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WashingtonLawHelp.orgWashington LawHelp

Contempt of Court in Family Law Cases: The Basics

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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General information about Washington law on contempt in family law cases. It covers only the type of contempt most common to family law cases, called “coercive civil contempt.” Find out how to have a person who is violating a court order obey that order in the future. #3107EN


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Section 1: The Basics

 Section 2: If You Have Been Served with a Contempt Motion

Section 3: How it Works

Section 1: The Basics

A. Should I read this?

This publication

  • has general info about Washington law on contempt in family law cases. 

  • covers only the contempt most common to these cases, called "coercive civil contempt."   

 *This publication does not cover other kinds of contempt, such as contempt committed in the courtroom and a contempt request filed by the government to punish someone for violating a court order.

B. What is contempt?

It is when you intentionally disobey a court order. RCW 7.21.030(b).

*RCW stands for Revised Code of Washington, Washington state's laws.

Contempt is a severe remedyYou should not use it lightly. It is also not always the best or most effective remedy. It might make things even worse.  Judges do not like to find someone in contempt unless the violation is serious.
Here are some examples of contempt in family law cases:  

  • One parent refuses to allow the other the court-ordered visitation they are entitled to.

  • One parent will not return the child to the other at the end of visitation.

  • One parent does not make reasonable efforts to require a child to visit the other parent at the times the parenting plan states.

  • One ex-spouse does not deliver property to the other as ordered to in a divorce.

  • A parent must enforce final child support orders from a court or administrative agency.

  • One parent needs to enforce temporary family law orders and restraining orders.

*Contempt includes action (such as violating a restraining order) AND failure to act (such as not paying ordered child support or spousal maintenance). 

C. What happens if the court finds contempt?

The court wants the party who is in contempt to follow the court order in the future.  To achieve this, the judge can, for example:

  • Order the person to get counseling.

  • Order the person to complete a parenting class.        

  • Order the person to look for work a certain number of hours a week. 

  • Order future hearings to check that the person is now obeying the order.  

For violation of a parenting plan, the judge can also:

  • order that a parent get make-up residential time with the children.

  • award attorney's fees.

  • order a civil penalty (a fine).

  • order greater penalties for the second contempt violation in three years (RCW 26.09.160 (2) –(6))). 

*Jail time as punishment is a different kind of contempt.  We do not cover it here.

D. How do I prove contempt?

You must show the court all these:

  • There is a valid court order in effect

  • The other person knows about the court order

  • The facts show a plain violation of the order

  • You have given the person notice of the contempt hearing and a chance to be heard

  • Contempt is an appropriate remedy for the violation

If the contempt is for a parenting plan violation, you must also prove one of these:

  • the violation was in bad faith

  • the person violating the parenting plan engaged in intentional misconduct

  • past sanctions have not led to the person obeying the order (RCW 26.09.160(2)(b))

E. Is contempt appropriate in my case?

Before filling out the contempt forms, ask yourself:

  • Is the order still in effect?  Some orders end on/by a specific date or when the court enters a final order.  You cannot enforce an order that has ended. (Exception: you can enforce a child support order through contempt even after the child becomes an adult. RCW 26.18.050(5).)

  • Does the other person know about the court order?  Have they been served with a copy of it? If not, were they there when the judge signed the order? If the answer to all of these is no, the court will not hear your contempt motion. (For restraining orders, having a law enforcement officer read a certified copy of the order to a person counts as giving that person notice of the order. RCW 26.09.300(2).)

  • Have you met all your responsibilities under the order to trigger the other person's duty in the same area?  Example:  You can get visitation only after finishing drug treatment. The other parent refuses to let you see the kids. Have you completed the program? Have you proven to the other party you completed it?

  • Does the order clearly describe the other person's responsibilities?  If not, you should get the court order clarified or changed. Then you can prove your case.

  • Will the other person deny they violated the order?  Do you have enough proof that they violated the order? If you cannot show by your own or witnesses' own first-hand knowledge that the other party violated the order, the court will not find contempt. 

  • Does the other person have a reasonable excuse for the violation?  Usually, once you have shown the order is valid and the other person knows about the order but has violated it, they must either show a reasonable excuse (for parenting plan violations) or inability to obey despite reasonable efforts (child support and parenting plan cases). If they can show one of these, a contempt motion may be a waste of time. 

