Contempt of court occurs when a person subject to a court order willfully fails to comply with the judge's ruling. Like most aspects of family law, issues of contempt in divorce cases are governed by the laws of individual states, with variations both in procedure and consequence. As a general rule, however, the law empowers divorce courts not only to enter orders, but also to enforce them.
Although state laws on contempt of court vary, contempt can exist any time a person fails to comply with a court order despite having the ability to do so. In the context of family law, a parent can commit contempt by failing to pay child support as ordered or refusing to allow the other parent's court-ordered visitation. Failure to pay alimony, attorney fees or marital debts can also constitute contempt. State law can make exceptions for what can or cannot constitute contempt. California, for example, does not consider failure to contribute to community property debt as punishable contempt.
A family court's contempt powers range from financial sanctions -- ordering a party to pay a fine or contribute to the other side's attorney fees -- to imprisonment. Courts can incarcerate a party for a set period of time as punishment for a contemptuous act or to coerce that party to comply with the court's order. Contempt also carries very important indirect consequences; refusing to comply with a family court judge's orders can make you appear defiant and uncooperative, which can influence the outcome of a case.
While contempt may exist in any willful failure to comply with a court's order, punishment is not automatic. The aggrieved party may have to file more than one contempt motion before the noncomplying party gets incarcerated. Typically, a family court judge will give the noncomplying party an opportunity to "purge" himself of contempt by complying with the court's order within a specified time period. The swiftness with which a court deploys its contempt powers will vary not only from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but also from judge to judge within the same courthouse.
Not all failures to comply with a court order will constitute punishable contempt. A party failing to pay child support or alimony can defend himself by showing the court that he actually couldn't pay -- he may have lost his job, for example, or suffered a serious reduction in his hours. A party refusing to comply with a custody order may be able to point to some behavior on the part of the other side -- substance abuse, domestic violence or some other activity not in the child's best interests -- as justification for not allowing visitation time as ordered.