We’ve all seen the dramatic scene on TV. The court room is packed. Both parties are standing at separate tables. Their attorneys are 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!”
Scenes like that make for great TV. But, when they happen in real life – especially when they happen to you – you definitely don’t feel so great.
Unfortunately, being held in contempt of court happens in real life all too often.
What is Contempt of Court?
If you’ve 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 have happen to you. But, just what is “contempt of court?”
In the context of a divorce case, being held in contempt of court generally means that one of three things happened:
- You (or whoever is being held in contempt of court) did something the judge ordered you NOT to do;
- You (or whoever is being held in contempt of court) DIDN’T DO something the judge ordered you TO DO; or
- You (or whoever is being held in contempt of court) did something in court that was wildly inappropriate. (For example, swearing at the judge or taking a swing at your ex in open court can both get you held in contempt.)
All of those activities have one thing in common. They show blatant disrespect for the court’s authority. Ultimately it’s disrespect for the court which will cause you to be held in contempt.
(NOTE: Since not doing crazy things in court is fairly self-explanatory, this article will concentrate on the first two reasons people get held in contempt.)
What if the Court Order Doesn’t Make Sense?
If you’re like most people, the thought of purposely violating a court order probably never entered your mind. You also probably assumed that all court orders “made sense” or “were right.”
Now that you’re going through a divorce though, you may start to see things differently.
Suddenly you may find yourself questioning whether some of the court orders that the judge entered in your case actually are right! Some of them may seem incredibly picky and punitive. Other court orders might not even make sense! (... to you!)
For example, maybe 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 sell 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 the judge ordered you to produce documents that you can’t find or that you don’t believe exist.
When any of those things happens, and the judge enters an order that you think is wrong or unfair, you may start thinking that the judge is biased against you.
Here’s the truth. None of that matters.
A Court Order is an ORDER!
Court orders are not suggestions. They are commands.
If you’re in court and the judge commands you to do something, you MUST do it. The only exception is if doing whatever the judge ordered is absolutely impossible.
So, if a judge orders you to pay child support in a certain amount, 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. In certain very limited situations, you may be able to appeal a judge’s order.
But, as long as the order stands in your case, you either need to comply with it 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?
Like with so many other things involved in divorce, the answer is: It depends!
First, it depends on exactly what you did (or didn’t) do. It also depends on whether what you did was intentional or not.
For example, there’s a big difference between dropping off the kids 15 minutes late because you were stuck in traffic and dropping them off five hours late the day they’re supposed to go on vacation with your ex so they miss their flight!
Another thing that matters is the number of times you violated a certain court order. For example, being late with the child support check once may be excusable. Being late every week is not.
Another thing that matters is whether you have a pattern of violating court orders in general. For example, maybe you don’t repeatedly violate the same court order, but you consistently ignore many court orders. That kind of behavior will also get you held in contempt of court.
The final thing that makes a HUGE difference in whether you’re held in contempt of court or not is the judge who is presiding in your case. Some judges will cut you some 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 putting you in 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 do so.
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 argument that requires the judge to believe that you’re telling the truth.)
If Following Court Orders is So Important Why Won’t the Judge Hold My Spouse in Contempt When S/He Doesn’t Do What S/he is Supposed to Do?
By this point you probably understand just how important it is to follow court orders. What may not be so clear, though, is why when your SPOUSE doesn’t follow court orders, nothing seems to happen.
Again, the answer is: it depends.
First of all, contempt findings don’t happen by themselves. In order to get your spouse held in contempt of court, your lawyer has to file a petition asking the court to hold your spouse in contempt. Filing that motion takes time and costs money. Getting that motion heard in court takes more time and costs more money.
Sometimes it would cost so much money to get your spouse held in contempt of court that doing that doesn’t make economic sense. So your lawyer doesn’t do it.
Even if your lawyer does ask the judge to hold your spouse in contempt of court, the judge him/herself may not think that your spouse’s violation was serious enough to justify a finding of contempt. Or the judge may think that whatever happened was an accident or was something your spouse couldn’t control or just couldn't do.
Or the judge may just feel like cutting your spouse a break that day!
All of those things and more might be the reason your spouse ISN’T held in contempt of court. When that happens, you probably feel like the court is being unfair.
Why do YOU have to follow the rules when your SPOUSE doesn’t?
That's a great question. Since the answer depends on the facts of your case, it's a question only your lawyer can answer.
But what’s most important to remember is that, even if your spouse DIDN’T follow the rules, that doesn’t give you an excuse to ignore the rules too. (Sorry!) Remember: court orders are ORDERS!
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.
(Yes. It really is that simple!)
Of course, another way to avoid being held in contempt of court is to stay out of court in the first place! That’s because the only one who can hold you in contempt of court is a judge.
So, if you and your spouse are mediating your divorce and neither one of you has filed in court yet, you can’t be held in contempt of court. The same thing is true if you’re pursuing a Collaborative Divorce.
(Be careful though! Once your divorce case has been filed in court, you CAN be held in contempt even if you you’re going through mediation at the same time too!)
The bottom line is that once your case is in the court system, you MUST follow the court’s rules. You MUST obey court orders - whether you agree with them or not.
That’s really the only way to be sure you’ll avoid being held in contempt of court.
This article was originally posted in March, 2014 and updated on October 13, 2021.