When your marriage breaks down and divorce ensues, there are several issues you and your spouse have to work out. To resolve some or all of these, you and your spouse may sign a marital settlement agreement (MSA). If you, at some point after your divorce is finalized, happen to violate the terms of your MSA, there are potential consequences you can face, but the law also erects some clear limits on what the courts can do to you. Obviously, the best path is to avoid violating your MSA but, if you do, make sure you have a skilled South Florida family law attorney on your side for any contempt of court actions that ensue.
A.B. was a husband who faced contempt charges after he made that kind of error. He and his ex-wife were a divorced couple with two children. The couple had an MSA that said that each spouse was entitled to claim one child as a dependent on their federal income tax return. However, in 2017, the father claimed both kids on his return.
So, what can a court do to a spouse in situation like that? When a spouse violates the terms of an MSA, there are actually several things that can occur. It is important to recognize that, if your divorce is final and your marital settlement agreement was what the law calls “incorporated” into the final judgment of divorce, then the terms of that agreement aren’t just a binding contract, they carry the weight of an order of the court.
A violation of the agreement isn’t just a breach of a contract, it is a violation of a court order, and it means that the violator can be found in contempt of court.
In a contempt case, the court first must decide if your violation meets the legal standards for contempt. If it does, you should be aware that there are two different kinds of contempt of court. One is criminal contempt and one is civil contempt.
Similar to how penalties in criminal court are meant primarily to punish the wrongdoer and damages awards in civil court are meant to remedy the damage done to the harmed party or to discourage future similar wrongful conduct, criminal contempt is meant to be punitive but civil contempt is designed to do one of two things: “to coerce [the wrongdoer] into compliance with the court’s order” or to compensate the harmed party “for losses sustained.”
In A.B.’s case, his wrongful conduct was claiming one extra child dependent on one year’s tax return. The judge’s contempt sanction was to order that the mother would get all of the dependent deductions for all of the eligible children for each of the next four years.
The harm the mother lost was exactly one dependent deduction. The trial judge’s sanction gave the mother numerous additional dependent deductions, which meant that “the sanction imposed by the trial court went beyond compensating Former Wife for her actual loss.” That is not allowed under Florida’s contempt law, so the sanction ruling had to be reversed.
To be sure, the best plan is to meet all of your MSA obligations. If you violate your MSA that has been included within your divorce judgment, you potentially face contempt of court penalties. That very often means civil contempt, and Florida imposes clear limits on the civil contempt penalties a judge may hand out. If you have been accused of civil contempt related to your MSA, make sure your rights are fully protected by retaining the skilled South Florida family law attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.