When a court finalizes a divorce, it might also issue orders requiring a party to pay alimony or child support. As a result, a party’s obligation to pay spousal or child support after getting a divorce has the full force and effect of the law behind it, as ordered by the judged.
However, what safeguards and procedures are available in situations where a party simply refuses to comply with the court’s orders? If a party chooses to ignore their court-mandated obligations, this can be seen as a major affront to the court’s authority. In such caess, courts are empowered to impose certain punishments on persons who refuse or otherwise fail to obey a court order. This is known as contempt of court—the process whereby courts vindicate their authority in situations where someone challenges it through disobedience.
The party to whom spousal or child support payments are owed may request the court to hold a non-compliant spouse in contempt of court. Courts can impose burdensome monetary fines on someone who refuses or failse to comply with an alimony or child support order. Significantly, a court has the power to throw a non-compliant party in jail, conditioning their release upon payment of their family support obligations. This arrangement is often referred to as “civil contempt.” In civil contempt situations, the non-compliant party is considered to hold they keys to their own freedom because they can end their jail term by complying with the court’s orders.
Importantly, the same procedural rights and protections afforded to criminal defendants may still apply to civil contempt proceedings. This includes the right of the contemnor to legal representation and the privilege against self-incrimination.
Before a court holds someone in contempt of court for not making their family support obligations, there is a hearing to determine whether the alleged contemnor failed to comply with a specific and unambiguous order to pay alimony or child support. If a family support obligation is vague as to the terms of payment, the court may not hold the non-paying party in contempt.
A person who allegedly refused or failed to pay their child support obligations also has an opportunity defend against non-payment claims by claiming that financial hardship prevented them from making the required payments.
When the court imposes a definite jail sentence on someone for not paying spousal or child support, it is considered to be a “criminal contempt” proceeding. Where the goal of civil contempt is to coerce a party into complying with their court-ordered obligation to pay family support, the purpose of criminal contempt is strictly punitive in nature. In a criminal contempt situation, the non-complying party does not have any control over how long they will be in jail. On the contrary, the alleged contemnor must serve the full jail sentence imposed on them by the court.
Although criminal contempt is a method of enforcing family support obligations, the legal standards and procedures involved may be stricter. Because of the criminal nature of the proceeding, enforcement through criminal contempt may require the court to impose a higher burden of proof for showing a failure to pay support.
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When a party refuses or is unable to fulfill their family support obligations as ordered by the court’s final divorce decree, the party the court intended to benefit with its orders is harmed as a result. The failure to pay spousal or child support risks the safety and wellbeing of the family members who were supposed to receive such payments. Because the consequences of nonpayment have a direct, personal impact on actual people, finding legal ways of enforcing such orders becomes a vital issues.
If you need help enforcing a family support obligation, or defending against such enforcement, you should consult an experienced attorney for representation. At Family Law San Diego our legal team has years of invaluable experience dealing with family law disputes, including enforcement of spousal and child support orders.
Schedule an appointment with a member of our legal team about your case by calling us at (619) 577-4900 or contacting us online today.