Divorce Initiated and Finalized While Husband in Jail; is He Getting the Short End of the Stick?

Note: The DearEsq free 'ask a lawyer' site is offered as a free informational service to the public and is not intended as legal advice. Laws vary from state-to-state, and in addition every situation is unique, and relevant facts may not be known. The answer to the question posed below may not apply to in your state or to your situation. For legal advice in your state and your situation you should consult with an attorney in your state who is familiar with the rules and laws in your state.

“After less than a year of marriage, my wife filed for divorce in Colorado.  I moved to Nebraska in February and she filed for divorce in April.  I was incarcerated when the divorce went before a Magistrate in September, so I was unable to put up any significant resistance to her demands, or to consider what questions to ask during our court appearance.

She was awarded 1/2 of the unpaid rent from the three months prior to my departure from Colorado; I don’t dispute this.  The Magistrate specifically said that it would be up to the Landlord to seek payment; and as I recall, he indicated that if my name was not on the Lease, my ex-wife was the only person liable to the Landlord, but that she could file a civil case against me if he first pursued her in court.

In addition to this, the Magistrate allowed me time to submit an inventory of my personal property, which includes approximately $10,000 of household goods, personal items which hold significant emotional & sentimental value, tools, etc., which I have spent 40-plus years accumulating.  She was directed to provide a time and place for certain items which were specifically enumerated in Court; she resisted every suggestion the Magistrate put before her, and he decided she would remain after the hearing to resolve this.

I never heard back from her.

I sent a letter to the Magistrate through the County Court, specifically to the correct Division, in November; I have received no reply.

My ex-wife is now calling and emailing me to tell me I have not paid my court-ordered rent.  I am legally barred from replying to her in any manner, so I’m not responding to her attempts.

Meanwhile, I have lost everything I own, save my car and the few clothes I was able to pack. I understand your answer can’t be 100% specific without having seen the court documents; but what are my risks for simply avoiding payments of any kind unless or until the Landlord seeks payment, or my ex-wife wins a judgment against me?  Would I be in Contempt of Divorce Court?  And what could a Colorado Court do to me in Nebraska? Can a person living in one state be arrested in another state for a civil matter?  I know I would be in violation of my probation if I face any criminal issues, but I believe I’m otherwise safe in Nebraska.

I intend to make good on my obligations as soon as I can. What can I do through the Courts to retrieve my personal belongings? I feel the Magistrate was unfair in his determination, but I don’t know how to proceed there, either. I am currently unemployed and my unemployment insurance payments just ended.  My budget has not allowed me to pay much more than basic rent & utilities as well as a roughly starvation diet — Unemployment Insurance payments amount to too much income to qualify for Food Stamps — so it’s impossible for me to pay anything to anyone right now.  I’m fortunate to have a friend who will allow me to fall behind in the rent I agreed to until I get a job.  I’ve had a few job interviews, but nobody is hiring yet.”
The main issues seem to be stemming from the enforcement of the terms in your divorce decree and your financial status.  The terms of the divorce may possibly be changed by filing for a modification of the divorce decree, depending on how it was rendered.  Usually it is hard to set aside a decree, but given your situation – that you were incarcerated and unable to respond –  it may be possible, so you should investigate this possibility.  Considering your financial need, the best course of action would be to contact your county’s Bar Association and ask for a family law attorney to work with you on a pro bono basis.  You can contact a local legal aid or law school clinics.  These places will be able to represent you with a fee schedule based on your need or possibly for free.  Asking the court for a modification of the agreement will likely help sort out the rent and retrieving your personal belongings, AND, most importantly, it will show the court that you intend to meet your obligations.

One thing you should keep in mind is that you will not be able to hide from the Colorado courts in Nebraska.  If the Court requires you to appear or make a payment, you MUST make every attempt to contact the Court and explain your situation, the terms of your probation, and anything that might be relevant.  Keep the lines of communication open with the court, but since the divorce decree bans contact with your ex-wife, do not contact her.  Be sure to explain to the court that you are not returning her email and calls, and why.