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Introduction and Overview of Civil Contempt

Department of Human Services (DHS) Child Support Services (CSS) uses the contempt process as a tool to coerce or compel payment of support, never to punish.

“Indirect civil contempt” is an enforcement remedy that may be used when it appears that a party has willfully failed to comply with a court order. “Indirect” means that the failure to comply with an order of the court happened outside of the presence of the court. It is a remedy primarily used by CSS when a noncustodial parent (NCP) willfully fails to pay court ordered child support. Contempt actions may also be used to enforce other kinds of orders (e.g. for failure to produce documents under a subpoena, to compel cooperation with genetic testing, or for failure to enroll a child in available health insurance as ordered), but this document will only cover contempt for failure to pay support.

Contempt is a remedy that is only available in equitable proceedings, such as family law matters. As noted above, it is used to coerce, not to punish, someone who has willfully failed or refused to abide by a court order that has been made for the benefit of another person. Because it is only used to get the party to comply with the order and not for punishment, there must always be a way for the obligor to comply and be released from the contempt.

If the obligor is found guilty of having willfully failed to comply with the court’s previous order, the court may sentence the obligor to up to six months in the county jail and/or impose a fine not to exceed $500. Because indirect contempt is a civil (non-criminal) remedy and the obligor must always have a way in which to come into compliance and end the contempt, the court will also set “purge conditions, ”which may range from payment of the all amounts for which he was found guilty in the contempt proceeding to something less such as an order to start paying on-going current support, if applicable, and a monthly amount on the past due support. If the obligor complies with the purge conditions, he or she will never face jail time for contempt on those missed payments again and eventually the contempt will be purged.

Even if the obligor has been sentenced and placed in jail, he or she must still be able to end the contempt by meeting the terms of the purge conditions. If the obligor cannot pay the full amount owed in order to be released, with the court’s permission CSS may negotiate a partial purge fee or other purge conditions with the obligor. If the parties reach an agreement, CSS can request the court to release the obligor and approve a new payment agreement. The obligor will still have to make any future scheduled court appearances and comply with the payment agreement.

Practice Note:

Even though a finding of guilt for indirect civil contempt may result in a sentence of confinement in the county jail, it should not be confused with the criminal felony charge of “Omission to Provide for a Child” at 21 O.S. § 852. A criminal charge for failing to pay support for one’s child may only be filed by the criminal division of a District Attorney’s Office. Because such a felony conviction can result in a felony record and incarceration in a state prison for a term of years, making it less likely that the obligor will be able to pay support or later find employment, CSS does not normally seek such criminal prosecutions, but will cooperate with the District Attorney should he or she decide to bring such charges.

Legal Authority
See: Civil Contempt Legal Authority