Contempt In A Family Law Case

This week I’m continuing a series of posts regarding the potential remedies one might have if they find themselves in a situation where the other parent of their child refuses to abide by a current court order. This week’s post will be on enforcement by contempt. (As usual, this post is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice. Your situation is unique and requires individualized legal advice. Please contact an attorney to discuss your case. This article is intended to be general information on the subject.)

It’s a phrase that’s familiar to anyone who has ever watched any type of courtroom drama, “I hold you in contempt!” In the broadest sense contempt simply means that you are not following the direction or order of the court. What does this phrase really mean in the context of a family law case?

A court may enforce by contempt a final order for possession of and access to a child. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 157.001(a), (b). The court has the authority to hold a person in contempt for failing to abide by the current orders in a family law case.  In order for a court to hold an individual in contempt, a motion for enforcement must be filed in the court of continuing, exclusive jurisdiction. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 157.001(d). The court of continuing, exclusive jurisdiction is usually the court that rendered and entered the order you are trying to enforce. 

Like most enforcement situations, my advice is to first check the underlying order to determine the exact nature of the violation and the provision of the order being violated. The underlying order sought to be enforced by contempt must set out the details of each obligation in clear, specific and unambiguous terms, and the order must not rest upon implication or conjecture or be uncertain or susceptible to different meanings. Ex parte Slavin, 412 S.W.2d 43 (Tex. 1967). If the order is vague or ambiguous, the order may be clarified so as to be enforceable by contempt, Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 157.421. The request for clarification may be made before a motion for contempt is filed, in conjunction with a motion for contempt, or after the denial of contempt. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 157.424.

Once the motion has been filed, the court must set the date, time, and place of the hearing and order the respondent to personally appear and respond to the motion. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 157.061(a). The other parent must also receive adequate notice of the date of the hearing. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 157.062(a), (b).

Assuming that you are successful in your request to have a court enforce an order by contempt, the court will issue an enforcement order. An enforcement order must include in ordinary and concise language the provisions of the order for which enforcement was requested, the acts or omissions that are the subject of the order, the manner of the respondent's noncompliance and the relief granted by the court. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 157.166(a).

The court may also impose incarceration or a fine for criminal contempt. If the order imposes such a penalty, an enforcement order must contain findings identifying the provisions of the order for which enforcement was requested and the date of each occasion when the respondent's failure to comply with the order was found to constitute criminal contempt. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 157.166(b). If the enforcement order imposes incarceration for civil contempt, the order must state the specific conditions on which the respondent may be released from confinement. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 157.166(c).

Contempt is a powerful tool at the disposal of anyone who is the victim of another party who is not following the orders of the court. In the context of a family law case, contempt is the likely remedy for all manner of violations of the court’s order. If you have any questions or comments regarding contempt or family law case, please feel free to contact us.