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Contempt Actions Generally

What is Contempt of Court in Divorce/Family Law? 

What is the definition of contempt? When a party willfully fails to comply with a court order, the offending party may be sued in a contempt action. There must be a current court order in place and a party must willfully fail to comply, meaning they knew and understood the court order but they still failed to comply. Contempt of court is the power of the court to enforce its court orders and judgments. If you are found in contempt of court, you could be subject to penalties that range from sanctions to jail time. In the context of divorce and family law, if your former spouse has failed to adhere to the court's order regarding child support, child custody, alimony, or division of property, he or she may be found in contempt of court.

What Counts as a Court Order in Divorce & Family Law? 

In Georgia, all domestic relations court orders, such as orders concerning alimony, child support, equitable division of marital property, child custody and parenting time, may be enforced by actions for contempt. For example, if a child support order is in place and the paying parent fails to make child support payments, the receiving parent could file a contempt action against the non paying spouse. Similarly, if one party is awarded visitation and the other party denies them visitation, the offending party could be sued in contempt. However, it is important to note that a contract or agreement between the parties that has not been made an order of the court may not be enforced via an action for contempt.

Requirements & Procedure for Contempt

What do I need to prove to make a successful contempt claim? To have a viable contempt claim, the initiating party must make three main showings: 1) that the initiating party is the proper party to bring the contempt action, 2) that the offending party has failed to comply with the court's order, and 3) the offending party's' failure to abide by the court's order was willful. Basically, before you can bring a contempt action, you have to make sure a formal court order on the matter exists. If it exists, you must make sure that the offending party's failure to comply with the court order was willful. This means that the offending party must have known and understood the court order but still violated it regardless.

Defenses Against Contempt

Can I put forth any defenses in a contempt law suit? Yes. Bringing a contempt action against someone doesn't mean that person will be automatically found in contempt. The offending party may also put forth defenses that show that the failure to abide by the court order was NOT willful. Typically this is done by showing that the offending party did not have the ability to comply with the order or could not comply for some other legitimate reason. The offending party can put forth the defense of "inability to pay" which means they could not pay the court ordered sum. "Vagueness" is another defense that could be used if it can be shown that the court order was too vague or incomplete to be enforceable. There are a few other defenses against contempt - feel free to read more below.

If I am Found in Contempt, What are the Penalties? 

1

Sanctions

2

Imprisonment

3

Wage Garnishment

4

Income Deduction Order

A man getting sanctions in a contempt case.
Sanctions

Being found in contempt can results in the court levying sanctions on you. In many family law cases, sanctions are penalties that typically include monetary fines.

Going to jail after being found in contempt.
Imprisonment

Being found in contempt can result in the serious penalty of imprisonment. Typically a severe penalty like this is reserved for repeat offenders - people who continue to refuse to comply with a court order even after being found in contempt previously.

Wage garnishment
Wage Garnishment

Being found in contempt can result in a wage garnishment. Typically, garnishments are court orders that direct the earnings or wages paid by an employer, to be seized to satisfy a debt owed. Normally, garnishments operate by attaching the earnings of the non-paying parent before that parent receives compensation from his or her employer.

An income deduction order
Income Deduction Order

If you are found in contempt, an income deduction order (IDO) may be put in place. An IDO is a court order that typically results in contempt cases concerning the non payment of child support or alimony. An IDO will require the support payments to be deducted directly from the offending party's paycheck similar to how federal and state taxes are deducted from a paycheck.

Additional Resources

Feel free to read more about related topics. You've got questions, Meriwether & Tharp is here with the answers you need.
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