A final divorce decree is a court order that usually includes obligations for both former spouses. This often includes a duty to pay child support and/or spousal maintenance, to sign documents necessary to transfer ownership of property, and other tasks. A court may also issue temporary orders on matters like child custody and child support, which apply while a divorce case is still going on. What happens when someone does not comply with the court’s order? Missouri law provides several judgment enforcement options for someone who needs to assert their rights under a divorce decree or other family court order. This might involve seeking to enforce a money judgment, or asking for a contempt of court charge and order.
A divorce decree is really a collection of orders that serves several functions. First, it grants the divorce, meaning that once the court signs the decree, the marriage relationship is over. The decree then addresses issues between the spouses, such as dividing the marital property between them and, in some cases, ordering one spouse to pay maintenance to the other. Finally, it deals with custody and support of the spouses’ minor children, if they have any.
Each of these parts of a divorce decree create obligations for one or both former spouses. A spouse might be obligated to make monthly payments for child support or spousal maintenance. They might be required to sign over the title to a vehicle awarded by the court to the other spouse. If they have minor children, they will both have obligations regarding custody and co-parenting.
Missouri law defines contempt of court in several ways, including:
Enforcing an obligation in a divorce decree usually requires one party, known as the “movant,” to go back to court with a motion for contempt. The same court that handled the divorce case will usually hear the contempt motion.
Proving contempt of court requires evidence that the other party (the “respondent”) has failed to comply with the divorce decree. The movant may have to testify about the respondent’s behavior, particularly in cases where the non-compliance involves custody of the children.
Perhaps the most important element that the movant must show in court is that the respondent’s failure to follow the court’s order was “willful.” This means that the respondent knew about their obligation under the divorce decree and still did not fulfill it.
The respondent can present evidence in their defense, such as by presenting documents that show they paid child support or spousal maintenance, or testifying to explain alleged failures to follow a custody order. If a respondent can show that they made an honest mistake, the court should not hold them in contempt since they did not act willfully
Consequences of contempt of court may include monetary fines or even jail time. A jail sentence is rare in family law cases. The purpose of a contempt hearing is to force the respondent to comply with the divorce decree. An order finding someone in contempt must describe the circumstances of the offense, such as the details of non-payment of child support or withholding of child custody. Courts often give the respondent an opportunity to fulfill whatever obligation they did not meet, with the threat of a fine, jail sentence, or both following close behind.
Because of the potential for significant penalties, courts tend to view contempt of court as a last resort. If someone is a few days late on a single child support payment, or runs late dropping off a child at the other parent’s house, a court probably will not appreciate taking the time to hear a motion for contempt of court. It is a remedy for ongoing situations, when other attempts to resolve the problem have not been successful
An order finding someone in contempt of court often gives that person a strong incentive to do whatever they were supposed to do. In cases that involve specific tasks, like signing over the title to a car or refinancing a house, a contempt order may simply require them to perform that task or face punishment. Non-payment of child support or spousal maintenance can present problems that contempt of court does not address.
Missouri treats orders to pay child support or spousal maintenance as “money judgments.” This means that a person owed support or maintenance can act as a creditor, and can enforce the support or maintenance obligation as a debt. Options for enforcing a money judgment in Missouri include:
The custody, support, or maintenance orders in your divorce decree are no help to you or your children if your former partner is not complying with them. Kansas City family law attorney Mark A. Wortman has years of experience making sure Missouri family courts are enforcing their orders. Contact us today online or at (816) 523-6100 to talk about how we can help in your case.