What is Contempt of Court in Massachusetts?

What does it mean to be in contempt of court in Massachusetts?


Contempt of court is disobeying a court order even though you were able to do so. You can be in contempt of court in Massachusetts if you fail to pay child support; don’t follow the parenting-time schedule; or for wrongfully claiming your child on taxes, among other things. Being in contempt can have significant consequences. It can cost you money. It can impact your parenting time with your children. It can even land you in jail. Facing a contempt charge is a serious matter. Whether your ex is in contempt or your ex accuses you of being in contempt, you have rights that need to be protected.

Proving contempt of court in Massachusetts

Three things must be true to get an Order of Contempt:

  1. There was a clear and unambiguous order from the court;
  2. The defendant clearly and unambiguously disobeyed that order; and,
  3. The defendant had the ability to follow the order.

All three things must be proven. If any of these elements is missing, contempt of court will not be found.

Clear and unambiguous order from the court

The first element that must be proven is that there was a clear and unambiguous order from the court. Courts have ruled that where the language of an order is ambiguous, no contempt can be found. But what is meant by ambiguous in this context? It was decided that a “term is ambiguous only if it is susceptible to more than one meaning and reasonably intelligent persons would differ as to which meaning is the proper one.”

The defendant clearly and unambiguously disobeyed that order

The next thing that you must show is that the defendant disobeyed the Court’s order. In one case, the court explained that a plaintiff must demonstrate “what steps [defendant] was required to take” and that defendant “disobediently refrained from” taking those steps. The defendant doesn’t have to willfully disobey the order. In other words, they don’t have to intentionally refuse to follow the order. Even if they thought they were doing what they were supposed to do, they can still be found in contempt.

The defendant had the ability to follow the order

Lastly, it must be shown that the defendant could have obeyed the order if they wanted. This issue comes up most often when the contempt allegation involves money. Typically, we see cases where one person is required to pay the other person money for child support, alimony, medical expenses, etc. In these cases, the order is usually clear and unambiguous. It is also easy to show that the defendant didn’t make those payments. The question becomes, did the defendant have the ability to pay. If the defendant is out of work or otherwise short on cash, that can be a defense to a contempt action. They can’t pay what they don’t have.

Two types of contempt

There are two types of contempt: civil contempt and criminal contempt. Although the same elements need to be proven in both situations, there are many important differences including what happens when someone is in contempt of court. Besides the contempt of court punishment, the purpose of civil contempt and criminal contempt proceedings differ. Also, the burden of proof for disobeying a court order is different in each. Proving that you don’t have the money to pay is one way of how to get out of contempt of court charges for child support.

Civil contempt of court

Civil contempt cases are more common than criminal contempt cases. The purpose of civil contempt is to force you to comply with the court order. The standard of proof is “clear and convincing evidence”. That means evidence that is “strong, positive and free from doubt”. It’s not as high a burden as “beyond a reasonable doubt”, which is used in criminal cases. But it’s more than a “preponderance of evidence” standard which is used in other civil cases. In other words, it’s “full, clear and decisive”.

Criminal contempt of court

Criminal contempt of court is more serious. In a criminal contempt situation, the court is looking to punish you. Because you could be sentenced to jail, you have all the rights of a criminal defendant. That means you have the right to an attorney and a jury trial. It must be shown that you were in contempt “beyond a reasonable doubt”. This is the highest standard in the law.

What are the consequences of being held in contempt of court?

The penalties for disobeying a court order vary. Keep in mind that in civil contempt cases, the court is trying to force you to comply with its order. So the court may do several things such as:

  • Changing parenting-time schedule,
  • Paying the other party’s attorney’s fees,
  • Suspending your driver’s license, and
  • Intercepting your tax refund.

In a criminal contempt of court action, the judge can sentence you to jail. These are rare cases, but they can happen. A judge can also send you to jail on a civil contempt. Most commonly this is seen in cases where the defendant owes money to the other spouse. Generally as a last resort, a judge may order you held in custody until such payment has been made.


Contempt of court is a serious matter with significant consequences. Being found in contempt of the Family and Probate Court in Massachusetts can cost you money, your driver’s license, and your freedom. If you’re involved in a contempt of court action, you have important rights. Contact our office to see how to protect your rights. Also, see if you qualify for our reduced rates. You don’t need to go it alone.

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. We invite you to contact us and welcome your calls, letters and electronic mail. Contacting us does not create an attorney-client relationship. Please do not send any confidential information to us until such time as an attorney-client relationship has been established.