You've probably watched dramatic movie scenes where someone is hauled out of a courtroom and thrown in jail overnight for offending a judge in the middle of an intense trial. In reality, this type of "contempt of court" is relatively rare. For practical purposes, most "contempt of court" situations occur when someone blatantly violates (disobeys) a written court order by failing to follow its directions.
The definition of "contempt of court" in New Jersey family law cases is the same as in all other areas of law within the state. Simply put, a person is in "contempt of court" when he or she deliberately violates a court order, acts inappropriately in the courtroom, or disrespects the judge while court is in session. New Jersey law has expanded the definition quite a bit to include all kinds of disrespectful behavior that will land you in hot water with the court. This article takes a look at what steps you can take if your former spouse refuses to follow a court order, what will happen if the court finds your ex in contempt, and what kinds of penalties New Jersey courts impose in family law contempt cases.
In New Jersey family law cases, contempt of court usually takes the form of failing to follow a court's written order after the case is settled or the final hearing has taken place. For example, if one party was ordered to pay child support and refuses to pay it simply because he or she doesn't want to hand the money over to the ex-spouse, the non-payment is a violation of the court's order and an act of contempt. Other contempt examples include failing to cooperate with scheduled parenting time and refusing to reimburse the other parent for a child's medical expenses.
If your former spouse is deliberately ignoring a court order, you can file a motion – in New Jersey, this is called a "motion to enforce litigant's rights" – asking the court to hold your ex in contempt. If the court rules in your favor, it will order your ex to comply with the original order or face the consequences of continuing to ignore it. In most jurisdictions, it's a good idea to attempt to work out your differences before resorting to legal action – in certain types of cases it's even required. For example, if your ex is refusing to go along with an order related to a scheduling issue (setting a deposition or other event) or won't hand over documents (discovery), New Jersey family law requires that your contempt motion include certification (a statement signed by you) explaining that your lawyer either spoke to your ex's lawyer or wrote a letter to the lawyer in a good faith attempt to straighten things out before moving on to filing a contempt motion.
If negotiations fail and you have to file a contempt motion, New Jersey law requires that it include a list of the things your ex is refusing to do, a request for the court to enforce your ex's compliance, a request for your ex to pay your attorney's fees, a copy of the original order your ex is ignoring, and the certification paper signed by you.
New Jersey courts have broad authority to enforce their orders. If the court rules that your ex is willfully ignoring an order, a common outcome is for the court to order your former spouse to pay your attorney's fees. If the subject of your contempt motion involves parenting time, spousal support or child support, New Jersey law provides a few extra remedies (a form of compensation) to make you whole after the hassle of dealing with your ex's refusal to cooperate with the court's original order. For example, if your contempt motion is successful and your case involved parenting time or support, the court might award you extra time with the kids, a change in the transportation arrangements when it comes to visitation times, a temporary or permanent change in custody, or repayment of expenses. The court might also order your ex to pay for family counseling for the kids, parents or both. New Jersey law also gives the court authority to order your former spouse to participate in community service. In unpaid child support cases (known as "arrears") the court often tacks on overdue support to the regular monthly support amount, along with interest.
The penalties for contempt range from relatively minor to severe. New Jersey family law courts have a great deal of discretion for imposing penalties, which often include an order to pay the other side's attorney's fees. The majority of contempt cases involve fines, which in New Jersey cannot exceed $50 per violation. In extreme cases, courts can confiscate an offender's driver's license or send the guilty party to jail. While such penalties are somewhat rare in family law cases, they occur more frequently in situations where a party has deliberately failed to pay child support for long periods of time and can't prove any financial hardship that prevents an ability to pay.
If you have questions about a contempt case, you should contact an experienced family law attorney in your area for advice.
For laws governing contempt of court, see N.J.S.A. 2A:10-1 and NJ. St. 2A:10-5.
For links to the New Jersey Rules of Court relating to contempt in New Jersey, see: