If your or your ex violated a provision in your court order (or an agreement that was incorporated into a court order) after attempting to address and resolve the issue with the other side, if the issue has not been resolved, the grieved party can file what the court calls a Petition for Contempt against the other party.
Unlike in other court proceedings where there is an exchange of documents and information prior to the court hearing (discovery process) to allow the parties to either discuss settlement or properly prepare for the hearing, there is no discovery process in a contempt proceeding. The party prosecuting the contempt never gets to see or hear about them until the case is called. For this reason, the cost of preparing a contempt hearing is always unnecessarily high because the person prosecuting the case has to conjure what the defenses might be.
The party who filed the contempt has the burden to prove that the other party willfully violated the court order or agreement. After the Petition for Contempt is filed with the court, a 1-2 hour hearing is scheduled 3 months later. You still have to serve the other side with what is called a Show Cause Order (instead of the Summons) and there is a short window to serve the other side, otherwise you will need to obtain a new Show Cause Order and a new hearing date.
If one or both parties files a Petition to Modify a court order may be consolidated at the discretion of the court and heard along with the Petition for Contempt.
Following the Contempt Hearing, the Judge has few alternatives:
• The Judge can find that the accused was not in Contempt;
• The Judge can find that the accused was in Contempt but does not order any repercussions or,
• The Judge can find that the accused was in Contempt, order sanctions and set provisions that the accused must meet.
The repercussions of being found in contempt may include: fines, an order to stop the violation (behavior), jail, levy of property, jail, or anything else that a court deems appropriate. In cases of failure to provide access, the court can order anything from “make up time” to a modification of residential custody. If you are falsely accused, you may be able to get the opposing party to pay your attorney’s fees. Conversely, if you are found to be in contempt, you could be ordered to pay the other party’s attorneys’ fees. Remember: if you are found to be in contempt, one of the sanctions available to the court is incarceration (jail). Incarceration can only be ordered for non-payment of child support.
In the typical family law case, for a person to be held in contempt, the accusing party must prove to the court that:
1. There was a valid court order; and:
2. The accused party knew of the court order;
3. The accused party violated the court order;
4. The accused party had the ability to comply with the court order;
5. The accused party received proper notice of the contempt hearing; and finally,
6. Contempt is the appropriate remedy for the infraction/situation.
Most often, contempt in domestic or family law cases can arise from:
– Failure (non-payment) to pay child support;
– Failure to pay alimony;
– Failure to pay the marital award;
– Failure to pay court ordered attorney’s fees;
– Failure to pay a doctor’s bill or some other medical services bill;
– Failure to provide medical insurance;
– Failure to sign documents for a QDRO*;
– Failure to sign a car title or other document to transfer title;
– Failure to provide access to a minor child.
Contempt can occur during any phase of a case. A party may use (or be held in) contempt at any time during a divorce or custody case. Contempt may be an appropriate remedy at any time after a court issues an order, whether that order is temporary or final. In situations involving domestic violence (whether that order is an Interim Domestic Violence Protective Order; Temporary Domestic Violence Protective Order; or a Final Domestic Violence Protective Order), contempt will frequently be deemed criminal and the offending party faces a serious risk of being incarcerated.
The Rules for civil contempt can be located at Maryland Rule 15-206. Maryland Rules 15-203 and 15-205 deal with direct and criminal contempt.
*A “qualified domestic relation order” (QDRO) that creates or recognizes the existence of an alternate payee’s right to receive, or assigns to an alternate payee the right to receive, all or a portion of the benefits payable with respect to a participant under a retirement plan, and that includes certain information and meets certain other requirements.