably related to support of a child.  See also In re the Marriage of Curtis, 106 Wn. App. 191, 23 P.3d 13 (2001).  If the request for contempt to compel distribution of property is not reasonably related to support, then contempt is not appropriate; rather a motion to enforce provisions of the decree should be filed.


The Modification of a Dissolution Degree

Without any conditions that justify reopening of the judgment, the modification of a dissolution decree violates RCW 26.09.170(1), which provides that the provisions as to property disposition in a divorce "may not be revoked or modified, unless the court finds the existence of conditions that justify the reopening of a judgment under the laws of this state.”

If you have questions about how to enforce the property division terms of your divorce decree, then contact an experienced family law attorney in Seattle, WA, at Law Offices of Shana E. Thompson. Call (206) 712-2756 to discuss your case.


This article was last updated on Monday, October 23, 2017.