The Court Just Ordered Me to Pay a ‘Sanction’ in My Florida Family Law Case. What Can I Do?

Spend enough time in a courtroom, and you’ll eventually hear many different words and phrases, such as “sanctions,” “criminal contempt of court” and “civil contempt of court.” To the layperson, they may all seem the same – various forms of punishment for various improper acts or omissions. However, there are certain distinctions between each of these things and these sometimes-subtle differences can have major impacts on you in your family law case. To be sure you’re not being forced to pay a penalty that was wrongfully assessed against you, protect yourself with legal representation from a skilled South Florida family law attorney.

The dispute between an ex-wife (D.A.) and her ex-husband (F.D.) is an example of how the classification of a penalty can make a world of difference. D.A. and F.D. were in court regarding where the couple’s child should attend school. The court held a hearing and, at the end, issued a ruling determining the school the child would attend. In addition, though, the court demanded that the mother pay a “sanction” in the amount of $12,500. The judge did not impose any conditions on the sanction; but rather, simply ordered the mother to pay the sum.

If you found yourself in a position like this mother, would you know what to do? One thing you should do is to challenge the imposition of this penalty, at it is very possible that the “sanction” was improper.

D.A.’s was. Why? The key to that answer was the way the court went about punishing the mother. In D.A.’s case, the sanction the court ordered was actually, by the terms of Florida law, a punishment for indirect criminal contempt of court.

The sanction was a criminal contempt punishment because of what the judge did and did not do. The judge expressly stated that the sanction was for the mother’s actions, which is a hallmark of criminal contempt. The judge did not indicate any subsequent actions that the mother could take in order to avoid owing the amount, nor did the judge state that the imposition of the sanction was designed to coerce the mother’s compliance with some other order or obligation. Had either of the latter been true, the sanction might have been a civil contempt punishment.

The reason you might (and this mother did) succeed in getting the punishment overturned comes to down to procedural rules. The sanction clearly was the result of indirect criminal contempt, but the court had never gone through the proper procedural steps for a criminal contempt finding.

Complete compliance with the procedural rules is essential

Here in Florida, there is an exact way that you can be found in indirect criminal contempt, and any deviations from that procedure can be the basis for successfully overturning the penalty. First, you must receive notice of your alleged wrongdoing. That often comes from the court in the form of an “order to show cause.” That name comes from the fact that the order puts you, the defendant, on notice that the court is intending to find you in indirect criminal contempt of court unless, at your hearing, you show the judge good cause why the court should not find you in contempt. (Penalties can be in the form of monetary payments, jail time or other punishments.)

That hearing, called the “show cause hearing,” is also an essential part of the process. If you’re punished for indirect criminal contempt without receiving a show cause hearing, that’s often a valid basis for having your penalty overturned.

Of course, the best thing to do in your family law case is to be sure that you’re following all of the judge’s directives. The law, however, does not allow a court to “blindside” you with an indirect criminal contempt penalty that you did not, and reasonably could not, see coming and defend against.

When you go to court on a contempt matter, if it’s divorce-related or child custody-related, there are many twists and turns your case can take. Make sure you are prepared and protected by having capable legal counsel on your side. The knowledgeable South Florida family law attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. are here to help. Our attorneys have a long track record of seeking and obtaining positive results for our family law clients. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.