How can I collect real estate payments due from my ex-wife?
September 27, 2014 6:58 AM   Subscribe

My ex-wife has not paid her monthly fees on the land I sold her in 9 months now. Confounding details within...

When I got divorced, I and my ex-wife did not involve lawyers in deciding how to divide our assets.

We both live in Washington state, and the asset in question here is a piece of land in Clallam county, WA. As part of the divorce, I decided to sell my share to my ex for $30,000 to be paid over 30 years.

My ex drew up a contract (or rather, found a template and filled in the blanks) and I signed it. In retrospect, I know that I should not have relied on her goodwill and competence for something as important as real estate. At the time I was operating under the delusion that I was being kind to my ex during a stressful time.

I don't know how well-worded the contract is as it has never been seriously reviewed by a lawyer. There are a number of glaring omissions, such as the fact that there's no mention of monthly late fees. It does state what happens if my ex fails to pay fee for an extended period of time, however: "At the option of the Holder, this entire Note shall become immediately due and payable, without demand or notice, upon the occurrence of any one of the following events:

- failure of the Maker to pay any installment hereunder when due, which shall continue for 180 days".

I have moved several times since we divorced, and I no longer have a signed copy of the contract. I do have a copy of the contract that was emailed from her to me (including headers that show it was sent from her account), as well as records of her payments.

Throughout the first several years the contract was in effect, my ex missed 4 payments, and even put stop payments on 3 checks, for which I had to pay bank fees. For the past 9 months, she has not paid at all.

To complicate things further, I am not allowed to contact her anymore to try to resolve this, due to a restraining order. The first year of the restraining order, I was allowed to contact her accountant, but when the restraining order was reinstated last December (for 2 years), the judge said that I could not even contact any of her representatives. I asked the judge what I was supposed to do about issues related to the land; he stated that I would have to go through a lawyer. I had a friend accompany me to the court date and we were both surprised that he could require me to pay a lawyer (can't I bring a lawsuit myself?), but we're sure that's what he said.

My ex stopped payments entirely after the restraining order was reinstated, probably because she figured it would be difficult for me to do anything about it. She has now not paid a cent for 9 months. So, it's been well over the "180 days" mentioned in the contract.

I am in a very precarious financial situation and do not have the money to hire a lawyer. Even if I did, my one experience with lawyers, in dealing with the estate of my late mother, was extremely negative and my spending thousands of dollars only resulted in the lawyer lining his pocket and not much else. I did go to a Pro Bono lawyer yesterday about this, but he seemed very dismissive and basically said he didn't think I had a case because I no longer have signed documents.

I want to resolve this situation either by being paid the rest of the moneys owed (preferably with late fees and with recompense for the bank fees), or by buying her share of the land through small monthly payments.

I know you are not my lawyer, but if you ARE a lawyer, could you give some unofficial advice about how I can proceed? Can a judge really force me to hire a lawyer, or can/should I represent myself? If the latter, how do I go about doing that? Is there another alternative other than legal action? How enforceable is the contract given that I don't have a signed copy?

P.S. I've tried to avoid writing much about the drama behind the restraining order, because it mostly doesn't relate to the land issue, but I do want to mention here that my ex lied in court, stating that I had contacted her by email when I hadn't (the email came from some other account, and nor did she have a copy of the headers, but the judge just took her word). So, any solution should not rely on the ex to be reasonable, fair, or honest. I am really kicking myself for not contesting the first restraining order (again, I was trying to be kind to her, inadvisably it seems).
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You need a real estate lawyer now. You may end up foreclosing on the property, but as you have learned, real estate was the reason for laws even existing at all, due to the very complex nature of the relationships involved.

So get a real estate lawyer and go from there. You say you can't afford it? You can't afford NOT to!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:03 AM on September 27, 2014 [9 favorites]

You need a creditor's rights lawyer. Hopefully someone here can refer you, but if not, the Washington State Bar refers you to your county's local bar association's referral service.

I don't see how you could foreclose because you do not mention that the note is secured by a mortgage. I think you probably just have to sue on the promissory note. Just because the loan was used to buy out your interest in real estate does not make this a real estate matter.

Also, you might have a claim based on the stopped payment on those checks if your state has a worthless check statute. Again, confer with a local lawyer. If money is an issue, try your local Legal Aid Society. Also, many creditor's rights lawyers will work on a contingency basis.

You should also talk to the lawyer about the judge saying that you cannot litigate pro se. I would be surprised if that was ever written in an order. Courts will generally only do that if a litigant has been deemed vexatious.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:27 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

IANAL but I've been through an ugly divorce settlement.

You need a lawyer. The best advice you're going to get here is to lawyer up. I mean, apparently there's a restraining order against you but you don't quite understand the gist of it. A lawyer will help. You want this done correctly, right?

