Does A Custody Agreement Violation Have To Be Severe Before A Court Will Help Me?

A court can hold anyone in contempt for failing to follow a court order. In the case of a parent violating the terms of a parenting plan, this is typically a case of willful disobedience. The courts do not react kindly to anyone disrespecting their orders, and violations are taken seriously.

However, individual small violations are typically not enough to force one parent to seek action against the other. Contempt of court usually requires serious and repeat violations, but how serious does a custody agreement violation have to be? At what point will the courts step in and hold the violating parent in contempt?

What constitutes a severe custody agreement violation in court?

Any action against the custody agreement is considered a violation. There are rare circumstances where a break in the agreement might be allowed, but these rare circumstances are almost always emergencies and are exclusive to one-time scenarios.

Here are a few examples of breaking a court-ordered custody agreement:

  • One parent refused the other parent’s court-ordered visitation
  • One parent missed their visitation time
  • One parent interrupted the visitation time of the other parent
  • A parent leaving the state/country without the permission of either the other parent or the court
  • Kidnapping (typically running away with the children or keeping the children away from the other parent)
  • Placing the child in danger

Preventing a parent from visiting

If your co-parent has a court order for visitation and you stop this visitation without the court’s approval, the non-custodial parent may take you to court and plead their case before the judge, which can result in contempt of court or an injunction. You may have to pay the attorney fees for the non-custodial parent, depending on the circumstances. In some cases, the non-custodial parent might even be able to sue for custody. Parenting plan modifications are necessary when circumstances change, or when a parent willfully ignores the custody agreement.

If you are preventing a parent from visiting because you believe you have observed signs of abuse, which includes harm to the child’s health or significant impairments to the child’s emotional state, you need to make a request to the judge to limit visitation or change your custody agreement.

Denying visitation

Generally, the court will not look favorably on any attempt to cut off the other parent from seeing their child, especially if this goes against a court order. There are of course certain circumstances that cannot wait for a court order, such as active abuse or kidnapping. If the other parent or their environment creates a hazard for your child—such as suspected unsanitary living conditions or emotional/physical abuse—you might have grounds to refuse visitation.

Such instances are limited to immediate threats, and stopping visitation as a penalty can end up making your situation worse, and complicate your ability to be seen favorably by the courts. You should always consult with your family law attorney before attempting to violate your court-ordered visitation schedule.

Denying communication

If you’ve noticed a pattern of your former spouse consistently denying phone calls or blocking other communication, this could be viewed as denying communication and they could be held in contempt. Since we don’t always know a person’s true motive for not answering a call, suspecting a denial of communication requires reasonable guesswork and a pattern of misbehavior.

Most courts will agree that contact must be reasonable. “Reasonable contact” is subjective and might depend on the visitation. If the other parent takes the kids camping and you can’t reach them frequently over the weekend, this is not necessarily denying communication. However, if you notice that every time it’s their visitation and you have trouble reaching them, there might be reason to suspect an issue. The judge might also weigh in on how often you are trying to communicate with your children during the other parent’s visitations. 

There are a few ways to determine if your ex-spouse is denying communication:

  • What does your court order say about phone contact?
  • Do you and your co-parent have a turbulent history?
  • Is the other parent allowing or disallowing the calls?
  • What is the situation with the current visitation?
  • Is there an issue with your child’s well-being?

Leaving the state or country without the other parent’s permission

Your child custody order should properly outline whether or not the child(ren) can travel out of state with either the custodial or non-custodial parent. The order should also state whether the other parent has to be notified, and whether or not the traveling parent has to seek permission from the court. If one parent travels without following the stipulations or intentionally breaking them, this could constitute a violation of the court order and the parent could be held in contempt.

Putting the child in danger during visitation

The welfare of your children should always be your main concern. You cannot afford to drag your children into the negativity that exists between you and your ex-spouse, and you also should never put your child in danger during visitation. Even if it seems impossible to get along with your ex-spouse, it’s imperative you take the high road whenever you can and always conduct yourself with compassion and empathy. 

If the other parent refuses to compose themselves, and you suspect that their behavior or language is harming the child, you have an opportunity to discuss your case with the judge. If you sink to their level, however, you might pass up this valuable opportunity and fall out of favor with the courts. Kindness and level-headedness go a long way when it comes to parenting agreements and the law.

Legal Actions for Custody Agreement Violations

The rate of divorce in America is quite high, and many divorcees have children together. In any divorce with children, child custody is the most considerable concern for both the parents and the courts.

Once a child custody agreement has been reached, it isn’t always followed to the letter. Many divorced parents wonder what they can do when the other parent consistently violates or ignores the agreement. Any legalized custody agreement can be changed.

File For Contempt

Any intentional violation of a court-ordered child custody agreement can be considered contempt of court. This is an offense that the court may punish, and you can file a motion asking for the violating parent to be held in contempt. If the court or judge agrees with your motion, the violator will face penalties such as paying missed costs, paying the other parent’s legal fees, an order to attend parenting classes, changes in the child custody agreement, fines, or even jail.

If you are curious about how to file a parenting plan modification case, speak with your trusted family law attorney.

Talk to Them about Respecting the Custody Agreement

The least complicated thing you can do is to attempt to persuade them into respecting the custody agreement. In many cases this won’t work, especially if your relationship with your ex-spouse is contentions. Many parents that violate their child custody orders do so intentionally, but you can attempt to talk them into respecting the custody agreement by showing them a copy of the court order or threatening legal action.

