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What does it mean to be held in contempt of court?

Too often, when divorced parents aren't able to deal with one another amicably, one parent's misunderstanding of the terms of the custody and visitation agreement or other court order can result in a contempt of court allegation by the other parent. Sometimes, a misunderstanding of a vague provision can also lead to a contempt accusation.

Criminal contempt of court generally involves deliberately disobeying a court order. Civil contempt is more common. Coercive civil contempt is the most common type of contempt of court where child custody issues are involved. In these cases, the parent who is found to be in contempt can be ordered by the court to begin obeying the order.

Not every instance of disobeying a court order is considered contempt. It must be willful. That means a person must have the ability to comply but is not doing so. If there are mitigating circumstances (like a parent wasn't able to get off work in time to pick up a child as scheduled), it's considered nonwillful disobedience and not an instance of contempt.

The penalties for contempt of court can include fines, wage garnishment, the requirement of supervised visitation, and in some cases, even imprisonment. It all depends on the situation.

Taking a co-parent to court for contempt isn't always the best option. It can be stressful, time-consuming and expensive. It can damage the co-parents' relationship even further. Sometimes, an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) option like mediation is best for everyone -- especially the child.

If your co-parent has been knowingly and repeatedly violating your custody and visitation agreement or if you're being accused of contempt of court, it's essential to talk with your attorney. The most important thing is not to lose sight of what's in the best interests of your child.

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