What Does “Contempt of Court” Mean in Family Law?

In family law cases, the trial court’s order is generally the final word. However, when it comes to enforcing this order – whether collecting child support, seeking compliance with a custody or visitation order, or being reimbursed for medical expenses you may need additional help from the court. In most cases, this is accomplished through a civil contempt proceeding. 

Below, we discuss some of the key differences between criminal and civil contempt, what actions can lead to a contempt finding, and what you will need to do to prove contempt in family court.

What Is Contempt of Court?

Courts’ powers depend on their ability to hold litigants accountable for their actions. Contempt of court occurs when someone repeatedly violates a court order, disrupts court proceedings, or otherwise flouts the court’s authority.

Civil vs. Criminal Contempt 

Criminal contempt of court occurs when someone disrupts court proceedings in the judge’s presence (and may be removed from the courtroom and jailed). Or, Criminal Contempt is generally applied where civil contempt has not forced compliance with an order, or the contempt cannot rectify the violation (e.g. if a parent withheld the child over a holiday, that particular holiday will never occur again.)

Criminal contempt is intended to be punitive – that is, it’s designed to deter similar conduct (from the respondent or others) in the future.

Civil contempt, on the other hand, requires the petitioner to prove that the respondent has violated a court order and should be sanctioned. Civil contempt is less likely than criminal contempt to lead to jail time, though it’s not always out of the question. 

Civil contempt is intended to enforce compliance with a court order. An example is someone who has failed to pay their court-ordered child support or alimony, jailing the respondent could actually make it more difficult for them to follow the court’s orders. Instead, the court might order wage garnishment, assess interest and attorney fees or take other steps necessary to ensure compliance.

In a criminal contempt action, the person accused of contempt is entitled to criminal law protections: court-appointed counsel (if they cannot afford private counsel); the right to trial by jury; the right to call witnesses; and the right to testify in their defense. 

Those accused of civil contempt aren’t entitled to these protections, though they may still be able to testify at a contempt hearing.

What Constitutes Contempt of Court by a Parent? 

Contempt requires a showing that the person being accused (or the “contemnor”) has willfully disregarded a court order. This requires a showing that the contemnor was aware of the order (that is, they or their attorney had received a copy of it); had the ability to follow the order; and deliberately chose not to.

Examples of Contempt of Court

Some examples of the most common actions (or inaction) that can lead to a contempt finding include: 

  • Failure to pay child support according to the terms of an agreement 
  • Failure to pay spousal support
  • Failure to pay an ex-spouse’s or child’s health insurance premiums or healthcare-related expenses (when ordered to do so)
  • Failure to return the child to the other parent per the schedule in the order
  • Any other actions that violate the court’s express directive (for example, making medical or religious decisions without the other parent’s consent (if both parents have joint legal custody)

Punishments & Sanctions for Contempt

Unlike criminal contempt, which is usually a final judgment that’s subject to appeal, a finding of civil contempt can be “purged” – in other words, the contemnor may avoid punishment by taking certain actions. 

Because the purpose of contempt is to enforce compliance with the court’s order, any punitive measures (including fines, penalties, and jail time) are no longer deemed necessary once the contemnor begins to comply with the court order.

However, if the contemnor doesn’t purge the contempt, they could be sanctioned in one or more of the following ways: 

  1. Wage garnishment
  2. Garnishment of income tax refunds or other federal payments
  3. Fines
  4. Amendments to the parenting time order
  5. Jail time
  6. Supervised visitation 

The family court has broad discretion to craft penalties for civil contempt. 

Proving Contempt & Seeking Sanctions 

Though the path of a particular contempt action will depend on the facts and circumstances of the case, there are a couple of steps every petitioner will need to take.

1. File a Contempt Motion

A motion for contempt should allege that the contemnor violated one or more court orders in a specific, identifiable way. Although the motion itself doesn’t need to include evidence (like copies of text messages or emails), the movant should be prepared to present this evidence at a later date. 

2. Gather & Present Evidence

Generally, after a motion for contempt is filed, the family court will issue a show cause order and schedule a contempt hearing. If a show cause order has not been issued, it’s up to the movant to present evidence that the contemnor has violated a court order. The contemnor may also present evidence rebutting these claims, whether arguing that the actions didn’t constitute contempt or claiming that any violation was non-willful. If a show cause order has been issued, the burden is on the alleged violator to prove he or she has not violated the order.

If the court determines that the contemnor is in contempt, it may assess sanctions.

3. Consider Contempt Alternatives

Contempt proceedings can be stressful for all parties. And if the proceedings involve a child, it may be worth considering alternatives that can help you avoid a courtroom. These can include mediation or, in situations where a court order’s ambiguity is causing communication issues, filing a motion to modify. 

Family Law Attorneys Experienced in Contempt of Court

Enforcing a family court order isn’t always as simple as it seems. Experienced family law attorneys, like those at Weaver, Bennett & Bland, P.A., can help you pursue (or defend against) a contempt petition or evaluate potential out-of-court solutions like mediation.

If you need help understanding or petitioning for contempt, contact Weaver, Bennett & Bland online or call us at 704-844-1400.