What To Do When A Family Court Order (Child Support, Visitation, Debt Responsibility, etc.) is Ignored?

Clients often ask me what they can do when an ex-spouse or former domestic partner violates or ignores a Family Court order regarding child support, visitation rights, restraining orders, etc. If such a violation occurs, they ask, shouldn’t the offending party be subject to a contempt of court action?

In California, most contempt of court actions relating to Family Court orders are considered criminal proceedings. When such an action is brought in Family Court, the person charged with contempt has the same rights as anyone facing criminal prosecution. This includes the right to an attorney, the right to a formal reading of the charges against them, and the right to testify and cross-examine witnesses. As for prosecuting such an action, there is generally higher burden of proof involved where the accused can be found guilty only if the admissible evidence provides their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

If found guilty, the Defendant faces possible jail time, community service, and/or having to pay a substantial fine.

There are exceptions to what can be brought as a contempt action. For example, when the court orders one party to pay a debt obligation to a third party (such as a credit card company), a former spouse/partner cannot seek contempt for failure to pay. California, like most states, do not allow criminal charges for failure to pay consumer debts.

With all of the above in mind, many people who believe they have been wronged as a result of their ex-spouse/partner’s violation(s) of court order(s) think it’s a no-brainer to file contempt charges and throw the “dead-beat” in jail, especially if the other side fails to pay court-ordered support.  However, I offer a word of caution: often incarceration leads to additional, future issues.  A person responsible for paying support may have trouble paying support when he/she is not working due to being in jail and the conviction/jail sentence may cause that person to lose his/her job permanently.

If you still desire to pursue contempt charges against a spouse or partner, you will need to make sure your pleadings specifically set out your claims.  Here are a couple of tips:

Burden of Proof. To establish contempt of a Family Court order, you have to show (1) you have a valid court order, (2) the other party has actual knowledge of that court order, and (3) the other party willfully violated that court order.

A valid court order 

Contempt can only be brought when there is a violation of a valid court order.  Any agreement between parties that’s hasn’t been accepted by the Court as its order is not enforceable by contempt. If you assert to the Court that the other party “promised” by email or text to make pay you child support or allow visitation with your child but no court order has been issued, your contempt action will likely be turned away.

Knowledge of the court order 

The person you wish to have charged with contempt must be shown to have knowledge of the existing Family Court order. This requirement is usually met if the Court entered orders after a hearing attended by both parties.  However, if you proceeded with obtaining orders by default—i.e., a situation where the other party didn’t participate in the original court proceeding where the support obligation was ordered —you must prove that person actually received (and has knowledge of) the court order.

Willful violation of the court order 

The person being charged with contempt must be shown to willingly defy the Family Court order. In a situation where that person is in jail or otherwise incapacitated (and therefore unable to earn money to make payments), a contempt action probably won’t result in the desired outcome.

Be Specific. In my experience, many contempt actions get tossed out of court because the description of the violation is too vague or ambiguous.

For example, charging someone with contempt because he “always fails to make regular monthly child support payments” generally won’t hold up as a valid count of contempt. However, being specific—“In January 2015, my ex-husband was supposed to pay $1,000 in child support and he didn’t make the payment”—is a much better charge.

In general, always be prepared to provide your attorney with specific details about your matter.

Contempt of Family Court order actions do have their place in enforcement of orders, but usually are a last-ditch effort.  Fortunately, there are other means by which to enforce a court order to pay child support, to ensure a parenting plan is adhered to by the other party, and to try to make sure each party takes responsibilities for their respective obligations under court orders. If you are banging your head against the wall because the other side refuses to cooperate with court orders, seek the advice of an experienced attorney to explore your options and take the appropriate steps to get the relief you desire.

Are you in need of legal counseling or have any questions about the above topic? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer a free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law/divorce, bankruptcy, and estate planning to criminal/DUI matters and landlord/tenant disputes.