Can You Avoid Facing a Complaint for Contempt During the Economic Crisis?

Posted on January 20, 2010 by Gail Otis

The Massachusetts Probate & Family Court divisions are busier than ever as a result of the current economic crisis. The economic downturn has taken a heavy toll on families already struggling to make ends meet. It is unfortunate, therefore, that some payors may attempt to use the crisis to avoid their support obligations. For most who are making a good faith effort to provide support, however, the economic crisis is a very real hardship, and meeting support obligations has become difficult or impossible when faced with the loss of a job or an unexpected reduction in income. If you are someone who is making a good faith effort to meet your support obligations by seeking re-employment or additional work, then there are some steps you can take which may avoid the filing of a complaint for contempt against you. If a complaint for contempt is filed against you, it is possible that you may not be found in contempt if you can show the Court that you are making your best efforts to meet your support obligations.

  • File a complaint for modification immediately upon losing your employment or experiencing a substantial reduction in your income

Filing a complaint for modification is the first step toward obtaining relief. The court has the authority to order retroactive relief back to the date of the service of the complaint for modification upon the other party; however, keep in mind that retroactive relief is not automatic, but is subject to the court's discretion. In addition, generally the court will not issue a temporary order reducing support in a modification action unless there is an emergency - but be aware: many courts no longer consider a loss of job or reduction in wages, by itself, an emergency which warrants a reduction under temporary orders. In short, the sooner you file for the modification the sooner you may get relief, but doing nothing will likely only result in having to face a complaint for contempt.

  • Keep Looking for Work and Document your Job Search

Every judge is different when it comes to what he or she will consider to be a good faith effort to find work. The more you do to look for work, the more likely your efforts will be viewed in a positive light. It is also wise to maintain a job log or journal to keep track of your efforts. The log should include detail about the job to which you've applied, the date the application was made, with whom you spoke or had communications, etc. In the event your case must go to trial, it will be helpful to have such documentation as evidence to substantiate your own testimony. Also, maintain a paper trail of the jobs you have applied for as well as what the ultimate result was of the application. Avoid 'passive' job searches; for example, do not rely on internet sites such as and to do the work for you. If you are receiving unemployment insurance benefits through the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, then you are already required to submit three job applications per week. Also, take advantage of the career counselors provided by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, One Stop Career Centers. Be an active player in your job search. Make cold calls, use networking contacts when submitting your applications, and follow up on all applications you have submitted. Send thank you notes (and keep copies) for all interviews, even if the interview was merely informational. Make sure all of this is documented in your job search log.

  • Pay what you can

A party who makes an effort to pay something, even a partial payment, for their support obligations will likely be considered as trying to make a good faith effort to abide by the current court order. Keep in mind, however, that if you are paying through DOR, interest and penalties will accrue for any deficiencies in your child support payments. If you pay something, that amount will be credited but interest and penalties will accrue on the unpaid amount.

  • Take a look at your lifestyle

Are you still dining out a lot and/or going to fancy restaurants, are you buying expensive products (such as computers, electronic items, jewelry, vehicles, etc.) and taking vacations? When a party claims that they cannot afford their support obligations, but they can continue to live a higher lifestyle, their protestations will appear insincere to the support recipient as well as to the Court. Remember, the support recipient is going to be less likely to work with you toward a temporary reduction in your support obligation if you are still, for example, attending Bruce Springsteen concerts and traveling to London. Reduce your spending and use that money to pay what you can toward your support obligation.

Although every party has a right to file a complaint for contempt, and the steps above may not prevent the support recipient from filing one against you, if you take the steps outlined here you may be able to show the Court that you are making an effort to pay your obligations and to find work. If the Court agrees, you may find that your support obligation is reduced and that you will not be found in contempt.

Written by Katie L. Lenihan, Esquire, associate attorney at Otis & Associates, P.C., and edited by Gail P. Otis, Esquire.

Child Support, contempt Tags: alimony, Child Support, complaint for contempt, economic crisis, trial Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

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