Understanding Custody Contempt
Custody cases can be contentious. Parents are pitted against each other trying to prove they are the “better” parent. Many times, parents can reach agreements on their own as to how they want to share custody, and if they can’t reach an agreement, they must go to trial and a judge will enter an order determining the custody schedule. But, having an agreement or order does not necessarily mean your custody case is over. Parties still must follow the terms of these agreements and orders, because if they don’t, the other party can file for contempt. That makes sense. If one party doesn’t obey an order, he or she should be found in contempt. Easy, right?
Not so fast. The definition of contempt in a family law context is actually very narrow. What do courts consider contempt? The court has defined contempt as follows:
“The mere showing of noncompliance of a court order or misconduct, is never sufficient, alone, to prove contempt. The order or decree which the contemnor has been held to have violated, must be definite, clear, and specific, leaving no doubt or uncertainty in the mind of the contemnor of the prohibited conduct. Moreover, the contemnor must have had notice of the order she disobeyed, the act constituting her violation must be volitional, and she must have acted with wrongful intent. Because the order forming the basis for civil contempt must be strictly construed, any ambiguities or omissions in the order must be construed in favor of the contemnor.”
Let’s break that down. Mere noncompliance is not sufficient to prove contempt, so proving the other party did not follow an order or agreement is not enough. The order itself must be “definite, clear, and specific.” The contemnor must have been aware of the order she or he allegedly violated. Finally, the alleged wrongdoer must have acted with “wrongful intent.” This narrow definition means that in practice, many allegations of “contempt” are not contempt at all.
Recently, the Pennsylvania Superior Court examined the issue of contempt in a custody context in the case of K.M.G. v. H.M.W., 171 A.3d 839 (Pa. Super. 2017), in which Father claimed Mother was in contempt of the custody order for failing to encourage the party’s child to visit Father. The trial court found Mother in contempt and ordered the parties to immediately begin family counseling. Mother appealed. After reviewing the record, the Court held that the trial court erred in holding Mother in contempt of the order because the custody order did not explicitly require Mother to encourage their child to visit Father, so Mother could not be held in contempt for failing to do so.
Have further questions regarding custody contempt?
If you are a parent thinking about filing for contempt against the other parent but have some questions, please contact Melissa Iacobucci, Esquire. She’ll be able to help you determine if filing for contempt is really in your best interest.
— Written by Melissa A. Iacobucci, Esq.
DISCLAIMER: The contents of this blog are not legal advice, and are not to be used for that purpose. If you are faced with a legal matter, you should contact a lawyer immediately in order to ensure that you are protected.