What is a contempt action?

Contempt actions deal with a party’s failure to comply with a clear or unequivocal order or judgment of the Court.  A contempt action can be civil or criminal in nature, although most contempt actions in the probate and family court are civil in nature.  Your spouse or ex-spouse can file a Complaint for Contempt against you if you have failed to obey the terms of any court order or judgment.  A Contempt Judgment can have serious consequences to you, including paying interest, paying the other party’s legal fees, or jail time.

How to avoid contempt

#1 – Do what you are ordered to do

First and foremost, you should periodically read through any orders or judgments to ensure that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing and to be mindful of any upcoming deadlines.  Failure to pay child support is a common reason someone files a Complaint for Contempt.  If you are found in contempt for failure to pay child support, you could be ordered to pay the other parent’s legal fees, have your wages garnished, or spend time in jail.

# 2 – Be cautious about informal agreements

Sometimes when a person falls into hardship and is unable to meet a financial obligation, he or she makes an informal arrangement with his or her ex-spouse to reduce payments.  If the arrangement is not reduced to a signed writing and approved by the Court, then the arrangement will not necessarily relieve you of your obligation under the prior order or judgment.  The Court may determine that you violated an existing order despite an informal agreement to the contrary. 

#3 – Seek a modification

If you cannot comply with the terms of an order or judgment, you should seek a modification to change the terms before a Complaint for Contempt is filed.  Although, your inability to pay may be a defense against a contempt action; you will incur costly legal fees in defending the contempt.  The best defense is sometimes a good offense.

#4 – Show up for all court appearances

If a Complaint for Contempt is filed against you, then you are required to appear in court for a hearing.  A common mistake is not knowing that the “return date” on the summons is an actual hearing date.  If you are unsure about the date and time of the court hearing you should contact the court immediately.  Failure to show up for the court hearing could have serious consequences, including the judge finding you in contempt, jail time, or unfavorable decisions in your legal matter.

#5 – Call your attorney

If you believe that you may be in violation of an order or judgment, you should contact an experienced divorce and family law attorney.