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  • Writer's pictureJennifer LaVia


Learn more about the meaning of "contempt of court" and why the term is thrown around so much in movies and television

We see people screaming about contempt of court all the time on TV and in movies, and it seems

like judges can hold people in contempt for lots of reasons. Judges do have a lot of power to hold

someone in contempt, but that power isn’t unlimited. In family law cases, contempt is used to

enforce the orders of the court.


For example, before a parent can be held in contempt for failure to pay child support, notice must be given and a hearing must be held. The judge has to decide whether the parent is “willfully” failing to pay child support. If the parent simply isn’t able to pay, because of being unemployed, for example, then contempt isn’t appropriate.


When the judge decides that a parent should be arrested for contempt of court for failure to pay

child support, the judge must “give the keys to the jail” to the parent. This means that the person

who is in contempt must have the ability to get released from jail by paying a certain amount of

money, called a “purge.” We have seen purges in the range of several thousand dollars, and

within a few days of being jailed, the parent is suddenly able to pay! Instead of jail time, the judge may order other sanctions, like payment of a fine, or completion of a parenting class. In some cases, the judge may even find a parent in contempt, but not order any sanction. That’s the judge’s way of saying, “Don’t do it again.”

To get the other parent held in contempt, you have to file a motion for contempt, “serve” it on

the other parent, get the motion scheduled for a hearing, and file a notice of hearing. You will

need to be able to show that the judge issued an order and the other parent violated that order.

You can’t get the other party held in contempt for violating a verbal agreement between the

parties. The Clerk of Court in most counties will have motion forms that can be used if you are

representing yourself. If you are looking for a lawyer, call LaVia Law!

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