Contempt for Domestic Support vs. Debt
Under California law, a court may hold someone in contempt for failing to pay domestic support obligations. The purpose behind contempt proceedings is to protect and maintain the public’s respect for the court’s authority. Contempt proceedings are unique in that the court and the alleged contemnor are the parties to the legal action.
In family law, the failure to financially support a child or spouse differs from private debts because domestic support obligations arise from a legal duty in connection with the marital or parent-child relationship. In contrast, private debts arising out of a contractual duty to repay money.
Both the U.S. Constitution and the California Constitution have been interpreted to prohibit debtors prisons as a violation of a person’s right to equal protection under the law. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court held that debtors prisons were fundamentally unfair and that the state must determine whether a person’s failure to pay debts was due to a financial inability to do so or out of willful refusal.
Because contempt proceedings for the enforcement of outstanding domestic support payments can implicate jail time, such proceedings toe a precarious line between an unconstitutional prison sentence for debtors and the justifiable enforcement of a person’s familial duties.
Contempt proceedings can be classified into two distinct types: criminal contempt and civil contempt. Courts have held that the purpose of holding someone in contempt determines whether the proceedings are criminal or civil in nature.
If the court holds the alleged contemnor in contempt and sentences them to a fixed jail term for the purpose of punishing past conduct, the nature of the contempt proceeding is considered to be criminal. Criminal contempt proceedings imply that certain procedural safeguards should apply.
In both criminal and civil contempt proceedings, the defendant has the following rights:
- The right to assistance of counsel
- The privilege against government-compelled self-incriminating testimony
- The burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt
However, a person subject to criminal contempt has a right to a jury trial, whereas someone subject to civil contempt does not.
When the purpose of holding a delinquent party in contempt for failing to honor their domestic support obligations is to coerce the alleged contemnor into complying with the court’s domestic support order, the contempt proceedings are deemed to be civil in nature. Accordingly, courts may imprison the delinquent spouse as long as their release is conditioned on repayment of their outstanding support obligations. Courts have held that civil contempt proceedings place the “keys to the jail cell” in the contemnor’s hands.
For example, a court may sentence a spouse to jail for failing to pay six months of child support but will free them if they pay two months' worth of support and promise to be the remaining four months off in 60 days. Thus, the contemnor can find themselves in jail for as short as two hours, or as long as two months, depending on how stubborn they are—they are in control of how long their prison term lasts.
Motion for Discharge Grounds
Contempt proceedings are subject to basic principles of due process. The alleged contemnor must receive notice of the proceedings and be given an opportunity to defend themselves. The “defendant” in a contempt proceeding may make a “motion for discharge” which serves like a dismissal of the charges.
The court will grant the alleged contemnor’s motion for discharge on the following grounds:
- The court’s order was not issued by the judge presiding over the contempt proceedings
- The court’s order exceeded its jurisdiction
- The terms of the order were not specific enough to be reasonably enforced
- The nature of the order is for the repayment of debt and is unconstitutional
- Enforcement of the order subject to a stay pending appeal
- The order to show cause was made absent a charging declaration
- The order to show cause lacked adequate probable cause
- The current proceedings place the contemnor in double jeopardy after the court previously discharged the matter
Contact Gille Kay Law Group, PC for More Information
If you are concerned about your rights regarding the enforcement of court order for the financial support of a child or former spouse, you should reach out to an experienced attorney from Gille Kay Law Group, PC. We have extensive experience with various family law proceedings, including contempt of court proceedings.
To schedule a consultation about your case, call us at (626) 340-0955 or visit us online today.