Contempt in Family Law

No one wants to be in contempt of court. It is a powerful court-ordered enforcement that typically comes after one person intentionally breaks a court order, resulting in harm to another person’s rights. Being in contempt of court in a civil sense can mean restricted rights and mandatory actions the individual must take – or else face consequences. One spouse might file to hold another in contempt for a number of reasons during or after divorce cases. Understanding this legal process is important for both sides.

When Can You File for Contempt?

Holding someone in contempt of court is a possibility if that person breaks any type of court order in a divorce case. In California, the injured party must file an Order to Show Cause and Affidavit for Contempt to receive this type of judgment. The party must have proof of a broken valid court order – a court order about which the offending party has knowledge. The accused must have willfully violated the court order, not done so by accident or negligence. For example, an inability to pay child support due to job termination will not be grounds for an order of contempt. The individual must intentionally and willfully break the order. Grounds for possible contempt in family law include:

  • Refusal to pay child support
  • Refusal to pay spousal support
  • Failure to obey child visitation agreements
  • Broken child custody rules, such as moving children out of state without notice
  • Failure to pay attorney’s fees
  • Failure to follow a seek work order
  • Violation of restraining order
  • Nonpayment of debts
  • Improper division of community assets
  • Failure to comply with declaration of disclosure orders

The filing party must weigh the costs of bringing a contempt order for something such as late child support payments with the benefits. Holding an ex-spouse in contempt is not always the best option for someone going through a difficult divorce case or court order compliance issue. A conversation with a family law attorney can help spouses learn all possible remedies before they choose to file for contempt.

Consequences of Being in Civil Contempt

A civil contempt of court aims to restore the rights of the wronged party or push a proceeding forward, not necessarily punish the person in contempt. Therefore, someone in contempt in family law will typically not face penalties such as jail time. This also means the individual does not have the same rights as someone in a criminal case. Civil contempt of court does not come with a guaranteed trial by jury. There is also no need for the other side to prove the individual’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Civil contempt can have more flexible, indefinite consequences compared with criminal contempt of court. They will last until the courts resolve the case or until the individual complies with the original court order. In California, most courts treat contempt of court in divorce cases as criminal proceedings. That means there is a chance that civil contempt can lead to fines and/or jail time if the individual continues to disobey court orders. Criminal contempt comes with more penalties but also more rights for the accused. Speak with an attorney for more information about holding someone in contempt or if you’re facing this penalty.