What Happens If I Violate the Terms of My Divorce?

Hossein Berenji, May 12, 2019

Before your divorce can be finalized, you and your spouse have to negotiate the terms of your split. This includes making important decisions about child custody, financial support obligations, and how property will be divided. If you can’t agree on the terms, a court will step in and make the decision for you. In either case, the issues must be resolved before the process can come to an end.

The terms of your divorce are legally binding. They’re essentially court orders that must be followed without exception. Failing to abide by the terms of your divorce can have serious consequences. In fact, it’s possible to face criminal charges for contempt of court if you violate the terms of your divorce.

Does your ex-spouse believe that you’ve violated specific terms of your divorce? Have they filed paperwork to initiate contempt of court proceedings against you? While your case is very much based in family law, it’s important to understand that contempt of court is a crime. It will be important to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney to represent you during these quasi-criminal proceedings.

What is Contempt of Court?

In the most basic terms, contempt of court means that you’ve defied or disrespected a court of law. You can be charged with contempt of court when you intentionally ignore or violate a valid court order. This includes court orders that stem from a divorce or other family law proceeding.

Contempt of court is defined in Penal Code 166 PC. You can be found in contempt if you:

  1. Willfully violate
  2. A valid court order
  3. Of which you had knowledge.

In order words, contempt of court occurs when you know that a valid court order exists and intentionally violate its terms.

How Can a Spouse Initiate Contempt of Court Proceedings?

Asking a court to hold another person in contempt of court can be a powerful tool. There are two reasons an ex-spouse may want to initiate contempt of court proceedings during or after a divorce. First, it can be used as a tool to force the other spouse to comply with a lawful court order. Or, it can be used as a way to punish the other spouse for intentionally violating the terms of the divorce.

Proceedings for contempt of court can only begin once a spouse has filed two specific forms:

  • Order to Show Cause and Affidavit for Contempt (FL-410), and
  • Affidavit of Facts Constituting Contempt (FL-411).

These forms provide the court with information about the alleged violations of family law court orders. The filing spouse must provide specific details about each violation and explain why the other spouse should be held in contempt of court.

Most contempt petitions must be filed within two years of the alleged violation. However, if the violation involves a willful refusal to pay financial support, the petition for contempt can be filed within three years of the date the payment was due.

When Can a Spouse Be Held in Contempt of Court?

You can be held in contempt of court if, after all facts and evidence are considered, a judge determines that you’ve willfully violated a valid court order of which you had knowledge. Contempt can involve any valid court order that was issued as a part of your family law or divorce proceedings. This includes orders concerning:

Here are some examples of when a spouse may be held in contempt of court:

  1. Jerry and Sharon are divorced and share custody of their two children. Sharon is the custodial parent, while Jerry has visitation rights on the weekends. One weekend, Jerry refuses to return the children to their mother. This is a willful violation of the terms of their child custody agreement. Jerry could be found to be in contempt of court.
  2. Alex is ordered to pay his ex-wife, Sally, $50,000 in alimony every year. Sally learns that Alex has quit his job in an attempt to avoid this financial obligation. A court issues an order that requires Alex to seek work. Alex refuses to go out and look for a new job. Sally could ask the court to hold Alex in contempt for intentionally violating the court order.
  3. Sam is ordered to pay $5,000 in child support every month for his two young children. While he has the ability to pay, he refuses to comply with the order. Some months he pays late, and other months he doesn’t pay in full. Sam could be held in contempt for willfully violating the terms of his divorce.

What Should I Do If My Spouse Has Filed for Contempt?

It’s important to make sure that you respond to the petition to hold you in contempt of court. You have the right to defend yourself and/or offer explanations for your failure to comply with a court order. If you do nothing, a court has the authority to issue a default judgment in favor of your spouse. This means that you’ll be found to be in contempt of court and vulnerable to the consequences.

Potential consequences of contempt of court in your divorce or family law case could include jail time, fines, and the installation of a restraining order. Being held in contempt can also affect your family law case or divorce, itself. You may find that a court revises an order in a way that’s not favorable to you. For example, it’s possible to lose custody of your children or have your right to visitation rescinded.

Has your ex-spouse threatened to ask for you to be held in contempt of court? The best thing you can do is consult with experienced attorneys who can help you fight for the very best outcome in your case. While this is a family law matter, contempt of court can have criminal consequences. It’s best to consult with attorneys who are very familiar with all aspects of your contempt of court case.