The hardest part of getting relief will likely be getting an order for child support, child custody, alimony, or protection. What happens if your spouse or ex-spouse does not obey the order? In these instances, a party that is failing to obey a court order can be forced to follow them by being “held in contempt” by a court. The type of contempt for disobeying court orders is indirect. These indirect contempt proceedings are what is discussed below in the context of family law orders.
1. Valid Order Exists
Making sure a valid order exists may better be viewed as a prerequisite for the contempt process. The court order may be a decree of divorce at the end of a trial or from a settlement, or it may be a temporary order issued during divorce proceedings. Examples of common orders include child support, child custody, alimony, and restrictions on how close a spouse may come to the other. If a court order is not issued properly, the court cannot validly enforce it. An example of an improperly issued court order would be a divorce decree issued in Kansas without either spouse residing in Kansas. Once it has been established that a valid order exists, the next step of the contempt process is disobedience by the other spouse.
2. Failure to Obey Order
The next step in the contempt process requires the other spouse to disobey the court’s order. The most common example of failing to follow orders is failing to pay either child support or alimony. However, not following any court order is grounds for contempt of court. The spouse seeking to have a court order enforced should have personal or otherwise reliable knowledge that the court order is not being obeyed by the other spouse. Typically, this will be a simple assessment because most court orders relating to a divorce directly involve the other spouse.
4. Informing the Court
Once it has been discovered that a spouse is in violation of a court order, the next step is to inform the court. Informing the court is done in an ex parte hearing with the judge. An ex parte hearing means that the opposing side is not present and only the complaining spouse and his or her attorney are present. The hearing serves two purposes. The first purpose is to allow the judge to eliminate any complaints that are unsupported, such as when a party misunderstands what a court order requires. This is where obtaining legal counsel would help to reduce the risk of this type of error. The second purpose is to prevent spouses from using contempt proceedings as a means to harass one another. The judge uses the ex parte hearing to ensure there is merit to the complaint. After hearing the complaint from the spouse, the judge will make a decision. Generally, if there are sufficient allegations of failure to obey, a full hearing will be set so both parties can be present. If there are not sufficient allegations of failure to obey or the behavior does not actually constitute disobedience, the process will end with the ex parte hearing and the other spouse will not be held in contempt.
After determining that a prima facie (on it’s face) case for contempt exists, the court will hold a hearing that both parties must attend. At the full hearing, the party the brought the complaint will put on evidence to show that the other spouse or ex-spouse violated the court order. The amount of evidence needed at this hearing will likely be greater than that presented at the ex parte hearing in order to succeed. This is because the other spouse will be present at the full hearing to dispute the evidence’s validity and present evidence of his or her own, showing compliance with the court order. After hearing all the evidence from both parties, the judge will decide if the spouse should be held in contempt. Although contempt proceedings can closely resemble criminal proceedings, there is no right to a jury for a contempt of court hearing. Therefore, the judge is also responsible for deciding who is telling the truth and what punishment is necessary.
If the court finds the spouse to be in contempt, there will be a corresponding punishment for that spouse. The punishment will vary depending on the nature of the violation. For example, failure to pay child support will generally result in the spouse being jailed until the amount is paid. Fines and imprisonment are the two main forms of punishments the courts use in contempt cases. Section 20-1204a includes two additional punishments when the court order violated is for child support. The first punishment is for any professional license the party in contempt holds, such as a medical license or law license. The court can make a formal notice to the licensing body regarding the order of contempt, and this generally results in professional reprimands, such as a suspension or disciplinary action. The second punishment is for a party that falls six months or more behind in child support. In that case, the court may order that person’s driver’s license suspended until the amount is paid. Both of the statutory punishments under § 20-1204a are discretionary punishments, meaning the judge can issue these punishments, but the judge is not required to do so.
Enforcing court orders is essential for family law matters. When parties disobey the court freely, divorce proceedings and divorce decree fail to live up to their promise to the parties. If your spouse or ex-spouse is not following a court order, it is very important that you contact legal counsel. This will ensure that the order is fully enforced as soon as possible.
If you need the help of an experienced divorce and family law attorney in Johnson County, Kansas, feel free to contact the experienced attorneys at Roth Davies.