Playing with Fire: Contempt of Court in New York Divorce Cases

When a court issues an order in a divorce case in New York state, the parties in the case must follow it. A court order is not optional or something that can be ignored. When a person violates or disregards a court order, the court has the power to enforce that order. Ignoring or violating a court order can have serious consequences in New York state. When a person violates or ignores a court order, they can be held in contempt of court.

Who Can Be Held in Contempt of Court

A court can only hold someone in contempt if the court has jurisdiction over that person. Any party in a divorce or family law case can be held in contempt. Attorneys appearing in the case can be held in contempt. Witnesses who ignore subpoenas can also be held in contempt of court.

Requirements for Contempt of Court

Contempt of court is not something the courts take lightly. It is often a last resort when all else has failed to get a person to comply with the court’s directives. For a finding of contempt of court against a party in a divorce or family court case to be made, the following things are required:

  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 by purposefully acting in opposition to the order
  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 file a motion asking the court to hold your spouse in contempt of court. Your attorney will provide evidence of the violation of the order and the harm it has caused you. There are very strict filing requirements involved with 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 the order has been violated. A court can also decide to hold someone in contempt on its own, without a motion from the other side.

Types of Contempt of Court

Contempt of court can be civil or criminal.

  • 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 and refuses to follow orders of the court. Often there is a higher degree of willfulness involved in this kind of contempt – 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 that the court has found to be present.

Fines as a Penalty

The court can impose a fine for violating the court order. When the violator is being held in civil contempt of court, 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 the 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.

When the court holds the violator in criminal contempt of court, a fine can also be imposed in that situation. The fine cannot exceed $1000 for criminal contempt.

It’s important to note that while the amount of the fines is small in light of a complex divorce, placing yourself in the position of being held in contempt will damage your position with the court (meaning the judge may see you in a negative light moving forward which can impact the outcome of the case) and make it more likely that further instances of contempt will be treated more harshly.

Jail Time as a Penalty

The court can also impose jail time as punishment for contempt of court. Jail time of up to six months can be required for civil contempt of court. Criminal contempt of court can result in up to 30 days in jail, or three months if an order of protection is the order that has been violated.

If a spouse violated an order of protection by entering the other spouse’s home and threatening them. The court could hold the violator in contempt by imposing jail time. Violations of orders of protection are taken very seriously by New York court because personal safety is at risk.

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. As you have seen, 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.

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 admission about failing to follow the order previously. Discuss all your options with your attorney.


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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