Contempt typically arises when one party refuses or otherwise fails to abide by the terms of the court-approved settlement, divorce decree or other court order.
If your former spouse has failed to comply with a court order, you can seek relief from the court by filing a motion to hold the other party in contempt.
Technically, a contempt action is appropriate anytime a party violates any provision of the decree or order. As a practical matter, however, the violation or violations should be significant.
To find a party in contempt, the court cannot simply conclude that the accused party did not act in accordance with the decree; the accused party must have had the ability to comply and therefore violated the decree both deliberately and without a good reason.
It is then up to the party in contempt to present evidence that he or she did not have the ability to comply with the decree or that the failure was an “honest mistake.”
However, it is important to note the key phrase intentionally. To be found in contempt, it must be proven that the accused party:
- Knew the order existed;
- Had the ability to comply with the order but violated the conditions knowingly; and
- Lacks just cause or excuse for the violation.
The burden of proof lies on the person filing the motion for contempt, so be sure you have solid evidence that an order was willfully violated if you choose to seek remedy from the courts.
An overview of the hearing
At the hearing, you will have to swear to tell the truth before you present your case.
As the party alleging contempt, you will probably speak first. Keep your explanation of how your ex disobeyed a court order brief and only talk about the reasons you asked for the contempt action.
For example, you could say, “My ex-wife was ordered to vacate the marital residence by Dec. 1, but has failed to do so,” or “My ex-wife was ordered to give me certain items of personal property, but she sold my class ring to a pawn shop.”
The judge may ask you questions, so be sure to tell the truth, speak slowly and give complete answers. When you finish explaining your case, the other party will explain his/her side to the court.
You will each get another opportunity to ask the other party any questions that support your side so long as they are related to what has been said in court.
Finally, both sides may have another chance to say whether you agree or disagree with the other party and repeat the main points of your case.
Reaching a verdict
The judge often decides cases at the end of the hearing. If this happen, the judge will announce the orders in the courtroom while you are still there.
But for some cases, the judge may say, “I’ll take the matter under advisement.”
That means the judge will decide later, and the clerk will mail you a copy of the new orders. If you do not hear from the court in two weeks, call the clerk and ask about the status of your case.
If it is found that a party willfully disobeyed an order, the court has the authority to tailor the appropriate punishment for the contempt, which may include the following:
- Enter an order demanding the party comply with the court’s order by a certain date;
- Order payment of attorney fees for the other side; or
- Impose jail time.
If your ex-spouse does not appear in court for the contempt hearing, the court still has the ability to enter appropriate orders to ensure compliance and/or attendance at a hearing.
Additionally, the judge can issue a writ of attachment demanding the other party appear in court at a subsequently scheduled hearing or be subject to arrest.
While contempt can be an effective method for enforcing court orders, remember that the primary purpose of this process is to simply make the opposing party comply with the order — you should not expect harsh punishments for relatively minor infractions.
However, that should not prevent you from consulting with an attorney if you feel your ex is intentionally violating a court order, since severe enough violations may result in a more advantageous court order being issued.