Contempt of Court in Family Law Cases
When an ex violates court orders, filing a motion for contempt is a legal option to carefully consider. Contempt is a severe legal remedy that can be used when a person intentionally disobeys a court order. When it comes to family law cases, judges generally do not want to find someone in contempt unless there is a serious violation of a restraining order, or one party fails to act in court-ordered manners like child support or spousal maintenance.
Common examples of contempt in family law cases include:
- A parent refuses to allow the other parent access to court-ordered visitation
- A parent refuses to return the child to the other parent after visitation
- A parent fails to make reasonable efforts to require a child to attend court-ordered visitation with the other parent
- An ex-spouse refuses to deliver property to the other spouse as ordered by the divorce or settlement agreement
- A parent needs to enforce final child support orders from a court or administrative agency
- A parent needs to enforce temporary family law orders and restraining orders
What Actions Can a Judge Take if the Court Finds Contempt?
A judge can order the party in contempt to complete the following tasks as a consequence for violating the court order:
- Attend counseling
- Complete parenting classes
- Look for work a certain number of hours a week
- Attend future hearings to check if they are obeying the order
If one parent violates the parenting plan, the judge can also order:
- The parent that missed visitation time get make-up residential time with the children
- Payment of the other spouse’s attorney’s fees
- Expensive fines
- Harsher penalties for a second contempt violation within three years
Proving Contempt in Court
To establish contempt in a family law case, you must prove there is a valid court order in effect, the other person was aware of the court order, and the facts of your case show a clear violation of the order. You must also prove you have given the other person notice of the contempt hearing, an opportunity state their case, and that contempt is an appropriate remedy for the violation.
When it comes to contempt for a parenting plan violation, you also must prove that ONE of the following factors occurred.
- The violation of the order was in bad faith
- The person who committed the violation of the parenting plan engaged in intentional misconduct
- Previous court sanctions have not resulted in the person obeying the order
Alternatives to Contempt
One alternative to contempt is to send a demand letter to the other party via regular and certified mail. In your demand letter, you should explain each of the violations they committed and ask them to remedy them. Make sure you keep a copy of the letter for your own records. Sending a demand letter might lead to a solution both parties can agree on.
If the demand letter fails to lead to an agreed solution, sending one still shows the court that you are acting reasonable, that the other party is aware of the court’s order, and that you are unhappy with the other party’s actions.
Another alternative to contempt is filing a motion/petition to modify the court order. With this strategy, you are asking the judge to change the order instead of asking them to enforce the order.
When You Can’t Use Contempt in Family Law Cases
Contempt is not always an option in family law cases. You cannot use contempt to force property settlement payments unless the dispute is related to child support or maintenance. You also can’t use contempt of a court order after the order has ended or been altered.
Explore Options with Experienced Counsel
When an ex isn’t playing by the rules, they should be held accountable. However, filing for contempt is a complicated matter that should not be taken lightly. A skilled divorce attorney can help determine if this is an appropriate option and prepare you for what is to come.
McKinley Irvin is the region's premier family law firm, providing exceptional legal counsel and support to families throughout the Pacific Northwest. To schedule a consultation with one of our skilled family law attorneys, please call (206) 397-0399 or contact us online.