As we have discussed before, if a judge finds someone in contempt (that is, the judge decides that that person has violated a court order) then the judge imposes a sentence that does not punish, but instead convinces the person to stop violating the order. Fines are possible, but they are not usually done in a child support case. They can be, though.
When fines are used as a sentence in a Rule to Show Cause it is usually that the defendant is fined a certain amount per day until he or she does something they were supposed to do a while ago. Imagine in a divorce case that one person has to deed the house to the other by a particular day and fails to do it. A judge could find them in contempt and impose a fine each day until the deed is provided. The idea here is that the defendant will eventually realize that it is too expensive to keep paying the fines and they will just sign the deed to get it over with.
Child support is already money, so it makes less sense to use fines. In this case we already know that having to pay money is not enough to coerce compliance. That usually leaves jail as the remedy. JDR courts will typically impose jail sentences from one month to one year, depending on how much back support is owed, how many previous violations there have been, how many other child support cases the defendant has, etc.
In addition to an active period of incarceration, the judge can also use the threat of jail to get support paid. This is usually in the form of a suspended sentence. This would be like the judge sentencing the defendant to six months in jail, but not yet. The case is then continued for several months and the judge makes clear that if any payments are missed then the jail term will be imposed. If all payments are made on time then the case will be continued again. At some point there is an established payment history and the case can be dismissed so that the jail term is no longer hanging over the defendant’s head.
Some courts will also use a more streamlined approach to the same idea with something called a “pay or report” arrangement. In a pay or report, the defendant is told to either pay the support by a particular day each month or just report to the jail that day if he or she cannot make the payment. The defendant then has the choice of either making the payment or going directly to jail to serve their sentence.
One thing that makes a civil contempt jail term different from a normal jail sentence is something called a purge bond, which the next post will address.
And now, please enjoy this disclaimer: The content of this post, indeed of all of my posts, is intended to reference only Virginia law. I am writing this blog to give some idea of the complexities that can underlie family law issues in Virginia and in no way am I giving anyone legal advice here. While I hope these posts will be informative, no one should feel entitled to rely on the information presented here as an authoritative source. Anyone facing a legal issue is well advised to speak to a lawyer face to face to discuss the specifics of that case, rather than relying on general information found on the internet.