Contempt Enforcement

By Stephen Kolodny

The parties subject to a court-ordered resolution in a divorce, child support, custody, or visitation dispute generally understand that they must comply with the terms mandated by the judge or face charges of being in contempt of court. While the discussions leading to a legal settlement between the parties involved in such cases are often acrimonious, upholding the provisions of these resolutions sometimes leads to just as much resentment. When it comes to matters of the heart or a person’s beliefs regarding his or her parental rights, many people try to veer from the path ordered by the law, usually in an effort to “get back” at the former spouse or to reclaim something he or she has lost.

By ignoring or even defying a court order, an individual places him or herself in danger of heavier sanctions, penalties, or even arrest and jail time. Some people fail to comply with a court order, such as child support, because of a change in employment status or another often unavoidable situation. In such instances, however, people must inform the court about their change of circumstances; if the court has to come to them, they may find that the judge is not as amenable to their excuses. For those who simply refuse to comply with a court order, courts more often than not utilize penalties, sanctions, jail sentences, and other tools to ensure that such lack of compliance does not recur.

The legal definitions of contempt include a clear delineation between civil contempt and criminal contempt. Civil contempt involves remediation for the victim or the community, while the charge of criminal contempt asserts the authority of the court with a punitive sentence. While in some cases family law judgments and orders may not be punishable by contempt, most fall under the umbrella of contempt. Some parties attempt to circumvent the orders handed down by the court by claiming that such factors as division of property or proceeds from property jointly owned, child support payments, and other similar instructions actually qualify as debts because they require monetary payment. In fact, neither a judgment nor an order constitutes a debt. Instead, these decrees stem from an obligation of marriage or parentage and are thus imposed by the law. As such, contempt serves as a legally permissible mechanism to uphold the power of the court.

The orders that a court may enforce by contempt include those related to property division; court costs and legal fees; support for family, spouse, or child; visitation and child custody rights; protection and restraint; and information about marital property or other requests of the court.