If you have been through a divorce, you may wonder what to do if your former spouse is refusing to follow a court's orders. Or you may have received paperwork from your former spouse titled “Petition for Contempt” wherein your former spouse has accused you of failing to follow the court's orders. This article will discuss what contempt means after divorce, remedies available if you are trying to enforce previous orders, and what could happen to you if a court finds you in contempt.
What is Contempt?
A court's power to find a person in contempt is a way of keeping order in the court and ensuring that any orders issued by a court are followed by the parties involved in a case. A person who is found in contempt of court may be punished with fines, an order to pay attorney fees, and potentially jail time in some cases.
There are 2 situations where a court is likely to find a person in contempt of court. The first situation occurs when a person commits an act in the judge's presence that disrupts the proceedings or constitutes disrespect to the court and its officials. For example, if a person becomes disruptive during a hearing and begins arguing with a judge, a judge may find that the person should be held in contempt based on acts committed in the presence of the court. The second more common situation occurs when a person has committed acts outside a court's presence such as failing to pay child support or abide by a visitation schedule in a child custody case.
How to File a Petition for Contempt
If you believe that prior court orders are being disregarded, the first thing you should do is to review any of the prior orders that have been entered in your case. In a divorce case, this would be the decree of divorce and any settlement agreement that may be incorporated into the final decree. Note that the most recent order is what controls if a post-decree modification changed some provisions of the original court order.
Examples of what could prompt filing a petition for contempt include the following:
- Non-payment of child support or spousal support
- Refusing to comply with visitation schedules or interference with visitation
- Refusing to provide access to medical, dental, or school records
- Refusing to pay for one-half of medical or dental bills for a minor child despite being provided with a copy of the bill and request for payment
- Failing to take a drug test after being ordered to do so
- Violating provisions in a court order that prohibit parties from harassing one another
- Cohabitation with a party who is not a relative or spouse where a minor child is staying overnight if a court order prohibits the parties from doing this
A contempt case can be initiated by filing a petition in the court that issued a previous order listing the allegations and relief sought and serving the other party with a petition along with a summons. Contempt proceedings are limited to what is contained in the most recent court order. Judges will not generally relitigate issues that were not brought up in a prior hearing but may consider repeat violations of a court order if a party refuses to comply despite previously being held in contempt for refusal to follow the court's order.
In cases that involve failure to pay child support, a petition for contempt may be filed by the state office of child support enforcement. Custodial parents who have not been receiving child support that a court has ordered the other party to pay may file a petition for contempt without seeking the assistance of the office of child support enforcement. This can often make the process of obtaining a hearing and order in the contempt case faster due to the many cases state agencies handle. It is also a good idea to hire an attorney if there are more grounds for contempt than non-payment of support since the office of child support enforcement will not litigate all violations of previous court orders like interference with visitation.
Serious violations of a court order like interference with visitation, harassment, or abuse should be brought to a court's attention right away. The longer you wait to file a petition for contempt, the less likely it will be considered an urgent situation by a court.
It is also important to consider whether or not a minor violation of a court order warrants filing a petition for contempt and whether or not the violation involves the best interests of your child or not. For example, if a parent requests a one-time scheduling change for visitation due to unforeseen circumstances like illness or a child's school event and has been complying with court orders previously, consider the expenses of filing a petition for contempt. Sometimes being flexible can help prevent unnecessary litigation.
Consequences of Being Held in Contempt
Being held in contempt can have serious consequences including the following:
- Ordering the person who is in contempt to pay court costs, attorney fees and other costs associated with bringing the matter to the court's attention
- Time in jail
- Modification of previous orders, such as a change in custody or visitation
Judges have discretion when ordering punishment for contempt and will consider the seriousness of the violations as well as whether there have been previous findings of contempt. A court may give a person who is found in violation of court orders a chance to correct the action that led them to be held in contempt and order a harsher punishment if that person refuses to do so. For example, if a parent who has been ordered to pay child support has fallen behind on payments, a judge may order that the person should be allowed a certain period of time to catch up on the payments. If they then continue to fail to make payments as ordered, the person may be issued a harsher penalty such as jail for a specific period of time or until they make a payment as ordered by the court.
Answering and Defending Petitions for Contempt
If you have been served with paperwork alleging that you should be held in contempt, it is important to speak to an attorney right away since the consequences of being found in contempt of court can threaten your freedom and have harsh consequences like causing you to lose a job if you are ordered to be placed in jail. You could even lose custody of your children in some cases since petitions for contempt are frequently filed along with petitions to modify custody or visitation.
You only have a limited amount of time to respond to a petition for contempt, and failure to do so can result in a default judgment being entered against you. You will also want to contact an attorney as soon as possible so that there is enough time for your lawyer to gather documents, interview witnesses, and develop a strategy for your defense.
In some cases, it may be possible to offer mitigating evidence regarding the allegations to demonstrate that a violation of a court order was not intentional. For example, if you have become disabled so that you are unable to work since the issuance of the last court order regarding child support or spousal support, you may want to offer proof that you have filed to receive disability. If you have lost a job through no fault of your own, you may want to offer proof that you have been diligently searching for another job. This type of mitigating evidence can help show that any violations were not willful. Even if a court finds that you violated prior orders, offering a reasonable justification can lessen the chances you will receive a harsh penalty such as jail time.
Some types of mitigating evidence are more helpful than others. If you claim that you did not understand a provision in a court order or failed to read it, a court is less likely to be sympathetic than if you violated a court order due to circumstances that were completely beyond your control.
Counterclaims and Contempt Proceedings
Another important thing to discuss with your attorney is whether or not the other side who has accused you of being contempt of court has also violated court orders. It is sometimes a good strategy to file a counterclaim so that the court can hear all allegations at the same time.
Keep in mind that if you intend to file a petition for contempt or post-decree petition for modification, you can expect that if you are in violation of court orders it is likely to invite a counterclaim. For example, if you have not been paying child support, it is a good idea to catch up on support if you intend to file a petition for contempt if the other parent is withholding visitation. Non-payment of child support is not a legal reason to withhold visitation, but you should keep in mind that it will likely be brought up if you proceed with filing a petition for contempt against your ex-spouse.
Contact a Cass County, Missouri Family Law Attorney
If you have questions about filing a petition for contempt or if you have received paperwork alleging that you should be held in contempt for violating a court's order, contact an attorney right away. Schedule a consultation with attorney Joshua J. Wilson for more information by filling out our form online or call (816) 331-9968.