How to File / Fight a Contempt of Court Motion in a New York Divorce Case

A New York court order is not something that can be ignored. In New York State, violating a court order can have serious consequences. When a person disregards a court order, the court has the power to hold them in contempt of court.

In high-conflict divorce and child custody cases, contempt of court motions can be useful to hold a spouse accountable when neglecting their court-mandated obligations.

Who Can Be Held in Contempt of Court

Any party in a divorce or family law case can be held in contempt. Attorneys appearing in the case can also be held in contempt and witnesses who ignore subpoenas.

Requirements for Filing a Contempt of Court Motion in New York

Contempt of court is not something the courts take lightly. When all else has failed, it is often a last resort to get a person to comply with the court's directives.

Basic Elements of a Contempt of Court Finding

  1. There must be a clear order from the court in place.
  2. The person in question knew about the order, even if it was not formally served to them by a process server.
  3. The person has disobeyed the order, either by ignoring it or purposefully acting in opposition.
  4. The act of disobeying the order has caused harm to the other party in the case.

How to Obtain Contempt of Court in Your Case

Contempt is available for violation of any kind of order in your case (whether it is temporary or final), which can include the production of specific documents or items, property division, child custody, child support, spousal support, payment of things such as household bills, health insurance, or life insurance, and occupancy of the home.

If your spouse fails to comply with a court order, document everything that happens. Your attorney can then use that documentation to file a motion asking the court to hold your spouse in contempt of court.

Your attorney will provide evidence of the order violation and the harm it has caused you. There are very strict filing requirements regarding the paperwork your attorney must file in order for your spouse to be held in contempt of court.

It is up to the judge to decide what to do if they conclude that a court order has been violated. A court can also decide to hold someone in contempt on its own, without a filing by the other party.

Civil vs. Criminal Contempt

Contempt of court can be civil or criminal. Civil contempt is mainly coercive, while criminal contempt is punitive. A finding of civil contempt aims to coerce the party at fault to follow the court’s order. Meanwhile, criminal contempt of court is meant to punish violators and assert the court´s authority.

  • Civil contempt of court is found when the order’s violation has harmed the other party’s rights.
  • Criminal contempt of court is found when the person violating the order ignores the court’s authority. Often, this kind of contempt involves a higher degree of willfulness – the violator may be trying to make a point or cause harm by ignoring the order. If a party violates an order of protection, they can be held in criminal contempt.

The penalties for contempt of court vary depending on the type of contempt at hand.

Direct vs. Indirect Contempt of Court

Direct contempt of court involves unacceptable behaviors that occurred in the presence of the court. For example, shouting profanities during a hearing or trying to interrupt proceedings constitute direct contempt violations.

Indirect contempt of court refers to actions that didn´t take place in the presence of the court but nevertheless affected proceedings. For example, if one party in a divorce trial talks to jurors outside of the courtroom, this constitutes indirect contempt. To prove indirect contempt, third-party testimonies must be presented.

What Are the Penalties for Contempt of Court in New York?

There are two basic types of penalties for contempt of court in New York: fines and jail time. Depending on the nature and scope of the relevant violations, parties in New York divorce cases may face fines, jail sentences, or both.

Penalties for Contempt of Court: Fines

The punishment for civil contempt of court is usually remedial; its purpose is to benefit the claimant, who has been harmed by the violator´s behavior.

Parties found to be in civil contempt are typically fined. The amount of the fine can vary. It is set based on the type of harm the other party to the case suffered because the violator ignored a court order.

For example, if a spouse was ordered to make mortgage payments on the couple’s home and refused to do so, a fine for contempt could be used to reimburse the other party for the financial harm they suffered as a result of this. If there has not been any actual harm to the other party, a civil contempt fine cannot exceed $250.

Fines may skyrocket when violations are ongoing depending on the circumstances and type of case. For instance, last year, a New York judge ordered our former President Donald Trump to pay $110,000 in contempt fees for refusing to turn over required documents to the New York Attorney General. Trump was fined $10,000 for every single day he “defied the court’s order.”

When the court holds the violator in criminal contempt of court, a fine can also be imposed. In New York divorce cases, fines for criminal contempt cannot exceed $1000.

It’s important to note that while the amount of the fines may appear insignificant in the context of a complex divorce, placing yourself in the position of being held in contempt will damage your position with the court, causing the judge to see you in a negative light, which can impact the outcome of the case.

Jail Time as a Penalty for Contempt of Court

The court can also impose jail time as punishment for contempt of court. Criminal contempt of court can result in 30 days in jail, or three months if an order of protection has been violated.

If a party in a divorce case violated an order of protection by entering their spouse’s home and threatening them, the court could hold the violator in contempt and impose jail time. New York State takes violations of orders of protection very seriously because they can put personal safety at risk.

Violators can also face jail time over civil contempt of court. Typically, they will be released as soon as they fulfill their previously neglected obligations.

The lines between civil and criminal contempt are not entirely clear-cut. In 2015, a New York Judge explained the difference as follows:

“Moreover, although the line between the civil and criminal contempt may be difficult to draw in a given case and the same act may be punishable as both a civil and a criminal contempt, the element which escalates a contempt to criminal status is the level of willfulness associated with the conduct. That being said, the purposes of civil contempt and criminal contempt differ. Civil contempt is designed not to punish but, rather, to compensate the injured private party or to coerce compliance with the court's mandate; a criminal contempt, on the other hand, involves an offense against judicial authority and is utilized to protect the integrity of the judicial process and to compel respect for its mandates. Unlike civil contempt, the aim in a criminal contempt proceeding is solely to punish the contemnor for disobeying a court order, the penalty imposed being punitive rather than compensatory. To hold a party in criminal contempt, a hearing must be held, and a wilful disobedience of a court order must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Ultimately, you might face several months in jail whether you have been found to be in criminal or civil contempt of court. Our New York Divorce and contempt filing specialists can design bulletproof strategies to protect your freedom and civil rights.

What to Do If You Are Facing Contempt of Court

If you receive a notice that there is a motion to hold you in contempt of court in your divorce or family court case, it is important that you do not take this lightly.

The penalties for contempt of court can be severe. If you are facing contempt of court, you must appear in court at the designated time, and it is crucial that you employ an experienced attorney to represent you in the proceeding.

Bear in mind that failing to appear for your contempt of court hearing can further complicate your legal situation. Once you receive notice of a motion for contempt, you can attempt to mitigate the consequences by immediately complying with the order in question and doing everything the court previously directed you to do.

It is important that you do not make any admissions about failing to follow the court's order. Discuss all your options with your New York divorce attorney. Our experienced divorce and child custody litigators and trial lawyers are ready to assist you.


Naomi Schanfield

Naomi Schanfield concentrates on all aspects of matrimonial and family law, including, prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, divorce, equitable distribution, child custody and visitation, support matters, family offense disputes, and domestic violence.

To connect with Naomi: 212.682.6222 | Online

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