What Is Contempt? When You Should File.

In Washington state, if you are in a situation where the other parent to your child is not following the parenting plan in bad faith, then your recourse is to file a contempt action in court. Contempt is a legal action where you are asking the judge to find the other parent in violation of a court order (i.e., your parenting plan in this example), punish that parent, and force them to follow the parenting plan. Learn more about contempt and our post-final order family law services. 

Give Warnings Before Filing for Contempt

Before you file the paperwork for a contempt action, I typically recommend that you give the other parent a warning (in writing – text or email) before filing for contempt. In this warning, tell the other parent they are violating the parenting plan, explain how they are violating it, tell them to stop or you will be filing a contempt action, and demand make-up time with your child (if any of your visitation time was lost). You will increase your chance of a successful contempt request if you give a warning to the other parent first. You must anticipate that the other parent is probably going to have an excuse for why the parenting plan wasn’t followed. If you didn’t give them a warning and just filed for contempt first, you run a higher risk of them showing up to court with their excuse, the court finds that excuse to be reasonable (at least to the extent of avoiding a contempt charge), and then having the court let them off the hook with just a warning. It would be very upsetting for you if you went through all the hassle of filing a contempt action, having the parenting plan violated, going to court and arguing, and then only ending up with the other parent receiving a slap on the wrist. Bottom line, give them a warning so the judge has less of a reason to hear their excuses when you get to court. 

What to Expect When Filing for Contempt

If you have given the warning and they haven’t corrected their actions, then you are ready to file for contempt and get them in trouble with the judge. To pursue a contempt action, you will need to fill out and file the mandatory forms for Washington state. You will need to get the forms at the Washington State Court’s website – you can download them for free. Initially, you will need these documents:

  • (1) Motion for Contempt Hearing (FL All Family 165)
  • (2) Order to Go to Court for Contempt Hearing (Order to Show Cause) (FL All Family 166)

You are going to fill out the Motion for Contempt Hearing (Motion) form, which basically tells the court what you are asking for and why (i.e., how the other parent violated the parenting plan). You will also need to mostly fill out the Order to Go to Court for Contempt Hearing (Order) form – you may not know the hearing date, time, or room/department number until you get these filed at court. If you do know them, go ahead and fill them out. I practice in Clark County, Washington, so the rest of this process explanation is going to be specific to my county (make sure to double check the procedure for the county you are filing in, but it should be fairly similar). Take the Motion and Order to the Superior Courthouse, go to the Clerk’s office, and hand the forms to the clerk. Tell the clerk that you need both the Motion and Order presented to the Ex Parte Judge. The clerk will take the forms and tell you they will let you know (usually later that day) if your Order has been signed to set the contempt hearing. 

Note: The Ex Parte Judge has to make a preliminary finding that there is evidence of a potential violation of the parenting plan that occurred in bad faith (this is only based on your side of the story at this point) in order to grant you a hearing date and allow you to proceed. The judge will review your Motion to make this determination. If the judge finds there is a potential basis for contempt, that judge will sign the Order and set the contempt hearing. 

What to Expect After You Are Allowed to Proceed With the Contempt Hearing

Step 1: Obtain Copies of the Motion and Order You Filed.

The clerk will let you know (usually later that day) whether the judge signed the Order and is allowing you to proceed with the contempt hearing. If the judge signed the order, you will need to go back to the Clerk’s office at the courthouse and get copies of the Motion and Order that you filed. You can ask the clerk for copies. You will need three sets of copies (one copy for you, one for the opposing party, and one set for the judge if required). They will charge you a little bit for copy costs. 

Step 2: Have the Opposing Party/Parent Personally Served.

Then, you will need to have the opposing party/parent personally served (have copies physically provided to them) with a copy of the Motion and Order. Someone over the age of 18 (anyone but you) will be able to serve the documents to the opposing party. Typically, people hire a professional process server to do this, although you can also have a friend, family member, or the sheriff also serve. If you have never hired a professional process server before, there are usually lots of them in town – you can Google them and look at reviews to pick out a good one. The cost for service should be between $40 – $60 for an in-town service. The person who serves the opposing party with copies of the documents needs to fill out this form and file it at the Superior Court Clerk’s office (this can be downloaded from the state court’s website like the other forms):

  • 1. Proof of Personal Service (FL All Family 101)

Step 3: Wait for Responsive Materials and Your Hearing Date. Prepare to File a Short and Quick Reply Statement.

Once the other party has been served, you will be waiting for their responsive materials and your hearing date. In Clark County, Washington, the opposing party’s responsive materials will be due one week prior to the hearing. You should receive them either on that day or before. When you receive their materials, you will be provided an opportunity to file a short and quick Reply statement (2 pages double-spaced maximum) which responds to whatever they said in their materials. You will need the following form to write your Reply statement (this is called a “Declaration”, and can be downloaded from the state court’s website like the other forms):

  • 1. Declaration of (name): _________________ (FL All Family 135)

Your Reply will be due 3 court days prior to your hearing date. You will file it at the Clerk’s office, get copies, and you will need to serve the opposing party that same day with a copy of your Reply. 

Step 4: Prepare for the Hearing.

Then, you will need to prepare for the hearing. I recommend creating an outline with your talking/argument points. This should be a bulleted list of things to argue – don’t write out your statement verbatim. Your talking points should focus on the legal standard the court has to follow: 

  • (1) how was your parenting plan violated, 
  • (2) how was it violated in bad faith,
  • (3) what warning did you give the other parent to correct the action before bringing them to court, and 
  • (4) tell the court that you are asking to find the other parent in contempt and to grant you all penalties available. 

Note: Possible penalties can include attorney’s fees and costs, additional time for you with your child, reasonable expenses incurred for locating and returning the child, payment of a civil penalty fine, and possible jail time. 

You will need to bring a proposed Contempt Order with you to the hearing. That proposed Contempt Order can be found on the state court’s website and it is titled:

  • 1. Contempt Hearing Order (FL All Family 167)

At the hearing, the judge may have you fill in the Contempt Order, or the judge may fill it in for you, based on whatever the judge rules. The Contempt Order will then be signed by the judge and entered with the court. 

That’s it! If you need any assistance with a contempt legal action, Navigate Law Group has experienced attorneys who are here to take you through the process and advocate strongly on your behalf.

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Every legal issue is very unique. Accordingly, the information in this blog is intended as general education material and not as legal advice. If you think you may have a legal issue, you should consult an attorney.