Enforcement of Custody Orders by Contempt in Missouri

Contempt of Court concept

Missouri divorces that involve one or more minor children require many plans and decisions. Courts cannot grant a divorce until they are satisfied that there are provisions in place for custody of the children and visitation with both parents. What happens when someone does not follow a custody order? Missouri law gives a parent several options when the other parent is interfering with the custody and visitation plan, or otherwise not cooperating with the court’s orders. It may become necessary to ask a court to use its authority to find the other parent in contempt of court. This is a rather extreme measure that can result in monetary fines, or even jail time for someone found to be in contempt.

Child Custody and Visitation Orders in Missouri

A divorce decree or other order establishing parental rights will typically identify each parent’s custody rights. Missouri law presumes that “frequent, continuing and meaningful contact with both parents” is in a child’s best interest. Absent evidence of abuse or similarly serious concerns, this often includes “significant, but not necessarily equal” time with each parent. The court may also issue temporary orders regarding child custody, child support, and other issues while the case is pending.

Missouri law identifies two types of custody:

  1. Physical custody refers to a parent’s “care and supervision” of a child.
  2. Legal custody refers to “the decision-making rights, responsibilities, and authority” over the child’s “health, education and welfare.”

If a court awards joint legal and physical custody to both parents, it is trusting the parents to work together to ensure that the child has comparable amounts of time with each parent, and to cooperate on important decisions affecting the child. The court could order a combination of joint and sole custody, such as where the parents share physical custody, but only one parent has legal custody. It could award sole legal and physical custody to one parent. Even if one parent has sole custody, the other parent is often still entitled to visitation with the child.

Noncompliance with a custody order includes a wide range of actions. A parent might be withholding visitation with the child, either by only allowing limited contact or by cutting off contact altogether. In more extreme cases, a parent might be hiding a child from the other parent without good cause.

Contempt of Court

The term “contempt of court,” often shortened to “contempt,” refers to a finding that someone has disobeyed a court order, obstructed or interfered with a court order, or otherwise disrupted the court’s business in some way. Under Missouri law, a court may hold someone in contempt for “willful disobedience of any process or order lawfully issued or made by it.” Penalties may include a fine or imprisonment in county jail, or both.

A court may issue a summary punishment for contempt — meaning that it can order a person fined and/or arrested on the spot — if the person commits an act constituting contempt “in the immediate view and presence of the court.” This usually refers to disruptions during a hearing or trial. Since violations of custody orders usually occur outside of the courthouse, the person who is allegedly in contempt is entitled to notice of the allegations against them. The court must hold a hearing where the person can present a defense.

Contempt may be civil or criminal, depending on the purpose of the court’s order. In custody cases, civil contempt is often more useful to the ultimate goal of protecting a child’s best interests. The Missouri Court of Appeals considered an appeal of two contempt orders last year in Wuebbeling v. Wuebbeling. The court’s ruling includes a rather detailed exploration of Missouri contempt law. The court found that two contempt orders against the mother were civil in nature, because the “purpose [was] not to punish [her] but to coerce her into complying with the court's orders.”

Enforcement of Missouri Custody Orders

If a parent in Missouri is not complying with a custody and visitation order, the other parent has several options for enforcement.

Family Access Motions

Missouri law establishes a procedure for enforcement known as a family access motion. This is available when “custody [or] visitation...is denied or interfered with by a parent...without good cause.” Every custody order issued by a court must include a statement describing family access motions and explaining the basic procedure for filing one. Family access motions are often a faster means of enforcing custody orders than motions for contempt.

A parent alleging a violation of the custody order must file a motion that “stat[es] the specific facts which constitute a violation.” Once the motion has been filed, the court clerk must issue a summons to the other parent within five days. If mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution are available, the clerk must notify the parties within fourteen days. If a hearing before the court is necessary, it must occur within sixty days of the filing date.

The remedies available with a family access motion may include:

  • Additional visitation with the child to make up for missed time;
  • A fine of up to $500 against the parent in violation;
  • Requiring the parent in violation to post a bond, which they would forfeit if they violate the order again;
  • Ordering the parent to participate in counseling, and to pay for the cost of the child attending counseling.

Motions for Contempt

A motion for contempt might be necessary in more difficult situations, such as when a parent does not expect that the other parent will participate in family access proceedings. While Missouri law identifies specific situations when a parent may file a family access motion, contempt is generally available “in the event of noncompliance.”

The parent must file a verified motion for contempt according to the court’s usual rules. State law provides for “expedited enforcement” of child custody orders in certain situations, but otherwise a motion for contempt may have to wait for the next available spot on the court’s docket. Unlike a family access motion, courts are not required to dispose of the matter within sixty days.

Out-of-State Enforcement

Sometimes, a parent violates a custody order by moving a child out of the state. This could be a situation where Missouri courts’ authority to find someone in contempt will not be enough. Missouri has adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, which makes it easier to enforce custody orders across state lines. If the parent takes the child to another country, the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction may provide the means to enforce the custody order.

Options After Being Found in Contempt of Court

In the Wuebbeling decision mentioned above, the court identified two options after a finding of civil contempt:

  1. “Purge [one]self of contempt by complying with the trial court’s order”; or
  2. Appeal the order “after the judgment is finalized via enforcement.”

The remedies that are available for family access motions may also apply to contempt orders. Courts may also impose more serious penalties, including fines and jail time. The parent found in contempt can avoid at least some of the punishment by complying with the custody order.

Mark A. Wortman is a Kansas City, Missouri family lawyer whose practice focuses exclusively on divorce, child custody disputes, and other family law issues. Please contact us online or at (816) 523-6100 today to schedule a confidential consultation with a skilled and experienced legal advocate.