Enforcement - How to Ensure Compliance with Court Orders

What does enforcement mean?

Enforcement is the term for proceedings that are brought to force a person to obey a court order.

What family law orders will the court enforce?

A court may enforce orders dealing with a variety of family law matters, including:

  • Child Support
  • Visitation
  • The property division ordered by a court in a divorce
  • Post-divorce spousal maintenance

The Texas Attorney General will help with the collection of delinquent child support, and you will not be required to pay a lawyer. Helpful information can be found at: Texas Attorney General

How does a court enforce an order?

Usually court orders will be enforced by contempt proceedings. If a person is found in contempt of a court order, the judge may punish the person by ordering them to pay a fine, by sending them to jail, or both.

What is needed in order to make a court order for visitation or child support enforceable by contempt?

For a court order be enforceable through contempt, it must use "command language" and be clear, specific, and unambiguous, so that the parties will know exactly what the court ordered. In the case of visitation, the court order must command the party who has the children to "surrender" them to the other party at the start of the visitation period, and order the party to return the children at the end of the visitation period. Additionally, the order should identify the specific place where the children are to be exchanged, and state in specific detail the time when each period of visitation is to begin and end. In the case of child support, the court order must state the specific amount to be paid, to whom the payments are to be made, the date on which the payments are to begin, where the payment are to be made, and when the payments are to end (which will be either a specific date, or the occurrence of a specific event).

What if a court order is not clear and specific enough to be enforceable by contempt?

If a court order is not clear and specific enough to be enforced by contempt, the court can clarify the order, so that it becomes enforceable. The court will then give the party an opportunity to obey the order going forward.

What happens if a person is found in contempt of court?

When a party is found in contempt of court, the judge can order the party to pay a fine and can order that the party be confined to the county jail.

If a party is found in contempt of court, will the judge always send them to jail?

Many judges will jail parents who purposefully violate child visitation orders.

For past-due child support, if the delinquent party is employed, sending them to jail may not be the best alternative, because the party could very well lose his or her job. For this reason if the judge sentences a party to jail, the judge may suspend the jail sentence. If the judge does so, the judge will impose various conditions, which can include requiring the party to make specific payments (if the contempt involves failure to pay child support), or ordering the party to pay attorney's fees, costs of court, and a fine. The judge can also place the individual on probation (now called "community supervision"), and may include a requirement that the party obtain counseling on financial planning, budget management, alcohol and drug treatment, or other matters that may have caused the person to disobey the court order. When a jail sentence is suspended, the judge will order the party to appear in court at a later date in order to determine if the party has obeyed the conditions of the suspended jail sentence. If they have not, the party may be sent to jail.

Are there any limitations on what orders can be enforced by contempt?

Yes. For example, in divorce cases it is common for the decree to include orders requiring a party to pay specific debts, liabilities, or obligations. Such an order is not enforceable by contempt because the law does not allow a party to be imprisoned for non-payment of a debt. However, child support is enforceable because it is not considered to be a debt. Child support is a duty a parent owes a child.

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