The term “contempt” refers to action(s) that disregard or disobey an order of the Court or conduct that is disrespectful to the Court. Georgia courts have the power to enforce their orders and judgments and to maintain a general sense of order in the Court by virtue of their power to punish for contempt. In the family law context, if your ex has failed to comply with an existing Court concerning alimony, child support, custody, or division of property, he/she may be punished for contempt. In fact, all orders in domestic relations cases are enforceable by actions for contempt.
The power of courts to enforce their orders through contempt actions is quite broad, so a wide range of remedies and sanctions are available as punishment for contempt. In order to prevail on a contempt claim, however, the party bringing the claim must show three things: 1) that he or she is the proper party to bring the contempt action, 2) that the offending party has failed to comply with the court’s order, and 3) that the offending party’s’ failure to abide by the court’s order was willful. Without proving all three of these elements, a party who claims to be injured by a violation of a Court order cannot prevail in a contempt action. Even where a party successfully proves all three elements, the Court may still decline to find the offending party in contempt or, alternatively, may find the party in contempt while declining to punish the party for violating the order at issue. Ultimately, this is because the law defers to courts to enforce their own orders as they see fit, thus vesting judges in those courts with effectively absolute discretion in contempt actions.
Several defenses are available to a party against whom a contempt action is brought. Often, a contempt action can be successfully defended upon a demonstration that the violation alleged to have been committed was not willful. This defense arises most commonly in cases where the offending party is unable to comply with the order at issue, whether because he or she is unable to pay the sums required by the order or otherwise. Additionally, a party may defend against a contempt action by claiming that the order at issue is void or too vague to be enforceable. Although a party charged with contempt may assert these defenses and others, assertion of defenses generally will not relieve the offending party of the obligation to comply with the order at issue. For example, if a party falls behind on his or her child support payments, a judge may decline to find that party in contempt upon consideration of the defenses presented, but prevailing on the defense of the contempt claim will not relieve the offending party of the obligation to comply with the order by paying the past due child support.
Ultimately, contempt actions are extremely effective tools for addressing injuries sustained by another party’s violation of a Court order in the family law context. Call Kimberly Coleman Law today to determine whether your circumstances warrant a contempt action (or, if you have been served with a contempt action, how to best defend against it), and to discuss the strategies and remedies which are best suited to your unique question.