Two Recent Florida Family Law Cases Highlight What Judges Can — and Cannot — Do When it Comes to Contempt of Court

Sometimes, the solution to avoiding a citation for contempt of court is a simple one: cease disobeying the court’s order(s) and do what you were ordered to do. However, it isn’t always that straightforward, and sometimes judges take impermissible actions in contempt cases. You may find yourself improperly cited for contempt at a hearing you didn’t even attend or may find yourself on the receiving end of an improper punishment. Whenever you are facing possible contempt, you need to know what to do. And what to do needs to start with retaining an experienced South Florida family law attorney.

A pair of recent cases point out how judges can go astray and how you can use the legal process to undo such actions when they happen. First, there was the case of K.A., a mother from here in Miami. In her case, the trial judge found her in contempt of court and also altered the terms of the parents’ timesharing arrangement. Neither parent had requested modification of timesharing; rather, the trial judge reduced the mother’s timesharing as a punishment for her contempt of court.

Altering your timesharing isn’t a proper penalty for contempt

The law gives judges several options when it comes to handing out penalties for a party’s contempt of court. The judge, depending on whether the contempt was civil or criminal, may order the party in contempt to go to jail, to pay a fine or pay things like the other side’s attorney’s fees and/or court costs. One thing that a judge cannot do in Florida is reduce a parent’s timesharing as a penalty for contempt. Modification of timesharing requires proof of several things, including evidence that it is in the best interest of the child. It also requires that one parent have made a motion and properly placed the issue of timesharing before the court. Simply modifying timesharing without a request for modification, solely because one parent was in contempt, is not proper, so the reduction of K.A.’s timesharing was reversed by the appeals court.

Last month, the Fifth District Court of Appeal addressed the case of C.S. The trial court in Marion County had previously found C.S. in indirect civil contempt, although the appeals court did not state whether the man’s non-compliance related to non-payment of alimony or non-payment of child support. (Indirect civil contempt is one option commonly available to judges when parents don’t pay child support, but it can be used when a spouse doesn’t pay alimony as ordered.)

Regardless of whether the obligation is one of child support or alimony, the Florida rules require certain things of courts before finding an obligor in contempt. The rules require that the obligor have a “present ability to pay” and be found to be willfully not paying. In C.S.’s case, he was not present at the hearing where the court found him in contempt. Proceeding with finding that the man was willfully not paying an obligation he had a present ability to pay, despite his not being present, was error. That meant that the contempt finding was reversed and C.S. was entitled to a new hearing.

What both of these cases show it that there are many potential traps that can befall you in a family law case. Being improperly found in contempt or receiving an illegal contempt penalty shouldn’t be among them. To protect yourself and to help you get the best possible result for you and your family, the South Florida family law attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. are here to help. Our hardworking attorneys have been providing clients with useful advice and skillful advocacy for many years in a full array of family law cases. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.