"In Contempt": What Does This Mean in Family Court?

Man sits at his computer desk holding his baby with a disappointed look on his face.

Court orders that determine parenting arrangements after a divorce are serious documents. In order to maintain stability for children after parents split, strict adherence to these court orders is vital. When one or both parents violate a court order, it can create an atmosphere of uncertainty for children and throw a family's schedule and normal functioning into chaos. 

In order to prevent further unrest, some turn to contempt proceedings in an effort to force the other parent to follow the court order. 

What is contempt of court?

There are two different types of contempt of court: criminal and civil. Criminal contempt generally addresses conduct that has been defiant or disrespectful of court authority. Criminal contempt can also apply to conduct that disrupts normal court proceedings. Punishment for criminal contempt is punitive in nature, meaning that it aims to deter future instances of criminal contempt. 

Civil contempt, on the other hand, generally concerns situations where a person is not following a court order. There are also two types of civil contempt, coercive and compensatory, but coercive civil contempt plays a larger role in child custody proceedings.

The main goal of coercive civil contempt is to force a person in violation of a court order to begin obeying the order. For most co-parents, they will be dealing with civil contempt when attempting to have their child's other parent adhere to the specifics of their parenting plan. Unlike criminal contempt, coercive civil contempt sanctions can sometimes be avoided to a certain extent if the contemnor (person found in contempt) begins following the specifics of the court order. 

When could a parent be considered in contempt of a court order? 

To be in contempt of court, first, there must be a court order in effect. If your court order has ended, it cannot be enforced through contempt proceedings. In certain states, the one exception to this rule is for child support matters. You may be able to enforce a child support order after your child has become an adult through contempt proceedings. Consult a family law professional in your area to determine whether or not contempt proceedings are the right way forward for your case. 

Willful versus Non-willful Disobedience

In order to be found in contempt of court, there needs to be proof of willful disregard of a court order. Willful contempt means that the contemnor was aware of the court order, had the ability to follow the specifics of the order and chose not to without any mitigating circumstances. 

Non-willful contempt is just the opposite. Non-willful disobedience most commonly happens when someone is unable to follow the specifics of a court order due to circumstances out of their control. One common example is being unable to pay child support due to job loss. An attorney may also argue non-willful contempt if they believe the original court order was too vague or inexact to be enforceable

Punishments and sanctions for contempt of court

Civil contempt proceedings are unique from criminal proceedings because their findings can be purgeable. Purgeable means that the sanctions can be lifted once the contemnor comes back into compliance with the court order. Coercive civil contempt generally aims to achieve future compliance with a court order rather than exact punishment for past non-compliance. 

Sanctions for civil contempt of court can vary. Depending on the nature of the violation, sanctions may include:

  • Wage garnishment
  • Court-ordered supervised visitation
  • Fines
  • Updates to the original parenting plan (in some states, such as Washington, if a parent is found in repeated violation of a parenting plan, the judge may choose to change it)
  • Imprisonment

Are contempt proceedings the best option?

Contempt proceedings and sanctions can be expensive and traumatic. It's paramount that parents do everything in their power to avoid the situation entirely.

If you're in a situation where your parenting plan and/or court order is vague, thus causing issues between you and your co-parent, you may wish to begin with a motion to clarify before beginning contempt proceedings. A Motion for Clarification asks the family court to more thoroughly explain certain provisions in your court order. 

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is another avenue you can pursue before starting litigation. ADR methods include all dispute resolution techniques that avoid taking the issue back to court, of which mediation is the most common example. 

Discuss all of your options with your family law attorney, as they will be familiar with your case and the laws governing contempt of court in family law cases in your region. 

Proof of contempt

Being found in contempt of a court order is extremely serious, and the sanctions imposed can be severe. The court will require clear and concrete evidence of willful disobedience of the court order. If you or your co-parent do decide to begin contempt proceedings, it's vital that you have documentation of past communication in order.

For example, if your co-parent offered you a weekend of their regularly scheduled parenting time, but is now claiming you refused their visitation, having unimpeachable records of your agreement can protect you against those claims. 

Containing your communication to a co-parenting platform like OurFamilyWizard can help in these situations. On OFW, all communication is documented and protected from fabrication and manipulation. Unlike phone calls, emails or texts, records on OurFamilyWizard give courts a complete history of what actually happened between you and your co-parent. Learn more about how OFW features and tools help co-parents maintain transparent and trustworthy records.