Civil Contempt for Failure to Pay Spousal Maintenance
Under Minnesota law, Minnesota Statute 588.01, a person can be found in contempt of court for “disobedience of any lawful judgment, order, or process of court.” Thus, failure to comply with a court order of spousal maintenance can result in a finding of civil contempt. In order to find a party in contempt, the court must find (1) it has subject matter jurisdiction; (2) its decree defined the required acts clearly; (3) the party subject to the order had notice of the order and a reasonable time to come into compliance; (4) the other party had applied to the court to obtain compliance; (5) the party subject to the order had been given notice as well as an opportunity to present the court with reasons for not complying; (6) after a hearing, the party still did not comply with the order and confining the person would be reasonably likely to get the party to come into compliance; (7) the party subject to the contempt order had the ability to comply with the court’s order; and (8) the party subject to contempt order could obtain release by complying.
In Burtness v. Burtness, A12-1868 (Minn. Ct. App. Sept. 23, 2013), Minnesota Court of Appeals held that the district court acted within its discretion in refusing to modify an ex-husband’s spousal maintenance obligation and finding him in contempt for failing to comply with the order. Although the ex-husband argued that he did not have the ability to comply with the order to pay his ex-wife $5,000 a month, the court found that he did not prove that he lacked the ability to pay. The court noted that the ex-husband had the burden of proof to establish that he was unable to pay the maintenance. The court sad that adverse inferences may be drawn against a party who was not candid about financial matters. Thus, the court upheld the district court’s determination that the ex-husband was not credible, noting, among other things, that he did not file tax returns for at least nineteen years. The court found that there was sufficient evidence to show support the district court’s conclusion that the ex-husband was not credible.
The court also noted that, under Minnesota Statute 581A.39, the court will only modify spousal maintenance if there is a substantial change of circumstances, which results in making the maintenance award unreasonable or unfair. In Burness, the court noted that the ex-husband was self-employed at the time the original maintenance order had been entered, and he had received $2.3 million dollars while his ex-wife had a limited amount of personal property and permanent maintenance of $5,000 per month. Because he was self-employed, his income and assets were varied widely. The ex-husband’s failure to pay taxes for nineteen years made his financial records unreliable. The court also did not find the ex-husband’s claims of poverty credible, noting that his lifestyle was inconsistent with poverty, and he did not satisfactorily explain how he managed to pay his expenses.
Anyone who is the subject of a motion for contempt or a motion to modify spousal maintenance should consult an experienced family law attorney.