There’s not much more frustrating than when your former spouse or child’s other parent doesn’t follow a court order, whether it be to pay child support, to allow for visitation, or anything else related to your divorce or separation. For Texans who find themselves in this situation, a contempt order may force the other party to follow the original order, based in large part on the threat of jail time. Here are some answers to common questions about enforcing family court orders.
What is enforcement?
Enforcement is the term for proceedings that are brought to force a person to obey a court order.
What orders will the court enforce?
In the context of family law, the court may enforce orders dealing with a variety of matters, including:
- Child Support
- The property division ordered by a court in a divorce
- Post-divorce spousal alimony (now called “maintenance”).
How does a court enforce an order?
Usually, court orders will be enforced by contempt proceedings. If a person is found in contempt of a court order, the judge may punish the person by ordering them to pay a fine, by sending them to jail, or both.
What is needed in order to make a court order for visitation or child support enforceable be contempt?
In order for a court order be enforceable through contempt, it must use “command language” and be clear, specific, and unambiguous, so that the parties will know exactly what the court ordered. In the case of visitation, the court order must command the party who has the children to “surrender” them to the other party at the start of the visitation period and order the party to return the children at the end of the visitation period. Additionally, the order should identify the specific place where the children are to be exchanged, and state in specific detail the time when each period of visitation is to begin and end. In the case of child support, the court order must state the specific amount to be paid, to whom the payments are to be made, the date on which the payments are to begin, where the payment is to be made, and when the payments are to end (which will be either a specific date, or the occurrence of a specific event).
What if a court order is not clear and specific enough to be enforceable by contempt?
If a court order is not clear and specific enough to be enforced by contempt, the court can clarify the order. The court will then give the party an opportunity to obey the order.
What happens if a person is found in contempt of court?
When a party is found in contempt of court, the judge can order the party to pay a fine and/or order that the party is confined to the county jail.
If a party is found in contempt of court, will the judge always send them to jail?
No. If the party is employed, sending the party to jail may not be the best alternative, because the party could very well lose his or her job. For this reason, if the judge sentences a party to jail, the judge may suspend the jail sentence. If the judge does so, the judge will impose various conditions, which can include requiring the party to make specific payments (if the contempt involves failure to pay child support), or ordering the party to pay attorney’s fees, costs of court, and a fine. The judge can also place the individual on probation (now called “community supervision”) for a term not to exceed five years, and may include a requirement that the party obtain counseling on financial planning, budget management, alcohol and drug treatment, or other matters that may have caused the person to disobey the court order. When a jail sentence is suspended, the judge will order the party to appear in court at a later date in order to determine if the party has obeyed the conditions of the suspended jail sentence. If they have not, the party will most likely be sent to jail.
Are there any limitations on what orders can be enforced by contempt?
Yes. For example, in divorce cases, it is common for the decree to include orders requiring a party to pay specific debts, liabilities, or obligations. Such an order is not enforceable by contempt because the law does not allow a party to be imprisoned for non-payment of a debt. Child support is enforceable because it is not considered to be a debt. Child support is a duty all parent owe to their children.