The Power of a Trial Court To Hold Stepparents in Contempt for Interfering with Custody and Parenting Time
As domestic advocates, we sometimes receive questions about the rights of stepparents who may be perceived as, or actually are, interfering with the other parent’s custody and parenting time. This situation creates a serious (additional) emotional dynamic within post-divorce and paternity cases.
In other words, the allegation and legal issue concerns a person who is not a party subject to the trial court’s orders but who effectively thwarts these (custody and parenting time) orders to the benefit of his or her spouse and to the detriment of the other parent. Fortunately, most of these cases resolve themselves or come to the tolerable level over time and are mostly attributable to a subsequent spouse protecting his or her mate.
Where this is not the case, traditional legal wisdom has been to file a custody modification, contempt, or take other legal action against the parent for allowing this interference. In other cases, the aggrieved parent may seek a parenting coordinator to address such stepparent interference or other issues that routinely arise between the parties.
With a small minority of cases, the parent/stepparent are so closely aligned that none of this direct action against the parent are effective. A range of legal steps are sometimes utilized in an ad hoc way to try to address the acts or omissions of this non-party stepparent. Some of such may well be reflected in requests for protective orders and/or (statutory or trial rule) injunctions.
This noted, in a short, but powerful, published opinion it issued on February 8, 2012, the Indiana Court of Appeals squarely addressed this issue and developed the law in this arena (B.T. v. D.K. and K.K. 09A02-1108-JP-693 (2012)). Contempt lies against the stepparent. The case, B.T. v. D.K. and K.K., involved a mother and stepfather who committed outrageous behaviors to keep the father from seeing his child, N.T.
In reaching its decision to reverse the trial court in granting this non-party, stepparent’s request to change judge (Ind. Trial Rule 76), the Court made clear a person, notwithstanding status as a party, who knows of a trial court’s order, cannot aid in thwarting this order without being subject to the trial court’s contempt powers.
This is an important decision no matter what kind of case is at hand. Without this, a court order would always have enforcement issues if a third party (a non-party, such as a stepparent in this case) interfered and did the bidding of the party who did not want to be bound by the order. The stepfather in this case was (and is) subject to the trial court’s contempt powers, despite not being a party.
Indeed the ability of a trial court to hold a non-party in contempt has little to do with any given and controlling order. Instead, reflects the broad principle of administration of justice inherent in a court’s ability to regulate it affairs that is embodied in statutes and caselaw (Owen v. Vaughn, 479 N.E.2d 83 (Ind.Ct.App.1985)). Thus, a third-party familiar with a court order who interferes with it is undermining the very function of the judicial branch and may be contempted.
The Court of Appeals stated this as follows (from a prior appeal in the same case):
“We observe that one not a party who has knowledge of a court order but nevertheless aids, conspires with, and abets a party to action in violating a court order entered therein may be punished for contempt.” (internal cites and quotations omitted).
Trial courts are not hamstrung by this distinction (i.e., party versus non-party). Thus, a third party may not impede a trial court’s orders from executing. If so, he or she is not shielded from sanction by contempt powers of a trial court. This is what we all should want and expect from Indiana’s judiciary, be it a domestic relations case, complex civil matter, or criminal case.
A court’s orders are orders to be followed.
If you find yourself with a case where a third party is interfering with a court order, this decision may aid you and your counsel. We hope this blog post helps increase your working understanding of Indiana law and the role of the judiciary. To the extent it has, this blog post has met its objective.
In other words, and finally, a stepparent’s love of his or her step child or spouse is insufficient. This blog post is written by attorney Bryan L. Ciyou, Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. The firm handles cases throughout the State of Indiana.