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What Are the Consequences of Being Held in Contempt?

If you ignore or fail to adhere to a legally binding family court order, you could find yourself held in contempt of court. If the court approves this, you may be faced with certain consequences, including a fine or even jail time. Today, we review what contempt of court is and the potential ramifications of breaking a court order.

What Is Contempt of Court in Family Law?

Contempt of court is used when an individual intentionally disobeys a court order. In family law, if someone is held in contempt, he/she has violated a child support, spousal support, domestic violence protective order, child custody, and/or visitation order, which must then be enforced. Some common examples of contempt include but are not limited to the following:

  • Refusing to pay child or spousal support
  • Violating a restraining order
  • Disallowing your co-parent visitation rights as ordered in a parenting plan
  • Failing to return the child to your co-parent at the end of a visitation period

It is important to note that both an action and inaction can lead you to being held in contempt of court.

There are two types of contempt: civil and criminal. The purpose of civil contempt is to coerce the defendant to adhere to what is required by the order for the benefit of the complainant. The primary purposes of criminal contempt are to preserve the court’s authority and punish the individual for disobeying said order.

How Do You Prove Contempt?

To prove to the court that an individual is in contempt you must show the following:

  • A valid, written court order signed by a judge
  • Proof that the individual understood and knew about the court order
  • Evidence that the individual had an ability to comply with the order (does not apply to child support cases)
  • Proof that the individual failed to comply with the order

What Are the Consequences of Contempt?

The consequences of contempt vary according to the type of court order. The consequences of violating a restraining order or domestic violence protective order (DVPO) are severe. Violating a valid DVPO in North Carolina is considered a Class A1 misdemeanor which can be punishable by up to 150 days in jail – depending on various circumstances involved, including the individual’s previous criminal record. Another violation of this protective order is considered a Class H felony, which is punishable by between 20 to 33 months in prison.

Violating a family law order, such as child custody or spousal support, could lead to both prison time and a fine for being held in civil contempt. As civil contempt is intended to force the non-compliant individual to comply with a court order, this is not typically the first action the court will take. However, if required, the court could technically imprison an individual until they comply.

Civil contempt is not intended to punish the offender but to force him/her to comply with a court order. A person found in civil contempt cannot be found in criminal contempt for the same conduct in North Carolina.

Enforcing a Court Order

The judge must determine if the court order is valid and ensure that the individual required to comply with said order had the ability to do so. To enforce an order by civil contempt, an individual must willfully fail to comply with the order. As such, if the individual does not posses the ability to comply, you may not be held in contempt of court for violating this order. For example, if you pay child support but get injured and are unable to work for a period of time, you may be able to prove you were unable to comply with your court order.

If you need assistance enforcing a court order, contact our office online or via (704) 343-8811.