As that great legal scholar, Basil, once said, “No one can have a higher opinion of you than I have, and I think you’re a slimy, contemptible sewer rat!” In Disney’s “The Great Mouse Detective” the object of this insult, Ratigan, really was a slimy, contemptible sewer rat. Your goal, in working through your family law issues in Virginia, is to avoid being like Ratigan. Avoid being slimy (bathe often), avoid being a sewer rat (easily done), but most important, avoid being in contempt of court.

Family Law and Contempt Orders

In Virginia, the scope of family law includes more than separation and divorce. Topics falling under family law in the Code of Virginia include:

  • Adoption
  • Child custody and visitation
  • Child support
  • Emancipation of a minor
  • Guardians ad litem
  • Juvenile and domestic relations
  • Parental rights
  • Paternity suits
  • Protective orders from abuse
  • Spousal support
  • Surrogacy

If a judge can sign off on a court order, a judge can also (in nearly every situation) find a party in contempt of that court order. This means something as seemingly innocuous as signing a property settlement agreement could end up causing a legal headache for you.

You Contemnor You

As you undoubtedly have figured out, legal language is a class unto itself. Someone found in contempt of a Virginia court is a contemnor, not a contemptible person (take that, Ratigan). Your goal in family law proceedings is to avoid being a contemnor.

Contempt has two faces: 

  1. Direct contempt — In a judge’s courtroom, to her or his face, you insult the judge, resist the court’s powers, or otherwise degrade the honor of the bench
  2. Constructive contempt — Away from the judge’s eyes, at a distance, you do something (or fail to do something) that belittles, degrades, obstructs, embarrasses or otherwise prevents the administration of justice

If you are so foolish as to show direct contempt in front of a Virginia judge, you may become acquainted with some of the judge’s buddies — those bailiffs, marshals and deputies standing around are not there just for show. The judge can immediately order you apprehended and imprisoned. Done and done, no trial, no other evidence than your own stupidity on full display. Congratulations, here’s your Contemnor badge.

Constructive contempt is more subtle, but demonstrates itself in failing to uphold visitation agreements, send spousal support, or provide adequate child support. With constructive contempt, you as the contemnor have the [luxury?] of a plenary hearing, a chance to explain yourself. Expect your powers of persuasion to get little traction.

Requirements for Contempt of Court

Virginia does not have, as a legal concept or goal, a system to routinely incarcerate or bankrupt its own citizens. This means a finding of contempt of court will not completely destroy your life; you could pay a penalty or serve some time in jail, but your life will go on. So before we delve deeper, know this:

  • A district court judge can assess a fine of no more than $250 or 10 days in the pokey for contempt of court
  • A circuit court can assess a fine of $2,500 and no more than 12 months in jail for contempt

The court, then, is not looking to enrich the state coffers at your literal expense. You have to meet certain qualifications to be deemed a contemnor:

  1. You knew the order existed;
  2. You knew your action (or inaction) would be in contempt;
  3. Had the means to avoid being in contempt by complying with the order

Suppose you are following the court visitation schedule and are supposed to take the kids from your ex-wife at 7 p.m. on a Friday. You agree to meet at Virginia Beach’s own Big Sams Inlet Cafe & Raw Bar (yummm, Lobster Claw & Knuckle Salad Tower) but you fail to show up. She gets angry and has her lawyer slap a contempt of court charge on you, but you come to court in a leg cast and with medical records showing you slipped on a spilled bowl of Angry She-Crab Soup (yummm — and yet how appropriate) a half hour before she got there. You did not knowingly violate the order by accidentally breaking your leg, it just happened.

So what is Contemptible?

On the other hand, deliberately violating a court order, out of some twisted idea of getting back at your ex-wife, is really contemptible. This might be demonstrated to the court’s satisfaction by evidence of:

  • Your ability to pay child support but your refusal to send checks
  • Vacation pictures you took of your cruise, rather than paying your court-ordered spousal support
  • Voice mails of you agreeing to visitation dates and times and then a pattern of late cancellations or delays

Your attorney will wisely advise you to never, ever violate a court order, even if you do not agree with it.

Filing Charges of Contempt

If you are not the contemnor, but wish to file charges of contempt against your spouse or ex-wife, you have the duty of proving to the court’s satisfaction that you have been grievously harmed by her actions. Prove that she:

  • Knew about the court order;
  • Deliberately violated it for no reason;
  • Had the means to comply

Many attorneys recommend sending a warning letter (from your attorney) advising her to comply. The letter should include a specific action she can take to prevent the contempt motion.

Get In Touch with The Firm For Men

For assistance with all phases of family law, for help in filing a contempt of court motion in your current situation, or for aid in defending against a motion against you, contact us at The Firm for Men. Telephone our Virginia Beach office at 757-383-9184 today. While we love a good Sherlock Holmes-mouse movie as much as the next law firm, we are neither slimy nor sewer rats. First and foremost, though, we are not contemptible.

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