When You Can — And Cannot — Be Held in Criminal Contempt of Court for Violating the Custody Provisions of Your Florida Marital Settlement Agreement

In a perfect world, divorcing parents would work together collaboratively, without issue or conflict, to co-parent in the best interest of the children. Ours is not a perfect world. Co-parenting children is something that requires written boundaries and, sometimes, when those boundaries are violated, issuing penalties like contempt of court findings. However, the law limits the scenarios in which a parent can be held in criminal contempt of court. Unless you violated an explicit and precise order, and you did so intentionally, you cannot be in criminal contempt. Whether you find yourself being hauled into court and being accused of being in contempt, or you are a parent dealing with your ex-spouse’s non-compliance, your relationship with your children is vitally important, so be sure you have representation from an experienced South Florida family law attorney.

R.C. and F.C. were a couple who went through a situation not unlike many Florida couples. They married in 2002. They had three children. Then, the relationship deteriorated and the husband filed for divorce in 2013. Five months after the husband filed for divorce, the spouses both signed an agreement. Their agreement, which resolved parental responsibility (among other things), said that both parents “shall share parental responsibility for the children consistent with Florida Statute.”

In a lot of situations, a marital settlement agreement can be a positive first step toward two ex-spouses working collaboratively. Sometimes, unfortunately, that isn’t the case. F.C. returned to court in 2016, arguing that the wife was in contempt of court because she wasn’t following the terms of the settlement agreement. Specifically, the father alleged that the mother had unilaterally made several decisions regarding the children’s healthcare and general welfare, instead of consulting him as required by the agreement.

The trial judge agreed with the father and found the mother in contempt.

There can be a lot of reasons why a parent in the position of this mother might not follow the terms of the agreement exactly. Obviously, it’s possible she simply made a conscious decision not to follow the agreement’s terms. Potentially, though, she sincerely misunderstood her obligations under the agreement. Additionally, perhaps she was clear on her obligations but simply committed a violation inadvertently, without any intent to commit a violation.

In either of the latter two situations, it is important to recognize that there is no proof that the violator intentionally violated the terms of the order. That matters a great deal because criminal contempt of court requires proof that the alleged violator committed an intentional misstep, not just an accidental one. As part of that rule requiring intentional misconduct, Florida also requires that the order of which you’ve been accused of violating be explicit and precise. Only a conscious disregard for an explicit and precise directive from the court can constitute the sort of intent needed for criminal contempt of court.

In this case, the appeals court determined that the wife could not have been in criminal contempt of court for this exact reason – the court order wasn’t adequately precise/explicit. The wife was accused of making some non-emergency healthcare and general welfare decisions. The settlement agreement, which was eventually adopted within the trial court’s order, only required the wife to share parental responsibility with the husband “consistent with Florida Statute.” That language was not adequately precise or explicit to convey to the wife that she was under a court-ordered obligation to consult with the husband about non-emergency healthcare and general welfare decisions related to the kids. So, the fact that the wife didn’t do so couldn’t be the basis for holding her in criminal contempt.

Parental responsibility issues can be filled with many challenges. Make sure you are prepared and protected by having reliable counsel working for you. The knowledgeable South Florida family law attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. have been working hard for many years to provide effective representation in family law matters . Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.

More blog posts:

Sandy T. Fox, P.A. Law Offices Wins Appeal for Florida Man Wrongfully Jailed for Contempt, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Aug. 18, 2016

Florida Appeals Court Tosses Out Contempt Order Due to Violation of Husband’s Due Process Rights, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, April 13, 2016

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