The ultimate goal of the divorce process is to hammer out a deal on finances, the division of property, child custody, spousal support, and other details. It takes a while to get there and it’s often an arduous journey.
But once it’s done, it’s done, right? Not always, unfortunately. Not everyone abides by the divorce decree. What can you do if your ex won’t follow the divorce agreement in Washington?
What If Your Ex Violates Your Divorce Agreement or Parenting Plan?
The good news is, that you have legal recourse. It’s not always easy, and it may take some time and resources, but there are options out there.
Once it’s handed down by the proper authorities, your divorce agreement is an official court order. That means the terms are legally enforceable.
By choosing not to abide by the agreement, your ex risks possible legal problems, including contempt charges.
A simple misunderstanding is one thing. It’s possible that either you or your ex read the court order and misinterpreted the language or the specifics about weekend visitation or pick-up or drop-off times.
The same goes for a spousal support payment that is a few days late once or twice. Things happen, and in the grand scheme of things, these are relatively minor incidents. If your relationship is amicable, it’s probably even possible to correct these problems.
It’s when these slights are willful and form a pattern that serious problems arise. When your ex simply refuses to abide by the divorce agreement, that’s something much more serious.
File An Order to Show Cause
If your ex steadfastly refuses to follow the divorce agreement, and if you can’t work it out any other way, your situation may require legal action.
In Washington, one option is to file an order to show cause. This is when one party requests that the court demand an explanation from the other, to “show cause” for the behavior.
Let’s say that a parent “forgets” to drop the kids off as arranged. Or scheduling conflicts remarkably come up every time there’s parenting time scheduled. In this situation, at a show cause hearing, each parent has the opportunity to state their case.
The non-custodial parent can ask the court to order the other to abide by the parenting plan, change the visitation schedule, or even transfer custody.
On the other hand, the custodial parent must explain why they disobeyed the court-ordered divorce agreement.
Related Reading: Tips to Remaining Civil During Custody Exchanges
What Is Contempt In Family Law?
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:
- Your ex denies you visitation as laid out in a parenting plan.
- Your ex won’t return your child at the end of a visit.
- Your ex doesn’t make reasonable attempts to require the child to make scheduled visits.
- One party or the other is ordered to make regular child support or spousal support payments and fails to do so.
- Not handing over property awarded in the settlement.
- Violating any of the other terms laid down in the court order.
What Is A Motion For 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 or spousal support payments, and other specific terms.
When Do You 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.
Don’t just pull this out for every minor conflict or disagreement. A motion for contempt is best suited for more severe, extreme circumstances.
Depending on the severity of the infractions, if the court finds contempt, it carries substantial repercussions.
A judge can:
- Order counseling.
- Alott makeup time you missed with your kids.
- Require parenting classes.
- Change a parenting plan or alter a custody schedule.
- Award attorney’s fees.
- Enforce civil penalties.
- 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. Sometimes, however, pursuing contempt of court charges in regards to child custody orders is the best bet.
The essential goal of a motion for contempt is to get the other party to follow the court order in the future.
Another Option: Modification Of A Divorce Agreement
Instead of following the show cause or contempt path, another option is to modify the existing divorce agreement. Modification usually takes time and effort, but it might provide long-term benefits if successful.
Back to the example where the custodial parent interferes with or denies your visitation. In this instance, if this is a larger, prolonged pattern, the original order doesn’t work.
You can petition the court to award you custody. As the courts don’t necessarily like to alter divorce settlements, this usually becomes a long process. It can involve discovery, hearings, and even a trial depending on the case. If you opt to go this route, be ready for the long haul.
Related Reading: Child Support Modification: Changing a Support Order
Protecting Child Custody Before You Need 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 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 for you, 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 plan in place.
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, but it can also 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 only benefit your case down the road.
Enforce the Rules
Once you lay out the rules, it’s also 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 flaunt 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.
If a pattern is established, document any violations of the court-ordered parenting plan or divorce agreement.
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 spousal or child support payments via email, text, voice mail, or even a social media post, hang onto those. The more definitive the evidence, the stronger the case.
Don’t Just Take The Kids
Though tempting at times, don’t just show up and take kids when it’s not your time even if you feel owed. That may very well be construed as kidnapping, which obviously has significant legal ramifications.
And even if that doesn’t happen, you give your ex ammunition to use against you in court. It may get you momentary time with the kids, but it’s a move that can backfire in so many serious, permanent ways.
Don’t Stop Paying Spousal Or Child Support
If your ex denies visitation, stopping child support or spousal maintenance payments makes sense to some people. After all, if your ex withholds something, you withhold something else in return, right?
Though it may tempt you, don’t stop making payments.
You can’t just stop paying child support if your ex denies your visitation. You also can’t stop spousal support payments if your ex refuses to hand over property or assets awarded to you in a settlement agreement.
Instead of helping your cause, this damages your position and even open you up to potential legal action.
It’s often the case that an ex denies your visitation in some sort of power play. It can be an attempt to be in control or even designed to hurt you.
In some cases, if you can’t work it out on your own, having an attorney send a strongly worded letter may be enough.
Sometimes just that threat is enough to move the needle.
Be clear that you’re willing to talk things out. But also be firm and make it known that if you’re continually denied court-ordered visitation or something else, you may take legal action.
If you do file a motion for contempt, small quibbles may just annoy a judge and not help you at all. In the case of enforcement proceedings, stick to the major issues and violations.
Related Reading: Are Divorce Records Public? (Yes, here’s how to acquire them.)
From The Radio
Rick Jones, one of our founding partners, makes regular guest appearances on the Danny Bonaduce and Sarah Morning Show. On the air, he answers family law questions from listeners. On a recent show, a listener texted in this exact question.
“According to our parenting plan, I’m supposed to have my daughter every other weekend, but my wife hasn’t let me see her at all. How do I force my wife to let me see my daughter?”
Rick: “A Motion for Contempt. The parenting plan is a court order. So now it’s no longer just the agreement between the two of you. Now it’s a court document, an official document, signed by a judge.
“So what you do, is you do a ‘motion for contempt. Where you basically say, ‘Look, the parenting plan says I get the kids or the child, and she’s not giving them to me.’
“What your recourse is is a couple of things:
- Number One: Makeup time, which is a slam dunk.
- Number Two: The courts are supposed to order attorney fees, so she’s likely to be on the hook for your attorney fees. If it is as simple as he’s telling us.
- Number Three: Going forward, if there’s a contempt finding or a history of contempt findings, that may alone be the basis to modify the parenting plan. Ultimately, that may be your ticket to switch custody if it continues like this.”
Danny: “And I’ll tell you this, there are certain things in the law that sound nice. ‘Parenting Plan’ sounds nice. ‘Contempt’ is not one of those things. When your ex hears the words ‘motion for contempt,’ she’ll cave right away. I would. Whoa, whoa, that’s such a scary word.”