Wilful Disobedience? A Brief Guide to Contempt in California

You’ve been fighting with your former spouse to get him or her to pay child support, and nothing seems to be working. There is even a court order in place, but he or she ignores your calls, emails, and texts. What else can you do?

When someone violates a California court order they can be found in contempt of court, provided these four elements can be proven:

  • There is a valid, written and signed court order in effect.
  • The violator knew about the court order. Knowledge can be shown by proof of their presence in court when the order was made, or evidence of personal service of a copy of the order.
  • They had the ability to comply with the order.
  • Noncompliance was intentional.

In child support cases, the last two elements do not apply, given the fact that such payments are the legal obligation of a noncustodial parent. In California, orders enforceable by a contempt finding include:

  • Child and spousal support
  • Child custody and visitation
  • Attorney fees and court costs in family law proceedings
  • Division of marital property
  • Restraining orders and protective orders from a California family court
  • Failure to comply with the statutory “declaration of disclosure” requirements

Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations for seeking a contempt action depends on the alleged violation. For nonpayment of child or spousal support, it must be no later than three years from the date a payment was due. (Each month of nonpayment is treated as a separate count of contempt.) Contempt actions to enforce other California family court orders must be brought within two years of the date that the alleged contempt occurred.

How to Initiate Contempt Proceedings

To enforce your child support order, you will have to file a “charging affidavit” that describes the ways that your ex-spouse has behaved in contempt. The court will then issue an order summoning him or her to appear and answer the charge at a specified date and time. This documentation must be served at least 21 calendar days before the scheduled hearing date.

The Contempt Hearing

Your spouse or his/her attorney must appear at the hearing: failure to do so can result in a bench warrant to compel their presence. A court may not proceed in their absence unless it finds that the Order to Show Cause and Affidavit for Contempt were properly served and they deliberately chose not to appear.

Contempt Penalties

After finding your spouse in contempt of court, the court can subject him/her to penalties like the following:

  • A fine of up to $1,000 and up to five days in jail
  • Community service of up to 120 hours for a first or second contempt charge
  • Community service of up to 240 hours for a third contempt charge
  • Payment of your attorney’s fees and costs related to enforcing the child support order

If the court agrees that your former spouse voluntarily refused to pay child support, it can assist you in collecting arrears by ordering that:

  • His/her assets be seized and sold
  • A lien be placed on real estate property, such as a house
  • His/her wages and bank account be garnished

If you are a custodial parent seeking back child support or alimony recipient who has not received your court-ordered payments, or if other party has not complied with any other court orders, please contact Ahluwalia Law P.C. today at (408) 416-3149. We understand how stressful and unfair it is for you to struggle financially, and will help you take all available steps to collect the money you are owed, including a contempt action.

Written by Ahluwalia Law Professional Corporation

Ahluwalia Law Professional Corporation

Welcome to Ahluwalia Law, P.C., the home of Attorney Madan Ahluwalia. Madan has been practicing law since 1994, and has been managing his own firm serving the San Francisco Bay Area since 1995. He is passionate about building long-lasting relationships with each client, which begins by offering affordable, efficient, and personalized services.