Disobeying court orders is a common problem in divorce and family law cases and can significantly negatively affect your finances, custody, and visitation in negative ways. All violations of a court order that are deemed to be without a reasonable explanation and are willful are found by most courts to be a contempt of the court’s order. A determination of Contempt of Court can negatively impact a person’s life or current situation by making the party at fault subject to jail time, fines, community service, a modification of a previous court order for visitation and custody.
Overall, placing yourself in a situation in which the other party can file a Contempt of Court action against you is more trouble than its ever worth. Any time you find yourself in a situation that may appear to violate any part of a court order, it is important to thoroughly document the reason for the violation and to document the other party’s acceptance or agreement to any changes that may not be in strict compliance with the court’s order. By continuously documenting minor deviations from the court’s order that may occur between the parties, there should be a reduced likelihood that either party may file an action for Contempt of Court charges without a sufficient basis.
Excuses Rarely Work
Most of the time when people find their selves in a contempt of court situation, they will try to justify their actions by stating one of two excuses; either:
- the other party did the same action first, or
- the court order was issued in error due to false information.
These excuses do not work and are guaranteed to make you the target of a judge’s frustration. This will often result in the following:
- the offending party having to pay sanctions and / or attorney’s fees for the other party;
- the offending party being sentenced to jail time, often till the contempt is cured if applicable;
- the offending party being sentenced to community service; and
- damaging the offending party’s reputation with the court, negatively affecting future court proceedings.
If there is some serious fault within the court order that is believed to be incorrect, false, or issued by mistake then the order still stands until another court order is made to correct the problem. There are remedies for such problems with court orders, which include but are not limited to:
- a motion for a new trial;
- a motion to reconsider;
- a petition for modification; and
- an appeal of the court’s order.
Therefore, even if a court order is incorrect, a party that willfully violates that order can still be held in contempt of court. While in some situations the court may grant some leniency if an order is determined to have an obvious defect or was issued in error, this possibility should not be relied on as an excuse to violate the order.
Contempt of Court – Child Support, Alimony and Visitation
In family law most contempt issues arise from one party not complying with the court’s order regarding child support or custody and visitation. It is also common in highly contested cases for both parties to be in contempt as one party may violate the court’s order in an effort to force the other party to fulfill their court ordered obligations. The most common example of this is when one party withholds visitation in an attempt to get the other party to pay their child support.
Other typical violations may stem from a party’s perception of whether or not the other party falsely produced expenses to achieve higher amounts of support. Even if you legitimately believe that the other party has falsified their Domestic Relations Financial Affidavit to obtain more money for support this is not a legitimate justification to reduce or not pay court ordered child support or alimony. If you are delinquent in your support obligations and are found in contempt for failure to provide these obligations, despite your belief that the court’s order was based on false information, you will still be required to pay the missed support expenses, interest on missed support payments, and possibly sanctions and the other party’s attorney’s fees.
False Claims of Contempt
It is not an uncommon event for false claims of contempt to be alleged in highly contested divorce and family law cases, for the sole purpose being harassment and revenge. Due to the serious nature of contempt allegations and the amount of damage it can cause in your life and to your family, it is always advisable to seek an attorney’s assistance if you find that you are being accused of contempt, even if the claims are false. The best advice that can be provided in a situation that is prone to high conflict and false allegations is for the party on the receiving end to document all interactions with the other party. They should document all changes that could occur in relation to communication, support or visitation with the other party and video and/or tape record all conversations if it is legal. In Georgia, it is legal to record your phone calls and conversations, but it is recommended that someone discuss this with an attorney before stating the process because there are limitations.
The failure to document small details could result in a false accusation of contempt and the inability to produce evidence in defense of the actions. Only the documentation of changes, exchanges and support payments may prevent you from the distress of being found in willful contempt of court and resulting adverse results. Stating that the other party is filing for the action of contempt based on false claims for the purpose of harassment or to achieve a modification in custodial or visitation arrangements is advisable when you believe that such events are occurring. However, your defenses will be much more effective if you can also provide evidence and documentation in support of your beliefs. Early on, it is advisable to have an attorney outline for the court why you believe the contempt of court allegation are an abuse of the legal process and what the other party is intending to achieve from their false accusations. This may provide the court with important information and a basis to more thoroughly examine the filing party’s claims and evidence from the start and to evaluate the case under more scrutiny than normal.
For example, in a highly contested matter involving supervised visitation, a plaintiff may claim that the defendant prevented their visitation from occurring at a supervised visitation facility. However, if the defendant can show in reality that they made several attempts for the visitation to occur as stated within the court order, the plaintiff’s case could be dismissed and attorney’s fees awarded to the defendant. In this scenario, the facts may show that every time the defendant attempted to make an appointment for visitation to occur at the supervision center, the plaintiff would intentionally reschedule the appointment or cancel the appointment with the visitation facility without informing the defendant. Months later after this continuous pattern of conduct of the plaintiff purposely rescheduling visitation to make it appear that the defendant was not abiding by court order, the plaintiff files an petition for contempt and a modification of custody.
The plaintiff will predictably claim in their court pleadings that the defendant is guilty of not abiding by the court ordered visitation process. However, with the help of an attorney, the defendant is able to file a counter claim and demonstrate through evidence, such as detailed records and notes, discovery, affidavits, letters with the visitation facility’s staff, text messages, etc. that the plaintiff intentionally carried out the action of canceling visitation appointments to make it appear that the defendant was disregarding the court’s order. In this scenario, when plaintiff is confronted with this evidence about their scheme to obtain a modification of custody the plaintiff may decide to dismiss their case. However, the defendant through a counterclaim may have an opportunity to pursue a attorney’s fees and sanctions against the plaintiff based on the filing of the case in bad faith.
Two Common Defenses to Contempt of Court
There are only two exceptions to the excuse rule in a contempt case. The first exception is that the defending party in the contempt action can verify that they were not made aware of the court’s order; meaning they can prove that they did not receive a copy of the final order or did not know that a final order even existed. Secondly, the final court was impossible to obey, and therefore the contempt was not willful. Impossibility of abiding by the order is not the same as the offending party finding the order disagreeable, expensive or inconvenient.
In the example discussed above, the defense of impossibility would be valid because the defendant would not have control on whether or not the plaintiff canceled the visitation appointments that the defendant was in good faith scheduling. Therefore, the plaintiff would be making it impossible for the defendant to maintain the court ordered visitation arrangements. In cases in which your attorney also believes that you may be held in contempt due to your actions or lack thereof, it is not advised to present unreasonable excuses to the court. Instead, it is recommended that that the defendant attempt to settle the case outside of court. However, if a settlement cannot be reached, it is best to be forthcoming with the court about the reason why the contempt action occurred. Judges respect honesty more than evasive self serving excuses and are less likely to place harsh penalties on someone they believe made an honest mistake or failed to comply due to extenuating circumstances.
If you wish to file an action for contempt or have been accused of contempt it is imperative that you seek legal counsel. The divorce and family law attorneys of the Coleman Legal Group, LLC have extensive experience in highly contested contempt cases. Call 770-609-1247 to speak with one of our attorneys about your situation.
Content Revised: 2015-10-20