Understanding Contempt

What is contempt?

Unfortunately, the filing of a complaint for civil contempt is a common occurrence in the Probate and Family Court. Civil contempt of court occurs when someone willfully violates a clear and unequivocal order from the court. A Complaint is a mechanism used by one party to enforce previously issued Orders of the Court.

When is contempt relevant?

Once the Probate and Family Court issues an order or judgment, the court retains the ability to enforce all aspects of the court order/judgment. If either party to the case willfully violates the court’s order/judgment, that party will likely be found to be in contempt of court. It is important to note that it is only relevant after a court has issued judgments or orders to govern the behavior of the parties, which it can do at any point during the Probate and Family Court proceeding. Actions can involve situations such as denial of parenting time; failure to timely pay child support and/or alimony; and failure to follow a temporary court order.

What is the standard to find one in contempt of court?

To find a party guilty of contempt, the court cannot simply conclude that the accused party did not act in accordance with the clear and unequivocal order/judgment. The court must also conclude that the accused had the ability to comply and therefore violated the order/judgment deliberately and without good cause. A person cannot be held in contempt for violating an order with which he or she did not have the ability to comply. Once a party files a Complaint with the court, the court will issue a hearing date. At the hearing, the accused party should to present evidence to the Court that he or she did, in fact, comply with the Court Order or, in the alternative, that he or she did not have the ability to comply with the Court Order.

What happens after a contempt is filed?

The Defendant in a Contempt action must be given notice of the contempt sanctions and an opportunity to be heard on the allegations of contempt.

After a contempt hearing, where both parties have the opportunity to be heard, the judge will write an order either denying the contempt or holding the accused in contempt and, if relevant, the Judge will specify how he/she can purge themselves. The judge may order the accused to immediately comply with the Court Order or may give them a certain amount of time to comply with the Court Order.  It is also common for the accusing party to request that the Court order the party in contempt to pay his/her attorney fees associated with the filing.  The making of such an order for payment of attorney fees is up to the discretion of the Judge. In some cases, contempt can result in jail time, not just fines. As such, this can be a very powerful tool; however, in order to be successful the party filing the action should have evidence to present to the Court of the other party’s willful disobedience of the court order.

What if I am found in contempt of court?

Civil contempt sanctions as designed to restore the rights of the party who was wronged by the party to failed to obey the court's order, if the accused is found in contempt.  Civil contempt sanctions generally end when the party in contempt complies with the court order, or when the underlying case is resolved.

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