May 24th, 2023
What is Contempt of Court in Washington State?
If you’ve ever been involved in a family law dispute in Washington State, you may have heard the term “contempt of court” thrown around. As an attorney, one of the most common questions I’m asked is, “What does ‘contempt’ actually mean, and how does it apply in family law cases?” To provide some clarity, let’s delve into the standards for civil contempt in the context of Washington State’s family law system.
To begin with, ‘contempt of court’ generally refers to behavior that disrespects or impedes the functioning of the court. In the context of family law, this usually refers to someone not following a court order related to matters such as custody arrangements, child or spousal support, property division, or restraining orders.
Now, it’s crucial to note the distinction between civil and criminal contempt. Criminal contempt is punitive, meant to punish disobedience or disrespect toward the court, like disrupting court proceedings. Civil contempt, on the other hand, is remedial, designed to encourage compliance with a court order for the benefit of another party. Civil contempt is not meant to punish.
What are the elements of contempt?
Let us examine a hypothetical parenting plan. A father by the name of John stops bringing his kids to Susan’s scheduled weekend visitation time. Susan protests and reminds him of his court-ordered obligations under the parenting plan, but John ignores her. What does Susan need to prove to hold John in contempt?
Contempt requires proving three basic things. In this case:
1) That John violated the parenting plan;
2) That John was aware of the parenting plan’s terms.
3) That John violated the parenting plan intentionally; and
4) That John’s violation of the parenting plan was in bad faith.
In this case, points 1, 2, and 3 are easy to prove. Point 4 is often where contempt motions live and die.
The biggest challenge of motioning for contempt.
Contempt often comes down to a question of intent. If a party’s conduct could be reasonably interpreted to be misguided but well-intentioned, they cannot be held in contempt of court. If an order is ambiguously worded or poorly drafted, holding the other party in contempt can become very difficult. If a parent genuinely believes they were following a parenting plan, but their interpretation is different than yours, that may be a defense against a contempt motion. We see contempt challenges most often in cases where the parties represented themselves and entered their own parenting plan, not realizing the documents have serious ambiguities and faults until it is too late.
The way to resolve such a circumstance is to modify the parenting plan to remove unclear language and to ensure that you have an attorney on hand to review any orders before they are entered. Even then, challenges can still arise.
Other challenges when motioning for contempt.
Let’s change the above scenario between Susan and John. Let’s say John attempts to take the kids to Susan’s visitation, and they refuse to go. Under Washington law, a parent is presumed to have the ability to convince a child to follow the parenting plan. However, when there is a truly recalcitrant child and a parent makes a good-faith effort to get the child to go with the other parent, there will not be a finding of bad faith (Point 4) and, therefore, no finding of contempt.
Accordingly, John must try to convince the children to go with Susan for the weekend. Examples of a good faith effort include talking to the children to convince them to go, withholding privileges if the children do not go with Susan, bribing the children to go with Susan, and more. One must always attempt to make the children go with the other parent, even if they do not think their efforts will work.
The payoffs of contempt.
Take heart. If you do overcome the above challenges, you can expect to recover attorney’s fees for your trouble. More importantly, if a parent is found in contempt of a parenting plan at least 2 times in a 3-year period, the other parent can motion for a major modification to change the parenting plan and request they be named the primary residential parent. What else you might get from contempt will depend on the circumstances, what you ask for, and what the judge decides is reasonable.
Whether contempt is right for you.
Contempt is a complicated subject. Whether a contempt motion is worth the risk will depend on your individual circumstances, the history of the case, and your objectives. Though we discussed family law in the above blog, contempt can be applied to a wide variety of court orders to seek justice when you have been wronged.