What is Contempt?

By William Halaz

Attorney, Cordell & Cordell

“Respondent’s failure to abide by the Judgment and Order of Dissolution, which included the parties’ Parenting Plan, is willful, deliberate, contumacious, and without just cause or excuse.”

This is the last paragraph of a recent Motion for Contempt I filed on a client’s behalf. But what does this sentence mean? What exactly is contempt?

The following is a cursory breakdown of this question for those who are trying to enforce their rights, or who are fighting a falsely filed contempt charge brought on by their ex-spouse or child’s other parents.

I will not address the type of contempt often seen on television and in the movies, where an attorney or client screams and yells at the judge during a court proceeding. A contempt charge of this type is rarely seen in family court proceedings, although it is available to a judge who feels his or her court is being disrupted.

I will instead address an individual’s contempt by failure to follow a court’s orders, including orders for child support and alimony payments.

What is contempt?

Often to begin figuring out what a legal concept is, it is best to look to the statutes.

In Missouri, where I practice, RSMO 476.110 provides that the court has the power to punish individuals for criminal contempt who have, among other things, willfully disobeyed any process or order lawfully issued by the court.

Civil contempt is a similar action that was set up for the court to coerce compliance rather than punish an individual the way confinement does.

So what does that mean?

In layman’s terms, contempt is not doing what you’re supposed to do when you’re able to do it. If only it were that simple to explain to the judge. Even if common sense tells you that you and your child’s other parent should inform one another if your child is sick, you may not have a remedy in a contempt action.

In fact, contempt is very specific to each individual case.

For instance, one individual may be in contempt for failure to tell their former spouse about a routine medical check-up while another individual may be able to make all the medical decisions regarding their child without a second thought and have no fear of a contempt charge.

The place to begin determining whether you can bring a contempt charge or whether your former spouse has a valid case against you is in your dissolution or paternity judgment and/or order. This may also include a marital settlement agreement or parenting plan or any other document that has been incorporated into the judgment or order.

In reality, any order from the court can be enforced through a contempt action. However, these are the most common areas to bring a motion for contempt.

These documents create a “to do list” that can be compared against your actions or the other party’s actions.

Is the action the other party failed to do in the order or the action they took prohibited by the order? If the answer is yes, then there is the possibility of a contempt charge for your ex’s failure to call you when Tommy had to go to the doctor for his cold.

If not, then a contempt charge likely will not be able to give you the remedy you seek.


Read our other articles on contempt:


Note: While this article addresses some of the issues that arise when preparing for a contempt proceeding, you may have additional questions regarding your own specific situation. You also may be from a state where the applicable laws differ significantly from Missouri, where I practice.

You should not rely on this article as establishing an attorney-client relationship, and you should contact an attorney in your area immediately if you need additional information or legal representation.

Cordell & Cordell has men’s divorce lawyers in 17 states.


Attorney William HalazWilliam Halaz is a Staff Attorney in the Arnold, Missouri office of Cordell & Cordell, P.C. Mr. Halaz is licensed to practice in the state of Missouri. Mr. Halaz received his bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Southeast Missouri State University. Then continuing his education, received his Juris Doctor from St. Louis University’s School of Law.

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2 comments on “What is Contempt?

    contempt of court
    He is supost to caring insurce on my house hes isnt my stove got on fire and he is suspost to change the deed of the house in my name and he dont i cant aford to buy a anouther stove or miawave that burn up please helpme i live in Quapaw okla

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