Civil Contempt in a Pennsylvania Divorce and Family Law Cases

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If an order is issued by a judge in your family law matter, failure to comply can come with serious ramifications. Disobeying a court order in a matrimonial, child custody, or child support case can result in being held in civil contempt — and a number of sanctions can be imposed. Critically, contempt of court is a powerful tool that divorce and family law judges can utilize to help ensure organized proceedings and enforce court orders.

What is Civil Contempt in Divorce and Family Law?

In family law and divorce matters, violating a court order can significantly impact both parties and their children. Civil contempt is a sanction courts impose to compel a party to obey a court order. Accordingly, civil contempt can be used in various instances — such as those in which a parent disregards time-share provisions in a custody order or fails to make child support payments.

Other common violations that often arise in family law and divorce cases resulting in contempt include the following:

  • Preventing visitation — If interference with the non-custodial parent’s visitation rights is an ongoing problem, a court might find that the custodial parent should be held in contempt of court.
  • Interfering with parent-child communication — A parent may be held in contempt for violating a custody order if they engage in conduct that can harm the parent-child relationship, such as blocking phone calls, intercepting emails, or disallowing communication.
  • Denying visitation for non-payment of child support — While a parent who refuses to pay child support can be held in contempt of court, this does not mean they do not have the right to see their children. Visitation and child support are two separate matters, and a parent can be found in contempt of a custody order if they deny the non-custodial parent visitation for this reason.
  • Disregarding a court-ordered asset distribution — A party who refuses to abide by a court order concerning asset distribution in a divorce matter can be held in contempt.
  • Failure to make alimony payments — In the event the party ordered to pay alimony fails to do so, contempt of court proceedings may be commenced.

Importantly, civil contempt must not be confused with criminal contempt. While criminal contempt refers to the offense of being disobedient toward the court or a judge, civil contempt is the mechanism that is meant to compel compliance with a court order.

How to Bring Contempt Charges in Pennsylvania Family Law Matters

If the other party in your case has willfully violated a court order, you may be entitled to pursue contempt charges. To do so, you must first file a Petition for Contempt with the court stating how the respondent failed to obey the order issued by the judge. You are also required to serve the petition on the other party and file proof of service with the court explaining how service was made.

At the contempt hearing, the judge will listen to the testimony of both parties and evaluate any evidence to determine whether contempt has occurred. If the judge decides there is sufficient proof of contempt, they will issue another order specifying how the issue must be resolved. A party who is found to be in contempt in a child support case can be forced to find employment, make a lump sum payment, or they can be imprisoned.

A contempt hearing is not meant to be used as a modification hearing to change a custody order. However, a judge can order that missed parenting time and visitation be made up during the proceeding.

Penalties for Contempt in Child Support and Child Custody Cases

The penalties for disobeying a court order can depend upon the type of order that was violated. In custody cases, sanctions can include transfer of custody to the noncustodial parent if the custodial parent continuously violates a custody order. A person who is found to be in contempt of court for failure to obey an order can also face substantial monetary fines, jail time, and driver’s license suspension. They may also be responsible for paying the prevailing party’s attorney’s fees and court costs.

For child support matters, a party who disobeys an order might not only be held in contempt, but they might also be subject to an enforcement actions including wage attachments, imprisonment, passport revocation, interception of income tax refunds, seizure of bank accounts, loss of driving or hunting licenses, liens against real estate and negative credit reports.

Contact an Experienced Pennsylvania Divorce and Family Law Attorney

If the court issued an order in your divorce or family law matter that the other party refuses to follow, you may be able to commence a civil contempt proceeding. At Berman & Associates, we are committed to offering compassionate counsel and relentless representation for a wide variety of family law matters, including those involving contempt matters. Contact us today to schedule a consultation at our Media, PA office.