Contempt Issues

One area of the law that is frequently relevant in domestic relations cases is contempt of court. What is contempt? Contempt is the intentional, willful violation of an order of the court.

There are two catagories of contempt, civil contempt and criminal contempt. Criminal contempt is a contempt charge that seeks to punish the offender for intentional violation of a court order. Like all criminal matters, a person charged with criminal contempt is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. They are given certain procedural protections absent in civil contempt cases. If found guilty, the offender is given a specific sentence as punishment.

Civil contempt, on the other hand, is an action intended to stop the violation of a court order. With civil contempt, the standard of proof is a “preponderance of the evidence” which means that the person charging the contempt just has to prove that the offender more likely than not has willfully violated the court order.

Usually, punishment for civil contempt is structured to force the offender to comply with the order. For instance, in a child support case where the obligor has not been paying his child support, the court might order that an offender will be incarcerated until such time as he or she shows a disposition to comply with the child support order (in other words, demonstrate to the court that he or she is going to pay). The court might decide that payment of a bond of $1,000.00 is sufficient evidence of compliance with the court’s order to warrant release from incarceration.

Common contempt actions in family law include violations of parenting plans, where one party refuses to honor the other parties’ parenting time and child support cases where the obligor parent refuses to pay their support. However, a contempt action can arise from any violation of a court order. For example, if a divorce agreement included in a Final Decree required one party to convey their interest in the marital residence to the other party, and they have refused to do so, then a contempt action would be an appropriate remedy to enforce that provision.

Usually, the process is initiated by the aggrieved party filing a Petition for Contempt alleging the other party has violated the court order. The court papers are served on the defendant and a court date is set for a hearing. Sometimes the Court itself will become aware that its orders are not being followed and will issue a “Show Cause” order which is a court order placing the burden upon the defendant to show a reason why he or she should not be held in contempt of court for violating the court’s order.

In Knox County courts the Child Support Magistrates handle all of the child support contempt and show cause cases. The Circuit Court Judges and Chancellors handle most of the divorce related co-parenting and visitation contempt cases and show cause cases.