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What is Contempt in a Massachusetts Divorce?

a contempt Massachusetts divorce

In the midst of a divorce in Massachusetts, emotions can run high, and disputes may escalate, leading to actions that defy court orders. When one party violates these orders, the situation may give rise to a contempt proceeding. This blog explores the nature of contempt in Massachusetts divorces, highlighting the importance of having a skilled divorce attorney to either defend against or prosecute such a case.

Understanding Contempt Proceedings in a Massachusetts Divorce

Contempt in a Massachusetts divorce refers to a situation where one party fails to comply with a court order during the divorce proceedings. This can involve any order issued by the probate court, including but not limited to temporary orders for child support, alimony, custody, or visitation rights, as well as property division orders.  This can also include false statements on your financial statement or any other motions in the probate court.

A contempt proceeding is initiated when one spouse believes that the other has failed to adhere to the terms set by the court. It is essentially an evidentiary hearing where the court determines whether there has been a clear and undebatable violation of the court order. If the court finds that contempt has occurred, it will also decide on the appropriate sanction to enforce compliance or to punish the party for non-compliance.

Types of Contempt in Massachusetts Divorces

There are two main types of contempt in the context of Massachusetts divorces:

  1. Civil Contempt: The most common form in divorce cases, civil contempt is intended to compel compliance with court orders. It operates under the principle that the violating party has the ability to comply (“has the keys to their cell”) and will only be sanctioned until they do so. The sanctions might include fines, compensatory payments, or even modification of the original order to ensure future compliance.
  2. Criminal Contempt: Less common in divorce proceedings, criminal contempt is applied when the court aims to punish the offending party for actions that the court considers disrespectful or harmful to its authority. This might include repeated violations or particularly egregious behavior.

The Contempt Hearing Process

A contempt proceeding in a Massachusetts divorce is initiated by filing a Complaint for Contempt, stating which order was violated, along with evidence supporting the claim. The accused party is then served and required to appear in court. During the hearing, both parties have the opportunity to present their case, including evidence and testimony.

The burden of proof lies with the complainant, who must demonstrate that a clear court order was in effect, that the defendant was aware of the order, and that there was non-compliance without a valid excuse. The standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt” for criminal contempt, but only “preponderance of the evidence” for civil contempt.

The Role of a Divorce Attorney in Contempt Proceedings

Given the complexities and the high stakes involved in contempt proceedings, having an experienced divorce attorney is essential. A skilled attorney will provide several critical services:

  • Prosecuting Contempt: If you are seeking to file a contempt complaint, a divorce attorney can help articulate the breach clearly, gather necessary evidence, and present a compelling case to the court. They ensure that all procedural requirements are met and that the motion accurately addresses the severity of the violation.
  • Defending Against Contempt: If you are accused of contempt, a divorce attorney can help you form a defense, potentially arguing that the violation was not willful but resulted from circumstances beyond your control. They may also negotiate modifications to the original order if compliance is impractical under current conditions.
  • Legal Guidance and Negotiation: An attorney can often help mediate between parties to resolve issues outside of court, potentially avoiding the need for a contempt hearing altogether. They provide knowledgeable advice on the implications of each decision and strategy, helping you navigate through this challenging time.

Contempt proceedings in a Massachusetts divorce are serious matters that require careful legal handling. Whether you are defending against an accusation of contempt or pursuing one, the support of a seasoned divorce attorney is invaluable. Such legal expertise ensures that your rights are protected, that you are fully prepared for the hearing, and that you have the best possible representation in court. If you find yourself involved in a contempt proceeding, consider reaching out to a competent divorce attorney to safeguard your interests and ensure a just outcome.

If you are facing a divorce complaint in Massachusetts or a contempt proceeding, call or text me today at 617-295-7500.  I handle divorce matters all across Massachusetts, not only in Boston but in Salem and the North Shore.


Although I am an attorney, I am not your attorney.  Please do not rely on anything on this page as legal advice because any specific advice would depend on your situation.  Any results posted on this page are not guarantees of outcomes in your case.

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