A Primer on Civil Contempt


Contempt proceedings are one of the primary methods through which the court is able to enforce its orders and decisions in family law cases. When a party does not protect marital assets or community property as directed, refuses to follow the visitation schedule set up by the court, or does not pay child support, a court may find the disobedient party “in contempt.” Once a party is found in contempt of court, the court then has a wide variety of options available to it. Each option is designed to either “encourage” the party in contempt to bring him- or herself into compliance with the court’s orders and/or punish the party in contempt for his or her disrespect. Civil contempt is the type of contempt most often found in family law cases, and so it behooves family law and divorce case litigants to familiarize themselves with how the civil contempt process works.

Defining and Distinguishing Civil Contempt

Civil contempt is distinguishable from criminal contempt by the purpose of the sanctions imposed on the party in contempt. In a criminal contempt proceeding, any sanctions that are imposed (fines and/or incarceration in most cases) are designed to punish the party in contempt for failing to obey the court’s orders. The party in contempt must satisfy the sanction the court imposes before the finding of contempt is cleared. Conversely, the sanctions imposed in a case of civil contempt are designed to coerce the party in contempt into complying with the court’s orders. The sanctions imposed (again, mainly fines and/or incarceration) end and the finding of contempt lifted once the party in contempt has complied with the court’s orders.

For example, suppose Alex has failed to turn over to Maddie several valuable items of property as the court ordered him to do. A court may find Alex in criminal contempt and order him to serve 30 days in jail. In this case, Alex must complete all 30 days in jail before he will be released. Conversely, a court that found Alex in civil contempt can also order him to serve 30 days in jail. However, in the case of civil contempt the court must release Alex from jail immediately if he agrees to comply with the court’s orders. It is for this reason that individuals found in civil contempt of court are often said to hold the “keys to the jailhouse door” – their compliance with the court’s orders immediately ends any sanction ordered by the court.

How is a Person Found in Civil Contempt?

If a party willfully refuses to obey a court’s order in the presence of the judge or disrespects the court while in court, then the person is said to be in direct contempt of court. No further hearing or examination is necessary for a court to find the person in contempt. If the disobedience or act of disrespect occurs outside of court, then the contempt is said to be indirect. In the case of a civil contempt proceeding, the party who has been harmed by the other party’s disobedience would file a motion with the court and bring the matter to the attention of the judge. This party would also bear the burden of presenting sufficient evidence to show that the act of contempt did in fact occur.

In the context of civil contempt, at this hearing the party alleged to be in contempt is not entitled to legal counsel and does not enjoy any presumption of innocence. At the conclusion of such a hearing (at which the other party would have the ability to defend him- or herself against the accusations), a court would then enter a finding as to whether the party is in fact in contempt. If he or she is found in civil contempt of court, then the court may proceed to sanction the party in contempt accordingly.

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