There are two main types of contempt; civil contempt and criminal contempt.
The type most often seen in family law cases is civil contempt. Civil contempt is used by courts to enforce their orders. It is not intended to punish a party, but rather compel compliance by the party who violated the court’s order.
Civil contempt is automatically cured when the person found to be in contempt corrects their behavior.
For example: A parentis ordered to pay child support of $ 500.00 per month and has not made a payment for 10 months. A hearing may be set on a Motion for Contempt to compel compliance with the court’s order. If the court finds the offending party to be in Contempt of its child support order despite having the ability to pay the support, the court has the authority to compel compliance with the Orderby remanding the offender into the custody of the local jail for a specified period of time not to exceed 180 days and set a purge of $5,000.00. Paying the purge amount of $ 5,000.00 entitles the offending party to be immediately released from jail.
A person may not be found in contempt unless a demand requesting compliance is made and the person is given an opportunity to correct the behavior prior to the filing of the Motion for Contempt. If the ability to correct the behavior exists and the person nevertheless freely and voluntarily refuses to pay the support; they will likely be found in contempt of court and ordered to pay and possibly be sent to jail until payment is made.
In many instances the court will award attorney’s fees to the person who is forced to file theMotion for Contempt and attend the hearing. However, if one party has no ability to pay those fees, fees may not be awarded.
Criminal contempt differs in that it is specifically designed to punish an individual. Criminal attempt commonly occurs when alitigant disrespects the court in the presence of the judge. A party who mutters under his breath “that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, youdumb ass” after court’s ruling can find himself handcuffed and sentenced to jail.
Aside from contempt, failure to follow court orders can have other consequences. Courts havethe authority to strike a party’s pleadings, and prevent them from seeking relief from the court, if they regularly ignore court orders.
A parent who repeatedly disregards or ignores time-sharing provisions may be held in contempt; however, most often other remedies are utilized such as an award of make-up time-sharing, an award of attorney’s fees, requiring the offending parent to attend a parenting class, or perform community service. In extreme circumstances, and only if the court finds it is in the best interest of the minor child, a court can modify a parenting plan, or strip the offending parent of shared parental responsibility.
Contempt cannot be used to enforceequitable distribution provisions or failure to pay sums of money that do not relate to child support or alimony.
The assistance of an experienced family law attorney is essential in choosing the proper method to enforce a court order and more importantly, structuring a settlement or a proposed court order sothat those provisions may be later enforced should a violation arise.