We’ve all seen dramatic scenes in movies or television shows where a judge yells, “You’re in contempt!” and a participant in a court proceeding is escorted out of the courtroom, presumably to a jail cell to contemplate their transgressions. But, particularly in the context of family law, what does it mean to be held in contempt of court in family law? What actions can lead to a contempt charge? In family law, how is contempt of court dealt with?

Before we can answer that question, we must first learn the basics of contempt of court. Contempt of Court is a method of ensuring that court procedures or orders are followed. Contempt can be civil or criminal, and it can be direct or constructive, or indirect. Let’s take a closer look at what these terms mean.

Contempt of Court: Civil vs. Criminal

Civil contempt is a legal term for forcing someone to comply with a court order, usually for the benefit of the other party in the case. Parenting time is a common example. If a court has ordered parents to follow a specific parenting time schedule and one parent consistently refuses to make the child available for the other parent’s time, that parent may be held in civil contempt. A party who has been wronged may file a motion to hold the other party in contempt. The court may hold a party in contempt on its own initiative, which is less common.

Criminal contempt of court, on the other hand, is a serious offense. Individuals charged with criminal contempt have procedural safeguards, including the right to a jury trial with testimony from witnesses and the defendant, as with all criminal charges. Criminal contempt is used to punish a defendant who has disobeyed a court’s authority, such as by making repeated outbursts during a hearing.

Civil and criminal contempt can be either direct or indirect. When order must be maintained or restored during a court proceeding, direct contempt is used. Someone might be found in direct contempt in the case of repeated outbursts so that the proceeding can continue without interruption. Criminal contempt is usually depicted in dramatic “contempt of court” scenes on TV or in movies. Outside the presence of the court, indirect (constructive) contempt occurs, such as the repeated violation of the parenting time order described above.

In practice, most (though not all) contempt findings in family law are constructive: they result from a parent’s failure to pay child support on time or comply with parenting time orders. However, just because these contempt findings aren’t dramatic doesn’t mean they don’t have a significant impact on the parties involved.

What Are the Consequences of Contempt of Court in Family Law?

If a court does not require litigants to follow its orders, the court gives up its authority. And if the parties in a divorce or custody case know they can get away with breaking court orders they don’t like, they’ll have little incentive to follow those orders.

The majority of contempt cases in family court involve nonpayment of child support or failure to follow parenting time orders. What this means is that a judge can order a party found in contempt of court to not only serve time in jail, but also to pay the other side’s costs and attorney’s fees in pursuing the contempt finding.

Wage garnishment, seizure of income tax returns, and suspension of driver and professional licenses are all options for enforcing a family court order for support. If a parent denies or interferes with parenting time, the court’s orders can range from compensatory parenting time to paying a bond to transferring custody to the other parent.

You do not have to accept your ex-spouse or co-failure parent’s to follow the court’s orders, especially if the violation is deliberate and ongoing. Similarly, if your ex threatens to hold you in contempt of court for actions that were beyond your control, you must act to avoid an unjust court order.

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​​Wobber Law Groups’ family law attorneys in Towson, MD are involved in a wide variety of family law practice areas, including adoption, alimony, asset protection and uncovering hidden assets, child custody and visitation, child support, contempt and enforcement, divorce planning, divorce litigation, domestic violence, legal separation, marital property division and reimbursement, peace orders and protective orders, spousal support, third-party and de facto parent custody rights, and uncontested divorce.

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