What is a Show Cause Hearing in Family Court?

Learn why and how to file a motion for an order to show cause in a family law case, and what happens at the court hearing.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
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In family court, a "show cause hearing" goes by many names, depending on the state and county where it takes place. It may also called an "order to show cause," a "motion for an order to show cause," and a "rule to show cause" hearing.

Why File a Motion for an Order to Show Cause?

Spouses or parents who are involved in a divorce, custody, or other family law case may file a legal request (often called a "motion for an order to show cause"), asking the court for some specific relief. These requests may relate to many types of family court orders, including the enforcement of custody and visitation, property, and alimony orders.

For example, let's say a custodial parent (the one who lives with the child most of the time) continually violates a custody order by withholding or interfering with the noncustodial parent's visitation time. The custodial parent might keep "forgetting" to drop the children off on Saturday mornings, as required in the custody order, or repeatedly 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 noncustodial parent's phone calls and complaints.

The noncustodial 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), along with a supporting statement of facts detailing how the custodial parent has disobeyed the court's visitation order. The noncustodial parent will also ask the court for some specific relief, 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 noncustodial parent.

What Happens at the Show Cause Hearing?

Once one party (usually a spouse or parent) has filed the motion, the court will schedule a show cause hearing directing the other spouse or parent to appear and "show cause." Basically, that's an order directing someone to appear in court and explain why they took (or failed to take) some action, or why the judge should or should not grant the requested relief.

At the hearing, both spouses or parents will appear. In the example above (involving interference with visitation), the custodial parent would have to appear at the hearing and explain why they didn't follow the visitation schedule. Both parents would have opportunity to tell the judge their version of the events and reasons for what happened. They may also present other evidence backing up their testimony.

The main objective of the show cause hearing is to get the person who is not following the court's order to do so. The judge may simply order that person to obey the previous order. Or the judge may also order the relief requested (for example, by changing the visitation schedule or transferring custody).

In some extreme circumstances, the judge may find that one of the spouses or parents is in "contempt of court" for violating a court order. With a contempt finding, the judge may impose penalties, including monetary fines or even jail time. Just the threat of these penalties can sometimes be enough to get someone to follow a court order.

Getting Help With an Order to Show Cause

Procedures for filing an order to show cause will vary from state to state, and even between counties and court districts. So you should check your local court's website or speak with the court clerk 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 your interests

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