The word “contempt” in everyday language means a person or thing that deserves disdain or disrespect. In the legal field, “contempt” is a technical term used to describe the violation of a court order.
Law-abiding people who divorce through the court system receive court-ordered rules to follow via their court decree. It is an unpleasant surprise when one of the former spouses ignores a court order, such as payment of child support.
Illegal behavior after the divorce
It can be hard to understand when a spouse disregards a judge’s ruling as to the terms of a divorce. Much time, effort and thought go into deciding what outcomes are fair to each spouse and their children. It is the court’s responsibility to take all of the issues affecting each person into consideration and arrive at an equitable solution.
An ex-spouse who respects the law will follow the court’s orders. Not all ex-spouses respect the court’s authority. They act as if the terms of the divorce are flexible suggestions, not legal mandates. In other cases, a spouse wants to follow the court ordered stipulations but is temporarily unable to pay due to sudden unemployment.
Example of a contempt motion
Jason is the chief financial officer of a large, international firm. He earns four times more than his ex-wife, Fran. She has custody of the children. Jason only sees them on weekends. Since he gets to see his children 20% of the time, Jason decides only to pay 20% of the amount of child support the court ordered.
Fran has no idea what to do. She is financially struggling to pay all of the family expenses now that Jason’s income is no longer available. She is counting on full child support payments for things her children need. Fran decides to ask her divorce attorney for advice. The attorney tells Fran she can file a court contempt action against Jason for violating the divorce terms. Fran agrees that, under the circumstances, it’s a good idea.
Fran’s attorney filed a court motion of contempt. Fran went to court, accompanied by her attorney. Jason explained his reasoning to the judge, but the court ordered him to pay the full child support according to state law, including back pay owed, plus payment of Fran’s attorney’s fees. Jason flatly refused. The judge then ordered child support payment garnishment from Jason’s salary going forward as well as a lump sum representing the amount Jason owed in back pay and the amount for attorney fees.
When not to file a motion for contempt
Contempt is a serious violation, and the person filing must be able to show the court that the order for child support exists, that the non-payer knows it exists, that payment is late and still due and — in this case — the person is intentionally violating the divorce terms. It is not a good idea to file a contempt charge over trivial matters. The divorce attorney can explain several options to deal with lesser matters