Contempt of a Decree of Divorce

When a divorce is finalized, the judge signs a decree of divorce which sets forth the obligations of the parties.  If the parties entered into a settlement agreement, it is incorporated into and becomes a part of the divorce decree. 

A divorce decree is an order of the court.  This means that the court in which the divorce decree was entered or any other court of competent jurisdiction has the authority to punish either party for failing to adhere to the provisions of the divorce decree. 

Generally, a party may seek enforcement of a divorce decree by filing a Motion for Contempt.  Most commonly, Motions for Contempt are filed in relation to: 

  • Non-payment of child support;
  • Failure to pay medical bills, credit card bills, or other debts;
  • Failure to maintain health or life insurance;
  • Violations of visitation provisions; and 
  • Failure to turn over property. 

What is the Procedure for Initiating an Enforcement Action?

It’s advisable to send the offending party a certified letter demanding compliance with the divorce decree by a certain date.  This is especially useful in cases involving the failure to pay child support, medical bills and other debts, and the failure to maintain health or life insurance.  

If the offending party does not cure the violation, the next step is to file a Motion for Contempt.  The motion must set forth the specific provisions of the divorce decree which have been violated as well as the acts or omissions which constitute the violation.  In the case of child support, medical bills, credit card bills, and other debts, the motion should also set forth the total amount due on those obligations. 

The Motion for Contempt must be served on the offending party.  In most jurisdictions, personal service is required; serving the attorney for the offending party is not acceptable.  

After the offending party has been served, the matter will be set for hearing.  However, in many jurisdictions, the parties will be ordered to attend mediation before the hearing date will be set.  The purpose of the mediation is to give the parties, with the assistance of a trained mediator, an opportunity to resolve their issues.  If mediation is unsuccessful, the judge will hear the evidence and enter an order.

Punishments for Contempt of a Divorce Decree

The punishments for violating a divorce decree vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  Generally, courts have the authority to place the offending party in jail until the contempt of court has been cured.  Courts may also order the offending party to pay the attorney’s fees and courts costs incurred by the petitioner in filing the contempt action. 

Getting Legal Help

If you believe your ex-spouse has violated the terms of the decree of divorce or if you have been served with a Motion for Contempt, you should contact a knowledgeable divorce attorney.  A divorce attorney will advise you of your rights and formulate the appropriate legal strategy to prosecute or defend the motion, as the case may be.

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