contempt of court

We’ve all seen dramatic moments in movies or television shows in which a judge thunders, “You’re in contempt!” followed by a participant in a court proceeding being removed from the courtroom, presumably to a jail cell to think about their misdeeds. But what does it mean to be held in contempt, especially in the family law context? What actions can lead to being held in contempt? And how is contempt of court punished in family law?

First, the basics: contempt of court is a way to ensure compliance with court procedures or orders. There are various types of contempt: civil vs. criminal, and direct vs. constructive, or indirect. Let’s talk about what those mean.

Civil vs. Criminal Contempt of Court

Civil contempt is a means of compelling a party to do something the court has ordered, usually for the benefit of the other party to the case. A common example involves parenting time. If the court has ordered parents to observe a particular parenting time schedule, and one parent consistently refuses to make the child available for the other parent’s time, the parent who is disobeying the order may be held in civil contempt. The wronged party may file a motion requesting the other party to be held in contempt. Less commonly, the court may hold a party in contempt on its own initiative.

Criminal contempt of court, on the other hand, is an actual criminal charge. As with all criminal charges, individuals charged with criminal contempt have procedural protections, including the right to a trial by jury with testimony from witnesses and the defendant. Criminal contempt is intended to punish a defendant who has taken actions that violate a court’s authority, such as by repeated outbursts during a proceeding.

Both civil and criminal contempt may be direct or constructive. Direct contempt applies when order must be maintained or restored during a court proceeding. In the example of repeated outbursts, someone might be found in direct contempt so that the proceeding can continue without further disruption. The dramatic “contempt of court” scenes we see on TV or in the movies is usually criminal contempt. Indirect (constructive) contempt occurs outside the court’s presence — like the repeated violation of the parenting time order described above.

In practice, most (though not all) findings of contempt in family law are constructive: consequences for a parent failing to make child support payments they can easily afford, or comply with parenting time orders. But just because these findings of contempt may lack drama doesn’t mean they don’t have a big impact on the parties involved.

What Are the Consequences?

There’s an old saying: it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. If a court does not punish litigants for violating its orders, it is essentially forgiving their misconduct. And if parties to a divorce or custody case know they can get away with violating court orders they don’t like, they have little incentive to comply with them.

What are the consequences for contempt of court? In Minnesota family courts, a judge can punish a party to a case for violating a court order without a good reason with jail time and fines. Minnesota Statutes Section 588.02 states that:

“Every court and judicial officer may punish a contempt by fine or imprisonment, or both. In addition, when the contempt involves the willful disobedience of an order of the court requiring the payment of money for the support or maintenance of a minor child, the court may require the payment of the costs and a reasonable attorney's fee, incurred in the prosecution of the contempt, to be paid by the guilty party. When it is a constructive contempt, it must appear that the right or remedy of a party to an action or special proceeding was defeated or prejudiced by it before the contempt can be punished by imprisonment or by a fine exceeding $50.”

Most instances of contempt in family court involve a failure to pay child support or comply with parenting time orders. What the law above means is that not only can a judge order jail time for a party found to be in contempt of court, but he or she can order the party in contempt to pay the other side’s costs and attorney’s fees in pursuing the finding of contempt.

Other measures can be used to enforce a family court order for support, such as wage garnishment, seizure of income tax returns, and suspension of driver and professional licenses. If the violation is for denying or interfering with parenting time, a remedy can range from compensatory parenting time, to paying a bond, to transfer of custody to the other parent.

If your ex-spouse or co-parent is not complying with the court’s orders, you do not have to just sit there and take it, especially if the violation is deliberate and ongoing. Similarly, if your ex is threatening to have you held in contempt of court for violations that were out of your control (like a loss of income due to COVID-19), you need to take action to prevent an unjust punishment. We invite you to contact Mundahl Law to schedule a consultation.