Contempt of court actions are brought in family law matters when one party alleges that the other has willfully failed to comply with a prior court order. These are common cases that occur after the completion of a divorce, paternity case or other family law matter.
Below is summation of some Missouri case law involving litigated contempt of court cases. These examples can help provide a greater understanding of how these causes of action work in Missouri.
I. Contempt of Court for Unpaid Child Support
Stuart v. Ford, 292 S.W.3d 508 (Mo. App. S.D. 2009): The Southern District affirmed the trial court’s finding that Father was in contempt of court for failure to pay child support, with his arrearages totaling $42,982.00. Father was able to earn substantially more than he reported. Father quit his job as a trucker and did not seek work for over two years. Subsequently, he did find a trucking job but was paid in cash under the table, and the company did not keep receipts. He lived rent free in a house owned by his father and did not have a bank account or credit card.
The court found that Mother met her burden of proof in establishing a prima facie case that Father was ordered to pay child support and that he had failed to do so. Once Mother made a prima facie case of contempt, the burden shifted to Father to establish that he was unable to pay and that his inability to pay was not intentional or contumacious. The trial court found Father’s testimony to lack credibility regarding his various excuses related to his “physical disability, family matters and lack of suitable employment.”
II. Contempt of Court for Unpaid Spousal Support
Hall v. Hall, 53 S.W.3d 214 (Mo. App. S.D. 2001): The Southern District reversed the trial court’s finding that Husband was in contempt for his failure to pay spousal support. In Hall, Wife filed a motion for contempt for Husband’s failure to pay certain debts and his ceasing of maintenance payments. Evidence supported Husband’s contention that he did not have the ability to purge himself from contempt. His monthly expenses exceeded his income, and he sold a share of stock in an effort to raise money to pay off debt. The case further turned on the fact that Wife had remarried and was ineligible for maintenance.
III. Contempt of Court for Failure to Refinance
Ream-Nelson v. Nelson, 333 S.W.3d 717 (Mo. App. W.D. 2010): The Western District affirmed the trial court’s finding that Father was not in contempt of court for failing to refinance the marital home. Father was obligated to refinance the home pursuant to the dissolution decree and remove Mother’s name, and he openly admitted his failure to do so. Father bore the burden of demonstrating that his failure to perform was not due to his own intentional and contumacious conduct. In doing so, he alleged financial difficulties, debt to the IRS, and having too high of an income-debt ratio to refinance. The trial court found this testimony to be credible, and the appellate court affirmed this credibility determination as not against the weight of the evidence.
IV. Contempt of Court for Violation of Custody Order
Basham v. Williams, 239 S.W.3d 717 (Mo. App. S.D. 2007): The Southern District affirmed the trial court’s finding that Father was not in contempt for failing to follow the custodial schedule. Father admitted that, in the sixteen months prior to the proceeding below, the minor child had not seen Mother for all but a period of three months. The burden then shifted to Father to show that his failure to meet the obligation was not due to his own intentional and contumacious conduct. Father testified that he always encouraged the minor child to visit Mother on the scheduled dates, but that he did not want to go. Based on this testimony, the trial court did not believe Father’s testimony to be intentional and contumacious. The appellate court noted that Mother had other remedies available to her, such as filing a Family Access Motion.
IV. Contempt Excused Based on Good Faith Judgment of Parent
In re C.N.H., 998 S.W.2d 553 (Mo. App. S.D. 1999): Father filed motion to modify custody, and mother responded by denying visitation by father. Mother claimed sexual abuse by father and took the child to the doctor for an examination. However, Mother did not present abuse accusations to the trial court and permitted father to resume visitation after he moved for temporary custody and a contempt citation. The Southern District eluded that it would not have found Mother in contempt if she would have gone forward with her accusations of abuse.
VI. Change in contempt law
State ex rel. Family Support Div.- Child Support Enforcement v. Lane, 313 S.W.3d 182 (Mo. App. W.D. 2010): Where the consequence of contempt is jail time, the trial court must advise the alleged contemnor that he/she has the right to a court appointed attorney if he/she is unable afford one and is found indigent.
Carothers v. Carothers, 337 S.W.3d 21 (Mo. Banc 2011): The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that a contempt defendant must be informed of what is being alleged, the possible consequences of the contempt proceeding, the nature of the trial proceedings in a contempt action, and what the defendant is giving up by waiving the right to counsel.
In this case, the court noted that the record was devoid of any explicit mention of the right to counsel. The record contained only (1) the court’s judgment of contempt stating that Mother (the obligor) waived counsel; (2) the judge’s statement at the beginning of the hearing that “[Mother] is present in person, pro se. And there was some conversation at the bench before we started the record;” and (3) [Mother’s] comment at the end of her testimony that “Well, like I said, I didn’t have the money for an attorney….” The court ruled that this is not enough for an appellate court to determine that Pamela knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently waived her right to counsel.
Jones v. Jones, 296 S.W.3d 526 (Mo. App. W.D. 2009): A civil contempt order must be final to be appealed. “An order finding a party in contempt is interlocutory only and not final for purposes of appeal until it is actually enforced. . . . A contempt order is enforced either when the moving party executes on it, or, in the case of imprisonment, when the court issues an order of commitment. Once a trial court has issued an order of commitment, then the contempt order changes from mere threat to enforcement,’ and becomes final and appealable.”
Carothers v. Carothers, 337 S.W.3d 21 (Mo. Banc 2011): Carothers adopted the rule from Emmons v. Emmons, 310 S.W.3d 718 (Mo. App. W.D. 2010), regarding when a previously stayed contempt order becomes final and appealable. If a warrant of commitment is stayed, the judgment will not become final and appealable until either (1) the contemnor is “actually incarcerated on the stayed or conditioned warrant of commitment” or (2) “the trial court take evidence to determine whether contempt has been purged and then reissues a warrant of commitment.”
Keywords: Contempt of court, motion for contempt, show cause order, post-judgment enforcement