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The Divorce Encyclopedia
Contempt of Court, Complaint for


Term Definition Contempt of Court, Complaint for - a legal action for any deliberate failure to comply with the legal process, including the disruption of the court, a failure to obey a court order or judgment.
Application in Divorce Courts may find parties who disobey their orders in contempt. Contempt may be either civil or criminal. In civil contempt, the court attempts to force the party to comply with fines and/or jail time that can be avoided by complying with an underlying order. In criminal contempt, the court punishes a defiant party with fines and/or jail that cannot be avoided. Contempt further may be classified as either direct or indirect. The former happens in the presence of a judge; the latter happens outside the court’s presence.

Misconduct, particularly the failure to pay alimony and/or child support or a failure to comply with property division, is indirect contempt, which generally requires a notice and hearing before the perpetrator can be punished for noncompliance.

In the aftermath of a divorce, contempt of court in connection with failure to pay child support is a most common event. In this, the custodial parent (who is usually the mother) finds it necessary to file a complaint for contempt of court against the noncustodial parent (who is often the father). Complaints are also most often brought against husbands and ex-husbands who fail to pay support. The defendant is entitled to a evidentiary hearing, which is a trial, since he faces possible incarceration. Even when defendants are found guilty, they are usually given a chance to comply, and jail time, therefore, is the exception, not the rule.

Civil contempt may be brought to bear against a party who fails to comply with the obligations in an equitable distribution award.

The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act provides that the terms and conditions of a separation agreement and divorce decree dealing with the division of property are enforceable by contempt. Some states have statutes to enforce property distribution under pain of contempt. Others have said that prohibitions against imprisonment for debt excludes the power of contempt.

Depending upon the jurisdiction, civil contempt may be used to force compliance in a number of facets of property division, including, but not limited to, payment of a monetary award; relief of nondelivery of property; payment of debts assigned to a spouse; the receipt of clear title to property; relief from a spouse’s effort to frustrate court orders; and compliance with refinancing of property.

In extreme cases, a fine or jail term may be used to punish a spouse as long as the procedural requirements of criminal contempt are met.

Compensatory damages may also accompany civil contempt actions made in conjunction with a failure to comply with property distribution in a divorce decree.

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