We’ve all seen the dramatic scene on TV. The court room is packed. Both parties are standing at separate tables with their attorneys hovering close by, whispering in their ears. Then the judge bangs down the gavel and exclaims: “You’re in contempt of court! Sheriff! Take that person away!”
It all makes for great TV … but, when it happens in real life – especially if it happens to you – its anything but great. And, unfortunately, it happens in real life all too often.
What is Contempt of Court?
If you have never been involved in a court case before (and, maybe even if you have) you might not really know what being held “in contempt of court” means. You know it sounds bad. You know it’s not something you necessarily want to do. But, just what is “contempt of court?”
In the context of a divorce case, being held in contempt of court generally means that you (or whoever is being held in contempt of court) either did something the judge ordered you not to do, or you didn’t do something the judge ordered you to do. It may also mean that you did something in court that was in appropriate. (For example, swearing at the judge or taking a swing at your ex in open court can both land you in jail for contempt.)
In other words, you can be held in contempt of court when you disrespect the court’s authority.
What if the Court Order Doesn’t Make Sense?
If you are like most people, you consider yourself to be a law abiding citizen. Before you got involved in a divorce, you probably thought you would never violate a court order! The problem is that, now that you are going through a divorce, things have changed.
Suddenly, you have started to realize that sometimes, court orders don’t make sense. (Or rather, some court orders don’t seem to make sense in your case.)
Perhaps the judge ordered you to pay a crazy amount of child support and you can’t afford it. Or maybe the judge entered a parenting order that you think is unfair. Or maybe the judge ordered you to do something else that you don’t want to do or don’t think is right.
That’s when complying with the court’s orders gets tough.
For example, the judge may have ordered you to liquidate some of your assets to pay your spouse’s attorney’s fees. Or perhaps s/he ordered you to put your home on the market for sale, when you want to keep it. Or maybe you think that the judge is biased against you.
The truth is: none of that matters.
A Court Order is an ORDER!
Court orders are not suggestions. They are commands. If a judge enters an order requiring you to pay child support, you need to pay that amount of child support. If a judge orders you to maintain a certain parenting schedule, or to turn over certain documents, you need to do what the judge ordered you to do. Otherwise, you can be held in contempt of court.
Of course, if you think the judge’s order was wrong, you (or your lawyer) may be able to ask the judge to reconsider his or her ruling. But, if the judge refuses to do so, you need to either comply with the court order or face the consequences. Whether you agree with the court order or not is entirely irrelevant.
What Happens When You are Held in Contempt of Court?
What are the consequences for violating a court order?
That depends on a lot of different things. It depends on exactly what you did (or didn’t) do. It also may depend on how badly you violated the court order. (There is a big difference between dropping off the kids 15 minutes late because you were stuck in traffic and dropping them off five hours late on Christmas so your ex’s holiday was ruined.
Another thing that matters is the number of times you violated the court order. (Yes, some people repeatedly ignore court orders.) Being late with the child support check once may be excusable. Being late every week is not.
Finally, what will happen if you are found to be in contempt of court also depends on what your particular judge will put up with. Some judges will cut you a little slack. Others are not so forgiving.
What Are the Penalties for Being in Contempt of Court?
The penalties for violating court orders can range from having the judge reprimand you in court, to going to jail. You may have to pay a fine. Or, you may have to give your spouse extra parenting time to make up for keeping your kids when you weren’t supposed to.
But violating court orders can also have bigger implications than the just being held in contempt of court. Violating a court order regarding scheduling and parenting issues can negatively affect your ability to get custody of your child. It may also affect when and how often you get to see your child.
In addition, violating any court order may result in your having to pay all of the court costs and attorney’s fees your spouse incurred in enforcing the court’s order.
Finally, violating a court order may also affect the judge’s perception of you, and how honest and credible you are. That, in turn, can affect the outcome of your entire case. (If the judge doesn’t believe what you say, you’re not likely to win any motion that depends on the fact that you’re telling the truth.)
How to Avoid Being Held in Contempt of Court
So, what’s the best way to avoid being held in contempt of court? Do what the judge says. It really is that simple.
Another way to avoid being held in contempt of court is to stay out of court in the first place!
Any kind of dispute resolution system that keeps you out of court will limit the likelihood that you will be held in contempt of court. If you and your spouse are mediating your case, or using collaborative divorce, you won’t have a case full of court orders to worry about.
If you are already in the court system, your only real option is to do what the judge orders, whether you agree with the judge or not.
At the end of your case (or sometimes during your case – but that is more rare), you may be able to appeal the judge’s ruling. But unless and until some appellate judge reverses the trial judge’s order, you will have to either follow that order, or risk being held in contempt of court.