A Temporary Order, or a Judgment, that the Probate and Family Court issues is a legal document -- compliance with its terms is not optional.
Each party to a case must follow the terms of a Temporary Order or Judgment, and a party's failure to do so could result in a Judgment of Contempt.
The word "contempt" frights people, understandably (and perhaps appropriately) but it is important to understand what a contempt is and what it is not.
A Probate and Family Court Judge will hold a party in contempt of a Judgment or Temporary Order only upon proof that the party willfully disobeyed the clear and unequivocal language of that Temporary Order or Judgment.
"Willful disobedience" means that the party allegedly in contempt was able to comply with the Judgment or Order, but did not. The failure to pay the entire amount of child support ordered, when the failure is accompanied by an involuntary job loss, for instance, is not necessarily willful (particularly where the support payor made some payments of support.) The failure to pay child support because you disagree with the amount or existence of the support order, however, is willful (remember that whole "not optional" aspect of a Judgment or Temporary Order.)
"Clear and unequivocal" means that the allegedly violated language can reasonably be interpreted to have only one meaning. If language is ambiguous, it is more difficult for a Judge to hold a party in contempt for violating that language. On other pages of this website, I talk about the fact a Stipulation or Agreement can become a Temporary Order or Judgment, respectively. This is why I am so picky about my drafting of Stipulations and Agreements, because crappy drafting creates ambiguity, and that could open the door to a party's noncompliance.
Contempt proceedings move much more quickly than other cases that are filed at the Probate and Family Court. Here are the steps:
• Like other cases, the first step in the contempt process is to file a Complaint for Contempt. If you are represented by an attorney, your attorney will file the Complaint for Contempt and will also take care of service (described in step 3 below.) If you are representing yourself, you can find the necessary forms here.
• The Probate and Family Court will then send a Contempt Summons to the plaintiff (the person who filed the Complaint.) The Contempt Summons will contain, among other information, a date upon which both the plaintiff and the defendant (the person who allegedly violated the Order or Judgment) must appear in Court for a hearing on the Complaint for Contempt.
• The plaintiff must, within seven (7) days before the date scheduled for the hearing, have a sheriff or constable serve a copy of the Complaint for Contempt and the Contempt Summons on the defendant (so that the defendant is given proper notice of the allegations and the date of the hearing.) If you are representing yourself, you can find information about service here.
• The plaintiff must appear in Court on the date of the hearing and be prepared that day to (1) tell the Judge what language the defendant violated and (2) present the evidence of those violations. The evidence presented will usually be in the form of documents and witness testimony (including the plaintiff's own testimony.) If the plaintiff does not appear, the Complaint will be dismissed.
• The defendant must also appear in Court on the date of the hearing and be prepared that day to present any evidence that the defendant is not in contempt (that is, that there was no violation, that any violation was not willful, or that the language at issue is not clear or unequivocal.) If the defendant does not appear, the Judge will either issue a capias for the defendant, or the Judge will enter a Judgment of Contempt and may also schedule a further hearing to review the defendant's compliance and/or issue further remedies (up to and including incarceration) if the defendant does not comply.
• Depending on the complexity of the issues presented, the Judge may issue a decision at the hearing (that is, concluding that the defendant is or is not in contempt) or may take some time for further consideration after the hearing and issue a decision in the mail to the parties (either directly or to their attorney.)
I hope this information has been helpful to you. If you would like to book a call with me to discuss your own contempt matter -- or other divorce, custody or support issue -- click here to get direct access to my calendar to schedule a complimentary call.
Talk to you soon.
Then you should access Janie's free course, where she will show you the what, when, how and how much of divorce, custody and support cases in the Massachusetts Probate and Family Courts. Plus, you'll have access to Janie anytime you have questions.