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Contempt of Court in Family Law Matters


Contempt of Court

If you have ever watched any of the legal dramas that are on television, you have seen the hero attorney hammer away at a witness on the stand firing question after question. After a dramatic pause, the judge will tell our hero to “watch your step, McCoy!” The hero, just needing to prove his point, continues until the judge threatens him with “Contempt.” Cue the dramatic music.

Thanks to these shows, everyone has heard of “contempt of court,” but many people do not know what it really is. There are, in fact, different forms of contempt. Contempt can be direct or indirect and civil or criminal.

Civil or Criminal

Contempt related to a civil case may not be punished criminally. In cases of criminal contempt, the charge then must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt,” as any criminal matter would. Contempt in a civil case can be sanctioned, often with incarceration in the custody of local law enforcement only so long as the disobedience to the court’s order continues. This is not seen as punitive, but “coercive and remedial.”

Direct or Indirect

Direct contempt is when the action occurs in front of the presiding judge. The judge will inform the party that their action or decision is disruptive or prejudicial to the process. The person will be able to respond or correct their actions. If they choose not to, the judge can impose sanctions immediately.

Indirect contempt is when a person acts outside of the presence of the court that goes against an order that is issued by the court. If accused, the person is then entitled to be notified of the accusation and an opportunity to hear the evidence. If found to have violated a court order, being in contempt, the judge can then impose sanctions.

A Divorce Decree is a Court Order

As a part of many divorces, one spouse must pay the other maintenance, known as alimony or spousal support, and if there are minor children, child support is often paid. Regardless if the amount of the payment is dictated by the courts or the amount is agreed upon through alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation or collaboration, the final amount becomes a legal court ordered requirement. Support payments must be paid. Short of a modification agreed to by the court, support payments must be made. Failure to make the required payments amounts to violating a court order.

Since support payments are a court order and failure to pay is a violation of a court order, the person who did not pay can be accused of being in contempt.

Support payments comprise only one example of behavior that can lead to being held in contempt. Any violation of the divorce agreement can result in contempt. Some other examples include:

  • not allowing a court-ordered visitation
  • not returning a child to the custodial parent at the end of the scheduled parenting time
  • not making a reasonable effort to enable a child to be delivered to or picked up by a parent for scheduled parenting time
  • not delivering property as ordered
  • violating other family law orders or temporary restraining orders

In most cases, family law contempt falls under the categories of civil and indirect. Once the person who has been accused has been notified, if found to be in contempt, the court can sanction the individual in a number of ways, including:

  • fines or incarceration
  • court-ordered counseling
  • court-ordered parenting class
  • additional parenting time awarded
  • attorney’s fees being paid

There may also be a follow up hearing to ensure that the basis for contempt has been rectified.

Citing a person for contempt is a serious charge and should not be used lightly. Divorce can be very emotional. There are always two sides to a situation and there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for the perceived violation.

To avoid an expensive, and possibly inappropriate process, going to court is not often the first step. There are steps that can be taken before going to court, including sending a demand letter through certified mail. This letter informs the party that their behavior has been noted and demands that the issues be rectified or explained by a specific time.

In cases where a person is unable to pay the required support due to loss of a job or another issue, such as a health-related issue, the person can ask for a modification to the payments, either temporarily or permanent, depending on the circumstances.

There are times where a court order might be considered vague, or each side is interpreting an order differently. In these cases, either spouse may ask the court for clarification of the agreement or court order.

A divorce agreement has many moving parts, and situations are fluid and can change quickly. Even if there is usually an open line of communications, there are times when actions are misunderstood. There are also plenty of times when a person acts unilaterally, or even maliciously. Whatever the situation is, call the Law Office of Anthony LoPresti to get to the bottom of the issue.