  • Is contempt the best option? The next section explains other possible options. Get legal advice about your situation. 

F. Are there alternatives to contempt?


Demand letter:  Send the other party a letter by regular and certified mail explaining the violations and asking them to correct them.  (Keep a copy of the letter for your own records.)  This might lead to an agreed solution.  
Even if it does not lead to an agreed solution, sending this letter can show the court later that

  • you are being reasonable

  • the other party knows about the court's order

  • you are unhappy with their behavior

Keep your letter specific, polite, and business-like.        

Motion to Clarify:  Use this when a court order is vague or unclear.  Example: The order just says "reasonable visitation." The parties disagree on what is reasonable.

Motion/Petition to Modify: to ask the judge to change an order instead of asking it to enforce an order.  (Our website has a list of packets you might use.)

Enforcement and collection: For many kinds of money, support, and property orders, collection actions such as wage assignment, garnishment, or foreclosure are better than contempt.  The Child Support Division of DSHS provides free collection services for child support (and spousal maintenance if there is also a child support order).

Dispute resolution: Your parenting plan may require you to try an alternative procedure to court first if you disagree about the parenting plan.  Even if you do not have a parenting plan, your court order may require this.

Criminal prosecution: Only for very serious cases.

*Contempt costs a lot, is hard to prove, and the judge may not want to do anything.

G. What are the risks of filing for contempt?

Think about these before deciding to file:

  • Defending a modification motion.  Filing a Motion for Contempt might cause the other party to file a motion to change the court order.  Example:  They may ask the court to lower child support or for different residential time. If you are not ready to defend against this type of motion, do not file for contempt.

  • Defending a contempt motion. If you have not obeyed the Court's orders yourself, the other party may respond to your contempt motion by filing their own contempt motion against you.  Or they may argue that your violation of the order prevents them from obeying it.

  • "Crying wolf."  Judges do not like to hold someone who violates a small, unimportant item in contempt, even if the violation happens more than once.

  • Emotional cost. Going to court often creates hard feelings. It may upset your children.  It can increase the risk of the other party behaving destructively.

  • Risk of fees.  The court might charge the losing party with fees.  Example:  You bring a motion for contempt for parenting plan violations. If the judge finds you had no reasonable basis for the motion, they will order you to pay the other party's attorney's fees. RCW 26.09.160(7).

When should I not file for contempt?

You cannot always use contempt to get what you want.  Examples

  • You cannot use contempt to force property settlement payments, unless they are related to child support or maintenance.

  • You cannot use contempt once a court order has ended or been changed.

Section 2: If You Have Been Served with a Contempt Motion

A. What are some defenses to a contempt motion?

  1. The Court order is invalid because the court had no authority to act (subject matter jurisdiction), or you were not served with legal notice in the original case (personal jurisdiction).  See our publication Which Court Can Enter Custody Orders? Frequently Asked Questions about Jurisdiction.

  2. You did not violate the order. Example:  The motion asks for back due support. You have proof of payment.

  3. It is not your fault you cannot obey the order. 

    • If the charge is not paying child support, and you claim you are unable to pay, you must show you tried hard to get work, save money, or otherwise follow the order.

    • If the charge is a parenting plan violation, the judge will presume you are able to follow the parenting plan. You must prove lack of ability or reasonable excuse.

  4. You did not know about the order.  (Use this only if you can prove you never properly got notice of the hearing that led to the order.)

  5. Improper service of the Order to go to Court for Contempt Hearing (Order to Show Cause) scheduling, or not enough time to respond.  (This is only a temporary defense.  The other side can fix this by giving you the proper notice and time to respond.)

  6. The order is unclear, or seems to have more than one possible meaning. (You may still have to try to obey the order as you interpret it and/or get clarification.  You cannot just ignore it.)

  7. The court order has ended. (Examples:  a temporary family law order has expired. The court has changed a final parenting plan.)

  8. A financial order is unrelated to support.

  9. If the other party claims you are violating the parenting plan: you are unable to obey the parenting plan OR have a reasonable excuse for not obeying it.

