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My ex has threatened me with contempt of court. What does this mean?

If you are not fulfilling certain terms of a divorce decree or an order in a suit affecting the parent-child relationship, the other party may take you back to court to enforce the order. Depending on the underlying order, a party who disobeys a court order could find himself jailed or placed on community supervision for contempt of court.

But not all orders can be enforced by a contempt action. The Texas Constitution protects people from being jailed for the non-payment of a debt. Tex. Const. art I, § 18. In the family law context, a debt can be an obligation to provide for spousal support or child support that goes beyond the duties imposed by the Family Code. See In re Green, 221 S.W.3d 645 (Tex. 2007). These obligations may arise from agreements between the parties in the course of settling their divorce or the suit affecting the parent-child relationship—for example, an agreement to pay alimony or child support beyond the child’s 18th birthday. This does not mean that these obligations aren’t enforceable at all—only that they cannot be enforced by throwing the other party in jail. Rather, in these situations, the court’s order may be treated as a contract. See generally Markowitz v. Markowitz, 118 S.W.3d 82, 90 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2003, pet. denied) (holding that “agreements incident to divorce become enforceable contracts when they are incorporated into a final decree.”) While jail time might not be available, there are other tools a court can use to attempt to make a party obey it’s orders, such as income withholding or child support liens. See Tex. Fam. Code §§ 157.001 et seq. and 158.001 et seq.

By contrast, orders that are enforceable by contempt are those which were authorized by the Family Code. “The obligation which the law imposes on spouses to support one another and on parents to support their children is not considered a `debt’ within Article I, section 18, but a legal duty.” See In re Green, 221 S.W.3d at 647 (quoting Ex parte Hall, 854 S.W.2d 656, 656-57 (Tex. 1993)). Thus, for example, if your obligation arose not through agreements and bargaining with your spouse but through the application of the child support guidelines to your income, a failure to fulfill the court-ordered duties may result in enforcement through contempt.

Yet even this does not end the inquiry. “To be enforceable by contempt, a judgment must clearly order or command a party to perform the obligations imposed and the terms for compliance must be clear and unequivocal.” In re Coppock, 277 S.W.3d 417, 418 (Tex. 2009). A judgment that does not clearly state what the party must do is not one that can be enforced through the threat of jail.

Because enforcement of an order is not so clear cut as to find a party in contempt for even egregious violations of an underlying court order, it is important to consult with an attorney concerning the ways to enforce an order or to defend against a motion for contempt.

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