Involve Your Child Custody Lawyer

It’s wise to consult with your trusted family law attorney every step of the way when dealing with the courts and child custody agreements because they can help you determine your best strategy and go to bat for you when things become emotional or complicated. Your lawyer will be your best friend when you’re dealing with parental interference. Filing for contempt can be different depending on your state and county, and you should consult with your attorney over contempt of court instructions in Spokane, WA.

Court Intervention Criteria

If one parent violates the child custody order, the other parent can file a legal motion asking the court to enforce the court-approved order and hold the other non-complying parent in contempt. When a person is held in contempt, the judge is saying they have disobeyed their order and disrespected the court. 

When filing the legal paperwork, you should be aware of the criteria the court requires to intervene in your case. Your family law attorney should advise you on this matter, and afterward, the court will set a hearing date where you will explain to the court (with evidence) how the other parent has violated the order.

Denying Visitation Rights Without Cause

Any parent that makes their child unavailable for the other parent’s court-ordered visitation time is in violation of the court’s order. This can include arranging activities that inflict with visitation times, planning events that overlap with the other parent’s visitations, or even repeatedly being late/early for drop-off/pickup of the child.

The court must be shown that the interference is an ongoing and continuous problem. The parent that is bringing the issue before the court needs to document the other parent’s lack of cooperation.

Denying Communication Between Parent and Child

Denying or interfering with communication between a parent and a child can be seen as contempt. A parent doesn’t need to cut off contact with the other parent completely—interference can be any conduct that hurts the parent-child relationships, such as blocking phone calls or deleting emails and texts. Willful denial of communication without reason will be seen as a violation of the child custody agreement.

Not Paying Child Support Without Having A Reason or Notifying to Court

Visitation and child support are separate entities—even if a parent fails to pay child support, the parent still gets to see their children. While you can file a motion against the parent that is failing to pay child support, you could also be held in contempt if you prevent that parent from having their visitation rights.

When a parent stops paying child support without reason, they can be held in contempt. The courts are typically quick in enforcing child support payments, and you or your lawyer should contact your state or county’s child support program office for help enforcing the order. Contacting your local family law attorney will help streamline the process and reduce frustration with an already taxing situation.

Putting the Child in Danger

The child’s interests are always the number one consideration of the courts, and they should also be the most important issue to both parents. Endangerment is the most compelling reason that a judge might change custody or modify the court order. If one parent is engaging in behavior that could harm the child, the courts might remove or severely limit the parent’s custodial rights.

Some of these dangerous behaviors can include:

  • Placing the child in harmful circumstances
  • Putting them in danger of abuse
  • Failure to act to protect the child
  • Drug and alcohol abuse creates a risk
  • Serious mental health concerns
  • Erratic behaviors that harm or negatively influence the child
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Child custody violation consequences

If your ex-spouse refuses to comply with your custody order, they can be held in contempt of court. When they are held in contempt, there are a number of consequences that come with this violation.

Contempt of court is a severe penalty for disobeying a court order. The judge could charge the parent for any unruly behavior, and the punishments will vary depending on what the non-complying parent has done and the proof presented.

Low Severity

Custody Agreement Modification

One of the first things the court will do when there is a violation of the custody order is to modify the agreement, which might include reducing the visitation time of the violating parent. The court will modify the child custody agreement based on the evidence presented, to eliminate transportation issues, custody exchange problems, and more. Child removal in Washington is rare but can happen based on the severity of the situation.

Extra Child Care Fees

If the violating parent is found in contempt, the judge might order that they pay additional childcare fees, including the court fees of the non-violating parent. There are other financial remedies available, including any childcare costs that might have been accrued by the violating parent.

Counseling or Community Service

In some cases, the judge might order that the parent found in contempt attend counseling or serve community service time as punishment for violating the court order. The judge might reduce the violating parent’s visitation time to give them ample opportunity to complete their court-ordered counseling or community service.

High Severity

Permanent Loss of Custody

If the court finds that the actions of the violating parent are above and beyond, including actions that led to child endangerment, they might order a permanent loss of custody and award full custody to the non-violating parent. The parent that files the legal paperwork to hold the violating parent in contempt might do so for a number of reasons, including sexual abuse, child abduction, domestic abuse, neglect, or emotional abuse. Child abuse itself is enough for the court to drastically reduce or permanently remove custody, and the seriousness of the evidence could also lead to jail time.

Jail Time

It’s typically rare for the court to threaten jail time over contempt, though the threat itself is often enough to persuade the offending parent to comply with the court order. In many cases, the judge will threaten jail time as a response to child endangerment allegations, especially if the evidence is severe.

Conclusion

Filing for contempt is somewhat similar to filing for divorce. The violating parent will need to be served, and you must show evidence in court that proves the violation was willful enough for them to be held in contempt. 

Always contact your attorney—while you can represent yourself, it’s always a good idea to speak with an experienced family law attorney because they can advise you every step of the way and provide proper representation. A consultation will gain you valuable information and improve your odds of success.

Holding an ex-spouse in contempt can be a scary and stressful situation, and the judge will preside over all evidence at a hearing and decide whether or not the contempt has occurred. The judge will also specify how to resolve the issue, which might include punishments for the violating parent.

If you believe there has been a violation of your court-ordered child custody agreement, regardless of its severity, it’s a good idea to immediately consult with your attorney. This way you can get a second opinion, amass evidence, and put the well-being of your child first.

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JARROD HAYS

Jarrod Hays is the founder of Skyview Law. He is licensed to practice law in Washington State and the Western District of Washington State Federal Court.

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