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Contempt in Family Court: What it Is & it is Not

Contempt in Family Court
Making the best decisions

I’ve touched up contempt in family court several times in the past. But what is or is not contempt in family court matters is worth a lengthy discussion. It is defined as “the offense of being disobedient to or disrespectful toward a court of law and its officers…”.  (Wikipedia) This covers orders, rulings, decisions issued by a judge of court.  So basically when a party to an action is ordered or directed to act or not act and they do the opposite, they are acting in contempt.

Change to Child Custody Arrangements during Covid

Family Court Order vs Other Court Order Violations

Family court orders typically come about by examination of a confluence of things.  Laws, statutes and regulations are just a part of what comes into play. Social norms, public policy issues and bureaucratic influences also have a significant impact in family court decisions.  In other courts, criminal court for instance, the application of the law has a much bigger influence.  And as a result, acts of contempt are generally more explicit.  The court order is usually clear with respect to consequences for disobeying it.  Violating a criminal court order usually entails a fine and/or incarceration because the violation is usually against the court itself or public policy. In family court, on the other hand, no such clarity exists.

First off, making a “finding” that contempt actually happened is not as clear cut.  Non-compliance is usually the court’s finding, which is very different from contempt.  When someone violates a family court order by not paying child support or spousal support, not following a custody/visitation order or ignoring provisions in a divorce judgment they are not necessarily in violation against the court itself.  Their defiance is against the other party. Next, family court violations need to be examined in context, not on isolated bases. This too, makes them privy to being viewed as less egregious as criminal court violations.  And last, family court orders tend to include lots of provisions where execution is conditioned upon other provisions being executed.

Actual vs. Perceived Contempt in Family Court

As I mentioned, what may be thought of as contempt may in fact be viewed as violations, non-compliance, etc.  Although by definition there is no distinction, what matters is how the court views it.  The court is the factfinder and it will determine what rises to the level of contempt using a different level of scrutiny than it would in any other court.

Let’s examine a few scenarios to get some insight on how the court views violative behaviors.

  1. Court order directs that the non-custodial parent (NCP) pays the custodial parent (CP) $500 per month for child support.  After 3 months of missed payments, late payments or partial payments the CP seeks contempt against NCP.
  2. Court order states that the NCP is to exercise their visits with the child every Fri. eve at 6PM until Sunday afternoon at 4PM. In the past several months, CP repeatedly shows up to drop off an hour or two late.
  3. Court order, by way of Divorce Decree, orders that the Defendant is to turn over all personal property in their possession within 30 days of the Decree. 90 days have passed and Plaintiff still has not received any such property.

Although all of these scenarios clearly exhibit some violations, non-compliance and/or disobeying court orders, they rarely arise to the level of “contempt” in a family court setting.  However, when these acts are considered in context, reviewed in light of other issues in the case, a finding of contempt is possible.


Making a Case for  Contempt in Family Court

Although the elements of contempt are usually spelled out in some form, the courts usually use a less stringent standard of proof in family court.

The key to getting the court to make an actual contempt ruling requires a strategic approach.  You need to look at the violative behavior in with a look at the entire case. This means looking at past behaviors, considering the judges position of related issues, social norms, local practices, etc.

So when you are faced with a repeated nonpayment of support it makes sense to consider the NCP parent’s track record with paying, if there is an issue with ability to pay because of a change in employment, if the court had to reprimand NCP previously for nonpayment and so on.  Additionally, you should ask yourself “what is your judge’s history with this particular violative act”.

When the issue is with late drop-offs or early pickups, consider things like quality of visits, ability to makeup for lost time, the harm done to the children, etc. Again, what your judge’s views are on this issue, what the judge would say or do in this situation, etc. are also very important.

When you are faced with making a case for contempt, one great source to refer to is the actual order itself. Review it over and over again if necessary, to see if there are any “gray” areas of interpretation.  Read it from the other party’s perspective to see if there are any viable potential arguments they can make.  Read it to with a view from the judge’s viewpoint to see if their intent was clearly stated.

Sum it Up

In conclusion, understand that what you may perceive as a clear case of contempt may not be considered such by family court.  It is a good idea to think, plan and strategize on what your next move should be in the event of violations of your court order.

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