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Contempt of Court in a Divorce Case

Monday, May 7, 2018

Florida Statute 38.23 broadly defines contempt as follows: "A refusal to obey any legal order, mandate or decree, made or given by any judge relative to any of the business of the court, after due notice thereof, is a contempt, punishable accordingly."

The wording of this statute is important. Failure to obey a legal order in Florida is not the same thing as refusing to obey a legal order in Coral Springs. To be in contempt of court means to willfully and deliberately refuse to do something that a judge has ordered in a Divorce case.

What's the difference?

To illustrate the difference between failure to obey a legal order and contempt of a legal order in a family law case, we will compare the situations of two parents seeking a divorce. Parent A has been ordered to pay a certain amount of child support each month. Parent A complies with the child support order initially, but later falls behind in payment support after losing employment. Parent A continues to pay as much child support as possible and promptly seeks legal representation to rectify the matter. In this scenario, Parent A has failed to fully obey a legal order, in this instance, the order to pay child support. However, the failure is not willful or deliberate in the eyes of the court.

In an alternative scenario, Parent B has also been ordered to pay a certain amount of child support. Parent B refuses to pay the ordered amount, having unilaterally determined that the amount is excessive. Parent B has the ability to pay the ordered amount of child support but simply refuses to pay. To circumvent the court's order to pay child support, Parent B has hidden assets, become purposefully under-employed and now works under the table. In this scenario, Parent B has willfully and deliberately disregarded a court order.

How does it play out in court?

We will now consider how these two scenarios would likely be addressed in Florida family law court. Parent A and Parent B both have Motions for Contempt pending against them.

  • Parent A's hearing is first. Evidence is introduced at the hearing which shows that Parent A was ordered to pay a certain amount of child support and failed to pay. Parent A's family lawyer introduces evidence showing that Parent A lost employment without fault and has been diligently searching for work. Evidence is also presented showing that Parent A does not has the ability to pay the court-ordered amount. The Court finds that Parent A is not in contempt.
  • Parent B's hearing is next. The Court verifies that Parent B was ordered to pay child support and failed to pay the required amount. The former spouse of Parent B presents credible evidence showing that Parent B has put all bank accounts in a paramour's name, is deliberately unemployed and receiving substantial cash payments. The Court finds that Parent B has the ability to pay child support and has willfully refused to pay. Parent B is in contempt.

The penalties available to the Court in a contempt proceeding include fines, sanctions and incarceration. Thus, Parent B has been ordered by the Court to pay all of the former spouse's attorney's fees and to pay all child support arrears within 48 hours or be incarcerated.

Failure to obey a court order is a serious matter in Coral Springs. If you find yourself unable to obey a court order, immediately consult with an attorney specializing in divorce to learn your best options for a successful outcome in Broward County court.

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