Sometimes a former, or soon-to-be former, spouse or co-parent can make your life difficult by refusing to pay support or cooperate with parenting time or fighting your efforts to resolve your divorce. When inconvenience and annoyance crosses the line into the violation of court orders, you may be able to use contempt of court proceedings to correct the other party’s behavior and get your case, and your life, back on track.
The contempt of court definition and its consequences depend on what a party has been instructed to do by the court. Essentially, if a party is held in contempt of court, it means that his or her actions or inactions are in violation of a court order (civil contempt) or that his or her behavior disobeys, offends, or disrespects the authority or dignity of the court (criminal contempt).
The court’s goal in finding a party in civil contempt is to force the offending party to comply with the court’s order. Civil contempt of court consequences, most common in family law cases, may include any of the following:
The findings in a civil contempt hearing are purgeable or curable. That means once the violating party complies with the court order, the sanctions can be lifted.
Criminal contempt proceedings involve past wrongdoings that cannot be made right by the wrongdoer. Unlike civil contempt, a criminal contempt conviction cannot be cured. The punishment for criminal contempt of court is:
Contempt of court proceedings can be a powerful tool against parents who refuse to pay their child support or who repeatedly violate child custody and parenting time orders. It can also be used when your spouse’s actions are improperly delaying your ability to resolve your divorce or failing to follow through with obligations in a judgment of divorce.
One of the most common types of family law contempt cases is the result of repeated parenting time denials. Once the court has entered a custody and parenting time order (even on a temporary basis), both parties are required to follow that order, spending time with their children on the days and times included in the order. When one parent -- most often the custodial parent -- refuses to turn over the children at the prescribed time, the other parent may file a parenting time denial with their local Friend of the Court office.
One or two parenting time denials generally won’t result in contempt proceedings. However, if your children’s other parent develops a pattern of denying you parenting time, you and your family law attorney can file a motion to enforce your custody and parenting time order and request to hold the other party in civil contempt for denying you access to your child.
Sometimes, the disadvantaged parent isn’t even the one to file the contempt motion. If you are the payer of child support payments and have fallen behind on your obligations, you may receive an “Order to Show Cause” why you shouldn’t be held in contempt for failing to pay as ordered. These motions for contempt come directly from the Friend of the Court once you hit a certain threshold of arrearages (unpaid child support).
Unpaid child support can result in civil or criminal contempt as well as independent felony charges if the balances are high enough. An Order to Show Cause for unpaid support should not be taken lightly. Instead, you should contact a family law attorney right away to make arrangements to address the outstanding arrearages and modify your child support order based on any change in circumstances that have occurred since it was entered.
Contempt can apply to any court order, even those that happen before the judgment of divorce is entered. For example, civil contempt can be a tool you and your divorce attorney can use to get information from an uncooperative spouse during discovery proceedings.
During a divorce, each spouse has the right to ask questions, demand the disclosure of documents, and request the other party to admit or deny certain statements. This “discovery” is used to make sure both sides know the issues, assets, debts, witnesses, and exhibits that are likely to come before the court. Discovery is also essential to creating a reasonable settlement offer and entering into good-faith negotiations that avoid the cost, expense, and exposure that comes with going to trial.
However, sometimes one party believes they can force the other to accept less than is fair by controlling their access to information. When a party refuses to cooperate with discovery, your divorce attorney can file a motion to compel discovery with the court. If you win that motion, the court will enter an order requiring the other party to turn over the information. If they still refuse, you can ask the court to hold them in contempt.
At NSSSB, we have decades of family law experience, helping our clients resolve disputes and respond to spouses and co-parents who refuse to follow court orders. We know when and how to use contempt proceedings to compel the other party to comply with the court’s orders and move the divorce process forward. Click here to schedule a consultation with an attorney. We will listen to the details of your situation, answer your questions, and help you decide whether a motion for contempt is the right tool to use to resolve your case.