Divorce can be a contentious experience. The two parties may be angry, bitter, or defiant to each other. And sometimes, the emotions spill over. One or both parties may find themselves directing their anger or resentment at the judge. This creates the risk of being found in contempt of the court. This is a very serious charge that can result in a criminal record. It also can jeopardize your divorce case. So today’s blog will discuss contempt of court consequences and why you need to be aware of them before you get to court.
What is Contempt of Court?
The term “contempt of court” is very common, and more than likely, you have heard it many times. However, the term is rarely is discussed in the law. The Texas Government Code mentions contempt only briefly in Section 21.002. The Code states that a court may “punish for contempt” and defines the penalties.
So it has been left to the judges to determine what contempt is. According to the state’s District and County Attorneys Association (TDCAA), the Texas Supreme Court defines contempt as disobedience to or disrespect of a court by acting in opposition to its authority. The TDCAA explains that contempt can be broken into two specific areas:
- An act that is disrespectful to the court;
- An act that obstructs or tends to obstruct the proper administration of justice.
Of course, even these definitions are a little vague. So let’s explore the topic in a little more detail, and perhaps save you some trouble if you find yourself part of the proceedings in a family law court.
Contempt of Court Can Take Different Forms
A judge may determine that contempt is either direct or indirect.
Direct contempt is behavior a person commits in the presence of the court. This can be as simple as failing to stand when the judge enters the courtroom. Any act that is directly disrespectful to the judge or the court can be considered contempt, and grounds for punishment.
Indirect contempt is more commonly known as “constructive contempt.” Constructive contempt occurs when someone violates a court order. For example, one of the parties may refuse to make child support payments or follow the requirements for child custody and visitation.
As you might guess, in a family law court, indirect contempt is more common. Indirect contempt also is more likely to occur after the divorce is concluded. But in all cases, a court order should be taken seriously—even if it is “just a divorce.” And as we will see, contempt of court consequences include jail time.
What is The Difference Between Criminal and Civil Contempt?
The TCDAA says that judges consider civil contempt “remedial and coercive in nature.” In plain language, this means simply wants the person to comply with a court order. For example, the judge may want you to catch up on your child support payments, or respect the visitation policy.
The person must meet or agree to meet the conditions of the order; after that, he or she is no longer held in contempt.
In this sense, the person can bring an end to the contempt of court consequences at any time he or she chooses. The person just needs to follow the orders of the court. Read our blog, Can a Parent Get Out of Paying Child Support?
Criminal Contempt of Court Consequences are More Serious
On the other hand, criminal contempt is intended to punish the offender. The TCDAA explains that the primary purpose of a criminal contempt proceeding is to ”vindicate the public authority.” For example, someone who lied in a deposition could be found in criminal contempt.
The difference between civil and criminal contempt is important. That’s because if someone is found in contempt criminally, the consequences are fixed. So if the judge has ordered you to do jail time or pay a fine, the punishment is set. You won’t be able to escape the consequences by agreeing to have better behavior going forward.
What are the Punishments for Contempt of Court?
The Texas Government Code Section 21.002 states, “The punishment for contempt of a court other than a justice court or municipal court is a fine of not more than $500 or confinement in the county jail for not more than six months, or both such a fine and confinement in jail.
If the contempt occurs in a justice court or municipal court, the fine is “not more than $100 or confinement in the county or city jail for not more than three days, or both such a fine and confinement in jail.”
The key thing to know in regard to divorce: Contempt of court consequences are NOT determined by whether the case is civil or criminal. Family law courts consider divorce proceedings a civil matter. Even so, the court CAN hold you in criminal contempt. In fact, the TDCAA notes it is possible for the court to hold someone in contempt both criminally and civilly. The judge does this to make you comply and to punish you.
How Do Contempt of Court Consequences Apply to Divorce Proceedings?
Here is some good news: Contempt of court consequences typically come into play only as a last resort. Before and after the divorce, the judge will issue orders and decrees; The court also may issue judgments during the divorce process.
In all cases, it is very important that you comply with these instructions to the best of your ability. As the TCDAA explains, “Courts have been known to take it personally when a parent disregards their orders.”
If you are having trouble fulfilling the court orders, you should notify the court right away. Note that the court is not likely to just order jail time for you. The judge must first determine they you violated an order intentionally and without having a legitimate reason. This is a situation where it can be particularly helpful to hire an attorney. Read our recent blog, Child Support Lawyers for Fathers.
Is Your Spouse or Ex Violating a Court Order?
Just as the courts cannot just slap a fine on you, you have to proceed carefully in dealing with your divorce.
In order for your spouse or ex to be held in contempt, you and your attorney will need to produce evidence that the person has violated a court order. You’ll also need to prove that he or she made the violation knowingly and intentionally. In addition, the judge usually reserves contempt of court consequences only for significant violations.
How the Ruling Can Impact Your Divorce
If an attorney and client can provide evidence that the other party has intentionally and knowingly disregarded a court decree, then they can make a motion for the party to be found in contempt. The attorney also may file a motion to modify the existing court order.
For example, if one party has consistently violated the terms regarding child custody, the judge may rule to modify those terms. Read our recent blog on How to File for Child Custody.
Keep in mind, the contempt ruling is usually a civil offense. Thus, the court’s initial actions are likely to focus on getting the person to comply with the rulings. The court may simply issue a warning, or restrict visitation time.
The key thing to remember: In regards to your divorce, contempt of court consequences can be very serious. The judge may issue a divorce decree that is much less favorable to you. And if the judge finds you are found in contempt after the divorce is concluded, he or she may modify the court orders in a way that is very unfavorable to you.
We Can Help You Avoid Contempt of Court Consequences AND Defend Your Rights
The attorneys of the Maynard Law Firm, PLLC, are experienced, skilled, and compassionate. We can advise you on the best course for all your family law issues. With two offices in Tarrant County, our law firm has years of experience handling divorces, as well as cases involving custody, child support, and court order modifications. We also offer a no-cost initial consultation. Don’t let the stress and complexity of divorce overwhelm you – contact us today at 817-335-9600.