A court-ordered child custody agreement is a legally enforceable order setting out the terms of custody and/or visitation for parents and their children. These agreements are generally put into effect when parents separate, divorce, or decide to co-parent without having a relationship with one another.
Child custody agreements come in all shapes and sizes and can be customized based on individual circumstances. One parent may have full custody or both may split custody 50/50. However, shared custody does not always have to be split evenly. For example, one parent could have the children during the weekdays and the other could have them every weekend. Another example when parents do not live in close proximity to one another is where one parent has the children during the school year and the other parent has the children during the summer months.
The possibilities for the terms of child custody agreements are essentially endless. While it is best for parents to work out an agreement beforehand and then ask the court for approval, this is not always an option. When messy divorces and parents that cannot agree are an obstacle, the court will need to decide the terms of the child custody agreement. The court is always supposed to put the best interest of the child first and will make the order according to what schedule best aligns with that goal.
However, sometimes parents make informal custody arrangements that are not approved by the court. While the terms could be identical to a court-ordered child custody agreement, these informal agreements differ because there is no legal way to enforce them. This can cause a lot of trouble if a violation occurs.
What Can I Do If the Other Parent Violates the Court-Ordered Child Custody Agreement?
A violation of a child custody order simply means that one parent did not follow the terms of the agreement. Some common violation examples include the following:
- Not taking the child over to the other parent’s house on the designated day;
- Going on vacation with the child without the other parent’s knowledge and approval;
- Putting the child in the care of an unauthorized individual without discussing it with the other parent beforehand;
- Denying one parent their custody rights as outlined in the order; and
- Taking the child across state lines without the other parent’s knowledge or court approval, if doing so is necessary under the order.
If one parent violates a court-ordered child custody agreement there are legal options and avenues the other can take for relief. Your first step may be to contact the police, but this is a call to make dependent on the situation. Some common examples of when police involvement may be appropriate are if your child has been taken to another state, your child is not returned to your custody on time, you do not know where your child is and the other parent is not responding to you, or for repeat violations.
Regardless of whether you get the authorities involved, it is important to notify the court of the custody agreement violation so they can handle it accordingly. Some consequences of violating a court-ordered child custody agreement include being held in contempt of court, loss of parental rights, reduction of parental rights, revised visitation rights, complete loss of visitation privileges, or jail time for serious situations where a child is put in danger.
As noted previously, it is extremely important to have the appropriate court approve child custody agreements so they can be enforced when violated. For example, look at the shared custody scenario where a parent fails to bring their child over to the other parent’s house on their designated day.
In that instance, if the custody agreement was informal then the parent who did not get their child on the agreed upon day would not have any legal options for relief. Instead, the parent violating the informal agreement could essentially get away with these actions indefinitely and keep repeating them without facing consequences.
What Is Contempt of Court?
Generally, contempt of court refers to an action that defies a court of law, like violating a court order or being disrespectful to a judge. Contempt of court for child custody refers to severe and continuous situations where there has been repeated violation of a court-ordered child custody agreement and the other parent asks the court to issue an official determination about whether the agreement was violated.
This is usually a last resort after the non-violating parent tries to remedy the situation out of court, asks the court to enforce or modify the agreement, works with their family case worker, or tries anything else to avoid holding the other parent in contempt.
What Happens When You Are Being Held in Contempt of Court for Child Custody?
If a person is held in contempt of court for child custody violations, then serious consequences can result. The punishments for contempt of court someone can face generally includes one or a more of the following:
- Payment of fines to the court;
- Payment of fines to the other parent;
- Jail time;
- Modified custody agreement;
- Loss or reduction of custody or visitation rights;
- Court-appointed supervisor for future visitations with the child;
- Court-ordered mediation or family counseling; and/or
- Mandatory parenting classes.
To avoid being held in contempt and facing these potential punishments, parents should keep an open line of communication with each other, follow the custody order, and attempt to remedy any violations before it reaches such a serious point.
How Do I File a Complaint for Contempt of Court?
If one parent violates a child custody agreement, the other can file a complaint for contempt of court. As noted above, this is usually a last resort but if it gets to this point then filing a complaint is the official way to start contempt proceedings.
After a violation occurs, the process for filing a complaint for contempt generally consists of the following steps:
- File a motion and complaint for contempt of court in the same court that issued the order for your child custody agreement;
- Send a copy of the motion and complaint to the other parent or their lawyer (if they have one);
- Wait for the court to schedule a hearing date; and
- Attend the hearing and make sure you have all relevant evidence to support your case for violations of the custody order.
The specific requirements will vary by state so it is important to make sure you check your court’s rules before moving forward. It is also important to ensure that all relevant information is included in your complaint for contempt of court. This will include dates and times relevant to the custody violations, a summary of the facts, any written documentation to support the violations (like text messages or police reports), and any documentation illustrating attempted resolution of the issues prior to filing the complaint.
At the hearing, use all evidence and witnesses to support your case. For example, say you sent the other parent several text messages asking why they did not return your child on time or where they were. This communication would be very relevant to the contempt proceedings, especially if the other parent failed to respond or their answer illustrated defiance with the court order. Any person that witnessed the violations or relevant exchanges between both parents would also be helpful for the court when making a determination about whether contempt is appropriate.
Do I Need a Lawyer for a Contempt of Court of Child Visitation Issue?
When dealing with violations of a court-ordered child custody agreement, especially in situations involving repeat violations, hiring a child visitation lawyer would be prudent. A lawyer can look over your case, confirm violations of the order, file a complaint for contempt, represent you in all relevant proceedings, and help persuade the court that modification of the order and punishment are warranted.