Contempt in North Carolina


Court orders are legally binding, which means that a person cannot disobey a judge’s order. But what happens when a person does disobey? The answer: The person may be held in “contempt of court”—or, more simply, in contempt.


Contempt means that a person is officially disapproved. It applies to a person who, because of his or her disobedience to a court order, insults the authority or dignity of a court. A person held in contempt may suffer a penalty, including imprisonment. The legal system understands contempt as a method for enforcing court orders and a remedy against those who fail to obey them.


There are two kinds of contempt: criminal and civil. Criminal contempt is an act that interferes or interrupts a court proceeding or the administration of criminal justice. Civil contempt is a failure to comply with a court order.


The requirements for civil and criminal contempt differ according to their different purposes. Compare N.C. Gen. State. § 5A-11 (2019) (criminal contempt) with § 5A-21 (civil contempt). Unlike criminal contempt, civil contempt is not a punishment—it is a way of forcing the contemnor to comply with an order. Consistent with this, there is no civil contempt after an individual begins complying with an order that the person previously disobeyed. Put differently, a person can avoid civil contempt simply by beginning to follow an order.


An important note, though: Whether the contempt is criminal or civil, to find a person in contempt, the judge must find that the failure to abide by the order was willful. Willful means more than a deliberate or conscious choice—it means a bad faith disregard for the authority and integrity of the law.


If the other side fails to obey an order, the enforcing party can move for an order to show cause. If there is probable cause for civil contempt, the other side will be required to “show cause” why he or she should not be held in contempt. In asking the other side to “show cause,” the court is simply asking: “Why shouldn’t we hold you in contempt?”

If the other side fails to show cause, he or she suffers a penalty, which is generally pretty harsh. A person held in contempt will be subject to censure (an authoritative, official expression of disapproval), imprisonment up to 30 days, a fine of up to $500, or any combination of the three.


The penalty for failing to pay child support is even more severe. Civil court penalties include imprisonment. Generally, a person found in civil contempt cannot for the same conduct be found in criminal contempt.

The court must instruct a person found to be in civil contempt what he must do to “purge” himself of the contempt. A person who meets the conditions of a court order’s purge provision can get out of contempt.


In family matters, a person can be held in contempt for failing to follow through with a court order involving alimony, postseparation support, or child support. If you have a court order in your favor, call Smith Dominguez—our lawyers can help you enforce the order.