A common question that comes up post-divorce is whether or not a former spouse is in contempt of court.
So what exactly does it mean to be in contempt and what are the consequences?
Definition of contempt
The legal definition of contempt is “an act of deliberate disobedience or disregard for the laws, regulations, or decorum of a public authority, such as a court or legislative body.”
To put it simply, contempt is not doing what you are supposed to do when you have the means to do so. In civil contempt cases, that often means a parent failing to pay court-ordered child support or failing to comply with a custody order.
How do you prove contempt?
It varies from case to case, but it goes back to the court order or any other document that has been incorporated into the judgment or order such as a marital settlement agreement or parenting plan.
For instance, if a parent is withholding parenting time from the other parent, the dates each parent is supposed to have custody will be listed in the order.
Again, this is specific to each case. One order could require you to tell your ex about your child’s routine medical check-ups while another might allow one parent to make all medical decisions regarding the child.
In order to prove contempt, the other person must knowingly fail to follow the court’s order. But if you can prove that the other person signed the settlement agreement or you or your attorney were sent a copy of the court’s final order, then it is presumed that they knew they were agreeing to that condition.
To prove contempt, you also must be able to show that the individual alleged to be in contempt violated the order. That’s simple enough for cases regarding things like child support payments, but gets trickier when dealing with issues such as considering reasonable alterations to a parenting plan.
You also have to prove the individual’s failure to follow the order was “willful, deliberate and contumacious.” That means you have to show that the other person has the ability to do what they’re ordered to do (i.e. showing that a person can afford to make the ordered child support payments).
If a person can’t afford their current child support payments, they might not be in contempt, but they are still responsible for making those payments. The child support agency will keep track of the amount owed so that they can be made at a later date. This is why it’s critical to modify a court order immediately if you receive a significant pay cut or are laid off.
Consequences of contempt
A key difference between civil contempt and criminal contempt is that courts use civil contempt as a coercive power while criminal contempt is punitive and can be used to punish parties.
It is still possible for a person to go to jail in civil contempt cases, but usually the court would rather have the person start following the order they’ve been violating. Generally, a person will be given the chance to cure their contempt. In cases involving child or spousal support, they’ll be given the chance to make their missed payments or to prove they were unable to make them.
There could be other consequences, too, depending on what the judge wants to do. That could include modifying the divorce decree or child custody arrangement, ordering an individual to make support payments that are owed, and ordering additional attorney fees to be paid.