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  • Writer's pictureSummers Family Law

Failure to Sell = Finding of Contempt — An Avoidable Divorce Dilemma

As a divorce attorney, I'm always interested when appellate decisions come down related to divorce and real estate issues. A recent case out of the Massachusetts Appeals Court provides some good lessons for divorcing couples who own real property.

The case involved a divorced couple disputing issues related to the sale of their marital home per their divorce judgment. The judgment required that the home be sold "forthwith" and appointed a special master to oversee the sale if needed.

This is a common arrangement in divorce cases involving real estate - requiring prompt sale and bringing in a third party to help move the process along. But this case shows what can happen when one party drags their feet.

The husband was awarded the marital home in the divorce, but he delayed listing it for months. He also took the home on and off the market against the court order. His stalling tactics led the wife Heather to file complaints for contempt.

The trial judge did find the husband in contempt for violating the divorce judgment by failing to sell the home promptly. However, the Appeals Court upheld only the contempt finding related to the failure to sell itself. It rejected other contempt findings related to the husband giving his girlfriend a closing credit.

What are the key lessons here? First, courts expect compliance with orders to sell marital property, and contempt findings can result when one spouse stalls the process. Second, contempt findings will likely stand when based on clear violations, but appeals courts may examine the reasoning behind contempt rulings closely.

As a divorce lawyer, I always advise my clients to comply with court orders, even difficult ones, to avoid contempt. And I warn them that contempt appeals face an uphill battle. Once a judge finds contempt, it takes very strong grounds on appeal to overturn that decision.

This case also teaches that when real estate is involved, appointing a special master can streamline sale and resolution of disputes. Family law judges have broad discretion to craft solutions, so don't be afraid to ask for a master if needed.

These lessons and more from this case highlight how contentious some divorce cases with property issues can become. My role as a divorce attorney is to anticipate problems proactively. With real estate especially, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Clear court orders up front can prevent endless disputes down the road.

Disclaimer: The content provided in this blog is for informational and educational purposes only. It should not be construed as legal advice and readers should not act upon any information provided without seeking professional legal counsel. The author does not guarantee the completeness or accuracy of the information provided. This blog is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.

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