Complaint for Contempt Standards of Review Changed by New Case Law

A Complaint for Contempt is used to enforce the terms of a Divorce Judgment, Modification Judgment or other Court Order. The standard applied by the Court to determine whether one of the parties is in contempt of the Judgment or Court Order is two-part: 

  1. Is the Order seeking to be enforced “clear and unequivocal?”
  2. Was the violation of the order “willful?” 

The Court would not typically find a party in contempt if there was any ambiguity in the Judgment. 

In the recent Supreme Judicial Court decision in Cavanagh v. Cavanagh the Court reviewed a Contempt Judgment issued by the Probate and Family Court finding a father not found guilty of contempt because the Divorce Judgment requiring him to pay for the parties’ youngest son’s “agreed upon preparatory school” costs was not a clear and unequivocal Court Order. The basis of the disagreement between the parties was that the Father did not agree to the school suggested by the mother for their son, even though it was the same school their two older children had attended, and the Father took the position that preparatory school meant high school, while the Mother took the position that preparatory school included seventh and eighth grades. 

Had the language in the Judgment provided that the Father would pay for the particular school starting at a certain age, there would be no doubt his refusal to pay would have caused him to be in contempt of the Divorce Judgment. However, the language was ambiguous and therefore the Probate and Family Court judge could not find the Father to be guilty of Contempt. 

The Court in Cavanagh reversed the decision by finding that Father’s abject refusal to pay for preparatory school made his prior agreement to pay for preparatory school “illusory,” meaning that even though Father’s promise to pay for school was something the Mother bargained for in the agreement by waiving a portion of child support that would have otherwise been due to her, the agreement placed no actual obligation on the Father because of its ambiguity. 

The Court found that the parties’ Separation Agreement, which was incorporated into their Judgment of Divorce was a contract between the parties and they could therefore apply contract principles to determine what the parties intended their agreement to mean. The Court therefore decided it was appropriate to look at evidence regarding the negotiations between the parties in drafting that particular provision of their Separation Agreement, as well as communications they had while they were married. 

For more than 100 years, settlement negotiations between parties have been considered confidential and not appropriate for the Court to consider as evidence. The Court took their analysis one step further in also holding that the private discussions of the parties while they were married concerning the issue of preparatory school could be considered as evidence to determine what was intended by the language in their Separation Agreement. This is another huge departure from established law, which has largely disqualified private spousal communications from being considered as evidence in Court.

Prior to the Cavanagh decision, the Court routinely handled a Complaint for Contempt in a short hearing before the Court. It was rare that full evidentiary hearings would be conducted in contempt matters, but with the requirement that the Court now consider evidence not previously considered admissible, it is likely the Court and litigants will need to modify how these cases are handled, potentially creating further backlog and wait times in the Family Courts.