Winning a child custody case is a huge moment. Maybe this means getting primary guardianship, a child support order, visitation, or another victory you fought for. That’s great, you got what you needed or wanted. But just because there’s a court order doesn’t always mean the other parent will abide by the ruling. What happens if your ex doesn’t pay child support, won’t allow scheduled visits, or denies other parental rights? In some situations, you may have to file a motion for contempt.
What Is Contempt?
Contempt as a concept is relatively simple: it’s the willful and intentional disobedience of a court order. When it comes to child custody and family law issues, this manifests in a variety of ways:
- Parenting Time: If your ex denies you visitation as laid out in a parenting plan, that’s contempt; if your ex won’t return your child at the end of a visit, that’s contempt; if your ex doesn’t make reasonable attempts to require the child to make scheduled visits, you guessed it, that’s contempt.
- Child Support: If one party or the other is ordered to make regular child support payments, failure to do so constitutes contempt.
- Property: If a divorce decree awards you a particular asset, but your spouse refuses to hand it over, that may constitute contempt.
A motion for contempt is essentially an official means of requesting the court to compel the violator to abide by the court order. In child custody and family law cases, this most commonly takes the form of suing to enforce visitation, child support payments, and other specific terms. The goal of a motion for contempt is to get the other party to follow the court order in the future.
When To File A Motion For Contempt?
Filing a motion for contempt is pretty harsh and shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. It can be useful in the right situations, but it’s not always the most appropriate tool in the toolbox. This isn’t ideal for when your ex misses a single child support payment or denies you one regularly scheduled visit. Don’t just pull this out for every minor conflict or disagreement.
A motion for contempt is best suited for more severe, extreme circumstances. For instance, if your ex hasn’t paid child support in months, or straight-up refuses to allow any visitation at all.
Depending on the severity of the infractions, if the court finds contempt, it carries substantial repercussions. A judge can order counseling, parenting classes, award attorney’s fees, and enforce civil penalties. Or even hand down jail time if the case warrants, though usually only as a last resort. Because of potentially lasting consequences, it’s important not to abuse a motion for contempt.
Protecting Parental Rights Without A Motion For Contempt
It’s easy to think that the child custody battle is over and done with when the court hands down a decision. In reality, and in far too many cases, ensuring your parental rights may be an ongoing battle.
Parents often fight tooth and nail to establish child custody, visitation, child support payments, and the rest, only to slack when it comes to enforcing them. Using a motion for contempt is a tool to accomplish this, but a rather severe one. There are steps to take before it gets to that point that can hopefully help avoid such situations.
Establish the Rules
It’s hard to hold someone accountable when there aren’t rules in place, or when they’re not clearly defined. There needs to be a definite plan that lays out custody, visitation, schedules, and the rest.
It’s tempting to set up a cooperative arrangement with your ex, one where both parents collaborate and work together to continue raising a child. In ideal situations, that’s great. It’s good for the kids, and if you can pull it off, that’s fantastic. Problems arise, however, when there are conflicts and things change and there’s no backup plan.
If both parents can work together, good, but there will likely be at least moments of friction. In the end, it will also be to your advantage to have a concrete, enforceable plan in place. This is something to deal with during the divorce proceedings. If it’s clear from the beginning, hopefully, that leads to people sticking to the rules and makes it less likely you’ll get to the point where you have to file a motion for contempt.
Follow the Rules
Once you lay out the guidelines, it’s important that you stick to them. You can’t expect your ex to abide by rules you yourself are unwilling to follow. Not only is this courteous and fair, it can come back to influence legal proceedings down the road.
It reflects poorly on you to file a motion for contempt that claims your ex violates the visitation arrangement if you regularly do the same. On the other hand, it looks much better to stay as close as possible to the rules you set up. This may prove frustrating, especially if your ex flaunts violations, but it will benefit your case down the road.
Enforce the Rules
Once you lay out the rules, it’s important to enforce them. Filing a motion for contempt is one way to do this. As stated earlier, it’s a serious move, one to maybe keep in your back pocket for extreme circumstances. There are less drastic ways to accomplish these goals.
- Don’t let your ex get away with breaking the rules. People often push boundaries to see what they can and can’t away with. If your former spouse consistently bends the rules and you never deal with it, this behavior is more likely to continue in the future. Once a pattern is established, it’s much more difficult to change, so it’s best to draw lines and set limits early.
- Document any violations of the court-ordered parenting plan. If you do get to the point where you do need to file a motion for contempt or take other legal action, being able to prove such abuse is important. It may help to have witnesses at scheduled pick ups or drop offs where your ex doesn’t show up. If you go back and forth about child support payments via email or voice mail, hang onto those. The more definitive evidence, the stronger the case.
- Be flexible and realistic. While it’s important to be firm, it’s also important to be flexible and realistic. Enforcing substantial breaches is vital. Denying visitation, not making child support payments, these are serious offenses and need attention. But don’t sweat the small stuff, you may simply come across as petty and vindictive.
Schedules change, adjustments happen. Sometimes they may be 15 minutes late to drop off, or extenuating circumstances may impact visitation one weekend. Kids are crazy busy these days. It’s important to know what’s just a normal part of the chaos that is our lives and what’s an intentional slight or power play. While annoying and inconvenient, minor glitches like this are just that, minor. If you do file a motion for contempt, small quibbles may just annoy a judge and not help your case at all. In the case of enforcement proceedings, stick to the major issues.
Don’t let your parental rights get trampled after divorce and child custody battles. Just because there’s a court order laying out visitation, child support, and the rest, doesn’t mean everyone always follows those rules. A motion for contempt is one way to rectify that. A more extreme measure, one best reserved for dire circumstances, it may prove useful in the right situation.