Case Notes: Purging Contempt

When someone does not pay court ordered support they may be found in "contempt of court". This can lead to a variety of sanctions, such as tax intercepts, increased support, loss of drivers license or even jail. Every contempt finding must give the defendant a way to get out of "contempt" by meeting certain requirements. These requirements are known as "purge conditions".

In the case of Orfield v. Weindel, 2012 Pa. Super. 135 (June 29, 2012), the Superior Court dealt with the question of whether a court may require purge conditions without sufficient evidence that the Defendant has the present ability to pay them.

In Orfield, the Defendant had arrears of $4,244.00 in child support. He was supposed to pay $300 a month toward arrears, but repeatedly failed to make payment. At the contempt hearing, the Defendant offered to pay $1,000 toward arrears if he could borrow money from his family. He repeatedly stated that he was unemployed, and this was the most he could offer. However, the court told him it was too little too late, incarcerated him for 6 months, and set purge conditions at the full amount of arrears: $4,244.00.

Under Pennsylvania law, if a party is in contempt of a support order, they may be punished by: (1) being placed in jail for no more than 6 months, (2) a fine of $1,000, and/or (3) probation not to exceed one year. (23 Pa. C.S. 4345) These punishments are supposed to coerce the party to "purge" their contempt by complying with conditions as set forth by the court. As such, had the Defendant met his purge conditions, he could have been let out of jail. However, due to his inability to pay, he spent all six months behind bars.

The court found that the punishment from contempt is supposed to be "coercive" to get the party to pay or meet their obligation rather than merely punitive. As such, if the party is incapable of making payments as required, the jail time becomes punitive. So, the Superior Court found that it was wrong to send the defendant to jail. But due to the speed of the judicial system, this finding happened only after he had served his 6 months.

Moral of the story: If you are behind on child support payments, it is imperative that you make best efforts to avoid being found in contempt. Often the "unwritten" rules are the most important and a good family law attorney can minimize (or maximize) the chance of a contempt finding with serious sanctions. Contact a family law attorney to advise you on the matter.