The courts have been given great authority to enforce child support orders. Worse yet, it has become politically correct for them to go after the so-called deadbeat parent. Many people are unaware of the fact that many States receive federal funding tied directly to child support collection.
This article will address what exactly contempt of court means to you and more importantly what to do about it.
What is contempt of court? I will spare you the long drawn out legal explanation and give you the condensed version. Contempt proceedings allow the courts to enforce existing orders with a minimum of time and effort. For example, you owe $1000 per month in child support, you have $10,000 in the bank and you just don’t want to pay. The court can throw you in jail until you change your mind and cut a check. This is exactly why the courts have been given the power to find you in contempt and compel you to comply with the court order. Unfortunately contempt proceedings’, especially relating to child support is the single biggest source of judicial error in the system today.
The system is supposed to work like this. First, the court must establish that there is a valid support order. Second, The court must determine that you have failed to comply with the court order. At this point the burden of proof shifts to you. You must show that you no longer have the ability to satisfy the order and your failure to satisfy it was not willful. If the court agrees that your conduct is not willful and you don’t have the ability to pay you wont be found in contempt.
If you are found in contempt the Judge will order a purge. A purge is an amount of money or action that once paid or done will purge you of contempt. Lawyers would describe it this way; you must have the keys to your jail cell and chose not to use them. If you are told to pay a purge that you can’t afford the court has committed a legal error. If you are found in contempt and your actions were not willful (you lost your job for example) the court has once again committed a legal error. In both cases you need to appeal or you will be incarcerated.
So what do you do? If you can pay the support ordered do it. It is easier for you to pay a court order you don’t like and fight about it later in court. If you can’t pay the support, you will have to convince the judge that your actions are not willful. The best advice is to get a lawyer. Unfortunately most NCP that have fallen behind in child support payments are also short on money and unable to afford an attorney. If you can’t afford an attorney you might try asking at your local legal aid office or contacting an organization like The Family Justice Project. I have personally worked with both and have had nothing but great experiences.
If you decide to go it alone I recommend you do the following. First, send a letter to the other attorney and you’re ex explaining your situation. Offer to meet with them and show that you simply don’t have the money. They probably won’t meet with you but it will give you recourse later. In court be able to answer two key questions. Why your failure to meet your obligation was not willful and why you no longer have the money to pay the support.
Call witnesses that know your situation and show bank account statements and pay stubs to show that you are out of money. Subpoena the ex and ask them if they can produce any evidence to show that you have money hidden from this court? If you sent that letter I previously mentioned asking to meet and resolve the issue ask, why they did not meet with you? Make sure you ask the judge to temporarily reduce your child support until you are once again able to pay.
What if they find me in contempt anyway? Don’t panic and don’t bankrupt yourself to satisfy a flawed court order. Appeal the order. You have both an obligation to yourself and as a citizen to take action. Do it and do it quickly, you only have between fifteen and thirty days to initiate your appeal depending on the State. If your appeal is successful many courts will require the other side to pay for it. In short, you don’t have to tolerate flawed justice. You have recourse, take it!
Disclaimer: This article is written for informational purposes only. Nothing contained herein is to be considered legal advice. The author may not be a member of the bar in your State and you should seek legal advice from an attorney licensed to practice law in your State before proceeding on the information contained in this article.
Mr. Larsen is an expert in preparing legal briefs, petitions and contracts. He has written several articles on family law, Legal liability reduction programs for businesses and Protection of Assets. Authority to reprint this article in electronic or paper form this is freely given as long as the disclaimer is included with all copies. Questions about this article can be addressed to [email protected].