Contempt: The Difference Between Civil and Criminal Contempt

This is the first in a two-part blog series that looks at the difference between civil and criminal contempt proceedings during enforcement actionsIn civil and criminal contempt proceedings, both contain the possibility that the “contemnor” (i.e. the person found to be in contempt) might be jailed.  The story doesn’t end there.  Let’s briefly distinguish the purposes of civil and criminal contempt.

A civil contempt proceeding can be characterized as “remedial” or “coercive” in nature and carries a lesser burden of proof.  Civil contempt must be proven by a “preponderance of the evidence.”  In other words, what is alleged to have happened (or not happened) must be proven to be more likely true, than not true.  Some refer to this as the “51% standard” of proof.   If the burden of proof is met, punishment for civil contempt generally is indefinite — it lasts until the contemnor performs a required act (e.g. pays a lump sum of child support toward the total arrears) or stops performing a required act (e.g. returns a child wrongfully withheld after the contemnor’s period of possession had ended).   It is commonly said in civil contempt proceedings that the contemnor “holds the keys to his or her own release from punishment.”  As described, all the contemnor must do to terminate punishment is perform, or stop performing, the act for which the Court found them in contempt.

In the next blog, we’ll examine how criminal contempt differs from civil contempt.  To read that blog now, click here.

Author Jim Cramp is a retired active duty colonel and the founder and principal attorney at the Cramp Law Firm, PLLC.  The firm provides a spectrum of family law-related services to clients in the greater San Antonio region, across the United States and throughout the world.  The firm also provides Wills and Estates and Probate services.