The procedural vehicle to enforce judgments of the Court is the Complaint for Contempt, the vast majority of which are civil or remedial (as opposed to criminal) in nature. In a nutshell, there are three (3) basic elements that must be met in order to succeed on a contempt action: (a) there is a prior order or judgment, (b) the prior order or judgment is unambiguous and can be understood without resort to any other document or evidence, and (c) the defendant willfully, and unequivocally disobeyed that order or judgment. It is up to the party who has requested the court’s involvement to prove his case by “clear and convincing evidence.”
With respect to financial orders, the Appeals Court has explained: “[a] showing that the defendant had adequate income to make payments in accordance with a court order, that he had knowledge of the order, and that he failed to make such payments would warrant an inference beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally disregarded the court’s order.” If a contempt is entered as a result of one spouse’s failure to comply with a monetary order or judgment to pay child support, there is a statutory presumption that the spouse who sought relief is entitled to receive his reasonable attorney’s fees and expenses related to the attempted resolution, initiation or prosecution of the Complaint for Contempt. Statutory interest also is available to a successful party, though rarely awarded.
The Contempt powers of the court may also be invoked to enforce non-financial orders pertaining to children, such as one parent’s interference with the other’s parenting time, telephone access to the children or opportunity to participate in major decisions. Generally speaking, missed parenting time will be made up, and both counsel fees and sanctions may be awarded. If one parent’s interference becomes a chronic problem or frequently recurs, the court may transfer custody of the children.