Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Case Law Development: Use of Contempt in Divorce Litigation

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed a trial court's improper use of remedial civil contempt to cure a delinquent and dishonest response to a court order.  The case involved a couple divorced in 1993 after a ten-year marriage. According to the court "the ensuing litigation-a bitter tangle of alleged fraud, misrepresentation, unfairness, contempt, public policy arguments, overtrial and garden-variety buyer's remorse-has worn on longer than the marriage that spawned it. In its painstaking attempt to undo this Gordian knot, the circuit court mistook remedial contempt for Alexander's sword. We commend the court for its efforts, but conclude nonetheless that its remedy cannot be sustained."

Husband had failed to provide Wife copies of his tax return as ordered by the court.  When he finally produced the returns, they revealed that he had understated his income.  The court ordered that he pay Wife $10,000 as remedial contempt.  The court of appeals found that the contempt order could not have been for the purposes of coercing compliance, as Husband had already complied with the order to produce the taxes; nor could it properly be upheld as compensatory contempt as there was no proof that the failure to timely produce the returns damaged Wife in the amount of the contempt.  Rather, the court was attempting to use remedial civil contempt for what was essentially criminal contempt.

Frisch v. Henrichs, 2006 Wisc. App. LEXIS 193 (March 1, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited March 6, 2006 bgf)

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