Contempt of court in divorce

Husband and wife with divorce papers

When your ex does not comply with your divorce decree, what steps can you take and what does it mean to hold in contempt of court divorce? If your ex-spouse willfully disregarded orders set forth in the decree, you may be able to file a motion for contempt of final decree of divorce. If the judge believes your ex willfully violated orders in the decree, he or she could hold your ex in divorce contempt of court, where contempt is the remedy of the enforcement action. The judge may then impose fines, jail time or other penalties to encourage compliance in a contempt of court in divorce case.

Sounds simple, right? In reality, enforcing orders in a divorce decree or child custody agreement can be very complicated, especially if the orders weren’t drafted properly. This occurs far too often when people draft their own orders or hire an inexperienced attorney who drafts a divorce court order vaguely, rendering the orders unenforceable.

It’s also important to keep in mind: When you have an order, it’s a directive. That doesn’t mean your ex will follow it. People are willing to break laws, and they do so on a daily basis, so divorce contempt of court is more common than you might think.

When should you file for contempt of court in divorce charges?

Not in every instance. Filing for contempt of court divorce settlement charges should only be done if your orders are actually enforceable by contempt and if your ex intentionally disregarded the orders, even though he or she had the resources to comply with them.

The court’s goal is to “fix the problem” by getting people to comply with the orders and through rehabilitation when possible. For example, if a father stops paying child support because he lost his job, that action probably wouldn’t be enforceable by contempt, though the court may put other remedial measures in place.

What are the consequences of breaking divorce decree by not paying child support? In this example, the father would still be responsible for paying the child support ordered unless (and until) he requests and is awarded a modification of child support—but it’s unlikely the court will send him to jail.

In fact, sending the father to jail could make the situation worse because he won’t be able to earn a living while incarcerated. It’s important to look at the big picture when deciding whether or not to file for contempt of court divorce decree charges pertaining to child support. Your family law attorney can help you weigh your options, but please know, it isn’t easy to collect back child support even if you bring charges against the other parent in court and a judge finds the other parent is in contempt for not paying child support.

You should also consider whether or not filing contempt charges in divorce is truly worth it in your situation. Hiring an attorney and paying the legal fees associated with bringing your ex to court will cost you thousands of dollars. If you (and/or your attorney) think it’s unlikely your ex will ever pay back child support or spousal support anyway, it’s not worth wasting your money.

Undergoing a legal battle with an ex can also be (and usually is) quite stressful. Is it worth it to you to put yourself through that stress if your desired outcome is unlikely? These are all things you should carefully consider when deciding whether or not to file contempt charges in divorce against your ex. Sometimes it’s simply best to accept reality and move on with life.

What contempt charges in divorce are enforceable by contempt?

And what does contempt of court mean in a divorce? Most of the actions our family court lawyers in Fort Worth TX deal with in a contempt setting include child support, visitation and access, along with temporary spousal support and spousal maintenance. In addition, actions pertaining to the assets on hand at the time of divorce may be enforceable by contempt.

For example, if the husband is supposed to receive bank account “A” with $38,000 in the account and the wife drains the account, that $38,000 bank account would be considered an asset on hand at the time of divorce. Consequently, draining the account may qualify for contempt charges in divorce. However, those specifics need to be clearly spelled out (that the $38,000 bank account was to be awarded to him her) when the orders are drafted, in order to be enforceable by contempt.

The same holds true if you want to ensure spousal support or child support will be enforceable. The language must be written so that it is crystal clear regarding the circumstances for the support and what that support covers. For example, in order to enforce the payment of attorney’s fees pertaining to child support, the orders must clearly state that such attorney’s fees will be enforceable as child support.

This is why it’s critical to hire an experienced family law attorney who knows how to draft a divorce and child custody agreement that includes language that will ensure the agreement will be enforceable in court, should your spouse do something (or not do something, like fail to pay spousal support) that would qualify as a contempt of divorce decree act.

Unless you have a truly uncontested divorce, you don’t want to risk filing for divorce and completing the documents associated with divorce on your own. Not only is there a risk that stipulations in the divorce decree will not be enforceable—like spousal support, child support, property settlement details and so on—you could inadvertently agree to something in the divorce settlement that is less than beneficial to you.

