The Spirit of the Law: Enforcing Orders in Family Law Cases

When someone willfully disobeys an order, the other party has the right to file a motion asking the court to hold him or her in contempt of court. If the judge decides the person has willfully disobeyed the order, he or she has numerous remedies to correct the problem, up to and including incarceration. When it comes to enforcing court orders, there is a distinction among attorneys and judges concerning the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. The letter of the law is the actual printed word used in the court order. The spirit of the law measures how sincerely someone makes efforts to comply with the order when the written terms of the order (i.e., the letter of the law) is not necessarily clear.

The Letter of the Law

Suppose a parent is obligated by court order to pay $750.00 per month in child support. That is the letter of the law, the writing that spells out what is required. Sounds simple, right? Everyone knows what is required. But what happens if the parent was just laid off from his or her job for reasons other than employee performance? The court order does specifically say what happens in that situation. The letter of the law in that scenario isn’t necessarily obvious.

The Spirit of the Law

Court orders in family law cases can’t spell out what a person must do in every single circumstance or contingency that might arise. This is especially true when orders are in effect for years and years, such as child custody cases. A child custody order might specify things clearly when a child is four years old, but not so clearly when the same child is fifteen years old. Let’s assume the unemployed parent in our example files a motion to reduce the monthly child support obligation, based on his or her job loss. It may be five or six months before the case reaches a judge for a trial, but the child support order remains in effect unless and until the judge changes it. The parent who truly cannot make the entire child support obligation of $750.00 per month should in good faith pay as much as he or she possibly can.

For example, if the parent received a $3,500.00 tax refund after filing the motion to reduce support, the court will expect that parent to contribute some amount of that money to the other parent for child support before the trial, depending on that parent’s situation. Paying $600.00 a month, which the parent actually has the ability to pay in our example, instead of paying nothing, is an example of what the court usually expects from parents in this scenario. Doing so follows the purpose of the order, the spirit of the law, which is support of a child. Following the spirit of the law goes a long way when seeking the benefit of the doubt from the judge who is enforcing the order. Ignoring the spirit of the law is done at your peril.

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