There is no question that divorce can be emotionally complex and stressful for all parties involved. Sometimes a party may even act in a way that shows disrespect to the court. While it can be easy to let one’s emotions get the better of of oneself, taking such actions against the court can have disastrous effects on a divorce. While a finding of contempt can provide personal punishments such as temporary jail time or a monetary fine, a finding of contempt can also unduly prolong divorce proceedings.
While many people may be familiar with the term “contempt” through legal dramas, in reality, the term can be applied in a much broader sense than simply in the presence of the court. The term “contempt” refers to any refusal to obey a judge’s order, mandate, or decree. This can happen in a multitude of ways, ranging from overt to subtle. Forms of contempt can include refusing to pay support payments as ordered and can even include bringing up irrelevant information that the judge had previously told parties not to bring up. It is important to note, however, that noncompliance alone is not sufficient to support a finding of contempt. In any situation, the contempt must be willful. As a result, a parent who cannot pay spousal support due to losing his job will likely not be held in contempt for failure to pay, whereas a spouse who is able to pay spousal support but chooses not to will be held in contempt.
Within this scope, contempt can be further divided into two main categories – civil contempt and criminal contempt. As their names imply, each form of contempt covers a different aspect of contempt and can be appropriate in different situations.
Matters of civil contempt are regulated under the Florida Family Laws of Civil Procedure, Rule 12.615. While civil contempt does come with a punishment, it is generally aimed at encouraging compliance with a court order or decree. In order for a court to find a party in contempt, however, it must first find that the order was clear, that the party had the ability to comply, and the party deliberately chose to disobey the court order.
While legal dramas generally portray the judge as the person who brings an action for contempt, in family law cases, parties to a case can initiate civil contempt by motion. In order to initiate a hearing for civil contempt, a party must first file a motion with the court and notify the opposing party of the motion for civil contempt. Once a party has been notified, the hearing can be scheduled. During a hearing for civil contempt, the court may hear evidence from both sides in making a determination as to whether the motion for contempt should be granted.
Under Rule 12.615, if a motion for civil contempt is granted, the court may impose a number of sanctions, including incarceration, attorneys’ fees, and suit money and costs. In addition, a party may request relief through the motion, which can include:
- Enforcing or compelling compliance with a prior order or judgment
- Awarding a monetary judgment
- Requiring the other party to pay costs and fees in connection with the motion for contempt
- Ordering a compensatory fine
- Requiring the other party to seek employment, and
- Awarding make-up time-sharing with minor children.
While the rules regarding civil contempt cover a broad range of activities, the rules regarding criminal contempt differ in many ways. For example, whereas sanctions in civil contempt are employed to coerce compliance, criminal contempt is designed to punish a party for disobeying an order. Under the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, criminal contempt is divided into two main categories. These categories are known as “direct contempt” and “indirect contempt” and can cover a variety of situations and punishments within the court.
The rules regarding direct contempt can be found within the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, Rule 3.830. Under this rule, a finding of direct contempt is appropriate in situations where the contempt took place in the actual presence of the court. Much as with civil contempt, before entering a finding of direct criminal contempt, the court must present a party with notice of contempt, as well as an opportunity to show why he or she should not be found guilty of contempt by the court. Forms of direct contempt that can occur within a family law case include openly disruptive behavior if that party was already ordered by the court to settle down, or ignoring court orders to avoid bringing up irrelevant information.
While direct contempt covers actions take in presence of the court, indirect contempt covers actions taken out of the presence of the court. Forms of indirect criminal contempt can include refusal to pay court ordered support payments or refusal to vacate the marital home. The court’s approach to regulating indirect criminal contempt can be found in the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, Rule 3.840. Under Rule 3.840, because indirect criminal contempt takes place out of the presence of the court, an order for indirect criminal contempt may be brought forward by either a motion of the court or by an affidavit of any person having knowledge of the facts. Once the defendant has been notified of the contempt, a hearing will then be scheduled. If the judge has reason to believe that the defendant will not appear in court, then the judge may issue an order of arrest. Once the party has had an opportunity to present evidence in his or her defense, the court will then enter an order either granting the motion of contempt or denying it. Even though the nature of contempt involves defiance of a court order, if the contempt charged involves disrespect or criticism of a judge, then the judge will disqualify himself from the hearing.