Contempt In Family Court: What Does It Mean and What Should You Do?
Family Court Orders must be taken very seriously. The Family Court will enforce its orders and a person found to be in Contempt is subject to one year in jail, 300 hours of community service and/ or a fine of $1,500.
Family Court Orders are often very detailed. They will set out specific visitation schedules for minor children, require child and spousal support be paid in accord with a definite schedule, require property be transferred in specific ways and times, real estate to be sold, cars to be re-titled and insurances to be maintained, among other things. Many times a Family Court Order will be 20-30 pages long.
With all the minutiae involved in a Family Court Order, a Family Law Attorney must make sure his or her client is keenly aware of each and every provision contained within the Order and that he or she is capable of complying with it. In order for a person to be found in Contempt of a Family Court Order, their acts must be “willful”.
A willful act is one which is done voluntarily and intentionally with the specific intent to do something the law forbids, or with the specific intent to fail to do something the law requires to be done; that is to say, with bad purpose either to disobey or disregard the law. In other words, a person is fully able to comply with the terms of the Order, but simply choose to do otherwise.
If a party to a Divorce Decree believes the other party is in violation of their Family Court Order, they must file a Rule to Show Cause alleging the specific violation and then serve the Rule to Show Cause on the other party. A hearing will be set at which time both parties will testify. In fact, both parties MUST testify.
A recent unpublished case in the SC Court of Appeals found it was reversible error for the Court to find a party in Contempt without permitting the party against whom the Rule to Show Cause was filed to testify. Bracy v Bracy In some civil matters a Court can rule on Motions and Affidavits without hearing testimony, but a Rule to Show Cause is different. Since it has a quasi criminal nature to it, Due Process requires that the party against whom the allegations are made must be given an opportunity to testify.
It is especially important not to agree to anything in a Family Court Settlement Agreement that you don’t think you can do. While you will get a hearing if you are alleged to be in contempt, the mere fact that you may have made an error in judgement or were too generous to your spouse (causing you to have difficulty meeting you obligations) may not save you from being found in Contempt of Court.
In any case, a good Family Law Attorney should be able to guide you through this process in a way that keeps you from ever having to go back to the Family Court once your divorce is over.