Contempt Proceedings In Family Law Cases

Sometimes, even a couple’s best efforts to maintain an amicable divorce can go awry. Sensitive issues may arise related to certain pieces of property, how to split time with children, or the cause of the divorce (such as an affair) may be emotionally fraught with issues.

Other times, divorce may start well but slowly start to unravel over time. The process can be stressful, exhausting, and overwhelming. And it can result in otherwise responsible adults failing to make responsible decisions.

If brought up immediately, these types of issues can hopefully be dealt with quickly in order to avoid additional stress and expense for the parties involved. The court may be able to intervene and provide guidance or assistance. Or the court may impose stricter rules on parties.

When problems are allowed to go on for too long or disputes simply cannot be overcome, parties to a divorce may find that the only option that remains available to them is to move for contempt of court. This is a very serious remedy, but one that may be necessary where the other party refuses to play by the rules.

Contempt in Lakewood

Contempt is a legal finding that an individual has refused to obey a court order. At some point while watching television, you may have heard someone say, “I find you in contempt of court.” This means that the court has determined that an individual who is subject to one of the court’s orders is failing to abide by that order.

A court will not spontaneously reach a contempt finding on its own in most cases. Indeed, it would be almost impossible for the court to do so since it cannot know what private individuals are and are not doing at any given time. Instead, when a party to an order is failing to follow the order, the other party in the case must file a motion seeking contempt.

Seeking contempt is a very serious remedy and one that should not be taken lightly. Parties should not seek contempt simply because they cannot agree with a former spouse on an issue or because they are frustrated with a certain process or outcome. Taking contempt too lightly risks having the judge discredit you or not give your motions the attention that they deserve.

Examples of actions that can rise to the level of contempt include:

  • Failing to abide by a custody or visitation order
  • Failing to make required child support payments
  • Not following a restraining order
  • Failing to share property in a way the court has required.

The Contempt Process

The process for contempt is fairly straightforward. The party seeking to enforce an order must file a motion for contempt with the court where the order was issued. The opposing party must get a copy of this order so that they have notice of it and the opportunity to respond.

If the court believes there is sufficient merit to the motion, it will issue an Order to Go to Court for Contempt Hearing and set a hearing date. This date will usually be a few weeks out to give the parties the opportunity to assemble their evidence and make their case. Hearings are required so that the party accused of contempt can explain himself or herself if needed.

At the hearing, both sides will have the opportunity to present their evidence. The party seeking contempt must show that a valid court order exists, it is not being obeyed, and this is being done in bad faith. The party accused of contempt must show either that (1) this is untrue, (2) they did not know the order existed, or (3) there is a justifiable reason for their noncompliance that is out of their control.

After listening to the evidence, the court will make a ruling about whether contempt has occurred – either on the spot or in a follow-up order.

Punishment for Contempt

If the court finds that an order has been violated or a party is failing to comply with the terms of an order, the court has wide latitude to craft an appropriate response. There are typically two primary considerations in a contempt finding: (1) ensuring compliance with the order moving forward and (2) penalizing the noncompliant party for their failure to comply.

Accordingly, a court will typically craft a new order aimed at ensuring compliance. For example, it may impose a fine for every day of noncompliance until the order is complied with or impose jail time if the order is not complied with within a certain amount of time. The court may also choose to modify the order in order to ensure that compliance is easier going forward, particularly in circumstances of visitation or custody.

The court’s order can also award damages, where appropriate, to the party who was harmed by the noncompliance. If, for example, the party seeking contempt had to pay certain expenses or incurred fines of their own as a result of the noncompliance, the court may require that this be paid back.

Where the contempt shows evidence of a pattern of noncompliance or the noncompliance is particularly egregious, the court can order jail time. However, this will typically only happen in cases where the bad faith is particularly obvious. In most instances, courts will not find jail time to be an appropriate remedy.

Washington Attorneys Helping You through the Contempt Process

Whether you are seeking a finding of contempt for noncompliance or are in the position of having to defend against a motion for contempt, you want an attorney who understands contempt proceedings to assist you. When not handled correctly, contempt motions can quickly draw the ire of judges in Washington – this is an outcome you want to avoid.

At Bolan Law Group., our family law attorneys represent clients through all aspects of the family law and divorce process – including, when necessary, in contempt proceedings. For more information or to schedule an initial consultation, contact our office online or at (253) 470-2356.

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