B. What is not a good defense to a contempt motion?

  1. Someone (lawyer, friend, relative, other) advised you to violate the order.

  2. You disagree with the order.

  3. You believe the judge made a mistake by signing the order. 

  4. The other parent violated their own responsibilities under the order.  (Example:  The other parent refuses to allow you visitation. That does not excuse you from paying child support.) 

  5. You thought you and the other party agreed to ignore the order.

  6. You relied on the other party saying they would not enforce the order.

C. What if it is not my fault I am in contempt?

A judge who believes you probably will not be able to obey the order in the future may:

  • tell you to file a motion to change the court order so you do not keep violating it.

  • enter a judgment for money due under the order (example:  back child support).

  • order jail time, only as a last resort and only to require you to obey the court order, not to punish you.

Section 3: How it Works

A. What is the procedure for contempt?

Usually you must file a motion in an existing case, in the same county and court that entered the original order.  If you have an order from another county or state, you must take extra steps to start a new court case in the new county.

*This publication assumes the original order and contempt motion are filed in the same county. We do not explain what you must do if this is not true.

The contempt procedure includes

  • Filing a motion

  • Getting a hearing date by having the court sign an Order to Go to Court for Contempt Hearing (Order to Show Cause)  

  • Having the contempt papers (and usually the original court order) properly delivered to every other party

  • The contempt hearing

  • A court order showing the judge's decision at the hearing

*Our packet Filing for Contempt has more info about the procedure and forms and instructions.

The Division of Child Support (DCS) takes extra steps if it files for contempt to enforce a child support order an agency had issued.  DCS may start by filing and serving a Summons and Petition, a Motion, and other documents.

B. What if the other party is in the military?

They may be able to have the contempt hearing stayed (postponed) while they are on active duty.  If the case is about child support or maintenance, the Division of Child Support may be able to help collect support/maintenance directly from the military.

C. What happens at the contempt hearing?

Usually the judge hears many different cases on the same day. There will be a court calendar listing all the cases the judge will hear.

The judge will listen to both parties' arguments. Some courts require live testimony at the hearing.  In others, you may need advance permission to give live testimony.  Still other courts never allow live testimony.   Ask the court clerk about the local procedure.

The person who has filed for contempt must show/prove all these:

  • there is a court order in place         

  • the other person knows about the order

  • the other person has violated the court order

  • the other person got reasonable notice of the contempt hearing and reason/s for it 

*If the other party does not come to the contempt hearing or review hearings, the judge may issue a bench warrant for their arrest.

The person charged with contempt can present defenses.  Usually, if they claim they cannot obey the court order, they must have evidence to prove it. If they have filed their own motions, the judge may hear them at the same time, if you have gotten proper notice.

*If Petitioner asks for jail time as a remedy, the person charged with contempt is entitled to a court-appointed lawyer if they cannot afford one.

After hearing from both parties, the judge will decide on the Motion for Contempt and any other motions before them.  The party who wins at the hearing presents a written order for the judge to sign. The judge usually signs that order the same day.  Sometimes the judge schedules a new hearing date for you to present the order for signature.  The order must accurately summarize the judge's decision.

D. What happens if the judge finds me in contempt?

To remedy (fix) contempt, the judge can order one or more of the following:

  • An order designed to make you obey the order in the future

  • A fine of up to $2,000 for each day the contempt continues (RCW 7.21.030)

  • Payment for losses to the injured party (RCW 7.21.030(3))

  • Costs to the injured party in bringing the contempt motion (RCW 7.21.030, RCW 26.18.160)

  • If you have been found in contempt for violating a parenting plan at least twice in the last three years, that is grounds to change the residential provisions of the parenting plan (RCW 26.09.260(2)(d))

  • Imprisonment, as a last resort and only if it serves the purpose of getting you to obey the order

*A contempt order must specify what you can do to purge (fix) the contempt.

E. Where can I get the forms to file for or respond to a contempt motion?

*This publication is not a substitute for individual legal advice.  We cannot tell you how a court will apply the law in your case.





This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities.  It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice. 
This information is current as of January 2017.

© 2017 Northwest Justice Project — 1-888-201-1014.

(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and to individuals for non-commercial purposes only.)

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Last Review and Update: Jan 17, 2017