When you become involved in a family law case, it is important that you follow the orders issued by the judge. However, it is also important to understand that, if you do not comply, there are certain limits imposed by the law regarding the punishments that the judge can hand out. These limits are the reason that the Third District Court of Appeal threw out an order jailing a man recently. The man, represented by Sandy T. Fox, P.A. Law Offices, could not permissibly be jailed because the notice regarding his most recent hearing, which he attended, did not state that he was potentially facing criminal contempt penalties.
When you go through a divorce in Florida, you may be ordered to make payments to your ex-spouse for various different reasons. While the preferred outcome is to make all payments in full and on a timely basis, it is nevertheless important to understand the difference in possible punishments for failing to pay different kinds of obligations. In one recent case in North Florida, the First District Court of Appeal threw out a finding of contempt against an ex-husband, ruling that the payment he failed to make on time was neither child support nor alimony, so he was not subject to the trial court’s contempt powers.
In this case, a couple from the Jacksonville area, S.S. (husband) and A.S. (wife), divorced, and the trial court ordered the husband to pay the wife $343 per month in child support and $200 per month from his military pension, starting on Dec. 1, 2014. On Dec. 4, the husband wrote the wife a $343 check but also expressed his intention not to pay the remaining $200. Although the husband eventually did pay the additional $200 on Dec. 22, the wife had already filed a request with the court to find the husband in contempt. The wife argued to the trial judge that she deemed the $343 check to be the $200 sum her husband owed her plus $143 of the $343 of the child support obligation. The trial judge approved of the wife’s “election” to construe the $343 sum in the fashion that she did, and the judge held the husband in contempt for failing to pay his full child support obligation on a timely basis.
In any case involving the divorce of two parents, one of the most important issues the parents will have to resolve will pertain to the religious upbringing of the child. Hopefully, the parents will have similar views or backgrounds regarding religion or alternatively will be able to work cooperatively in the best interest of their child to put a plan into place regarding the religious training of the child. Unfortunately, that does not always happen, as a recent case involving a Jewish family from Palm Beach County showed. As the Fourth District Court of Appeal‘s ruling demonstrated, courts will generally give a parent significant latitude in making these decisions as long as the decisions he or she makes are not proven to be harmful to the child.
The couple in this case, W.S. (father) and E.S. (mother), were the parents of two children and divorced in 2011. The parents reached a marital settlement agreement that gave both of them shared parental responsibility. All major decisions about the children, including religious upbringing, were to be made collectively by the parents whenever that was possible. Problems emerged three years later when, according to the father, the mother began, with no input from the father, immersing the children in Orthodox Judaism, including enrollment in an Orthodox after-school program and introduction of Orthodox teachings and customs at home. The children had, according to the father, been raised only under Reform Judaism prior to that time.
A man who had fallen hundreds of thousands of dollars behind on alimony to his ex-wife was potentially facing a six-month jail sentence for civil contempt before successfully appealing. The 2d District Court of Appeal threw out the punishment in the contempt order because, by imposing a punishment of incarceration in a prospective fashion, the order violated the husband’s Due Process right to have a hearing on whether or not he had the present ability to pay the amount necessary to purge himself of contempt.
The divorcing couple, E.B. (husband) and C.J. (wife), had been married for nearly three decades. They arrived at a marital settlement agreement that the trial court incorporated into the couple’s divorce decree. The husband agreed to pay the wife $125,000 per year in alimony and maintain a $1 million life insurance policy naming the wife as the beneficiary. The husband eventually fell behind on his alimony and his premium payments on the insurance policy.
It may sound surprising, but there are some instances when a party to a family law case in Florida may lose his right to have an appeal of his case even considered. That was the case recently for one Palm Beach County husband, when the 4th District Court of Appeal ordered a dismissal of his appeal of a contempt finding unless the husband achieved “substantial compliance” with the trial court’s support orders within 30 days.
The couple, Michel Whissell and Sheronne Whisell, sought a divorce in Palm Beach County. As part of that case, the trial court ordered the husband to make temporary support payments to the wife. The husband, however, did not make these support payments. On multiple occasions, the wife initiated contempt proceedings. Eventually, the husband racked up multiple contempt findings and a support arrearage in excess of $100,000.
