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What Does It Mean to Initiate a Contempt of Court Action After a Divorce?

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Following your divorce, you and your former spouse must comply with the orders in your judgment, such as those concerning child custody/visitation or child or spousal support. Unfortunately, you might find yourself in a situation where your ex is not doing what’s required of them. You can ask the court to enforce compliance with the orders by initiating a contempt of court action.

After filing the forms to commence the process, you and your ex will be scheduled for a contempt hearing. At the proceeding, you must prove that your ex violated the order. Your former spouse is also allowed to present their side of the story. If the judge decides in your favor, your ex may be subject to civil or criminal penalties, including jail time, fines, and/or community service.

If you need help enforcing an order after your divorce, please contact our Los Angeles team at Claery & Hammond, LLP by calling (310) 817-6904.

What Is Contempt of Court?

To be in contempt means that someone willfully disobeyed an order or judgment issued by a court or judge. For example, suppose your ex was required to pay spousal support after your divorce. The support stipulation was filed as part of your decree. Although your spouse has the means to make the payments, they do not. Their actions are considered contempt.

To initiate a contempt of court action, you must submit to the court:

  • An Order to Show Cause and Affidavit for Contempt form (FL-410): In this document, you tell the court what orders your spouse has disobeyed and when the violations occurred. You must be as specific as possible.
  • A filing fee: There is a cost to begin contempt proceedings. If you cannot afford it, you may ask for a waiver.
  • Proof of service: After you file form FL-410, you must serve a copy to your former spouse. Service ensures that your ex is aware that legal action is being taken against them.

For matters involving a failure to pay child or spousal support, you have three years from when payment was not made to begin a contempt action. For all other issues, you have two years from the date the violation occurred.

What Orders Can Be Enforced Through Contempt?

Only certain divorce-related orders are contemptible.

These include, but are not limited to:

  • Preventing or denying visitation: This occurs when your ex willfully keeps your child or children from you on your visitation days.
  • Not paying child support: This occurs when your former spouse is ordered to pay a certain amount of money each month but doesn’t.
  • Not paying spousal support: Similar to nonpayment of child support, not paying spousal support occurs when your ex does not remit required payments to you.

Contempt proceedings cannot be commenced for matters where your ex was ordered to pay you money as part of property division liabilities. These issues are typically settled through an order for appearance and examination.

What Happens at a Contempt Hearing?

The contempt hearing allows the judge to listen to both sides and determine whether the alleged offending party willfully disobeyed court orders.

As the person initiating the action, you have the burden of proving that your ex is in contempt.

To do this, you must show that:

  • A valid court order existed: A court order is valid if it were made by a judge and it is in writing.
  • Your ex could have complied with the order: If you are arguing that your ex failed to make support payments, you might show that they had the funds available to satisfy their obligation. If it’s a visitation matter you’re addressing, you could demonstrate that your ex had the means to allow you access to your child or children.
  • Your ex knowingly disobeyed: You must demonstrate that your ex was aware of the order and their obligations but was in willful noncompliance.

In addition to evaluating the evidence you present, the judge will consider whether the order was specific, meaning that the terms were clear. If the order was unclear, it would be decided that the ambiguity must be resolved in favor of your ex.

What Happens If Your Ex Is Found in Contempt?

If your ex willfully violated court orders, they may face civil or criminal penalties. Civil penalties arise when the court finds that the individual was in contempt and is taking action to compel compliance and protect the injured party's rights. Criminal penalties are imposed when the court seeks to punish the individual for disrespecting the court.

Civil penalties include:

  • A fine of up to $1,000 and/or
  • A jail term of up to 5 days, or
  • Incarceration until the offender complies with the order.

Criminal penalties include:

  • A fine of up to $1,000 and/or
  • A jail term of up to 5 days, or
  • Community service for up to 120 hours for each count of contempt
    • “Each count of contempt” means every instance of willful disobedience. For example, if your ex denied you visitation on three separate days, each denial is one count of contempt.

Get Started Protecting Your Rights

If your former spouse willfully disobeyed an order in your divorce decree, you have options to remedy the situation. Seeking to have the order enforced through means like initiating a contempt action can be challenging.

Contact Claery & Hammond, LLP at (310) 817-6904 today to discuss your case. We proudly serve the people of Los Angeles.

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