Contempt of court is an important provision of the law. It allows judges to punish and disincentivize parties from hindering the administration of justice. This may be especially relevant in family law cases where people, who would otherwise never think of defying a judge, do so, not so much due to their contempt for the court, but their contempt for their ex-spouses. Contempt is a serious matter and the law requires judges to go through several mandatory steps before they find parties in contempt. Failure to clear each of those procedural hoops can lead to an appellate court’s reversal of a contempt finding, as was the case in the recent decision in Wilcoxon v. Moller.
A couple reached a divorce settlement agreement in 2009 that laid out several terms regarding the couple’s two children, including health insurance, the children’s extracurricular activities and communication regarding shared parenting responsibilities. The parties agreed to maintain accounts on a subscription-based website in order to facilitate their communications. After a motion by the husband, the trial court found the wife in contempt by virtue or her having allowed her subscription to the website to lapse, failing to transport the children to extracurricular activities and failing to provide the husband with copies of the children’s health insurance cards.
The 4th District Court of Appeal overturned the contempt ruling. The appellate court did so because the trial court did not follow several necessary steps. Before a court can find a person in contempt, the court must have created an underlying order that was clear enough to put the parties on notice that the court was ordering them to do (or refrain from) certain actions.
Contempt can be either criminal or civil. If the person is facing criminal contempt, the court must hold what’s called a “show cause” hearing, which gives the parties an opportunity to show the court why one party should or should not be found in contempt.
The evidence must be “sworn” testimony, or testimony given under oath. If the potential contempt is civil, the court must make a ruling that the party facing contempt had the ability to comply, but simply refused. The court must also create a “purge” provision, meaning that the person, by performing a particular action, may purge themselves of contempt and avoid further punishment. For instance, a parent facing civil contempt for failing to pay child support may be able to purge that contempt by paying to pay back-owed support.
In this case, the trial court never ordered the parties to show cause, never received any testimony under oath, meaning that criminal contempt was improper. The court also never found that the wife had the ability to comply, and the court’s original order lacked a purge provision, meaning that civil contempt was improper. As a result, the 4th DCA concluded that the wife should not have been found in contempt.
The law contains many rules that everyday people must follow. Laws and court procedural rules also requirements that judges must follow, too. If you are facing a possible contempt finding in your family law case, contact the South Florida family law attorneys of Sandy T. Fox, P.A. They have wide knowledge of the law and years of experience, and can help you defend against an unfair or improper contempt motion.
Contact us online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.
More Blog Posts:
Court Vacates Protective Injunction Due to Insufficient Proof of Violence, Threats, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Dec. 19, 2013
Ric Flair and Florida Contempt of Court, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, July 17, 2013
Photo credit: maveric2003 at flickr, via Wikimedia Commons.