So call a lawyer. Next, If you can, you should go to the courthouse where you filed the agreement papers that were signed off by everyone and get copies. Also get a copy of the restraining order. Get copies of EVERYTHING.

If you can't do this, the lawyer can. And then go from there.

You also need to copy these papers and put them in a safety deposit box so this doesn't happen again.
posted by kinetic at 7:52 AM on September 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

you needed a lawyer from the very beginning. every delay you take in getting a lawyer is costing you more time, money, and hassle. you either need to get a lawyer or forget the land and the payments.
posted by nadawi at 7:56 AM on September 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

You can't litigate against HER pro se because she has a restraining order against you. If you were allowed to contact her about lawsuits you voluntarily chose to file against her then that's a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. IANYL but this is not unheard of to me in situations with restraining orders. Ask a lawyer in your own jurisdiction.

The RO is in place for a reason, presumably because the judge believes you are a danger to your ex wife. The point of the RO is to stop you from contacting her, which is exactly what you are trying to do. Hire a lawyer now for the real estate issue or you will hire a lawyer when you are charged with violating the restraining order.
posted by gatorae at 7:57 AM on September 27, 2014 [12 favorites]

I actually think the Pro Bono lawyer is giving you good advice.

You have a relatively small debt owed, without proper documentation, by someone with whom communication is clearly very painful, and who is unlikely to pay you voluntary even given a court order. You will end up spending significant amount of money first to argue your case in front of a judge, a case you could well lose, and following that a significant amount of money attempting to collect on the judgement which you will also need to hire someone to do for you. I imagine if your former spouse had the money to afford this they would probably not be paying small amounts over a long term, so even if all goes well you are still unlikely to collect your lump sum as judgements cannot collect money that is not there and the courts limit the share of income taken by judgement.

So the best possible outcome is a significant outlay now, and small repayments starting maybe a year or two now and lasting for a very long time.

It's not worth it. Let it go.
posted by doomsey at 8:48 AM on September 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I know you are not my lawyer, but if you ARE a lawyer, could you give some unofficial advice about how I can proceed?

No. (I am.) Let's talk about why. There are two reasons, and they are both about avoiding the creation of a lawyer-client relationship. The lesser reason is about protecting me. If you take my unofficial advice and end up worse, then maybe you'll sue me. After all...I'm a lawyer, so I should know what I'm talking about, right? "What he did seems like malpractice," you might think. "Attorneys carry insurance for malpractice, and insurance companies settle. Maybe I can get some money!" This happens. It's reason #1.

Reason #2, the more important reason, is about protecting you. Lawyers are powerful. We're experts. This might sound silly to you, but take my point: not everybody is smart or savvy enough to roll their eyes at this. A lot of people are dumb and impressionable and think that if a lawyer speaks, it's gospel. If lawyers were allowed to run around the Internet pointing back to their websites saying, "See, I'm an actual lawyer. Now here's what you should do...", then a lot of dumb, impressionable people would listen and get hurt. Because Internet advice is worth what you're paying, even if it's from a licensed attorney. We can't give you competent advice if we're not licensed in your jurisdiction, and we can't give you good advice without really sitting down and asking you a lot of questions.

That's why there is a hard line about not giving legal advice, even "unofficial advice," to non-clients. Because we'd hurt people. Sure, they could sue us for malpractice, but that would just get them some money. It wouldn't remedy the harm.

my one experience with lawyers, in dealing with the estate of my late mother, was extremely negative and my spending thousands of dollars only resulted in the lawyer lining his pocket and not much else.

I'm sorry you had a bad experience. On behalf of the profession, I apologize to you—both for that experience, and for the fact that we don't do a better job policing shitty lawyers. That is sincere. Having said that, now it's time for grown-up talk. I've had similarly bad experiences with doctors, dentists, and automobile mechanics. I didn't stop going to doctors, dentists, and automobile mechanics. I found better ones. I trust you take the point.

Good luck.
posted by cribcage at 9:10 AM on September 27, 2014 [42 favorites]

Who has the deed? Who is registered as the land owner? Are there any structures on the land?If its you then get a lawyer who can negotiate her ending her claim to the land. If it's her then find a lawyer who will take it on contingency or who would want to buy the debt. Being tied to an ex for 30 years does not seem to me to be a good way to end things.
posted by Sophont at 10:38 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

No signed note? No recorded mortgage on the land? If you get an attorney the best you can do is to try and force her to sell the land (and I bet you won't be able to do that). Methinks you are out of luck.
posted by brownrd at 10:54 AM on September 27, 2014

You don't want the advice a lawyer would give an anonymous stranger on the internet. (I'm a lawyer. This isn't legal advice.)

Northwest Justice Project seems to be your state's legal aid. Start there. As others have said, you seriously can't afford not to get a lawyer for this.
posted by mibo at 6:38 PM on September 27, 2014

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