A party may file a Complaint for Contempt when they believe another party is not complying with an existing Court Order or Judgment.
Contempts are not uncommon in family law, and are frequently seen when a party is failing to pay court-ordered child support or alimony, or there is some other non-compliance related to a parenting plan or asset division; however, any non-compliance with a Court Order or Judgment can be the basis of a Contempt.
There are two types of contempt: Civil Contempt and Criminal Contempt. In family law we traditionally see Civil Contempts, as the goal is not so much punishment, but for the other party to comply with the Court Order; for example, by getting the other party to pay their child support as ordered. With a Civil Contempt the Court can still order attorney’s fees or other sanctions as part of any contempt judgment.
A Complaint for Contempt is a separate action from a Divorce action or Paternity action; however, often the actions may run concurrently. For example, if a divorce is pending and there are temporary orders for child support, if the responsible party isn’t paying, the aggrieved party could file a Complaint for Contempt to seek compliance with Court Orders. Other times, parties may already be divorced, and a party may need to file a Complaint for Contempt due to the other party failing to comply with the terms of the divorce agreement.
Proof of Contempt
For the Court to find a party in Civil Contempt, the standard of proof is high. The Court requires a “clear and unequivocal command and an equally clear and undoubted disobedience.” Larson v. Larson, 28 Mass.App.Ct. 338, 340, 551 N.E.2d 43, 44 (1990). If a Court Order is not clear, even though both parties may know the intent, the Court will not be able to find a party in Contempt. It is vital when a party is entering into an agreement that they wish to become a Court Order, such as a Divorce Agreement, that the language is clear, both so that parties know exactly what they are agreeing to, and also so that the Court can enforce the Order should a Contempt be necessary.
Sanctions for Contempt
The Court has broad powers to enter orders in a Contempt action in order to gain compliance with Court Orders. With respect to the common example of a party failing to pay child support, the Court may find a party in Contempt and order them to jail for a period of time, or until they pay a portion of the monies owed in order to “purge” themselves of the Contempt. Sometimes the threat of incarceration is enough incentive for a person to comply with a court order.
The Court also has the power to award attorney’s fees or other sanctions such as reimbursement for lost time from work. Even if the Court does not feel that the standard for Contempt has been satisfied, the Court may enter other orders to address whatever underlying issue has resulted in the filing of Contempt complaint.
Defenses for Contempt
Parties should also be aware that there are defenses to a Contempt action. For a party facing a Contempt action for failure to pay alimony or child support, the party may be able to defend successfully against the Contempt if they show they have an inability to pay, for example if they were laid off from their employment, or they may be able to prove that they did comply with the court orders or have a legitimate reason for non-compliance.
Reaching a Settlement
The process of going through a Contempt action can be bittersweet. Even if the end result is monetary or other relief for a party that desperately needs it, that same party may be back in court again, sometimes for the same reason. It is important to work hard to reach agreements or settlements that both parties can live with…and live up to.