Contempt of Court

H. Beatty Chadwick was arrested on April 5, 1995, and has remained in jail ever since. Mr. Chadwick has not been convicted of anything; in fact, he has not even been charged with a crime. Instead, Mr. Chadwick was found to be in contempt of court in his divorce case. The court determined Mr. Chadwick transferred approximately $2,500,000 through offshore accounts in an attempt to hide the money from his now ex-wife. 

Mr. Chadwick would probably be released if he simply told the court where he hid the money but he refuses to cooperate so the court refuses to release him. The Chadwick case is obviously an extreme example. In fact, it is believed Mr. Chadwick holds the record for the longest jail term in a civil contempt case. However, the case does serve as a reminder that the court has the power to enforce its orders through the contempt process, even in a divorce case. Throughout the divorce process the court may issue several orders. At the start of the case the court may grant one party exclusive possession of the residence, for example.

By way of illustration let’s assume the wife filed for divorce and the court granted her exclusive possession of the residence. If the husband refuses to leave the residence, or if he returns after being ordered out, he has violated the court’s order. The wife may be able to file criminal trespassing charges against her husband, depending on the law of the jurisdiction. She can also file an accusation of contempt with the court accusing the husband of violating the court’s orders. The court will hold a hearing to determine if a violation occurred and, if so, if the violation was willful (if the husband was not served with the orders before he went into the house it would not be a willful violation, for example). If the court determines the husband willfully violated the orders then it will hold the husband in contempt of court.

Direct violations of court orders, doing what you have been specifically ordered not to do, are relatively easy to prove and occur relatively infrequently. A more common situation arises when one party fails to do something the court ordered them to do; most often this involves failing to pay child support or maintenance (alimony). For this example we will assume the wife is ordered to pay child support to the husband. If wife fails to make the payments husband can file an accusation of contempt with the court. Wife would then be required to explain to the court if she made the required payment of why she failed to make the payments. If a party is accused of directly doing something they were ordered not to do (entering into the house, in the first example) the issue for the court is usually to determine if the violation occurred. There are not very many cases where a party can establish that he or she inadvertently violated the court’s direct orders.

On the other hand, when the accusation is that a party failed to do what the court ordered them to do (making a payment in the second example) the focus is usually on why the party did not comply. In the typical situation it is clear that the party did not make the payments required. At issue is whether the party is intentionally violating the court’s orders or whether they are not able to comply due to financial problems. If the party recently lost a job or suffered an injury or illness and does not have the resources to pay at this time, but is not trying to avoid the obligation, the court will not find them in contempt. Even in cases where the parties settle all the issues with an agreement, rather than a trial, contempt is an important enforcement tool. The agreement the parties negotiate is not final until it is approved by the court. The court reviews the agreement and makes it an order of the court. As a result, violation of a negotiated agreement can give rise to a contempt allegation. If the court finds a violation has occurred which rises to the level of contempt, it has the power to punish the offender. This punishment can include jail time, as in the Chadwick case. The court can also order the offending party to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees. The court’s ability to order attorney’s fees is often a primary factor in the decision to file a contempt accusation rather than attempting some other enforcement mechanism.

For example, in the first example wife was granted possession of the house and husband came back inside anyway. The wife could file criminal trespass charges. If she is successful filing a contempt action, however, the court could force the husband to pay some or all of her attorney’s fees. Very often in this situation the wife will choose to pursue both courses of action. If the contempt is a result of failing to pay maintenance or child support the court is less likely to order jail time unless the party is willfully failing to obtain meaningful employment. Obviously the wife would not be able to pay any child support if she was in jail; as a result the court will use other mechanisms to enforce the support orders. This could include requiring the wife to certify her efforts in finding a job, or it could include restrictions on her parenting time with the children.

Contempt can be a very powerful tool for enforcing court orders, including settlement agreements made between the parties. Whenever one side fails to follow the court’s orders – either by doing something he or she was ordered not to do or by failing to do something he or she was supposed to do – a contempt proceeding is an option. It is important to remember that either side can use this tool, however. Both sides would be well served to comply with the court’s orders or the risk suffering Mr. Chadwick’s fate.

The facts of the H. Beatty Chadwick case were reported by the London Times Online on March 24, 2006, at www.timesoline.co.uk. Ken McRae practices exclusively in the area of domestic relations in the Overland Park, Kansas office of Cordell & Cordell, PC.

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