A party may obtain enforcement of a court order through a number of different means. If the order is sufficiently specific in its requirements, it may be enforceable by an action for contempt of court. Contempt proceedings may apply to the refusal of one parent to permit the child to leave with the other parent at the commencement of the parent’s period of possession. It may apply to the failure of a parent to return the child to the other parent at the conclusion of a period of possession.
Contempt proceedings may apply to the refusal of a parent to pay child support. Contempt proceedings may apply to the refusal of a party to deliver property or money to the other party as part of the divorce decree. Contempt may apply to the refusal of a party to pay a specific debt if the debt payment was ordered to be paid from a specific account.
A contempt proceeding may be joined with other forms of enforcement. For example, if a parent is denied access or possession to the child, the parent may seek to hold the other parent in contempt of court which could result in the incarceration of the offending parent, but may also request that the court award to the parent additional visitation with the child in an amount equal to the amount wrongfully withheld from the parent by the other parent.
A court retains jurisdiction to render a contempt order for failure to comply with the order of possession and access if the motion for enforcement is filed not later than the 6th month after the date the child becomes an adult or on which the right of possession and access terminates under the order or by operation of law.
A court retains jurisdiction to render a contempt order for failure to comply with an order requiring the payment of child support if the motion for enforcement is filed not later than the 2d anniversary of the date the child becomes an adult or on which the child support obligation terminates under the order or by operation of law. The court retains jurisdiction to confirm the total amount of child support arrearages and render a cumulative money judgment for past-due child support, if the motion for enforcement is filed not later than 10th anniversary after the date the child becomes an adult or on which the child support obligation terminates under the child support order or by operation of law.
If a court finds a person in contempt it may: (1) order the person to be jailed in the county jail for a period up to 6 months for each violation; (2) order the person to pay a fine not to exceed $500 for each violation; (3) order the person to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees and court costs; or (4) place the person on community supervision and require the party to comply with all terms of the community supervision order. If a person fails to appear for a hearing on contempt of court charges, the court may issue an arrest warrant for the person.
Another remedy available to a person seeking to recover unpaid child support is to award the person a money judgment against the person who owes the support and to issue a wage withholding order to the person’s employer to withhold not only the current amount of child support due but also the previously unpaid child support.
Yet another remedy available to one to whom child support is owed is to obtain a child support lien against the real (real estate) and personal property of the party owing the child support. This lien may then be foreclosed to obtain the funds owed. The person to whom the funds are owed may also obtain a judicial or administrative determination of the arrearage and secure a levy and execution on the debtor’s property to pay the child support.
If the amount of unpaid child support equals or exceeds the amount ordered to be paid for a 3 month period, virtually any license issued by the State of Texas to the party owing the child support may be suspended. These licenses include driver’s licenses, hunting and fishing licenses, professional licenses such as those required by doctors, dentists, accountants, engineers, and attorneys.
Enforcement actions may be brought by any party affected by an order and by the Attorney General of the State of Texas. If the Attorney General brings the suit, the Attorney General does not represent either party but represents only the interests of the State of Texas. This can cause confusion with unsophisticated litigants who contacted the Attorney General’s office seeking its help in the enforcement of child support orders. If the Attorney General initiates the enforcement action it is usually heard in a Title IV-D court before an Associate Judge. However, the person seeking the assistance of the Attorney General may not understand that the Attorney General does not represent that person and cannot give that person legal advice. Even in an Attorney General proceeding, the person seeking enforcement of a child support order should have her or his own legal counsel.
Mr. Sutherland has been involved in numerous enforcement actions throughout his more than 40 year career as a family law attorney.