Clarifying the Clear and Unequivocal Standard of Contempt in the Probate and Family Court

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In a recent Rule 23 decision, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts upheld a finding of contempt against a father who, without the mother's consent, registered the children for soccer.

Following the parties' divorce judgment, the mother was awarded sole legal custody of the two children. During the pendency of the divorce, the father was found to be in contempt for unilaterally signing the children up for soccer without the mother's consent. The divorce judgment did not specifically prohibit the father from signing the children up for soccer (or any other activity), but it did provide that the mother would make the final decision over activities with due consideration for the father's thoughts. The rationale further provided that mother should determine the location and extent of the children's activities.

Subsequent to that judgment, the father was (again) found in contempt for registering the children for soccer without the mother's consent.

Subsequent to that contempt finding, the father was (yet again) found to be in contempt for the same reason. This time, he appealed, and argued that the judgment did not specifically prohibit him from signing the children up for activities. He reasoned that, because there was no clear and unequivocal command in the judgment, the standard for a contempt finding could not be met.

The judge disagreed and found him in contempt and ordered him to pay a portion of the mother's attorneys' fees.

The father appealed. The Appeals Court of Massachusetts upheld the finding, reasoning that, although there was no explicit directive prohibiting him from registering the children, there was a rationale that explained that the mother would be the final decision-maker on the issue. Thus, even if the court's judgment was ambiguous, the rationale eliminated that ambiguity. That, coupled with the fact that father had previously been found guilty of contempt on the same issue (twice), meant that he knew he was violating a court order and could be found in contempt for doing it again.

Thus, it is important to note that the directives of a judgment could be supplemented or clarified by a rationale in contempt cases where the "clear or unequivocal command" is a bit ambiguous. A judge can take those factors into account, coupled with the defendant's notice of them, in determining whether someone is in contempt.

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