The protracted court case involving the medical care of a 4-year-old Palm Beach County boy took another turn recently, when the child’s mother refused to appear in court as ordered, leading Circuit Judge Jeffrey Gillen to issue a warrant for her arrest, the Sun-Sentinel reported. The case centers around the decision to perform a circumcision on the boy, which the father supports and the mother opposes. Counsel for the mother has argued that she is acting to protect her child, but the Florida courts have consistently upheld the father’s right to make the decision regarding the circumcision, as the mother voluntary relinquished this decision-making right as part of parenting plan agreement signed by the mother in 2011.
D. N. and H. H. welcomed a baby boy on Oct. 31, 2010. The parents later signed an agreed parenting order that stated that the father would handle all matters related to completing the child’s circumcision, including scheduling the appointment, transporting the child and paying for the procedure. The mother agreed to sign all necessary forms to permit the procedure to take place.
Divorces are almost always difficult, but divorces that occur to couples with teenage children can be especially challenging. While a parent cannot control what his or her children feel or think regarding the other parent, he or she can help foster a healthy relationship by refraining from actively doing things to impede the children’s relationship with the other parent. One South Florida mother’s decision to engage in such counterproductive, hindering behavior ultimately earned her a judgment of contempt, which the 4th District Court of Appeal recently upheld.
When M. (husband) and L. (wife) divorced in 2011, they had three children together, some of whom were well into their teenage years. The couple’s divorce judgment called for shared parenting responsibility and established a timesharing schedule that placed the children primarily with their mother.
A court’s contempt power can be an extremely important and effective tool in ensuring compliance in family law matters, as spouses may ignore court order to spite their exes. This power does come with some clearly delineated limits, though. The power to force a spouse to meet the terms of an equitable distribution is one such area, leading the 4th District Court of Appeal to throw out a trial court’s contempt finding against an ex-wife who did not pay the mortgages on the marital home.
The case regarded a 2010 divorce. As part of the equitable distribution, the wife received the marital home. The distribution also called for the wife to assume total responsibility for paying the mortgages on the home, even though the husband’s name was the only one on the mortgages. After the divorce, the wife rented the home out, but did not pay the mortgage payments.
The parties soon returned to court, with the husband seeking a contempt order against the wife for failing to keep the mortgages current. The trial court refused the husband’s request, explaining that it could not utilize its contempt powers because paying the mortgages was an aspect of equitable distribution, not spousal support. Had the wife violated a term related to support, she could have faced punishment for contempt.
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 of court” sounds like something you might hear a judge yell at an unruly defendant on a TV show, but its real-life use as a procedure is more common than one might think. This is evidenced in a recent case against former professional wrestler Ric Flair (legal name: Richard Fliehr).
Sometime after his most recent spouse, Jacqueline Beems, filed for legal separation in the summer of 2012, Fliehr was ordered to pay a monthly spousal support in the amount of $4,000. Having failed to do so, contempt proceedings were brought against Fliehr. On June 18, 2013, Fliehr was found in contempt and ordered by a Mecklenburg County judge to pay the amount of $32,352.51 to Beems. When he failed to make that payment, a warrant for his arrest was issued July 3 of this year. Fliehr is now required to pay the ordered amount or risk jail time as part of the contempt order, although the amount of jail time he could face is unclear. While this case is in North Carolina, Florida laws concerning contempt of court can be similarly stringent.
Contempt of court in the state of Florida is defined in Florida Statute 38.23. It essentially deals with the failure, whether intentional or not, to comply with any legal directive levied against a defendant, by a judge, within a given time frame. The severity of the punishment can vary based on the nature of the transgression and whether a person is facing the charge of contempt in criminal or civil proceedings and said punishment can range from a fine, to the payment of legal fees, to jail time. It is not uncommon for judgments in civil proceedings to be enforced through the mechanism of contempt.
According to Florida state law, the courts themselves cannot initiate proceedings to hold a person in civil contempt. A motion must be filed by the complainant alleging the failure of the offending party to comply with the court’s initial ruling; in this case, that Mr. Fliehr should pay the $4,000 a month in Spousal Support. At this point in the proceedings, it is the burden of the complainant to prove that the offender has knowledge of the motion of contempt, generally through “Personal Service” (hand delivery) of the motion, although there are instances where a motion can be mailed. Next, the complainant (in Fliehr’s case, Ms. Beems) must prove the offending party (Fliehr) has the means to pay the amount that is due. Though Fliehr has stated he plans to make the payment, this may not be an option for some people. If it can be argued that the “contemnor” does not have the means to comply with the judge’s order, they cannot be held in contempt and cannot, at that time, be made to face punishment.