Court Explains Grounds for Contempt Orders in New York Divorce Actions

In New York, judgments of divorce will typically not only legally end a couple’s marriage but will also establish their rights and obligations with regard to child support, spousal maintenance,  and property division. As such, if a party fails to comply with the terms of a divorce judgment, they can be held in contempt. Recently, a New York court discussed the burden of proof for a party asking the court to hold their former spouse in civil contempt in a divorce case. If you have questions about the legal process of ending your marriage, it is in your best interest to talk to a New York divorce lawyer at your earliest convenience.

History of the Case

Allegedly, the parties in this case were married in 1993 and had four children. They got divorced, and a judgment of divorce was entered in October 2016. The divorce judgment was based on a decision that resulted from a trial held in February 2015. This decision from the trial was incorporated by reference into the final divorce judgment.

It is reported that in 2019, the wife moved to hold the husband in contempt for violating various provisions of the divorce judgment. These provisions included requirements for the husband to pay child support, provide maintenance, cover private school tuition, transfer title to certain real property to the wife, obtain life insurance with the wife and their children as beneficiaries, and take necessary actions to secure Qualified Domestic Relations Orders. In response, the husband filed a cross-motion seeking a downward modification of his child support obligation. The court granted the wife’s motion and denied the husband’s. The husband appealed.

Grounds for Contempt Orders in New York Divorce Actions

On appeal, the court affirmed the trial court’s decision as to the motion for contempt. The court explained that in order to establish civil contempt under New York law, the moving party needs to provide clear and convincing evidence of four key elements: First, there must be a lawful court order in effect, undoubtedly expressing an unambiguous mandate. Second, there must be a reasonable certainty that this court order was disobeyed. Third, the party to be held in contempt must have knowledge of the court’s order. Fourth, there must be evidence of prejudice to the right of a party in the litigation.

Once the movant demonstrates that there has been a knowing failure to comply with a clear and unambiguous mandate, the burden shifts to the party accused of contempt to either refute the movant’s evidence or provide a defense, such as an inability to comply with the order. In cases where there is no factual dispute that cannot be resolved on the papers alone, a hearing on a contempt motion may not be necessary.

In the subject case, the court found that the wife offered clear evidence that the husband had failed to comply with the unequivocal mandates outlined in the judgment. Further, the husband did not refute this showing or establish an inability to comply with these mandates. However, the court found that the trial court erred in denying, without a hearing, the husband’s cross-motion for a downward modification of his child support obligation.

Meet with an Experienced New York Attorney

Parties have an obligation to abide by the terms of their divorce judgment, and if they fail to do so, they may face civil penalties. If you need assistance protecting your rights in a divorce action, you should meet with an attorney promptly. Ksenia Rudyuk is an experienced New York divorce lawyer with the skills and resources needed to help you protect your interests, and if she represents you, we will zealously pursue the best legal outcome available. You can reach Ms. Rudyuk via the form online or at 212-706-2001 to set up a conference.

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