When the court orders you to do something as part of your divorce, the best plan of action is to do as the order demands. Sometimes, though, questions may still remain regarding whether or not you’ve complied with the order. If you haven’t, the possibility of being found in contempt of court arises. Be aware, though, that there are special rules that govern when a judge can and cannot find you in contempt and, if the judge has not followed the proper procedures, you can, with the help of a skilled Maryland divorce lawyer, get that contempt finding tossed out.
A lot of times, when a couple with children goes through a divorce, child-related issues are at the forefront. Sometimes, though, that is not the case. Sometimes, items of property are the things about which the spouses contest most heavily.
Those issues can become heated, especially if the items in dispute are rare or unique. A recent Baltimore County divorce case is a good example of this. The couple was the parents of two boys, but the children were not what produced the most litigation. Rather, five items of personal property were.
The items, which included a “Gypsy painting within a gold frame,” along with a “Civil War era cavalry saber, two small oil paintings of street scenes, and gold family crest ring,” were all distributed to the husband in the divorce judgment.
Three months later, the husband still didn’t have the items, so he filed court papers asking the judge to find the wife in contempt of court. Specifically, the husband asked the court to jail the wife until she turned over the items.
The judge held a hearing and found the wife in contempt. There were, however, some distinct procedural defects in that hearing and those defects allowed the wife to get the contempt finding overturned on appeal.
Whenever someone (including your ex-spouse) asks a court to hold you in contempt and the potential punishments for that contempt possibly could include incarceration, there are certain things you are entitled to receive. One is something called a “show cause order” that includes certain information required by Rule 15-206 of the Rules of Special Procedure. That information includes being advised that you have a right to a lawyer, the benefits of having a lawyer, the possibility of retaining representation through the Public Defender, and a warning that if you go to court with no lawyer that “the judge may find that you have waived your right to a lawyer, and the hearing may be held with you unrepresented by a lawyer.”
The wife received the required show cause order and it contained all the required information.
The Importance of ‘Knowing and Voluntary’ Findings
The problems arose at the hearing, which the wife attended with no lawyer. The judge twice asked the wife if she was representing herself, to which she answered “yes” both times. The court made no additional inquiry into the woman’s legal representation status.
That failure was fatal to the contempt finding the court ultimately entered against the wife. The court must do more than inquire as to whether or not a party who faces potential incarceration intends to represent herself. The court must ascertain whether the party’s decision to waive the right to an attorney was made “knowingly and voluntarily.” The judge must make an inquiry into each of these things in open court and then make a finding on the record that the waiver was knowing and voluntary before the contempt hearing can proceed.
Because this judge didn’t do those things, the contempt finding had to be reversed.
When you are going through a divorce, whether you are contesting the distribution of the house, the cars, your great-grandmother’s china cabinet, or a Civil War-era cavalry sword, the best way to protect yourself and your things is with representation from a skilled legal professional. For that kind of advocacy, get in touch with the experienced Maryland family law attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC. We have helped countless Maryland spouses navigate the process of divorce successfully, and we’re ready to help you, too. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.