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  • Writer's pictureBeth M. Johnson

Contempt and Specificity of Orders

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

An order for contempt must be supported by a reasonably specific underlying order.

To hold a party in contempt for violating a court order, the movant must establish that the court’s order was enforceable by contempt. Ex parte Chambers, 898 S.W.2d 257, 259 (Tex. 1995). For an order of possession or access to be enforceable by contempt, it must (1) be in writing and signed by the court, (2) have been in effect at the time of the violation, (3) have been known by the respondent, and (4) be reasonably specific. See id.; see also e.g., Williams v. Williams, 407 S.W.3d 770, 775 (Tex. App.—El Paso, 2012, no pet.)

Thus, to be enforceable by contempt, a judgment must set out the terms for compliance in clear and unambiguous terms. Ex parte Brister, 801 S.W.2d 833, 834 (Tex. 1990) (orig. proceeding). The order must unequivocally command the duty or obligation that the person charged with contempt is accused of violation. Ex parte Padron, 801 S.W.2d 921, 921 (Tex. 1978) (orig. proceeding). It must be sufficiently specific such that the person charged with obeying the order will readily know exactly what duties and obligations are imposed by the order. Chambers, 898 S.W.2d at 259.

A deviation from the standard possession order is permissible when supported by evidence that deviation is in the child’s best interest.

There is a rebuttable presumption that the standard possession order is in the best interest of the children. Tex. Fam. Code 153.252. When determining whether to deviate from the standard possession order, a court may consider (1) the age, developmental status, circumstances, needs, and best interest of the child; (2) the circumstances of the managing conservator and of the parent named as a possessory conservator; and (3) any other relevant factor. Tex. Fam. Code § 153.256. An order that denies possession of a child to a parent or imposes restrictions or limitations on a parent’s right to possession may not exceed those that are required to protect the best interest of the child. Tex. Fam. Code § 153.193. A court order must expressly state times and conditions of possession, unless a party shows good cause why specific orders would not be in the child’s best interest. Tex. Fam. Code 153.006(c).

The family court does not require all orders to be enforceable by contempt.

As stated above, for a person to be held in contempt for disobeying a court decree, the decree must spell out the details of compliance in clear, specific, and unambiguous terms so that such person will readily know exactly what duties or obligations are imposed upon him. Ex parte Slavin, 412 S.W.2d 43, 44 (Tex. 1967). If a decree is too indefinite, it cannot be enforced by contempt, but that does not make the underlying decree invalid. In re J.J.R.S., __ S.W.3d __, No. 20-0175, 2021 WL 2273722 (Tex. 2020). Nothing in the Family Code requires an order to be enforceable by contempt. Id.

In J.J.R.S., the specific facts justified giving the mother only visitation “as agreed” by the appointed managing conservators. While this unspecific order for possession would not be able to be enforced by contempt, the evidence support that the order was in the best interest of the children. When given a defined possession schedule, the mother failed to show up, which caused the children emotional harm.

In an ideal world, every order would clearly and specifically tell conservators exactly what is expected of them, and every order would be enforceable by contempt to give one conservator power to enforce the order and ensure compliance from other conservators. However, sometimes—in very rare cases—specificity is not in the best interest of the child. When complaining about an order that lacks specificity, be sure that you are also complaining that the evidence did not support a lack of specificity. More often than not, specificity is good for creating a stable environment for children, but specificity for its own sake is not a basis for complaint.

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