What happens if your spouse refuses to pay child support or is unable to pay child support? Recently, a Maryland Circuit Court held a man in constructive civil contempt for failing to pay child support. While no sanction was ordered, the court did order the man to pay $300 every month to cure his child support arrearage (the back payments of child support). The man was also required to give information about his job search to the court and the woman’s attorney on a regular basis (called a “purge provision”).
The man did not comply and as a result the court ordered his incarceration for 179 days. The man filed a motion to modify the child support obligation a the same time. The master who heard the motion found the man was currently unemployed but recommended a reduction in the child support payments from $1000 to $708.
The man filed exceptions, which were sustained by the court. The court did not issue a new child support order, instead considering another motion to modify. Six months later, the court considered another motion to modify and again sent the issue to the master to take evidence. In the same order, the man was sanctioned with incarceration. He appealed on five grounds, which the appellate court collapsed into three questions.
One of these questions was whether the purge provision of the civil contempt order was appropriate. Another was basically whether it was appropriate to order the man’s incarceration. The third issue was whether it was appropriate to send the modification motion to the master for further evidence.
The appellate court explained it didn’t have jurisdiction over the first question. However, it vacated the balance of the incarceration period imposed. The appellate court explained that the man had not appealed the first issue in a timely fashion. The man argued that the 179-day incarceration sanction was inappropriate because it did not give him the ability to purge the contempt. He argued that incarceration for civil contempt was only available to immediately compel performance of an act. In this case, that was to pay a sum of money for child support. The appellate court agreed.
The appellate court explained that civil contempt is governed by Maryland Rule 15-207(e). The party seeking relief had to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the person allegedly in contempt had not paid the amount owing. If she could prove that the burden shifted to the other party to prove by a preponderance of evidence that he never had the ability to pay more than what he actually paid and made reasonable efforts to become employed or obtain funds. Alternately he could show that enforcement was barred with respect to each payment not made.
Imprisonment was only an appropriate sanction if the person not paying had the present ability to “purge the contempt.” That is, the person in contempt would have to be able to make the payment and refuse to do so in order to be incarcerated.
On the other hand, if unemployment was the reason for making child support payments, the court could enter specific directives to deal with that problem. For example, he court could ask the defendant to seek treatment for an addiction or obtain further schooling that would make the defendant eligible for employment. The court could get a criminal contempt proceeding filed if it seemed the defendant was willfully failing to comply.
The court in this case vacated the balance of the 179-day incarceration sentence. If you are dealing with difficult child support issues, contact an experienced Maryland family law attorney for representation. Our office may be able to help you through this difficult time.
Corporal Punishment in Maryland Family Law, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, January 26, 2013
Untimely Objections in Maryland Family Law, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, January 10, 2013