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Contempt, Generally

Every obligation imposed on the parties by a court's order (or the parties' mutual agreement) must be complied with, and the failure to comply with each and every term of each and every effective court order is a serious offense with serious consequences. While most contempt actions stem from non-payment of child support and/or interference in the non-custodial parent's visitation rights, there are a multitude of ways in which a party may be in contempt of (i.e., in violation of) of a court's order. For example, one party may be refusing to abide by the custody, visitation and/or communications provisions with respect to a the parties' minor children, such as one parent refusing the other parent their allotted visitation time with the children or not allowing/answering telephone communication with the children. Alternatively, one party may be behind on their child support, alimony, or even property division obligations, such as one parent failing to timely pay their monthly child support payment to the other parent or maintain adequate health insurance for the minor child. It is important to remember that the requirements of a court's orders are typically independent in nature, meaning that just because one party is in contempt of a court's order does not negate the other party's contempt of that same order (i.e., two wrongs do not make a right), and one or both parties are still obligated to uphold the terms of the court's order (and/or can be still be compelled to act or even punished by the Court) in such a situation. A party's violation of a court order can result in serious consequences, such as being required to: (a) pay the other party's attorney's fees and expenses or other fines imposed by the court; (b) attend parenting classes or other remedial courses; (c) reduced (or increased for the other party) custody/visitation/ parenting time with the parties' minor children; (d) serve jail time; and/or (e) suffer any other consequence that the court believes is necessary to cure the party's contempt. In situations where a party has been falsely accused of contempt, the court may similarly punish the falsely-accusing party.

Contempt of Financial Obligations (Child Support, Alimony, Property Division, Attorney's Fees Awards)

The most common form of contempt in domestic relations actions are a party's violations of their child support, alimony, and/or property division obligations. Contempt proceedings are appropriate even if partial child support/alimony payments (or property divisions) are made or tendered (or the payments are made late), as a party may be held in contempt for nonpayment, partial payment or late payment of their child support, alimony, or property division obligations (or even your attorney's fees awards). If a court order or judgment requires one spouse to give certain property (whether it is a house, car, bank account, etc.) to the other spouse (or the order requires one spouse to take action to effectuate a transfer of property to the other spouse), a willful violation of such an order can be similarly punished by a contempt of court action. Where an income deduction order has been entered (i.e., where a party's various financial obligations are garnished directly from their paycheck or other income), their employer may be held in contempt for failure to properly garnish their wages and pay you directly, as may the party obligated to make the payment in the first place (as it is their duty to ensure that the garnishment is properly withheld from their income and paid timely to the other party).

Contempt of Non-Financial Obligations, such as Visitation, Communication, and Harassment, and Parental Alienation

In addition to contempt of a party's financial obligations, a party may be in contempt of other non-monetary terms of a court's order (or the parties' agreement). There are a myriad of ways in which a party can violate the non-financial terms of a court order, but they often involve violations of parent-related issues, such as visitation and communication with the minor children. Unfortunately, some parents engage in hostile or passive-aggressive behaviors towards the other parent that they believe (or at least allege) is in the children's best interests, but is actually for their own benefit and/or an attempt to alienate the children from the other parent. In most cases like this, one parent engages in a consistent course of conduct attempting to drive a wedge between the children and the other parent (which is sometimes referred to as “parental alienation”).

If a parent is intentionally making a child unavailable for court ordered visitation with the other parent, it is considered interference with child visitation. This interference may be direct, such as one parent refusing to let the other parent see the child (with or without excuse), or it may be indirect, such as one parent enrolling a child in extracurricular activities that occur during the other parent's visitation time. Interference with child visitation is taken very seriously by the courts, as parents may attempt to block visitation as a means of controlling the other parent or as an attempt to alienate the child from the other parent. For example, one parent may claim that the children do not want to visit with the other parent and they will not force the children to visit; in reality, however, the children are rewarded for not spending time with the other parent or are otherwise encouraged (or otherwise influenced) by said parent to avoid contact with the other parent. Similarly, a parent may be alienating the children from the other parent by speaking negatively about the other parent or encouraging the children not to love the other parent. Additionally, one parent may block or otherwise intercept the other parent's attempts to contact the children through the phone, email, text message, etc., such as by taking away children's phones/computers or hanging up or ignoring phone calls.

