Contempt of Court: Understand So You Can Comply
Understand the Terms of Your Order and Avoid Contempt of Court Charges in Family Court
Family Court Orders establish the rules that govern the post-separation relationship and they must provide clear direction to the parties. The language in Family Court Orders must be plain and unambiguous to avoid the potential for Contempt of Court charges. Contempt of Court charges often result from misunderstandings or manipulation of language that is vague or overly complicated.
As a consumer of legal services, you must be proactive when reviewing Orders drafted in your case. Your Order should help you plan for your time and your children’s time and give you a sense of security regarding what to expect. Badly written language can have serious consequences, even when you are sure you are following the rules.
For example, a recent decision by the South Carolina Court of Appeals highlights the importance of clear language in Family Court Orders to avoid confusion and further litigation. In Ward v. Washington, Appellate Case No. 2012-212378, the Court of Appeals ruled on October 30, 2013 that the mother was not in willful violation of a visitation arrangement because the terms of the Order were unclear. The language in dispute was as follows:
In lieu of his every-other-weekend visitation, Easter, Memorial Day and Labor Day visitation during the school year, Father shall be allowed to select one weekend in August and December, two weekends in September, October, January, February and May, three weekends total in March and April in odd numbered years and four weekends total in March and April in even numbered years, two weekends in November in even numbered years and one weekend in November in odd numbered years. Father shall select these weekends in writing by the 15th of the previous month, and shall not be allowed to select weekends that conflict with Mother’s Spring Break, Thanksgiving or Christmas visitation. Father shall not select Mother’s day weekend for his May visitation. Mother shall provide Father the children’s school schedule as soon as she receives it. Father shall then select the weekends he wants.
I have practiced law for 22 years, and had to read this paragraph three times to understand what was intended. It is easy to see how a trial court could interpret it one way, and the court of appeals another.
How does this Happen? For one, in drafting an Order or Agreement based on negotiations or a trial, an attorney has been engrossed in the surrounding detail and writes language that seems clear at that time. Scheduling issues and other terms of an Order generally arise after the reasoning has faded from memory, and when parties and attorneys look to the Order for guidance, too often what they find is some or a lot of ambiguity.
Also, visitation schedules can be complicated due to detailed personal and institutional (schools, churches, medical offices, etc.) schedules. Another factor that contributes to ambiguous language being ratified in an Order, is that many families are so overwhelmed by Family Court cases, they fail to think critically about, what is arguably, the most important step. Unlike business or legal relationships, post-separation relationships are emotional and often colored by mistrust and suspicion.
How can I avoid Contempt of Court charges? Depending on where you are in the process, there are a few ways to manage misunderstandings arising from ambiguous language in your Order. The best way is to understand your Order as it is being drafted and follow it when it becomes “law”. Some things to keep in mind:
- Insist on plain language that says what is intended
- Do not expect perfection from an attorney! Some are not good writers and they do not necessarily have the objectivity or the skills to write a fool-proof Order.
- Before approving an Order, ask a friend or associate to review it and tell you their understanding of the intent.
- Imagine the future and look at the calendar to check for inconsistencies or conflicting language.
If the opposing party in your case is threatening to bring Contempt of Court charges, take it seriously. My approach is always to begin communications with “the other side” in a calm, rational and cooperative way. Unless they are full of revenge and intending to make your life difficult, an agreement can often be reached. If the other side is bent on destruction, you will need legal advice if you don’t want to comply with their interpretation of the Order.