Once a Massachusetts court enters an order or judgment in family law case, the parties must obey its provisions unless and until they are modified by the court. If one of the parties does not, either by not doing something that the party is supposed to do or by doing something that the party is not supposed to do, the question of what action to take arises. If the act or failure to act is causing a significant or on-going problem, then bringing a contempt case should be considered.
If a contempt case is filed, the court will consider the following:
- What was ordered? It is clear and unambiguous? If it is not, then a modification case seeking to clarify the order, not one for contempt, might be more appropriate and looked upon more favorably by the court.
- How is that order being violated? Please bear in mind that the court is very busy and cannot get bogged down with what might reasonably be considered minor or one-time infractions.
- Is the violation intentional? The question is not just if the party violating the order meant to do so, because that is normally the case. The question is rather if that party could have obeyed the order. Or, putting it the other way, is it possible that the party did not have the reasonable ability to comply?
- What should the court do about the violation? In a case of non-payment, the court will establish how much is owed (the “arrears” or “arrearage”) and when and how it will be paid. In other cases, the court will decide what should be done to remedy the violation and prevent it from happening again.
- Should attorney’s fees and costs be assessed? In a case of non-payment of child support, by statute the court is supposed to assess these fees and cost and award them to the party bring the contempt case, although it sometimes does not.