If you are facing such a situation, it is critical to document every time that you are denied visitation or communication with your children, including dates, times, relevant communications, and the other parent's reasoning for denying you visitation/communication. As well, it is important to inform the other parent of these violations and give them a chance to correct their misconduct prior to filing a contempt action, as the other parent's actions may not have been intentional (and if their misconduct continues despite this “last chance”, it will make it more likely that the court will find there has been a willful violation and award you attorney's fees). Keep in mind that there are a multitude of other ways in which a party can violate their obligations (whether such violations are minor or major); as such, it critical to speak with a family attorney as soon as possible so that you can take the appropriate actions to rectify such violations (and ensure that you yourself are not in contempt). No matter what you do, early intervention by an attorney (and in many situations, a licensed child psychologist/therapist) is of critical importance, as there are some things that cannot necessarily be cured by an order from the court (such as a child's feelings towards his/her parents).

Resolution & Taking the Law into Your Own Hands

If you believe you and/or the other party has violated – or is currently in violation of – a court's order, it is critical that you contact a family law attorney in your area immediately, as these violations can result in serious consequences for both you and/or your children. The most important thing you can do, besides speaking with an attorney to advise you of your rights/obligations, is to keep detailed and accurate records of your interactions with the other party (such as your emails, text messages, payments to/from), including fully documenting any conflicts that you have with the other party in violation of the court's orders. Keep in mind that even if you believe that your child is in danger (or at least serious risk) with the other parent, you cannot legally take matters into your own hands, such as by preventing the other parent access to the other parent. Rather, you must either come to a compromise with the other parent or utilize the legal system to resolve your disputes. In short, taking action without the blessing of the Court is a surefire way to sabotage your case before it even begins.

If the occurrence is an emergency concerning abuse, you should consider contacting a psychologist/therapist, the police and/or the Georgia Department of Human Services' Child Protective Services (“CPS”). Do not be afraid to contact the police or CPS in emergencies such as direct physical abuse, neglect, and or emotional abuse. Additionally, you may want to consider applying for a Stalking & Domestic Violence temporary protective order (i.e., a restraining order) if you fear for your or your children's safety, whether such action is taken with or in place of a contempt/modification action. If the occurrence does not involve abuse but is an emergency nonetheless, contact your local family law attorney to see what options you have as to seeking an ex parte order or otherwise obtaining emergency relief.

Attorney's Fees & Attorney's Fees Awards in Contempt Actions

Hiring an attorney that is well-versed in family law and the contempt and modification process is critical to obtaining an order that is favorable to your side, workable in your life, and also realistic for the parties (and their children and other dependents). Many individuals, however, have reservations and concerns regarding the amount they might be forced to spend on hiring an attorney, and thus choose to either represent themselves or otherwise forgo protecting their rights altogether and simply never file an action against the other party (or contest an action filed by the other party). For parties that elect to represent themselves, many realize too late that there is simply too much at risk to go it alone, and often settlement agreements, decrees, and orders negotiated, drafted, and/or litigated by self represented parties fail to address multiple critical issues at the necessary level of detail or otherwise do not fully protect their rights and interests. On the other end of the spectrum, parties who choose to simply give up pursuing an action for contempt/modification due to concerns over costs are letting the other party take advantage of their financial situation to their own gain. As such, it is critical that you hire an attorney to protect your rights. There is no reason to proceed without an attorney, particularly as there are several statutes under Georgia law that allow you to seek to have the other party made responsible for at least a part – if not all – of your attorney's fees (i.e., the other party has to pay your attorney or at least reimburse you for some (if not all) of the attorney's fees you have already paid). In particular, for both contempt and/or modification actions, there are several statute-based grounds to seek an award of your attorney's fees in Georgia for either prosecuting or defending the same. While your entitlement to an award of attorney's fees will depend heavily on the facts and circumstances of your case, such as the parties' conduct in attempting to resolve the dispute (bad faith, unnecessarily litigious, etc.) and/or a disparity in the parties' relative financial resources, it is always wise to speak with your attorney early in your action about creating a strategy for recovering your attorney's fees from the other side.

Atlanta and Augusta Family Law Firm for Healthcare Providers and their Family Members

Hamil Little’s attorneys have extensive experience in family law and domestic relations actions in Georgia's courts and otherwise guiding and assisting healthcare providers, professionals, businesspersons, and/or their family members in avoiding legal pitfalls associated with their personal lives, relationships, and family. Our law firm has offices in Atlanta and Augusta, Georgia. Contact us at (404) 685-1662 (Atlanta) or (706) 722-7886 (Augusta) to schedule a confidential consultation.