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Understanding ‘Contempt’ For Failing To Follow Family Court Orders

Any family law issue comes with anxiety, tensions and emotions. Obtaining a court order may help to provide some closure and allow individuals to move forward to a new life. However, if the other party refuses to comply with an existing order, it can be difficult to know what to do to remedy the situation.

If a party subject to an existing order intentionally fails to comply with the terms of the order, you may be able to file a motion to have the person found in contempt of court. The purpose of a finding of contempt is to help ensure that the other party will become current or otherwise comply with the family court order. The court may also impose financial sanctions, jail time and attorney fees.

Evidence Is Key

For the court to find a person in contempt, it must be shown that the violator intentionally refused to follow an existing order without legal justification. Seeking a finding of contempt requires attention to detail in the evidence.

Any failure to abide by an order may be the subject of a contempt hearing. For instance, if your ex-spouse was required to sell the family home by a particular date and failed to do so, there may be a basis to file a motion for contempt.  

It is not enough to merely state that an existing order is not being honored. You must have evidence to show that the violator failed to follow the order. In the above example, it would not be enough to simply state, “my ex has not sold the house by the date required pursuant to court order.” You would need documentation showing that the home was either never listed for sale or that your ex somehow ran interference with the sale process (refused showings, home was in poor condition for showings or perhaps the home was never listed). Another example would be, if your ex-spouse, or the other parent subject to a paternity order, is failing to pay child support under the terms of an existing order.  Evidence of the arrears and reasons for the non-payment would go a long way in supporting your case.  If your ex lost his job and is not able to pay you, that may not be deemed contemptuous, however, if s/he is just flat out refusing to pay you, that would be the basis for contempt.   

Working with an attorney can help ensure that you have the necessary documentation and have developed the evidence prior to seeking a contempt hearing. To obtain a hearing, you must file a motion with the family court. This motion must also be personally served on your ex-spouse at least five days before the contempt hearing. The motion must explain the alleged violation and have supporting evidence to show the violator is intentionally refusing to abide.

The Opportunity To ‘Purge’ Contempt

The hearing is a contested process. If the judge finds the violator in contempt, based upon the evidence, the violator will be given the opportunity to correct the deficiency. This is called an opportunity to “purge” the contempt. If the violator continues to ignore the order, the court has the authority to impose sanctions, including jail time, until the violator complies with the order. Additional sanctions may include financial sanctions (including wage garnishment or seizing assets) and a requirement that the violator pays for your reasonable attorney’s fees.

It is important to note that there may be legal justifications for the failure to comply with the order that can be used to defend against the allegations. For instance, if the issue is child support arrears and your ex-spouse has not been able to work due to illness or a medical emergency, the court will likely not be able to find him or her in contempt.

Whether you are suffering because your ex-spouse is refusing to follow a family court order, or you are accused of a violation, you do not have to face the issue alone. An experienced family law attorney can help you to understand your options and present your side of the story to the court.

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