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Can One Party in a Divorce Action Be Held in Contempt for Failure to Communicate “Respectfully” With Their Ex-Spouse?

This issue was addressed in a recent Massachusetts Appeals Court Memorandum and Order Pursuant to Rule 23.0. In the unpublished case of Parker v. Parker, the Appeals Court considered whether or not the defendant father could be held in contempt for failing to communicate with his ex-wife and mother of their children in a respectful manner. The contempt complaint arose due to the fact that the parties’ divorce judgment included an agreed-upon provision requiring the parties to communicate in a “respectful and businesslike manner” following their divorce. Over a three-year period following the divorce, the father sent three emails to the mother in which he characterized his periodic alimony and child support payments to mother as an “allowance.” Subsequently, the mother filed a complaint for contempt against the father alleging, among other things, that he had violated their divorce judgment by referring to his court-ordered support payments as an “allowance,” which the mother found to be disparaging and condescending. The trial court agreed and held the father in contempt of the provision of the divorce judgment requiring the parties to communicate with each other respectfully.

The Appeals Court reviewed the lower court’s decision and, ultimately, reversed the trial court’s decision holding the father in contempt. In doing so, first, the Appeals Court found that the phrase “allowance” as it refers to support payments is a term of art that is referenced in many current Massachusetts statutes, and that the father was thus using the term correctly in his communications to the mother. Secondly, the Appeals Court found that the father’s use of the term “allowance” was not “objectively and reasonably disrespectful,” and, moreover, that the mother had never informed him that she found the term to be disrespectful. Given that the father was not placed on such notice, the Appeals Court held that he could not be found to have clearly violated a court order by using the phrase “allowance.” While this decision is, of course, specific to the facts of the individual case being considered, the Appeals Court’s judgment nonetheless helps to illustrate the difficulties that are inherent in enforcing any agreement between parties which restricts the tone or nature of their communications; because evaluating tone is a subjective exercise, there is always the possibility that a judge or reviewing court will not agree with one party’s characterization of any given communication as “disrespectful” – even if the litigant genuinely perceives it to be so.

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