Contempt of Court in Pennsylvania Family Law Cases
Disobeying a Court Order or Behaving Inappropriately in Court
Divorce, especially when children are involved, is often emotionally charged and a very difficult experience. The court system in Pennsylvania requires the parties in a divorce to comply with court orders regarding finances, child custody, and visitation. Divorce agreements, whether established by the two parties or imposed by the court, become official orders, and once approved, following them is not optional – it is a legal requirement. Not following those rules in a Pennsylvania family court could land you in contempt of court, after which you may have to pay a $100 fine or spend up to 30 days in jail.
Contempt of court is an important tool for family law courts to maintain a civil and organized proceeding, but it is avoidable in most situations. If you have a pending court date in Montgomery County, it would be wise to speak with an experienced family law attorney at the Law Offices of Sheryl R. Rentz to ensure that you know what is expected of you by the court. In addition, if your former spouse is failing to comply, please contact us to learn what options are available to you.
What Is Contempt of Court?
Defying a court order or failing to comply with court-sanctioned divorce agreement is a crime called “contempt of court.” Contempt of court essentially means that you are treating the rules, regulations, orders, and sanctity of the US legal and justice system without the appropriate level of respect. There are two types of crimes that fall under contempt of court:
- In the courtroom: In the courtroom, there are strict rules of behavior. Repeated violations of these rules, such as emotional outbursts, ringing cell phones, and others, can lead to charges of contempt of court.
- Out of the courtroom: In virtually every type of court case, the judge has the authority to issue legally binding orders. In civil matters, including divorce, court orders outline the requirements for each party regarding finances, property division, custody, and visitation. Once issued, both parties must uphold the terms of a marital settlement agreement.
Why a Judge Can Find You in Contempt of Court
During or after a divorce, there are several common ways a person may face charges of contempt of court:
Ignoring a discovery request - If you are going through a divorce or child custody hearing, you may be asked to produce documents, or answer questions that the other party has posed in a timely manner. Failing to do so, or responding inappropriately, will land you in contempt. To avoid this, make sure that your answers are thorough and all the requested documentation is present.
Courtroom outbursts - Tensions run high in family court, but outbursts of any kind are not allowed. A judge may excuse one or two, but if a person consistently speaks out of turn, it will lead to a fine or jail time.
Ringing cellphones - Cellphones must be on vibrate or silent while in court. It is best to turn them completely off to avoid any issues.
Disobeying court orders - When a judge puts an order in place, it is not optional. It must be done within that timeframe. Visitation, child custody, and other orders must be followed as directed. If your child’s other parent violates a custody or visitation order, you may request that the court hold him or her in contempt, and return the child to you.
Financial noncompliance - You will be held in contempt if you fail to pay child support or turn over property as directed by a judge. If the reason for you not paying is financial hardship, you should tell the judge immediately, and he will then decide whether or not to enforce the original order. Do not wait until the payment is already past due.
If you are divorced, the settlement is a court order that both parties are required to follow. We strongly advise that you comply with all court orders to avoid charges of contempt of court. It is important to know that you cannot be held in contempt if you did not know that an order existed or that you were given a discovery request. However, all misunderstandings must be proven to the judge. You will be asked to prove how you were unaware or given the wrong information about your court order.
If you have violated a court order, enlist legal assistance immediately to resolve the matter before it escalates to become a more serious problem. Alternatively, if your ex-spouse is not complying with court orders, there are steps you can take.
What to Do If Your Ex-Spouse Is Violating the Terms of Your Divorce
If your ex-spouse is violating the terms of your divorce or refusing to comply with court orders while the divorce is in process, our team at the Law Offices of Sheryl R. Rentz, P.C., can help. There are three necessary steps:
Call the police
In cases where children are involved, and you are unable to communicate with or locate your child, and you believe your child may be in danger, get the police involved. If your child is at risk of harm due to drug or alcohol use, criminal activities or you fear he or she may be removed from the country, contact law enforcement and your divorce attorney immediately.
Send an official letter
If the safety of a child is not your main concern, the first step is to file a formal letter to your former spouse stating that they are in noncompliance with the divorce and that you will initiate legal action if he or she does not comply. This letter is an essential piece of evidence if you later file contempt of court charges.
Filing a contempt of court charge
To file a contempt of court charge, you must be able to show three elements:
- The individual was aware of a court order or settlement
- The individual was physically capable of complying
- The individual refused to comply with the court order or settlement agreement
Without supporting documentation, including the letter, your former partner may claim the failure to comply was an honest mistake and promise to meet his or her legal obligations in the future. Filing contempt charges that don’t stick is not to your advantage and will leave you paying the legal costs associated with the filing.
Speak to an Attorney Today
Having an experienced attorney by your side will help you understand your rights and responsibilities inside a family law court. The Law Offices of Sheryl R. Rentz, P.C., has over 25 years of experience in family law, and we will work with you one-on-one to ensure that you are fully prepared for court and understand any court orders that you are given – or how to uphold the terms of your legal agreement with your ex-spouse. Call an experienced Montgomery County divorce attorney today at (866) 290-9292 for a free consultation.