Oklahoma law provides several ways for family law court orders to be enforced when one side is disobeying an order. There are different methods for different types of orders. Some of the tools available for enforcing court orders include contempt of court charges, motions to enforce, requests for writs, and asset hearings and garnishments. Using one or a combination of the appropriate tools can help you collect child support or alimony, help you ensure that property and debt is divided fairly, and even help you preserve your relationship with your minor children.
Indirect Contempt of Court
The “big one” is contempt of court. In Oklahoma, violation of a court order is called “indirect contempt of court.” Indirect contempt of court carries potential jail time — up to six months in county jail — so people who are charged with indirect court get many of the protections that criminal defendants receive. The law concerning contempt charges, even for child support, is in the criminal statutes rather than in the family law statutes. If someone is charged with indirect contempt of court, they have to be:
- personally served with the paperwork charging them with contempt
- arraigned and informed of their rights
- appointed a lawyer for their defense if they cannot afford one
- given the right to request a jury trial by 6 jurors
- given the opportunity to “purge” the contempt, or correct the issue that led to the charge of contempt (with some exceptions)
- if the contempt charge is purely to punish the person for violating the court order, and they will have no opportunity to purge the contempt or correct the issue, then the person charging them with indirect contempt of court must prove all of the elements of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt
So contempt charges are serious business and powerful tools for enforcing court orders. Contempt charges are often used to enforce child support and support alimony orders. In Oklahoma, if one side charges the other side with indirect contempt of court for support, the side bringing the contempt charge must prove:
- A lawful court order for support was entered
- The obligor had knowledge of the order
- The obligor had the ability to comply with the order, and
- The obligor willfully disobeyed the order
The element of “willfulness” is a big one and is frequently the element that contempt cases turn on: was something going on that made the obligor unable to pay the support and thus the nonpayment was not “willful?” Incarceration or hospitalization can be a defense to a contempt charge for failure to pay support. However, even in cases where the element of willfulness cannot be proven, the judgment for support does not go away. The obligor still owes all of the money and the judgment is still valid for collection. Family law support obligations are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, and child support orders may even be enforced against a veteran’s disability pay, unlike most judgments. Contempt charges are also used to enforce property and debt division orders, child custody and visitation orders, and in some cases attorney fee awards.
Motions to Enforce Judgments and Orders
There are other ways to enforce court orders by motion. For example, if one parent has withheld a child from the other parent, the parent who has lost parenting time can file a motion to enforce visitation. Oklahoma law requires family law judges to hold hearings on motions to enforce visitation within three weeks, and the law gives judges special power to enter orders to encourage the parents to behave properly. In extreme cases, family law judges may impose a money bond upon one parent that the parent will forfeit if they disobey a custody order. In other situations, a parent may file a petition or a motion requesting a special writ so the sheriff will help them retrieve their child from the other parent or from a third party who is wrongfully withholding a minor child.
Judgment and Debt Collection
Family court judgments and orders are just as valid and enforceable as any other legal judgment. In fact, there are some uniform laws adopted by many states to assist people with collecting support judgments entered in other states. If a family law judgment is owed, the person entitled to the money can require the judgment debtor to appear for asset hearings, have their wages garnished, seize federal and state income tax refunds, and levy on bank accounts.
Attorney Fees and Costs
Most enforcement actions carry potential attorney fees consequences with them. In other words, if enforcement is necessary due to the bad behavior of one side, in addition to the enforcement action, the judge may also impose judgment of attorney fees against the losing party. In some cases attorney fees can equal or exceed the amount that is recovered by the enforcing side, making bad behavior quite costly for the side who chose not to follow the court order.
Enforcing Court Orders Requires Detail-Oriented Lawyers
Family law court orders require attention to detail when the initial order is made and when the enforcement documents are being written. Family law court orders, including agreements, must be written properly to preserve methods of enforcement. One of the problems with do-it-yourself divorce and custody services is that the language of the agreement may be too soft or otherwise written in a way where enforcing the order later may be difficult or impossible. Even when a court order was written properly, it is important that the motion requesting enforcement completely and accurately sets out why enforcement is necessary and appropriate, so that everyone, including the other side and the judge, understands what the issue is. Our attorneys are experienced handling cases from start to finish, from trial and appeal, and we are recognized throughout the legal community for our strong research and writing skills.