Even worse, once you sign off on your divorce decree in Texas, you can’t go back and change your divorce settlement later, unless you can prove fraud occurred on the part of the other party. What’s done is done. In most cases you’ll be better off spending the money to hire a good divorce attorney to ensure you get an enforceable settlement that includes the terms you want.

Learn more about the downsides of DIY divorces here.

Is your ex not following the divorce decree? Various remedies are available

What happens if divorce decree is not followed and what does holding in contempt mean? When it comes to contempt of court divorce charges, jail time is the most extreme remedy. In addition, attorney’s fees, monetary judgments, additional temporary orders and other remedies may be available for contempt actions. Again, the court’s goal is to rehabilitate and “fix the problem,” not send people to jail unless absolutely necessary.

Wondering what to do if divorce decree is violated for non-payment of child support or spousal support and what does it mean to be in contempt of court for non-payment? Non-payment of court ordered support can be construed as contempt of court in divorce. If you go to court, quite a few statutory remedies exist to address non-payment. However, most of these remedies involve taking away a person’s livelihood and ability to earn. For example, along with jail time, a judge can take away a party’s driver’s license. The court can also take away their license to practice law, accounting license and so on, if there is a violation of divorce agreement.

You can press the court to impose these remedies but the question remains: Is removing your ex’s ability to make a living a smart idea if you want him or her to pay spousal and/or child support? Contempt divorce cases need to be well thought through before proceeding.

One of the other remedies available for contempt of court divorce is to “suspend the commitment,” where the court agrees not to throw the party in jail as long as he or she follows certain terms of probation. If the party violates those terms, the judge can revoke the suspended commitment and send the party to jail.

For example, say the party was two months behind on child support, the judge could say, “I’m not going to throw you in jail right now. However, I am going to put you on a suspended commitment, where you have to pay the current child support, pay an arrearage amount on the child support you didn’t pay in the past two months, and you’ve got to pay X amount in attorney’s fees.”

If the party does not abide by the terms of probation, the judge can send him or her to jail. In some cases, a judge may send the ex-spouse or parent to jail on weekends, so they can continue to work and earn money during the week—or every other weekend—so they still get to spend time with their child.

It’s well worth noting here that your child’s emotional wellbeing is another important consideration when deciding whether or not to file contempt of court in divorce charges. Even if you went through a very bitter divorce with your ex, he or she is still your child’s other parent.

Will taking your ex back to court be worth the potential distress your child could experience as a result of the court case, or will the benefits to your child outweigh any potential risks? If your main incentive is to retaliate against your ex out of spite, you may want to step back and take another look at the big picture.  

Again, is it worth your time, money and mental health—as well as your child’s emotional wellbeing—to pursue contempt of court in divorce charges? Our Fort Worth law firm has helped many clients win contempt of court in divorce cases, and we also have counseled other clients to not pursue charges when we don’t believe the outcome will end up benefiting them in the long run.

If you believe it makes sense to pursue contempt of divorce decree charges in your situation, we strongly encourage you to seek advice from a family law attorney who understands the complexities of contempt divorce charges.

Hire an experienced family law attorney to help negotiate and draft favorable (and enforceable) divorce and custody orders

At the Sisemore Law Firm, our goal is to secure the most favorable agreement possible for our clients and make sure they receive everything granted to them in the divorce decree. We also strive to divide every asset possible during the divorce and execute all of the necessary ancillary documents, so our clients don’t remain “married via asset” following divorce.

In addition, it’s our job to anticipate what obligations the client’s ex may not follow through on post-divorce, which makes it easier to enforce the decree and file for divorce contempt of court if necessary. We specifically spell out in the orders what happens if ex does not follow divorce decree and the consequences he or she will face. Those essential, tiny details help ensure the ex complies, and should they choose not to, the client has the documentation needed to enforce the orders.

If you have questions about divorce, child custody, child support or other family law issues in North Texas, contact us. A Fort Worth family lawyer at the Sisemore Law Firm would be happy to review your case and recommend next steps. To schedule a confidential case review with our founder Justin Sisemore, please call our office at (817) 336-4444 or schedule a consultation online.

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