When the Court Enters a Judgment, the Litigation is not Necessarily Over.
Judgments and temporary orders entered by the court in a family court case are not negotiable and should not be treated as suggestions on what parties are to do. Judgments and orders are very specific in what the parties must do or refrain from doing and are to be strictly followed. These judgments and order set forth the rights and obligations of the parties and in some cases enforcement of those rights and obligations is required if one party does not obey the Court. If a party does not agree with what the judge wrote or does not like what the order says, this will not excuse non-compliance.
Contempt actions are usually brought over issues of failure to pay child support, alimony arrears, non-reimbursement of uninsured medical and dental expenses, failure to contribute toward children’s extracurricular activities, cost of health insurance premiums, interference with parenting time, failure of a party to allow telephone calls with children, and other compliance issues relative to joint legal custody decisions.
The Massachusetts Probate and Family Court has the authority to enforce the terms of a judgment or order through a contempt action. Although most contempt actions are civil in nature, this does not mean that there will not be serious consequences if a person is found to be in contempt of court. For example, a Massachusetts probate and family court judge has the authority to incarcerate a person for up to 30 days for non-payment of child support. In most cases however, the penalty for non-compliance with a court order or judgment is payment of attorney’s fees or some other monetary sanction. The objective of the Court is not to punish the non-compliant party, but to encourage compliance with the terms of the Court’s judgment of orders.
The plaintiff in a complaint for contempt has the burden of proof, or the responsibility to demonstrate to the Court that the defendant has not followed the court’s judgment or order. In order to find a defendant in civil contempt the plaintiff must show that the judgment or order was clear and unequivocal order and that the defendant willfully violated it. The language of the judgment or order must be unambiguous in such a way that the rights and obligations of the parties are clear to a reasonable person.
Sometimes, the judgment or order is vague, and parties may not understand what their rights and obligations are. In those cases, it is important to try to resolve the confusion and discuss the issues before seeking court intervention. If the issues cannot be resolved between the parties, it may be necessary to file a contempt, or if appropriate a modification in order to clarify the judgment if it is ambiguous and there is a dispute about what the parties’ rights and obligations are. If a complaint for contempt is filed and the court has found that the plaintiff has met his or her burden with respect to the language of the order, the court will then look towards the actions (or failure to act) of the defendant to determine what the appropriate remedy will be.
If you have been served with a complaint for contempt or are having compliance issues with your ex, it is important that you have an advocate in court so that the judge has a clear understanding of the facts of your situation and the language of the judgment or order. Call us today to set up a consultation and let us see how we can help. 978-851-2291, or contact us online.
For your convenience, appointments may be scheduled during flexible hours. Our office is centrally located in Tewksbury near Route 93 and Route 495. We serve clients in Middlesex and Essex County.