The last post was largely about jail sentences in civil contempt proceedings, and indeed that is where Rules to Show Cause for failure to pay child support end up if the defendant continues to violate the support order. This civil jail term is not the same as a criminal jail sentence, though, because of the purge bond.
In a criminal case, if someone is convicted and sentenced to a year in jail then they will serve about a year in jail (the actual amount of time depends on several factors, but misdemeanor convictions only serve 50% of the actual time and felony convictions serve 85% of the full sentence). If a judge enters a sentence of one year incarceration in a civil contempt proceeding, though, that person will spend every day of that year in jail unless he or she pays their purge bond.
The purge bond is an amount set by the judge at sentencing that provides a get-out-of-jail card: as soon as the amount of the purge bond is paid, the defendant gets released from jail. If that happens on day one of a year-long sentence, then the defendant only spends that first day in jail and does not have to worry about the rest of that year.
To understand the purge bond, remember that the purpose of a civil contempt proceeding is to coerce compliance with an existing order, not to punish a past violation. In a child support case, compliance means paying the support that was supposed to be paid. If the defendant pays the support then the objective of the Rule is served and there is no more need to apply additional coercion. If the defendant had to stay in jail even after paying their support then it would just be a punishment, and that is something only criminal contempt can do.
In cases of very large arrears, the purge bond is usually much less than the total amount owed. As an example, if the defendant owes $10,000.00 in back child support the purge bond might be $2,500.00. If the defendant pays the $2,500.00 then he or she gets out of jail, but still owes the remaining $7,500.00 and will continue to owe any new support amounts as they come due in the future. If that defendant does not continue making payments then another Rule will be issued and another jail term will likely be imposed at some point in that process. The purge bond might then be $5,000.00 because the $2,500.00 purge was not enough to get the message across to start making regular payments.
The famous line from the Virginia Supreme Court regarding civil contempt jail terms is that “the Defendant carries the keys to his cell in his own pocket.” In other words, the defendant knew what to do beforehand, because it was in the order, and as soon as he or she does that thing there will be no further need for the jail sentence and he or she will be released.
That covers most of the general topics on enforcing a child support order. The next topic will address defenses to a Rule to Show Cause.
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.