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.

Strategy
Strategy

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.

A step or blended family is a family that consists of parents and children who are not biologically related, the parents are remarried or cohabitating with someone other than the biological parent. Blended families make up almost half of all families in the US, according to Stepfamily.org. That means that a large amount of children are being raised in a home with one or more non-biological adult and children. This arrangement raises several family law related concerns, moreso than the mundane issues. Let’s take a look at how the various legal concepts apply to step families.

Coparenting in Step or Blended Families

Coparenting within a step or blended family is a little different than coparenting amongst solo parents.  Although coparenting amongst solo parents poses challenges, co-parenting amongst step families takes on a different set of challenges.  

Depending on how the custody agreement arose, whether it came to be as a result of a settlement (verbal or written), a court order or negotiations, the way coparenting happen looks different.  It is not uncommon to overlook custody provisions that specifically address stepparents’ rights and responsibilities. It’s obviously not because stepfamilies are rare.  Stepparents are not discussed in custody agreements because the courts don’t have jurisdiction over persons who are not parties to the action.  However, some parties are savvy enough to ask that specific provisions be included, making the parties themselves responsible for their partners compliance. One of the ones I see often is a provision that speaks to if and when the child can call the stepparent “Mommy” or “Daddy”.


What You Say in Family Court Matters


Additional provisions that may be included in custody agreements are; whether and to what extent the stepparent can discipline the child, if they can consent to medical treatment, if they are allowed to access school records or attend events, etc. Even if some of these NOT covered in the actual custody document, federal and state laws govern the rights of stepparents with respect to health and education. Stepparents cannot consent to medical treatment of a stepchild, even in emergency situations. They can transport the child to the hospital or medical appointments but need written consent to do more than that. Consent to treatment requires written consent from the parent/spouse who must have joint custody or legal custody.   

Same with respect to accessing school records or attending school events, consent (although written consent is not required it is recommended) from the parent/spouse is needed.  As for discipline, no specific laws address stepparent rights in the event the custody agreement fails to mention it. However, the extent to which a stepparent can discipline a stepchild relies solely with the biological parents (as long as it is within the legal confines of their state). Whatever rules the parents agreed to also extends to stepparents. Nonetheless, it is prudent to cover stepparent discipline in the custody agreement. Stepparents should be viewed as authority figures, of course, and should step into that role with confidence but boundaries should be established and maintained.

Custody/Visitation in Blended Families

There is a difference in step parents rights and responsibilities in sole custody arrangements.  In sole custody households, the biological parent does not have to confer with the other when making major decisions.  However, in joint custody, shared custody or 50/50 arrangements, this is not the case. (For a detailed explanation of the difference in custody arrangements go here  http://www.thedivorcesolutionist.com/will-the-court-award-sole-custody).  When consent is required in joint custody arrangements, there are times when that consent can be trumped by the other biological parent.  However, situations that do not need consent, still make copaStep or Blended Familyrenting amongst stepfamilies difficult. The issues that directly affect custody/visitation are communication, pickups and dropoffs, attendance at special events, household rules, etc. For the most part, stepparents are to adhere to the provisions of the custody agreement even though if they are not mentioned in the agreement.  Furthermore, stepparents should not meddle in communications or discussions between biological parents except in exigent circumstances. Particularly in high conflict custody arrangements, stepparents should keep their input or involvement to a minimum. Maintaining boundaries should be paramount to ensure coparenting goes smoothly.

Child Support or Financial Obligations in Blended Families

Child support guidelines applies to biological parents but can bring stepparents into the fold. The purpose of child support is to ensure that children have the benefit of maintaining the same or similar standard of living as if the parents were still living in the same household. However, this principle gets tricky in its application when children have the addition of a stepparent and their income. Although the courts cannot obligate stepparents to provide for children that are not biologically theirs (except in adoption) they cannot ignore the windfall uncalculated income provides. A payor non-custodial solo parent should not have to give up more than his/her proportionate share of income to a payee custodial remarried parent who has the financial advantage of another income in the household.  

What happens with child support in stepfamilies? Well, most courts will not “add” the stepparent’s income into the formula.  However, what they are permitted to do is to “consider” the stepparent’s income when deciding if they should deviate from the child support guidelines.  And where there a huge disparity in income, and thus standard of living, they will try to balance them out by applying its discretion. 

Conclusion

In sum, stepparents should take every aspect of the new family dynamics into account before taking on the role in a step or blended family.  Although having a custody agreement in place helps a lot, it is nearly impracticable to follow every provision to the letter.  Emotional bonding, physical conditions and financial limitations can make implementation even more challenging.