For many people, having their day in court can bring relief and a sense of certainty. The family court judge can make orders regarding custody and visitation of the children, support, or can require the person with greater access to funds to help pay the other party’s attorney fees. But what happens when the court makes a formal order to the parties regarding custody, visitation, support or attorney’s fees and one party simply fails to abide by the terms of that order?
A Frustrating Situation
In family law, the court is not automatically alerted when someone fails to comply with the terms of a valid court order. And unless the court order specifically penalizes the person who does not comply, that person is not automatically punished. The result at first is usually a frustrating waiting game of phone calls and correspondence to the other party’s attorney inquiring when their client will obey the order. If this doesn’t produce results, the next step is to decide whether to spend time and money asking the court to compel compliance and punish the person who does not comply.
Civil vs Criminal Contempt
An action to essentially punish the person who does not comply with a court order is called a contempt action. Most family law orders, including the payment of support and attorney’s fees, are punishable by a contempt action. Remember too that family law disputes are civil rather than criminal proceedings. A civil contempt action seeks to compel compliance with a court order before punishment occurs; a criminal contempt action can impose jail time for failure to obey.
A contempt action is a very complicated process and can have serious consequences for both parties. For the party seeking to enforce the court order or punish the other party’s disobedience, the time and expense involved to prove the other party’s refusal to obey are similar to those of a trial. And the person accused of disobeying the court order may face civil or criminal penalties due to their actions.
Making a Decision
Bringing a contempt action against a party who is not complying with a court order is a complicated and personal decision that must be weighed against the potential financial and emotional strain. While the threat of a contempt action may eventually convince the other party to comply, it is not wise to wait a lengthy period of time before filing the contempt proceeding because certain defenses may arise to the action due to the delay.
An experienced family law attorney can help you properly weigh the various factors to consider before starting a contempt action, including its financial and emotional impact on you. Equally important, your attorney can take steps to reduce the chance of non-compliance when the order is initially made. However, no matter how hard an attorney or a judge may try to ensure compliance with a court order, a contempt action may be impossible to avoid when the other party refuses to comply.