Consequences for “Willful Failure” to Comply
In domestic law, cases often involve the issuance of several orders by the Court for a number of different issues and reasons. For example, the court may issue orders regarding child support, finances, debt, and/or health insurance coverage during the pendency of the divorce. These orders may come down separately as the issues arise and/or be a part of the final dissolution order.
Every order issued by the Court is an order the parties must follow and fulfill, or the party who does not may face a motion for contempt (or, rule to show cause as it is also sometimes called). Indirect contempt (direct contempt is essentially causing a disturbance while physically in the courtroom)1 is defined generally as “willful disobedience of any process, or any order lawfully issued.”2
So, if the Court has issued an order and a party willfully refuses to obey same, the other party may file a contempt action, seeking sanctions against the offending party. The policy behind these sanctions is not to punish the offender, rather, to encourage the offender to act to fulfill the order for the benefit of the other party.
A recent Court of Appeals decision reviewed a contempt action against Mother, who refused to pay her daughter’s college educational expenses. Again a contempt finding is not based on a mistake or some unintended neglect of a court order, but without contempt power, Court’s would not be able to effectively decide matters, as a party who did not agree would face no consequence, causing the entire legal system to be diminished.
In the above-noted case, the Court ultimately found had willfully violated its order and Mother had to reimburse Father for not only the college expenses she owed, but also Father’s attorneys fees for bringing the rule to show cause. This makes the Court’s authority and orders enforceable and also returns to Father to a position of not having to spend his money for legal fees to have what was ordered occur.
The case is Winslow v. Fifer3. Mother and Father had two (2) daughters born during the marriage. Both were extremely talented academically, and earned several scholarships that made the remaining tuition costs owed quite low.
However, Mother did not pay her portion of the older daughter’s tuition (less than $1500.00 for her entire freshman year), saying it was because she did not know where daughter was living and Father received an educational tax credit (however, she never put on any evidence regarding this tax credit at the hearing).
The tax credit is not relevant because if the Court order requires Mother to pay this or any party to act or fail to act, arguments like this Mother’s argument are typically viewed as excused–“I knew I had to do it but . . . . .”
In Winslow, Court noted that Mother never attempted to contact either Father or the older daughter to see where she was living, and in fact, for most of the time, she was living with Father due to a prior court order. So if Mother really had these issues, she could have talked with Father and/or her daughter. In fact, the evidence demonstrated that Father sent Mother several requests for her portion of payment, including information on the daughter’s grades, courses, and an itemized list of expenses.
The Court held that Mother did not offer valid reasons for disregarding the trial court’s order that she pay a certain percentage of educational expenses. And as such, she was found in contempt, and ordered as a sanction that she pay Father’s attorney fees for her bad behavior.
The Court concluded its opinion by noting that Mother was fortunate to be the parent of two (2) well-educated and bright daughters, and instead of litigating this matter, it would have been wiser to pay her portion of the already low college fees and expenses. Courts often struggle with the emotional dynamics that likely kept Mother from paying her portion of this educational expense.
Court orders are designed to be final decisions in regard to litigation. Each party is bound to the terms, and faces sanctions if not properly followed. Understand the Court orders in a pending case, and work to comply with same. Willfully disobeying may result in not only having to do what one avoided in the first place, but also, further sanctions to encourage behavior in the future.
As a litigant you should take great care to understand court orders, and if you do not, talk with your attorney about concerns. If you do not, it can ultimately do further damage to the already stressed and broken family unit, which in turn may make the litigant found in contempt to be that much angrier and escalate the situation further damaging the parent-child unit. Finally, a contempt finding in some cases may well be punished by a period of incarceration until the party follows the court’s orders.
We hope this blog post help you understand the implications of contempt in a domestic case. A contempt finding is really disrespectful to the parent and to the trial court itself. It should be avoided. Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. practices law throughout the state of Indiana. This blog post was written by Bryan Ciyou and Jessica Keyes.