What You Should Know About Contempt of Court

New Mexico court orders that determine aspects of a divorce, such as child support and parenting schedules, are serious documents. When one or both spouses violate one of these court orders, they could potentially be the subject of contempt proceedings in court. If you are considering disobeying a court order or are dealing with a spouse who is, here’s what to know about contempt of court.

What Is Contempt of Court?

There are two main types of contempt of court: civil and criminal. Criminal generally applies to behaviors that are disrespectful or defiant of court authority, and it can also apply to conduct that disrupts typical court proceedings. The punishment for criminal contempt is either fines, jail time or both, as it is meant to prevent the same behavior in the future.
In New Mexico family law, civil contempt is more common, and it generally applies when someone is not following a court order. There are two different types of this contempt: compensatory and coercive. The coercive type is seen more often in family law proceedings such as child custody.
The goal of coercive civil contempt is to get the person who is violating the court order to start obeying it. Unlike criminal contempt, the person violating the order may avoid any type of punishment if they begin to follow the terms of the court order they’ve been violating and stay in compliance going forward.

When Is Someone in Contempt?

Contempt of court only applies when a court order is currently in effect. If you have an order that has ended, it generally can’t be enforced via contempt unless it has to do with owed child support in some situations. Speak to your family law attorney if you are not sure whether this applies to you.

Non-Willful Versus Willful Disobedience

To find a person in contempt of court, it has to be proven that they are willfully not obeying the court order. This means they knew about the order and had the ability to follow it but instead chose not to, without any mitigating circumstances involved at all.
Non-willful contempt, on the other hand, means a person is not able to follow a court order due to something out of their control. If a person can’t pay court-ordered child support because they lost their job, for example, it’s non-willful contempt. In cases like this, it’s best to return to court and have the order modified to reflect the change in circumstances before contempt charges are brought by the other party involved. Contact a family law attorney if you need to have a court order changed.

What Happens Next?

If a person doesn’t start obeying the order, they can face sanctions from the court. This varies by case but can include supervised visitation, fines, wage garnishment and changes to the original court order in question that are not favorable to the person in violation. Generally, the court prefers to have the person obey the order instead, so contempt charges are actually able to be purged; they can be “tossed,” so to speak, if the person starts following the order.
Speak to an attorney if you think you need to pursue contempt of court charges or believe your ex-spouse is going to seek these charges against you. Proof is paramount in these types of cases, which is why it is important to document your compliance with court orders involved in your family law case or the lack of compliance of your ex-spouse. Your attorney will help you present your side of the story to the court so you can move forward with your post-divorce life.