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Contempt of Court for Property Damage in Washington Divorce

Emotions run high during divorce, and sometimes unfortunately the parties will try to hurt each other.  When a party to a divorce intentionally damages property or wastes the couple’s assets, the other party may seek a remedy through the court. In the recent case of In re Marriage of Fellows, a Washington appeals court reviewed an order for contempt of court against a wife who allegedly damaged the couple’s home.

HandprintThe wife, Michaela, appealed the order finding her in contempt of court for violating the dissolution decree.  The trial court found that she had intentionally violated its order by damaging the couple’s home.

The decree awarded the home to the husband, Charles, but allowed the wife to remain there for another 60 days.  At the request of the husband’s counsel, the court ruled the home was to be maintained in the condition it was in.  When presenting its written ruling, the court also instructed the wife not to damage the home in any way, and it noted that if damage did occur, the court would consider contempt and address the damage.

After the wife moved out, the husband visited the property and found a hole in the front door and paint splashed on the walls and deck.  He reported the damage to the police.  The wife told the police that she had possession, and anything she did to the home was “okay.” She also claimed her children did the damage.

The estimated repair cost was over $140,000.  The damage included paint splattered and streaked inside and outside the home, holes in doors, cabinets, floors, ceilings, and walls, and damaged baseboards, doorframes, and windowsills.  The tiles, countertops, and sinks were chipped and cracked.  Additionally, there were handwritten notes on the wall addressed to “Chuck” and “Chucky.”

The husband moved for an order of contempt and filed a declaration of a private investigator.  The investigator’s declaration included a report of a conversation with a neighbor who told the investigator the wife said she had damaged the house and could not wait until the husband saw it.  The wife filed her own declaration.  She admitted to “minimal writing on the walls” as well as carving the front door, but she claimed the husband had seen the writing before he moved out.  She also stated that the home was in livable condition when she moved out, and there was no damage to the cabinets, no paint, no holes, and no other damage.  She claimed her children and niece had tracked paint in the house and made handprints on the wall when she went to the home with the police.  Her declaration stated she believed the husband had damaged the house.  She also provided declarations from witnesses that said the house was in livable condition when she moved out.

The husband submitted a reply declaration that contested the wife’s assertions.

The trial court found the wife in contempt for intentionally failing to comply with the court’s oral ruling and orders by “willfully and purposefully” destroying the house.  The court found she had the ability to comply with the order.  The court found her to be in contempt of court and ruled that she could purge the contempt if she paid the amount awarded to the husband.

In reviewing an appeal of a finding of contempt based on a court order, the appeals court must construe the court order in favor of the person found to be in contempt.  There must be “a plain violation of the order.”  The burden is on the party moving for contempt to prove it by a preponderance of the evidence.  A trial court’s findings regarding contempt should be upheld if they are supported by substantial evidence.  Evidence is substantial if it reasonably supports the findings, even if there are other reasonable interpretations.

The appeals court found the wife’s own statements and the evidence presented supported the finding of contempt.  She admitted to writing on the walls and carving the door.  She also stated the children had made handprints and tracked paint in her house, but she had told the police that she could do what she wanted to her house.

The wife also argued that the court had based its findings on inadmissible hearsay.  The husband argued that she had failed to raise objections to the police report and the private investigator’s declaration at trial.  The wife’s counsel addressed the authenticity of the police report but did not raise the issue of hearsay.  The wife did not address the investigator’s report.  The appeals court found she had waived any objection to the admission of the reports based on hearsay.

She also argued that the contempt charge was punitive.  She alleged the trial court was punishing her for past actions without due process.  The husband argued the charge was remedial rather than punitive.  A trial court is allowed to impose remedial sanctions for contempt of court after notice and a hearing, pursuant to RCW 7.21.030.  Punitive sanctions, however, are permitted only after a complaint or information is filed based on probable cause.  Punitive sanctions also require the same due process rights as criminal charges.

A sanction is punitive if it is imposed to punish past contempt of court to uphold the court’s authority.  A remedial sanction is one imposed to coerce performance if the act is still within the person’s power to perform.  Here, the court ruled that the wife could purge the contempt by paying the amount awarded to the husband.  Additionally, a court may order a person in contempt to pay for the losses caused by the contempt and any costs incurred in the contempt proceedings.  The appeals court found the contempt was remedial, so the wife was not entitled to additional due process rights.  The appeals court also awarded the husband his fees and costs on appeal.

This case illustrates the importance of having an experienced Washington divorce attorney, especially in a contentious divorce.  In this case, the attorney specifically requested a ruling that the house should not be damaged, allowing the husband to pursue a contempt order when the ruling and instructions were violated.  If you are facing a contentious or high-asset divorce, call Blair & Kim, PLLC at (206) 622-6562.

More Blog Posts:

Property Divided Upon Dissolution

Motions for Contempt in Family Law Cases

Image: FreeImages.com / Emil Bacik

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