Can I Be Held in Contempt?

One of the risks of disobeying a court order can be contempt, which is a finding by the court that a person has not followed an order of the court and an assessment of punishment for it.  Contempt can be brought in a variety of ways, but in the family law arena, the primary ways it is pursued are for child support, child possession, and property division.

First, the contempt actions of which I have seen the most litigation have to do with child support.  When someone is court-ordered to pay child support and does not pay, a contempt action can be brought against that person for nonpayment.  If the person is found to have not paid without a justifiable reason, they can be held in contempt, jailed, fined, and have attorney’s fees awarded against them. A court has the authority to find someone in contempt for nonpayment of child support as child support is deemed to be in the best interests of a child, and thus not simply a debt for which a person cannot be jailed. Needless to say, it is something that should not be taken lightly.

Another way a person can be found in contempt is through denial of court-ordered possession of a child to another party.  This is often seen by the court as being as bad as not paying child support or worse, as a parent is allegedly being denied the valuable visitation time they have with their child.  Some people might think that just because a person is not paying the child support they can deny that parent visitation, which is not the case at all.  Child support and child possession are two separate matters in a family law context, and the absence or denial of one does not equate to the same for the other.

Finally, a contempt action can be brought for property division purposes.  With property, you need to keep in mind that a person generally cannot be imprisoned for the failure to pay a debt.  Thus, the remedies available for enforcement of property division are typically fines and attorney’s fees, along with mandates to perform obligations under a prior order of the court regarding the property.  This is usually seen in the cases of divorce decrees where parties are ordered to transfer property or pay certain debts.

If you are served with a motion for enforcement requesting contempt against you, it is vital that you speak with an attorney immediately as your liberty might be at stake.  Contempt actions can carry sentences of up to six months in jail for each violation of a court order alleged in the petition.  With jail time, fines, and attorney’s fees, the punishment that can end up being ordered is probably something that you cannot afford to incur.

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