If a party intentionally and without legal justification disobeys a court order, this is called being in contempt of court and the law provides a remedy through a finding of contempt.
In family or divorce actions, the most common examples of contempt are when one party fails to pay child or spousal support or if one party refuses to honor the custody and placement (visitation).
In Wisconsin, to address or obtain relief from the court for the contempt, the party who is harmed by the violation of the court order must file a Motion with the court describing the contempt in order to have the matter heard. This Motion must be personally served on the violator at least five (5) business days before the date of the hearing.
If the violator is found in contempt, the court has the authority to order the violator to correct the contempt and also to order sanctions or penalties as a result of failing to comply with the court order. This may involve more than one hearing because the court must allow the offender an opportunity to obtain counsel. The court must also set “purge conditions” which is an opportunity to purge or correct his or her contempt by setting tasks to be completed or payments to be made in order for the violator to avoid further punishment. Some of the sanctions available to the judge are payments, wage garnishment, attaching or seizing assets or even jail time.
The court also has broad discretion to come up with other, more creative solutions to force the violator to comply with the terms of the decree. For example, if a party was court ordered to sell the marital residence by a certain date but did not do so, the court may give the violator a certain period of time to sell the home in order to avoid a finding of contempt. If the violator is successful in selling the home in the time ordered by the court, the violator completed the appropriate purge condition and would not be found in contempt.
The harmed party may also ask the court to order that the violator be responsible for paying the harmed party’s attorneys fees and other expenses associated with the Motion. The court will often do so as a way to punish the offender.
It is important to note that if a violator is found not to have an ability to pay or comply with the court order, for whatever reason, then he or she cannot be found in contempt. For example, if someone becomes ill and cannot work, then they are not in contempt for failing to pay support because they do not have the ability to pay. Or, if someone tries to sell a home pursuant to court order but cannot do so, they are not in contempt because they did try to comply with the order.
If you are in a contempt situation, whether you are the party seeking relief or the party who is out of compliance with the court order, it is best to consult with an experienced family law attorney to assist you for the best possible results. For more information or a free initial consultation if you are in our practice area, visit our website at www.nkmfamilylaw.com or contact us at 414-258-1644.