What is contempt?
Contempt is an action that can be used by the court to enforce an order, or to punish disobedience. Contempt can be used by the court “on its own” (Judge says, “I am going to find you in contempt for your misbehavior in this courtroom”) or can be requested by a party who files a motion with the court (a parent files a suit against the other parent for non-payment of child support and repeated visitation violations).
I could write for several pages about contempt in general. For this blog post, let’s narrow it down to situations in which contempt is filed by one parent against another.
If are a party to a court order that is being violated (but not by you!), you may have already wondered about how this works.
Family law contempt cases relating to children typically involve one of the following:
1) A party has not paid child support or medical support as it was ordered in the decree
2) A party is not following the visitation schedule as it was ordered in the decree, especially if access to the children is being withheld.
3) A party is not following restrictions placed upon him/her by court order that involve health or safety of the children (drinking before or during visitation times).
If you want to succeed on a motion for contempt, there are a few things you are going to need:
1) Actual instances of contempt– Filing a motion for contempt with nothing but anger or desire for vengeance to back it up is not going to work for you. You will spend time and money; negatively affect your children, waste court time and anger the judge.
2) Very good records– In a contempt action, you need to have copies of documents that are relevant and support your case, and an accurate list of when contempt occurred. Examples of documents: A certified copy of the final court order that s/he has violated (see our recent blog about how and why to get one of these- June 21, 2011); emails or letters showing your ex’s disregard of the court order, photos, certified mail receipts showing his/her receipt of medical bills that went unpaid, your diary or logs of the months child support was unpaid, a copy of child support payments from the Child Support Division.
3) A healthy attitude- An attitude of hatred or uncontrollable anger that drives the case and comes across to a judge will not help you. An attitude of doing what’s best for your child, keeping your child safe, getting money to help support your child- this will definitely help you.
4) Organization: Here is a tip that can save you time and money: get really organized before you go to an attorney’s office for a consult. Have a list prepared of all the times that the court order has been violated. It is a good idea to keep a journal or computer log that you can enter information into regularly. Have your documents in a folder, organized by date.
A Motion for Contempt is filed along with (and is part of) a “Motion to Enforce”. This means that the judge is asked to enforce the prior order that is not being followed AND is being asked to punish the person who is not following the order by making him/her pay back sue child support, if any, pay attorney’s fees, and/or serve jail time. Because the result can be very severe and can result in a loss of a person’s liberty (even for a short time), the standard of proof is strict. The judge may decline to find someone in contempt, but still enforce the order that is requested (such as payment of child support).
A Motion to Enforce can be filed without a Motion for Contempt and very often it is. The enforcement motion filed alone can save legal fees and have the intended result. In cases where a person has to be taken back to court again and again, a Motion for Contempt is more appropriate. It is also appropriate in cases where a party’s misbehavior is so terrible that it is a risk to the health and safety of the child.
A consultation with a family law attorney can help you determine your options and get legal advice to help you protect your legal rights.