What’s the penalty for contempt of court?

When a judge issues an order in a family law case, the parties are legally required to abide by its terms. If they fail to do so, they can be found in contempt of court.

A contempt action can be either civil or criminal, so the penalty for contempt depends on the nature and severity of the violation. Keep reading to learn more, then call Select Law Partners PLLC at (855) 541-4867 for personalized guidance from a Fairfax family lawyer.

Defining contempt of court

Contempt of court is a punishable offense that occurs when someone disobeys or fails to comply with a court order. This type of offense is particularly common in family law cases as the family court system often issues orders pertaining to child and spousal support, domestic violence, and other important matters.

Behavior that’s disruptive or disrespectful to the court can also be classified as contempt. This includes insulting the judge, acts of violence, or severe disruption that interferes with the court’s ability to function.

Types of contempt

In Virginia, contempt charges fall under one of two categories based on how they’re treated: coercive contempt (civil) and punitive contempt (criminal).

Coercive/civil contempt

Coercive contempt (or civil contempt) is intended to compel someone to comply with a court order. For example, if one parent fails to pay child support, the court may hold that parent in jail or charge them with increasing fines until they comply. The hope is that the individual will understand the consequences of their actions and quickly rectify them.

Punitive/criminal contempt

Punitive contempt (or criminal contempt) is intended to directly discipline someone for their failure to comply with a court order. In these cases, the court may impose a fine or jail time as punishment for the offense.


This type of contempt is more common when the offense can’t be remedied and when the court has little choice but to punish. For example, when a parent violates a custody order and the child has already lost time with their other parent. However, punitive contempt may also be used when willful or intentional disobedience is present.

Contempt of court consequences

The consequences of contempt largely depend on the type of orders that were violated. Other factors, such as the severity of the offense, can also play a role in determining the penalty.

In Virginia, if criminal contempt is sought, the penalties can range from 10 days to 12 months in jail, depending on the violation and the applicable section of the Virginia Code. If civil contempt is sought, then the charged person can be incarcerated for up to 12 months until the contempt is rectified, such as paying the support order or returning the child to the custodial parent. 

The judge may impose these penalties summarily, which means that a jury trial isn’t required. It’s up to the discretion of the judge to decide whether contempt has been committed and what type of penalty (up to the maximum) is appropriate.

Schedule your consultation by calling (855) 541-4867.

Learn more from a Fairfax family lawyer

Contempt of court is often handled on a case-by-case basis, with the penalties left in the hands of the judge. If you think contempt charges are warranted or might be filed against you, it’s in your best interests to consult a Fairfax family lawyer

The team at Select Law Partners PLLC can carefully evaluate your case and help you determine the course of action that yields the most favorable outcome. Contact us today to learn more and begin taking steps to protect your rights.

The information you obtain at this site is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.

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