Contempt – General Concepts
A party subject to a valid court order who, with knowledge of the order and the ability to comply, fails to comply with the terms of the order is subject to a contempt adjudication and statutory contempt penalties . As an enforcement remedy, exercise of the contempt power enables the court to compel compliance with its valid orders.
In a “civil contempt,” the punishment is “remedial, and for the benefit of the complainant.” In a “criminal contempt,” the sentence is “punitive, to vindicate the authority of the court.”
Family law orders and judgments are enforceable by contempt unless punishment by contempt would violate the constitutional guaranty against imprisonment for nonpayment of “debt.” However, an order or judgment is not a “debt” within the meaning of the constitutional guaranty against imprisonment for “debt” simply because it requires the payment of money. As developed below, most (but not all) family law orders and judgments are deemed based on a law-imposed obligation (not “money judgments in civil actions for debts”) and thus are enforceable by the court’s contempt power.
Orders Enforceable By Contempt
Support Orders: Child, spousal and family support orders are based on an obligation arising out of marriage and parentage and are imposed by law. They are not money judgments in civil actions for the payment of a “debt” within the meaning of the constitutional guaranty against imprisonment for debt and thus clearly are enforceable by contempt.
Child Custody & Visitation Orders: Child custody and visitation orders do not impose a “debt” obligation. Thus, e.g., the court may invoke its contempt power against a parent who unjustifiably interferes with the other parent’s court-ordered visitation rights or violates an injunction restraining relocation with the children.
Attorney Fees/Costs Orders: Need-based attorney fees and costs are awardable by statute in marital proceedings. The award is based on a law-imposed obligation (not arising out of a money judgment for a “debt”) and thus is enforceable by contempt.
Property Division Orders: A spouse who refuses to relinquish a specific item of property or to pay over a portion of a specific fund of money pursuant to a community property division order is subject to enforcement by contempt. The obligation is “law-imposed” (not a “debt”) because based on the parties’ statutory right to an equal division of community property upon termination of marital status.
Restraining Orders & Family Court Protective Orders: The court may properly invoke its contempt power to compel compliance with valid protective orders and restraining orders issued in a domestic relations proceeding. Failure To Comply With Disclosure Requirements: A spouse who has complied with the statutory disclosure requirements in marriage dissolution proceedings has various statutory remedies against the other spouse who has failed to comply. One such remedy is a motion to compel a further response. If the noncomplying spouse fails to file a sufficient response, the complying spouse may seek monetary sanctions “in addition to any other remedy provided by law, including an order for Contempt]
Orders Enforceable By Contempt
Marital Settlement Agreement Obligations Not Merged Into Judgment: Obligations arising out of a marital settlement agreement are not enforceable as court orders unless “merged” or incorporated in the judgment. Consequently, breach of a marital settlement agreement (or any other contract) is not remediable by contempt where the defaulted obligation was never made a part of the judgment.
Marital Debt Liability Orders: An order pursuant to a division of the community estate requiring a spouse to make specified payments in satisfaction of a community liability is a “debt” not enforceable by contempt . . . unless the obligation is an integral part of a support order.
Elements Of A Cause Of Action For Contempt:
The facts generally necessary to establish a prima facie contempt of a family law order are: (i) rendition of a valid order; (ii) the citee’s knowledge of the order; and (iii) the citee’s willful disobedience of the order.
Valid Order: A contempt adjudication cannot stand if the underlying order is invalid. The charging affidavit must identify the underlying order by date of entry and type. For purposes of sustaining a prima facie case, the court can presume validity unless the order is void on its face; the citee thus normally bears the burden of showing invalidity, either as an affirmative defense in the answer or by motion to discharge the contempt citation.
Knowledge Of The Order: The charging affidavit must set forth facts showing the citee’s notice or knowledge of the underlying order (a jurisdictional prerequisite to a valid contempt adjudication). Knowledge can be shown by personal service of a copy of the order, the citee’s presence in court when the order was made, the citee’s signature on a stipulation upon which the order was based, or proof that the citee previously sought relief related to the order (e.g., modification).
For more information on Contempt issues in Family Law, please coantact us at 407-647-7887 or toll free 877-647-7887.