One remedy to a failure of one party to abide by existing court orders that is available to the parties in divorce and other family law actions is contempt of court. The power to punish for contempt arises out of the inherent power of the court, which is limited by §753(A)(3) of the Judiciary Law. It provides, in part:
753. Power of courts to punish for civil contempts
A. A court of record has power to punish, by fine and imprisonment, or either, a neglect or violation of duty, or other misconduct, by which a right or remedy of a party to a civil action or special proceeding, pending in the court may be defeated, impaired, impeded, or prejudiced, in any of the following cases:
3. A party to the action or special proceeding, an attorney, counsellor, or other person, for the nonpayment of a sum of money, ordered or adjudged by the court to be paid, in a case where by law execution can not be awarded for the collection of such sum except as otherwise specifically provided by the civil practice law and rules; or for any other disobedience to a lawful mandate of the court.
8. In any other case, where an attachment or any other proceeding to punish for a contempt, has been usually adopted and practiced in a court of record, to enforce a civil remedy of a party to an action or special proceeding in that court, or to protect the right of a party.
The power of contempt is exists to punish the party who engages in an evasion or a violation of duty, or misconduct, which resulted in defeating or prejudicing the other party’s rights. There are a number of procedural requirements that have to be strictly followed in order for the court to find a party in contempt. A motion to punish for contempt will be dismissed unless on its face it contains both a notice that the purpose of the hearing is to punish for contempt and that such punishment may consist of a fine or imprisonment. Without this notice and warning, the court is without jurisdiction to punish for contempt.
The party must also be advised by the court of the right to counsel and assigned an attorney if financially unable to obtain counsel. In addition, DRL §245 requires a finding that payment cannot be enforced pursuant to DRL §243 or §244 or CPLR §5241 and §5242 and the exhaustion of these remedies or a finding that they would be ineffectual as a prerequisite to a contempt for disobeying an order requiring payment of money in a matrimonial action. The court must find that the violation was willful and find expressly that the actions of the defaulting spouse were calculated to or actually did defeat, impair or impede or prejudice the other spouses rights or remedies. Nonpayment alone does not establish the requisite willfulness to support contempt. DRL §246(3) provides that financial inability to pay is a defense to a contempt proceeding under DRL §245. A person who asserts in an opposing affidavit financial inability to comply with the order is entitled to an evidentiary hearing to determine whether he or she has an ability to pay.
The punishment for contempt for failure to make ordered payments is imprisonment until payment is made. The defaulting spouse may pay the money due and be released. If the court finds that the party committed the offense charged and that it was calculated to or actually did defeat, impair, impede or prejudice the rights or remedies of the other spouse, the court must make a final order directing fine, imprisonment or both, as it finds necessary.
Civil Rights Law §72 limits the length of imprisonment for nonpayment of alimony, maintenance, distributive award, special relief in a matrimonial action and counsel fees in a divorce case to three months for a default of less than $500, and to six months for $500 or more. Noticeably absent is any mention of child support. If a party has an actual loss or injury because of the proven other spouse’s misconduct, a fine must be imposed sufficient to indemnify the aggrieved party and when collected, paid to the aggrieved party.
In contrast to the DRL, the Family Court Act (FCA) takes a tougher approach by providing for commitment as one of the remedies for nonpayment of support. Section 454(2) provides that where a respondent is brought before the court for failure to obey any “lawful order” of the Family Court for support and following a hearing the court is satisfied that the respondent has failed to obey the order, it may enter a money judgment, make an income deduction order, require an undertaking, make a sequestration order or suspend the respondent’s driving, professional or business license.
