DIY Contempt: Understanding How to Enforce Your Court Order

How to Enforce Your Order

You’ve been to court, had a long court hearing and got a court order which specifies a custody schedule, orders the other party to pay support or to transfer property to you.  What do you do when the other party refuses to follow the order?  Your remedy is initiate proceedings to have the opposing party held in contempt of court, which can result in fines, sanctions, imprisonment or both.

But what is contempt?

It is crucial to understand the difference between civil and criminal contempt in order to effectively enforce a court order.   In this article, we’ll got through the purposes, pros and cons of each type of content as well as answer other frequent situations we come across in our domestic practice.  Hopefully some of these explanations apply to your situation and you will allow us to help or take what you’ve learned and proceed successfully on your own.

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Civil Contempt

Civil contempt is used to compel compliance with a court order and to curb ongoing conduct which violates a court order.  The only means to compel compliance is put the offender in jail until the person complies with the order.   In order to have someone held in civil contempt you must prove: 1) the offender has the ability to comply, 2) the order is still in force, and 3) the refusal to comply must be willful.  Furthermore, it is required that the order be in writing and filed with the clerk.

You can file for civil contempt either by filing a motion for contempt or a motion for order to show cause, requested that a Judge issue an Order to Show Cause as to why the offender should not be held in contempt.   Note that, if the offender has complied with the order by the time of the hearing they cannot be held in civil contempt.

Other lesser known points if you’re seeking civil contempt:

  • Generally the court may not award costs or damages.
  • Generally the court may not award attorney’s fees, however they may be awarded in instances where attorney fees would be available in the underlying action.

Civil contempt is frequently used in situations where the opposing party has refused to turn over documents or refuses to pay support as ordered.   Many times judges will seek to compel compliance if an offender is found in civil contempt by setting a deadline by which they must comply or present themselves to be imprisoned.  Not surprisingly, this method frequently accomplishes the objective of compliance.

Criminal Contempt

While criminal contempt can be punished by a judge if an act is committed  that is likely to interrupt or interfere with court, for the purposes of this guide we will be discussing indirect criminal contempt.  A proceeding for criminal contempt can only be initiated by the filing of a motion to show cause and the issuance of a show cause order by a Judge.

In order to prove criminal contempt, you must prove that the violation was willful and that the person was warned in some way that the conduct was improper.  Clearly a valid order would place a person on notice that a violation of the order would be improper.

Possible punishments for criminal contempt include censure, imprisonment of up to 30 days and up to a $500 fine.  These punishments can be used in combination.  Imprisonment may be suspended and used in combination with probation.

Key Points for Criminal Contempt

  • Awarding attorney’s fees is not appropriate for criminal contempt nor may they be made a condition of a suspended sentence for criminal contempt.
  • For criminal contempt the order does not have to be in writing.

While not exhaustive, hopefully this can get you started on pursuing your contempt claim.  Contact us today for help with enforcement of orders throughout North Carolina.

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