Property Division Contempt Actions: What You Should Know
In a perfect world, people would always follow through with the financial commitments they make during divorce proceedings. But we do not live in a perfect world. So, a Rule 12 contempt action might be necessary.
To see how contempt actions work, let’s assume the divorce orders direct Ben to pay certain credit card bills which are in Doug’s name. Ben does not pay the bills, and as a result, Doug cannot qualify for a needed business expansion loan. The lack of capacity costs him a major account.
How can a Maitland family attorney straighten out this situation while also upholding Doug’s legal and financial rights?
Basic Components of a Property Division Contempt Action
In many court actions, the party’s intentions do not matter much. The result is all that matters. But that’s not the case in contempt actions. The party’s intent is key. This principle permeates the three major components of a property contempt action, which are the person:
- Knew about the order,
- Had the ability to comply with the order, and
- Did not have a valid excuse for noncompliance.
As for our hypothetical dispute, unless the judge granted the divorce by default, Ben almost certainly knew about his obligation to pay the credit card bill. Just to be sure, however, Doug’s lawyer probably needs to send Ben a demand letter before the matter proceeds to a contempt action.
The next phase, which is Ben’s ability to comply, is a bit more complex. Eventually, Doug may need to subpoena bank statements and other financial records. But initially, the fact that Ben is working and paying some bills is probably enough to show he had the capacity to pay the credit card bill.
Finally, the “excuse” does not necessarily have to be a legal excuse. The judge will at least consider almost any excuse Ben has, no matter how seemingly flimsy it is. Ben might be able to at least get more time to pay the bill.
In a property contempt action, Doug probably does not want to punish Ben. The court certainly does not want to punish Ben. Instead, both Doug and the judge want Ben to comply with the order.
That could mean modification of the current order. For example, Doug’s previous lawyer might have inadvertently included the wrong account number in the order, or omitted this information altogether. An order like “pay this” may not be specific enough to be enforced via contempt.
Next, some remedial order might be appropriate. For example, the judge could accelerate the repayment timetable or give Ben a specific deadline to pay the account in full.
Remedial orders may not make Doug whole. If his business suffered because of Ben’s failure to pay the account, Ben might be responsible for damages. Setting the measure of damages would not be easy, because Doug cannot speculate as to how much the failure to expand cost him.
The availability of such collateral consequences is probably tied to Ben’s intent. If Ben was having trouble making ends meet and the credit card bill simply was at the end of the repayment line, a judge might hesitate to impose additional penalties. But things might be different if Ben thumbed his nose at Doug, and in so doing, thumbed his nose at the court as well.
Connect with a Dedicated Lawyer
Property contempt actions may be available in post-divorce division matters. For a confidential consultation with an experienced family law attorney in Maitland, contact The Troum Law Firm, P.A. We routinely handle matters in Seminole County and nearby jurisdictions.