In this article, we will cover the basics of contempt of court in Illinois family law cases and answer the following questions:
- What is contempt?
- How is contempt proven in a family law case?
- How do I know if pursuing contempt is the right move in my case?
- What are the alternatives to filing for contempt in a family law case?
- Are there risks to filing for contempt in a family law case?
- What are the potential consequences of the court finding contempt?
What Is Contempt?
Under Illinois law, contempt of court is considered any action or behavior committed with intent to slow, delay, embarrass, disrupt, or derogate the court’s normal procedure, authority, or preexisting order. In family law cases, many instances of contempt arise from one party failing to adhere to a court order, such as child support, counseling, established parenting times, etc.
Contempt is not taken likely by the court, and any attempt at pursuing contempt against another party will be scrutinized heavily, possibly making things worse for all parties involved. Examples of legitimate contempt of court in family law cases include:
- One parent refuses to allow the other parent his or her court-ordered visitation time.
- An ex-spouse refuses to deliver goods, money, or property as ordered in a divorce.
- One parent must enforce temporary family law, restraining, or child support orders.
For more information on contempt of court and the different types of contempt check out our article Illinois Contempt of Court Explained | Petitions For Rule To Show Cause.
How Is Contempt Proven In A Family Law Case?
To prove contempt in a family law case you must show that all of the below are true:
- The facts of the case show a plain violation of the court order.
- A valid court order exists and is still in effect.
- The individual in question knows the court order exists.
- The other party was given the notice for the contempt hearing and a chance to be heard.
- Contempt is an appropriate remedy for the situation and a simpler alternative does not exist.
If pursuing contempt for a parenting violation, you must also prove that at least one of the following is true:
- The defendant’s violation of the parenting plan was intentional.
- The violation of the parenting plan was in bad faith.
- Previous legal action has not resulted in the defendant following court orders.
How Do I Know If Pursuing Contempt Is The Right Move In My Case?
Filing for contempt of court against another party is a serious decision. It can be costly, time-consuming, and will not always result in a contempt order. Consulting with your attorney should be the first step. Beyond that, your answers to the questions below can paint a clearer picture:
- Is the original court order that the contempt motion references still in effect? Most orders are not indefinite. If the court order has ended, or the final ordered has been entered by the court, there is nothing to enforce, and thus nothing to base a contempt order on.
- Does the other party know about the court order? If the other party has not been served a copy of the court order or was not present when the judge signed the order, then the court will not hear your contempt motion. The reason for this is because the other party can immediately claim the defense of being unaware of the court order. Furthermore, court procedure requires notifying all parties involved of the court order.
- Does the order describe the other person’s responsibilities clearly? An ambiguous court order is easily defended. In this situation, having the court order clarified or changed can help you prove your case.
- Have you been keeping up with your responsibilities under the order? Trying to file a contempt order against the other person doesn’t work so well if you’ve not been keeping up with your own duties. For example, you want to force your spouse to give you due parenting time but you haven’t completed your drug rehab program.
What Are The Alternatives To Filing For Contempt, In A Family Law Case?
There are a handful of alternatives to filing for contempt, depending on the situation. If any of these apply they should be attempted first:
- Motion To Clarify: Use this motion if the agreement is vague or confusing. Even if you are considering filing for contempt, if the agreement is ambiguous the defendant will have an easy defense against the contempt claim.
- Motion To Modify: Maybe one or both parties are having a difficult time upholding a portion of the agreement. In this case, a lot of frustration can be avoided by simply changing the terms of the agreement.
- Draft A Demand Letter: While sending a letter may seem pointless if the other person is already ignoring your requests to follow the agreement, it still provides an official attempt at resolving the situation and shows the court you’re being reasonable, the other party has been informed about the court order, and your frustrations with their behavior have been made clear.
- A Collection Service: When it comes to family law matters involving money, such as child or spousal support, trying to collect through wage assignment, wage garnishment or foreclosure on property are usually better options.
What Are The Risks For Filing For Contempt In A Family Law Case?
Like most things in law, every action against the other party will have a reaction. When considering filing a motion for contempt ask yourself if any of the following scenarios are likely, and if they are worth the risk:
- The Other Party Files A Contempt Motion: Have you done a good job of obeying your court orders? The other party may see your motion for contempt and decide that filing one against you isn’t a bad option. Neither party wants this scenario as it can significantly raise the costs of litigation. Make sure you have a very strong case for contempt and follow your side of the agreement diligently.
- Can You Defend A Modification Motion? The other party may see an opportunity to argue that the court order is unreasonable and attempt to modify the court order.
- How Strong Is Your Position? No judge wants to see a weak motion for contempt.
- Do You Have The Funds To Pay The Extra Court Fees? Not only will the process likely cost you more, even if the contempt order is granted, if it fails you may be stuck with the court fees on both sides.
What Are The Potential Consequences Of The Court Finding Contempt?
The point of the contempt order is to enforce the original agreement between the parties. If the contempt order is awarded, the judge can decide to enforce it in multiple ways, such as:
- Order the parent to complete a parenting class
- Order the parent to complete counseling
- Order the person to find work outside of their allotting parenting time
- Award attorney’s fees to the other party
- Award more parenting time or make-up parenting time
- Slap the other party with a civil penalty (a fee).
The judge will typically choose a consequence that he or she believes will be most effective, without causing excess disruption to the family unit, especially the children.
For more information on contempt of court in family law cases, look for Part 2, where we discuss what to do if you are on the receiving end of a contempt motion.