CONTEMPT: CIVIL AND CRIMINAL, WHAT ARE THEY?
Contempt may be expressed in a civil or criminal context within the Family Court. Seek advice from your Divorce, Custody, or Family Attorney on how this applies to your facts and situation.
Typically, a judgment of civil contempt and the penalties that goes along with it are intended to incentivize one side to follow the order. It is crucial that the court assess that the order was explicit and that the party that refused to comply had the opportunity to do so but purposefully chose not to do so before finding them in civil contempt.
Think about the story of John and Melissa, for instance. Let’s say the court directs John to provide $400 in child support each month. John owes $2,400.00 in past due child support after six months and has made no payments at all. The court must first review the order to ensure that it was sufficiently explicit for John to understand what was required of him before finding him in civil contempt (how much he had to pay, when payments were due, where payments were to be sent, etc.).
If the directive is explicit, the court must then consider whether John was able to follow the directive but just declined to do so. It is conceivable that John will be held in contempt if he had a purposeful attitude toward Sandy, sending her messages such, “I’ll never pay you a dime, regardless of what that court says.” But imagine John developed a major illness and lost his job after the child support order was filed. He just got better, found a new work, but hasn’t received payment yet. Given that his disobedience was not the result of his simple refusal, John might not be held in contempt in this situation.
The adoption of a “purge” provision is a crucial component of a civil contempt judgment. The cleanse clause, which is a component of the civil contempt finding, explains how the party found in contempt may end the contempt and prevent further sanctions. Consider once more that Brian is sentenced to jail time for being found in civil contempt of court for failing to pay child support. In accordance with the court’s ruling, Brian must pay all past-due child support obligations in order to be declared in compliance. John will then be allowed to leave jail after expelling the contempt. However, John can still be kept in custody as long as he consciously refuses to pay the overdue child support (and has the means to do so).
Depending on the circumstances, criminal contempt may be either “direct” or “indirect.” This is an important distinction as the path to have a party held in criminal contempt is slightly different.
A party commits “direct” criminal contempt when they disobey a court order while the court is present. Again using Brian and Sandy as an example, imagine that the court issued an order prohibiting Brian from bringing up Sandy’s number or kind of relationships before to their marriage because it determined that such material would not be relevant to the dispute over child custody. The court may hold Brian in direct criminal contempt if he continues to discuss Sandy’s prior relationships. The court may also hold Brian in direct criminal contempt if he regularly participates in disruptive behavior (such as continuously interrupting witnesses or raising his voice). This is the case even if the court had previously ordered Brian to halt his disruptive behavior.
When a party disobeys a court order away from the court, it is indirect criminal contempt. Let’s say that despite the court’s warning, Brian still gets in touch with Sandy. He may be held accountable for criminal indirect contempt. Or imagine Brian tries to bribe Sandy’s lawyer or a witness in the days leading up to trial in an effort to strengthen his legal case. A judge can find Brian in indirect criminal contempt of court as a result of this conduct as well.
CIVIL vs. CRIMINAL CONTEMPT – A SUMMARY
Contempt is a crime that carries fines, jail time, and further penalties. This is accurate despite the fact that the two forms of disdain serve distinct purposes: Criminal contempt is intended to penalize a party for disobeying an order, as opposed to civil contempt, which aims to compel or encourage the party in contempt to obey the court’s directives.
Additionally, sworn testimony in court is used to demonstrate both criminal and civil contempt. That is, it is insufficient for one party to merely assert in writing that another party has disobeyed a court order. Alternatively, the testimony must be sworn to in court, where the judge can also examine any proof of the contempt.
But there are some significant distinctions between criminal and civil contempt. Unlike civil contempt, a criminal contempt ruling by a court does not include a “purge” clause. Instead, the court imposes a fine, sentence to jail, or other discipline as retribution for the contempt. If John had been found in criminal contempt of court for his disruptive behavior, he would not be able to escape the court’s punishment or sentence, unlike in the case of civil contempt, which he could have been able to overcome by paying all past due child support payments.
Who brings contempt cases is another significant distinction. The court or a criminal prosecutor may begin criminal contempt proceedings, and the judge may pursue the matter with or without the aid of a prosecutor. However, civil contempt actions are only initiated by the party that has suffered because the other party disobeyed the court’s order. The aggrieved party must additionally provide proof that the aggressor should be placed in civil contempt. Findings of indirect criminal contempt may be made as a result of Brian’s failure to pay child support. Brian won’t be held in civil contempt of court, though, unless Sandy’s attorney starts legal action.