Here is an example of how a contempt application will be viewed by the court. In a recent case, H.S.M. v J.T.M., 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 50069(U) (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2011), the court was asked to hold defendant in contempt of Court for his willful failure to comply with the Judgment of Divorce entered in this action , and for his willful refusal to pay the sum of $43,351.87, together with interest. The parties’ marriage was dissolved pursuant to the Judgment of Divorce, entered June 24, 2008, which incorporated but did not merge with a Stipulation of Settlement, dated December 19, 2007. The Stipulation stated in pertinent part that:
The Husband shall pay to the Wife, as and for child support, the sum of One Thousand Seven Hundred Eighty-five ($1,785.00) Dollars per month … The parties agree that the child support payments will be made through the Nassau County Support Collection Unit. [Article XXVI]
Pursuant to the Order of the Hon. Denise L. Sher, J.S.C., dated October 4, 2006, the Court ordered pendente lite relief awarding to the Wife the sum of One Thousand Four Hundred ($1,400.00) Dollars per month temporary maintenance, as well as child support in the sum of Two Thousand ($2,000.00) Dollars per month. The award was retroactive to the date of service, which was July 18, 2006. [Article XXVII]
The Husband agrees that arrears for child support and maintenance as of the date of execution of this Agreement amount to Thirty-Eight Thousand Two Hundred ($38,200.00) Dollars, and agrees to the entry of judgment for said arrears. Said arrears shall be liquidated by the Husband paying to the Wife the sum of Three Hundred ($300.00) Dollars per month until all arrears are paid. The Father further agrees that in order to liquidate arrears, the Father shall remit to the Mother his income tax return refunds that he receives commencing with the tax year 2007 and shall pay over to the Mother the entire refund by June 1, 2008, and by June 1st every year thereafter until such time as his arrears have been liquidated. [Article XXII]
The Husband shall pay to the Wife, as and for spousal maintenance, the sum of Four Hundred ($400.00) Dollars per month…through support collection. [Article XXXVI]
Pursuant to the “So-Ordered” Stipulation of the parties dated May 19, 2010, “Def[endant] agrees to pay to Pl[aintiff] as and for child support arrears the minimum sum of $1,000.00 (One Thousand and no/100) by May 26, 2010.
Wife claimed that Husband has willfully failed to i) comply with the Judgment of Divorce dated August 6, 2008, which incorporates the Stipulation; ii) comply and pay the money judgment entered on February 3, 2010, in the sum of $49,746.27; and iii) comply with the “So-Ordered” Stipulation entered into by the parties on May 19, 2010. Wife claimed that subsequent to the entry of the money judgment, she contacted the Nassau County Office of Child Support Enforcement to seek payment of the child support obligation for the parties’ three children, as well as maintenance for herself. She claimed that notwithstanding the attempts of the Child Support Enforcement Bureau, no payments have been received from the defendant or his employer. She further alleged that the total sum now due and owing is $87,864.01, and that none of it has been paid.
In February of 2010, husband testified that he has no assets nor property which could be sequestered. In support of her application, wife claimed that nothing less than a fine and incarceration will persuade the husband to comply with the Court orders and judgments. She argued that other enforcement devices, including income deduction orders, income executions or sequestration will be unsuccessful in view of husband having made himself judgment proof; moving out of the State of New York; and failing to comply with any judgment or stipulation entered into by the parties.
Wife claimed that she is attending graduate school but that in the interim, she is completely dependent on her family for her support and the support of the parties’ three children. She claimed that the last time she received any funds from husband was in March of 2010, and that since that time she has received no support payments or maintenance. She argued that based upon those facts, husband’s intentional non-compliance with the judgment, orders and “So-Ordered” Stipulation has defeated, impaired and prejudiced her rights.
The court stated that a contempt citation is a drastic remedy which should not be granted absent a clear right to such relief. Further, to prevail on a motion to punish a party for civil contempt, the movant must demonstrate that the party charged with contempt willfully violated a clear and unequivocal mandate of a court’s order, with knowledge of that order’s terms, thereby prejudicing the movant’s rights. The court further held that pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §245, before a defaulting party can be held in contempt for the non-payment of a sum of money, it must appear “presumptively, to the satisfaction of the Court,” that the movant exhausted the less drastic enforcement remedies available under Domestic Relations Law §§ 243, 244 and 245, CPLR §§ 5241 and 5242, or such other enforcement mechanisms that would be ineffectual. Once the movant has made a prima facie showing that the party against whom a contempt citation is sought has failed to pay a sum of money as ordered, the burden then shifts to the obligor to adduce some competent, credible evidence of his inability to make the required payments, in order to show that the failure to pay was not willful. The court determined that wife has satisfactorily demonstrated the existence of a clear and unequivocal mandate of the court, and that husband has knowingly violated the order’s terms, thereby prejudicing her rights. The court also found that other methods of enforcement would prove ineffective in light of husband having made himself judgment proof. The court, however, determined that it must conduct a hearing to determine husband’s willfulness in violating the subject orders. In order for a non-compliant party be incarcerated for his willful violation of the court’s mandates, the movant must prove such willfulness beyond a reasonable doubt.
The above decision illustrates that while contempt is a remedy, it may require a substantial motion practice and, most likely, a hearing. Thus, contempt motions should not be brought unless all other remedies were exhausted.