How to Prove Contempt in Family Court
Family court contempt charges arise when one party violates a court order or shows disrespect towards the court. While contempt may seem like a last resort, it is an important tool for enforcing court orders relating to child custody, child support, and other family law matters. If you need to prove contempt in family court, there are specific steps to take and evidence required.
What is Contempt of Court?
Contempt of court refers to willful disregard of or disrespect towards the court’s authority. There are two main types of contempt:
- Civil Contempt: Failure to follow a court order. The purpose is to compel compliance with the order.
- Criminal Contempt: Any act obstructing the court or showing disrespect for the judge. The purpose is to punish the contemptuous behavior.
Types of Contempt
Specific examples of contempt include:
- Violating child custody or visitation orders
- Failure to pay child support
- Failure to disclose assets during divorce
- Repeatedly showing up late for court dates
- Arguing with the judge
- Refusing to answer questions on the stand
Contempt charges are serious, carrying penalties like fines or even jail time in some cases.
How Contempt Arises in Family Court
There are two primary ways contempt charges come up in family court:
Violating Court Orders
The most common reason is violation of an existing court order. For example:
- If the court ordered one parent to have custody on weekends but they repeatedly fail to pick up the child, this violates the custody order.
- If one spouse was ordered to pay $500 per month in child support but pays only sporadically, this violates the support order.
- If the court ordered one parent not to take the children out of state but they do so anyway, this violates that order.
Disrespecting the Court
Contempt can also arise from behavior that obstructs court proceedings or disrespects the judge. This includes:
- Repeatedly interrupting the judge in court
- Yelling at or threatening the judge
- Failing to disclose assets or lying during testimony
- Harassing court staff, witnesses, or the other party
- Refusing to comply with court ordered financial disclosures
Disrespectful behavior shows willful defiance of the court’s authority.
Evidence Needed to Prove Contempt
To successfully argue contempt in family court, you need to provide solid proof the other party knowingly violated a court order or acted inappropriately. Types of evidence include:
- Records showing failure to make court-ordered payments
- Receipts or records of prohibited purchases/transactions
- Copies of text messages/emails showing planning to violate orders
- Travel records confirming out of state trips
- Eyewitness accounts confirming violations
- Testimony from teachers, doctors or others with direct knowledge
Admissions of Guilt
- Voicemails or messages acknowledging violations
- Testimony or documentation where the party admits to contemptuous behavior
The more concrete evidence you have from objective third parties, the stronger your contempt case will be.
Steps to Take When Seeking a Contempt Finding
If you believe the other party has acted in contempt of court, take the following steps:
Document the Violations
- Gather records, statements, photos or other evidence of the contemptuous acts. The more proof you have, the better.
File a Motion for Contempt
- Draft and file a written Motion for Contempt with the court, detailing the violations. Provide supporting documentation.
Attend the Contempt Hearing
- The judge will schedule a hearing to review the allegations and evidence and make a contempt finding. Be prepared to testify and present evidence.
- The other party will have a chance to defend themselves against the contempt charges.
- If the judge determines contempt has occurred, they will issue appropriate penalties.
Having an attorney to help navigate this process is advisable given the high stakes.
Possible Penalties for Contempt
Family court judges have broad discretion to punish contempt. Penalties may include:
- Fines are common, often $50-$100 per violation. For ongoing issues like unpaid support, daily fines may be assessed until compliance is achieved.
- Judges can order jail time, usually a few days for first offenses or up to a year for severe violations. This is more common in criminal contempt cases.
- For mild cases, or youthful offenders, contempt may be punished with community service hours rather than fines or jail time.
The penalties imposed will depend on the nature of the violations and other circumstances. In most cases, the judge aims to compel compliance with orders.
Tips for Avoiding Contempt Charges
Once the court issues orders concerning your separation, divorce or child custody case, avoiding contempt means following the orders exactly as written. Other tips include:
Follow All Court Orders
- Understand your responsibilities under any court orders and follow them to the letter. Ask your lawyer if you are unsure.
Be Respectful in Court
- Always behave respectfully before the judge. Avoid arguing or interrupting court proceedings.
Communicate with Ex-Partner
- Maintain polite communication with your ex about schedule changes, payments, or other logistics affected by court orders. Document exchanges.
Contempt charges often arise from misunderstandings and poor communication between battling exes. Being proactive reduces contempt risk and protects you if your ex exhibits contemptuous behaviors.
Contempt of court is a serious matter, allowing judges to enforce compliance with family court orders. If your ex is violating custody, support, or other orders, you can seek a contempt finding by filing a motion and presenting evidence of the violations. Alternatively, if you are facing contempt allegations, admit any violations and work quickly to comply with court orders. With sound legal advice and proactive communication, many families are able to avoid contempt pitfalls.
What is the burden of proof for contempt in family court?
The burden of proof for civil contempt is clear and convincing evidence – a heavier standard than a preponderance of evidence, but lighter than beyond reasonable doubt. The evidence must clearly show the party was aware of and willfully violated the court’s orders.
Can I go to jail for contempt in family court?
Yes, judges can order jail time for contempt, although incarceration is more common in criminal contempt cases involving extreme disrespect towards the court. Jail is typically ordered only after repeated noncompliance with court orders.
What if I can’t afford to pay court-ordered child support?
Inability to pay is a defense against contempt for nonpayment of support. If you lose your job or have another valid reason for reduced income, file for a modification of the child support order. Do not simply stop paying.
Can I represent myself at a contempt hearing?
Yes, but having an attorney experienced in contempt defense is advisable given the penalties at stake. An attorney can help negotiate settlement, present evidence, and argue your case in the most favorable way possible.
What should I do if I am served with contempt motion?
Do not ignore a motion for contempt – failure to respond or appear will count against you. Consult an attorney promptly to craft your defense strategy. Be prepared to argue why you did not willfully violate the orders or why penalties are unwarranted.