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Contempt Of A “Family” Court Order (Child Support, Maintenance, Custody & Property Division)

By Dan Rose
Updated on May 22, 2024
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In New York divorce and family law, contempt of a court order occurs when a party intentionally disobeys a clear and unequivocal order issued by the court. This disobedience must be willful, meaning the party was aware of the order and chose not to comply. The goal of civil contempt is to uphold the rights of the aggrieved party and ensure they receive the relief or compensation mandated by the court.

Types of Contempt

  1. Civil Contempt: This is primarily aimed at compelling compliance with a court order and can result in penalties such as fines or imprisonment until the order is obeyed. It is remedial and coercive, meant to enforce the rights of the party benefiting from the order.
  2. Criminal Contempt: This involves punishment for actions that disrespect or disregard the court’s authority and can result in fines or imprisonment as punitive measures.

Requirements for a Finding of Civil Contempt

  1. Lawful Order: There must be a clear and unequivocal mandate issued by the court.
  2. Knowledge of the Order: The party accused of contempt must have been aware of the order. This can be established through proof of service or other means showing the party had knowledge of the order.
  3. Willful Disobedience: The party must have intentionally failed to comply with the order, knowing its terms.
  4. Prejudice to the Movant: The non-compliance must have caused harm or prejudice to the party seeking the contempt finding.

Process of Establishing Contempt

  1. Burden of Proof: The party seeking a finding of contempt (movant) must provide clear and convincing evidence that the other party willfully disobeyed a court order.
  2. Shifting Burden: Once the movant establishes a prima facie case of contempt, the burden shifts to the alleged violator to prove a defense or justify the non-compliance.
  3. Defense: The accused party may present evidence showing an inability to comply due to circumstances beyond their control or other valid reasons.
  4. Hearing: If there is a dispute regarding the facts or defenses, a hearing will typically be conducted to resolve the issues.

Consequences of a Contempt Finding

  1. Fines: The court can impose fines to compensate the aggrieved party for losses incurred due to the contemptuous conduct.
  2. Imprisonment: The court may order imprisonment until the contempt is purged (i.e., the party complies with the court order) or for a fixed period, typically not exceeding six months.
  3. Counsel Fees: The aggrieved party may be awarded attorney’s fees and other costs associated with bringing the contempt action.

Examples of Contempt in Divorce and Family Law

  1. Failure to Pay Child Support or Maintenance: Non-payment of court-ordered child support or spousal maintenance can lead to a contempt finding.
  2. Violation of Custody and Visitation Orders: Ignoring custody arrangements or visitation schedules set by the court can result in contempt charges.
  3. Non-Compliance with Property Division Orders: Failing to transfer assets or sell property as ordered by the court in a divorce decree.

Key Cases

  • Graham v. Graham, 152 A.D.2d 653, 543 N.Y.S.2d 735 (2nd Dept 1989): The court found no contempt because the defendant had no knowledge of the order at the relevant time.
  • Matter of Lisa T. v King E.T., 30 N.Y.3d 548 (2017): The appeals court upheld a contempt finding for violating an order of protection, demonstrating that repeated and clear notifications of the order can establish knowledge and willful disobedience.

Family & Divorce Law Cases Are Very Emotional And No Walk In The Park. Our warm & professional staff is standing by to provide you with legal counsel. Whether you are facing a contested or uncontested divorce you can reach out to our Queens Divorce Attorney  today to schedule & fast & free legal consultation.

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