Contempt of Court
The only thing more stressful than a divorce is having to go back to court, to enforce the divorce order that your judge already handed down. (As if the first time wasn’t enough, right?)
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what some people have to do.
Whether you like them or not, the terms of your divorce are not optional. California courts will expect you to obey them, and failure to do so can result in some fairly significant financial and/or legal consequences—including a charge for contempt of court.
Here’s what you need to know about contempt of court in California, and what the Maples team can do to help you navigate these serious claims.
Contempt of Court: 101
Contempt of court occurs when someone willfully or intentionally refuses to comply with a court order. This is a criminal charge (meaning that it isn’t handled by civil courts) which can result in steep fines, and—yes—even jail time.
Before you run out and immediately call foul on your ex for screwing something up, though, take a step back and consider whether this hefty charge is really necessary.
In our experience, most non-compliance comes down to a simple misunderstanding—maybe the order was vague, or a certain requirement got overlooked. These errors can usually be figured out without going to court, and certainly without needing to charge someone with contempt.
For contempt to be appropriate in divorce, the level of defiance has to be fairly significant, and/or the subject matter quite serious. (Meaning that a dispute over pet custody or grandma’s heirloom silver likely won’t cut it.)
Examples of situations where contempt might be appropriate include:
- The violation of a protective order.
- Failure to pay child support.
- Failure to pay spousal support.
- Interfering with court ordered visitation.
- Failure to comply with a child custody order.
- Failure to pay attorney’s fees.
- Contempt for failure to seek employment.
- Not paying court ordered debt.
If one of these scenarios sounds familiar to you, then you may be able to file for contempt, so long as you meet the elements.
Elements of Contempt of Court
A charge of contempt commences when someone files an “Affidavit for Contempt.” However, you won’t get very far in this process unless you also have all of the right elements.
In California, these elements require you to provide proof that:
- There was a valid court order in place. In addition, the terms must be clear; California courts are unlikely to punish someone over a vague or poorly worded order.
- The accused knew about the court order. A quick text won’t cut it here; instead, the accused must have received notice via proper service.
- The accused willfully violated the court order. This element can be a bit tricky, but usually requires some sort of purposeful refusal to comply—meaning an accidental oversight or misunderstanding won’t be enough. Here, the accused knew about the obligation, and still refused to comply.
A claim of contempt that can’t check all these boxes is unlikely to be successful in California court.
Rights of the Accused
To protect the rights of the accused, California legislatures have outlined certain due process rights for those who have been charged with contempt.
In layman’s terms, “due process” is basically just fancy legal jargon that refers to a system of rules and rights that protect people who have been charged with a crime. Due process ensures that whatever legal process follows is done correctly, and that someone isn’t unfairly charged or convicted.
Those who are charged with contempt of court in California, also enjoy these due process protections. Some of which include:
- The right to be notified of the charges against you. This notice must have been done via proper service; a text or casual email won’t cut it.
- The right to have representation. Every person has the right to an attorney. If an accused can’t afford one, then the state is obligated to provide one for you.
- The right to a hearing. California residents have the right to be present when charges are brought against them. At this time, they have the right to present their defense, and to cross examine any witnesses brought against them.
- The right to a jury trial. Since contempt is a criminal charge, in some situations, an accused may even have the right to a trial by jury (although, the law is a little vague on exactly when this would be appropriate).
- The right to have the charges dismissed, IF their accuser can’t meet their burden of proof.
Consequences of Contempt of Court
If a California judge upholds a charge of contempt, then the penalties will vary, depending on what terms of the divorce order were violated. However, some of these punishments might include:
- A $1,000 fine;
- Mandatory community service;
- The seizure of assets;
- Suspension of licenses;
- Liens on property; and even,
- Five days of jail time for each instance of contempt.
These are just some of the potential consequences for first time offenses. In California, the punishments for contempt of court will increase in severity, if convicted again. And even more for third time convictions, so it’s not something you want to mess around with.
At the end of the day, however, the ultimate goal of contempt is to pressure another party into complying with a valid court order, and you don’t always have to use contempt to do that.
To find out more about enforcing divorce orders in California, speak to your family law attorney today about your options.
Do You Have More Questions About Contempt of Court in California?
While contempt of court is a less commonly used method of enforcement, it’s still a possibility—especially in cases of extreme and repeated instances of noncompliance. And whether you need help fighting this charge, or pursuing it, you’ll need an experienced family law attorney on your side.
If you have more questions about contempt of court in California, and how it will work in your situation, we want to hear from you. Call Maples Family Law today at (209) 989-4425, or get in touch online, and let us help you navigate this important issue.