What Constitutes Contempt of Court in Family Law?

Updated June 01, 2017

Family court can be a contentious environment that leads to contempt litigation. Failure to pay child support and possession and access are the two main issues that may lead to a contempt action in family law.

Contempt Definition

Contempt of court is improper conduct or purposefully disobeying or disrespecting a court by acting in opposition to the court's authority. Contempt also can be defined as a form of punishment the court can impose.

Direct vs. Constructive

Direct contempt occurs in the presence of the court, such as being disruptive in the courtroom or attempting to impede the courts duties. Constructive contempt occurs outside of the courtroom, such as refusing to obey a court order.

Child Support

Failure to pay child support, making a late or partial payment can result in a contempt action. Criminal remedies include jail time, community supervision and a fine. Civil remedies include occupational, recreational and driver's license suspension; freeze on financial accounts; and liens on property.

Possession and Access

Violation of an order of possession or access can result in a contempt action. This type of contempt typically arises when the parent with primary custody will not allow the other to have her court-ordered visitation, or the other parent will not return the child at the end of the visitation period. Jail time, community supervision and a fine are among the criminal penalties. Civil remedies include occupational, recreational and driver's license suspension, and modification of the possession order.

Deadlines to Enforce

There are state-specific deadlines regarding when a contempt action can be used regarding child support and possession and access. Generally, a contempt action must be requested before or soon after the child become an adult or the order is terminated.


Before proceeding to a court hearing on the contempt action, the court may require both parties to go to mediation. Mediation is a dispute-resolution process whereby parties meet with a neutral party to attempt to resolve their issues without the need for court intervention.

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About the Author

Lea Cook began writing professionally in 1994. After completing her bachelor's degree in journalism/theater arts in 1998 from Texas Tech University, she attended law school at Texas Tech University School of Law. Cook began practicing law in 2002 as a prosecutor and general practice attorney.