Am I in Contempt?
Court Orders are laws. Parties must follow the terms of the Court Orders or risk being sanctioned or punished by the Court. This happens when a Court finds that someone is in Contempt of Court after the other side files a Petition for Contempt alleging a willful violation of a court order.
The Court OrderIn order for someone to be found in Contempt there must be a Court Order. In fact "contempt" means that your actions or inactions demonstrated willful disregard for a court order. Any inappropriate or unsavory behavior that is not contrary to a court order cannot be contemptuous by its very definition.
So the first step is that a court order must exist. Then the language of the Court Order must be clear enough that a reasonable person should know what it means enough that the terms of the Order can be followed. While that sounds easy enough, sometimes this is harder to ascertain due to bad drafting by a lawyer or by parties representing themselves. This is why it is important to have a good lawyer assist you when you enter into an agreement out of court. If the Agreement is not clear and detailed, it may be totally unenforceable. This means that if the other side breaks the terms the Court may not be able to hold them in contempt and you have not have any recourse at all.
Willful ViolationIf there is a Court Order that is clearly written such that it can be followed and complied with, then the Court will want to know if the alleged contemnor WILLFULLY violated the Order. If the violation is due to something beyond the other side's control, s/he cannot be found in contempt.
For example, if the other side is required to pay $2,000/month but fails to do so, that is not enough to find them in contempt. You must show that they have the ability to make these payments from income and/or assets. Note: this paradigm does not apply to a child support obligation. However, if the other side is making zero payments, then the Court will probably find him in contempt for not paying an amount that he is able to pay (that amount being more than zero). Another example that comes up a lot if violations of child visitation. Sometimes, a child has an incredibly strong aversion for spending time with one parent. This may be caused by the custodial parent alienating or marginalizing the visiting parent and/or it could have to do with actions or inactions by the visiting parent. Most judges feel if you can "make" your child go to school everyday then you can make them see the other parent but it is still your obligation to prove that the contemnor (not the child) is at fault for the missed time.
Purge and SanctionsWhat can I get from the Court if I win and she is found in contempt?
For starters the other side can be found to be in contempt. While is not much in and of itself, it has tremendous meaning when and if that person comes before the contempt soon thereafter. So if your ex-husband is found in contempt and then one month later he appears for a custody hearing the Court will consider his contemptuous behavior in its custody and access determination since "fitness and character" are relevant factors in a custody determination.
Attorney's Fees -- the Court could award you up to 100% of the attorney's fees you paid your attorney for the work done on the contempt issue (but not for other work). While this doesn't make you any money, it is designed to punish the contemnor and thereby dissuade her from non-compliance in the future.
Other -- if you were contemptuously denied access time with your child the Court can (and usually does) order make up time for you. In extreme cases the Court may transfer custody, especially after more than one contempt. Incarceration of the contemnor is technically possible but almost unheard of for the first finding of contempt. However, it is rare for someone to be found in contempt three times and avoid jail time even if it is weekend jail