Finally, before a party is convicted in contempt of court in indirect criminal contempt proceedings, a “show cause” hearing must be convened. The “show cause” hearing’s goal is to provide the person who is the target of the contempt proceedings the chance to convince the judge that they shouldn’t be held in contempt and penalized. Imagine Brian is charged with indirect criminal contempt for disregarding the court’s instructions and speaking to Sandy directly. The court sets up a “show cause” hearing before determining whether he is in indirect criminal contempt. Sandy testifies before the court at this hearing about Brian calling her on the phone despite the court’s injunction. But Brian also has the chance to interrogate Sandy, maybe revealing that Sandy was the one who asked Brian to get in touch with her to talk about the kids. Additionally, Brian has the chance to speak for himself or offer proof that an urgent situation or other unusual event warranted his contacting Sandy. This might persuade the judge that Brian shouldn’t be punished for criminal contempt.
Limitations on Court’s Powers to Punish Contempt
At least one situation prevents the court from using its contempt powers. The court is not allowed to jail the noncompliant ex-spouse for disobeying these court instructions if the order that has been disregarded is one for a property settlement award or an equitable distribution award. Awards for equitable distribution might take many different shapes. To ensure a “fair division” of the marital assets, a court may compel one party to pay another a certain sum of money. Or a judge might mandate that one partner pay a marital debt. For instance, the court cannot exercise its contempt powers when the party ordered to comply with one of these orders does not do so.
This is due to the Florida Constitution, which forbids courts from sending someone to prison for failing to pay a “debt.” Since equitable distribution awards are sometimes referred to as “debts,” the courts are unable to put non-compliant ex-spouses in jail in these situations. Unlike alimony and child support awards, which are seen as types of support and may thus be enforced using the court’s contempt powers, this is the opposite.
What should a party do if the other party’s ex-spouse won’t pay the equitable distribution award? Unfortunately, in this case, the party anticipating payment is put in a situation where they must act similarly to a creditor pursuing noncompliant ex-spouses for payment of a debt. This merely implies that the court cannot force the noncompliant ex-spouse to go to jail as a measure of enforcing compliance. It does not indicate that there are no ways to collect the money.
But keep in mind that civil contempt is an option if an equitable distribution award is more of an act than a monetary order. Therefore, if a party disobeys a court order to sign a sales contract, identify the ex-spouse as a beneficiary on an insurance policy, or execute and submit documents, that party might be placed in civil contempt.
Florida Divorce: Upholding Your Rights
Regardless of the initial circumstances of your divorce, attitudes and sentiments can change. When they do, what began as a friendly breakup between two responsible adults can rapidly turn into a nightmare. While the divorce process was going on, your ex-spouse may have been quite amicable and nice, but now that the court has ordered him or her to pay support or the property was not divided in the way he or she desired, he or she has turned into a challenge.
It’s critical to comprehend your legal options if your ex-spouse defies a court order. You might be able to ask the court to declare your ex-spouse in contempt under certain circumstances. If your spouse continues to disobey the court’s orders, the court may use its civil contempt powers to penalize, punish, or imprison him or her. Additionally, if the noncompliant ex-spouse refuses to adhere to court orders or otherwise interferes with court procedures, the court may place him or her in criminal contempt.
However, a civil contempt finding is not always made. It is crucial to seek the counsel of a knowledgeable Rhoden Law Group family law attorney who understands how to appropriately raise the matter in court when you feel your ex-spouse has failed to pay alimony or child support as directed by the court. Before a court may find someone in contempt, certain procedural requirements must be met, and evidence must be provided in a certain fashion before the court can consider it while deciding whether to utilize its contempt powers. In order to receive the support you are entitled to and to force the disobedient spouse to comply with the court’s orders, you can utilize the contempt powers of the court with the assistance of experienced, knowledgeable counsel. Rhoden Law Group can advise you on matters of contempt and represent you should you want to bring contempt charges or if you need to defend against them. Call the office or email using the contact form on this site. The office line also accepts text messages 24/7. 321-549-3162