It can be so frustrating when your former spouse or coparent does not do what you expect them to do. Whether it’s failing to transfer a car title or failing to drop off the kids at the exchange time, it is tough to have an expectation of a specific action that is not met. Attorneys receive lots of angry calls from clients wanting to take action to require their ex or coparent to do something they were supposed to do. But when can you actually get the court’s help?
When someone knowingly and intentionally violates a court order to do or not do something, that person could be found to be in contempt. While it sounds simple, contempt is a little trickier than it appears. First, the person seeking to have the court hold another person in contempt must prove that the other person acted or failed to act in a knowing or intentional way. That means that accidental noncompliance or noncompliance that occurred because of an unintended circumstance is not contempt. The purpose of a contempt finding and punishment is to prevent a person from future violations of a court order. You can’t prevent unknowing and unintentional things from happening. A parent lying in the hospital in a coma who fails to pay child support is not likely in contempt as his or her failure to pay is not knowing or intentional.
In addition, a person’s action or inaction must be a violation of a specific order from the court to do or not do something. For example, if a court order says, “Father will drop off the child to Mother’s house at noon every Christmas Day”, that is a specific direction. If the court order says that the parents will “divide Christmas Day”, there is no specific direction regarding what time the child will be exchanged or how. If the parents agreed themselves that the time was noon, but Father refuses to come until 3:00 p.m., he is acting badly, but not violating a court order. The court cannot and will not enforce informal agreements between parents.
If a specific action is important and you want to make sure that you can enforce a requirement to get it done, be sure that your settlement or court order is very specific regarding the requirement to take that action. If the other person fails, you can ask the court for help in enforcing that specific direction. While it doesn’t make the failure less frustrating in the moment, hopefully it prevents future failures to follow the court’s orders.