Although Family Courts have many remedies available to enforce orders, probably the most powerful is the ability to hold a person in contempt. If a party is found to be in civil contempt, it is proper to either assess a fine against the party or sentence the party to jail for a period of time. However, before a party can be imprisoned due to failure to pay maintenance or child support as ordered by the court judgment, it must be established that the party is financially able to pay or voluntarily placed him or herself in a position where they are unable to pay. The person being held in contempt is said to “hold the keys to the jailhouse door,” as jail is conditioned upon non-payment, and the person will be released after payment is made.
In Missouri, a contempt action may also be filed for failure to comply with custody or visitation orders. V.A.M.S. § 452.400.3 authorizes the noncustodial parent to file a motion for contempt or a family access motion if there is noncompliance. Once the court has found that visitation has been withheld, without good cause, the court has the authority to provide a remedy and define the noncustodial parent's visitation in detail.
The court, in determining if the custodial parent is to be held in contempt, applies the same standard as used for contempt in Missouri spousal maintenance and support cases. This standard is that contempt will lie if: “(1) there is an actual violation of the court's order and either, (2) the alleged contemnor was able to comply with the court order, or (3) the alleged contemnor intentionally and contumaciously placed himself in a position so that he could not comply with the court's orders.” In applying this standard, the movant (the person filing the contempt action) bears the burden of demonstrating a violation of the court's order. It is then up to the alleged contemnor to prove the inability defense by establishing that he or she did not intentionally bring about the inability.
Holding a custodial parent in contempt for noncompliance with the visitation order is within the discretion of the court. There is no absolute rule that the court must find the custodial parent in contempt. In such cases, the court will review the facts surrounding the specific case. Generally, the court has refused to hold the custodial parent in contempt when minor children testify that by their own choice and without influence from the custodial parent they refused to see their other parent. As might be expected, the age of the minor child is an important factor here. If you are the non-custodial parent who is being denied visitation, or if you are the custodial parent whose child refuses to see the other parent for good cause, it is important to contact a Missouri family attorney who has experience in child custody cases and contempt actions to protect your rights.