In family court, a “show cause hearing” goes by many names, depending on the state and county where it takes place; it’s also called an “order to show cause,” a “motion for an order to show cause,” and a “rule to show cause” hearing.
A show cause hearing is scheduled when one spouse (or a parent) involved in a family law or domestic relations case, files legal paperwork asking the court for some specific relief. These hearings can relate to many types of family court orders, including the enforcement of custody and visitation, property, and alimony orders.
Once the request is made, the court will schedule a show cause hearing directing the responding party to appear and “show cause” - meaning provide a satisfactory explanation to the court. It’s basically an order directing a party to appear in court and explain why that party took (or failed to take) some action, or why the court should or should not grant the requested relief.
For example, let’s say a custodial parent continually violates a custody order by interfering with the non-custodial parent’s visitation time. The custodial parent keeps “forgetting” to drop the children off on Saturday mornings as stated in the order or claims that the children have play-dates, soccer or other activities that make the scheduled visits impossible. This goes on for several weeks despite the non-custodial parent’s phone calls and complaints.
The non-custodial parent can file a “Motion for an Order to Show Cause” (which may be called something slightly different, depending on where you live and your local court rules) and a supporting statement of facts showing all the ways in which the custodial parent has disobeyed the court’s visitation order. The non-custodial parent will also ask the court for some specific remedy, such as an order that the custodial parent obey the visitation schedule, an order changing the visitation schedule, or even an order transferring custody to the non-custodial parent.
The court will schedule a show cause hearing and order the custodial parent to appear and explain the failure to follow the visitation schedule. At the hearing, both parents will have the opportunity to tell their version of the events. The judge will determine what the facts are.
The main objective of the show cause hearing is to get the party who is not following the court’s order to do so. The court can also order the relief requested by the moving party (for example, change visitation or transfer custody). And, in some extreme circumstances, such as repeated violations, the judge can find one party to be in “contempt of court” - when a party violates a court order, it’s called “contempt of court,” and a judge can impose penalties, including monetary fines or even jail time. Even the threat of these penalties can sometimes be enough to get someone to follow a court order.
Procedures for filing an order to show cause will vary from state to state and even between counties and districts, so you should check your local court’s website for more information. You should also see if your local court has a family law facilitator or some other type of self-help department that can provide legal information or assistance. Some county bar associations also provide free legal services to individuals with lower incomes.
If you can afford it, you may want to speak with an experienced family law attorney for more information and suggestions about presenting your case in court. Court proceedings can be complicated if you’re not skilled in the law of evidence and court procedure. Depending on the complexity of your case, it may be a good idea to hire a lawyer who can represent you in court.